Sunday, June 20, 2010

Toys Will Be Toys

A few days ago I saw that a yo-yo, exactly like the one that I was foolish enough to take out of its wrapper and use when I was 10, sold on eBay for over $2,000. Naturally, I've mentally added that to my share of the untold millions in old baseball cards that every guy of my generation believes his mom threw away. (It's okay, mom, you were just a scapegoat. I lost most of my collection flipping cards with the Kramer brothers.)

But mainly it got me thinking about some of the toys that I loved as a kid.

A lot of us have observed how simple those toys were compared to the video and Wii and Internet diversions that the kids have today. But that's not really a bad thing. I have a feeling that our creative minds were engaged by those less sophisticated playthings.

When I fought the Civil War with my army set, called The Blue and the Gray, I did it with a certain dramatic license. I did it straight up according to history; I did it with Grant and Lee switching armies; I did it with Roman gladiators from another set joining the Confederacy (they didn't help); I did it with the North having World War I bi-planes and the South having Thompson machine guns (pretty much a stand-off). The possibilities were unlimited. And the dead guys just fell over, unlike the video war games today, which are nearly as bloody as the real thing.

So, with a nostalgic smile, here's the scoop on a few of my favorite childhood companions:

Electric Football: So you start with a two-feet by four-feet football field that plugs into an outlet. Add 22 players in various football-like poses, each player with four antenna-like pieces of plastic that just barely touch the “field.” Turn on the switch and the field vibrates (and buzzes like an army of bees) moving the players in every direction, sometimes including forward. The football was either a small piece of cotton or a magnet that attached to a player's metal base (depending on which brand you bought). There was allegedly a way to throw passes, although I have never met a person who successfully did so. My brother Dan and I soon realized that there was almost no football involved in electric football, but we did find a way to have fun just the same. We painted the players before each game in the colors of the NFL team we were pretending to be that day. The painting took much longer than the actual games and since we failed to recognize the value of stripping paint between coats, the players eventually became too heavy to move on the vibrating field. But by that time we had graduated to the incredibly advanced Strat-o-Matic Football game, but that's a long story for another day.

Silly Putty: The mystery that is Silly Putty starts with its description in a TV commercial as “a solid liquid.” What? I wonder if that idea boggled the still-forming brain cells of other kids as much as it did mine. For a Catholic youngster that was right up there with the conundrum of the Holy Trinity. And seeing it in person just made me more mystified. It bounced higher than a rubber ball. Left unattended it formed a strange, not-quite-liquid-puddle. But the oddest characteristic was that it could replicate any image that you pressed it against in a newspaper. What sort of magical substance was this? Was it of this world? It pains me to report that after hundreds of hours of testing, I have never been able to satisfactorily answer those questions.

Easy Bake Oven: This was quite understandably marketed to little girls, gender stereotypes being what they were back then. But you'll find today that a remarkable number of little boys not only admit to having one, but are proud of it. I'll bet many of the great chefs of today started out with this wonder of light bulb cooking technology. Brother Dan was one who flew in the face of conventional thinking and asked for one for Christmas. Against all odds (Santa being the very definition of old-school) he got it! And we developed the perfect symbiotic relationship. As fast as he could cook the pizzas, brownies and cakes … I would scarf them down. Each of us performing the task he did best. Oh, just in passing, I'm sure that many little girls enjoyed the Easy Bake Oven, too.

Slinky: This one was actually not one of my favorites, but it was everywhere so I thought I'd mention it. I've always thought of the Slinky as not so much a toy as something that fell off a truck on the way to a construction site. Riding the wave of a jingle that bounces around in your head at the most inopportune times (like while reciting your wedding vows or answering that “where do you see yourself in five years” question in a job interview), the Slinky was basically smoothed-over barbed wire. It did deliver on one promise though … it rolled down steps. However, even with that promise fulfilled, I'll have to take issue with the claim made in the jingle that “for fun it's the best of the toys.”

The Mini Gas Station: It was all metal, about two feet long and a foot deep, with working lifts in the service bays, two gas pumps (non-working … they weren't completely unaware of child safety back then) and a bright red Coke machine out front. I believe we flew the “Flying A” brand. I know I spent hours and hours playing with this toy but for the life of me I can't remember why. Today it seems kind of limited as to entertainment value. I do remember combining another toy with this one though. I had a toy car that was spring-loaded to explode apart when the front bumper was pushed in. Now that was entertainment! It took about 10 minutes to put it back together (in my mini gas station, of course) and then … BOOM!

Mr. Potato Head: What could be more fun than putting different facial characteristics on a potato? Well, okay, probably a lot of things. But there were minutes of good, clean fun before the novelty wore off. I always wondered why they provided a plastic potato though. Anyone who couldn't afford a potato was being irresponsible, to say the least, in buying a Mr. Potato Head Kit.

