The Citadel and What We Make of it
By Robert Anderson
But it’s only a cardboard carton, you say! Ah-hah! That’s because you are unaware of the possibilities. It takes a five- or six-year-old boy to comprehend the magic that lies within. And it wasn’t just any old cardboard box. First of all, it was big – a substantial carboard cube, about three feet by three feet by three feet. It was substantial, too, with stapled flaps, seams re-enforced with some kind of mesh netting imbedded in glued-on strips, and a hinged top that had been carefully cut open along a dotted line. What’s more, it was obviously a box of some distinction as it had a blue cross insignia emblazoned across the front and encircled by bold lettering identifying the original contents: MD Toilet Tissue.
“Well….” This time Mom’s voice was nearer. She was no longer calling from the back porch. She was over me, peering down into the box. “Well, young man, I just hardly know what to say!”
I had no idea of how this carton arrived in our basement. I could not imagine what might have happened to that much toilet paper for it would have seemed like a life-time supply. But there the grand container was – as if by magic and waiting for me – empty. I did the obvious thing and climbed inside. It was a perfect fit.
During the days to follow, the box became many things: a stagecoach crossing Indian-infested badlands, a pirate boat cruising the Spanish main, a castle under siege by Vandal hordes, a P-38 flying a mission with Hop Harrigan and Speed Gibson as my wingmen. I hauled it upstairs and outside where, unseen, I could peer out at the milkman, the iceman and the mailman while serving as a spy in the service of Secret Agent X-9 – until my mother’s sense of propriety suggested that the front porch was not an appropriate place for display of a giant toilet paper box. Relocated to the backyard, it served as a tank negotiating the barbed wire and bomb craters of a horrific No Man’s Land – and a dugout canoe filled with furs and bound through the deadly Celillo Rapids for Fort Vancouver.
On a particularly tense late afternoon, while on an interplanetary mission with Flash Gordon to the planet Mongo where lovely Dale Arden was held captive by Ming the Merciless, I heard a voice calling me back to earth: “Bobby, time to get in here and wash up.” Dale, in mortal peril – and Mom insistent that it was time to change out of my play-clothes and get ready for dinner? Outrageous! I continued steadfast on my desperate journey. “Bobby, get in here right now, Dad’s on the way home.” “Yeah, yeah,” I replied, distracted by sighting the Mongo Interplanetary Space Station and Dr. Zarigov reporting coordinates for landing. “Right now,” Mom’s voice cut in over the Doctor’s landing instructions, but by ignoring her I brought the rocket ship in for a successful if perilous landing. Whew, that was a close one. “I said right now,” Mom insisted. “Jay-zus!” I erupted, as much on behalf of Flash as myself. “I’m coming, I’m coming.” But obviously, I was not. Dale was still in mortal danger and Flash was counting on me. “Well….” This time Mom’s voice was nearer. She was no longer calling from the back porch. She was over me, peering down into the box. “Well, young man, I just hardly know what to say!” That was it, and I had heard it before and knew it well: her final, and most exasperated, statement. “Then don’t say it,” I mumbled. “Jay-zus!” (It is important not so surrender one’s dignity when in the company of intergalactic adventurers.) “Alright, young man,” Mom said. “Just wait until your father gets home.” Oh-oh, an alarm bell was clanging in the spaceship. When “Dad” became “Your Father,” serious business was at hand. I bailed out of the spacecraft, went in to take my shower and await my fate. I struggled into semi-clean pants and my Red Ryder sweatshirt, and looked up to find Dad standing in the doorway. “What’s all this about sassing your mother, and cursing on top of it,” he said – and it was a demand, not a question. I looked at the floor and didn’t answer. There was no excuse to be had. I was guilty as charged and awaited my rightful condemnation. “First, this you must understand,” Dad said. “A gentleman never – ever – curses.”
I looked up and saw that he had read an accusation in my glance. “Well,” he amended, “I know there are times, maybe, when a person just can’t help it and certainly I’m not perfect. But … only in the most extreme circumstances. And certainly never in the presence of a lady. It reflects badly on you and your whole family. And I don’t want to hear any more about you sassing your mother, either. We have to be more considerate of Mom right now. It‘s difficult for her. She’s going through the change.” I wondered what she was changing into, but I judged that this was not a good time to ask. “Now, I think it would be a good idea for you to go outside and take a couple of deep breaths and think about what you are going to do to make yourself a better boy. Then, when you come in for dinner, I expect to hear an apology to your mother.” I went out the back door, headed right for the box, and climbed inside. It wasn’t a spaceship or a Spanish galleon now – maybe just a cabin somewhere in the forest, a place safe from the world of adults. I thought about becoming a better boy, but that seemed doubtful. Maybe I should just run away. I could forage in the woods, live off the land, become a hobo – a knight of the road. Instead, I went in the house, told Mom I was sorry, and ate dinner. Later, while my parents listened to the Richfield Reporter and Amos’N’Andy, I made a close study of my mother’s features, but I could not detect that she was changing into anything other than my Mom. In a couple of weeks, after additional mileage as a race car and a run-away locomotive, the box was getting ripped and battered and looking pretty sad. Its once impregnable walls bulged, and the lid angled off to one side. It was still serviceable, though, if only as the dungeon from which I was plotting a danger-filled escape. Then an overnight thunderstorm soaked the carton into a sodden cardboard mess. I watched from the back porch as Grandpa flattered it out, rolled up rose bush and holly trimmings into the carcass, bound what had now become a large carboard tube with thick, brown twin, and stacked it next to the garbage cans in the alley. In succeeding years I grew through other encasements providing adventure, safety, and escape: a treehouse, a sandlot fort, a battered Model-A Ford – and on to my first apartment, then the old Mill Valley (CA) house I remodeled. Finally, in my 50s and 60s, I built a real cabin-in-the-woods overlooking the California coastline. None, however, offered a more solid sense of satisfaction than that carboard box. I still hold its final image in my mind, and a rather stately one it is. Never mind that it’s in the alley awaiting the garbage truck’s arrival. It is my refuge and citadel, now a tower topped by a thorny crown, and proudly emblazoned with a heraldic crest: a cross of blue encircled by a proud battle-cry in capital letters: “MD TOILET TISSUE.”