19 September, 2016

The Fragile Collection

Where we lived in southern Wyandotte County, Kansas, was quiet without being too quiet. The suburban houses were widely spaced, constructed in a mishmash of styles, over multiple decades, an architectural grab bag. Most of our neighbors were older, and I was one of maybe five kids within a one-mile radius. A lot of the neighbors we knew by name but weren't close enough for block parties or borrowing cups of flour. What the neighborhood did have was an ample selection of nooks and semi-hidden passages that would've been irresistible to any free-range seven-year-old.

Mama and Papa's ease with their little boy's unsupervised traipsings wasn't negligent or crazy. The kid whose room was as organized as an entomologist's specimen drawer, who once laid a trash bag on the foyer floor before going tromping through backyard mud, and whose reaction to the "stranger danger" talk was a faintly irritated "I know" — he needs minimal minding.

I was forever picking up stuff while roving. Of the random rusty machine component half buried until my inquisitive fingers pried it free, I wondered what it did, then visualized some Rube Goldberg contraption it operated inside. If I found an out-of-place rock in a sand heap, I'd theorized about freak geological events that could've brought it there. Every child's curious about the whys and hows of things, and at least in this respect I was no different.

Lots of the objects I gathered got imaginatively repurposed. A seafoam-green glass insulator off a power pole became a bookend. Ball bearings found their way into my bag (which itself once sheathed a Crown Royal bottle) of marbles. A length of flex tubing made an arm for my robot costume. But not every object had practical potential. My "useless" finds usually gained a place of honor in the box.

If the box smelled weird because of what it held, I considered it a good weird. That scent: dry paper, soot, a hint of vinegar. Just sniffing the box could be gratifying. Careful not to tip it and disturb its contents, I liked lifting it from the shelf, bringing it near my nostrils, and taking in a deep breath. Maybe the box smelled the way Egyptian mummies do, the way ancient scrolls do, the way treasure buried on a desert island does. I fancied likening my stuff to priceless antiquities, since what I kept in the box was priceless — at least to me.

FRAGILE: HANDLE WITH CARE, read the lid. Without measuring, I had concentrated very hard on making my letters big enough to span its width precisely. I also put permanent-marker cautions on the sides. Who might go into my room and rummage through its shelves of bric-a-brac, I hadn't the faintest idea, but wasn't safe better than sorry? Further insurance: a lining of cotton balls glued to the underside of the lid, and to the box's interior bottom and sides.

To open the box you pulled forward a fold on the front. Two tabs slid up, then the lid clamshelled open, revealing the trove within: my Fragile Collection.

My mental inventory of the box is still mostly intact, thirty years later:
  1. Ant, large unknown species
  2. Ash, volcanic (Mount Saint Helens)
  3. Butterflies/moths, various species
  4. Coral, fan
  5. Egg, robin
  6. Egg, quail
  7. Flowers, various species
  8. Honeybee, queen
  9. Honeybee, worker
  10. Honeycomb
  11. Nest, mud dauber
  12. Nest, unknown bird species
  13. Nest, wasp
  14. Oil, crude
  15. Poop, moose
  16. Quills, porcupine
  17. Skin, garter snake
  18. Skin, reticulated python (partial)
  19. Skull, mouse
Excessively keen of touch, smell, and hearing, my affinity for the delicate makes sense to me now. Saying that my sense of life's hardness developed prematurely, leading young Byron to marvel at how soft, brittle, gossamer, crepey, precariously formed things flaunted their easy destructability in our red-in-tooth-and-claw world, would be overstating it. But I had an inkling. When I weighed the robin's egg in my palm, feeling its tiny earthward pull, a kind of empathy was at work. We're all just barely here, flying through the void on this sphere, minuscule marvels of chemistry and physics. The blown-empty eggshell was a memorial to a life that might've been — except it, too, was doomed to destruction. The world couldn't let it last.

My Fragile Collection survived as long as I was its curator. Whatever happened to that box? Has the papery wasp nest crumbled to dust? Did the plastic bottle of Mount Saint Helens ash crack open and scatter its ultrafine contents with the wind? And what about me? Consigned to fire, I was somehow tempered, rather than charred. In the process I realized that the naive young collector's kinship with those fragile things was misplaced. He didn't consider the wide gulf, between existence and death, called living.

4 comments:

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  3. 2 comments - one presumably bad, since it was removed, the other has nothing to do with the past. I loved this post. Did Byron really write it. I am in awe of how he writes. He reminds me of how my husband writes; how he has a way of describing things in this world that changes your perception and gives you another way of understanding. Byron, I am glad I found your blog. Now I hope you are released from prison so you can write on the blog directly.

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  4. 2 comments - one presumably bad, since it was removed, the other has nothing to do with the past. I loved this post. Did Byron really write it. I am in awe of how he writes. He reminds me of how my husband writes; how he has a way of describing things in this world that changes your perception and gives you another way of understanding. Byron, I am glad I found your blog. Now I hope you are released from prison so you can write on the blog directly.

    ReplyDelete

Lacking computer access of any kind, Byron cannot respond to your comments but is relayed them and appreciates your kind remarks.