The wonders of a cardboard box

A child can pretend an old box is anything from a fort to a castle.

Hands up: Two little girls cross the finish in a cardboard-box derby.

As our puppy, Omaha, blissfully ripped and gnawed apart the cardboard tube that had held my new socks, I reflected on how often in my own childhood cardboard – most often a box – had provided soul-satisfying amusement. Time and again, large packing cartons had provided the framework for a hut, fort, cave, or crawl-through tunnel. Unfolded, the box became a toboggan, good for a number of runs down local hills – whether snow or grass covered. If my parents had purchased large appliances more often they might never have had to buy us kids manufactured toys.

Even smaller boxes were put to creative uses. Humble shoe boxes became miniature stages for theatrical scenes, landscapes built with twigs and grass, or decorated treasure chests; rounded Quaker Oats and Morton salt cartons made perfect dolls' cradles when cut in half, even though I was not particularly into dolls. I had more fun sitting in boxes and imagining them cockpits (flaps up!) or race-car driver's seats. Wrapping-paper tubes became telescopes, harmless weaponry for mock battles, trumpets, and, taped end to end, chutes for marbles or my brother's toy cars. Cardboard was stuff we could guiltlessly cut up, reshape, use crayons on, slather with glue, use, and abuse. The final creation might end up in the trash, but rare was the box that escaped some childish reincarnation.

When my own son was 3, I – unable to wait until he was of age to do this himself – transformed a refrigerator box into a home of his own with front and back doors, shuttered windows, and faux brick facing. Tim climbed in and out of it for hours on end, and when he finally became quiet behind his little door, I thought back to my own first domicile, the snug sanctuary and pleasantly musty smell of its four close brown cardboard walls. A kid can think big thoughts within such a box.

During his last year in elementary school, Tim triggered other memories as he took on an English assignment option: In lieu of a narrative book report, pupils in Mrs. Love's class could write a short plot summary accompanied by a shadowbox depicting a memorable scene from the book. This was right up Tim's artistic alley. For the next couple of evenings, he hunkered over his desk and a shoe box. When he showed me his work, Tim had cut two peepholes to reveal the scene within the still-covered box.

"Check it out," he offered. "Pretend you're looking through binoculars." I did, and the Battle of Bull Run leapt into view – complete with a panorama of a dimly lit, smoky-looking battle scene created as a collage from his Civil War magazines, plastic foot soldiers, cavalry, and cannons. The binocular view was marvelously apt for, as Tim had read, that was how many of Washington, D.C.'s elite watched the battle as they picnicked on a nearby hilltop. The fighting came too close for comfort as Union forces retreated, sending congressmen and their families scrambling in panic back to the city – blocking the roads with their carriages in the process. Tim's peephole scene eerily foreshadowed it all.

When I asked him the next day how his presentation had gone at school, he told me the whole class had been told to check out his assignment as an exemplary piece of literary art.

Ah, a chip off the old box. Tim's own son's third birthday is just around the corner. I think it's time to call some local appliance stores about acquiring a refrigerator box.

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