As a young boy growing up in Paulsboro, New Jersey, the Delaware River held an almost magical appeal. Our little town sat on the edge of the Delaware. My Mom grew up on its banks (not literally, she lived in a house) in the thirties and forties and swam in it all the time as a kid. The kids who grew up close to the river were called River Rats.
By the time I was a kid in the sixties and seventies, the river was a filthy, putrid pool of sludge and oil. The local refinery in those days used to dump stuff resembling raw sewage directly into the river, giant pipes sending forth gallons and gallons of pollutant. I would watch unconcerned from the river’s banks. We would still swim in the stuff on very rare occasions, when the black oil on the surface or the dead floating fish didn’t get in the way. I think I swam in that river maybe three times as a kid . . . until a grotesque third eye began to grow on the back of my neck . . . I still remember with chilling clarity the day I woke up seeing everything that was behind me . . . . No, wait, that was from one of the horror comics I loved so much as a kid . . . .
In the winter in the early seventies, my buddy, Tommy Misfit (not his real name) and I would break off huge chunks of ice and float out on our ice raft a short ways from the shore. The river always held a special lure, and I always wondered what lay beneath the murky brown surface . . . .
Well, one day in fourth grade, I nearly had my chance to find out.
Comic books were a major influence in my young life. In third grade I had met Edmond Bowers (not his real name), a brilliant but brooding boy who had a collection of the most gruesome ghoulish comics I had ever laid eyes on. With titles like Horror Tales and Terror Tales, these were black and white reprints of comic books that had been banned in the fifties by the U.S. Senate as being too graphic and gory for kids to read. Kids in the fifties, that is . . . . Well, the fifties were long past and Mr. Matthews had them prominently displayed at his news agency comic book racks. I read them all, and between them and the Sunday funnies, I learned to write and draw.
Mrs. Gray, our fourth grade teacher, once had Edmond and I both stand up in front of the class while she held a copy of Terror Tales in her hand as though it were a dead rat. “Do you boys really think you should be reading this type of magazine?” she chided. The lurid cover was a full color monstrous mess, really not fit for anyone’s eyes, much less fourth grade boys and girls. “Yes,” we both answered. We were hooked.
The comics may not have been socially acceptable, but they had cool ads in them. You could send away for X-ray specs, joy buzzers, the hypno-coin, assorted novelties and gags like a fake arm cast . . . .
And then one day I saw it: the Polaris Nuclear Submarine. Right there on the inside cover of my favorite comic book. It looked beautiful, all metallic and shiny, with rivets visible all over its shell-like exterior. This baby had everything. Missiles that fired. Torpedoes that launched. A real periscope. An electrically lit control panel. According to the ad, two kids could fit into the thing. The ad described, like some twisted con artist, the hours of fun and adventure two boys could have diving and exploring the underwater depths in this mighty machine. All for only $6.98 (plus shipping and handling). I immediately thought of Kirk, my younger brother. Maybe with both our allowances . . . .
Poor Kirk. I had Kenny and Wayne and Steve and George to look up to as older brothers and role models. He had me.
This episode took place shortly after the time I talked him into making mudpies on top of my Dad’s newly shampooed carpets. I talked to this second grader about how we could take this Polaris sub deep into the Delaware River, exploring its bottom through the portholes. There’d be all the fish, and maybe even treasure on the bottom. Who knew? No one had ever been down there to explore. Certainly no kids our age. You can say I was a stupid kid, believing that for seven bucks they would actually ship me a working submarine . . . . But I wish you wouldn’t.
The fact is, that’s exactly what I believed. I not only believed it, I convinced my little brother Kirk. We as kids had a sweet naiveté, a charming innocence that kids just don’t possess today. Kids today are more cynical. They’re jaded. We believed with wide-eyed wonder . . . . Crazy for electric football . . . . Astonished at pong . . . . We stood around the TV set in 1980 and marveled at cable and HBO and the fact that you could hear all the profanity on TV, “just like at the movies.”
The illustration of this submarine sure made it look like it would submerge just fine. But Kirk didn’t have enough money either. Seven dollars in 1969 to a nine-year-old might as well have been a hundred.
That’s where my older brother Wayne came in. I don’t recall details, but it was Wayne who gave us the money for the submarine. He was about 21 or 22 and recently out of the service.
We mailed the money and waited with eager anticipation for the underwater marvel to arrive. Each day seemed like a week. Then finally, one Saturday afternoon a long, nearly flat brown cardboard box was delivered to our house. On the front, in large black letters, it said, HERE IS YOUR POLARIS NUCLEAR SUBMARINE!
Kirk and I looked at this strange package, mystified . . . . How could our submarine be in there? I was expecting at least a very large wooden crate. Maybe even some kind of crane to lower it into the back yard (we had talked of how we would attach it to the roof of Dad’s car to get the monster down to the river . . . the sub, not Dad . . . .).
A nameless dread rising within me, I began to pull open the big box. Inside, to my shocked dismay, were several pieces of flat, blue colored cardboard. We took them out and spread them across the floor. There were little metal clamps in a bag to fasten the cardboard pieces together. Once put together, the thing had room for two kids, all right. They could fit in the large cut-out hole in the bottom. The “electrically lit control panel” consisted of a single small bare bulb, the size of a blueberry. The plastic toy periscope and torpedoes completed the set. I didn’t see how we were going to explore underwater in this thing.
Cardboard . . . . It was made of cardboard! HA HA HA HA HA HAAAAA!
The story of my young life. Once again, my most cherished dreams, my fondest, deepest hopes torn to shreds like used tissue paper. Kirk wanted to mail it back, but hey, it was a gift. It wasn’t Wayne’s fault our expectations were too high.
In the end, we did finally play in that cardboard submarine, a two-man crew, and pretended to dive, hunt for treasure, and battle enemy navies. We used our imaginations and explored depths of wonder no real submarine could ever hope to reach.
Not bad for seven bucks.
Copyright 2004 by Kevin Kopko
This page was last edited on 03/3/2007