Old Wives' Tales
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Legend: A box left in middle of the road contains an infant.
Origins: This legend about a baby in a box left in the road appears to date to at least the early 1980s. It exists in two forms: one in which the approaching driver spots the infant crawling from the box in the nick of time and swerves to avoid it, the other in which the box is hit square on, its contents revealed only after the fact.
As to how the tot comes to be in a cardboard box (let alone in one left in the middle of a road), that bit is not explained. The focus of the legend remains solely on box's contents; it is not diluted with extraneous information about how the carton came by its helpless
However, versions reported to date to the 1940s present the child (or sometimes children) as far older — rather than helpless infants, the central figures in that earlier form of the legend are adventurous, if somewhat foolhardy, youngsters who have chosen to play with a cardboard carton in that most dangerous of spots, the middle of the road. What they're doing differs from telling to telling: They've made a fort of a large, abandoned box and are playing in it. Or they're pushing said box across the street, its very size concealing them from the view of oncoming traffic. Or they're causing the box to roll end over end across the road by virtue of their throwing their weight against its sides while inside it.
Legend or not, real children have died through playing in concealed positions on or near vehicular traffic. As detailed in our article about a girl hiding in a pile of leaves who was run over and killed by her father's truck, such confluences of children's play and automobiles can have tragic results. Indeed, one such fatal mishap did involve a cardboard box: In Australia in 1992, two children who had been playing in a cardboard box in a vacant lot were crushed by a cement truck delivering a load to a work site via a commonly-used shortcut across the growing housing development in Banks, a suburb of Canberra. The boy (7) and girl (4) were killed instantly. The family had moved into its new home only the day before.
However it is told, the thrust of this cautionary tale is clear: Don't unquestioningly accept things at face value. A box in the road need not be an empty box.
One version we encountered in 1995 positioned the "baby in a box on the road" tale as the means whereby a potential rapist or abductor gained access to vulnerable women by creating a diversion that allowed him to slip unnoticed into their cars. A woman driving on a country lane late one evening came upon a cardboard box in the road, then spotted a baby crawling out of it; she screeched to a stop and jumped from her vehicle to rescue the tot, but the endangered infant proved to be naught but a mechanical doll. Chagrined and suddenly feeling quite uneasy, the woman raced back to the safety of her car and began to drive away. Suddenly, another vehicle came up behind her, flashing its lights in an effort to get her to stop. She continued driving until she reached a police station, then leapt out to secure help from the gendarmes, whereupon the driver of the car that had been chasing her also jumped out. A man was hiding in her back seat, he said. He was only trying to warn her. (Yes, we know that's the venerable Killer in the Backseat legend, but the "baby crawling from a box left in the road" element is new. The "baby used to lure women" motif also turns up in another legend about a serial killer who draws women from their homes by playing a tape of a baby crying just outside their doors.)
Sometimes the "boxed babe" tale is turned to a specific purpose, as in another version encountered in 1995 wherein a woman in a minivan intentionally swerves to hit a paper bag spotting laying in the road. Said bag, she subsequently discovers, contains not the remains of someone's discarded lunch but an aborted fetus.
Not all "abandoned box" tales feature babies (mechanical, pre-birth, or otherwise), as this tale shows:
[Healey & Glanvill, 1996]Barbara "fast food processor" Mikkelson
A friend of a friend's mum was on her way back from her daughter's new house and had stopped to top up with petrol at a motorway service station. She had just finished and was about to rejoin the main carriageway when her eagle eyes spotted a microwave oven glinting on the hard shoulder, seemingly abandoned.
Figuring it must have fallen off the back of a lorry, the overjoyed woman screeched to a halt and hoicked the modern technological marvel into her hatchback. Even if it was damaged, her handyman husband would soon get the gadget up and cooking.
The woman couldn't believe her luck: her conventional cooker was on its last legs, and for months she'd been jealous of her neighbours, who never stopped gassing about their microwave marvel. Eager to get home and excited by her good fortune, she put her foot down.
But shortly after she'd set off, a police motorway patrol car came haring up behind her, sirens wailing. The driver flashed her and indicated she should pull over.
As the officers sauntered over towards her, the poor woman began perspiring heavily and just couldn't help looking horribly guilty.
Deciding honesty was the best policy, she was ready to blurt out the whole sorry tale about the microwave when one of the officers jammed his head through her open window. 'I'm terribly sorry to bother you, madam, but could you please tell us why you've just stolen this object,' he oozed.
Through floods of tears, the women explained everything: 'I just wanted to use it to cook my family's dinner,' she sobbed.
'You'd be hard-pushed to cook for anyone with that thing,' smirked one of the officers. 'You see, it's a radar speed-trap box.'
Sightings: In an episode of the TV drama Southland ("Mozambique," original air date
Last updated: 24 April 2009
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