The Altoids Project

How a childhood valentine remains an everyday treasure

The greatest valentine I ever received was from Tom Schartz, otherwise known as the Leonardo DiCaprio of our third-grade class. Tom sat next to me in Miss Boyle's room and had a crush on that redheaded tart Miranda. I was content to be his comrade in arms and share in vital playground crusades that included marble hunting and chewing-gum-wrapper origami. A Crown Royal bag stolen from his father's bar held our treasures in the back left corner of his desk. My job was to take inventory of the bag in the morning and his job was to bring said bag with us to the playground for lunch recess reconnaissance.

One day he pulled from the Crown Royal bag a huge cat's eye marble he was going to give to Miranda for Valentine's Day as a declaration of his undying love. The center was a watery jade green, like her eyes. I watched from the tetherball court during lunch recess when she held the marble up to the sun and basked in the glow of his adoration.

At the time, I still remained hopeful that the object of my affection, Mr. Spock, would beam down to art class and teach me the mysteries of the Vulcan Mind Meld. Recess ended with the squawk-box announcement of the school-wide Valentine exchange. We tumbled into art class amid a sea of mothers, cupcakes, and pink-colored shoeboxes. Tom slammed into my hand an Altoids tin. He said, "I have to give the real girls Scooby Doo cards my mom bought at Walmart. But I made this for you because you are my favorite best friend."

Inside the tin was a plastic Star Fleet badge, three pieces of Wrigley's Juicy Fruit, a picture of Leonard Nimoy from TV Guide, and a tiny USS Enterprise communicator made from a matchbox, gold paint, and three shiny uniform buttons. The unearthly valentine celebrated the glory of friendship. Not the kind of "friendship" in the movies where one wonders if romance lurks in the corners as the hero realizes his best friend is, in truth, a real girl. This little paragon shouted the triumph of pure friendship that transcended the predictable Nora Ephron movie script.

I carried my valentine tin through the Lafayette Elementary School spelling bee, my high school graduation, and more than one college commencement. It remains my essential good luck charm when boarding a plane. Like the other treasures on my desk, it reminds me of the magnificence of the human experience and how profound a small act of kindness can be.

This year I am making valentines for my favorite best friends. I made a list on New Year's Eve of 10 people who I wanted to really honor. Turns out that deciding what goes in an Altoid valentine is wonderful therapy. So far I have delighted in the creation of an emergency martini kit: Did you know one can purchase a metal flask small enough to fit inside that red and white flip-top box? And there is the palm-sized accordion cookbook of my favorite recipes for my friend whose mom died before explaining how to make a pie. I told my boss, Number One, about this project and she instructed me to put her down for the Altoid Flame Thrower. I thought she was joking until a Google search proved that, once again, the woman is informed.

I lost track of Tom Schartz after high school. On Tuesdays when I am at Pete's breakfast counter enjoying my egg whites, I envision Tom curled next to a Victoria's Secret model sipping Nespresso. After all, the beautiful and the powerful are always destined for something a little farther away than our own stratosphere. And yet, the sparkle of his valentine has lasted over 40 years.

The magic of the Mr. Spock valentine is found in its myriad lessons that continue to grow and change as I go through life. While the nuances of its meaning have changed, it remains the gold standard of a person's thoughtfulness, the magnificence of everyday treasures, and the charm in quirky expressions of loyalty and affection.