By Ted Gargiulo – If I could name one toy that best defined my childhood experience—one gizmo that fascinated me more than all the other tricks in my repertoire—it would be my jack-in-the-box. I did so love that toy…for a season.
The ingenuity of its design, all that bright, colorful pizzazz painted on the exterior, so fired my imagination when I first beheld it. The box really did seem magical. Like it could divine the future. Or transport me to other worlds. All it did was play Pop Goes the Weasel. (First, you had to crank the handle; otherwise the blame thing just sat there and stared at you.) When you reached the Pop! in the song, the top flew open and a clown jumped out. Surprise! Grab your heart! Fetch the nitro!
Several thousand repetitions later, the box didn’t seem so magical, especially after I pulled it apart and discovered how it worked. Attached to the handle was a small rubber cylinder with nibs that plucked a set of musical wires when cranked. A release lever on top of the box was activated by the portion of the cylinder that corresponded with Pop! The clown was mounted on a large spring that remained under pressure inside the box while the lid was closed. The moment the cylinder triggered the release, the lid sprang open and…well, you know the rest. Underneath the frills and the pretense: a masterpiece of monotony, a gimmick.
Old Jack (if I may be so familiar) was my introduction to the world of same-old, same-old. Crank it fast, crank it slowly—the outcome never varied. Crank the song with the door open, you could watch the release lever move back and forth on cue without the clown getting in the way. Whoa! Crank it backwards, and nothing at all happened. Double whoa!! A clever contraption, perhaps, but not much of a heart stopper once you stripped it of its devices. I thought if I pretended I didn’t know the toy’s secret, if I tried suspending my disbelief, then maybe, just maybe the magic would return. But the season of make believe had run its course. There was no going back, Jack.
Knowledge is such a killer. It certainly devastated Adam and Eve. “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked.” Eureka, our weasel has popped! (I’m just paraphrasing; they didn’t really say that.) So what did they do? They sewed fig leaves together to hide their nakedness. And behold: fashion was born! An endless array of magical facades to adorn the imagination, trick illusion seekers on both sides of the fabric into believing they don’t know the ugly, boring truth inside. Nothing new under the sun.
Today, instead of playthings, I have photos of relatives whose inner mechanisms I uncovered long ago. Many of them, like my toy box, played the same song their entire lives. I study their images, hoping to recapture an era long past—before enlightenment, before death—when I didn’t know Jack, and the world still surprised me.