It always used to be an education, unwrapping the waxed paper that enclosed your newly purchased baseball trading cards.
There was math: ``If Art Kusnyer batted .207 one season and .125 the next, what's he still doing in the major leagues?''
There was economics: ``OK, kid, I'll sign that card of me, but you better have five bucks.''
There was chemistry: ``As you can see, students, the high-temperature flame of the Bunsen burner has no effect on the pliability or chewability of this slab of bubble gum.''
But that was yesterday.
What are today's kids learning when they traipse into the corner drugstore and happen upon the latest collectibles being distributed by the Topps Co.?
That the B-52 Stratofortress is a real heavy hitter?
That the F-117A Stealth fighter can really bring it?
That the war in the Persian Gulf is one gnarly road trip, that Iraq is playing for the pennant, that one good bombing raid on Baghdad can be just as as much fun as a home run in the bottom of the ninth in the seventh game of the World Series?
Topps used to deal in diversion, as harmless as it was mindless. Now, there's no more harmless, because the mindless has spun out of control. Topps has
ventured out into the real world and has released its new 88-card Operation Desert Storm series, making stars out of the machinery of death and the men who order their deployment.
Instead of Ozzie Smith and Eric Davis, we have Generals Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf.
Instead of Sparky Anderson, we have George Bush.
Instead of Nolan Ryan fastballs, we have Scud and Patriot missiles.
To say these cards, which sell for 50 cents for an eight-card package, trivialize the war is to pay them too great a compliment. All that is missing is a stat package on the reverse side, but give Topps time. The war is young. Topps is showing us that the leap from ``Cecil Fielder hit 51 home runs in 1990'' to ``This amazing advance in American weaponry was responsible for 500 Iraqi deaths during one successful mission'' is no leap at all.
It's a good thing Topps never thought of this before.
For World War I, we could have had the ``Mustard Gas: Rookie of the Year'' card.
For World War II, ``The Auschwitz Series.''
For Vietnam, a Gen. William Westmoreland card, trimmed in Agent Orange.
Topps is feeding into a climate where war is acceptable because we've been desensitized to it. War is a video game. War is a Rambo movie. War is watching TV reporters interview fighter pilots as if they were quarterbacks in the locker room after the Super Bowl.
War is getting the same treatment as a Dodger-Giant series, especially in the bleachers. You're either for the Dodgers or the Giants; you're either for the war or against it. Each side, subsequently, is required to hate the other, which is why anti-war protesters are branded as saboteurs by the vice president and why a Seton Hall basketball player decides to leave - first the team, then the country - after being harassed because he didn't want to wear a small American flag on his jersey.
This is not an event, a twi-night doubleheader. You go to a baseball game, you wave a pennant, one team wins, one team loses and they both come back to play again tomorrow. You go to war, one side wins, one side loses, and for many, the old coach's cliche rings horribly true: There is no tomorrow.
What do we teach our children when Topps sells Desert Storm war cards? Darryl Strawberry and ``Scud'' missiles are not tradeable commodities, to be stashed in the same back pocket.
Topps got in way over its head when it crossed the line between fantasy and current affairs.
The field Topps knows is Wrigley. Stay out of the Saudi desert.