The 1970s were a more innocent
time for children’s play. Parents didn’t rush their children to the emergency
room for a ‘boo-boo.’ We rode bikes and inevitably fell off. No one wore
helmets. Some of our bikes even had neat shift levers right in front of the
seats at crotch height.
Roller-skating caused knees to
bear scabs and Band-Aids, which were badges of honor to the injured. If one
could travel back in time and look at the children then, one would be surprised
at the amount of missing teeth, torn clothing, bloody noses, and other field
damage inherent in actually having fun. Make no mistake about it though; we did
have fun! Kids in those days climbed trees. In fact, it seems that a great deal
of time was spent up trees either seeing how high you could go, throwing
endless rotten apples at girls, or eating mulberries until you got sick.
We collected things. Kid’s
pockets contained frogs, nails, and slugs for soda machines, marbles, string,
pocketknives, firecrackers, yo-yos, and pennies. Found objects were often the
topics of wild speculation as to their origin. These small items were often
traded back and forth and argued over. Everyone envied everyone else’s pocket
Like most children, I was
endlessly curious. I took apart old alarm clocks to find out what made them
tick, peeled and unwrapped golf balls to see what was inside, and was always
peering into cupboards, wondering what that jar on the top shelf contained.
Chimneys had to be investigated, berries tasted, kittens teased, and manhole
covers peered into with flashlights. When mom cooked in the kitchen, I was at
her side, mixing flour, pickle juice, and colored sugar crystals into
imaginative but disgusting concoctions with a toy cook set. Everything in the
basement was fascinating, especially the things that I was told not to touch or
couldn’t identify. Discoveries awaited around every corner. I peeked into
endless boxes full of bric-a-brac, poked into the old wooden barrel containing
coal, and played with the old cast-iron gas stove that thankfully was
disconnected. As a child, I viewed our basement as a combination of haunted
house, museum, and chamber of curiosities and spiders. Things made sounds in
the basement. Things ticked, groaned, whispered, and sighed. The ancient
furnace fascinated and scared me with its explosive power and hundreds of
little gauges, pipes, and ducts.
Most of us in those days were
skinny. It may have been the home-cooked meals and all the exercise we got from
running around outside every day. Although we spent part of our allowance on
dime store candy and Popsicles, we never wandered down the street eating fast
food out of a bag. Bedtimes were conservative too. Most of the kids in our
neighborhood had bedtimes of around nine o’clock, and mine was at eight. The
late evening was adult time, as parents emerged to sit on front porches and
talk to neighbors while having a beer or lemonade.
Kids ran free and innocent, and
play was not the structured activity it is today. Parents set up boundaries as
to how far away from home we could stray, gave us instructions and severe
warnings, and then let us free to play. The term “Play-Date” did not exist. Our
parents supervised us by having a beer in the backyard or on the porch.
We ran through neighborhood yards wearing army helmets and
waving cap guns that were excellent facsimiles of real firearms. No one even
thought to call the police.
Every block saw elaborate games of Cops and Robbers, or
Cowboys and Indians complete with costumes.
I spent entire summers in our
back yard playing games by myself. Since I was never sent to summer-camp, the
backyard took its place. I made bows and arrows out of fallen branches and
string, constructed copies of stone-age tools I saw in books, built forts from
logs and twigs, and was constantly folding and inventing new paper airplanes.
Dad made wooden swords for me, and I built cardboard suits of armor and a
shield, copying pictures I found in a children’s encyclopedia. The neighbors
must have thought I was nuts as I ran back and forth enacting my fantasies
dressed up in my latest costume creations. One summer I built a submarine out
of a cardboard appliance box, and fashioned a torpedo launcher from paper-towel
tubes and rubber bands that would fire smaller toilet-paper tubes. I drew
controls on the inside and had a ball sinking imaginary enemies and backyard
squirrels until it rained and the submarine sank into the lawn.
There were no video games yet,
and even if there were, my parents would have banned them from the house. I was
not allowed to watch television during the daytime or after school, with the
exception of Public Broadcasting or Popeye, which Dad felt had some redeeming
Dad demanded that the house was a quiet area, and no
yelling or tearing about was allowed, so I spent most of my time outside,
alongside most of the other children. Above all there seemed a sense of time
that had no stress or hurry. We spent hours on sunny summer days laying on our
backs and seeing shapes in slowly moving and emerging cumulus clouds.
