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Weekly Column: Toy Story


As a kid, I had to use my imagination. We had no cable, video games, or Anarchist Cookbook on the internet. If I’d tried to buy the ingredients for a bomb, the store clerk would have been on the phone to my parents before I even got out the door.

And then I’d have to cut my own switch. Which would have spelled the end of my bomb-making aspirations.

Instead I wandered, quite literally, over hill and dale, made dams in the creek, plodded through the swamps. I had a handful of favorite toys, a German shepherd for companionship, and an imagination. Any place was a playground, and any object a toy.

Every now and then I still check out the toy aisles, but today’s toys just aren’t interesting. You can’t play with today’s toys. All you can do is sit and look at them while they play themselves.

Oh, you might press a few buttons, but they do all the rest. They make noise, flash lights, speak to you, move around, while kids sit on their butts and watch. I’m not talking just about video games, which at least give you a little hand-eye coordination. But on that subject, what do the game makers brag about most? Better graphics and sound. Some have video from the “Actual movies!”

Heaven forbid that you should imagine any of that.

One of the greatest things that happened to me as a kid is that we generally got toys only twice a year: Christmas and birthday. It never occurred to my parents to buy me a toy because I got a good grade, or cleaned my room, or avoided juvenile hall. I did that stuff because if I didn’t, I’d have to cut a switch. Getting a switch used on me was bad; having to take that long walk out to the bush to cut one was much, much worse. I’d rather pull my teeth out with pliers and use them to chew off my own ear than get sent out to the bush.

Don’t get me wrong, I got some great toys, but I had to think when I played with them:

I got a scale model of the Starship Enterprise, but my special effects were a bit less high-tech than “Star Trek” video games. How did I do those neat starship flybys? By holding my model and moving it past the dark blue wall over my bed. How did I get that great shot of my ship orbiting my planet? By holding the ship in one hand, and a planet shaped beach ball in the other. (You could also use the ball to – wait for it – play ball.) How did my Enterprise make that “whoosh” warp sound? By me saying, “Whoosh!”

I had to use my – say it with me – imagination.

Have you ever played World War II video games? The realism is amazing, and if you’re not playing with someone, the game console itself moves the other characters around.

I got an “Invasion of Normandy” playset. It had plastic tanks, cannon, flags, landing craft – and get this, landmines and stretchers. There were oodles of soldiers, both Allied and German. Back then, I had German, Japanese, British, and Confederate soldiers, although most of them didn’t land in Normandy. You can’t have enemy troops these days, because the soldiers of Politically Correctness would pitch a fit.

Eventually I learned war is a terrible thing, even when made necessary by various bad guys, but I still loved my Normandy playset. My parents, you see, taught me the difference between fantasy and reality. For example, fantasy was seeding my battleground with firecrackers, reality was them finding out and sending me to cut a switch.

My battleground was a crumpled up blanket, or piles of books, or the dirt on the barn floor. The sounds of explosions were provided by me. How did I determine who won? A sweep of the hand. Then I’d pick my fallen soldiers up and go on to the Battle of the Bulge, or Gettysburg, or Bunker Hill. Fake battles led to my lifelong love of history.

I had a few remarkably “real” guns, meaning they were my size. No one imagined using one to rob a bank, or getting shot after being mistaken for a gang member. My favorite was a Thompson machine gun, with which I defended our barn many times. No computer program was needed to produce my attackers – they came from my – wait for it – imagination.

But my favorite gun was my Kentucky rifle, a long barreled, muzzle loading weapon used in the Revolutionary War. My mother called it her mop handle.

But with the mop taken off, it was the perfect size and shape to win our independence. Laugh if you want, but I fought off entire regiments of Englishmen with that rifle, alongside a company of Minutemen that was very much real to me and my imagination. I’m sure I looked ridiculous in the field behind our house, stabbing with the bayonet on my mop handle, getting hit and falling to the ground, then getting up to defend Lexington and Concord yet again. What did I care?

Not that fake warfare was my only interest – not with Frisbees, Matchbox cars, and paper airplanes available. My single speed Schwinn bicycle doubled as a spaceship and police car; walkie-talkies were useful for spy missions; and a beach towel was sufficient to make a superhero costume.

I could go on and on (as my regular readers know.) Two chairs and a blanket made a great tent; small sticks and stones could become a city, waiting on an attack by Godzilla; and oh – what we could do with a cardboard box. The possibilities were endless. TV? That was generally ignored, in favor of a plastic sheet to slide down the hill on.

