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The Act 2 Column: Amazon drones v. Captain Midnight

Special delivery of the future? A drone flies

Special delivery of the future? A drone flies at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. (Jan. 8, 2014) Photo Credit: AP

Twice a week, the iceman arrived.

"H'lo, Missus," he would say to my grandmother.

Then he'd load a block the size of a fish tank into Nana's icebox. Before you knew it, the man, with a tip of the cap, was on his way. Other clients -- or at least those who, in the mid-1940s, thought, like Nana, that refrigerators were too extravagant for decent Brooklyn people -- awaited his knock on the door.

"Bye, Missus," the iceman said, too busy for a smile. Over one shoulder was the burlap sack intended to catch runoff from his frosty cargo. Pincers were at his side, alarming as a lobster claw. "Back Tuesday."

Nana fetched her purse and pressed a dime or quarter into the man's hand, leathery and cracked like his work boots.

"Tuesday," she agreed.

All very nostalgic, don't you think, in this age of convenience and express delivery -- very Norman Rockwell?

The iceman and, of course, Nana, a crusty but lovable German immigrant who, in 90 years of life, saw her share of tough times, came immediately to mind when I heard about the plan of

Amazon.com boss Jeff Bezos to deliver parcels by drones.

That's right, the remote-control aircraft defending America against overseas terrorists are about to be recruited for domestic duty. Sure, the commercial editions will be smaller and, presumably unarmed, but, the stealth factor will still be there. Once we only had to worry about pigeons overhead. Soon we'll be grateful not to be targeted by a toaster or iPad.

No need to duck yet. The system is not operational, but Bezos promises Amazon's Prime Air service will be ready for liftoff within a few years. "One day, Prime Air vehicles will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road today," a company statement said.

I bet the post office -- already on the ropes -- thinks that's just grand.

Still to be worked out with the Federal Aviation Administration are rules that might apply to a drone delivery fleet -- will a steam iron or crockpot have to file a flight plan? -- and who is going to adjudicate issues of air traffic control? What if you order a DVD of "Downton Abbey, Season One," and the kid down the block is expecting "Scream 4" on the 5 o'clock flight? Who gets clearance from the tower?

Underlying the Amazon plan, of course, is our increasing need to have what we want when we want it. By acclamation, Americans have voted that sooner is better. "Now" is a national motto.

Keeping our cultural impatience in mind, I think it might be useful to briefly recall the Captain Midnight Code-O-Graph.

Way, way back when, a child listening to the Captain Midnight radio show would be stationed in front of the family Magnavox with heart fluttering and pen and pencil in hand.

A week before, there would be tantalizing news about a special offer soon to be announced. Each year, Captain Midnight introduced an updated version of the Code-O-Graph, the device by which fans and aspiring undercover agents could decipher secret messages left at the end of the program. The time nearly was at hand. Boys and girls, better stay tuned.

Then, at last, came instructions from headquarters: Send an Ovaltine wrapper to a box number in Chicago and your Code-O-Graph would be on its way.

No one said exactly when.

On and on the days would pass as the loyal listener prayed for speed and efficiency. Weeks were spent in despair and disappointment. How was Captain Midnight shipping this thing -- by camel?

Just when the intrepid fan was about to lose hope and glumly wonder if he might achieve manhood before the Code-O-Graph showed up, a small brown box would appear in the afternoon mail. Inside was an ingenious device shaped like a badge, or, once, a whistle (blue, I think) with decoding dial on the face. Here was the ticket to a world of secret missions, spycraft and endless adventure.

The wait had been worth it. The joy of spotting and then tearing open the precious little box was heightened by interminable weeks of uncertainty. Anything that took so long to get to Brooklyn from Chicago must be special, precious, memorable.

This sort of timetable likely does not fit into Bezos' vision of the future.

If Captain Midnight were around to offer a Code-O-Graph when Prime Air is launched, Bezos will be there to guarantee afternoon delivery. In some sprawling Amazon warehouse, the decoder would be packed, sealed, perhaps outfitted with a small parachute in case of emergency, and, borrowing a phrase from another childhood hero, sent up, up and away!

Bezos, you know, just bought The Washington Post. Sentimentalists, like me, who still think of a newspaper as something that goes thud on the front porch, can only wish him well. Getting the paper home delivered is one of life's great delights. Maybe Bezos can combine his journalistic endeavors with Prime Air technology. Anything that can be done to save the newspaper business is OK with me.

Look, up in the sky! It's a bird. It's a plane. It's the Sunday funnies.

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