For thirty-five years, metal lunch boxes were a critical accessory for school kids. Starting with the Hopalong Cassidy model in 1951, a lunch box could be a child's most personal statement. While the exterior let everyone know what was the coolest new TV show or pop music group, the interior neatly housed a meal of your choosing (with help from Mom).

And, if another child coveted your meal or denigrated your TV heroes, the metal box could be wielded in a panicky arc as a superb skull-bloodying truncheon.

The reign of metal lunch box terror ended in 1986 when the industry went plastic, influenced by soft packaging technology and a ruling of the Florida legislature that they were "lethal weapons."

Disco Lunch Boxes.The lunch box lives on at the Lunch Box Museum, an establishment which shifts position every few years. This report describes conditions during its tenure above the South 106 radio station, a block from the Chatahoochie River in old downtown Columbus. In the interim, it moved to Salem, AL, sold off part of the collection, then recently moved back into town to the River Market Antiques and Art Center.

The first room offers a peek at Baby Boomer Grammar School Heaven -- brightly colored metal lunch boxes arrayed on shelves up to a high ceiling. Glass cabinets protect special groupings of boxes and matching thermoses: Disco Fever boxes clustered with Family Affair and the Brady Bunch; Land of the Giants with Land That Time Forgot. All are in mint condition -- no skulls have been dented with these fellas.

Owner Allen Woodall keeps three walls of favorites lining his glass enclosed office -- Twiggy, Donny & Marie, Junior Nurse, Soupy Sales.

The collection includes over 3,500 boxes now, but many are duplicates (3 or 4 deep), used for trading. Woodall co-authored the definitive collectors guide to metal lunch boxes. He started acquiring in the early 1990s, and is a well-known garage sale fiend in the area. A major part of the collection was originally owned by Dr. Robert Carr, who passed away unexpectedly. Woodall promised the widow Carr he'd start a museum.

He did, along with the Stoneware Museum, which exhibits rare regional pottery -- some worth over $100k! But it's the lunch boxes that feed our souls -- a wistful reminder of a soggy cheese sandwich, a Drakes Yodel, and a vanquished schoolyard bully.

(Lunch Box Museum: River Market Antiques and Art Center at 3226 Hamilton Rd. )