The Old Metal Box

Tucked away in a huge chest of drawers that my folks had in their bedroom in the farmhouse my great-grandparents had built was an old black tin box. At some time in its life, this shiny, mysterious box locked with a key, but the key must have been lost somewhere along the way, so the box has a bent lid from being jimmied open.

Although it was never directly said, I knew that I couldn’t open the drawers of that chest without “special” permission, and the box itself, for sure, was “out of bounds”; hence, for me, that box always held an allure for what it might contain.

Although I had some idea about the box earlier, my first real direct contact with it came sometime in my late teens when my mom took it from the back of one of the drawers and showed me a small manila envelope containing some arrowheads and and other shards of Indian-hewn rock. Those treasures had been gathered up from the plowed fields of our farm by dad and his brothers many years earlier, probably when they were just youngsters. That pack of relics was part of my dad’s “stuff” in the box, which except for the arrowheads, otherwise remained a mystery to me, and for my lack of knowing what else lay inside, through the years, the entire metal box became an extension of the mystery of my dad.

It wasn’t that I didn’t know my dad. I knew my dad and mom well. As the last of four children, I spent a lot of time with just the two of them. And even later, after I was out of college and on my own, because the others were married and had their own family obligations, I was the one who spent breaks and longer vacation times with my mom and dad.

There was quite a difference in age between my dad and mom; also she was “the talker” and he was on the quiet side. And as a kid, I wasn’t all that interested in my parents’ lives before they got married, or probably not even very much interested in their lives before my own existence. Maybe that was because I was the “baby” of the family and spoiled, or more likely, I was not much different in that respect than most kids: that they really dont’ care much about their parents’ or other relatives’ earlier lives until they reach the point that they see themselves as part of a long line of descendants and become curious about their own place in that line.

I did know some things about my dad. I knew he had been in World War I. Yes, that is a Roman numeral one there, not a two. Even when I was a kid, my classmates were surprised that my dad had been in the First World War and not the Second World War or the Korean War, like some of theirs had been. But as I said, my dad was a lot older than my mom, and I was the baby in our family, so here I sit reminiscing about treasures in an old box, and I still have a long way before I can see my retirement days. I’m probably not the youngest child of a World War I veteran, but I have an idea that there aren’t too many younger.

At some point after my dad had passed away more than 20 years ago, my mom got out the box again, I think of her own volition, and not prompted by my inquisitiveness (I did say “I think”), and we rummaged through the box and those once mysterious items. Found inside were different small belongings, maybe we should say “keepsakes”, but in reality, I’m not sure whether they were my dad’s keepsakes or my mom’s keepsakes–meaning–were all these various small treasures kept because my dad had wanted to keep them or had my mom kept them because they had belonged to my dad? I remember when we looked in the box that time that there were different odds and ends of mementos from World War I: some emblems, a few medals, postcards, and my dad’s little military New Testament, which in more recent years my mother gave to me .

Since my mother’s stroke, the box has been at my sister’s house. And now that both my parents are gone, all things “mom and dad” have taken on more importance, and the curious metal box has become even more mysterious.

One day over this past Christmas vacation when I was visiting my sister, I remembered that envelope of arrowheads, so we dug out the box from a closet. Once the box was opened, we soon discovered that there was no packet of arrowheads. Perhaps Mom had given the arrowheads to someone just like she had given the little New Testament to me. Even so, the box was almost full. It seems to me that some of the contents had at one time been in other places, maybe in the cubbyholes of the old hinged-top desk that we had. But still everything inside had been my dad’s, and all from before, during, or directly after WWI.

There still were the military emblems and medals that I had seen before. There were also a lot of postcards, mostly of places in France from the time of the war, a lot from the Pyrenees border area of France and Spain. At closer look, among the other frayed-edged items werea ticket and some folded pieces of paper, and then a few very small notebooks.

With closer examination, I discovered that the ticket was most likely the ticket for the ship on which dad either set sail for Europe as part of the many American soldiers who went their during World War I, or perhaps it was the return ticket. There’s no name of a ship on the ticket, but for sure it was for one of the two voyages because the numbers of the mess and liferafts are printed on it.

The many postcards show town centers, churches, and other sites, mostly in France. It’s hard to imagine postcards for tourists being sold in some shops in the midst of a war. Then again people have to make money, even in wartime, and likewise, travelers at that time, whether they were tourists or soldiers had no portable camera to carry with them to photograph the places they were visiting (or in the case of the soldiers, fighting over).

Unfolding the papers, I found that they were leave orders for my dad, typed out on an army clerk’s portable typewriter. Two were for merely hours–a full day’s leave and a half-day’s leave, but the third, and the most formally written one was for a week, and the destination was Luchon, in France, but close to the Pyrenees. No wonder Dad had so many postcards of Luchon and the French-Spanish border area!

Finally, I started paging through the little notebooks. Some pages were written in the form of small ledgers–different days worked for this farmer or that farmer, money paid out for seed wheat. There wasn’t too much organization of the writing in the books, and the hand-writing wasn’t too clear in the first place, and in some places definitely smudged and obscure after, in some cases, more than 90 years.

But among all the seemingly mundane notes, something caught my eye: Bunkerhill (now Bunker Hill [Kansas]). And as I kept reading, I realized what this little listing was! My dad had written down every point of departure and arrival that he had made during the time he had left to enter the army in 1917 (from Bunker Hill) until the time he arrived back “HOME” in 1919. All the forts he trained at before leaving the U.S., his place of departure: New York, all the many strange French towns that he went to as a member of the Signal Corps of the U.S. Army, every place had been listed with lv (leave) and ar (arrive). I tried to follow his route by looking up the names on the internet; some I could find, and others I couldn’t. Some names were spelled wrong or differently, maybe because of mispronunciation. But what a little jewel of information to find in that for-long-so-mysterious box.

There were a few times that I had heard Dad talk about his experiences in the war, but not with many details. I think some of his grandkids may have gotten some stories out of him late in his life.

But there is so much of my dad’s life that for the most part was left untold by him to us kids.

Why was the box never taken out and the postcards looked at? Why couldn’t we have discovered the little notebook with the names of all those places? Did we as kids not ask enough questions? Maybe we just weren’t curious enough, or perhaps having our living dad was enough for us. Who cared about his “history” then?

I’m sure these questions “jab” at me more these days because Mom and Dad are both gone. And now I’m “it”; I’m part of the “older” generation. There are not even any aunts or uncles left to supply any of the bits and pieces of information that they might have helped fill in some of the blanks.

So while some light has been shed on a few of the mysteries of that old metal box, there are still others that will remain as long as it and its contents are around, which most likely means as long as its significance and, perhaps more importantly, its mystery, mean something to someone.