What This Country Needs is a Cheap Cigar Box

No Telling

I know you remember these. Maybe your cigar box of choice wasn’t Roi-Tan, but you had one. Maybe dozens. Was it a Swisher Sweets? Hav-A-Tampa?

I alternated between White Owl and Kind Edward cigar boxes for my more important collections at home. Rocks, mainly, but sometimes buttons or leaves, sometimes pecans and pokey sweet-gum balls. I remember finding a papery chrysalis once dangling from a forsythia bush. I opened the lid several dozen times a day fully expecting each time to unlock a grateful butterfly, but it never happened.

In late August I always had a fine collection of locust shells carefully picked from tree bark, screened doors, and other scratchy, irregular places. These were particularly prone to crushing in, say, the back pocket of your jeans, so a sturdy cigar box was essential. My neighborhood friends and I would travel in rangy packs like out-of-season Easter egg hunters, some of us with empty mayonnaise jars but most of us with cigar boxes. We could kill entire afternoons looking for locust shells and sticking their hooked little empty feet to our clothes and hair. After scaring my mother with them at dinner, they were always carefully placed back in the King Edwards box and spent the night under my bed.

I don’t know what those kids with the mayonnaise jars did. Those were for lightning-bugs anyway.

The fancier boxes were fine for treasures, but Roi-Tan was was the box of choice in my school desk. Elegance. An air of serious sophistication. Everything about this maroon box said you cared about the pencils inside and that education itself was a somber, sacred event. No bug shells or glass buttons in this box, thank you, the Roi-Tan held cerebral tools.

Every single year before the first day of school, my dad would take me down to Rexall Drug to pick out the perfect cigar box. Timing was everything, because everyone got their cigar boxes at the Rexall and if your daddy was the sort who put things off, you could end up carrying fat pencils and an Elmer’s paste bottle in something ridiculous like a paper sack. That was nothing short of social suicide and certainly no way to begin first grade. These were the days when “special” kids were carted off before the end of the opening day and never seen again.

Thinking back, I’m sure the missing children had little to do with paper sacks vs. cigar boxes, but times were different back then. Falling into school-supply lockstep for a month or so was calculated survival. It was dangerous to be quirky and we knew it.

So Roi-Tan it was.

My mother wrote my name on every single side of that cigar box, not that she needed to. By the end of the first week I’d written “Monda” a hundred times on it myself, trying out every single crayon I’d brought with me. Most of the boys used scissors to gouge their names into their cigar boxes, a practice I found equally violent and fascinating until a boy named Dale nearly cut off a finger doing it. He was whisked, bleeding, out of class and down the hall. When he returned the next day, he had stitches, round-edged scissors, and a swagger. I fell in love with him by recess.

I found this Roi-Tan cigar box at a Camden, Arkansas junk store for $2. It was worth every penny just to remember the locust shells and swaggering Dale.