Sometimes the restrictions on
noise and what we could and couldn’t play with cost me friendships. On a summer
day, a newfound friend named Sean came over to play. He loved our back yard,
and soon set about climbing our wooden fence. “Don’t climb that,” I quietly
said, “Dad says it’s not allowed.” Sean then began swinging from a large wooden
pole that routinely held a clothes-drying line. “We’re not allowed to play on
that either,” I told him with regret. He then began bouncing a ball against our
house. “Don’t,” I said with increasing embarrassment, “Dad says…” Half an hour
later Mom came out with sandwiches but Sean had departed for home, opting to
walk the five miles rather than wait for his mom to pick him up. I learned a
lesson from this. From that day onward, I would play at other kids houses, but
would seldom ever invite anyone over. Our home was just not amenable to play.
Sometimes my friends were not even at home, but I would visit their yards and
homes anyway so that I could play in peace without being nagged or yelled at
for making noise.
My best friend in the early ‘70s
was Alex. Alex lived a block south of us, and was one of two sons of a
University Professor. We had met in a summer activity group when I was around
six, and the next year we became fast friends. Alex had a large sandbox in his
backyard, and we spent great lengths of time after school playing war with toy
tanks, or constructing rival cities of sand and debating which was the best or
biggest. All our play was unstructured, and we mostly made up our own games.
Alex and I formed a club called the International
Spy Agency, and spied on the neighborhood kids while hiding in bushes.
I often made my own toys. Rubber
band guns were easily made out of a piece of scrap wood and would entertain a
kid for hours when used to knock down plastic army-men. I made ‘Polish
switchblades’ out of Popsicle sticks and a clothespin. Receiving a toy army-man
complete with parachute called a ‘Parachute Jumper’, I discovered that the
parachute was no more than a round plastic disc with strings tied to it. I cut
sandwich bags into circles, attached my own army-men and action figures and had
hours of fun endlessly throwing them into the air and watching them glide back
to earth. That is one of those unique aspects of childhood. Anything worth
doing once would be worth overdoing or doing repeatedly until you finally got
tired of it or annoyed your parents to the point that you were sent to your
room. Like most other kids in the Apollo generation, I also was fascinated with
space travel. Many of my friends had the plastic multiple stage rocket toys
that were so popular. I made my own out of cardboard and construction paper.
Theirs may have looked more realistic, but mine actually flew. The compass
needle that I used to simulate the nose-cone antenna was probably a bad idea
though. Sorry Mom.
Dad built me toys too. I was the
only kid on the block to have an authentic 1940s hand made apple-crate cart
with roller skates for wheels. Dad had constructed it for me, but with the
cheap plastic roller skate wheels we used, it barely made it down the
neighbor’s driveway. He showed me how to make depression–era rubber guns, which
fired strips of inner tubes and could take out a stray cat at 30 feet. These
things were dangerous. He also showed me how to make other toys from his
childhood. We made button hummers, wooden-spool and dowel tops, and even little
‘spool tractors’ that would run across the table.
I was also obsessed with kites,
and destined or cursed much as Charlie Brown never to be able to fly them
successfully. Much of the reason for this was that my kites were homemade. I
used balsa wood or drinking straws as spars and covered them with tissue paper.
They never flew right. In fact, most of them dissolved or came apart on their
maiden flights. To me, the process of creating the kite was more important than
its performance, and I spent much of that time painting imaginary machine guns
on the kites, or attaching razor blades to allow my kite to destroy other
kites. Never mind that there were no other kites in the area. All the added
weight along with the plastic army-men I attached pretty much guaranteed a
An inexpensive toy that my
parents often bought me were rubber band powered balsa wood airplanes. They
only cost a quarter, and since they had to be enjoyed outside, it guaranteed
Mom and Dad a few hours of peace. These things really flew, often attaining
heights up to 50 feet and sailing forever. The problem with the planes was that
with each landing the wings and stabilizers came off. The planes were made up
of a main section with propeller, and plastic clips that allowed all the other
pieces to be attached. The clips barely held, and after awhile one or more of
the pieces broke. The planes were equipped with landing gear, but I think this
was strictly for show. Mine always landed propeller first. I finally came up
with the idea of saving all the unbroken parts of multiple planes in a box, so
that I could swap parts out as they broke. These balsa wood planes also had a
unique ability to home in on tall trees or nearby roofs and get stuck. After a
particularly violent windstorm, I would often go out into our back yard and
find that one or more lost model planes had been blown down.
