(We wrote this some time ago – had forgotten about writing about it – and were surprised by all the obscure references (e.i. “symbolisms”) we found in it.  We rather imagine you could find a few, too, as well if you tried . . . strange how we write this kind of symbolic stuff while never knowing we are doing it . . . kind of a sad frame of mind . . .)

Shadow Boxes

When we were living in the military quarters on Fort Bragg, one of the things the kids used to look forward to was the arrival of new tenants. Not their departure, but their arrival, for that meant only one thing; something we all prized. And no, it wasn’t the possibility of a new friend or neighbor. We were after their boxes. And the bigger the better.

Military families move a lot, and involves many things. Loss of friends, gaining of friends, careful packing and unpacking – some items going missing, others damaged on every move – and the eternal shipping truck either coming or going – or loading or delivering with some family in tow.

It would start as soon as we’d see it – a big old Mayflower or some other moving company’s truck pull into the apartment parking lots. It was always a truck and never a van. These were entire families the army was moving, and like anything they had done over and over, they’d learned to do it well. We’d watch it carefully, waiting outside a new arrival’s apartment, eyeballing the boxes as they’d haul them in on handcarts – big ones, small ones, and all the ones in-between. We didn’t care what they had marked on it or what they had. The bigger the box, the greater the prize; the longer the box, the more we anticipated getting our hands on it. Nor did we pay any attention to the family, not unless they had some kids – and then we’d measure them up like those boxes. Everyone knew how hard it was being the new one on the block – because we were all new. Nobody had been there more than a few years. We were all military kids and the faces kept changing all the time. Including my own.

After the movers were done we would start watching. Sooner or later the boxes would appear. If we were lucky, they’d appear right then and there – as we were waiting for them to move in, the owners stripping the boxes off furniture and stuff as fast as they could. The really good ones were done in about one day. So we’d lurk around the apartment and dumpsters, either asking outright for the boxes (which most of the owners were only too happy to give away), and smuggling the cardboard containers to some place in the woods, or better yet, an unused storage room which would keep our treasures safe and dry until the time came when we would use them.

They say when it comes to little kids and Christmas, sometimes you are better off just forgoing the toy and handing them the box it came in. Kids love playing in boxes, and even at nine or so years old, us kids weren’t much different.

Usually within the week the time would come. Gathering our collection of shipping boxes together, we’d take them all out onto a field and begin making a plan. Laying them out, we’d begin taping them together end end to end, cutting holes in some to make tee’s, sides from others to form “L’s”, we’d assemble a huge rambling ‘fort’ made of cardboard. We got good at assembling with no tape – ‘pinning’ boxes flaps together with sticks, or tucking them inside one another so they would form a single unit. Tape was expensive and hard to get, so we usually had none. We would try to use what tape we could strip from here or there on the boxes, but you had to be careful – it could make them fall apart. And for the most part it was useless – the tape would strip the outer coating of cardboard off the box, exposing the ribbed sides underneath. And we’d also take out the staples – those big ones, the huge ones made of tin or brass, and straightening them out, use them again.

It would take us anywhere from a few hours up to half a day, depending upon how many boxes there were – but sooner or later we’d get it done. The fort, branching and rambling like a cubistic drawing of a tree, would wander far and wide – in some of the places loops; in some of the places ‘doors’. Then we’d get in and play, crawling through the tunnels we’d made. Hide-and-go-seek, tag, or just rambling around like giant rats in a maze, we’d go tumbling through those dark spaces, feeling secret and hidden from the world outside. Light would sneak in – those things were never dark – from every crack and hole, and the forts didn’t last long – as soon as a storm would come through the wet boxes would collapse and go rolling pell-mell across the field, flattened and ruined. But while they were there . . .

It was always close and sort of cramped and confined, and you had cardboard dust in your nose. The light would glow in shafts and spears here and there, and sometimes you didn’t know where you were, or where you were going – you had to just guess about things. Sometimes we’d cut flaps into the sides where you could open them up like vents, using them as windows, but mostly we kept them shut, crawling around inside. You had to stay on your guard – if the big kids found one of these forts – and if they thought they could get by with it – they might smash and kick it around, with you inside of it. They were even worse than the storms. That was one of the risks of being inside the box forts – you couldn’t see outside – and one of our greatest fears was when the big kids would come up, and with gleeful malice go about stomping our fort – and anyone who was inside.

Then one day as I was crawling along alone in a box I saw something that stopped me mid-crawl, right on my knees. At first I was confused, then I sat back in wonder, wide eyed, trying to figure out what I was seeing. There, on the opposite wall from where a small hole was, was a picture of the outside yard. Only it was upside. I was confused. How could a picture be there? It was even moving – I could see the trees sway in the wind, so I knew it was real and it was just outside – I knew the scene. Why was it upside down? Why on the opposite wall? It was behind me; on the other side – that much I knew. I was only nine and had never heard of such a thing. There was no camera or projector in here – what was the image showing, what was it doing there, and where was it coming from? As I moved it disappeared. I moved and the image disappeared; I moved again – and there it was. I looked behind me. There, in the box’s side, was a small hole where a staple had been pulled. I traced the small cone of light in the dusty air, putting my finger in it. I could see the shadow appear on the tree, and then I stuck in my whole head, looking towards the light. No – I could not see out of it. I put my head up against the box and stuck my eye to the hole. I just could barely see out at all. Removing my head I looked back again at the other side of the box. The image had reappeared. And just like magic, there was someone walking across it. One of my friends.

I think my little jaw must have actually dropped some. Here was a clue; how it could be done: spying on the outside from within – without anyone seeing you! We could monitor what was going on outside – but no one could ever see inside. Experimenting quickly, I poked another hole in the box – and learned you can make them too big. After awhile I finally got the hang of the thing. It only seemed to work on the sunward side, though on the other – sometimes – you could get some kind of image. Unfocused, upside down, one could see the world outside courtesy of these little pinholes – staple holes, actually – but it seemed like magic. Calling my compatriots, I excitedly pointed them out and explained their advantage. No longer would any teenagers be sneaking up on us! And like magic the excitement spread, and we went around poking little holes in the cardboard walls, sending images of trees and the field onto the walls of our rambling fort – a dozen little movie screens, opening our eyes to the world beyond.

After that – well, we were rarely surprised again when the teenagers would show up to stomp the boxes flat. We’d come out like a half dozen little honeybees – angry and swarming and driving them away. Like little hornets we’d sometimes be – throwing rocks and calling attention to our ‘visitors’ – because while we had the grownup’s attention they certainly would not misbehave – until they’d go away. And there was almost always some grownup hanging around down in the parking lot below the wide swath of the grassy hill – mothers, bored, laying about or talking to someone; littler kids being supervised – there was always a lot of noise, from sunup to sundown, of people playing and talking (and sometimes fighting) and living their lives. It wasn’t a bit like the old neighborhood with the loose (and unknown, and therefore unknowable) teenagers and people around – no one we really knew, and no one who knew them.

So often I would sit alone inside those hot, stuffy boxes, watching the world upside down – these blurry movies of the outside world. I was entranced by this little bit of ‘magic’. Later I would learn this is the heart of a “pinhole camera”, one of the earliest types of cameras ever made. It was something fun to learn – both as a child, and later as a teen. And it made playtime more fun and the forts even more mysterious and delightful, transforming those plain brown walls with the dusty air and yellow shafts of light into worlds of moving pictures of light and shadow. Turning a corner you never knew what you might find. And it gave us a new way of spying on somebody – hiding in a box and looking at the light shining from a small pinhole there . . .

It was a skill that was to become extremely useful sometimes . . .