They were a sign of spring, popping up like tulips or daffodils out of their white pots, inviting every kid to grab one. The setting might have been different for each of us–a supermarket, a stationary store, a 7-Eleven–but we all saw the same skinny yellow stem with a red, white, and blue cardboard flower that read “Wiffle.”
I have no idea how many sets I owned as a kid but Wiffle ball had a constant presence my childhood, and was something that everyone wound up playing at some point or another. Very often, I’d be bored on a Saturday afternoon, get chased out of the house by my mom, and at some point, would rummage through my garage for the bat and ball with whichever friend happened to be around. Eventually, we’d get a game going with friends, neighbors, or even people we barely knew in whatever yard or empty street was available. Every game started the same way: we would plot out where the bases were using fence posts and bushes as bases and trees as foul poles, divide into teams, and play.
I never gave much thought to where Wiffle ball came from, and figured that it evolved from the games of stickball on the streets of Brooklyn that my parents’ generation played until they moved out to the suburbs in the 1950s, trading shadow of Ebbets Field to the shadow of a maple tree on the street of the same name. But it is a decidedly suburban game, created in the summer of 1953 in a Fairfield, Connecticut backyard. Two kids really wanted to play baseball, but the constraints—not enough people, not enough space, too much property damage—and made it impossible to get a good game going, so out of that, a new game was created. According to an account by David J. and Stephen A. Mullany on Wiffle ball’s official website, their father and his friend approached their grandfather—who himself played semi-pro ball—and:
He picked up some ball-shaped plastic parts from a nearby factory, cut various designs into them and sent Dad out to test them. They both agreed that the ball with eight oblong perforations worked best. That’s how the WIFFLE perforated plastic ball was invented. To this day, we don’t know exactly why it works… it just does!!
The ball they designed was easy to make curve and harder to hit, with lots of strikeouts. In our Dad’s neighborhood, a strike-out was called a “wiff”, which led to our brand name and federally registered trademark “WIFFLE”.
They also came up with a formal set of rules that designated distances for singles, doubles, triples and home runs, something I didn’t know about until recently because I don’t remember seeing any instructions with that sparsely packaged ball and bat. Plus, since there was no Internet, we just followed the rules of baseball when we played, putting as many people on the field as we could, and creating invisible runners when necessary.
Ah, the invisible runner, the universal placeholder for a small-sized team of kids, and the source of 99.9% of Wiffle ball arguments. I can’t count the number of times I hit the ball, rounded first, stepped safely on second and declared that another run had scored because I had invisible runners on second and third, only to have that disputed. Thankfully, most of those arguments were over quickly, but every so often I had to hear a sniveling “It’s not!” from That One Kid.
I don’t know how he always ended up in our group, but no matter the backyard or pickup game, That One Kid went 110%, pitching like he was Roger Clemens and swinging like he was Babe Ruth, although his only discernable skill was trash talking like the bear-drenched Yankees fan he was fated to become. I grew up hating this kid because it always seemed like he was out to make me feel terrible. Every remark he made had a snide tone of superiority, especially because of his athletic prowess or knowledge of the game. Plus, he didn’t seem to realize that we were playing for the fun of it. Wiffle ball allowed us to practice curve balls, sliders, and knuckleballs. Plus, if I really thought that we were playing the seventh game of the World Series, would I thrown so many eephus pitches (which we called “folly floaters”)?*
And by the way, since the ball was designed for better pitching, that made the game freaking hard. A good curve ball and an incredibly thin bat meant that we spent more time swinging and missing (with the occasional foul tip) instead of smacking the ball across the lawn. So when we got tired of sucking at the plate we would switch to “home run derby” mode, busting out the “illegal weapon”, which was a giant red fat bat left over from a preschool-aged baseball/softball set that had been in my garage next to the big wheels that were nearly destroyed and collecting dust. We’d ditch the rules and strand the invisible runners, designate a home run marker, and say “First to twenty wins.”
Well, that or whomever was winning when the ball got eaten by the huge tree in my parents’ yard. In those moments, I could step up to the plate and greet the underhanded pitch the way I wish I had been able to face the hardballs on the actual baseball diamond, hitting moon shot after moon shot and celebrating while my friends retrieved the ball from our neighbors’ lawn, not wanting it to end, even when it was getting dark and my parents were calling me in for dinner.
*Deep down, I knew that he wasn’t worth my aggravation, but the Little League years were hard for me and largely contributed to my insecurities in sports. In fact, years later, I would spend a lot of time in intramural and rec league softball hearing the voice of that one kid in my head as I tried desperately not to embarrass myself.
So my son and I were at at our LCS this weekend and we took some time to sift through their selection of Funko Pop! figures. We do this pretty regularly, and while we’re not hardcore collectors or anything, we do like seeing what the company is able to license and sometimes even buy them because we’re suckers for a brand. Then again, we all are and have been since my parents were little and could buy merchandise that tied into Howdy Doody and the George Reeves Superman television series. My generation, of course, took it a step further and spent the 1980s immersing ourselves in the franchises that made up our childhood, gobbling up not just toys but everything from trading cards and video games to the most random piece of merchandise that had a logo or character slapped on its side.
Not surprisingly, seeing these items posted by people on Twitter, in scans of old Sears catalogues, or up for sale on eBay gets me nostalgic and so I decided to sit down and talk about six non-toy merchandising tie-ins that I remember with serious fondness.