Some toys I found other uses for.
When Mom bought me a set of ‘jacks’, I would ignore the jacks themselves and
play with the rubber ball. Marbles were used in races down neighbor’s
driveways, and never as intended. Hot Wheels cars were an early favorite. Most
of mine ended up wrecked because I was obsessed with seeing how fast I could
make the cars go. To that purpose, I often ran the track down the concrete
stairs or even out my second floor bedroom window. The cars that I raced on
these occasions went quite fast, but never seemed to stay on the track. They
usually plummeted to earth and ended up scratched and with bent wheels. Here
was another mysterious aspect of childhood. No matter how many times we did
things and got poor results, we just kept on repeating the same mistakes.
Building skyscrapers out of blocks, we would get to a critical height, and our
architectural masterpiece would collapse. Then we would set out to build one
even higher! If we attempted to jump over a box with our bicycles and crashed,
resulting in a badly skinned knee, you can bet as soon as Mom had us fixed up,
we were back on the bike ready for a second round. We gleefully pushed every
activity to the limit, butting our young heads against the barriers of physics
and our abilities.
When I was old enough for a
bicycle, Mom bribed Ocaboo (Uncle Bill) to drive us in his delivery van to the
police auction to bid on a bike that had been stolen, lost, or repossessed. Mom
as usual had reasoned that if I was going to soon outgrow or ruin something,
then why pay good money for it? The auditorium where the auction was held was
huge, and full to the rafters with bicycles. A lot of kids in those days must
have lost their bikes. Maybe there was a crime wave, I don’t know. Mom had
allocated ten dollars as her budget for my new bicycle, so the first 90 percent
of the auction went by with us being outbid. Finally, Mom was the high bidder,
and for a grand total of six dollars and some change, we went to the dock to
pick up the treasure.
My ‘new’ bike was a blue Schwinn
Stingray complete with banana seat and a slick rear tire. Ignoring the fact
that half the seat covering was torn off and the foam hanging down, the tires
bald, the chain rusty, and the handlebars crooked, I jumped with joy. I had
learned to ride neighbor’s bikes with training wheels, so I looked forward to a
bike of my own. I don’t know if it was the gearing or what, but that bike was
the slowest in the neighborhood. It was truly a case of form over function. It
was good at skidding out, popping wheelies, and tossing me over the handlebars,
but when I actually tried to go someplace, toddlers passed me up on tricycles.
A bicycle is a boy’s best friend
and most dear possession, but mine looked and rode like it had been in an accident
with a semi-truck. I didn’t care though; it was mine. The bike expanded
my domain by several blocks, and allowed me (in theory) to keep up with the
other kids. For some reason, I was not allowed to ride it to school, as my
parents feared it would be stolen. What kind of desperate or nearsighted thief
would have stolen my bicycle, I could not imagine. Bicycles were also an
expression of a kid’s personality and had to be customized or decorated. Mine
sported neon strips on the spokes, and baseball cards taped to the fork to make
sounds. I covered the dilapidated seat with political bumper stickers and Wacky
Packs. Many of our bicycles were intended to look like motorcycles, and Mattel
even made a toy that attached to the handlebar and made motorcycle sounds so
that our imitation of reckless adults could be more realistic.
When I was older and fascinated
with fireworks, I designed and built my own rockets. Carefully scooping the
various contents from the fireworks such as bottle rockets, snakes, sparklers,
etc. that I had found at area parks, and combining the resulting powder with
match head scrapings, I would encase the fuel mixture in rolled aluminum foil
tubes along with a wick from a firecracker. The finished engine would then be
inserted into a carefully made paper rocket complete with nose cone and fins,
and elaborately decorated. My rockets produced a lot of flames and were good at
self-immolation, but seldom traveled far enough to make the ordeal worthwhile.
