by Bill Monson
In my youth, there were two items that were always recycled: coffee cans and Quaker Oats boxes. When I say "recycled," I don't mean taken to a special dump where you turn in things like glass, paper and aluminum to be re-used. We re-used them ourselves.
Coffee cans could be recycled in dozens of ways. Dads used them to hold nails and screws. Kids turned the lids into primitive (and dangerous!) Frisbees. Moms stored old cooking fat in them. They could hold flower bulbs in the basement during a cold winter. Paint them and fill them with dirt, and you had a pot for a plant or flower on your window sill. A row of such pots could become a flower box where a window was too high to tend a regular wooden one from the ground. We had just such a "box" outside our kitchen window on Blaine Avenue.
On the Fourth of July, a coffee can could become a missile. We lit a cherry bomb or large firecracker, put a can over it, and--WHAM--the Hills Brothers became astronauts.
In my adulthood, I learned you can make a good charcoal starter out of a perforated coffee can. Just remove both ends, cut some draft holes, pile in the charcoal, pour on the starter fluid, drop in a match, and--POOF--updraft does the work in no time at all.
Because adults could use coffee cans in so many ways, we kids had to wait our turn for one. That meant we didn't get many--unless we went up and down Blaine Avenue begging from our neighbors. Even then, they were few and far between. We usually settled for Quaker Oats boxes-- which of course weren't boxes at all but cylinders. We used them much the way our elders used coffee cans. Mostly we stored stuff in them. Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, plastic toy soldiers, interesting rocks. You could paint one and use it as a water tank or grain silo on your Lionel train set. The more technical of us wound the cylinder with copper wire as part of a crude "cat's whisker" radio set. As I remember, completing one of these which would pick up WGIL was good for a merit badge from our Boy Scout troop which met at the East Main Street Congregational Church. All I ever picked up was static.
I did find one unique use for a Quaker Oats box. I cut out the bottom to form a tube, then punched out two holes about two inches apart near one end. Through these I ran a long piece of butcher string from my dad's market, hung the tube on my bedroom door, and ran the string over the door and then tied the two ends of it tightly to the door knob on the outside. When the door was closed, I had a basketball hoop about seven feet off the floor. Then I "borrowed" a ball my sister Sue used to play jacks--and I was ready to be Gino Melchiorre of the Bradley Braves. I'd shoot at my "hoop" for hours--or until my father's patience ran thin downstairs. I listened to Silver Streak and Bradley games on my little Majestic radio and played right along with my heroes.
Today's kids have a regular hoop, net and backboard with a nice, quiet Nerf ball to shoot in their bedrooms. But you can't dribble a Nerf ball on carpet like I could dribble my jacks ball on my bedroom linoleum; and I bet they don't have half the fun I did with my improvised Quaker Oats box.