The G.I. Joe Flashlight (image: yojoe.com)
1. The G.I. Joe Flashlight: I think this is the closest thing to a toy that is on this list, and I am including it because it was the first G.I. Joe item that I ever owned and was the second-coolest thing that I got for Christmas when I was five (the coolest thing being my General Lee Big Wheels). When the Joe line was revived in 1982 under the “Real American Hero” subtitle, Hasbro came out with a superior line of figures and vehicles. But as anyone who flipped through the Sears catalogue int he 1980s will tell you, there was also a slew of other stuff. A quick look at YoJoe.com shows that in 1982 alone there were 48 different products ranging from the typical sheets, pillows, cups, and beach towels to Colorforms, View Master reels, and Lite Brite sets.
But the coolest stuff was the merchandise that had you playing army as hardcore as possible. There were dog tags, pins that showed off your rank, a whistle, walkie talkies, a canteen, and even a mess kit. The official G.I. Joe flashlight was a real working flashlight that took the same batteries as the red Eveready in my parents’ closet, but unlike the Eveready, it was colored army green and was positioned “military style” so that you had to hold it vertically. It also had a belt clip so you could take it with you on secret missions, unlatching it when you needed to crawl around and look into tight spaces like the ventilation shafts of Cobra HQ or under your parents’ couch because you think that’s where Han Solo’s blaster got kicked.
2. Masters of the Universe Puffy Stickers. Quite possibly the greatest things that ever came out of a box of cereal were the puffy stickers featuring five Masters of the Universe characters in Rice Krispies. A quick look at this old commercial shows that they were: Battle Armor He-Man, Skeletor, Teela, Evil Lyn, and Orko.
These prizes were given away in the summer of 1984 and this is one of those instances in my life where my parents’ strict adherence to non-sugary cereals paid off. Basically, the only cereals allowed in my house were Cheerios, Rice Krispies, Chex, Kix, and Raisin Bran (yes, I know the raisins are coated in sugar, but it wasn’t Frosted Flakes, and my sister’s love for Pro Grain Cereal is a topic for another day). That meant that for the entire time the promo was active, I was eating boxes of the stuff just so that I could collect all five stickers. Of course, collecting them wasn’t easy because the box didn’t tell you what sticker was inside, so any time you opened up a fresh box, you ran the risk of getting yet another Orko sticker instead of the Skeletor sticker you so desperately needed.
My big get, by the way, was Evil Lyn because I negotiated that with my cousin Brian when we were staying at my grandma’s house and came across her sticker in the Rice Krispies box. I can’t remember what sort of bartering went on between us as seven year olds 35 years ago, but I remember feeling pretty psyched because I really liked Evil Lyn. Who wouldn’t? She’s second only to the Baroness when it comes to awesome 1980s cartoon villainesses.
Anyway, I am sure that if we wanted to back then, we could spend our allowance money on a sheet of Masters of the Universe puffy stickers at the local stationary store, but that would have kind of been like cheating. What made the stickers so special was the snap, crackle, and pop of the hunt.
Party favor bags from a galaxy far, far away.
3. Return of the Jedi Party Supplies. I can’t remember which birthday was my Return of the Jedi birthday. I turned six when the movie came out, and since the Star Wars franchise as a merchandising juggernaut by then, it’s very possible that I had an Jedi-themed party one month after it premiered in theaters. But it could have been the next year, considering how long Jedi stuck around in my life before it got replaced by Transformers.
Anyway, I have to say that a kid’s birthday party in 1984 was pretty much your friends coming over to your house for Carvel cake one afternoon and not your parents renting out an entire trampoline park for three hours on a Saturday, so a Jedi-themed birthday meant that mom and dad bought a bunch of cups, napkins, and plates that had the movie logo on it and that’s what you ate cake off of and drank punch out of after you ran around in the backyard for two hours. And hey, they might have even been feeling fancy and sprung for the paper tablecloth.
I think my parents did, anyway. Those supplies were easy to find and weren’t very expensive–they were always right by the entrance to Toys R Us and there were usually piles of them for sale at a decent price. Plus, they managed to get a Carvel cake with Darth Vader’s picture on it (back in the days before entertainment companies started cracking down on copyright) and they even wrapped the party favors–which I think were Star Wars coloring books–in Star Wars wrapping paper. I am sure there is a picture somewhere of said birthday party in an old family photo album and my mom has pictures of the cake or at least the cups and napkins in crowd shots, but just looking at an eBay listing has me feeling cool for being a Star wars party kid when I was young.
4. Masters of the Universe Plastic Cups. Another giveaway that really had us captivated was this Burger King promo from 1983.
These were plastic cups with original Masters of the Universe comic strips printed on the side. I don’t know if these comics were four separate stories or if they were four parts of one big story, but what I do know is that BK released one each week for four weeks in the fall of 1983 and my sister and I spent four weeks begging my parents to take us for burgers.
This wasn’t exactly a small feat in 1983. My parents had nothing against fast food, but going out to eat, even at Burger King, was definitely a “sometimes” type of thing, so to do it for four straight weeks to get a souvenir cup? That was pushing it. I mean, I was six years old and couldn’t care less about that because I stopped everything–even my umpteenth watching of Star Wars–when He-Man came on. I wanted those cups and would eat as many Whalers or Whoppers as I needed to.
Or just hamburgers. I was big on just the BK hamburgers. And the Italian chicken sandwich. Come to think of it, those cups may have been what started what became a pretty regular trip to the Burger King in Blue Point, especially after our weekly piano lessons. And I honestly don’t remember if I got all four cups–I think that I might have only wound up with two of them and they lasted a year or two before the comics peeled off and faded because of repeated trips through the dishwasher.
