Sunday, October 26, 2014

Lunchboxes of my youth: fear comes with its own Thermos

As a child, I spent my lunchtimes staring at the coked-out visage of Ms. Carrie Fisher.

Springview Elementary: a chamber of horrors.
The onset of fall always brings back memories of my own elementary school days. Unfortunately, most of those memories suck, and I would rather repress them than relive them. No offense to my former classmates, who have grown into thoughtful and friendly adults, but you scared the living shit out of me when you were children. Kids can spot weakness in a second, and I was lousy with it. I made the bullies' job too easy by being such a tempting and passive victim. (Fun fact: one of my childhood tormentors eventually did some prison time, a fate I had secretly predicted for him years earlier.) What would I have done differently, knowing what I know now about the world and about human nature? Just about everything. Back in the early-to-mid-1980s, though, I was as clueless as they come. I mean, I was alert enough to realize I was not getting along well with my classmates, but I had no idea why that was or what I could do to change the situation. Walking to Springview Elementary School in the morning, I felt like a condemned man walking the green mile. I would not have known the words "alienated" or "ostracized" in those days, but both of those adjectives applied themselves manifestly to me. There was no sadder day on the calendar than the last day of summer vacation. I still shudder to think about it. For most kids that age, lunch and recess provide a welcome relief from class. In my case, it was just the opposite. At least in class there were rules and some semblance of order. The playground and, especially, the lunchroom were consequence-free zones where all sorts of torture, mostly psychological but some physical, was either tolerated or ignored.

Despite all this, I still have some residual affection for lunchboxes. I might have been part of one of the last generations in this country who actually got to carry the metal ones to school with them. These were banned years ago because -- and this should come as no shock -- horrible, bratty children were using them as weapons. That's how much kids suck. A second-grader gets a beautiful metal lunchbox in his possession, and his first thought is, "I should just straight-up brain somebody with this thing. It looks like it could cause serious injury." So now, metal lunchboxes exist only as collectibles for sad grown-ups like me. I don't actually buy them, mind you, but on especially lonely nights I do browse through Ebay and see if I can find any of the lunchboxes I carried as a kid. In fact, I think I can trace my entire youth through those long-gone food containers with their matching Thermoses. Let's take a trip down Pointless Nostalgia Lane, shall we?
(Note: I do not currently possess any of these lunchboxes. These are all pictures I yoinked off the Internet. Even if I did still have these, they wouldn't be worth anything because I treated these lunchboxes as carelessly as I treated all my possessions in those days. I was a profoundly stupid child.)
STAR WARS: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK

Here's the front, along with the Thermos. Everyone looks panicked, which is why this is great for kids.

And here's the back, with a suspiciously effeminate, tiny Luke. Yoda won't even make eye contact.

The earliest and coolest of my pop culture-themed lunchboxes. I can still remember studying this one up close with my similarly Star Wars-obsessed friends at the lunch table at good old Springview Elementary and joking that the movie's title seems to be Star the Empire Strikes Back Wars. That's the kind of quasi-humor only a kid could appreciate. You have to grade these observations on a serious curve. The artwork is actually still attractive. I don't know if these paintings were done just for the lunchbox or if they were some kind of repurposed promotional art from elsewhere. Either way, a damned pretty thing. Wouldn't mind having this back.

HERE'S BOOMER

I should have gotten my ass kicked every day I brought a Here's Boomer lunchbox to school.

Oh, sweet Jesus, what was I thinking? Was I thinking at all? Before every other school year, my mother would take me to the Woolworth at the mall and let me pick out a new lunchbox. There would be a whole display of them, and they'd have all kinds of colorful designs and popular movie and TV characters. Somehow, out of all of the ones available, I must have said, "I want the Here's Boomer lunchbox, Mom!" Never mind that it's mustard yellow, horrendously ugly, and made of plastic. Never mind that I didn't even like the TV show that much. I barely remember it now. Boomer was like the TV equivalent of Benji. I'll assume he got into Benji/Lassie-type adventures or something.  The title of the series was pretty unimaginative.  "Well, kids, here's Boomer. He's a dog. You like dogs, right?" I can distinctly remember regretting this choice of lunchbox. Buyer's remorse at the age of 7.

MR. MERLIN

Behold! Merlin! And, for some reason, he has a fake Robby Benson lookalike with him!

And the hits do not keep on coming. That Empire Strikes Back lunchbox is starting to look like a statistical anomaly, isn't it? Yes, even after the Here's Boomer debacle, I went with another lunchbox based on a gimmicky, short-lived TV series from the early 1980s. This time, it was Mr. Merlin, a one-season wonder from 1981-1982 in which the immortal sorcerer Merlin (played by crusty but lovable Barnard Hughes) lives in 1980s San Francisco, works in a garage as an auto mechanic, and has a young protege named Zac. That setup sounds a bit homoerotic, and the lunchbox itself does not dispel that notion, with Merlin placing a possessive hand on the shoulder of his twink sidekick. Now, I'll admit that I watched this show pretty religiously back in the day. I was way into any sci-fi or fantasy show aimed at younger viewers back then. Mr. Merlin was no Voyagers!, but it occupied a place in the firmament just the same. I think this lunchbox and the Here's Boomer one were in rotation at the same time. Change it up. Keep 'em guessing.


INSPECTOR GADGET

Go go gadget disillusionment! This lunchbox helped end my childhood.

You know how the birth of Christ is used as a dividing line in history -- BC before and AD after? Well, there are things in your own life like that, too, only on a much smaller scale. There are certain people, places, and events which act as definitive borders between one part of your time on this earth and another. The Inspector Gadget lunchbox was like that for me, and to this day I can't really look at it without becoming very sad. It was definitely the last lunchbox I ever took to school. I would have been in about the fourth grade at the time -- about 9 years old. I know that I was a major, unabashed fan of the animated TV program. I'd watch it after school every day. When it came time to choose a new lunchbox, there was no question about my selection, even though the Inspector Gadget model was robin's egg blue plastic and not particularly cool looking. It was affiliated with my favorite show; that's all that mattered. For a day or so, I might even have been proud of this possession. Let's just say I learned some tough life lessons in the lunchroom at Springview.

There was a kid who was a year older than me but in my same grade, and the Inspector Gadget lunchbox became a favorite target of his. He'd grab it away from me and pretend to wash the table with it, all while singing a mocking version of the theme song in a faux-Mongoloid voice. "Duh duh duh duh duh! Inspector Gadget!" I hated him so much. I still hate him. I'm not over being mad. I may never be over being mad. This same scene played out over the course of a few days. After a while, I started keeping my lunchbox in my lap, hidden under the table. It was a really tense situation which took away my appetite, and I formed a powerful association in my mind between lunch and nausea. After a few weeks, I learned to just sit quietly for the absolute minimum amount of time in the lunchroom and then just throw the contents away, uneaten, before heading out to the playground. I literally didn't start eating lunch again regularly until I was in my late 20s. I still feel guilty when I think about my mom packing those lunches that I never ate. Sorry, Mom.

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