On rare occasions, usually with a campout on the horizon, Dad or Mom would take us to this Army surplus store on the outskirts of town. We’d pick out a not-too-dinged-up mess kit, dig through the green canvas-covered canteens to find one that looked semi-cool and rummage through the clip-together knife fork spoon collection for a set that stayed together and wasn’t bent.
The place spanned the distance of a couple of football fields set side by side. Army green as far as my near-sighted coke bottle glasses could see. Outside, in the side yards, acres of old army green stuff that I hardly recognized ran row upon row for what looked and seemed like miles.
What’s this and this?
What’d this do?
“What’s this, Dad?” must have been on constant repeat the entire time we spent inside or outside that store.
In my mind, the ghosts of Army guys hung out among the shelves and piles of used or practically new surplus. I would reach into my head for the look and feel of those War documentaries Dad occasionally watched on our television set. Mostly I remembered explosions and white puffs of smoke and the sound of the narrator’s voice, somber and heavy. In the background an occasional military march drummed across my memory. As a child those shows and that collection of army stuff made me wonder, made me worry.
Did all that surplus sit there waiting for another war? Would it would be needed by more than occasional campers out on a weekend jaunt? I hoped not.
But then there were those air raid practices we had a few times. And there were the nuclear fallout shelter signs hanging near the stairwells leading to the basement in our elementary school. I had every reason to worry. I had every reason to wonder about such a huge amount of resources sitting idle. Mostly I didn’t think about it, though. Childhood held too many other wonders to worry much.
I visited that store with two of my sisters yesterday. It’s a favorite haunt of my older brother when he’s in town. Now I understand why. It’s an inventor’s paradise, a treasure hunter’s mother lode, a shopper’s ultimate dream trip. A person could spend several days in there and still not see everything.
It’s changed somewhat from the years when I used to go there. There’s much less surplus piled up outside. And the first thing greeting you as you walk in, besides a massive tool section that’ll suck in even the least handy man in the group, is a candy section that puts full-on candy stores to shame.
Every candy I ever used to covet as a girl waits for me in bins and bowls and boxes and barrels and on shelves and hooks.
Here’s a tiny sampling: Zots, Razzles, Slapstix, Cowtails, Nips, Beemans gum, Bit O’Honey, Lemonheads, Jawbusters, Boston Baked Beans, Blowpops, Square Cinnamon Suckers, you name it, they had it. Of course, I filled a basket with the treasures and felt as if I had captured pieces of my childhood. Penny candy nirvana took over all reason and logic as I loaded up with sugar in all its various forms.
The Older Me also spent significant time in a kitchen implements section that made Bed, Bath and Beyond seem like a mere convenience store. Every shade, shape and color of spatula ever imagined resided there in mass quantities. Every sort of knife, pan, container, widget, kitchen invention, mixer, chopper, timer, seasoning and gadget found itself ensconced and happy as a clam in sauce there among friends. I exercised restraint only because my two checked luggage pieces already overflow.
We ventured in among mountains of hats, walls of gloves and piles of wallets. We skirted past but didn’t delve into the jeans and t-shirts and clothing aisles. We did, after all, have a real life to get back to. Not to mention our feet and backs were getting sore from so much wandering and perusing.
With reluctance we took our purchases to the front and stood in a line beside more fun doodads and curious toys and other memorabilia for sale.
I regret only one thing about yesterday’s visit back in time.
I didn’t go back to the surplus section.
Maybe because war surplus speaks louder now than it did when I was young and naïve. Maybe the ghosts that reside back there have more to say and I couldn’t bear to hear or see them.
I’m sure my mind said something like: “Just let me revel in the childhood I knew. The innocence enlivens and lifts me. The purity of that brief span of childhood, of not knowing about the real world, feels so refreshing.”
Maybe next time I visit there, I’ll also visit the ghosts, if for no other reason than to say “Thank You.”