The 1984 Voltron lunchbox. Kind of makes me wish that I had it now. I’d be the king of the break room.
5. Voltron Lunch Box. I blogged about Voltron years ago, but I still can’t get over how Voltron just sort of was there one day without prior notice. The cartoon dropped right around the beginning of second grade and beyond my insane quest to collect all of “Lionbot”, I rarely, if ever, saw much merchandise until probably the end of that school year and into the beginning of third grade when Panosh Place’s toy line came out and there was a lot more merchandise in the stores, including this.
Manufactured by Aladdin, who made a number of lunchboxes of mine back in the day, this was one of the plastic lunchboxes that were becoming more common as the Eighties wore on, replacing the metal ones that ended, I believe, with a Rambo lunchbox circa 1986-1987. The illustration on the front was straight from the cartoon and the thermos inside was a wraparound image of Voltron and the lion force. I never used the thermos, though, since I bought milk every day or packed a boxed Yoo-Hoo.
I treasured this thing. It was, quite possibly, the coolest lunchbox that I ever owned and I walked around the halls of Lincoln Avenue Elementary feeling so boss because I carried a much-coveted Voltron lunchbox. So you can imagine how terrible I felt when I left it somewhere and never saw it again. I think my parents were pretty annoyed because my absent-mindedness caused yet another thing they had to pay for to go missing, a motif throughout my childhood that also included jackets, a camera, and a mountain bike (which was stolen but I wound up taking the blame anyway).
Thankfully, the lunchbox was recovered. Sort of. I found one in the school’s lost and found but I knew it wasn’t mine because it had a thermos in it. Still, I had seen only one other kid with a Voltron lunchbox and thought that maybe he picked up mine by accident one day and what I was holding was his. Not having yet developed my social anxiety, I approached him at lunch one day and politely suggested that we had accidentally switched lunchboxes. He responded by yelling something at me–I can’t remember what it was but even at the age of eight, I knew that this kid lacked in basic social skills. My parents told me to keep the lunchbox, which I guess is technically dishonest, but it had been unclaimed, so Keith, Lance, Pidge, Hunk, and Princess Allura continued to protect my sandwiches.
When the four puzzles were locked together to form the mural, they would look like this (although these are just the boxes put together). Image: 3Djoes.com
6. The G.I. Joe Mural Puzzle Closing this out where we began, there is the most action-packed exercise in patience you will ever see or experience. According to YoJoe.com, this came out in 1985, but it was still available in stores as late as 1987 when i was at the height of my Joe fandom. And I wouldn’t have wanted it if my mom hadn’t dragged me to go clothes shopping with my sister at Swezey’s, a local department store that I still associate with off-brand clothing and mind-destroying ennui.
Anyway, Swezey’s had a random rack of accessories and pseudo-toys near the girls’ clothes (purses, pencil cases, some stuffed animals, games) and among all of it, I spotted a puzzle featuring G.I. Joe. It was a 221-piece puzzle that, as I saw on the box, could be linked to three other scenes to form a giant mural.
Now, badgering my parents to schlep to Burger King when I was six was one thing, so asking my mom to make special trips to buy puzzles was probably something else. Surprisingly, getting all four of these came easy because puzzles were always an approved form of entertainment–they were challenging, they kept you occupied for a long time, and they were done without the television being on. I can’t remember how long it took me to get all four puzzles, and I’m pretty sure that I paid for one of them with my birthday money one year, but I eventually did get them and assemble them and when the day came that I was ready to make the mural, I got ready to connect them, and … nothing.
To this day, I have no idea what I did wrong that prevented the giant awesome battle mural from coming together, as i stared at the directions on the box for several minutes, made multiple attempts to connect the puzzles, and ultimately said, “Forget it.” I am sure the puzzles were eventually donated to charity, so if I wanted to try one more time as an adult, I’d have to track them down at a thrift shop or on eBay.
Toys, comics, movies, and television shows will always be in the front of my mind whenever someone mentions Star Wars, Masters of the Universe, G.I. Joe, Voltron, or anything else I was into as a kid. But what’s special about these things is that although they eventually faded away or were set aside for something new, when they were there, they shared a part of my life and became attached not just to entertainment nostalgia but memories of significant events as well as the everyday.
When you trade in nostalgia, the idea of a milestone anniversary for something you cherished in your formative years is constantly on your mind. Since starting this blog, I have watched the 20th, 25th, 30th, and even 40th anniversaries of pieces of popular culture that were personal milestones come and go. Some, I have celebrated; others, I have acknowledged but decided not to cover because the idea of constantly chasing such anniversaries sounds exhausting.
That being said, today marks 30 years since New Year’s Eve 1988. Nothing significant happened exactly on this day, but when I was thinking about what to write for my annual New Year’s Eve post, the thought of the 1988-1989 school year kept popping into my head and the more and more I thought about it, I discovered that in hindsight, this was a year that was more important than I once thought, both personally and culturally.
Why? Well, for a number of reasons (and not just mathematically), 1988 was the beginning of the end of what we commonly celebrate as the 1980s and as we moved into 1989, we would see our culture shift into that odd post-1980s hangover that was the pre-Nevermind early 1990s. It was, as the title of this post suggests, a time when we were on the brink. The Cold War was ending, we were heading toward a new decade, I was hitting puberty, and there were other societal shifts that we as a culture were both seeing and wouldn’t realize were there until they were over (or in my case, 30 years later).
