Peering Into a Carton of Memories

IN the interminable summer afternoons of school vacation, a boy had to work to find things worth doing. When it was too muggy for ball, too lazy for bikes or books, my friends and I perfected boredom as an art form. We'd sit on my front stoop, daydreaming toward the slow-evolving clouds, and barely move for hours. "Whutta you wanna do?" "I don't know. Whutta you?"

On the days I was left to my own devices, a perverse sort of curiosity would set me at odd occupations. I might tuck myself away in the garage and whittle a large stick of oak into a tiny stick, wielding a jackknife I kept concealed in my sock drawer. Or I might talk myself into digging a hole in the backyard, just to see what was at the bottom. My parents were never thrilled to discover that project.

One day I busied myself in my father's darkroom, rummaging through old cardboard cartons, dust-thick and stashed away inside a metal cabinet. Not much a boy could use: porcelain bric-a-brac, old tools, souvenirs of someone's forgotten vacation. There were heaps of graying photographs - young faces I knew from later transformations, some I couldn't recognize.

One box seemed to contain ladies things: a lace table shawl, a silver teaspoon, white leather baby shoes. And then I saw them: two small metal boxes, each about the size of a shaving kit, one maroon, one blue, a small American eagle prominently embossed. Prying open the spring lids, I was shocked, dazzled by the trinkets pinned to the red plush interiors: dangling from colored ribbons, one had a gold eagle astride a golden cross; the other was a plum-colored heart with a white silhouette in its center th at even an 8-year-old could recognize as George Washington. My sense of marvel slowly gave way to exultation, like the prospector who finally breaks through to a vein of gold: These were medals! War medals! What were they doing lost in these junk cartons?

I rushed upstairs to share my discovery. Mom was in the living room vacuuming. Grandma, who lived with us at that time, sat in the breakfast nook, sipping tea and gazing out the window.

"Mom, look what I found! Have you seen these?"

She flicked off the machine, lifted one of the proffered boxes and studied the contents. "Yes," she said, unmoved. "Put them back where you found them."

"But these are medals!" I explained, disappointed. "Who do they belong to?"

"Grandma, or actually, they were Sam's. Sam was Grandma's first son, my oldest brother."

The idea of a grandmother owning hero's medals seemed preposterous to a little boy's concept of battle and glory. I could almost feel the wheels of deduction turning in my mind, puzzling out the meaning of all this. But in those days once my tongue had a running start, it rarely hesitated long enough for my brain to catch up. I blurted out in frustration, "But shouldn't these be up somewhere, you know, on display?" Already, in my imagination, I pictured a hundred better uses I could make of such treasure . "Does Grandma even know she has these?"

For some reason, that last question was enough to propel me over the edge into understanding. I felt a sudden coldness in my chest, a light-headedness I thought, at the time, was sadness - but which, I'd guess today, had more to do with fear.

"Yes, she knows." I thought I detected something like anger in my mother's face. "Now put them back."

I returned to the basement to reluctantly pack away the medals with the other bits of abandoned memorabilia. "Stupid, Steven!" I was scolding myself. Hadn't I known all this already? Family stories, photos, bits and pieces. But somehow it was never real in my mind. Just something flickering and illusive like the light beam in a movie theater. But when I heard the spring lids snap shut with a sharp clap on the medal cases - I knew. In some visceral flash of recognition, I really knew what it all meant.

SAM was a bombardier in the Army Air Corps during World War II. He flew 25 missions over Europe, the maximum allowed, and was about to be restationed for duty back in the States. A friend in his squadron took sick, and Sam volunteered to take his place, sitting in the aluminum belly of a B-29, staring down through cross hairs, until it was time to dump the payload and dash safely back to home base. But that morning, they never got the chance. The air was black with flak explosions, and the plane took a d irect hit. Fully loaded with munitions, the aircraft was obliterated in an instant, the debris trickling slowly down to earth. Miraculously, there was one survivor, the tail gunner, blown free from the plane and rescued later on. Broke every bone in his body, but he returned with the story - and sought out my grandmother in Queens, New York, after the war to tell her what had happened to her son.