I also got the idea that if I combined the same mixtures in one of Dad’s spent
rifle cartridges, the resulting homemade device would be like a Roman candle or
fountain. Now all of these fireworks were commercially available and could be
purchased during a short drive to an adjoining county, but I just had to
create my own. The first test of ‘Erik’s Cartridge Thing’ took place in my
friend Ricky’s parent’s garage (unbeknown to them, of course). The resulting
shower of sparks and fireballs reached to the ceiling accompanied by shouts
from us kids of “Cool” and “Neat”. Now that I saw the idea was a success, I
experimented with other applications.
One of our favorite commercial fireworks consisted of a cardboard
tank with three cannons that shot little balls of fire and sparks. The only
problem with them was that for some reason one of the cannon’ was dedicated to
propelling the wheeled tank forward as it fired the other barrels, and
therefore had an irritating and downright dangerous habit of going in
directions not necessarily planned for, and setting fire to nearby objects.
This gave me an idea. I constructed my own tank of balsa wood and encased it in
protective aluminum foil. Accenting the tank was a little window made of clear
plastic behind which sat a tiny army-man. I then mounted several of my latest
cartridge cannons on the front and challenged Ricky to a battle to the death
with one of his store-bought tanks. We duly lit the fuses and ran like hell,
only returning a little closer when my tank did not immediately explode. The
resulting conflagration was spectacular. The cardboard store-bought tank fired
a couple of rounds at my tank before being set ablaze by my cannons, and
burning to the ground. Ricky was so impressed that he designed his own tank,
filling aluminum tubes with powdered firework stuff similar to mine. He painted
his tank an army green, and amid endless debating as to which tank was better,
faced off against the ‘Helm Eliminator Tank’ in the ally behind his house. The
battle was more or less even until the aluminum tubes on Ricky’s tank sort of
melted closed while combustion was still taking place, thus transforming
themselves into miniature pipe-bombs. KABOOM! We didn’t know quite what had
happened yet when a stentorian female voice rose above all of creation,
emanating from Ricky’s mom seated somewhere in the kitchen. “That’s enough of
that!” she commanded. It sure
As far as commercial toys were concerned, few
parents in the ‘70s were concerned with the safety of the toys their children
played with. After all, they remembered playing with BB guns, homemade
fireworks, and other hazardous devices when young and they had survived. Most
of the toys and games we played with would never make it on the market today.
Toy safety groups would see to that. I am a little split as to whether this is
entirely a good thing. Removing overtly dangerous toys and lead paint content
is definitely progressive, but it is hard for me to not think that the pendulum
has swung too far, and that children today are missing out on fun because toys
which might be even remotely dangerous (if little Johnny really tries hard, he
can fit the latest action figure up his nose) are taken off the market. I would
hazard a guess that the average household has more inherent dangers in any
square yard of the kitchen or living room than we had in our toys in the ‘70s.
Sacrificing joy and imagination for clinical safety might also rob children of
needed life-lessons, such as the discovery of why you don’t aim your new
missile firing toy tank at Mom’s cherished Japanese vase. If that tank had
never made it to market, you may never have learned so much about 18th
century Lithuanian poetry; having been forced for two weeks to copy in long
hand the entire entry from the encyclopedia while seated at the kitchen table.
My parents were rather meticulous in choosing toys
for me. I received many construction sets, and educational toys. I whiled away
the hours with Spirograph and Etch-A-Sketch, Erector Sets and Tinker Toys. I
built elaborate machines from the Austrian wooden engineering set I received
for Christmas. Dad, of course, kept tight controls on the more valuable toys,
and they all had to go back onto their proper place on shelves when I was done
playing with them. He even kept my wooden erector set on a top shelf in his bedroom,
and I had to get permission to play with it, which may explain why all the
pieces are still intact to this day. My Tonka trucks and construction equipment
had to cleaned off after play and returned to their own box too. When I was
about seven, Dad bought me a little red toy Alpha Romeo car. After a bit, Dad
noticed that I had scratched it while playing with it, and it was taken away
and hidden in his dresser. There it stayed until I was considered responsible
enough to play with it. When I was visiting one Sunday when I was thirty years
old, Dad found the toy car while cleaning out his sock drawer, and gave it to
me with the words, “Well, you might as well have this.” Perhaps I had achieved
Like any boy, I had my share of toy cars and
hot-rods, but these were always balanced with educational games. However, I
still got to experience the thrill of popular and hazardous toys through play
at houses of friends, or through acquisition at rummage sales.
