The last packing box went out with the recyclables this week. Silly, to be a little sad over a packing box, but when you’ve lived long, there is much of the past and it becomes more wrenching to let pieces of it go.
It was a big box, about 3 feet x 5 feet x 3 feet, and sturdy. Its early history was stamped on the cardboard sides—“U.S. government container” “Unaccompanied baggage” “Piece 14 of 20” “Cpt. Ronald W. Boller O3.”
In the autumn of 1970, the 20 packing boxes followed Cpt. Boller, his wife (me) and our two young daughters from U.S. Army Field Station Hakata, Japan, to nearby Itazuke Air Base http://www.japan-guide.com/forum/quereadisplay.html?0+29238 and across the Pacific. We flew home. The boxes came by boat.
We had barely time to buy a house before Cpt. Boller left to become one of the 2.7 million Americans who served in Vietnam. He went because it was his duty to his country, and because he was not as strongly opposed to the war as I was. If I had not been married to a soldier and had two young children, I would have tried to join the antiwar movement. Our involvement in Vietnam made no sense to me, and if the idea was that I should willingly risk the life of the man I loved for government objectives I didn’t understand, I wasn’t willing. Yes, I recall LBJ’s domino theory, but how did we know that all Asia would become communist if Vietnam fell? In the end, Vietnam fell and all Asia did not become communist.
Ron was at Bien Hoa by the time the boxes of unaccompanied baggage arrived at the Port of Baltimore. He was moving into his role as liaison to the South Vietnamese quartermaster officers. Our daughters and I unpacked the boxes. When they were empty, the girls took over some of them. Boxes could be houses. With blankets stretched between them, they could be tunnels or caves. You could hide in them and leap out. Dolls and stuffed animals could live in them.
We were lucky. Cpt. Boller came home. He became Mr. Boller. Box 14 of 20 pieces went to the attic, where it held blankets stored in plastic and mothballs during the summer, and back yard items in the winter.
Years flashed by, and the girls stopped playing with boxes. More years flashed by, and there were four new small people who could see possibilities in a box. Box 14 came down to the basement playroom. It became a judge’s bench for trials or a cave from which bandits could leap out to attack passersby. Someone drew a face along one of the long sides, with eyes that looked like windows and a row of teeth that could have been a ladder.
Later, box 14 became a downstairs storage container for the dress-ups. Inside, there were cowboy hats, high-heeled shoes, long dresses and skirts and a Viking helmet. The kids dived into the box and found what they needed to become whatever they wanted to be. A Viking would climb the stairs, costumed in a helmet, cloak and bright red wig. An elegant lady would appear, wearing a wide-brimmed floppy hat and high heels.
Then came a year that a brain tumor began taking over Ron’s mind, crowding out his ability to recognize numbers, his spatial perception, making everything in his visual field appear to be to the right of where it actually was. I suppose the kids continued playing dress-ups when they visited during that time. I cannot recall.
February 25, 2007. Ron died. It had been five months since he was diagnosed with the tumor. I learned later that the tumor may have been the result of exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. We cannot be certain. But if there was a causal link, that stupid, senseless war was reaching out 34 years after it ended, to claim one more victim.
Box 14 still held the dress-ups. For a few years, the kids continued to use them occasionally. But they turned increasingly to other games–baseball, football, soccer, video games. A year went by, and the dress-ups had not been touched. Then, another.
It was time to clean out the basement. The dress-ups, I discovered, had become mildewed in the summer humidity. It was easy to let them go. But when the box was empty, a faint mildew odor still clung to its sides. I sprayed it, but the disinfectant was no match for the odor.
I looked at the box. Its sides were beginning to collapse. One fold-over flap hung loose. Even if I could get the odor out by airing it in the sun, it could no longer serve as a storage box.
I cut it up for the recyclables collectors. It will become part of a vast wet mush of recyclable paper and cardboard. But maybe parts of it will be a box again and when it is empty, pirates and space explorers will take it over. Maybe it will be a man o’ war or a rocket ship. Maybe.
© 2013 by Donna Engle