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Matchbox City: A 7-Year Old’s Engineering Feat Featuring an Epic and Trashy Discovery

In these ingenuous little episodes of my early life I’ve mentioned frequently my close childhood friend Gary DeBaise. He appears so regularly and as such a perfect complement to my actions that one might suspect he is just a literary device or maybe even an imaginary friend. He is neither. But if I were to create an imaginary friend, I’d create him in Gary’s image. And I would never admit I had any imaginary friends because as I’ve often said (to myself only): Keep your friends close, and your imaginary friends closer.

If only we could make the real world like this idealized world. Well, we kids did in 1968.

No one wants to know about your imaginary friends. And thankfully I have none now that they’ve all grown up and moved away. But Gary remains a real lifelong friend; as real as the bracing deluge of an Ice Bucket Challenge. Gary grew up not 3 houses down from me. Well actually that’s not true. It wasn’t not 3 houses down. It was exactly 3 houses down. Oh how the truth will set you free. And now I feel free enough to share the spritely tale of a 7-year-old’s civil engineering project for the ages – ages 7-11. The US Army Corps of Engineers never executed a project so consummately.  

The kids on my block didn’t bother with playdates. We just played, on whatever date it was: whiffle ball, touch football, swamp fox, build and burn a model car. We also rode bikes with banana seats, caught grasshoppers in “The Lot” and habituated our neighborhood mom and pop store (Louise Bros.) for a nickel popsicle. Now at the risk of making this sound too mawkishly idyllic – like we walked out of a Norman Rockwell painting – I must interject, our block was no walk in the park (although there was a nearby park we could walk in). And not to put too gritty a point on it; our neighborhood was also rife with family upheaval, drug use and even suicide. But overall it was a dependable bastion of stay-at-home-moms (mine didn’t even drive till after the “divorce”), work-a-day fathers and healthy, juvenile tropisms. Simply put, we kids liked to do kids’ stuff.

The names of our “gang members” were straight out of an Andy Hardy movie. There was Ricky, Checker, Pat, Pat-Pat (so doubled to differentiate him from the older, more established Pat), and the aforementioned Gary. We were like dogs, padding about, waiting for the next great idea. One day, apropos of nothing, Pat-Pat announced: “Yesterday I drank everything through my toothbrush, just by dipping it in and then sucking out the fluid.” What these days would be met with a derisive smirk and a cold stare was then hailed as a breakthrough in sophisticated drink delivery systems. “Aw man,” Ricky declared, “I’m gonna do that all day tomorrow.”

Now when I say “gang members”, I refer to the motley collection of youthful personalities who banded together for constructive purposes (usually) and not a misguided and dangerous affiliation of urban warriors who think they have turf to protect – turf they don’t even own. I was the youngest member of the crew and as such I was always aspirational – wondering when I’d get to stay up and watch the late 10 o’clock shows like Mission Impossible or Star Trek; let alone some cool guy named Johnny Carson whose show was on at the ungodly hour of 11:30 PM. Years later I would actually penetrate this inky abyss and witness the Tonight Show not only on TV, but in person.

But clearly, in 1968 there were many bridges to cross and childhood metrics to cross off. And until the reality of my parents’ divorce, and it’s soul-killing angst intruded, I was on track to breeze through all of them. From the moment I first detected the incipient cracks in my parents’ marriage I was both uneasy in my predicament and yet supremely confident of my ability to navigate it. Ambivalence; it’s what’s for breakfast. Welcome to earth young David. Not that I was a deep-thinking 7-year-old, this was just the most sophisticated reasoning a 7-year-old could muster. And, truth be told, it’s not too far from the supposed higher reasoning this 60-year-old warhorse can muster either. In the interim there has been tremendous personal growth on my part. For example I’m much taller now than I was when I was seven, and I now drive a car instead of a banana-seat bicycle. Girls have evolved from an infernal nuisance to an eternal necessity. Read the rest of this entry »