One of my favorites was Jarts. Jarts was a game in
which two teams (of adults…right?) competed to toss large plastic and metal
darts into rings placed on the grass. The Jarts were heavily weighted at the
front end and sharpened in order to aid penetration into the lawn, or someone’s
skull. Sort of like horseshoes using spears. In order to get the Jarts to stick
and stand up properly, one had to achieve a high angle of fire. In other words,
one lofted the Jart high in an arc and tried to land it in the ring. The Jarts
came down from above, and any errant throw would see people in the classic duck
and cover position with hands over their heads scattering in fear. It was bad
enough that this game was often played by adults while consuming copious
amounts of alcohol, and that had not thrown anything in the last ten years, but
children added a whole new dimension to the game.
After playing the proscribed way for a while, we
kids made up our own rules. One version was to see how close you could land the
Jart to your friend. Another great game was to see if you could toss the Jarts
over your house into the front yard and land them in the grass. Of course, you
never looked to see if anyone was in the impact zone first.
a friend’s little sister’s favorite doll in the ring and trying to hit it was
best game by far was the distance competition. Begun with the boast “I bet I
can throw it farther than you,” it saw us children launching the missiles into
other people’s yards and not having the foggiest idea where they would land.
to say, Jarts were taken off the market after multiple ‘accidents’ were
Being a boy, I never had an Easy Bake Oven, but many
of the sisters of neighbor kids had them. These were miniature ovens in which
budding homemakers could cook gourmet confections with the aid of a 40-watt
light bulb heating element. Even a 40-watt bulb can get hot enough to burn
someone, and girls around the neighborhood often sported gauze bandages.
after a day of slaving away over a hot oven, every peewee housewife wanted to
have one of us guys enjoy their creations. I don’t know what was in the mix for
those cakes that would allow them to be cooked by a 40-watt bulb, but whatever
it was it wasn’t food. I think it consisted of pureed cardboard and sugar, and
was about as appetizing.
Junior chemistry sets were popular. Designed to
teach children science while they played, they contained small vials of
chemicals, several test tubes, and a book of experiments. Far from using them
as proscribed in the instructions, we instead mixed the chemicals at random in
the test tubes and shook them up until something cool happened. Often the cool
thing that happened necessitated a large cleanup effort by Mom and an airing
out of the house.
I had many toy guns. Everybody had them in the ‘70s.
I had a toy ray gun that shot sparks. It had a revolving abrasive wheel that
contacted flint in order to produce the sparks. If you really got it revved up,
you could set fire to things, including your clothes.
had cork-guns. The fun thing to do with them was to substitute pointed sticks
for the cork and shoot them at your friends.
was a huge fan of the toy Star Trek Phaser gun. It shot small plastic discs at
great velocity in seemingly random directions. No matter where you aimed, you
were apt to hit something breakable or someone’s eye. Pennies were the same
size as the discs, and did a lot more damage. Once you ran out of plastic
discs, pennies worked just fine!
Cap guns were popular too. The caps came in rolls of
100 and were filled with little chambers of gunpowder. None of these worked
right, and each roll of caps had as many misses as ones that went ‘bang.’ The
cap guns looked real too. Few parents back then really worried about their
child becoming a criminal from playing with toy guns, instead it was assumed
that we kids knew the difference between playing games and the real world. No
one even dreamed of a school shooting.
Some toys, however well marketed and popular, were
poorly thought out and remarkably unsafe.
One such game was called the Slip
N’ Slide, and consisted of a long strip of plastic with a perforated tube in
the middle. One connected it to the garden hose and laid it out on the lawn.
When the water was turned on, the whole thing became a big wet slippery ride.
The problem was that when one built up enough speed you could not stop sliding.
When you consider the small backyards these things were often set up in one can
readily understand what happened when a child reaches critical velocity and
terminates his or her slide by impacting the side of the garage, some lawn
furniture, or even other kids standing too close.