Formex 7 Military Casting Set: What is the major problem facing every kid when staging an important battle with his toy soldiers (or as we called them “army men”)? There are never enough to deploy in the numbers needed to carry out one's brilliant strategies. Enter Formex 7. This was a set of molds of soldiers, jeeps and cannons that you could pour melted wax into, creating … reinforcements! (It's possible that this toy was inspired by Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam strategy, but that has never been sufficiently proven.) There were also monster molds like Frankenstein or Dracula for anyone who cared to inject a bit of the macabre into the battle.

Tiger Joe Army Tank: I'll round out the military portion of my toy collection with an absolute favorite. This tank was about two feet long, could roll over almost any obstacle, shot actual projectiles and was remote-controlled! The perfect toy for any boy, and perfectly annoying for anyone in that boy's vicinity. Who could resist shooting the little plastic rockets at moms, little brothers and sisters, pets, the milkman, the mailman and anyone within range? Also, I happened to have a pet box turtle at the time and so there was a whole “World War II tank crew meets prehistoric monster” angle that played out, too.

Etch-a-Sketch: This was an amazing piece of technology that I have to admit I never quite mastered. There were people who could more or less reproduce Da Vinci paintings or Frank Lloyd Wright buildings on this apparatus, whereas I was especially good at making squares and clearing the screen entirely to see the inner workings. In spite of this I did spend hours and hours twisting those little white knobs. Almost everyone I know wound up taking his or her Etch-a-Sketch apart at some point when the curiosity became too much to resist. So this was probably the first toy with a replacement sale market.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. There were spinning tops, marbles, jacks, board games, a Superman costume (that's another long story) and more. Feel free to chime in with your stories of the toys that got you through the simple years before that puberty monster struck!


  1. The only thing I could draw on the Etch a Sketch was a staircase, but they were very impressive steps, really. And I remember putting silly putty on the faces in the sunday comics and then stretching them out. To this list, I would add tinker toys (what we used to mostly make guns) and rock-em sock-em robots.

  2. I remember those tinker toy guns, Melissa. The boxing robots came just after my toy prime time, I think, but I remember the commercials ... "He knocked my block off!"

  3. Sent From Dawn K.:

    Jack -
    Don't forget hula hoops, Lincoln Logs (dogs loved them as chew toys!), Legos (great for hitting a sibling in the head with or laying as land mines when they were running around in bare feet) . . . those plastic cups with elastic tubing attached to them that you'd stand on and hold on to the bands, then try walk around without turning your ankle . . . I think they were called Clippity Cups or Clippity Clops . . .
    pogo sticks, unicycles, air hockey . . .
    Ker-Plunk, MouseTrap, Twister . . .
    And any large appliance card board box left by the curb was entertainment until a big rainstorm!

  4. Wow! That's a LOT of fun going on, Dawn. Thanks for those memories!

  5. Sent from Terri J.

    Just finished reading your blog! Loved it, also had most of the toys you mentioned. I remember taking the trolley to 69th Street when I got my first pay check in my life to buy the electric football for my little brothers. God, I must have been nuts back then. Actually, that is probably when the craziness started!! Great reading, so many memories. Loved the YouTube commericals added to the blog!!!

  6. Sent from Nick S.

    Jack -- I'm hearing the hum of electric football right now and reliving the frustration of actually trying to "play." When I was growing up in the 70s they introduced a "technological innovation" that allowed you change direction of the players by adjusting a small wheel on the plastic base. Of course it didn't work and they still just ran around in circles!

  7. Sent from Ray S.

    “Army men” wow. Nice trip down memory lane, Jack. Really nostalgic. Another gem.

  8. Sent from Brian K.

    I think my football player is still spinning in circles 45 years later. Don't forget GI Joe, the boys substitute for Barbie, back when you only bought one doll and then saved up for extra clothes (instead of the 250 differently dressed dolls my kids have-which all end up naked anyway)

  9. In addition to army men (including "Warriors of the World" - now THERE'S a jingle to get stuck in your head), I remember having Kenner's girder and panel sets (where you could build skyscrapers and highways), and also Kenner's Give-a-show Projector, where you could show a "movie" consisting of 4 whole scenes!

    Also, the above-mentioned tinkertoys, gas stations, lincoln logs, (and American bricks!)

  10. I had a toy car that was spring-loaded to explode apart when the front bumper was pushed in. Now that was entertainment! It took about 10 minutes to put it back together (in my mini gas station, of course) and then … BOOM!

    I remember that toy car as well. My brother and I had one each and we had some awesome crashes. One of the best toys ever. Where can I get one now?