Street Corner Firebox

fireboxOnce in awhile I get the unmistakable impression that I have learned an important lesson, yet I don’t have a clue as to exactly what it is. Such was a lesson that began in 1965 with some long-forgotten technology, an impressive portion of the fire department and a big glob of glow-in-the-dark goop. I thought it concluded a few years ago in an antique store, but a discovery I made last night indicated it is far from over.

Long before the advent of wireless phones and 911, fire call boxes were strategically placed on street corners. Such a mysterious and fascinating box sat on a pole on the corner of the street where I lived as a little boy.

Painted with the brightest red paint imaginable, it was about the size of a car battery and shaped like a one-room schoolhouse. Embossed on the front of the little schoolhouse, just below the roof was the word “FIRE” in big capital letters. Below this–where the door to the schoolhouse normally would be–was a white trapdoor that was hinged at the bottom. In the middle of the trapdoor was a little porthole-shaped window about an inch in diameter.

Through the little porthole I could see a large switch. The process was obvious enough: pull down the trapdoor, pull down the switch and wait for the fire department to show up. It was an amazing and almost irresistible concept for a seven year-old, and it was and endless source of fascination. The fire department certainly must have been aware of this because the switch was covered with a slimy green globule that would get on the hands of anybody who touched it. Legend was that this stuff glowed in the dark making it easy to find a naughty little switch-pulling boy in order to lock him up in jail and throw away the key.

This only added to the mystique of the device. What processes and marvels of modern science translated the pulling of a simple switch into the hasty arrival of the fire department? Did a distress flare shoot out of the top of the little red schoolhouse? Did it signal one of the neighbors who would then make a phone call? Maybe there was a nerve
center in the bowels of downtown architecture where all of the wires from all of the call boxes met. I imagined a room that looked like the inside of the submarine on “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea:” Dark and compact with dials and indicators wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling.

For at least two years, that box quietly stood sentry on it’s white pole on the corner of McKenzie and Eighth. The temptation never got the better of me. More than the fear of getting in serious trouble, I just couldn’t stand the idea of getting even the tiniest amount of that green tattletale snot on my hands.

I should also mention that my father was a policeman so I was all too cognizant of a special misery that would rain down on me as the eldest son of a police officer if I ever did such a stupid thing.

As I walked by one day, I saw that the trapdoor was open and I heard sirens in the distance. I was transfixed, feeling as if I had suddenly and unexpectedly tripped into an alternate universe. I didn’t even think of running out of fear of being wrongfully accused. I thought there might actually be a fire. Besides, the box was actually working, one of my neighbors was now walking around with stool pigeon guano on their fingers, and I didn’t want to miss anything that happened next.

True to legend, two fire trucks and at least half a-dozen firemen showed up. I was asked if I saw who had triggered the alarm. I told them the truth which they believed without hesitation. I wasn’t considered as a suspect for even a moment. I guess they figured that only the iciest eight year-old sociopath could commit such a crime and then just stand there.

As it turned out, there was no fire. Temptation had gotten the better of another boy in the neighborhood. He pulled the switch, ran home and frantically washed his hands. But obvious signs of the switch-goo remained. Crying and blubbering, he confessed to his parents and the fire department. I heard that it took two weeks of washing before the last signs of callbox snot went away. I imagined him lying in bed, his fingers glowing in the dark: The Hester Pryne of city services.

For my part, it was better than the best science fiction movie I had ever seen in my short life. I got to see the red box in action, the fire department asked me questions, and one of my peers was really gonna get it. I guess this is why I have had no trouble understanding the genetically imprinted human trait that requires us to slow down to look at traffic accidents.

Jump ahead thirty years, almost to the day.

My wife and I love to shop. We’ve gotten so good at it that we will walk into a store and spontaneously go in different directions with full confidence that we will meet up again at just the right time. If I’ve ever had a shred of doubt that we were made for each other, this consistently solid ability always blows it out of the water. If you ever see us in action, you’ll swear there was choreography involved.

So one warm Saturday afternoon we wandered into an antique store. We looked at a few things together and then, like hundreds of times before, wandered off in different directions.

I’m fascinated by old technology, so I tend to gravitate toward old phonographs, cameras, telephones and typewriters. I like the memories that they trigger.

Sitting in a dark corner behind a stack of Look magazines, I caught a glimpse of something that looked familiar. It was painted with the brightest red paint imaginable and shaped like a one-room schoolhouse.

I was stunned frozen in my tracks. From the farthest reaches of untapped brain storage came a flood of vivid memories. It actually could have been the very same callbox that stood guard on the corner of McKenzie and Eighth.

In awe, I slowly approached it much like the primates approached the Tyco monolith in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It was in pristine condition, like it was built only a few days before. With great caution, I slowly picked it up. The significance of the moment wasn’t lost on me: I was now holding in my hands a device from which I maintained a
respectable distance as a child. It was much heavier than I imagined: twenty-five pounds if it was an ounce. I looked through the little porthole on the trapdoor.

Even though the switch had been vigorously cleaned, there was actually just a tiny bit of evidence of the tattletale snot-ball that once lived there.

Here was a living legend from my past offered up for sale to anyone who cared to purchase it. I didn’t care how much they wanted for it, it was coming home with me.

The price tag brought me back to reality: $275.00. I suddenly realized that it indeed mattered a great deal how much they wanted for it. I suspected that the seller knew full well that there were probably thousands of men with boyhood memories similar to mine, who would pay handsomely for such a reminder of the past.

I decided that I wasn’t one of them.

I slowly put the callbox back on the floor and began to walk away. But then I stopped as I suddenly realized something: I almost missed an opportunity to bring a thirty year-old part of my life full circle, a once-in-a-lifetime chance to indulge a desire long denied and forgotten.

Once again, I lifted the callbox from the floor and placed it on a nearby table. This was only going to be symbolic, but that was good enough for me.

I pulled open the trapdoor. Another surprise: I always imagined it would be spring-loaded, so it would snap back into place if somebody suddenly changed their mind. It not only gave way with surprising ease, at a certain point a spring mechanism kicked in to snap the door to it’s fully-opened position.

I pulled the switch. Instantly I discovered that the inner workings of the call box consisted of a sturdy clock spring and an enormous bell which started ringing like like the closing bell at the stock exchange. By pulling the switch, I had instantly displaced the musty silence of a large antique store and jangled the nerves of at least a
dozen patrons with an ear-splitting maniacal clanging.

Suddenly I was no longer the primate in “2001,” I was the mischievous little monkey in the children’s books, looking over his shoulder as he ran a way from a catastrophe of his own making.

Seriously frazzled, but still able to maintain, I popped open the back of the box in the hopes of silencing the bell. Opening the back of the box exposed the bell all right. It also exposed a bewildering assemblage of coils and clockworks, and at least 35 decibels of additional clanging.

I was only making things worse.

Like my naughty peer back in 1965, I decided to go to the proprietor at the front desk and fess up. All I could think to say was, “I’m really sorry, I couldn’t resist.” The proprietor didn’t even look up from his magazine as he calmly said, “It’ll stop in a minute.” I got the feeling this had happened more than once. I learned a very important lesson that day. I just wish I could figure out exactly what it was. Maybe it had something to do with how we sometimes allow ourselves too many of the indulgences we were denied as children. Or maybe it was something devoid of
morality and history, like you’re doomed to embarrass yourself regardless of how hard
you try to avoid it.

I know it hasn’t affected my ability to indulge my curiosity and the proof of this was in a mysterious and fascinating discovery I made last night. Among the personal belongings I inadvertently inherited from my father several years ago was his policeman’s call box key.

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