Another very popular toy was the Nerf Ball. These
were originally marketed as the ball you could throw in the house without
damaging things, as they were made of soft foam. There are probably many kids
like me that ended up in solitary confinement in our rooms after destroying
some treasured keepsake with those damn balls.
When I was at School at St. Robert the popular toy
for many girls were Clackers. These consisted of two hard acrylic balls
connected with a string. You made an up and down motion with your hand and the
two heavy balls came together with a solid “clack.” If you were good, you could
get them clacking hundreds of times in a row. The string that connected them
eventually broke of course, which saw the heavy balls careening into kids teeth
or worse. Often they managed to hit your head, thus excusing you from recess of
gym for a week due to concussion.
Several friends of mine had a toy called Sock-em-Boppers.
These were inflatable toy boxing gloves best used after eating several dozen
pixie-sticks full of colored sugar, and were guaranteed to encourage violence,
general mayhem, and a severe grounding after knocking one of your playmates
unconscious. They also were often borrowed by adults for use in marital
I begged my parents for a toy called Super Elastic
Bubble Plastic, which promised the creation of multicolored semi-permanent
balloons. It actually worked. One squirted different colored latex goo from
various toothpaste-like tubes to form a ball, and stuck it on the end of a
hollow tube. You then blew into the tube until a balloon of the desired size
was reached. You then played with the resulting balloons. The problem was that
the latex goo caused my eyes to water and turn red, and my lungs to burn. I
don’t know what sort of toxic waste the stuff was made from, but I can still
Like most boys, I had a fascination with fire
engines. There is something primal about giant red trucks that emit
ear-shattering noises that kids find irresistible.
I was about eight, I received a metal fire engine for my birthday. It was a
pumper truck with removable ladders, and featured a real squirting fire nozzle.
simply hooked up the garden hose to the back, and the water shot out the
nozzle. You could direct the water onto objects and play fireman.
Of course, the obvious attraction was to put out real fires, and I soon put the
fire truck to that task.
had a large stump of an elm tree in our back yard that was slowly decaying. It
had been cut down during the Dutch elm disease scare in 1968.
borrowed Mom’s large magnifying glass and on a sunny day went to work setting
fire to the stump. It smoldered convincingly, and I was soon using the fire
truck to squirt water on it while running around the yard wearing a plastic
fire helmet and making siren sounds. I must have thought I put the fire out,
and soon was onto another activity. Far from being extinguished, the stump
continued to smolder for the rest of the day until Dad came peering outside to
see where all the smoke was coming from. He tackled it with the garden hose,
and I got a stern lecture.
the designers of the fire truck foresee this? I wonder how many other children
set fire to things in order to play fireman with that truck. What other purpose
could that water-squirting nozzle be used for anyway?
Probably the most infamous of all toys in the 1970s
was the Creepy Crawler Thing Maker. It consisted of a hot plate, a dozen metal
molds for bugs, skeletons, fake fangs, etc., and various tubes of colored
liquid plasti-goop material to form the creatures with. My parents would never
have bought this for me, but I found one at a rummage sale for a dollar and
pestered my mom until she caved in.
was in the middle of a monster kick at the time and this became my favorite
idea was that you squirted the plasti-goop into the mold, cooked the goop on
the hot plate that hardened it into a rubbery consistency, and then when cooled,
played with the creations.
were some inherent dangers with the toy. The refining hot plate reached
temperatures of 300 degrees. The flimsy tongs provided for unloading the hot
molds were inadequate, and often resulted in dropping the molds on yourself, or
losing the skin on your forefinger. The plasti-goop itself gave off a noxious
cloud of toxic fumes when cooked, and I often got stoned or sick during the
you didn’t pay attention to the exact timing of the cooking, your little
creatures became blackened and acrid smoke would fill the room.
If everything went according to plan, the hot mold
was placed into a cooling pan of water and gave off a sizzle. Once removed from
the molds, you had a whole set of rubber creepy things to scare the
neighborhood girls, throw at people, or just irritate your parents with.
picture on the box the ‘toy’ came in showed a kid wearing the plastic Dracula
fangs one could create with the Thing Maker. Yes, that’s right, we were
supposed to put the finished products in our mouths!
played with the Creepy Crawler until I ran out of goop to make the bugs and
monsters. That was the end of that.