I can’t help thinking today’s kids are missing something important … and I’m not talking about the switch.


( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 9th, 2006 10:40 am (UTC)
Re: You can’t play with today’s toys...all you can do is sit and look at them while they play themselves. All I can say is: we girls had doll houses. Or at least, I had bookshelves that I made into doll houses (courtesy of my imagination) and I now have one, finally. Bebe is simply simmering with envy. I may give it to her this Christmas.

My mother asked me once (after I'd grown up) if I'd missed anything toy-wise as a child. I said, "Guess." She said, "Oh... a train set?" I cried, "Yes!" One of my little chums had one, and I wanted it in the worst way.

Last, I want to say your post reminded me of this.

Excellent post, Mark!
Jun. 10th, 2006 07:25 am (UTC)
nice poem
Wow -- that said everything I did, and with such better words!

I had a train set as a kid -- the engine even puffed smoke out as it went around. Me being the war crazy kid I was, I tended to load the cars up with my toy soldiers.

Later my brother and I got the smaller HO scale trains, and we had quite a setup going on a huge piece of plywood. Believe it or not, I've still got most of those, in boxes in the garage. Not in the greatest shape, though -- we played, not saved.

And now? Fire trucks all over the place. :-)
Jun. 10th, 2006 07:07 pm (UTC)
That was one of D-d's favourite poems to have read to her when she was about five - i had almost forgotten it.
Jun. 11th, 2006 05:24 am (UTC)
I had a library of kids songs I had to sing at bedtime every night. Some great, classic ones ... some Barney.
Jun. 11th, 2006 02:17 pm (UTC)
It's one of those that stays with you. I think kids should read poetry, because then it's in their database of cultural references, life-long. I can still quote reams of Lewis Carroll and T.S. Elliot Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. (Don't know if that makes me a bore or not, but Bebe seems charmed by it.)
Jun. 12th, 2006 05:42 am (UTC)
Poetry has the same problem that other writing does -- children are taught in school that it's all work, and they come to hate it. If you're going to teach kids to love poetry, it's got to be done in the home, preferably before schools pound the love of learning right out of them.

It took me close to 20 years to get past school and learn to appreciate poetry again.
Jun. 9th, 2006 12:23 pm (UTC)
Amen! I used to babysit all of the time and one of my families that just upset me the most were these two little boys who had a LAKEFRONT house with tons of property and they'd watch tv or play video games. And this was okay with their mother. They would see it as punishment when I made them go outside for at least an hour to play (even though they'd enjoy it when they were finally out there.) I was also the mean babysitter because my rule was "no junkfood until after you've eaten breakfast AND lunch" usually they could just eat whatever they wanted.

Parents are far too easygoing on their kids these days. I never got a switch but I was spanked mostly as a means of getting my attention when I was being a total brat. Now I have people telling me that clearly I was abused when I was little... Some kids need that, I certainly did. My little brother didn't, if you said he was bad he'd cry and run to his room until a parent came to let him out. But now parents depend on books to tell them the latest trend for how to raise their kids and actually paying attention to what kind of kid you have is just over and done with...

lol I have about 10 years of ranting built up on this subject so I'll stop now but I really enjoyed your article :)
Jun. 9th, 2006 04:10 pm (UTC)
A lakefront house? You'd never have gotten me back to shore again!

As far as spanking is concerned, it seems society has divided itself into two groups: Those who hit their kids too much and those who don't hit them enough. We should never shy away from spanking kids if they need it, although I would agree that spanking in anger isn't such a great idea. Kids have to know that there are limits, that there's good and bad, right and wrong, and that bad brings punishment. I realize I'm preaching to the choir...

Having said that, I suppose this would be a bad time to point out that I'm far too easy on my own kids. Granted that they're beyond the age of spanking, but they're my best friends right now, and parents shouldn't be friends. It's not like on Gilmore Girls!
Jun. 9th, 2006 04:06 pm (UTC)
One of our favorite games when my sisters and I were young was "Orphans in the Wilderness". It required absolutely no accessories at all, just the backyard and our imaginations. And then there were the Barbie dolls and paper dolls my friends and I played with - the things those dolls got up to! Sometimes they were absolutely scandalous. We could also literally spend hours playing with jacks. (Of course my main pasttime, then as now, was reading.)

