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.