Simple Toys

One of the stores in downtown Stonington always seems to have some classic, vintage toys in its front display window. Last year the front window featured a balsa wood plane; this summer it is a glass jar of wooden tops. The tops drew me to the front window just as the Jetfire plane did, but I found myself wondering how many kids walking by even know what those wooden objects are.

The tops harken back to a day when many kids’ toys were made of wood–tops, Lincoln logs, train sets, and toy cars among them. (There weren’t many toys that required electricity in those days, save for E-Z Bake ovens and electric football; if you needed a power source for your robot or talking doll, then it was almost certainly those big D batteries.) Wooden toys were preferable, for both kid and parent, because they were solid and durable and pretty much unbreakable–unlike the flimsy plastic toys, which could crack or splinter easily, leaving a kid sad on Christmas Day.

I liked tops, because there was a certain learned skill involved in wrapping the string around the stem in the right way so that it didn’t get snarled and then giving the string just the right amount of pull. Too much of a yank,and the top went flying, not enough, and the top flopped over, but with the right tug the top would spin beautifully and stay upright for a while. A careful kid received an immediate reward for his/her patient attention to detail. That’s not a bad life lesson to be learned from a simple toy.

It’s nice to see that they still make wooden toys, like tops. From the look of that jar, I’d say customers have maybe bought a few, giving kids a chance to experience the simple pleasures of a top. Whether a kid will appreciate those pleasures in this era of video games and cell phones is anybody’s guess.

A View Master’s Impact

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had an interest in traveling, and recently I’ve been thinking about why that is so. I’ve concluded that a toy that we had at our house–the View Master–is at least partly responsible for my travel itch.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, the View Master was a plastic, goggle-like device that you put up to your eyes. You inserted a round photo circle into a designated slot, then toggled down a lever to advance the photos, one by one. The cool thing about the View Master was that it allowed you to look at the photos in a three-dimensional way, giving some depth to the pictures.

Of course, the View Master didn’t produce photos of your family, your house, or your friends. Instead, its photo circles inevitably were of faraway destinations or the natural wonders of the world, richly colored and exotic and much different from daily life in Akron, Ohio. The View Master world was one of men in lederhosen and Tyrolean hats and women in dirndls dancing in a square in some quaint medieval town, the Arc de Triomphe surrounded by headlights at night, or scenes from Yosemite National Park.

The View Master’s core message was that there was a big, amazingly interesting world out there, just waiting to be seen by you with your own two eyes. I got that message. My favorite View Master circle was one on American national parks, and when our family decided to take a driving trip west in 1967 or 1968, I wanted to see in person some of what the View Master had shown me–and once I saw the Grand Canyon and Old Faithful, I was hooked, and ever since I’ve wanted to see more.

Like many toys of that era, the View Master was simple, but it definitely had an impact.

Balsa Wood Lessons

Yesterday on my walk through town I passed one of the local gift shops and saw this classically designed balsa wood plane in the window. The store’s proprietor knew what she was doing, putting that pretty little plane in the window for old guys and young kids alike to see. If the store had been open, and I’d been carrying my wallet, I might have been tempted to make an impulse purchase–because, for those of us of a certain age, a balsa wood plane brings back a lot of memories, and life lessons, too.

When I was a kid, I got a balsa wood plane as a gift. I don’t remember who was the giver, but I do remember being fascinated with the notion that the plane was made with a kind of wood. This was wood? It wasn’t the kind of wood I was used to in, say, a baseball bat or the trunk of a neighborhood tree. This wood was ultra-light and brittle, the better to glide through the air like the Wright Brothers’ plane at Kitty Hawk. Balsa wood planes were the definition of “flimsy.” That didn’t mean they were any less fun and weren’t cool, either. After all, this little plane could fly! UJ and I spent many happy hours playing with our balsa wood planes, trying to see whose plane could glide the farthest on a warm summer day.

But there were important lessons attached to the little balsa wood plane. The balsa wood plane may have been the first toy that I actually had to consciously take care of. It couldn’t take a beating like, say, a little rubber football. You had to be gentle in putting it together, or one of the wings would break in half or thin strips of balsa wood would chip off, interfering with performance. You couldn’t just leave the plane outside in the rain or on a chair where the plane could be crushed into smithereens by Uncle Tony’s descending posterior. And you had to be mindful of where and when you took the plane out for a glide, too. Really windy days were bad, because the wind inevitably sent the plane cartwheeling into the concrete patio or a neighboring house, and launching it anywhere near a tree was certain to result in your plane being firmly lodged in the crook of a branch or amidst the leaves and limbs, with no way to knock it down that wouldn’t bust the plane into sad little balsa wood shards.

I’m sure I went through countless balsa wood planes before these lessons really sank in–but I’m also sure that, if I bought a balsa wood plane now, all of the old careful handling reflexes and experiential knowledge would come back in a rush. The lessons that come from the disappointment and loss of a favorite toy that you could have avoided if you’d just listened to Dad and Mom and been more careful are lessons well learned.