I never had to cut a switch. My mom would buy us those paddle ball toys (the paddles were wooden back then) and when they broke my mom had herself a nice new paddle. How ingenious is that!
Jun. 9th, 2006 04:17 pm (UTC)
Dad had a paddle hanging above the living room door that had "Board of Education" written on it. But cutting your own switch was the worst, because of the anticipation factor.

I had GI Joe dolls and most of the Johnny West collection. Johnny was a Barbie sized action figure, a John Wayne type cowboy who had a wife, four kids, two Indians, two calvarymen, a black clad bad guy, and more horses than you could shake a stick at -- not to mention the covered wagon. Each and every one, including the four teen aged kids (blonde boy and girl, brunette boy and girl) came with rifles and six shooters; how do you suppose the PC crowd would like that?!

Anyway, when my dad remarried, my stepsister brought her Barbie collection into the mix. Scandalous? You don't know the half of it. If Johnny ever found out what his family was up to with Barbie, Ken, Skipper, and of course GI Joe, there'd be some shootin' goin' on.
Jun. 10th, 2006 07:09 pm (UTC)
Hmm - I remember something very similar being put to a very similar use!
Jun. 11th, 2006 05:28 am (UTC)
belt? ruler? bug swatter?
Jun. 11th, 2006 09:35 am (UTC)
No - the bat from one of those bat and ball games that looked like a table tennis bat, but had a small ball attached to it by a length of elastic thread. So about 6" in diameter and made of plywood.
Jun. 11th, 2006 10:34 am (UTC)
Oh, yes. And, Ouch!
Jun. 9th, 2006 04:44 pm (UTC)
My sister in law grew up in China during the Cultural revolution and pretty much had no toys to play with at all. Since her daughter was born over here her and my brother have done nothing but buy her toys! I suppose if you don't have the option of having anything you want it for your children.

I agree that today toys are very boring. They also are usually all plastic. Poor kids don't get to explore different textures unless you make a point of buying toys that are made of wood etc. It's a shame.
Jun. 10th, 2006 07:33 am (UTC)
You're right -- one of the reasons I try to get everything for my girls is because I didn't have much when I was a kid. Luckily for their development, we still don't have much money.

Yep, plastic is bad -- diecast, a bit better. I just *wuv* my Matchbox emergency vehicles collection! When you only spend a buck or two for each one it doesn't seem like much, but after you've collected a couple of hundred ...
Jun. 10th, 2006 12:09 pm (UTC)
If I’d tried to buy the ingredients for a bomb, the store clerk would have been on the phone to my parents before I even got out the door.

You mut have gone to the wrong school or not payed attention in science class. Friends of mine were making explosives out stuff found around the house in high school.

Now, how about you go build your own version of Bing Bang Boing.
Jun. 11th, 2006 05:39 am (UTC)
Well, we didn't really need instructions for homemade stuff -- we went over the state line into Ohio every early summer and bought enough fireworks to blow up a small city -- um, I mean last until fall. M-80's and cherry bombs were the most illeg -- er, explosive. And they could all be bundled together, of course. Failing that, model rocket engines did amazing things when not inside model rockets.

Actually, my point was that every adult in town looked out for every kid back then -- you do something wrong, anything, and your parents know about it by the time you get home. And THEN you get punished. There was no bothering the police, and there was no defending your poor, innocent kids. It was a better time, unless you actually happened to BE innocent.
Jun. 10th, 2006 07:16 pm (UTC)
You know this got me to trying to think about toys I had as a child. And one of the few I can remember is a baby doll, which I saved my pocket money to buy, when I was six. I still have her - she takes the place of the Baby Jesus at church most Christmases.

But I remember spending hours in the local play park, sometimes on the swings or the roundabout, but more often playing shop, or making dens in the bushes. It was an adult free zone - we were sent over there to play in the mornings, were yelled at to come home, from a distance, at meal times, and then stayed there until bed-time or sunset, whichever came soonest. Even 3 or 4 year olds would be sent to the park; older children, siblings or not, looked after them. They came in useful when you played house!
Jun. 11th, 2006 05:21 am (UTC)
play park
I can picture exactly what you mean, having experienced it when visiting my cousin in Kendallville (at the time, a town of about 6,000 -- it's twice that size now.) I grew up out in the country, in a house surrounded on four sides by corn and wheat fields. There was a tree-lined drainage ditch about 300 feet away that ran under the nearby county road, rolling hills, a couple of woods, and a hog farm down the road with outbuildings and a big, hay filled barn.

It was kid Heaven.
( 20 comments — Leave a comment )

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