The CrackerJack Box

I turn first this way, then that, before the mirror. The reflection is not as young as it used to be. "How do I look?" I ask.

"Perfect," replies my better half with a smile. I sigh and shrug. "Not so perfect, Iím afraid, but itís the best I can do. The years, after all, take their toll."

"Would you like me to come with you?" The question is asked in good faith and with the kindest of hearts, but this is something I must undertake alone.

"Thank you," I reply, "but...." There is no need for further explanation. I stop along the way to buy a box of CrackerJack. Many might consider this a strange token, but its intended recipient would understand.

A war-torn veteran in a wheelchair with empty pants legs and scarred forehead helps me to locate the name. If he believes my box of CrackerJack to be an unusual offering, he gives no such indication. But then, he has probably seen everything in his time.

The Wall is serene in its simplicity. I imagine the original must be quite breathtaking. It is difficult to comprehend the exact number of loved and lost who are memorialized upon the vast blocks of black. So many lives extinguished before being given a chance to live.

I lay my box of CrackerJack at the base of the stone upon which is etched the name I have come to find. Nestled among six-packs of Budweiser and cartons of Kool, it does not appear so out of place. There are small amounts of money. Gambling debts repaid, perhaps? I can almost smell the smoke and hear the laughter of the men...the boys...who whiled away the long, dark hours in an alien land, playing cards as they listened to the music of "The Doors" and got high on whatever was available. Iím sure it numbed the dread and quelled the loneliness.

A group of schoolchildren walk by, bearing small bouquets of flowers and poems they have composed for their field trip to the Wall. They are silent and wide-eyed as they randomly place the items on the ground and touch the carved letters with chubby fingers. A few point to an elderly woman who is taking the rubbing of an etched name with a piece of paper and a pencil. She has no graveyard in which to place flowers...no headstone to keep clear of fallen leaves. The framed photograph of a young marine, proud and unsmiling in his uniform, is propped at the foot of the ebony slab. I wonder if it is her son. Not wishing to intrude, I turn back to my box of CrackerJack...and remember...

"Open it."
"Whatís the rush?"
"Just open it, please."
"Iíll eat it later...Iím still stuffed from all the spaghetti."
"Iíll miss you."
"Iíll miss you too."
"Will you open the box?"

A sigh of exasperation...a chuckle of resignation.

"You donít give up, do you?"
"No."

The sound of caramel popcorn being shaken.

"Okay...itís open. You want some?"
"No. I want you to tip it all out."
"What on earth for?"
"So you can get to the prize."

A gasp of surprise...an exclamation of joy.

"Is this what I think it is?"
"What does it look like?"

The ring with the small diamond chip twinkles brightly in the moonlight.

"You hid it...in here?"
"I did."

Silver laughter amid the night.

"I love you."
"I love you...will you marry me?"
"Of course!"

"Of course...of course...," echoes in my ears from the distance of time. But it was not to be. I wonder what might be secreted in the box of CrackerJack I brought with me today. I smile and murmur, "They just donít make those prizes like they used to," as I reach out and run my fingers along the beloved name.

A faraway grumble of thunder threatens rain. Soon, the area will become muddied and slippery. A few volunteers rush out carrying wooden boards to place along the grass walkway. The legless veteran stuffs his clipboard inside a plastic bag so the pages wonít get wet.

It is almost time for me to leave.

"I did eventually get married," I say. The statement sounds like a betrayal. The ebony stone is silent, but glistens brightly with the first fall of raindrops. "I am happy. We have three wonderful children and life is good." I bow my head. "It could have been different...you didnít have to go."

As the thunder rumbles closer, the shepherded school children hurry toward the waiting bus. The elderly woman goes past, carefully folding her precious etching before putting it into her purse. She treats me to a brief, trembling smile...her eyes brimming with tears. I realize that my own cheeks are wet and not from the falling rain.

I did not bring an umbrella. Dark splotches stain the brown, suede shoes that I foolishly decided to wear, knowing that showers were expected. They will probably be ruined and the CrackerJack box will get soaked, along with the childrenís poems.

I touch the name one last time. I will not come again...but I will not forget either.

Life goes on.

I leave the Wall behind me and make my way back home, where my wife and children are waiting.

I am a lucky man.

Vietnam Women's Memorial - Washington, D.C.

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