Friday, June 07, 2013

To where no one has yet gone

Shoeboxes were important to us youngsters in Kilcullen growing up in the early 50s. Of course, for their original purpose they had no interest to us at all. It was what they could become.

It was before television, at least in Kilcullen. Radio was where we got our serial programmes, and DC comics and the weekly 'follyer-uppers' in the cinema our visual inputs from stuff that was only dreamed of, like space travel.

But because they were in the realm of dreams, we could dream big. And when we kids and our friends weren't doing the cowboys and indians thing, we were star-travelling in the garden shed at the back of our house. That it had trellised 'windows' looking out on a decent expanse of lawn meant we had direction to travel and space to fly. And inside, places for the crew members. Generally, the younger you were, the further back was your position in the shed ... sorry, space-ship. I was most times the eldest.

Decades before the warp speed capability of Star Trek was to cross our radar, we had imagination speed, which could take us to the other side of the galaxy in less than a thought. And to deal with the aliens we might encounter, we didn't have Captain Kirk's phasers, but we did have 'ray guns' invented for Dan Dare and Flash Gordon's adventures. Usually replicated from cast-off bits of wood found in the shed or the 'loft' attached to our family's pub. A carelessly left brush handle, along with access to a saw, could make the business ends of three or four of them, with screwed-on handles. The beauty of ray-guns, compared to the six-shooters cowboys used, was that they never ran out of killing power.

Our trips across the galaxy from time to time required leaving the ship for a space-walk, again generations before EVAs from shuttles or the International Space Station. We had to be properly equipped for these, or of course we couldn't survive. This is where the shoeboxes came in.

There was fairly reasonable access to the boxes, as at least six shops in Kilcullen sold shoes and drapery in those days. Not everybody who bought footwear brought the boxes home. Again, there was such a shop in our family. Almost invariably white, the cardboard was of a thickness that could be bent to shapes and was also easy to cut with the standard home scissors.

With the lid put aside, and suitable openings cut in the bottom and one for the neck at an end, they became space helmets, usually held on by a string though occasional pilfered elastic was a high-tech version. Another box would be carried on the back, with some kind of connection to the helmet to carry oxygen (it didn't have to be a real hose, but sometimes old rubber garden hoses could be cut for the purpose). The back box doubled as a jet pack, very important for maneuvering in gravity-less space.

No spaceman could leave the ship without a 'control box'. The oxygen flow and the jet packs had to be managed, and maintaining communications with the ship was imperative. For this we used a full box, its lid sellotaped on to maintain structural strength. It had numerous dials drawn in, and knobs to manage the various functions. The knobs were typically old Cork Dry Gin bottle stoppers, of which again there was a good supply in the yard of the pub. A hole made under the relevant dial, a mark scratched on the top of the cork, and we had all the controls we needed. A stick coming out of the top was the radio aerial — a classier one was a filched knitting needle from my mother's collection. Hung around our necks with a suitable cord, this completed our equipment for out of ship excursions.

For days, weeks, and through special years of childhood, we went to places still undreamed of with the help of that magic shed and the shoeboxes. They are places I'll never forget, even though I have been able to, and still do, visit so many parts of our shrunken planet of today.

Sitting in my own garden, enjoying the sudden and welcome arrival of Summer 2013, I can't help thinking of that garden shed in what was my parents' house, only a hedge or two away. And the shoeboxes, and the Cork Dry Gin bottle stoppers. Innocent times, yes. But times when imagination was the primary driver of our play. Play which, perhaps, helped to form us as inventive and resourceful.

Today, the CDC cork stoppers are now metal screwtops, which wouldn't do the knobs job at all. But the shoeboxes are still around, and knitting needles getting plentiful again.

Now we have iPads, which can bring us around the world and even into the International Space Station via video, and keep us in communication with our children and grand-children far away. Those same grand-children of the age I was back then are comfortable users of iPhones and Skype and computers. They can watch movies about places far far away, and even the recent exit of the Voyager spacecraft to beyond our own known solar system is something they probably didn't take much notice of. Not surprising, I suppose, as it was launched nearly 36 years ago. It still hasn't gone as far as we did in the garden shed.

Our grandchildren don't need shoeboxes. In a funny way, I kind of think that's a pity.