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  • Writer's pictureKirby Lee Davis

Tales from the shelves: Of tapes, toys, a tray, and a Thermos

My bookshelves probably contain as many mementos as bound texts. Usually I group these keepsakes by some theme, like a genre or product or purpose. The top shelves end up as something special, since they have no side walls or height restrictions. Here’s one such display, built around the letter “T.”

Anchoring one end stands a seven-cassette audiobook by Shelby Foote – an extract from his masterpiece trilogy The Civil War.

Now it should be said, such tapes have never been my pick of audio products. I grew up an investor in 8-tracks. That came directly from my father, for he gave me a portable stereo 8-track tape deck at an early age, one where the speakers could actually separate up to eight feet. That battery-operated dynamo made me an instant advocate for those four-layer, ever-revolving ribbon cartridges. I learned how to prep them for better playback, clean them, take them apart, and even repair them when the tapes broke or tangled.

When I entered high school, my parents upgraded my sound system to a stereo phonograph/8-track recorder. This started my brother and I into programming our own tapes, which we could play on a wonderful stereo in our family’s Chevy Impala – a car I inherited when I got married.

Oh, I could rattle on and on in such nostalgia… suffice it to say, it took the 8-track’s commercial demise to force me into cassettes, which lasted only until compact disks captured that market. As irony often works in my life, that change marked when this Foote audiobook crossed my path. Naturally I bought it, for Foote was a legend to me from his authoritative appearance in Ken Burns’ epic documentary The Civil War, which spurred me to read Shelby's magnificent trilogy of the same name. The tapes present his text on the battle of Gettysburg. Listening to Foote's striking Southern drawl reading his own eloquent words, the audiobook takes me on a touching journey back in time… something I often long for, though not along that path.

A one-eyed rubber monster sits beside that audiobook. It seems at home there, for I’ve always liked such creatures, as demonstrated by the numerous horror films and tomes in my library. At the slightest squeeze this green beast shoots its foam eye like a bullet, but you can always put that projectile back in and launch it anew. And if you lose that eye, or your cat tears it to bits, the monster has a bag of five extras for your pleasure.

I bought this, and many others, as Christmas presents for my extended family, with hopes of engaging them in a holiday morning battle. That opportunity never came, but I still cling to the little guy, for it’s easy to see myself in that playful creature. I’ve always sought to be friendly and engaging, even when others thought otherwise. With God’s help, I’ve always been able to reload and carry on.

From a ribbon hung over that audiobook’s decorative box flap hangs a ceramic cat face. That gift arrived with my oldest daughter’s joyous birth. I helped bring two beloved girls into this world… this glassy figure reminds me of both. Within her first decade or so, my oldest made me a stuffed black cat to honor our family’s cherished pet, Genghis Khan. He was supposed to be my wife’s feline, but the finicky one took to me, sitting on my lap as I typed out a novel, watched TV, or simply slept. My daughters also loved Khan, and I adored them all, and yet it wasn’t long before all our lives were scarred by divorce, then torn through the life-changing distractions that shape and shatter those teen years. Often I ponder the memories I never had a chance to make. Such would-be things haunt my days and burn my dreams. Some comfort comes in prayer and song, and in recollections these remnants spur, but the embers of a broken heart never fade. Love fuels them.

Beside that black cat, behind the cyclops, stands the shelf’s centerpiece, a classic Coca-Cola tray with the bright image of a happy-go-lucky flapper. Distributors for soda manufacturers used to provide such trays to restaurants for servers or carhops carrying multiple drinks. Over the years these artifacts became quite valuable, especially when in such fine condition.

This tray ended up in my hands as my parents started handing down their personal treasures. Having lived in an apartment since my divorce, I had little room for such things, for I had picked up more than my share of personal flotsam over the years. Then one day my mom pulled me aside and asked why I never took anything home. I realized that at some level she saw this as rejection, as did my father, so I apologized and asked for the tray. I thought it might fit alongside a collage of movie posters and stills covering pretty much every inch of my ceiling. Mom laughed and refused, saying she wanted to hang onto that collectable a bit longer. That made me wonder just what that tray or “flapper” image might mean to her – she was born in ’28, after all – but I never asked, for I also saw how the tray somewhat went along with the collectable plates she had lining her kitchen cabinets. But with my next visit, mom happily gave me that metal platter. I’ve had it ever since.

Now that I’ve moved, the tray reminds me of that retired ceiling decoration… and even more, of my beloved mother, who in my eyes could do no wrong. And it reminds me that, if she loved me, and I know she did, then perhaps others can as well.

At that tray’s side, anchoring the shelf’s other end, rises a weathered steel cylinder, its evergreen hull capped in chrome. One end provides a solid footing, while the other tapers to half its width. By its shape and mass, this pillar could be mistaken for an artillery shell, a part of the Star Trek probe Nomad, or a discarded fragment of an industrial piston. But I knew it as my dad’s old Thermos.

For most of his professional life, my dad was a proud signalman for the Rock Island Railroad. He worked hard over a Great Plains territory that grew ever larger as he matured. Whether sunny or snow-blown, day or night, he was ever on call to handle problem cases. Many a time in my early years, when we lived in rural Nebraska and Kansas, I watched my mom fill that insulated bottle with hot coffee before he headed off to work, so that dad would ever have a cup of joe to refresh his mind. Once I became old enough, dad would sometimes take me on his ventures, and we would share sips of that dark brew from the vacuum bottle's chrome cup.

I never cared much for his bitter java, and still don’t, but for some reason that Thermos grew on me. It was shiny and seemed quite solid, thicker than my arms or legs, and yet it didn’t weigh much. Even back then I saw its resemblance to ordinance, which wouldn’t surprise you if you knew how I used to crawl upon a M-48 Patton tank parked in my hometown’s city park. Anyone fascinated by tanks knew about cannon shells!

Dad didn’t let me handle his Thermos that much, for in those days the company lined its bottles with glass, which could come loose or even break if dropped by someone who wasn’t paying close attention to what he was doing – a description that often fit my rambunctious mind back then, and perhaps today. And that added to my curiosity, for as everyone knows, nothing strokes an unfulfilled yearning like denial.

I saw less and less of the Thermos when we moved to Oklahoma… I suppose it became far easier for Dad to find fresh coffee on the roads around Oklahoma City than in rural America. Years went by, and while divorce scarred my personal life, my parents enjoyed a few decades of blessed retirement and recreational travel. Then strokes and dementia battles settled in, taking first my mother, and then dad. Few things tear on your heart like these struggles, or the ones that follow when you must sort through your parents’ possessions. This my brother, sisters, and I faced together, until we got to the truly hearty materials, dad’s tools. Through it all I resisted taking most things, but then I came upon that old Thermos. It sat upon a cluttered garage shelf, rigged with cobwebs. I looked at it and felt that old longing once again. I remembered those times when dad had taken me to his depot, or out in the truck in search of signal troubles… of the times we sipped steaming brews, listened to country radio stations, and talked about whatever came to mind. He never stopped looking out for me, and even when his temper rose, I always knew he loved me.

Funny, isn’t it, what an old, beaten water bottle can mean to a broken heart.


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