toys

Candee Avenue Goes to War

Entertech water hawk

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.

 

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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.

When I Was a Toys R Us Kid

There is a saying that is cliche by now:  “You can’t go home again.”  Entire songs have been written based on this premise; hell, there’s an entire genre of movie that seems to center around the idea.  And to be honest, even though the phrase is a cliche, it has a ring of truth to it–which really is the case with every cliche–and I guess it’s the raison d’etre of nostalgia.

I personally haven’t had a lot of “you can’t go home again” moments in my adult life.  For the most part, I’m not as blind to the trappings of nostalgia and can even say that I very often go in to rewatching an old movie or TV series skeptical about whether or not it holds up after 20-30 years.  But the one time I did have a moment like that was when I stepped into a Toys R Us.

Anyone over the age of 30 probably clicked on that video and went “Oh yeah, I remember this commercial.”  I grabbed this specific one off of YouTube on purpose because this commercial, which first aired in 1982, was run and rerun endlessly throughout the decade and featured three kids who would grow up to become notable actors and actresses:  Jaleel White (who played Urkel), Jenny Lewis (lead singer of Rilo Kiley), and Lindsay Price (who would be a regular on the later seasons of Beverly Hills 90210).  In fact, that series of commercials was so famous that the now grown-up kids (except for Urkel) shot another one in the mid-’90s:

And having a Toys R Us near you was a big deal back in the 1980s because they weren’t as ubiquitous as, say, Target or Walmart stores are today.  Sayville eventually got its own Toys R Us (though it was technically in Holbrook at the Sun Vet Mall) in the 1990s, but when I was growing up in the 1980s, my parents had to haul it about twenty minutes west to Bay Shore to go there, which meant that a trip to the store was a special trip and not just a part of some weekly shopping routine.

I’m pretty sure that store is still standing, but it has undergone the change that so many Toys R Us stores have undergone in recent decades:  it is now two stores in one–a Toys R Us and a Babies R Us.  This is the case with my local store, in Charlottesville, and when Brett was a baby, Amanda and I made a number of trips to the Babies R Us store.  Occasionally, we would venture into the Toys R Us side of things and I have to say that I never got over the feeling of disappointment that I had upon seeing how much smaller Toys R Us was compared to the one in my memories.

tru-bru

Most Toys R Us Stores look like this nowadays.

Oh sure, nothing is as big as you remember it being when you were a kid–hell, parts of Disney World seemed smaller to me when I was an adult compared to my childhood memories–but the reality versus my memory of walking into a Toys R Us was a disappointment because this was a store that my sister and I practically worshiped as kids, to the point where I had most the layout of the store memorized to the point where I can still picture it.

Think I’m kidding?  I drew the map below (on graph paper) from memory:

20161125_131814

 

You’ll notice that according to the map I drew, most of what I remember clearly was on the left side of the store, and that’s because things like action figures and playsets were separated according to whether or not they were “for boys” and “for girls.”  I don’t remember if the “boys” area was blue and the “girls” area was pink, to be honest–in fact, I’m pretty sure that the colors were neutral–but I do have to say that when I posted a picture of this map a few months ago to Twitter, someone tweeted at me, disappointed that the genders were separated in a toy store.  Now, I’m the last person to reinforce traditional gender roles, but I have to say that … well, this was a toy store in the Eighties and not my own creation; and if you think of it, the way the toys were separated by gender probably had more to do with moving the actual merchandise than upholding gender norms.  You could put She-Ra next to He-Man and she may have sold just as well; however, put a random “girl with a horse” doll next to G.I. Joe instead of next to She-Ra and Barbie and that toy will get overlooked.

Anyway, exploration into the sexual politics of Toys R Us in 1986 when viewed by Twitter in 2016 over,  because even looking at this map a few months after I drew it (and then finally got around to writing this post), I can still vividly picture the aisles themselves, and what pictures I have found of the interiors at old Toys R Us stores on sites like Plaid Stallions shows that my memories aren’t too far off.  When you walked into the store, you were greeted by seasonal things and party favors, and I remember this was the case for a number of similar toy stores of the era, such as Play World or Child World.  This is where you got your tablecloths, napkins, cups, and whatever cheap crap that your mom was going to put in a favor bag for kids to take home–not all parents caught on to the idea of buying a few Marvel three-packs and calling it a day, which is still one of the better party favor ideas I’ve ever experienced (even if I did wind up with an issue of Secret Wars II).  There’s a note here that said I once saw something related to Return of the Jedi in this aisle, which isn’t hard to believe because Return of the Jedi merchandise was everywhere back in the early 1980s, but I specifically remember seeing the ROTJ storybook in hardcover and kicking myself for getting the softcover version through the Scholastic book club.  Not because the hardcover was cooler or anything, but because I had the storybooks for Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back in hardcover and would have liked to have been consistent there.

