a true story
When I was five, we moved to Toronto. My parents'
suits travelled in a tall wardrobe box. In the basement of the
new house was a huge walk-in closet, containing an ugly green
dresser, a box of empty old 5 cent Coke bottles, and several handfuls
of foreign and antique coins - even an 1863 penny! I knew this
room was meant for me - not like my bedroom, upstairs, but as
a special place for projects and adventures.
I loved to play in boxes; I had built intricate mansions from
them in our attic in Pittsburgh. My new special room was only
big enough for the wardrobe box, but she was the queen of all
the moving boxes so that was okay. I had big ideas. So did everyone
else in 1967: any day now, people were going to walk on the moon.
My mother worked at a TV station and in the studio we watched
live broadcasts of rockets taking off, and the beautiful blue
sphere of Earth against black space, right before they got on
TV. And my father poked a hole in a shoe box and showed me the
total eclipse of the sun. We sang along with songs on Pete Seeger
albums about peace and love and ecology on a small planet.
I set to work on the wardrobe box. With a bread knife, I cut a
small square door, and a couple of little round holes further
up. Then, inside, I made the controls: dials, pedals, levers and
knobs of purple and yellow construction paper and thumb tacks;
gauges, lights and windows drawn with blue, back, red and green
magic markers. I didn't even know what all of the controls did,
but that was okay too: rocketships were like that.
I brought in a small cylindrical white table lamp for light and
heat and, especially, to be the engine of the ship. Sometimes
I'd bring in a friend, too. Then there was more than enough heat
- it got so stuffy we had to travel in our underwear, and gasp
cool air through toilet paper tubes stuck in the portholes. Often
I graciously took my friend wherever she or he wanted to go -
but I always drove, as I was the only one with even the vaguest
To start the ship, I pushed the red button. Vrrrrrr, went the
engine. We would pick a destination. "Mars" was too
boring; "the planet where books come true: the land of Narnia"
or "the time of the Greek goddesses - I'm Artemis, you can
be Athena" was much more like it. I would find the special
dial for that place. If there wasn't a dial for it I'd draw a
new one. Then I would lift up the yellow lever, slowly, and slowly
as a hot air balloon we'd lift up into outer space.
After light years of travel we'd arrive. Cautiously we'd crawl
out of of the ship, knowing it didn't matter we were in our undies
as the natives probably wouldn't notice the difference. We were
completely enraptured in in our new planet - even the bookshelves
in the guest room and the washer and dryer became mysterious and
fascinating alien landmarks. We could continue out of doors (after
pausing for more clothes) and remain fully under the spell and
in possession of our magic powers. Artemis and Athena climbed
the big tree at the end of the yard and practiced telepathy, prophecy,
seafaring and weatherworking. Then, at the end of the afternoon,
we'd go back to the rocketship, press the "Home" button
and return to the mundane world for dinner.
I was almost twenty-five before I learned to drive a car. Over
the years I developed a variety of alternatives - bribing friends
for rides with ice cream, learning labyrinthine bus and subway
systems in many cities, bicycling and walking a lot. My friends
teased me, "You don't need a Ph.D. to get a driver's license,"
but wouldn't teach me themselves. So I got my master's degree,
took 8 hours of driving lessons, barely squeaked through my test,
and moved to Seattle. I'd never thought about cars at all, except
that I liked old ones, so when my friend offered me her '67 red
VW bug I was delighted - bugs were what real hippies drove, and
I still had hippy in my blood.
It was strange to sit in the driver's seat and stare at the dashboard
- quite unlike the generic '80s Chevy I used in driving school.
Nothing about the bug was streamlined or sloping - the dash and
windshield were flat and upright, facing me, and the car resembled
a bread box on wheels. I was surrounded by enigmatic levers and
knobs and dials and lights, and for the first time I had no-one
else with me - I had to figure it all out by myself. It took me
over an hour of exploration. I discovered that the red and black
levers by my right hip blew hot and cold air from somewhere, that
to get to the gas tank I had to pull the black knob by my left
knee to open the hood (which could only be closed by pushing the
knob back in and banging the hood down in the exact centre of
its spine), and that the yellow switch under the dash lit up but
no longer did anything else. The gas gauge had an R instead of
an E for empty, but I couldn't find a reserve gas tank anywhere
so I suspected the gauge of wishful thinking. I had been warned
that if the yellow and green lights under the speedometer stayed
on it would not be good but I had no idea what they meant, so
I just hoped they'd behave themselves and prayed for good luck
from whatever goddess was looking after elderly cars and baby
The first few days of driving I was too nervous to manage more
than the back streets, but then I had to go to Eugene, so I braced
myself for the freeway. I pulled up the hill at the 85th Street
entrance, swung around onto I-5 southbound and suddenly came face
to face with Mount Rainier - snow-capped, mist-bottomed and floating
above the city like a UFO. "Wow!" I shouted aloud, it
was so stunningly beautiful. And then it hit me - I could just
drive there, right now, if I wanted to. I could drive to Eugene.
I could drive to San Francisco, I could drive to South America.
I could even drive anywhere in the world, if I drove long enough
and didn't mind a boat ride. And I didn't need anyone to take
me there any more, either - I could just go, anywhere at all,
all by myself.
My friend Alfred named my bug "Gardenia" after his box-shaped
aunt, whom he later remembered was really called Camelia but by
then it was too late, Gardenia had her name. One night, driving
her on the freeway, I was thinking about my rocketship in the
basement - which I had sadly bid adieu when I was 12 and we moved
again. Then I looked at all the dials and gauges in front of me
(glowing a friendly phosphorescent green), listened to the rumbles
and roar of the engine, and realized I had always known how to
drive - it just took me a while to find a new rocketship.
copyright Lise Kreps June 1989 and April