Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Reblog: The Mailbox War

This one was too good to stay in the vault...

My father is a survivor of two wars.

The first was Vietnam (where he was a medic). The second was the war at home (where he was part-villain, part victim).

The war at home was not fought against my strong-willed mother, nor her strong-willed daughter (me), nor her strong-willed newborn (my brother, who was such an intolerable, shrieking toddler that we referred to him as ‘the Raptor’). Instead, the war at home was fought between two venerable enemies, and battled on civilian soil in the early nineties. On one side, my father in shorts and a polo shirt, a.k.a. Mr. Mom, who raised my brother and me and two dogs and one cat, while my mom bio-medically consulted her way through Europe, coming home only in stints.

On the other: the teenagers of Peekskill, New York and their arsenal of baseball bats.

At that time, there wasn’t much to do in town. One movie theater, one neon-signed shopping plaza (the main attraction tied between the pet shop and the hardware store). Not much else. And lots of bored teenagers in the summertime, half-assing wait or landscaping jobs during the week, coming home only to nurse beers and drive restlessly at night.

So they did what all red-blooded Americans do with energy, aggression, and an arguably poor upbringing. At low speeds in open cars, they swooped past mailboxes, improving their batting averages by smashing perched metal off poles.

We had just moved into the white clapboard house on a hill. Our mailbox was at the bottom of it. And because my parents had just begun to take pride in the place (recently out of the rental down the street), they renovated and improved, bursting with the satisfaction of their newly purchased home. One of the first acts my father took was to buy a beautiful mailbox as a prosperous symbol; a miniature bright, red barn, with a tiled roof and wide doors from which mail sprang.

And one of the first acts the neighborhood teenagers took was to smack it right off the pole in the middle of the night, denting the plastic and knocking off the doors.

When my father saw it, he knew. He had done his fair share of toilet-papering the principal’s house as a kid. But that was Halloween in Normal, Illinois. Not a summer spent destroying mailboxes in Peekskill, New York.

This was much, much different in his eyes. He had survived far worst virtually unmarked. He didn’t "come back from 'nam" to let a bunch of "punk kids" stick it to his young family, his new house, his new mailbox.

So he put it back up. Upon seeing this, the kids knocked it right back down. They too, had survived--plenty of fathers in town were out to prove a point with their mailboxes, dads that refused to be defeated, until the kids broke them down and the old guys gave up, heads hanging in shame, only to return to their wives and their kids with their shoulders shrugged in conquered disbelief.

But not my dad. Not him, not ever. My dad was of a breed these kids had never seen.

He ditched the cutesy, hard plastic in lieu of a sturdy wood structure bolted into a sturdier wood pole in the ground.

The next morning we saw, as we scaled down the driveway in our white Ford Taurus, the box lay splintered on the side of the road.

I remember what it looked like. And how my dad’s face hardened with determination, a smile flickered fast at his mouth. Even at ten years old, I saw what this meant. This was not over. This had only just begun. These were just the formative stages of what would be known forever after as The Mailbox War.

Next up was a traditional tin box, plain and black and just like all the others on the block. But it deviated when he encased it in a circular steel sheet, leaving gaps around the rectangular receptacle. Into those gaps he poured a yellow liquin plastic that bubbled and dried hard and puffy, like insulation. This he fixed to a metal pole, which he buried deep into the ground.

Now, instead of a mailbox, we had a space age monstrosity twice normal size, that gleamed in the sun with a terrible glare. As the bus lurched around the bend towards my house, I would instruct all substitute drivers to the “mailbox that looks like a big bullet” to ensure I was dropped at the right spot.

The teenagers had a hell of a time with this one, but they were just as committed as my dad. They bashed that thing mercilessly, over and over again, night after night. Try as they might, they dented the sheet and the insulation under the surface, but you could see from looking dead on that the mailbox protected by all this was entirely unscathed.

That was part one of my dad’s plan. To erect something that caused them to park their cars on the side of the drive, jump out with their bats and poles, and on foot, dance around the box, smashing it.

Part two was to hide his green and gold-flecked Buick at the bottom of the hill, obscured by night and the shade of pines. To sit in the driver’s side with his hands gripping the leather wheel, nodding off and jolting awake, his BB gun (previously used only for scaring squirrels away from the birdfeeder) at his side. Once he saw the flash of baseball bats by moonlight, the idea was to jump out, laughing maniacally and spraying the stars with BBs, forcing the teenagers to run screaming back into their cars, not before one or two of them soiled themselves, and drive away in hysterics, never to speak of that night again, and never to return.

Unfortunately, he never got the chance. The kids, perhaps anticipating an ambush, came at odd hours, and in strange patterns. Once they left the box alone for an entire week. A few days of sleeplessness and my dad’s fatigued ramblings caused my mom to put an end to that real quick.

