At some point in my early childhood my mother developed the habit of answering every request for a new purchase with the phrase, “Someday, when our ship comes in.” I’d ask when I could get a bike and she’d say, “Someday, when our ship comes in.” I’d ask about the possibility of a color television and would get the same response. This held me off for a while as I consoled myself with the belief that out there on the ocean and steaming toward our house was a huge boat stocked with Schwinn bicycles, color TV sets, the ever-elusive Sno-Cone Machine, and everything else my siblings and I had been asking for. But I wasn’t completely feeble-minded. One day it occurred to me that we lived nowhere near the water, and I began to worry that our ship would come in and we wouldn’t be there. What if we missed it? Even worse, other people who happened to be at the dock would see all the things being unloaded and they’d make off with our stuff. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before a kid named Eddie from around the corner announced that his family had gotten a color television for Christmas and he was getting a new bike for his birthday. Something was up, I just knew, because Eddie had never mentioned anything about his parents waiting for a ship to come in.
When I was in the second grade, our nun used to threaten us with physical punishment. It seems hard to imagine now, but this was the early ’60s and we had fifty-six students in our class. There were no teaching assistants or parent volunteers. It was just Sister and fifty-six of us, and when we’d step out of line or say something rude, she’d warn us: “Do that again, and I’ll box your ears.” What she meant, of course, was that she’d punch us in the head, the way Sonny Liston had punched Floyd Patterson to win the heavyweight championship. Somewhere in that vast sea of seven-year-olds, I sat at my wooden desk, hands folded in front of me. I didn’t yet know anything about boxing or Sonny Liston, but I tried to make sense of her words anyway, as our brains tend to do. We don’t tolerate gaps in our knowledge. Rather, we fill in the empty spaces with things we make up, just so the different parts of our minds don’t crash into each other and break into a million pieces. It’s a kind of mental packing material. I heard “I’ll box your ears,” and I pictured Sister marching up and down the rows of the classroom and putting little cardboard boxes on everyone’s ears. There was a connection, I was sure, between being punished and having to walk around with our ears covered in boxes, although I had no idea what it could be.
The light did come on eventually and I understood that Sister meant she’d punch our ears. I’m a little hesitant to add that I was well into my forties at the time. We were in the car on some long-distance trip and I blurted out, “Oh!” I nodded my head, still struggling a bit to tie up the last of the loose ends. I was imagining Sister wearing boxing gloves, knocking out Floyd Patterson. Suddenly it all made sense. My wife said, “Oh, what?” And I said, “Oh, look! It’s only forty-eight miles to Bangor.”
The stock market report was always given at the end of the evening news. The most important piece of information seemed to be the number of shares that had been traded each day before the closing bell. I was in the sixth or seventh grade by this time and knew nothing about Wall Street. My brain had a few solid facts locked away, but it was still mostly empty space, and in the case of the stock market, part of my mental packing material involved substituting the word chairs for shares. My image of the stock exchange, then, was that of a large open hall filled with thousands of people. At some point in the late afternoon somebody would ring a bell, which caused everyone to stand up and trade their chairs. (A little voice kept insisting that I should add music to the image, but I was too smart for that.) Even now, when I hear the words stock market, I first think of people trading chairs, and then I correct myself. In fact, of course, people are trading shares. Whatever they are.
In 1987, my daughter Allison was almost two years old and seemed to be suffering from some ailment. I can’t remember what it was, but I took her to the pediatrician, who gave me a prescription. He said I should wait a day or two before having it filled, and if the symptoms persisted I should then go to the drugstore. Allison was still sick the next day and I got the medicine, but she’d been sensitive to several drugs since birth and I was unsure about giving her this one. I looked at the bottle to see what the medicine was called and found the word Norefil. I asked a friend who was a nurse and she said she’d never heard of it. Then I called the pediatrician’s office and explained my concerns to the receptionist, who put me on hold so she could get one of the doctors on the phone to tell me about Norefil. As I waited, I looked again at the label on the bottle. In a flash of recognition I now saw that the words No Refill had been typed incorrectly. I began to panic. What would I say to the doctor? How ignorant was I willing to look? Most important, had I given the receptionist my name? Realizing that I hadn’t, I did the only thing that made any sense: I hung up the phone.
A couple of years later, the big news was that Communism was crumbling in eastern Europe. I called a friend to talk about the amazing things going on in Germany, especially the destruction of the Berlin Wall. Now it’s important to know that my friend lived in the central part of Connecticut, where there was a town called Berlin nearby. Also keep in mind that each time I said Wall, she thought I said Mall. This is the conversation, almost word for word:
“Did you hear about the Berlin Wall?”
“No. What about it?”
“They’re opening it up.”
“They’re letting people go in and out.”
“What do you mean, yeah so? You don’t think it’s exciting?”
“Do they have a Bloomingdales? Or a Macy’s?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so. What does that have to do with anything?”
“I just don’t see what the big deal is.”
“The wall has been closed since 1961!”
“Well, I live twenty minutes away and I didn’t even know it was there.”
I wanted to give her a friendly lecture about keeping up with current events, but just the mention of 1961 instantly transported me back in time. Floyd Patterson was still the heavyweight champion, and nuns at our school were attaching little cardboard boxes to the ears of their students. The drug Norefil wouldn’t reach the market for another twenty-six years. The Berlin Mall was built, but no one was allowed in or out. A huge ship loaded with everything I’d ever wanted was cruising toward port. And the average daily volume on the New York Stock Exchange hit four million, which, in those days, was a lot of chairs.