toys

Games of Death in the Back Yard

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A Hasbro javelin darts set from 1968. By BluebellylintOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

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.

lawndarts

Lawn Darts with metal tips. The packaging suggests that this was sold in the 1980s. By MushyDay 361 – lawn darts at an elementary school rummage sale!! (I didn’t buy ’em), CC BY 2.0, Link

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 Life and Death of the General Lee

The Dukes of Hazzard Big Wheel, courtesy of Dukes Online.com

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…)

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 5: Ho Ho Ho Yo Joe!

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 5 CoverWait, 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.

You can listen to the podcast here:  Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 5: Ho Ho Ho Yo Joe!

If you want information about each of the figures and vehicles covered in the episode, go to Yojoe.com.

Below the cut are the videos for the sound clips that I played throughout the episode … (more…)

The Animator War

Animator boxSo 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.”

AnimatorNow, 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.

We’re #1 on This Demonstration

The Yamaha PSR-27 keyboard.

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…)

Sometimes, you learn that you have to settle for less.

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 os 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.

Oh my Power Lords …

“Push his secret action button and he’ll move, turn, twist and change from human to the Power Lord.  With powers to save the world from Arkus, The Evil Dictator.  And only you can control him.”

Uh … what?

Our nostalgia for the 1980s and its various toy lines tends to stay with the stuff that is considered “landmark” or awesome:  G.I. Joe, The Transformers, Masters of the Universe, The Thundercats.  But for every one of those toy lines, there’s something that never really leaves a mark.  While I was reading an old comic book the other day, I noticed that the back cover had an ad for Power Lords, which Revell released in 1983.  Based on the timing and the size of the action figure produced, I think that they were trying to compete with He-Man; and the science fiction back story suggests that perhaps they were also taking a shot at Return of the Jedi, which had come out that May.

(more…)