A catalog sends me back

There was this popping sound, like the tiniest of ladyfinger firecrackers, when I rolled back in my swivel chair. The wheels had run over a piece of bubble wrap.

Bubble wrap! Plastic packing peanuts! Save the original materials if you want to return the merchandise.

No wonder this is called 2001. Not quite the same as 1939, when my catalog-shopping peaked with the Johnson Smith Company.

How did they get my name today? I hadn't bought anything from Johnson Smith for 60 years.

Still, it was a kick to open the mail and find "Things You Never Knew Existed!" emblazoned on slick paper with an 800-number, a website, and a $2 cover price that had evidently been waived.

Talk about Proustian remembrance of things past. Or clever-gear past. Though in my childhood catalog days it would have been called "novelties" or "amaze your friends" or "party fun," and the paper would not have been slick.

We boys couldn't have imagined the current catalog's Party Fog Machines (perfect for use with lasers). The Big Boom Carbide Cannons do recall the little tin boats that putt-putted in the bathtub when a lighted candle stub was strategically placed inside.

But what reignites the old Johnson Smith feeling ("Money Back Guarantee... Since 1914!") is "Mystery Electronic Top Spins for Days With No Apparent Explanation. Beautifully made in USA with plastic base and saucer-shaped spinner."

Often during the decades since my first Johnson Smith catalog, I've thought it was echoed by latter-day catalogs offering all sorts of things one never knew one needed - for the car, kitchen, camper, office, closet, playroom.... There's still an appeal to the inquiring child in grown-up men and women.

I'm not talking about the pieces of metal that you could throw on the floor to sound as if you'd broken a vase. Or the dribble glass to serve a victim guest. \

Or even the "Seebackroscope" that lets you watch people while looking the other way.

The boys in such ads were often gleefully snickering.

No, I'm thinking of the real electric motor - you can build it yourself. The box seemed so small when it came in the mail. But just set up two curving parts of the stator. Then wind the wire around the armature to rotate inside it. Connect the battery.

"Mom, it works!"

Today, there's "Solar Watch Is Powered By Any Light. Never Needs Batteries." Or "Control Your TV by Talking To Your Remote." Or "Micro-Miniature Pinhole Camera: View On Any TV Thru Your VCR!"

Somehow, spouse Joan, who never heard of the Johnson Smith Co. and can't stand gadgets anyway, has been sent the catalog for Gadget Universe, billing itself as "the undisputed leader in innovation."

I know she won't want the "Mini Data Bank ... Fits at the End of a Keychain!"

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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