Tonight we came home to an odd fooshing sound. It was also strangely tropical. We quickly discovered that the hot water hose to the washing machine had burst and was spraying the pantry with water.
I turned off the pipe easily enough, and ran the overfull washer through a spin cycle, but everything was dripping wet. I opened up a drawer in my toolbox, and water spilled onto the wet floor. I grabbed a headlamp and headed down under the house to see what the damage was. We don’t have a basement, we have supports off of a dirt floor holding up the house. There was six inches of muddy water, and on the far side I could barely see my worst fear — all 3000 issues of my 25+ year old comic book collection just happened to be underneath what had clearly been a waterfall minutes before. Those of you who have similar collections may go ahead and cringe now.
Not having any galoshes, I wrapped my legs and shoes in trash bags and sloshed through the mud to start handing them out to Liz to put outside where it was thankfully not raining. It turns out that an early religious practice of bagging 99% of my comics has saved most of the collection. The long-boxes, however, are a soggy heap of corrugated cardboard. The only real casualties appear to be Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #4 and The Tick #1.
While this was perhaps a collectors worst nightmare narrowly avoided, what peered at me after removing the comics was a black plastic file box bulging with a broken clasp. My heart stopped. I whispered pitifully “Oh, no..” This was one of two “made like a tank” compact file boxes that I’ve used to put every important thing that I’ve ever wanted to keep track of. Apparently, tanks have no problem sinking. In this case, water somehow got in through a crack or a hinge just right, and with no exit except for the top, proceeded to fill up and the paper wicked more and more water in until the swelled paper burst the clasp, causing even more water to get in. I tipped it and water poured out. It was heavy. A lifetime of memories weighing a ton in water-logged paper.
Upon getting it inside, I could not pull anything out of it for I had packed it so tightly to begin with — I had to use a screwdriver and hammer to crack it open like stone surrounding an ancient artifact. For the next 6 hours, Liz and I hung, laid, and trashed the contents of that box. As I look around at our dining room, with every surface covered in papers, two clothing lines of cards hanging from the picture rails, and three paper sacks full of soggy pamphlets and cards with ink too run to read, I can’t believe how much was in a box just under 1 cubic foot in volume.
I am surrounded by 37 years of soggy memories. My entire life is represented here. There is my birth card complete with stamped foot and finger prints, and my first immunization record. There are grade and high school papers and grades, letters from my dad, and the eulogy that I never got to read for my mom. There are condolence cards from when my Siamese cats died 8 and 5 years ago, and from when my father-in-law died last year. There are countless letters from or to lovers, menus from special dinners, and a treasure map. I have lists of MTV music videos that I recorded onto Betamax, and the one and only AD&D game that I ever ran. There is a patch and mission report from Adult Space Camp, the race track at Loudon, and a piece of mail sent from the Albuquerque balloon fiesta. I have the music from Taiko class, and how to draw a bouncing ball from the Disney Institute.
Most of what got tossed were pamphlets from my travels, the kinds of things one might cobble together into a scrapbook, but I never did, and just put them in the Box of Holding +3. London, Japan, Sydney, Hong Kong, Amsterdam, Lisbon, Costa Rica, Burning Man. As I tossed a pamphlet from the bar in North Sydney where I’d first heard Psycho Zydeco, I remarked that I would never again remember which bar it was. These were the days before I carried a Moleskine everywhere I go.
I’ve spent most of the night in a fugue state, separating memories from one another, and trying to find an empty piece of floor, table, or chair. My patient wife helped me, kept me focused, telling me that it would be all right. And it will be. No one is hurt, our home wasn’t consumed by fire, and most of the important stuff is salvageable. Knowing that doesn’t take away the sense of being emotionally flayed open, strewing the guts of my life across the floor.
Obviously there is yet another lesson to be learned about the transience and relative unimportance of things. I have not needed the contents of that box on any sort of daily or even yearly basis, and yet their emotional weight is so much more than the paper on which these memories lie. (Besides the water, that is.) I feel drained and numb. Tomorrow will come, the papers will dry, and I will figure out how to re-store them until I start the scanning project that I’d been saving for the next time I’m between jobs.
Unfortunately, one rarely has the luxury of choosing when these life lessons will be learned, such as never storing your paper valuables underneath your washing machine.