SEND 25 CENTS and two boxtops from Rice Krispies . . . Diving Atomic Submarine! . . . Buck Rogers Ray Gun! . . . Secret Decoder Ring! Allow 4 to 6 weeks for delivery." The day after gorging yourself on cereal and sending off the quarter, the mailman took on a wonderful aspect. Maybe it will come early. After a few weeks, the suspense became almost unbearable, and the daily disappointments mounted until you were sure that nothing was ever going to come. They'd lost it. Finally, of course, the slow grindings of adult cereal promoters came through and the box with your own name on it arrived like Christmas and birthday rolled into one.

The stuff you'd sent for was usually junk, and broke almost immediately. Buck Rogers would have been in a nasty fix trying to fend off Ming the Merciless with a red plastic ray gun that exhaled puffs of talcum powder (shoots real destructor rays!), and broke before the general disappointment had time to take hold. The gray marbled plastic atomic submarine was about two inches long. When filled with ordinary baking soda (atomic fuel!) it actually did rise and sink in a dumb sort of way when dropped into the bathtub. The decoder ring that let you in on the end-of-the-program secret message for initiates only allowed you to decode things like, "Kids! Don't forget to ask your Mom to buy a lifetime supply of Wheaties!" What a burn.

One thing actually delivered, and I'm damned if I can figure out what it was: It was a ring that had a clear hemispherical glass top, about 3/8 in diameter, over a dark blue substrate. When you went into a closet, or waited until dark and held it close to your eye, you could see bright sparkles radiating from the center, as though you were rushing through the vastness of interstellar space. Maybe it was really bad for you, radioactive or something, but it was incredibly neat, and I hung onto it quite a while for a third-grader. Almost alone of all the childhood possessions lost or thrown away, I wish I'd kept that one-then I could still look into it once in a while, maybe find out what it was. Maybe it really was magic.

June 10, 1994