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Al Batt: The contents had burned but the structure was unharmed

Tales from Exit 22 by Al Batt


I remember it being the year after all the needles had fallen off the tree three days before Christmas.

I was at a family reunion smaller than Rhode Island. They were talking of past glitter and petty schemes. They were my family’s elders. I’d guess their average age had been about 104 years. Judging by their wild and weedy eyebrows, none of them were narcissists. I enjoyed listening to their stories.

They’d hand out unwanted advice to confound the world, saying things like this, “Always order a cheeseburger without the cheese.”

“Each week, I put the money I’d have spent on cigarettes in a cigar box,” said one who claimed he never had any money because he was a pickpocket in a nudist colony.

“I know you did,” said another. “You’ve told me that 743 times if you told me once.” The elders occasionally repeated their stories, but that was no stop sign. It wasn’t even a yield sign. Stories would be recurring.

A third tossed this in, “I gave you the cigar box. It was an El Producto if my memory serves me right. Or it could have been a Dutch Masters or White Owl. No matter, it was my cigar box.”

The man who had begun the thread of this conversation had started working as a youngster in a manufacturing plant back when it seemed as if everyone smoked cigarettes. Many workers had gotten hooked by the packs of cigarettes they’d received while in the service. He started smoking, but then he quit. Actually, he up and quit. That’s what people did in those days. They up and quit things. He put the money that he’d have spent on cigarettes and put it in the cigar box. “That’s how I kept my wife in refrigerators,” he boasted modestly.

The donor of the cigar box bank said that he’d saved the money he’d have spent on cigarettes to buy cigars. He was a talented smoker. He could blow superb smoke rings. He needed to poke a forefinger into each one to get it to dissipate. If he hadn’t, it’d still be polluting the air somewhere.

“Hey, kid,” said the cigar smoker as he pointed a cigar box my direction. “Would you like a cigar box?”

Now I didn’t want everything. Just nearly so. I wanted all things advertised in the comic books, or as we called them, the funny books. I called them funny books even when they weren’t funny. Superman and Batman appeared in funny books. Funny books were what boys stared at before there were video games. I wanted the X-ray specs, sea monkeys, a darling squirrel monkey, boomerang, ant farm and a Polaris Nuclear Sub, a real bargain at 7-feet long for only $6.98. Where else could I get a nuclear submarine for a dollar per foot? I wanted 31% of the items in the Monkey Ward’s wish book. But a cigar box! That was bigger and better than a Sucrets tin. It was better than having a complete playground set in my bedroom — slide, swings and a puker. A puker was a dinky merry-go-round that an unfortunate child was put on and spun around by his buddies until he puked. Good times.

I couldn’t wait to explore the exciting new opportunities in the burgeoning economy of cigar box ownership. Cigar boxes were well-received in my society. A coveted cigar box was a gold ingot of my kidhood. The possibilities were unlimited. Of course, so were the impossibilities.

I figured a man was doing well if he could buy cigars by the box. He wouldn’t miss the box. I snatched it from his hand before he could give it to me or change his mind. My mind began to swim with ideas as to what to put into the box. They were the self-storage units of the day. Fishing tackle, marbles, my savings (way too much room for that), small tools, insect collection, rocks, keepsakes or other important stuff. I’d built a crystal radio in one once. I decided the cigar box would house some of my most beloved baseball cards — the ones who weren’t on the trading block or sentenced to be clothespinned to bicycle spokes so I could pretend I had a motorcycle.

He gave me three cigar boxes. He had a pile of them in the trunk of his Studebaker. I could have juggled them if I’d known how to juggle King Edward cigar boxes.

He saved the rest to give to his wife for Christmas.

Al Batt’s column appears
every Wednesday.