Aboard the NASA probe Juno, currently speeding toward the planet Jupiter, are three special Lego figures.  Representing Juno, Jupiter, and Galileo Galilei, these Legos are made of aluminum, the same material as the spacecraft itself.  NASA came up with the idea of having the Lego figures ride along to get kids interested in the mission, and the folks at Lego, who are big on education, gladly went along with the idea.

But here’s the key thing:  when the Juno mission is over, the Juno will fly into Jupiter itself, where it and its Lego passengers will be consumed by fire.

lego_color_bricksHah!  Take that, you Lego bastards!  Burn, baby, burn!

Admittedly, these special aluminum Legos have done nothing to me to deserve being consigned to fiery death in the poisonous atmosphere of a faraway gas giant.  But I say that it is a fitting end nevertheless.

I well remember the days when gaily colored Legos coated the carpets of our homes, when you couldn’t walk a few barefoot steps in the darkened early morning hours without painfully encountering the sharp edges of a stray Lego block, and when elaborate Lego kingdoms and cities and spaceports dotted the environs as semi-permanent parts of the Webner family household.

I remember when trying to get the kids to pick up the legions of Legos was a fun daily parenting challenge.  I recall the back-breaking chore of picking up the tiny individual bricks and figures and special accessories, and the distinctive clunking, plastic-on-plastic sound that the Legos made as you tossed them, one by one, back into the plastic tubs that they called home.  At one point, there were likely thousands of Legos under our roof, lurking under our furniture and nestled in the cushions of our sofas and chairs, ready to be sat on by an unwary grandparents.

So yes, I remember the Lego days.  Burn them, I say.  Burn them all!

Big Brother Barbie

Mattel has introduced a new Barbie called “Hello Barbie.” Implanted with voice recognition software and a microphone, Hello Barbie records children’s voices, sends them over the web to a server where they are reviewed and analyzed, and then uses that information to develop a response.  Eventually Hello Barbie is supposed to learn and remember names and chat away with kids.  The new doll is designed to get Barbie, which has been declining in popularity with digitally obsessed kids, back into the game.

Privacy advocates aren’t impressed. They call the new doll Eavesdropping Barbie and Creepy Barbie, and question why any parent would want their child’s conversations recorded and sent to a faraway server to be analyzed.  You could imagine how such recordings could be misused if they were intercepted, or the server was hacked, and they ended up in the hands of kidnappers or child molesters.  Privacy advocates also wonder if the doll’s chatter could be used to encourage kids to ask for other Mattel toys.  Mattel, for its part, says it is committed to safety and security.

I wouldn’t want to bring any device into my home that would intentionally record and analyze my children’s conversations — but I also think we have forgotten just how much information our existing electronic devices already collect and analyze information about us.  Our cellphones have apps that track our location and tell us about the nearest restaurants. Our home computers collect cookies that remember the websites we’ve visited and the searches we’ve done and then direct pop-up ads for products to our screens based on that information.  Our cars have satellite radios and GPS systems that follow our daily journeys.  Our home cable and wireless systems are tied into networks that are transparent to call center employees thousands of miles away.  A good rule of thumb is that any “smart” device — whether a phone, or a dishwasher, or a refrigerator, or a car — is collecting and recording information and sending it somewhere, where it probably is maintained on a computer server and being used or sold.

Hello Barbie?  It’s more like Hello Big Brother.  And Big Brother is already here.

Black Friday At Toys ‘R’ Us

Richard spent Black Friday at a Jacksonville, Florida Toys ‘R’ Us and wrote a good story about how Black Friday is changing for the Florida Times-Union.  On his Twitter account he reported that he was amazed at how little the store layout had changed from the last time he went to Toys ‘R’ Us as a kid.

The mention of Toys ‘R’ Us made my skin crawl and brought back some memories — all of them unpleasant.  I absolutely hated going to that store — in our case, the outlet near the intersection of Sawmill Road and 161 in northwest Columbus — and ‘m not sure exactly why.  Maybe it was the greedy, screaming kids who always seemed to be found there in terrible abundance.  Maybe it was the fact that all of the products for sale seemed cheaply made and grossly overpriced.  Maybe it was our bad luck in always getting a shopping cart with a broken wheel that stopped rotating when we were on aisle 3.

When you are a parent, you go through a number of rites of passage with your kids — some good, some bad.  When Richard and Russell were past the age when they wanted toys, and we were blissfully relieved of the need to every again go to a Toys ‘R’ Us, it was a milestone worth celebrating.

High Expectations And Electric Football

Life can be difficult if you approach it with high expectations.  You vote for a new President expecting him to live up to his promises, for example, and inevitably you are disappointed.  That’s not a problem for me, because I grew up with Electric Football.

Electric Football was a toy, but its ads portrayed it as more than that.  You would be a 12-year-old coach of a team of hardened football players.  You would put them on a beautiful green field of gridiron glory.  They would run plays that you designed, that pitted your football prowess against that of your opponent — tough up-the-gut fullback plunges, all-out blitzes, and the occasional, beautiful breakaway sprint down the sideline to the end zone.  This was a toy that UJ and I had to have.