So, to take us out of 2018, here is my list of … Eight Significant Things about 1988-1989. (more…)
The Entertech water hawk, which is the pistol that my friends and I called “The Scorpion UZI.” Whether or not that was an accurate description is debatable. Photo by Marquis de Zod. Used under cc license.
It’s the summer of 1987. Times are hard. In the hot weather, the kids of Suburbia are desperate for cold snacks and air conditioning, both of which are kept in short supply by parents who are insistent that they go outside. But outside has become a land of boredom–there are only so many places to ride, the playground is overrun by little kids, and the huge tree in the backyard at the latest wiffle ball. The situation seems desperate and there is nothing left to do but fight.
All right, so the summer boredom sometimes suffered by suburban children is not a good premise for a 1980s action movie, but there was a time about 30 years ago where my friends and I took our interest in GI Joe and extended it to our yards and the streets surrounding them. Granted, we had been playing pretend for years, reenacting superheroes, Voltron, and Star Wars on playgrounds, but that was fantasy, before we had seen Red Dawn and realized that we had to be ready to fight real-life villains like Mummar Gaddafi. And so, for our birthdays, we got Entertech water guns.
Now, we’d had water pistols before, usually the plastic-colored kind that came in multi-packs or that you fished out of a bin at Ben Franklin for $1.00. But Entertech was a whole new dimension of water warfare. These were battery-operated automatic guns which meant that all you had to do was fill the clip with water, slap it into the gun, and press the trigger. Once you did, you heard the noise of a small motor and saw the water come out in steady bursts until you ran out and either threw in another clip (you could buy extra clips) or went and got a refill. It was leaps and bounds beyond anything else we had seen until then and more importantly, they looked cooler than anything else we had seen.
Entertech guns looked like real guns. LJN, who manufactured the guns, from 1985 until 1990, gave them fully automatic rounds of 60 RPMs and a range of 30 feet and “realistic” looks. To an extent, anyway. I mean, nobody was going to mistake a kid with an Entertech RPG for a terrorist. But the realistic look and the fact that we were seeing moveist hat had guns just like it, such as Rambo (which Entertech would license at one point), made them incredibly appealing. My friends and I had the Water Hawk, which I believe was a reproduction of a TEC-22 semiautomatic Intratec or “Scorpion,” which is why my friends and I referred to them as “Scorpion UZIs.” And the advertising wasn’t false–they shot far and fired fast.
Unfortunately, without carrying around several clips of water, playing with all the functionality of the gun proved tedious, so what we often did was kept firing and pretending we were shooting bad guys or one another. The motor still worked as long as the batteries weren’t dead, so we could get sound effects going. And long after the batteries had died, rusted, and corroded because I’d stored the gun in the garage, it was still a prop for whatever adventures we devised.
My friend Tom’s backyard, which was huge, was usually the setting for those adventures. We would put on the military camo pants that we’d gotten from Thunder Ride–our local army surplus store–and would run around dodging enemy fire, or army crawling through the grass to find and ambush someone, or climb into the huge tree in his backyard to get into sniper positions or to jump out of the tree like we were Rangers, the best of the best. When we weren’t playing, we were at the local library looking up the various ranks and insignia in the World Book Encyclopedia or were photocopying pages out of books like Weapons of World War II by C.B. Colby. Like I said, we weren’t just pretending; we were training.
Unfortunately, this commitment to realism resulted in its fair share of controversy in 1987 and 1988. There is a line in Die Hard where Reginald Vel Johnson’s character talks a bout how he’s riding a desk because he shot a kid who was carrying a toy pistol. While this served to give some background to his character, it was also a rather timely reference. While this didn’t become a widespread phenomenon in the mid-1980s, toy guns being the cause of shootings or being used in crimes came to national attention.
In 1987, it literally spilled onto the airwaves when Gary Stollman managed to make his way into the studio of KNBC in Los Angeles and put a toy gun to the back of consumer reporter David Horowitz while forcing him to read what the Los Angeles Times called ” a rambling statement on the air about the CIA and space aliens.” Stollman was the son of a former KNBC pharmaceutical reporter and had managed to find a legitimate way into the building–according to 4:00 p.m. newscast co-anchor Kristie Wilde, he had obtained a security badge and had made himself inconspicuous on the set prior to walking up to Horowitz. The news director, Tom Capra, cut the feed, but not before viewers saw Stollman, Horowitz, and the gun:
The incident, which you can read about in the archives of the Los Angeles Times (“Intruder With Toy Gun Puts KNBC Off Air” and “Risk at NBC: Integrity of Newscast vs. a Man’s Life”), was probably the most high-profile incident and by 1988, legislation was being introduced in various states as well as at the federal level to better regulate the manufacture and sale of toy guns. According to a June 16, 1988 article in the New York Times (“After 3 Deaths, Realistic Toy Guns are Under Fire”), after a few deaths and crimes, several major cities–San Francisco, Memphis, Chicago, and Detroit–as well as states such as Connecticut, Michigan, California, Florida, and Massachusetts had begun banning the sale and manufacture of realistic toy guns (they also point out that black, blue, and silver guns had been banned in New York City since 1955). At the time the article was published, the Senate had passed a bill that was sponsored by Bob Dole that required toy guns to have bright orange markings and barrel plugs.
While the article quotes Gerald Upholt, who was the director of Gun Owners of California, as saying, ”Anti-gun types are trying to play on the emotional appeal of a few incidents. The real problem is that police officers may need a little more training,” the incidents and legislation were enough to spell the end of realistic toy guns on the shelves. Toys R Us said they wouldn’t be selling the guns and companies, including Entertech, changed their designs to be more colorful and fake-looking.
