Long before man learned how to hunt and kill, our ancestors were all gatherers. We gathered berries, fruits, anything we could in order to survive. When we reached the ages of creating places to live for ourselves, we became collectors.
In (this story) I wrote about my being a coin collector. Other than useless copies of my old income tax returns, coins are the only thing in my possession that would qualify as a ‘collection’. I do still have the coins though my ‘collecting’ days are well behind me. Of all the memories from childhood collecting days, there is one item that remained ever-elusive. For a time we kids collected Batman trading cards. The 1966, #6 card was the only one at the time I lacked in that collection. Its title was “Chloroform Victim”. My friend Timmy had one and guarded it with his life.
But between the ages of 5-9 while living on Goodman Avenue in Hamilton, Ohio we kids were collectors of treasures unparalleled in the entire kid universe! No one taught us how to collect; it was an instinct we were born with, carried in our DNA and handed down from our ancient caveman ancestors.
I guess the collecting gene was first awakened when we kids learned that we could collect discarded pop bottles whereupon we would then hand over to the proper authority figure who would then reward us with a small bag of candy, each pop bottle being equivalent to two cents worth of candy (read me). Oh, and I do apologize for those of you not familiar with the term ‘pop’. Pop is what we in the southwestern Ohio region called our sodas, (our Cokes for you Southern US readers).
Side note: we lived in Louisiana for 5 years and one of the first local language lessons we were given was that all sodas there were called “cokes”. Whenever we went to a restaurant, if one of us wanted a soft drink, we would order a coke. The next question that followed was always “what type of coke would you like? We have Sprite, Pepsi or Mr. Pibb.” “I’ll have a Pepsi Coke, thank you.”
We kids learned about the tremendous hidden value of pop bottles at tender ages, I think we were one year old. It might have been a few years later, possibly when it was that we learned to eat candy I suspect. One summer, our little band of rug rats were strategizing about what our next caper could be. What was it that we would do this summer to entertain ourselves? You see, I’m old. When I was a kid, we barely had 3 channels that came in clearly on TV and we certainly couldn’t even have conceived that one day there would be handheld electronic games that were capable of entertaining us for a month straight without food or water. No, we had it rough – we had to create our entertainment. If we didn’t, we might be subjected to a fate that every kid had nightmares about – helping Mom around the house or even worse, having to sit and watch The Paul Dixon Show!
So there we were, strategizing about this year’s entertainment. What would it be? Would it be secret adventures inside the fence line of Hamilton Lumber? Or would it be frog hunting at the secret pond up the hill behind Millikin Woods? Maybe we would spend our days at Fillmore Elementary trying to fish coins from the bottom of the storm drain using a long stick with a piece of Chum Gum like we did last year? All great ideas, let me tell you and all of them are things we were known to do on many occasions. But this time, one of us had an epiphany. If collecting dirty old pop bottles had value, then certainly collecting other items must have some value too?
What about bottle caps? Hey, yeah, if the bottles are worth money, then maybe the tops of them are too? So we did. Our Goodman Avenue kid universe consisted of about 20 square blocks, bordered by the end of Millikin Woods to the west, busy Main Street to the North and the railroad tracks to the South and east. (Boundaries which we would violate on special occasions to get to the Ross Dairy or Hamilton Lumber).
And so, with our mission agreed upon, our little band of adventurers headed out each day to explore various regions of our kid universe to find and collect as many pop bottle caps as we could. Over the summer, we filled our red wagon twice – I think we counted over 10 zillion. When we found out they had no monetary value we were not overly disappointed – the fun was in the collecting itself.
The following summer we decided that collecting pop bottle caps was ancient history and out of vogue. We needed something more cool to collect this year. What could be more cool than collecting something only adults could own? Of course – cigarette packages. Naturally we couldn’t collect the packages with the cigarettes already in them – no one ever lost or threw those away (to a smoker, they’re even more valuable now than they were then). No, we would collect the discarded cigarette packs. I guess the adults called the cigarette packs ‘garbage’. Ha! What do adults know!?! In hindsight, we might have been the earliest examples of eco-friendly humans.
