My son's top-secret toy crate

His new "Indiana Jones" bedroom needed a final touch.

Charlie Riedel/AP/File
Bookworm: A boy spends time reading during his all-day kindergarten class in Overland Park, Kan.

My son, who is 9, recently discovered Indiana Jones. One viewing of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," and he was hooked.

We live in an old house – an Indy vintage house, in fact, built in 1925. I had recently remodeled my daughter's room, and now it was my son's turn. He decided that he wanted an old-fashioned room – a room where Indy would have been right at home. That sounded perfect to me: It would be fun to design and fun to build. And best of all, beat-up old stuff is cheap.

One of the first problems was finding a place for some of his toys. We'd been storing them in a flimsy wire cube, and it desperately needed replacing. A thought struck me: At the end of "Raiders," the ark was sealed in a wooden crate and wheeled away into the depths of a giant warehouse. That was exactly what we needed – an old wooden crate. I asked my son if he remembered the crate and the message stenciled on its side.

Without a second's pause, he blurted out: "Top Secret Army Intel 9906753 Do not open!"

A top-secret crate: just the thing to build on a Sunday afternoon. My son had never been particularly interested in the woodworking shop in our basement, but that suddenly changed. We weren't just in the basement anymore; we were hidden away in a "government workshop." We were two carpenters given the task of building a crate that was going to hold something very important. We didn't know what, of course, because we were just carpenters. But we knew it was special.

As we put the crate together, I had the opportunity to explain what each tool was and why we used the methods we used. I told my son about the table saw, the planer, the belt sander, the palm sander, the drill bits, and the countersink. I explained why you needed to predrill the beech boards, but didn't need to predrill the pine, why you penciled triangles on the sides before you put them together, and why you shouldn't glue long boards cross-grain across wide solid panels.

He was amazed at the size of the pile of sawdust beneath the table saw – amazed, that is, until he saw the even bigger pile that accumulated after we ran all the boards through the planer. I sprinkled in a few old cabinetmaker's war stories. Sure, swashbuckling archaeologists may have had to dodge booby traps, snakes, and Nazis, but things weren't exactly child's play here in the secret government workshop, either.

Authenticity was the order of the day. I dug into my boxes of old hardware and found a pair of rusty black utility handles. We needed some screws, too, but they needed to look old. Or better yet, to be old.

I pulled down a small bin from the back of a shelf. Inside were hundreds of rusty old wood screws. I explained that when I had worked at a movie theater back in the 1980s, I used to reupholster the seats. The seats were attached with slotted-head screws, but I put them back on with Phillips-head screws so that I could use a drill. A born pack rat, I never threw anything away – and now, decades later, those screws were exactly what I needed.

For once, my stories about life back in the 20th century didn't seem to be boring my son. It meant something that those screws had come from an old movie theater. It meant something that they might be 30 or 50 or 80 years old. It meant something that the heavy old cast-iron saw we were using had belonged to his great-grandfather. And it meant something that we hadn't just bought the crate; we had built it.

When we had the crate together, we decided to leverage a little modern technology. We loaded a stencil-style font on the computer, then printed out a label on a card cut from an old manila file folder. We singed the edges with a torch, then glued it to the crate, nailing the corners with rusty old carpet tacks. Before we hauled the crate upstairs, my son found one more treasure. My old leather tool belt was hanging on a hook on the wall, dusty and unused. He slung it over his shoulder, knapsack-style. It was perfect for a carpenter in the shop or an adventurer in the jungle.

Finished with our task and happy with our work, we decided to risk a breach of security: We turned the crate upside down and signed our names, along with the date.

I've often wondered about the things I've built: How long will they last? How long will they be used? I suppose that I've built hundreds of pieces of furniture. Many of the things I've made are gone already: some damaged in floods, some disassembled and forgotten, some so ugly that they were just thrown away.

I think back to my favorite projects and hope they'll be cherished for generations. My joke has always been that long after my most beautiful tables and chairs have been discarded and forgotten, some simple box or bookcase that I threw together in a couple hours will still be storing junk in someone's garage in the year 2500.

If the last surviving piece turned out to be this crate, however, I think I wouldn't mind.

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