The Tin Box


The Tin Box by Richard MandelThe man called from the funeral home, saying that I could come pick up my father’s death certificate and, by the way, because his remains were being buried in the National Cemetery (because of Dad’s service during World War II), I was entitled to an American flag.

When I got to the funeral home, I was escorted to a back room with shelves showing samples of headstones and urns, and a round dining table partly covered in papers. The gentleman pointed to a chair that held a cardboard box, about 18 inches on each side, and said, “That’s your flag — would you like to triangle-fold it?” We spent the next ten, fifteen minutes performing an elaborate ritual that converts an American flag from a flat sheet about half the size of a twin-bed top sheet to a thick triangle, locked in on itself, that shows a pattern of white stars on a dark blue field. He then pulled out from another box a zippered, vinyl triangular pouch into which I stuffed the flag. “For protection,” he said.

I’ve never owned a flag, nor have I ever thought to own one, but now there it is, on display atop a shelf unit in my living room, leaning against the group photo from Hebrew Technical Institute, Brooklyn, New York, Class of 1939, that included within the cluster of faces in the lower right the boy who would be my father. He had arrived in this country but 10 years and some months earlier, with his mother and older sister and brother, passing through Ellis Island with the teeming mass of other émigrés yearning to breathe free, or, at least, get off the darned ship. It was at Ellis Island that my father first met his father, Grandpa having left the village of Slutsk, in Belarus, seven years earlier while Grandmother was still pregnant with the third and last child of their marriage. Four years after the photo was taken of the Class of 1939, Dad would be inducted into the US Army Air Corps. And, just short of his 90th birthday, I would receive an American flag in honor of his memory.

Strange, how little that flag bespeaks my father.

Many people I’ve known grew up in a house with a cookie jar in the kitchen, a repository of something restricted to Special Permission or Grant from the Governor passes. Of course, such a vessel only held cookies, ideally baked by a loving mom and consumed down to the last crumb, only to be replenished, with more love, by the aforesaid mom, and doled out by new Permissions and Grants.

For my brother and I, our forbidden country was the tin box in our father’s dresser. Its contents were not for the bellies of children who performed as good little soldiers. Rather, it was a door into an unspoken past and a world I would only be able to plumb second-hand.

I don’t recall when I first learned of the tin box, but suspect it was something mentioned one day by my brother, who was obviously wiser by dint of the fact that he was almost five years older than me. I suppose he said something like, “Do you know about the box in Dad’s nightstand?” To the mind of a little boy, made all of questions and curiosity, and years from testosterone and guilt that would last longer than five minutes, such a question was bait. It was like the summer Monday mornings, following a Sunday night when we’d made popcorn to watch Disney and Ed Sullivan on TV, when my brother would instruct me to get the cold leftover popcorn from the kitchen and bring it back to our room, as he convinced me that I possessed a special skill in getting past our sleeping parents, whose closed bedroom door was next to that kitchen. Such danger would make me, in later years, viscerally attuned to the fear Bilbo Baggins would have of Smaug, the terrible Dragon of Erebor, who knew every last item in his vast horde.

Inevitable would be a day when my brother and I were old enough to be left on our own. Perhaps Dad was at work, and Mom had to go to market. Did my brother suggest I go get the box? Don’t remember, don’t recall. All I know is that there was a day when I bore witness to the incontrovertible fact that my father had been a soldier, a truth that was as alien as a suggestion that my parents were secretly, perhaps, diamond smugglers or trapeze artists. We were an ordinary, middle-class American family who lived in a suburb of Los Angeles, Dad an aerospace technician, Mom a housewife overseeing the welfare of two rambunctious boys. Opening the tin box was like opening the wardrobe door and entering Narnia, everything coming before and after colored by the awareness of the contents therein.

The tin box was non-descript and unmarked, save for a light surface rust. It was maybe four inches high, four inches deep and six inches wide. Once the hinged, friction-fit lid was pried open, the interior showed itself still shiny as a new mirror. The contents were interesting — golden-hued pins with the letters “US” in block capitals, and elaborate eagles in silver on round backgrounds. Dad’s dog tags were in there, on their original plastic lace. Another golden pin, a two-blade propeller against a pair of wings, the insignia of The Airman. An oval name badge. There were two simple magnetic compasses, each the size of a thick medium-sized button, sealed in plastic sheathing to protect against, we supposed, water damage should the plane go down in the sea, an exciting image that springs to the mind of a young boy, We hadda drop the plane in da brink an’ now we’re behind enemy lines, somewhere’s in Europe, using a dinky compass to find our way back to our guys. Not that Dad ever spoke like the soldier-actors in the movies or on the TV, but it was something cool to think about.