So the Entertech era didn’t last very long, and in the 1990s, Acclaim bought LJN and discontinued all of its toys, choosing to focus on the video game side of the company (probably because Nintendo would only license so many games per company per year and having two separate companies under one umbrella meant more games/more revenue). Autofire guns weren’t as in vogue by that time anyway because in 1990, Larami released a game-changing water gun, the Super Soaker (which is now manufactured by Nerf), a gun that had a huge water tank and used pressure to shoot incredibly far and with a more powerful stream than other water pistols.
My friends and I had stopped fighting the war by then, anyway. Our interest in G.I. Joe had faded, and while we were still watching our fair share of action movies, we were more in tune to what was happening in the world of the WWF. Today, kids still can buy Super Soakers but can also arm themselves to the teeth with Nerf darts, which are really good for shooting cups off of a picnic table but maybe not so much for a real-life Red Dawn.
Every once in a while, as I scroll through my Facebook feed, among the badly punctuated inspirational quotes and article upon article of political garbage, I will see a meme or two about how the childhoods of the 1970s and 1980s were so much better than the childhoods of today. The idea, more or less, is that today’s children are coddled and overprotected or they never go outside and play and are instead glued to screens all day. There certainly is more access to things such as video games now than there was when I was a kid, but it’s not like knees stopped getting skinned or we’ve given up on telling our kids to simply be home by dusk. At the same time, the toys he and his friends are playing with certainly are made to be safer and are not the instruments of death that my generation and prior generations had hanging around in our suburban garages.
Now, the toys of the 1980s weren’t made to deliberately hurt anyone and for the most part, what I kept in my parents’ garage was pretty harmless–a croquet set, hockey sticks, aluminum baseball bats, wiffle ball bats, a skateboard–and while any of those items could be used as a weapon, that was not their intent and I don’t think any of them ran the risk of being outright banned by the government. But then there were lawn darts.
Based loosely on an ancient Roman game called plumbata, lawn darts–often called “Javelin Darts” or “jarts”–were huge darts that had plastic fins and a weighted metal tip. You used them as a game similar to horseshoes, where you held them by the plastic fins and threw them underhand at a target that you placed far away from you, possibly on the other end of the yard. Since the darts were metal-tipped, throwing the darts with any solid amount of arc would result in them landing spikes-down in the grass, the metal embedding itself in the lawn, much to the dismay of my father (although I’m sure the squirrels did as much damage to the lawn as we did).
Lawn darts probably predate the 1950s, but I’m pretty sure that’s the era that I and most other people would associate with the toy, when they were manufactured by companies such as Hasbro, and was really that first era of what we know as modern-day suburbia, as houses had been built en masse to accommodate the demand from G.I.s who were returning from the Second World War and wanted to put down roots. In fact, an old box for lawn darts depicts a 1950s-era “Dick and Jane”-type family pitching the darts and having a great time on the lawn.
We had a set in our own garage. I honestly don’t know where exactly they came from, since I don’t remember my parents actually buying them, so it’s possible that they were handed down from my grandmother or that my parents themselves had owned them as kids–after all, my parents are Baby Boomers and their parents were the first generation to go suburban. The darts themselves were the classic model and I remember thinking that they were probably pretty old because the color was a faded teal instead of a bright red or blue that you might find in a box at a sporting goods store. We played with them for part of a summer–as you do–tossing them in the yard and really not putting a target out but simply seeing who could throw the farthest. This lasted for probably one summer (maybe even less than that) before the darts were put back in the garage and then disappeared in a round of spring cleaning.
I imagine they went to Goodwill or another charity, but it’s very possible they were thrown out because around the time that we were playing with them, they were actually banned from sale (and more or less from use) because Michelle Snow, a seven-year-old girl in California, was killed by a falling lawn dart, a death that was entirely accidental as her brother and his friends had been tossing the darts in their backyard, one of the darts went over a fence into the front yard and struck her in the head. Her father, David Snow, led the successful effort to ban lawn darts, a story that’s detailed in a very thorough and worthwhile Mental Floss piece from 2012, which I highly recommend reading.
Anyway, what I find fascinating about that story was not just that Snow’s effort was successful, but that the story was actually true. There are what seems to be a plethora of cautionary tales about things kids like that really amount to nothing but urban legends–not a year goes by when you don’t hear about someone getting a razor blade in a candy bar or some toy breaking into pieces and maiming a child or someone choking on something small. In many cases, the story is half or partially true–there was an injury but nobody died, or the reason that the injury happened was due to improper use or malicious intent on someone’s part. Here, it was a genuine accident, although some people commenting on that Mental Floss article chalk it up to bad parenting/parental neglect with one commenter going as far as to suggesting that Darwinism was involved (which is, of course, lovely, and sets off an entire discussion of what Darwin actually said).
Which brings me back to what I was talking about at the beginning of the post. There’s this sense that “fun has been taken away,” a complaint by members of older generations that speak of some sort of “wussification” of America and insist that their childhoods were so much more hardcore in some way or another because instead of whatever Nerf the “kids these days” are being armed with, they used actual armament and were fully prepared to fire artillery shells by the time they entered junior high school. Or something like that. I mean, there are toys that I get nostalgic about and wish that my son had the chance to play with, but I’m not going to berate my son and call him a pussy because he has to wear a helmet when he rides his bike.