Soon after, the mailbox was officially dismembered. Because the kids couldn’t beat it to a pulp, they blew it up, uprooting the pole like it was a diseased tree, and left it broken on its side in a nearby ditch.

At this point, we all congratulated my dad on fighting the good fight. The silver mailbox had lasted far longer than anyone could have imagined, and now that we had to erect number four, we wondered if we could just frequent a P.O. Box and live our lives in peace.

My dad scoffed at this suggestion, and got to work on his ultimate structure. He knew he had created a mailbox that could almost withstand the beatings, but a pole that could not. His solution: an iron pole cemented into the ground. As a nod to the would-be destroyers, he bolted a new version of the maimed mailbox on top, daring them to continue to try.

The box stayed atop the pole, through the winter, then spring. It seemed this had ended it. Once in a while a new dent would appear on the sheeting, but for the most part, it was left alone. No more explosions. The teenagers had been handed. But this is not the end of the story.

The hill on which our house stood was at a very dangerous turn of the road. I lost Peaches-the-cat to whizzing cars careening by. It was accident-prone and everyone within a ten mile radius knew to proceed with caution.

One day, a teenager, maybe one who had fought in The Mailbox War against my dad, maybe not, but to be sure, one who was not paying attention and one who was driving a borrowed BMW far too fast, swerved around the curve. And drove right into our mailbox. He hadn’t slammed on the breaks to avoid hitting it, assuming it would give with the thousands of pounds of steel and fiberglass of the car, figuring that the pole would bend and the box would pop off like the head of a dandelion, and he’d slow to a stop.

Instead, the car wrapped around the immovable object we called our mailbox. The airbags went off, the car was destroyed, he was in tears, his mother arrived in a rage, my father was apologetic and concerned for the boy’s safety. But our mailbox, it stayed.

The boy was perfectly fine except for the tongue-lashing he received from his mother, “I can’t believe you did this, you said you were going to be careful with the car, I never should have let you borrow it, your father is going to kill us both!

Almost immediately, my dad dismantled the mailbox and its pole. He couldn’t, in good conscience, let it stay, knowing that bad drivers endangering their lives and the lives of anyone who happened to be nearby, could become fixed in a metal swirl around it.

He constructed a normal mailbox after that. One that was flimsy, and like most others on the block. But the funny thing was, it was never touched again. Maybe because that kid actually had been a perpetrator of our previous boxes, or maybe because the other kids were tired of it, or maybe they thought it was a trick.

Nevertheless, they stayed away.

My dad remains, to this day, victorious (if a not little notorious, as well).


Joseph said...

Fantastic! I thought Mailbox Baseball was something that only existed in movies. Thinking about it – was this about the same time 'Stand by Me' was in the cinema?

C-47 said...

We used to beat a gentleman's mailbox up in Lennox. He finally replaced it with a steel rod atop which sat a large coiled spring and then a thick rubber made box. The idea being that any beating received would be dissipated through the spring. Sort of a bobble head mailbox. However we quickly realized that you could bend the mail box back on its spring and then release it causing the mailbox to vomit its contents across the road. Oh to be young again....

Broady said...

Your dad is awesome- a true suburban warrior.

I wonder what would have happened if he set up a decoy mailbox, and covered it with a fresh, thick layer of wet tar each evening so that it would be like striking Uncle Remus' "tarbaby" with a bat.

My mailbox is attached to my house, so I'll never get to fight this battle...

Anonymous said...

Mailbox hockey, as they call it in this small town, is rampant where I live. On my parent's street, where those who "have" live, they are encased in large brick columns that match the house's exteriors. In the neighborhoods of the "have not's" they are smashed in or all together gone. Thank God I live on a street that was established around my house--a farm house from 1939--and the mailboxes are bolted on the wall next to the front door. Gotta give the punks credit though. Every year they come right up to my front door, steal my fall pumpkins and smash them in the street. I got a locking mailbox.

Anonymous said...

In my town, in the 80's it was called "Equlaizing." The "have-nots" lived in older homes with sidewalks and mail slots in the doors, the "haves" had front yards, driveways and...mailboxes on poles. So the townie kids would "equalize." As a bonus, on very very cold moonlit nights, the colorful plastic newspaper receptacles also attached to the poles shattered in a very satisfying way that cannot be replicated, even with the best of today's CGI technology.

Later, I had a job in college where the owner had us design and fabricate a mailbox that could withstand an M-80. He was cut from the same cloth as your Dad, but had access to a machine shop, laser cutting tools and plasma welders. It was the B-2 bomber of mailboxes--flat black, obscenely expensive and sooooo badass.