I switched off the basement lights, climbed the stairs, and I remember dawdling over a glass of milk in the kitchen. I was secretly studying my grandmother. We had never been close. She was taciturn and "old world" in many ways; I had a hard time understanding what she was thinking or how she felt.

But now I stared and imagined her being called to the front door, receiving that government telegram. I imagined the messenger delivering the two tin boxes to her door. (Or did they arrive in the mail? Could they do that? I wondered, horrified as a boy often is by the logic and protocols of the adult world. Could they just slap a stamp on something like that and send a Distinguished Flying Cross and a Purple Heart through the mail the way you did a birthday present or a cereal box-top premium?) She sat i n the corner of the kitchen and there were great yellow wands of forsythia just outside, waving above her head.

ON my hands, I did the arithmetic: it was 1958; the war ended in '45. How many years? When you lose your first-born son, how long does it take before you stop calling out his name by accident at dinner time? Before you stop staring at the empty chair at the far side of the table? Before you stop measuring each day by his absence?

Then I had an even stranger realization: I was my mother's first-born and only son. The root-stock of my name was Sam's: I was, at birth, invested with a piece of his memory. Did Grandma ever think of that as I passed through her days? Of course, how could she not? And why hadn't I?

I went out and spent the afternoon playing alone. In truth, I don't recall what I did to occupy myself, but it wouldn't be a bad guess if I said: war. That was a frequent entertainment in my neighborhood, either for a solitary fantasy or a battle between friends. And tree branch or broom stick could be pressed into service as a rifle or machine gun as we chased each other through neighbor's backyards, ducking behind privet bushes - "Gotcha!" "Didn't! Missed me by a mile!"

Stopping now, again I do the quick arithmetic: That was '58, now it's '92, summer once more - even though the days somehow have little of that elastic timelessness of youth and overfill quickly with lists of required tasks. Next door, as I scribble this in my notebook, my neighbor's children are playing combat with their friends. Their arsenal is considerably more realistic than the one my friends and I had: water guns that look like space lasers, assault rifles that produce their own rapid-fire sound bl asts. I wonder: Is that what started me off on this memory journey?

Or was it the front-page photo in yesterday's newspaper: young boys in Bosnia, crouching behind sand bags, toy rifles in their hands, looking for all the world like professional soldiers braced to attack an enemy position. And all around them - we are compelled to imagine - are grown-up boys with real-life weapons, carrying out the same deadly tasks.

Strange, but I don't think either event was the trigger to my memory. I believe it was the cicada, droning energetically like an oboe out back in the oak tree. I'd taken a break from a writing project and went to sit on the wooden backyard steps, a few minutes ease in order to feel the hot procession of this summer's day. My dog joined me and lay down on the lawn, rolling onto his back, feet pumping into the air, the smell of the green too exhilarating to bear without shimmying and kicking. My son, who s eems to thrive in the heat, was off at the schoolyard practicing jump shots where - the lure was strong, despite the pressure of deadlines - I was tempted to join him for another of our incendiary one-on-one duels.

And suddenly, listening to the sibilant cry in the trees, I thought of Sam - Sam, whose name is secreted away like a seed inside my own. I couldn't help wondering: What would he have given just to sit here, perhaps with a son of his own, listening to the simmering sounds of August? (Or is that exactly what he had given? And for whom was the gift?) Do we ever learn from our memories or only box them and hide them away so we can get on with our living?

Yet today was a little like rummaging through old forgotten boxes, wasn't it, sifting through the dusty items and appraising each. And writing a story was so very different from digging a hole just to see what's hidden at the bottom.

And right then, I made my decision: Write first (the memories demanded it). Then change into shorts and high-tops and meet Adam at the courts.

Both will be perfect pleasures for the heat of this season. I will play the game for the rigor of the competition, for the pleasure inherent in an all-out effort, and for the incomparable company of my son. But today, the first high-arcing jump shot I will loft against the light breeze - that will be for Sam.

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