Furthermore, there’s an irony in the whining about “not being able to play with x,y,z anymore” or how a generation or two before me claims to have had a more rigorous childhood in some way than I did or my son does, considering that the generation or two before them actually did have it tough. If you were born after World War II, you reaped the benefits of the modern concept of adolesence as well as such advancements in society as child labor laws as well as a booming economy. Yes, things have ebbed and flowed over the years and there are certainly generations that have dealt with wars and other hardships as young adults, but I’m not sure that being able to chuck lawn darts is in the same league as being sent into a coal mine at ten years old.
The Dukes of Hazzard Big Wheel, courtesy of Dukes Online.com
There are some toys that you remember getting or having, and then there are others that are definitive. They aren’t just Christmas or birthday presents, they are in introduction to a lifestyle. For those of us born in the Seventies or Eighties, that toy was Big Wheels.
A modified tricycle that allowed the rider to sit low and tended to move faster, therefore adding more to the everyday life of the average kid, the Big Wheel ride-on toy was created by Louis Marx and Company in 1969 and became very popular among both kids and parents, at least according to Wikipedia’s entry, which notes that its plastic construction and low center of gravity made it less expensive and safer than the classic tricycle. Big Wheels was actually the trademark of Louis Marx & Co, but wound up becoming the generic name for the toy, and through the 1970s, they sold in huge numbers.
Having been born in 1977, I am a part of the second wave of the Big Wheels generation. Those older than I was probably didn’t have much to choose from when it came to their big wheel experience, as evidenced by the Big Wheels that had been procured by and donated to my nursery school. They’d let us out onto the playground each day and we would go right for a shed in the back that held several Big Wheels. Some were in better condition than others–the blue and yellow ones were relatively new, which meant they were also the most desirable, and the purple ones were slightly used and therefore second tier. Those blue ones became so coveted, in fact, that at one point, our teachers had to designate beforehand who got to use them.
By the time I was old enough to have my own Big Wheels, at the age of five, the makers of Big Wheels (mainly Empire Pastics, who made Big Wheel competitor Power Cycle; as well as Coleco, a company more known for a video game console than a kids’ ride-on toy) had figured out that there was money to be made from licensing. Now, everyone who grew up in the Eighties will remember that the ultimate in licensed Big Wheels was the Knight Rider Big Wheels that was made to look like KITT, but the one that I owned had to run a close second to KITT, which was the General Lee.
I had been a fan of three prime time television shows when I was five years old. One was The Greatest American Hero, one was ChiPs, and the third was the Dukes of Hazzard. Granted, I got to watch all of half a season before the Coy and Vance era began, but I don’t think I noticed that considering I was paying more attention to the stunts and car chases and I still really liked the show. I liked it so much, in fact, that when I received the General Lee Big Wheels that Christmas, it was the most awesome thing ever. How could you not like an orange and black Big Wheels with ribbons on the handlebars, stars on the wheels, and a compartment where you could store things? (more…)
Wait, didn’t we just have an episode of this MONTHLY podcast LAST WEEK? Well, we survived the apocalypse so it’s time to celebrate Christmas! And what am I doing to celebrate Christmas? Well, I’m taking a look at one of my favorite toy lines ever, G.I. Joe!
While I am also a fan of the cartoon as well as the Marvel comic book series and do mention them a couple of times, I decided to stick to the toy line. Over the course of this episode, I talk about the my five favorite action figures, my five favorite vehicles, and five action figures and vehicles I always wished I owned but didn’t.
So in every kid’s life there is a moment where Christmas is ruined. Okay, that’s probably being dramatic, but I definitely can say that when you find out Santa Claus isn’t real, the holiday loses a bit of its magic. Coming in slightly behind that is the Christmas when you find the presents.
Now, when you’re a little kid, the idea of Christmas is something that flat-out blows your mind on an annual basis. You write a letter to Santa, maybe even sit on the lap of a parolee playing Santa at the local second-rate shopping mall, and on the morning of December 25, there is a bacchanal of toys. You never questioned where the presents came from, nor wondered about the hours of thought and labor your parents put into procuring said gifts (let alone the money involved)—Christmas just arrived and everything was awesome. Then, around the time you were eight or nine you start hearing from some kid in your class about how he knows everything he’s getting.
I was always perplexed by this kid. I had loved the surprise that came with Christmas morning, so I never understood why he was able to get his presents early. Moreover, he seemed to be bragging about it. Was there something wrong with this kid? Did his parents not love him enough, which is why they stole the magic of Christmas from him at an early age? What he an over-privileged little twerp whose parents gave him the presents so they didn’t have to deal with him? Or, was he onto something?
This last thought didn’t occur to me until I was about ten years old and my sister and I saw a commercial for the Etch-A-Sketch Animator, which was a toy that I swear only the 1980s was capable of producing. The original recipe Etch-A-Sketch had been out for decades, and we, just like every other kid in existence, owned one. It wasn’t a favorite toy of ours or anything, just one of those things you’d play with from time to time because you came across it while you were looking for something else or because it was the only thing available when you were bored out of your mind. But the commercials for the Animator made it seem like this was not only the next level of Etch-A-Sketch, but the next level of awesome. We were both sure that it wouldn’t suffer the same fate as its ancestor.
A device with a basic black and while pixilated display, the Animator had memory for several frames upon which you would draw image after image, which you would then have the Animator play back so it looked like you had drawn a cartoon. The commercial showed a girl animating a horse running and a boy animating a guy swinging a baseball bat. Since my sister rode horses and I played little league, that’s all we needed to know. Almost immediately, we put The Animator on our Christmas lists, which probably put our parents in a precarious situation because they were not the type who would buy each of us our own toy. No, they believe in sharing.