In later grade school, the popular toys for a young
lad were action figures. Most every home had a G.I. Joe or twelve, and the
endless accessories that the poor parents had to keep buying to make their kids
happy. The action figure genre really took off with the production of Star Wars
action figures. We played for days with Luke, Darth, and the others.
course, anything worth doing is worth doing to the absurd, and soon action
figures included weird and dubious products like the Love Boat figurines. I
don’t know what kind of kid ever played with those.
Every home with kids had a supply of board and card
games to keep the children occupied. I had Parcheesi, Monopoly, Uno, Tank
Battle, Mastermind, Which Witch, and others. Being an only child, my parents
were constantly being pestered to play the games with me, and to uphold the
peace, usually let me win.
Some other memorable toys included SSP Racers,
Romper Stompers, Hot Wheels, Matchbox cars, and Tonka trucks. Slinky was a fun
toy. It was kind of like your friend’s little sister, if you left her alone she
didn’t do much, but when pushed down the stairs, she entertained for hours. One
birthday I received one of those toy rocket launchers that you filled with
water and then pressurized by pumping it up. It promised to fly up to heights
of up to 100 feet. I think that was kind of conservative. On its maiden flight
my new toy rocket took off with a ‘swoosh’ and climbing over the roof of our
house, disappeared forever.
In the 1970s, Japan produced hundreds of cheaply
made wind-up toys. They were made from old recycled tin and aluminum cans, and
contained plastic gearing. I had motorcycles, helicopters, racing cars, and jet
planes. They were quite inexpensive, but we got what we paid for. Most of these
toys lasted no more than a few days of being wound up before they broke or fell
Above all, I loved to build plastic models. I
received .25 cents a week as an allowance for trimming the lawn and dusting,
neither of which I was very diligent at. The Ben Franklin on Oakland Avenue had
Aurora’s ‘Monsters of the Movies’ series, as well as a good selection of WWII airplanes
and warships. The monster models cost $1.49 each, so I had to save my money and
dream for a month and a half before I could buy one. I had Dracula, The
Hunchback of Notre Dame, Godzilla, The Wolfman, and The Mummy.
many of these projects, Dad helped assemble the model and supervise the gluing
process. The models were best assembled by using very little glue; just a touch
on the edge of the plastic. When on my own, the gluing got a little careless.
Like most other things to a kid, if a little glue is good, then a lot of glue
is even better. Aiding in this process were the tubes and spouts that the toxic
glue came in. They inevitably clogged, necessitating the use of pins and nails
to unclog them. After a few squeezes, the tubes developed holes in other
places, usually squirting the glue into the palm of your hand. Finally, you
gave up, made a big pile of glue on a piece of cardboard, and used a pin to
apply it to the model. That is, if you weren’t too stoned from the fumes at
this point to care. Crooked propellers on planes, things assembled backwards,
broken parts, and other mishaps may have been more toxic glue-related than a
sign of carelessness.
Once the model was assembled and had dried, it was
time to paint it. I used that ubiquitous Testers stuff that seemed to do a
better job of sticking to my hands and getting on my face than staying on the
model. Like glue, the more paint you used the better, and many of my early
models literally dripped with it. The paints usually were sold in sets containing
eight or ten colors, but containing only one brush. Buying extra brushes never
seemed to occur to me, so I simply dried the brush on my jeans or shirt and
moved on to the next color. After two or three colors, the pigment on the brush
began to blend with the remnants of the former colors, and some models became
unintentionally psychedelic in appearance.
I often wondered why my creations
never looked like the ones pictured on the box cover.
One of the most destructive
‘toys’ we had in the ‘70s was Wacky Packs. Wacky Packs were stickers sold in a
random group and made fun of common consumer products; such as “Monotony”
instead of “Monopoly,” or “Valveater” instead of “Valveeta.” Each card/sticker
had colorful artwork highlighting the spoofed product. There were literally
hundreds to collect. The problem was that they stuck incredibly well to any
surface they were placed on, and soon became the bane of teachers, janitors,
bus drivers, and parents who had to scrape them off of every conceivable
surface. In the ‘70s, it was nearly impossible to find a surface not somehow
marred by the plague of these kooky stickers. Why we kids found these funny I
can’t say, but just like everyone else, I had a couple of them myself.