Yes, even at the age of seven, I was anal-retentive about format.

Anyway, I don’t think I ever spent much time in the party favors section because the better stuff was just beyond the bathroom.  And yes, I knew where the bathroom was because I was that kid who always needed to go to the bathroom, so I always knew where the bathroom was.  Hell, I still do.

But after the bathroom was this corridor of board games and video games, with an enormous, seemingly never-ending wall of board games on your left and an alleyway of video games on your right.  The board games wall is significant in its vastness as well as the fact that I remember that Toys R Us carried every single edition of Trivial Pursuit that was on the category card that came with the game, even the versions that you were pretty sure actually didn’t exist or were available in some mythical toy store that carried every obscure thing and was located in a small fishing village on the Atlantic coast of Canada.

Same with the video games, which had one of the more odd purchasing procedures, one that was more like a trip to the video store than it was to to the toy store.  The actual games weren’t on display; instead, there were cards with the covers from the video game boxes and tickets attached to each of the cards.  If the game was in stock, you would take a ticket and bring it to the register, where you would pay for it, and then you would go to another counter where an employee–who was behind glass–would go and get the video game for you.

I’m pretty sure that this was a shoplifting prevention tactic in the days before the scanner would be set off if you tried to leave the store without paying for the video game, and they did have high potential for shoplifting because the cost of the average video game was incredibly high (so high, in fact, that the New York State attorney general filed a lawsuit against game companies and won).

Of course, not every single video game was actually in stock, and Toys R Us certainly had its fair share of peg warmer video games, so if gramma was looking for the copy of Dragon Warrior III that you wanted, she could pick up Home Alone for $19.95 when Dragon Warrior III was sold out (and honestly, Dragon Warrior III was always sold out).

Speaking of pegwarmers, the two or three aisle of action figures were the heart of any journey through Toys R Us for me back in the 1980s.  Of course, as the decade went on, the “spotlight” toys changed, but the setup was always the same–there was an endcap full of action figures and an aisle of vehicles and playsets.  If I was with my mom or dad and was allowed to get one action figure (vehicles were for Christmas and birthday lists), the decision was usually easy because I had memorized which figures I had and which figures I wanted; however, nothing compares to the soul-crushing paralysis that came when you walked into Toys R Us with your $20-$30 worth of birthday money and were allowed to get whatever toy you wanted.  Because that meant a vehicle was a possible purchase or you could get multiple action figures, and if you didn’t come into the store with a plan, you took longer to make a purchasing decision than the average jury takes to reach a verdict in a murder trial.  That sounds pithy, but it was a major decision because you had to think of how much you were going to play with the toy and whether or not it would affect your standings in some sort of unofficial toy arms race that you were having with your friends.

Further complicating this decision was the Aisle of Forgotten Toys, which was where Toys R Us stocked all of the second-rate and more obscure toy lines, such as Remco’s Warlord figures and the line of Dungeons and Dragons figures that came out in 1983-1984, or my favorite “Did anyone buy these” toy line, which was the here-and-gone-in-a-flash-now-costing-an-arm-and-a-leg-on-eBay Matchbox Robotech line.  I had the same desire to look at all of those toys back then as I do grabbing random war, romance, or horror comics from 50-cent bins today.  And I suppose if I had some foresight back in 1986 or so, I would have bought more than one of those figures so that I could keep it mint in its packaging and make a few bucks now … but as with everything in that regard, I had absolutely foresight and those toys were lost to various purges.

I stopped visiting Toys R Us sometime in junior high, around the time when the NES was phasing out and it was becoming clear that I wasn’t going to be getting an upgrade to my video game system.  But those times spent in the aisles of my childhood had lasting effects, from that feeling of paralysis when given money to spend on CDs to watching my son go through the same purchase paralysis with his own birthday money (accompanied by my own attempts to steer him away from purchasing worthless crap he’ll play with once and then let collect dust).  Which brings up another cliche … “The more things change …”

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An old-school Toys R Us store in Bloomington, Indiana.  Image taken from Flickr.

 

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…)