We hated sharing as kids. We didn’t like sharing with one another. We didn’t like sharing with friends. We didn’t like sharing with kids of family friends. We didn’t like sharing with kids who we didn’t even know but whom just happened to be at the same place we were. We weren’t total selfish jerks or anything, but when you’re a kid, morals can sometimes take a backseat to wanting all of a candy bar or wanting a particular toy all to yourself. And needless to say, when we both saw The Animator on our respective Christmas lists, Nancy and I both knew that we would be fighting over the one Animator that would be opened on Christmas Day.
And then came the day we found it.
I can’t remember if we were actively looking for our Christmas presents, or if we came across them by accident, but one day we were in the basement and in the back of my dad’s workshop we found a large lawn and leaf bag that bulged irregularly. We approached it with caution, pulled back the edge and saw two things—the puzzle toy known as Rubik’s Magic Rings, and The Etch-A-Sketch Animator.
From there, it was on. Each of us assumed that we’d be the one the Animator was meant for, so we proceeded to threaten one another with it. If my sister wouldn’t share the last donut with me, I’d say, “You eat that whole donut and I won’t let you play with my Animator.” If I wouldn’t let you watch a show or movie she wanted to watch, she would say, “If you don’t let me watch this, I won’t let you play with my Animator.”
Now, you’d think that my parents would have liked the newfound cooperation that came with this—after all, we were sort of not being selfish toward one another—but hearing that the sharing and unselfishness came through blackmail, they obviously figured out something was up. Plus, it didn’t help that Nancy couldn’t, and still really can’t keep a secret to save her life and wound up blabbing about our finding the Christmas present to my parents. I can’t remember if my parents punished the two of us or if it went beyond a conversation wherein they told us they were disappointed in us.
That disappointment definitely registered, although the vocal threats continued because despite knowing there was an Animator in the house, we still didn’t know who it was for; moreover, to my parents’ credit, they didn’t retaliate by giving us the presents early or simply placing them under the tree unwrapped. It went under the tree as planned and on Christmas morning, my sister unwrapped the Animator.
Being ten years old, I probably was not able to mask my disappointment. I knew that I would get to play with the toy—like I said, sharing was house policy—but I was disappointed because she had won. I did not get the prize and I would be forced to be at the mercy of someone else for black and white pixilated animation fun.
Okay, that’s totally melodramatic because Nancy was never that diabolical.
We had our fair share of fun with The Animator. Sometimes we created the animations that were in the instruction book and sometimes we had fun making words appear and disappear, but most of the time my friends and I would animate a hand giving the middle finger. That, in our minds, was using the toy to its fullest potential. Predictably, after a year or two, it wound up being lost to the back of the toy closet as we got interested in other things and eventually was either donated or sold at a yard sale when we were teenagers.
As for Christmas, I’d like to say that this was the moment that changed everything, but it really wasn’t. Oh sure, I’d spend the next few Novembers and Decembers sneaking around to find presents, but for the most part, we had the same sort of Christmas morning. But gradually, the element of surprise dwindled as my parents began a tradition of taking us to the mall on Black Friday (this was before Black Friday became a spectacle of animal-level greed and trampling deaths) to buy clothes that would go under the tree on Christmas Day, something which seemed to always cause my mother to sigh, “Oh well, no surprises this Christmas.” But I honesty never felt that whatever Christmas was about was ever ruined.
I have been playing the piano since I was about seven years old, and since I was in junior high, I have also owned an electronic keyboard. Keyboards were big-ticket items when I was a kid because they not only cost a decent amount of money, but also were pretty amazing. The better keyboards could synthesize a ton of instruments and had several present rhythms and one-touch chords.
My first keyboard was a small Casio PT-180, which I remember bringing into school to work on a project, but the first keyboard that I remember really being important to me was myu second one, a Yamaha PSR-27. In terms of keyboardness, it wasn’t much (compared to some of the more high end models), but it had way more instruments than that Casio, plus came with its own stand so instead of taking it out of the box, setting it up, and plugging it in whenever I wanted to use it, I simply set it up and plugged it in in the basement.
The coolest thing on the keyboard was a yellow button that said “demo.” This was pretty much exactly what you’d think it was–a demonstration of what the keyboard was capable of, done through a 90-second song that used several instruments, rhythms, and effects, including the orchestra hit, which was popular to almost an annoying degree in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
My sister and I played that keyboard endlessly, fooling around with the different instruments, playing our weekly piano pieces on the “distortion guitar” or “church organ” settings, and even adding the one-touch chords and disco beat to songs like the Star Wars theme. But the most fun we had was with the demonstration because it was a crazy tune that used just about everything the keyboard offered and even if we figured out how to play it, we would never be that good because we were not very quick at changing instruments.
But more importantly, this was around the time when the two fo us were really into playing with her stuffed animals. Yes, I know that it seems weird that a twelve year old would play with stuffed animals, but Nancy was still nine and there were many days when the two fo us were stuck in the house together. By this time, stuffed animal play had evolved to the action-adventure stage. Each animal that was among our “main players” had a distinct character and we were even working on a semblance of continuity when it came to our stories.
That is, of course, when we weren’t playing Battle of the Stuffed Animal Bands. This was a regular contest that featured four of the most hard-rocking groups of animals: two frogs named Felix and Fred, otherwise known as “Fe and Fred;” the guitar-laden novelty animal Rockasaurus; the beaver-rabbit-raccoon combo known as the Woodland Creatures; and two dogs that we called the Nas. (more…)
The Autobot known as Huffer, who would play a more significant role in my childhood than it should have.
