Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Wonders of the Cardboard Box

I don’t know if you’ve ever had a thought or idea or question that you believed was so original and thought-provoking that it would immediately occasion a raging discussion that would last for days or dissolve the conversation into rapt silence as your listeners sat there in awe, blinded by your brilliance. Well, I haven’t either, although I thought I had a winner a couple of weeks ago.

I had received a package from Amazon,com that day and it came in a cardboard box. As usual, it was carefully packed and the item arrived in excellent condition thanks to the little airbags companies are using now or the stupid styrofoam peanuts that are the instruments of Satan. You know what I’m talking about—they fall out of the box, they cling to each other through static electricity and they are totally useless for anything except for cushioning breakable objects.  That, I will grant you, they are very good at. One young woman told me that they are useful for filling in bottom of pots she puts plants in.  She uses less expensive potting soil that way/   But the usefulness of styrofoam peanuts pales in comparison to the extremely common and exceptionally useful corrugated cardboard box.

I wondered to myself if boxes were found all over the world in all cultures. I thought they might, and when I couldn’t find an answer on Google I asked Amy and her bf Chris while we were hacking lunch together one day. “Do you think that the cardboard box is universally known throughout all cultures of the world?” I asked, and they promptly looked at me as if I had jst  landed from another planet.

“Noooo…” they said slowly and almost in unison. “I would think that there are some third world cultures that have never seen a cardboard box,” ventured Chris.

“They’re more likely to be made from indigenous materials,” said Amy. “And they wouldn’t be very useful or durable in a wet climate.”

I had asked the question because somewhere in this piece I wanted to say that cardboard boxes are known universally, all over the world.  Now, thanks to my young friends, I have to say that they’re widely—but not universally--known and used by most people in many parts of the globe.

I suppose I like cardboard boxes because they are useful and wide-spread, but I also like them because I can make things from them with a precision and art that I can’t do with wood.  It’s just that cardboard creations, except among the experimental art community, are not considered art.  I have a lot of experience working with cardboard.  I used to make little airplanes out of cardboard and they would “fly” because I threw them much as a rock would. I made little houses and buildings for my HO railroad and they looked dilapidated (it was the best I could do at age 10), so I made a deserted village for my train to run through. I even made a cardboard aircraft carrier about a foot long that floated nicely until the cardboard became saturated and the boat sank.  My crowning failure was a cardboard model of an experimental Air Force predecessor of the Space Shuttle called the Dyna-Soar. I made a nice model of it, about a eight inches long, except I forgot the detail of gluing a piece of aluminum foil in back of the little rocket engine called a Jet-X  to prevent the assembly from catching fire from the hot exhaust. I took the model out one fine spring day to see how it flew. I lit the fuse to the engine, and when the fuel pellet caught, launched the Dyna-Soar into the air. It took off for the heavens like a scalded hog, but then the exhaust caught the plane on fire.  It flew along, burning merrily for awhile, and then the flames reached the glue which I had used to join the parts together.  This kind of glue is extremely combustible, even explosive under the right circumstances. The tiny ship exploded into a fireball that filled me with ambivalence.  On one hand I was sad to see many hours’ work go up in flame; on the other, it was a cool explosion. As ashes from the craft drifted slowly downward, my mother looked up from the flower bed she was weeding. “What was that?” she asked. “Oh, just a little science experiment,” I answered and went back into the house.

That was pretty much the end of my cardboard builder’s career until a few years ago when a children’s musical production at our church needed an ark. I was asked to build one, and, short on gopher wood, built one out of—you guessed it—cardboard.  It was about ten feet long and looked like a ten-foot-long ark.  It might still be in a closet somewhere. Some members of the choir went down to look at it one night after rehearsal, and even Bob Wine, master cabinet maker, said it looked like it was made of wood. Of course, he was at the back of the sanctuary looking at my creation in poor light while squinting, but I’ll take any compliment I can.

So can cardboard.  The humble box made of layers of paper might not be much to look at, but try to imagine the world without it. I wouldn't want to.

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