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 notion how.
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 drivers.
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 1990