I am sure that in the annals of our toy collecting histories, there are toys that we remember so vividly and consider so important that the day we received them ranks as high as the senior prom, first kisses, and getting married. Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but ask any child of the Eighties about Castle Greyskull, the AT-AT, or Optimus Prime and you’ll probably get an enthusiastic response followed by a wave of nostalgia appropriate to key toys to the era.
You probably won’t get the same if you mention Huffer.
If you’re unsure of who or what “Huffer” is, he was one of the Transformers “mini-bots,” a line of small, affordable Transformers that came out with the first wave of the toys in 1984. As most Transformers were sold in boxes, mini-bots were placed on cards and hung in aisles as if they were regular action figures, and although I don’t know their exact retail price, they probably cost as much. The most famous of the mini-bots was Bumblebee, who in his first incarnation was a yellow VW Bug (in the current iteration, he is a Camaro), but in that first wave, you had characters like Cliffjumper, the red car voiced by Casey Kasem on the cartoon series, and Huffer, an orange semi who was an Autobot that had very few appearances in the cartoon and seemed to be around when Optimus Prime needed someone to take his trailer. The times when he did have a speaking role or a spotlight, he was kind of gruff and obviously homesick for Cybertron. So for the most part, he was a supporting or background character.
Huffer as featured on the Transformers cartoon series.
But he was a supporting character who seemed to be everywhere. Huffer was the Transformers equivalent of Prune Face or Squid Head, a figure that seemd to come out for the toy line as a way to just suck more money out of our parents’ wallets but had little or nothing to contribute to the overall storyline. Plus, everyone seemed to have him because he was an “introduction level” transformer. Mini-bots were easy to transform (and probably easy to make) and were very cheap; therefore, they were ubiquitous in both toy stores and Christmas stockings. Optimus Prime, Megatron, Jetfire (Skyfire?), or Shockwave would set your parents back a decent amount of money and might require that they fight their way through a horde of shoppers in the early hours of Black Friday, but your lazy aunt could pick up Huffer on Christmas Eve and have money left over to buy Squid Head.
Most importantly, though, or at least to me, is a symbol. He’s the toy you got because you couldn’t get anything else. There were others like this in the line–Thundercracker was a blue version of Starscream, but still a pretty cool toy–but Huffer was relatively useless. Going to a toy store and walking out with Huffer meant that you were either a completist or it was a consolation prize. In my case, it was the latter.
In 1984, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was still pretty popular, especially because the cartoon was still on the air and Mattel had started releasing action figure versions of some of the characters on the show. One particular character that got his own action figure was He-Man’s alter ego, Prince Adam of Eternia. Now, looking at that figure now, it’s kind of ridiculous that you’d want it–he was basically He-Man with purple pants, a white shirt, and a maroon jacket. I mean, it wasn’t even a good alter ego figure like the Super Powers Clark Kent figure. Still, I watched He-Man every day (and my sister would watch She-Ra) and there was a point in every episode where Prince Adam would hold aloft his sword and say “By the power of Greyskull … I HAVE THE POWER!” and transform into He-Man, then transform his tiger named Cringer into Battle Cat. Playing with my He-Man figures, I wanted to be able to “play” that transformation. Transforming Cringer into Battle Cat wasn’t hard–Battle Cat’s armor came off–but I had no way of transforming anyone into He-Man.
Prince Adam, the alter ego of He-Man. A toy that I broke down and cried over, something which defies rational explanation now that I think of it.
Until, that is, I first spotted Prince Adam in the toy aisle of TSS. It was in the middle of the fall and I had no idea that Prince Adam had been made into a figure and despite the purple pants and maroon jacket, I wanted him right away. I wanted to be able to take him, have him hold his sort aloft, say “By the power of Greyskull … I HAVE THE POWER!” and become He-Man (either original recipie or battle-damaged … I had both). I ran and got my mom, dragged her over to the aisle, and enthusiastically declared that I wanted the action figure and that I’d been a good kid and wanted it right then and there. Her response was something along the lines of, “Not right now but if you’re good, dad will take you back tonight.”
This seemed like a good enough response to me and we left TSS. My dad got home later that night and took me up to TSS because apparently I had “earned” my Prince Adam action figure. Remembering what aisle in the toy section it was found, once we entered the doors, I ignored the smell of fresh soft pretzels (which I lived for back in the day and to an extent still do) and made a bee line for the toys.
But it wasn’t here.
I began to cry, and my father probably got the same “Are you kidding me with this?” look that I get on my face when my son cries over insignificant things–only my son is five and I was seven at this time so you think I would have gotten over it by then–and he did what so many dads have done in that situation over the years, which is said, “Well, you can get something else.” Since TSS was not Toys R Us and what was there wasn’t much, so I grabbed which was the most readily available toy at the moment, and that was Huffer.
We went home, and while I did eventually get Prince Adam that Christmas, I never forgot that I missed out on my chance to get something because my mom had said, “Oh, we’ll come back later,” which is one of the most rookie fo mistakes you can make when shopping for toys, a mistake I’m sure I’ve made a few times these past few years (although my son doesn’t realize that). And every time I looked at Huffer, I thought of that moment and the disappointment I felt and how I made solemn vow to never let that happen again.
Okay, it wasn’t that dramatic, but the seven year old me hated that toy for that reason and nearly 30 years later I still kind of do.