There are few things better able to stimulate the imagination than finding an interesting, unknown object. The first time I had this experience I was a boy playing in the vacant lot at the corner of our block. The block was really a triangle, with the town hall and World War II honor roll near the apex, three two-story houses in the middle, and the first-aid building and vacant lot occupying the two corners.
Against all odds, grass grew in the lot, which was bisected by a dirt path worn diagonally into the earth by ironclad men taking a shortcut to and from the factories that hummed in the background.
In my memory, there was always sun and flying grasshoppers to catch until they spit brown gobs of what we called tobacco juice into our hands and we let them go.
The lot was fertile ground not only for grass and insects but also for the imaginations of two small boys. There on the busy corner of Cooke Avenue and Romanowski Street, my friend Bobby and I played cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, and big game hunters stalking the fearsome flying grasshopper.
One day while playing alone, I found it. Just to one side of the path where the grass was thin, a small metal cone bounced a sunbeam into my eye, and I squatted to examine my treasure. It was no bigger than the tip of a mechanical pencil, and if I hadn’t yet given up my belief in magic, I would have known it was just that – the business end of a broken mechanical pencil, most likely fallen from the pocket of a serious grownup.
But I was a kid, the object landed on my turf, and it was the dawn of the space age where anything shaped like a cone must have something to do with the nose cones of the rockets that were blasting off every few months in the race to put a man into space.
I don’t recall what Bobby thought of my find, but I wanted to believe that it had fallen from the sky, higher than the shirt pocket of the factory worker, above the trees that lined Cooke Avenue, beyond the clouds, and down from the farthest reaches of space itself.
I didn’t really think it was a miniature spaceship though it did look like one. Maybe it fell from one of the rockets that NASA was launching, and maybe, just maybe, it came from an alien visitor passing high over our vacant lot.
I wanted to believe all of that, and I almost pulled it off, but not quite. Down deep, I knew I was kidding myself. Childhood doesn’t last forever, and already, I was beginning to feel the magic slipping away.
In a few years, I would be in high school learning the strict logic of algebra, chemistry, and the conjugation of Latin verbs. There was no room there for debris from alien spaceships. All of that would prepare me for college where a false start in astronomy would turn to an undergraduate major in psychology, followed by grad school, and a career as a clinical psychologist.
Marriage, family, retirement, and life as an empty nester would eventually bring me to the basement of the house where our family has lived for more than 40 years. There, my wife and I would begin the task of sorting through a sea of objects that served three generations of our family well, but now have to be pruned to accommodate our simpler needs.
Some decisions are easy to make, but what do I do with a box of Smurfs, those cute little figurines of those lovable blue Saturday morning cartoon characters? And how do I classify a bag of unlabeled VHS tapes?
Eventually, the details will fall into place, but the big picture is already clear. Our own neglected belongings and those of our parents and adult children tell the story of our movement through life. The toys of childhood give way to the books, clothes, music and sports equipment of teenage years, the furniture of first apartments and family homes, and pictures of us all as we navigate these passages. It is a story of growth and maturation, a story of moving toward reason and leaving magic behind.
There is one more box, and I am surprised to see what it contains. I open the lid, reach in, and pull out a heavy, irregularly shaped object consisting of a corroded metal rod running through two fragments of wood. The larger piece is roughly triangular in shape, and the smaller one is an oval. The wood is dry and pockmarked.
I found this years ago on a Nantucket beach during a family vacation, and I kept it because I thought it just might be a piece of debris from a shipwreck. Visions of schooners danced in my head, and Longfellow’s Wreck of the Hesperus echoed in my ears. But no, I had learned the lesson of my overactive imagination long ago and concluded that my treasure was more likely the remains of an everyday object tossed into the sea. And yet, I held onto the object as I held onto the hope that magic is possible even now, and finding it again, I brought it to the experts for an informed opinion.
Twenty or 30 of us sat around tables arranged in a huge square as we do every month to discuss and show our progress building wooden models of old sailing ships. When it was my turn, I displayed my questionable treasure and asked for an opinion.
One man said it was part of a rudder while another seemed certain it was a fragment of a ship’s plank attached to what was left of an iron rib. No one doubted it had come from a shipwreck, and no one ventured to speculate further – but I did. My treasure was a fragment of a schooner run aground in a fierce Nor’easter and broken up by the surf. All on board survived with their hopes and dreams intact. The magic was still there.