Thursday, June 16, 2005

Lighting My Memory

Cleaning the garage has always been a traumatic experience for me. Perhaps that's why my garage always looks like the warehouse in Citizen Kane, loaded to the rafters with junk. Actually, even the rafters are filled -- they support boxes of old model kits that I acquired with an eye toward having something to do if I am ever hospitalized. And I may be, if the rafters ever collapse under the weight of the kits.

I can't throw anything out. I read an article about obsessive-compulsive behavior, and the pack-rat syndrome (or PRS) was right up there with thoughts of violent death and persistent hand-washing. I realized that the article was about me! I suffered from PRS and could deny it no longer. Of course I immediately clipped that article out and added it to the stack of newspaper clippings in a box in the garage.

The article suggested that Clomipramine could control the pack-rat compulsion, but as much as I support better living through chemistry, I also believe that will power has become seriously underrated -- if not openly scorned and snidely mocked -- in modern America. If I am a pack rat, I reasoned, it may be due to a chemical imbalance or perhaps I'm just a lazy, sentimental slob with a latent archivist streak. When I was a kid, after all, I wanted to be either an astronaut or an archeologist (my parents would only buy the introductory first volume of encyclopedias, since they were the cheapest. My knowledge, though encyclopedic, runs generally from Aardvark to Byzantium). Actually, I wanted to be an archeologist-astronaut, uncovering ancient extraterrestrial civilizations. If my parents would have sprung for a complete set of Grolier's, I might instead have chosen to be a fireman, psychiatrist, or a xylophonist.

I have an archivist streak. Just ask my friend Sam (well, you can't now -- he's died since I first wrote this), who has published a small magazine since he was in college. I have been searching the planet for the first five issues of his magazine. I have everything I've ever written, including my first work of fiction written from the fifth grade, "Attack of the Atomic Dogs." So when I say the garage is a mess, I mean it!

In an effort to avoid the side effects of Clomipramine (stomach upset, suicide, that sort of thing) I decided to exert my will and Throw Something Out. That ought to show that the Charter Hospital mentality is flawed and that most behavioral defects are simply well-worn habits that can be broken without outside assistance!

I opened the garage door, wondering if anyone in southern California actually used garages to store their cars. Spiders skittered this way and that. Silverfish (surely Satan's spawn incarnate -- they eat books!) slithered away in search of retreating darkness. Cobwebs stretched and snapped as the hinges creaked and squealed. There it stood: the accumulated total of my life. Five sets of shelves hand-hewn of wood pried from an aged cottage in Paradise, California, piled to the rafters with boxes and file trays. Every square foot of floor space stacked high with more boxes. Bicycles hemmed in by lawnmowers and water bottles. My geriatric motorcycle covered with mummy dust and a death shroud.

My PRS panic arose as I withdrew a box marked Vic's Old Toys. This would be the place to start. Possessions from so far in the dim past that their disposal would go unnoticed.

I had lined the box with newspapers when originally packing away the toys and miscellaneous items. Yellowed and brittle, they were still readable. NIXON RESIGNS. Really? I thought she stayed with Sex in the City until the end. Well, history was always my weak suit.

I figured the best method was to dump everything on the floor and only put back in a new box what I really, truly wanted to save. After so many years, there couldn't be much that I'd want to have around. On the driveway it went.

The first thing I saw atop the pile was my old cowboy holster set. Wow! Black cowhide with red plastic rubies! Get ready to slap leather, Paladin! I'll gun ya down! Can't get rid of that (even though -- yuck! -- what is that weird green mold on it?). Just try and find a quality gun-related toy these days. This stuff should be in the Gene Autry Museum, not a trash heap!

All right. Next. Ooh -- Space Orb, a kaleidescope for space age kids. I put my eye against the exhaust nozzle of the yellow rocket (about as educational a toy as the Pez gun that shot candy if you put your mouth on the muzzle and pulled the trigger!). Twirling the nose cone of Space Orb creates an infinite number of bizarre alien creatures. Hey, this can't go. I hear that space-age toys are bringing in a fortune! Also set aside that battery-powered Cragstan astronaut robot with the ray gun.

Dump my Agent Zero-M Radio Rifle? Never!

I grasped at something silvery and was surprised to come up with a Zippo cigarette lighter. Nothing fancy. Plain polished nickel finish.

I don't smoke.

I never have (well, once in back of a pigeon coop -- had an asthma attack of a profound, attitude-imprinting proportion that made me desire never to repeat that experience). I wasn't a pyromaniac except around the fireplace. Why was this here?

I flicked open the lid and realized instantly. It was the sound it made. You can have your butane lighters, your Bics and your Scriptos, and even your James Bond Colibris. You can even have your fluid-powered Ronsinols. There is something quintessentially American about the sound a Zippo lighter makes when you flip that cover off, strike the wheel gamely, and watch a flame burst into life. Then the satisfying snap of the lid closing on the blue-and-yellow fire, extinguishing it and leaving a warm sensation in the metal.

I don't know how I came into possession of this particular lighter as a boy, but I knew instantly how I felt about it. I took the dried-out thing into the house and resuscitated it. I broke open a dead, disposable butane lighter and cannibalized its flint, pleased to discover that the diameters matched perfectly. I found some lighter fluid, which I keep around since toluene is a fine cleaning solvent.

I filled. I flicked. It fired. I watched in joy as something from my youth stirred me to think about the enduring icons of America. The simple, utilitarian, inexpensive Zippo lighter must surely be one of them. Even though I don't smoke, I now carry this bit of my past with me, for the neat sound it makes and because one never knows when one might need light in a dark archeological dig, or fire in the cold wilderness of an alien planet.

In the time since I first wrote this (1991), both my parents have passed away, so I now have my "inheritance" of their stuff (crockery, Reader's Digest 8-track tapes, four prosthetic right legs) as well as some of Sam's stuff, too. Though I've disposed of a lot over the years (including the hand-made wooden shelves), the garage is still stacked high with stuff. On eight huge GR 7201 Gorilla Racks and two palletts! I'll be going back in tomorrow morning to dig out more of my past.

Clomipramine, anyone?