There were also water purification tablets, salt tablets and other stuffs in a separate kit that, years later, we would find out was cased in celluloid that would decompose and flow, turning itself and its contents into a congealed mess that Dad had to throw away. We finished our examination of those contents, closed the lid and carefully returned the box to its place in Dad’s nightstand, assuming that we did the job so well that he’d never notice. Nor can I recall that he ever mentioned anything — perhaps, after checking to see if the contents were all accounted for, my Smaug-Father decided not to come roaring into our room-village, burning us in his wrath for going unbidden into his domain.

But now I knew, with certainty, that there existed this other person, a Dad-soldier, a man who could be like those guys on TV, dogfaces, gunners, heroes. Inevitably, with only the faintest hint of foreknowledge, I would one day casually, and with feigned innocence, ask my father what he did during The War. Unlike some men, who would go to their graves with theirs years in combat sealed up deep inside them, my father talked at least a little about his experience: that he was a tech sergeant in the 816th Squadron of the 483rd Bomb Group; that he was top-turret gunner in a B-17, as well as radio operator; that they flew “mop-up” over Italy. None of this came out in a single, long soliloquy about his years in the war; rather, there were occasions that simply cued him to mention an aspect of his experience. It would be up to my brother and I to string all the pieces together.

As I grew up, there were other artifacts that came to light. My dad’s footlocker, a sturdy construct of wood and metal hinge, became the storage for my Erector set. It also doubled as a stand for servicing the TV that otherwise rested on a table in the den closet (thus providing more floor space in the room). My brother recalled that there was a pin-up girl on the inside of the footlocker’s lid but, alas, by the time I was old enough to open the lid, all that remained were a few pieces of newsprint edge.

My parents had also retained my father’s flight jacket and leather flight helmet for many years, until the time they moved to a retirement community. Such items, and quite a few others, were relegated to the rubbish — neither my brother nor I were asked if we wanted them. I do recall Dad actually using the helmet once — he had to perform some service to plumbing that ran through a crawlspace under the house, which was accessed by removing a mesh screen panel on one side of the foundation. For the task, he donned a pair of Sears coveralls and slipped on the helmet to protect his head as he slithered along on his back in the two-foot-high space. He looked, for all the world, like he was preparing to be shot from a cannon.

Like cosmic fragments coming together to form a planet, other pieces of family history have come into my possession. When my father’s widowed brother, who was older by ten years, passed to his final rest, he left behind no children, so it fell to another cousin and I to go through his final effects. Though he still had his wits about him and the ready ability to communicate at the age of 95 (when I last saw him alive), he never, ever spoke a word about his war service, other than that he did his job.

I found Uncle’s Bronze Star in the bedroom of his apartment, near a book about the 77th Infantry Statue of Liberty Division, of which he was a member. The official document that lay within the award’s presentation case explained that my uncle single-handedly rescued two injured comrades while under fire on Leyte, one of the Pacific Islands so bitterly fought for. Reading the book further informed me of the 77th’s actions, comprising some of the most grueling battles of the Pacific theater.

While not receiving so high an accolade, Dad also served with a special group. According to introductory notes of the book, “Heroes of the 483rd,” one of the squadrons was the first to be engaged by the German ME 262 jets. And it was a 483rd plane that holds the record of most bullet holes in a B-17 after a mission — more than 30,000. I presume the plane made it back to Allied lines in that condition, for ground crews to make the counting. Dad did mention, at least once, about a mission where planes on either side of his were shot down and, on another mission, he rode home sitting on the floor, cradling a buddy’s head while the guy had the dry heaves from airsickness.

Not so long ago, I was visiting Dad in the assisted-living home during one of the morning “activity sessions” that were intended to help keep fading minds from slipping entirely away. The man leading the program was talking about the upcoming Veterans Day holiday. Calling my Dad by name, he asked him if he’d been a Prisoner of War. “No,” replied Dad, his once-strong voice now a soft whisper. “I enlisted.”

But, neither Dad nor my uncle marched in any parades, joined VFW associations, or addressed civic groups about their war-years after their service. I only recently found out that my uncle was an active Communist before he entered the Army. And Dad ultimately became a Kennedy liberal, vocalizing, at the peak of the Vietnam War, that if my brother’s draft number came up, he’d “personally drive him to the Canadian border,” (we were living in Los Angeles at the time).

I’ll keep the flag, for now. I’ve thought of setting the papers, photos, service awards, and the tin box, all now in my possession, in front of the flag, but that would be too much like an altar, an affectation better suited to sacred saints. My father and uncle, they were Men, men who were sent overseas to do a job, came back home and tucked the memories of the task into a nightstand drawer or the back of a shelf in a little-used closet, then went to join the workforce and, perhaps, raise a family, something that men have dreamed and done for centuries after serving as soldiers. The war in which my father served, along with his brother, ended long ago, but the soldiers they were are now home to rest.

submitted by Richard S. Mandel

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