And so, our little portion of the kid universe one summer became totally devoid of discarded cigarette packs. It’s a wonder our neighborhood didn’t win some sort of beautification award or something with all the garbage disappearing. I can recall my Dad just loving our little collections. “What the Hell are you collecting now Robbie? Cigarette packs? What the Hell for?” Knowing my dad, I’m sure that when he went back into the house and mentioned our activity to our mom, he likely added some kind of cute personal side note, but I’m sure he viewed it as harmless. You see, the times were different then. As long as we made some kind of personal appearance in front of our moms once a day and we were home for dinner and back in the house before dark, we had freedom; we didn’t need to explain our actions to anyone but ourselves. It was a great time to be a kid if you loved the outdoors….and if you loved collecting old crap like discarded cigarette packs.
That summer we managed to collect at least a two dozen packs of every single cigarette brand known to kid at the time. Kools, Marlboro, Lucky Strikes, Pall Malls and 101’s (which were, of course, a silly millimeter longer). The brand we accumulated the most, naturally, was Viceroy. Viceroy was my dad’s chosen brand of smokes. When he would line us kids up in Marine formation, he would ask each of us a bunch of questions, military style, shouting like a drill sergeant. We, in turn, were required to respond in the same fashion.
Soldiers – left face! Right face! Soldier, who was buried in Grant’s Tomb? Soldier, what is the best branch of the military? MARINE CORPS, SIR! And when he ran out of those, he’d ask one like, “and what’s the best brand of cigarette soldier? VICEROY, SIR!
It may sound silly but we kids must have had the best damn cigarette pack collection the north side of the Ohio River. Like the bottle cap collection that mysteriously ended up in the garbage, (we now assume), the infamous cigarette pack collection I have no doubt met with the same fate.
We began to run out of collecting ideas after those first two summers. One of the most important criteria for kid collections is the availability, or supply, of the item being collected; there must be an ample, (and free), supply. So after exhausting the neighborhood of cigarette packs and bottle caps, we were only left with that which the squirrels collect – acorns. Yes, we had an acorn collection. You think I jest? I swear on my children’s lives, we collected acorns. I have no doubt that that winter was the worst foraging on record for the local squirrel-dom.
That was the last of the collections. Unfortunately, we had those acorns in our red wagon and forgot all about them over the winter. We had left the acorn-full red wagon on the side of our house. Over the course of the next several months, it also accumulated rain water, dirt from my baby brother and his toy shovel, visits from our cats, (and possibly our neighbors’ cats) and a mountain of snow. One day I heard my mom complain about a smell to my dad. This time though, the complaint issued from my mother was not about a foul odor emanating from my father, but from the side of our house. The next I knew, I heard a familiar rant of cursing coming from the side of the house. Out came a familiar red wagon with my dad carrying it while trying to hold his head to the side, away from the stench. This collection ended in the garbage can…along with the wagon.
And as is written in the annals of history, that was that! Thus ended our summer collections. I guess it’s just as well, what was left, old crab apples? I wonder if hoarders get their starts in this way? For the record, I am anything but a hoarder. If there’s such a thing as an anti-hoarder, it would be me. Ask my wife who’s always accusing me of throwing away her old purses, old jackets or, (God forbid), old shoes! If it hasn’t been used in a year, I say throw it out. If it’s in a drawer, a closet or an attic, it’s clutter to me.
We all go through life searching, seeking. We search for truth, we look for answers, we’re asked to believe, to have faith and we all seek to fill our hearts with love and our little red wagons with things. We all want to know that there is meaning to our fragile little lives. I guess a collection, (of anything), says something about the collector and what they are seeking. I collected coins – they remind me of my grandma and the times spent laughing with her. (I also collected acorns which might indicate something about my sanity).
But owning a collection allows the collector an opportunity to pause and reflect. For each collector, each item in the collection can very often have it’s own specific memory. As we grow older, and as some of us begin to lose our focus, isn’t it nice that we can pick up a small object and be taken back to a simpler time before relatives’ deaths, before worries about our health and that of our loved ones. Isn’t it nice that we can lose ourselves for a brief moment in time when collecting something as silly and innocent as acorns meant the world to us?