`What do you think of the shirt on Page 67?'

THE final installment of the oldest catalog in the country was published last month. The Montgomery Ward catalog, which first came out in 1872, has been a mainstay of American life for more than 100 years. This thick, reference-sized book, which propped up many a child for Thanksgiving dinner and was commonly referred to as the ``Monkey Ward'' catalog, will no longer appear. Its more than 100,000 items are to be warehoused and sold only in close-out catalogs.

It was part of my socialization into the commercial world. With its graphs and charts on the innermost pages, lying like buried secrets, the catalog taught me how to measure my inseam, send away for shoes, measure for curtains.

When I was growing up in Waukegan, Ill., it arrived each year just in time to quell the summer boredom -- complete with pictures of twill skirts, plaid jumpers, brown loafers, and pink oxford shirts.

It kept me busy, fed my fantasies, and toward the end of summer kept me from taunting my mother into heretofore unheard of acts of child abuse.

Over the years, the catalog greatly reduced my school anxieties. I could call my friend Suzy on a hot, lazy day and say, ``What do you think of the shirt on Page 67?'' If she said she didn't like it, the shirt was out of my wardrobe and out of the question. Even if it meant war with my mother, I would never be seen in the shirt on Page 67.

Such consulting with your friend was not possible when your mother took you directly to the department store downtown. There you were outnumbered by adults. Whenever you entered the dressing room, sales clerks would emerge from the stockroom like guerrillas to say impossibly practical and irrefutable things like, ``She'll grow into that.'' No child can combat such logic.

With the catalog it was different. You could bring it to your mother when she was in a good mood and ask for advice. ``Mom, what do you think of this dress?'' That was the opening shot in round one.

When you heard her tired words, ``You're the one who's going to have to wear it,'' you knew you had won. All that was left was to wait for the packages to arrive.

After school began, the catalog sat around firm enough to do your homework on while you watched TV, heavy enough to prop open a door with. Then, toward Christmas, another catalog would arrive thick and full of toys and as complete as any Santa's workshop ever was.

The front half was filled with dolls from all over the world, the best board games, and bicycles. In the back were the boys' things. Myth has it that in some families the moment the catalog arrived it had to be ripped in half so that siblings would not fight over it during the holiday season.

List after list was compiled from this book, its pages torn and dogeared, and again the necessary consultation with my friend, Suzy. This time the orders were placed from and delivered to my mother's office where my toys stayed safe from my peering eyes until the appointed hour.

In Waukegan, the Ward catalog was what dreams were made of, but now it is gone. For me, it is a clear marker of times gone by, this change that has come so suddenly.

Montgomery Ward will now restruc-ture and try to become a more ``contemporary'' and ``focused'' retailer, competing for upscale dollars with specialty stores and boutiques.

But I must confess that my old habits die hard and I will still call my sister, tell her to fetch her L. L. Bean catalog, and say, ``What do you think of the shirt on Page 67?''

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