The Adventure Cereals

His regular hours of night work on the Baltimore SUN have developed in WALTER M. GIBB an exaggerated interest in cereal packages.

The manufacturers of breakfast cereal are changing my way of life. Not with the inside but the outside of their packages. Indeed, I am no longer aware of the contents; an hour afterwards and I should be hard pressed to say whether I had dined on Corn Pops or Smileys. But, oh! those covered wagons, that map of outer space, the adventures with Klondike Pete! What is riboflavin by comparison? And who could worry about his minimum daily adult requirement of iron while he is assembling the pasteboard rocket which will take him to the moon?

My wife has a less emotional way of expressing this. “What few brains you have are being washed,” she says. To which is sometimes added a quotation from Aldous Huxley, who saw this coming years ago and tried to warn me. On my own behalf I can only plead that the time was out of joint. The powerful cereal interests worked me over in those darkest hours before dawn, when there was no one awake in whom I might confide or from whom I might borrow strength.

It is 4 A.M. when I get home from work. I let myself into the dark and silent house, light a fire under the coffee, and feed the cat. Then I sit down to a table lovingly set with cereal boxes. Sometimes there is a note from my wife: “Don’t forget to put out the trash — the man comes tomorrow.” But mostly there’s just me and the cereal boxes.

At first I did no more than look at the pictures. They are pretty violent, but years on a newspaper copy desk have inured me to that. The insidious thing about them is their longevity. Peering into the barrel of a Western six gun may not disturb a hardened character the first night or so. But ten nights later the barrel will begin to wobble, the cylinder revolves, and in the awful quiet he can hear a click. It is the same with the other drawings. On even the blandest of cereals, given a week or two, the Northwest Mountie gets his man.

I well remember when the full realization of this came to me. It was the night I was able to close my eyes, turn once around in my chair, and point unerringly to a spot in Mountie territory where I must lose two days from having to portage. Of course I was proud of this achievement, but I felt another emotion, too. There was still enough of the old Adam in me to resent such uninvited tampering with my mental processes. I determined upon a course of resistance.

I tried first a variant of Get thee behind me, Satan. I put the cereal boxes on the floor under the table. In fairness to this method, let me say that only absent-mindedness kept it from succeeding. My wife could not understand why she found packages of breakfast food on the floor.

“Don’t you like what I put out for you?” she asked.

I left the cartons on the table then and decided to try ordinary will power. I would read nothing but the small print. That way I soon learned a good deal about vitamins. I learned, for example, that no matter how potent they may be in the diet, in 6-point type they are no match for one small blueprint of a flying saucer. The whole experiment convinced me that will power alone will not keep man from exploring outer space.

In a last-ditch effort, I took off my bifocals. Such desperation only met its just reward: I got a headache trying to read without them. From then on I abandoned myself to the wholesome enjoyment of cereal boxes. With shades drawn and scissors at the ready, I fell to.

If I say so myself, even my earliest paste-ups were not bad. They consisted modestly of a cageful of shredded-wheat circus animals. I remember being so proud of a particular lion that I left him standing on the breadboard for my wife to admire in the morning.

From such humble beginnings I progressed rapidly, all without special training of any sort. In less than a year I was tackling quite advanced projects, assignments calling for a thorough knowledge of toothpicks and pins and requiring the adroit manipulation of rubber bands. There was a sturdy disc gun, for instance, which really whanged small hunks of cardboard around the kitchen. Believe me, the satisfaction of shattering clay pigeons does not compare to that of bringing down a dessert spoon balanced on top of the coffeepot.

Naturally, there were bad moments as well. Some designs gave no end of trouble. And I made mistakes — mistakes which literally had to be eaten. Take that Polaris missile and launching tower. The first carton I tore in the wrong place, a second had coffee spilled on it, and the third gave me nearly as much concern as it did the Navy before I could get it to do a proper blast-off. I am still eating the contents of those packages, as well as those of quite a few others now cluttering the pantry shelf in glass jars.

Fortunately, not all the breakfastfood cartons are of a sort to be taken apart, else I should long since have run out of containers. There are the box-top offer numbers. With these I have been less reckless; I judge I have passed up at least half of them. But some are musts. Insignia and other identifying paraphernalia ought not to be counterfeited in the home. In fact, if I had any suggestion to offer the cereal people it would be to mail these more esoteric items in a plain wrapper. Even so trustworthy a civil servant as the postman might drop a remark in wrong company concerning one’s secret service status. My own daughter, who is old enough to know better, recently wore my junior aircraft commander wings to a meeting of her college alumnae.

For my part, I have exercised the customary precautions. I am certain that the boys at the office don’t suspect a thing when I beg off from other invitations in favor of a relaxing dish of cereal at home. But a fellow can’t be too careful. If it were to leak out that the man entrusted with writing the final streetsale banner — BARTENDER KILLED IN GUN DUEL HERE — Spent the next two hours fooling with a disintegrator pistol, they might take a dim view of it. They are fearful of having any bias creeping into the news columns.

Of course, if worst comes to worst, I can always take my severance pay, pin on my U.S. marshal badge, and head for the old frontier country. According to the best cereal maps, there’s a right smart of it left.