Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Cardboard Dreams

Some of you may be old enough to remember these classic comic book ads;* you may even have experienced the thrill of thinking "OMG!" (well, a five-year old's equivalent of OMG), "I could have a ROCKET SHIP or a POLARIS SUBMARINE in my ROOOOOOM!"

You'd better believe I wanted one; unfortunately, my frugal parents were not about to spend that kind of money (hey, it was the 'Sixties! $6.98 was a lot of dough back then) on a pile of flimsy-ass mail-order cardboard likely to fall apart after a single use (here's the reality, by the way, courtesy of Boing Boing: the Polaris Submarine and the Jet Rocket Spaceship--judge for yourself). I was forced to come up with creative alternatives.

Hold that thought.

The other day I was skimming My Monster Memories--Reviving Horrors From the Past, one of my favorite blogs, when I came across this entry:

"I remember reading some of this book" (The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron) "while tucked in one of my own cardboard box spaceships, which made it even more fun. Of course, my parents worried how I could spend hours on end in a cardboard box, but little did they know my mind was soaring off on amazing a(d)ventures. With my canteen full of Goofy Grape soft drink, a peanut butter sandwich, and a good book, I would be e(n)sconced for hours in my make-believe space capsule."

Sweet Screamin' Jeebus! This was exactly my "creative alternative." See, my Dad worked for this store that sold (among many other things) washers, driers, refrigerators, stereo consoles,** and television sets. which meant there was an abundance of HUGE cardboard boxes, big enough for an army of kids, free for the taking. With some fast-talking and a little conniving I was soon the proud owner of...

A cardboard box.***

Except it wasn't a cardboard box. It was my spaceship, my submarine, my tank, my B-17 bomber, my fort, my treehouse, my reading room, my meditation/sensory deprivation chamber, my... well, whatever I wanted it to be.

It. Was. GREAT!

With a little help from Mom, her trusty kitchen knife, and a roll of masking tape I soon had a couple of portholes, an airlock, and an escape hatch. The seat part from a discarded wicker chair served as my command seat, a simple 60-watt work light provided illumination, and with a design scheme lifted from one of my favorite television shows, Space Angel (see more here), I spent hours (well, okay; maybe not hours) with my Crayolas drawing dials, gauges, buttons, and controls, all in very precise locations, each with very specific functions and woe be to the playmate who misused them, which is probably why I spent much of my childhood alone.

Bonus benefit: on those rare occasions when Mom took a nap on a Saturday afternoon and I could sneak a peak at whatever monster film was on Shock Theater I was able to keep from getting too scared by the simple expedient of closing the "shutter" on my makeshift porthole. No hiding behind the sofa or cowering under a blanket for me!

Oh, I would have lived in that box if my parents had allowed it. Good thing The Martian Child hadn't been written/filmed yet or my parents would have whipped me off to the nearest psychiatrist posthaste.

I'm sure they considered that option anyway.

Final summation? All Hail The Cardboard Box!

Edit: Oooo! Oooo! I almost forgot! Again from Boing Boing, HOWTO Build A Cardboard Spaceship.

*For a heavy dose of nostalgia, check out this flickr site: The Comic Book Economy.

**In those ancient days before components, a stereo system was expected to blend in with the rest of the living room furniture. They were big and bulky and made of high-grade wood 'n' steel.

***Thick, heavy-duty cardboard, mind you. Practically indestructible by kid standards.


luguvalium said...

I made good use of all cardboard boxes, but I always wanted to know what those 132 Roman Soldiers, and such, looked like.

Now, through the miracle of the internet, I can: http://home.att.net/~1.elliott/comicbooktoysoldierflats.html

Cathy VanPatten said...

As you know, until I was 2 my family lived in the house next to where your dad worked. Somewhere in the family archives, if it hasn't completely deteriorated over the years, is an old 8mm home movie of me climbing into and out of a big refrigerator box from there. I climb in. I climb out. I climb on. I jump up and down on. I must have been all of 1.5 years old.

Good times.

Frederick said...


I just read your comment that clued me in about this post! Glad to have sparked some good old memories. Like you, I drew all the dials, levers, buttons, meters, screens and computers on the inside with a magic marker. I also had the portholes and door cut out with up-swinging panels that stayed closed until I pushed them open.

I also would use the boxes, if they were tall and narrow, as robot bodies. I must have been a sight, trundling around my neighborhood in the box, legs coming out the bottom, looking out the slots cut in the front and side, and my arm sticking out the arm holes.

When my daughter was about 10, when she would go to work with me sometimes to give my nightshift-working wife a quiet break, I fixed her up with a box and markers, and she too would while away the hours in it, as I worked. She still has good memories of it. Now, I fix one up for my 4 year old grandson and he loves it!

Frederick said...

Oh, and btw, I remember being about 9 and seeing the Polaris sub ad in one of my comics (which I still have). I dreamed for weeks about taking it for a dive in the river that ran through the town we lived in. It's a good thing I never got to order it, because the disappointment at finding it was cardboard back then might have scarred me for life.

Anonymous said...

I recall The Mail Away Polaris Submarine very well and remember how fun it was putting one together .

My pop was a house painter and took me on several jobs as his helper to sweep up , etc. I remember one house we went to was an older one and when I was donehelping my dad the owner said I could play in the garage untill my father finished for thre day.

Well there were some Tonka trucks there bt the corner and I was rolling them around when I noticed a flatish long box leaning against the wall, it had a pasted picture of a sub next to the mailing label.

I went inside the house to ask if I could play with it and the owner said fine and I could have it if I wanted , so I spent the next few hours pulling out cardboard pieces punching out holes and slots connecting tubes and putting this thing together

Hey man this was fun it had cardboard controlls, firing missiles (I believe by rubber bands but can't remember) and for a kid it was pretty big and impressive , If I had gotten one w/ my hard earned money I would have still liked it.

At the end of the day my pop said it was time to go home but sadly he did not want me taking any "junk" back with us so the sub had to stay there.

I'm sorry I do not have the sub but I still have somewhere the army guys , civil war guys and even romans in their little mailaway boxes.

Thanks for posting about the sub as it brought back some cool memories