In our neighborhood, even our
semi-organized play and games were kind of ad-hoc. Our football field was the
Front of Mitchell Hall on the University campus. Here the first downs were not
marked by chalk lines, instead trees and bushes took their place. Kids in our
neighborhood played hundreds of hours of touch and tackle football here. We
mostly played touch football, because when we switched to tackle, there was
inevitably some big kid who would join the game and score touchdowns at will,
dragging us along while we hung on for dear life. We used a ‘Nerf’ football. As
far as kid’s sports go, it was the greatest invention since the jock strap. It
was soft, so when it hit you in the face during a long pass when you were
staring at a blonde coed instead of paying attention, it hurt a lot less than a
leather ball. It also allowed even the most challenged of us to pass like Bob
Griese or Roger Staubach. One drawback was playing in or just after a
rainstorm. The ball was made of foam rubber, much as a sponge. Like a sponge,
it was also good at soaking up muddy water, and equally good at disgorging it
onto our faces when we caught a pass. After a game in the wet, we were all
pockmarked by muddy impact points where the ball had been caught.
In addition to the lawn at the
University, we often played football in the street. We were not suicidal enough
to play on Downer Avenue, but usually chose less busy streets such as Hackett
or Stowell, those being the two nearest quiet streets. Even then, we faced
hazards. Running for a pass often lead to crashing into parked cars or chased
by dogs. The pass patterns we ran had nothing to do with professional football
at any level. We would simply tell the quarterback that we were going to “Run
past the blue car, fake to the right, and fade toward the house with the cat-lady.”
Our teams were goofy too. We mostly played with teams of two persons for each
side. One kid would play quarterback, and the other the running back or
receiver. We were constantly making up rules and arguing about them. That was
half the fun. One thing we all agreed on. All play temporarily stopped when
someone yelled “Car!”
Our baseball field was likewise
not exactly regulation. In fact, it was an alley. We never had a neighborhood
fat kid that perpetually wanted to be a catcher, so we constructed a
‘strikeout’ field instead by chalking a strike zone on a brick wall of the
Christian Science Church. One of us would pitch a tennis ball, while the batter
stood against the wall and swung one of several dilapidated bats we owned. If
the ball struck in the chalk-box, it was a strike. If you hit the ball, then
various landmarks determined how many bases you were awarded. If you hit it
into the fenced-in yard with the angry dog with diarrhea and its perpetually
stoned owners, then you had to supply a new ball.
After Dad bought me a baseball
mitt, I began practicing fielding by throwing a tennis ball at our large ash
tree in the backyard. Many kids in the neighborhood had one of those pitching
nets that had a marked strike zone and returned the ball to you. Completely by
accident, my idea of using the tree provided the perfect training for
shortstop. Since the tree was round, if you didn’t hit it dead center, the ball
would careen off in wild directions which you had to anticipate with
split-second timing. How ironic it seems now that because I lacked the proper
equipment and just used my imagination, I became one of the best fielders in
I fear those days are gone in
America. Imagination has become an orphan. Kids no longer play hide and seek
after dark, no longer wear crazy costumes or climb trees. We are free from the
minor scabs and injuries that we thought were part of having fun, and a game of
cops and robbers is likely to end with the interdiction of a real cop. There is
a silence in our neighborhoods that seems uncanny until we spot the culprit,
the blue glow of the television screen. We certainly watched our share of
television, but it never seemed to interfere with our outdoor games, roaming on
bikes, or exploring creeks and ravines. Scooby Doo and Johnny Quest only fueled
the fires for our own adventures. Toys may have been an important part of our
play, but only as props in a larger unending game or story. We may have been
the last generation to spend all afternoon absorbed in playing with a cardboard
box or a flashlight. Our parents were freer too. Instead of spending every day
shuttling us back and forth to structured activities, they had time to engage
in their own hobbies. Although parents in the ‘70s were busy, they were never “Too
Perhaps falling down and skinning your knee, burning your
hand on a creepy Crawler oven, or barely escaping being skewered by a Jart
wasn’t as bad as it now seems.