S J Perelman: Insert Flap ‘A’ And Throw Away



Has everything amusing there is to be said about do-it-yourself kit projects been said? Perhaps. That doesn’t mean some great people haven’t said find things about it. From 1947’s The Best Of S J Perelman here’s some talk about a ready-to-assemble toy.

INSERT FLAP “A” AND THROW AWAY

One stifling summer afternoon last August, in the attic of a tiny stone house in Pennsylvania, I made a most interesting discovery: the shortest, cheapest method of inducing a nervous breakdown ever perfected. In this technique (eventually adopted by the psychology department of Duke University, which will adopt anything) , the subject is placed in a sharply sloping attic heated to 340 °F. and given a mothproof closet known as the Jiffy-Cloz to assemble. The Jiffy-Cloz, procurable at any department store or neighborhood insane asylum, consists of half a dozen gigantic sheets of red cardboard, two plywood doors, a clothes rack, and a packet of staples. With these is included a set of instructions mimeographed in pale-violet ink, fruity with phrases like “Pass Section F through Slot AA, taking care not to fold tabs behind washers (see Fig. 9).“ The cardboard is so processed that as the subject struggles convulsively to force the staple through, it suddenly buckles, plunging the staple deep into his thumb. He thereupon springs up with a dolorous cry and smites his knob (Section K) on the rafters (RR). As a final demonic touch, the Jiffy-Cloz people cunningly omit four of the staples necessary to finish the job, so that after indescribable purgatory, the best the subject can possibly achieve is a sleazy, capricious structure which would reduce any self-respecting moth to helpless laughter. The cumulative frustration, the tropical heat, and the soft, ghostly chuckling of the moths are calculated to unseat the strongest mentality.

In a period of rapid technological change, however, it was inevitable that a method as cumbersome as the Jiffy-Cloz would be superseded. It was superseded at exactly nine-thirty Christmas morning by a device called the Self-Running 10-Inch Scale-Model Delivery-Truck Kit Powered by Magic Motor, costing twenty-nine cents. About nine on that particular morning, I was spread-eagled on my bed, indulging in my favorite sport of mouth-breathing, when a cork fired from a child’s air gun mysteriously lodged in my throat. The pellet proved awkward for a while, but I finally ejected it by flailing the little marksman (and his sister, for good measure) until their welkins rang, and sauntered in to breakfast. Before I could choke down a healing fruit juice, my consort, a tall, regal creature indistinguishable from Cornelia, the Mother of the Gracchi, except that her foot was entangled in a roller skate, swept in. She extended a large, unmistakable box covered with diagrams.

“Now don’t start making excuses,“ she whined. “It’s just a simple cardboard toy. The directions are on the back —”

“Look, dear,” I interrupted, rising hurriedly and pulling on my overcoat, “it clean slipped my mind. I’m supposed to take a lesson in crosshatching at Zim’s School of Cartooning today.”

“On Christmas?” she asked suspiciously.

“Yes, it’s the only time they could fit me in,” I countered glibly. “This is the big week for crosshatching, you know, between Christmas and New Year’s.”

“Do you think you ought to go in your pajamas?” she asked.

“Oh, that’s O.K.” I smiled. “We often work in our pajamas up at Zim’s. Well, goodbye now. If I’m not home by Thursday, you’ll find a cold snack in the safe-deposit box.” My subterfuge, unluckily, went for naught, and in a trice I was sprawled on the nursery floor, surrounded by two lambkins and ninety-eight segments of the Self-Running 10-Inch Scale-Model Delivery-Truck Construction Kit.

The theory of the kit was simplicity itself, easily intelligible to Kettering of General Motors, Professor Millikan, or any first-rate physicist. Taking as my starting point the only sentence I could comprehend, “Fold down on all lines marked ‘fold down;’ fold up on all lines marked ‘fold up’,” I set the children to work and myself folded up with an album of views of Chili Williams. In a few moments, my skin was suffused with a delightful tingling sensation and I was ready for the second phase, lightly referred to in the directions as “Preparing the Spring Motor Unit.” As nearly as I could determine after twenty minutes of mumbling, the Magic Motor (“No Electricity — No Batteries — Nothing to Wind — Motor Never Wears Out”) was an accordion-pleated affair operating by torsion, attached to the axles. “It is necessary,” said the text, “to cut a slight notch in each of the axles with a knife (see Fig. C). To find the exact place to cut this notch, lay one of the axles over diagram at bottom of page.”

“Well, now we’re getting some place!” I boomed, with a false gusto that deceived nobody. “Here, Buster, run in and get Daddy a knife.”

“I dowanna,” quavered the boy, backing away. “You always cut yourself at this stage.” I gave the wee fellow an indulgent pat on the head that flattened it slightly, to teach him civility, and commandeered a long, serrated bread knife from the kitchen. “Now watch me closely, children,” I ordered. “We place the axle on the diagram as in Fig. C, applying a strong downward pressure on the knife handle at all times.” The axle must have been a factory second, because an instant later I was in the bathroom grinding my teeth in agony and attempting to stanch the flow of blood. Ultimately, I succeeded in contriving a rough bandage and slipped back into the nursery without awaking the children’s suspicions. An agreeable surprise awaited me. Displaying a mechanical aptitude clearly inherited from their sire, the rascals had put together the chassis of the delivery truck.

“Very good indeed,” I complimented (naturally, one has to exaggerate praise to develop a child’s self-confidence). “Let’s see — what’s the next step? Ah, yes. ‘Lock into box shape by inserting tabs C, D, E, F, G, H, J, K, and L into slots C, D, E, F, G, H, J, K, and L. Ends of front axle should be pushed through holes A and B.’ ” While marshalling the indicated parts in their proper order, I emphasized to my rapt listeners the necessity of patience and perseverance. “Haste makes waste, you know,” I reminded them. “Rome wasn’t built in a day. Remember, your daddy isn’t always going to be here to show you.”

“Where are you going to be?” they demanded.

“In the movies, if I can arrange it,” I snarled. Poising tabs C, D, E, F, G, H, J, K, and L in one hand and the corresponding slots in the other, I essayed a union of the two, but in vain. The moment I made one set fast and tackled another, tab and slot would part company, thumbing their noses at me. Although the children were too immature to understand, I saw in a flash where the trouble lay. Some idiotic employee at the factory had punched out the wrong design, probably out of sheer spite. So that was his game, eh? I set my lips in a grim line and, throwing one hundred and fifty-seven pounds of fighting fat into the effort, pounded the component parts into a homogeneous mass.

“There” I said with a gasp, “that’s close enough. Now then, who wants candy? One, two, three — everybody off to the candy store!”

“We wanna finish the delivery truck!” they wailed. “Mummy, he won’t let us finish the delivery truck!” Threats, cajolery, bribes were of no avail. In their jungle code, a twenty-nine-cent gewgaw bulked larger than a parent’s love. Realizing that I was dealing with a pair of monomaniacs, I determined to show them who was master and wildly began locking the cardboard units helter-skelter, without any regard for the directions. When sections refused to fit, I gouged them with my nails and forced them together, cackling shrilly. The side panels collapsed; with a bestial oath, I drove a safety pin through them and lashed them to the roof. I used paper clips, bobby pins, anything I could lay my hands on. My fingers fairly flew and my breath whistled in my throat. “You want a delivery truck, do you?” I panted. “All right, I’ll show you!” As merciful blackness closed in, I was on my hands and knees, bunting the infernal thing along with my nose and whinnying, “Roll, confound you, roll!”

“Absolute quiet,” a carefully modulated voice was saying, “and fifteen of the white tablets every four hours.” I opened my eyes carefully in the darkened room. Dimly I picked out a knifelike character actor in a Vandyke beard and pencil-striped pants folding a stethoscope into his bag. “Yes,” he added thoughtfully, “if we play our cards right, this ought to be a long, expensive recovery.” From far away, I could hear my wife’s voice bravely trying to control her anxiety.

“What if he becomes restless, Doctor?”

“Get him a detective story,” returned the leech. “Or better still, a nice, soothing picture puzzle — something he can do with his hands.”

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there.

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