We finally got it one Christmas.  We opened it, found the beautiful green field of Electric Football Stadium — and then found a bunch of cheap, flimsy plastic football players.  The football itself was made out of lighter-than-air pink foam.  We tried running a few plays, which meant placing your players on the field and then turning a switch to start the Electric Football Excitement.  The field would throb with an annoying hum, the surface would vibrate, and the players would rattle around.  No matter what the call, be it Cleveland Browns sweep, tight buttonhook, or long bomb, every play ended the same way — with every player moving randomly on the surface, some toppling over, and most eventually clustered on the sidelines, facing outward.

What a rip-off!  We quickly realized that there was no true gridiron glory to be had with Electric Football, so we decided to make the best of it.  We designed grossly illegal formations like the flying wedge or the ultimate volcano, in hopes a getting a player to the end zone.  When even that got boring, we gave up, put the Electric Football in the closet, and promptly forgot about it.

So, when it comes to our politicians, my expectations are low.  I anticipate random activity, I’m happy if they aren’t too lightweight and their humming isn’t too annoying — and I’ll gladly forget they exist after too many disappointments.

Barbie, Our Cultural Ambassador

Barbie, the popular doll, has been the target of criticism over the years.  Many people think that Barbie’s improbable figure projects unhealthy concepts about the ideal female body for the young girls who love the doll.  Others say Barbie is too frivolous and clothes-obsessed.  Mattel, the maker of Barbie, has tried to thread the needle by offering Barbies with professional careers — like Barbie the architect — while at the same time selling the clothes and cars and houses that the pre-teen Barbie owners crave.

A recent news story, however, may help to rehabilitate Barbie’s reputation.  It turns out that the doll is the subject of a crackdown by the Iranian government.  It is removing the dolls from stores because they say that Barbie is a “manifestation of Western culture.”  In a benighted land where women must wear head scarves, interaction between men and women is strictly regulated, and opportunities for women are few, Barbie’s miniskirts, makeup, and general air of fun and freedom make the government uncomfortable.  So, the dolls are being confiscated — which won’t be easy because Iranian girls apparently love Barbie just like American girls do and have resisted previous crackdowns.

Who would have thought that a little plastic toy could carry so much cultural weight?  Anything that make the Iranian government feel uncomfortable — and might cause Iranians to see their government for the repressive authoritarian regime that it truly is — can’t be all bad.  Maybe, instead of architect Barbie, Mattel should introduce Ambassador Barbie.  Hey, or even President Barbie!

Woodburners and Vacuforms

Toys may be more violent than they used to be — I’m not sure it’s a good idea, for example, to expose children in their “formative years” to the mindless violence of video games like Grand Theft Auto — but I think they are much safer than they used to be. A kid playing a video game is not likely to sustain an injury much worse than a thumb sprain. When I was growing up, on the other hand, toys — or even a visit to the playground, with its “monkey bars” and acres of asphalt — involved significantly greater risks of physical injury.

As a kid I had three toys that now seem, in retrospect, extraordinarily dangerous. One was a “woodburner” kit. The woodburner was like a pen that plugged into the wall and became red hot. After the device became red hot, you could use it to burn designs into wood — or if you weren’t careful, into the table on which you were working, the carpet, or your arm. The box the kit came in showed kids my age presenting their beaming mothers with beautiful renderings of flowers or dogs. Who were those guys? I never managed anything better than the crudest stick-figure type drawings. (In that respect, the woodburning kit was similar to an Etch-A-Sketch, which required the deftness and touch of a safecracker.) And, of course, once you messed up while burning your artwork into a plank, the plank itself was useless. I could burn through enough wood to build Noah’s Ark without producing any artwork that even remotely resembled a recognizable object. The woodburning kit ultimately proved to be good for only three things — burning your initials into the bottom of your Louisville Slugger, showing your friends how you could hold the woodburner close enough to your forearm to cause the hairs to shrivel away yet not burn your flesh, and producing a very cool smell.

Another toy was called the Vacuform. Like the woodburning kit, the Vacuform was based on the concept that growing boys would like toys that featured extreme heat. The Vacuform consisted of a plug-in device to which you attach iron molds; after the molds became sufficiently heated you would place squares of plastic on the iron mold and the plastic would assume the shape of the mold — say, a race car or a jet plane. Then, you were supposed to paint the plastic, apply decals, and end up with a cheap plastic toys much crappier looking than a ready-made Hot Wheels. With a heating unit, melted plastic, and paint in close proximity, what bad could happen? That toy could have been dreamed up by Irwin Mainway, the character played by Dan Aykroyd who used to be exposed on the original Saturday Night Live for selling kids toys called “bag of glass” or “invisible pedestrian.”

The last toy was closely analogous to the Vacuform, in that it featured electricity , a heating unit, and metal molds. In this case, though, the molds were indented with the shapes of spiders, snakes, and other scary creatures, and you were supposed to fill it with a rubbery goo that would harden after being heated and assume the shape of the mold. Then, you could use the spiders and snakes to scare your sisters and girls in the neighborhood. The end product, though, didn’t really looks like a real spider or snake, because you inevitably poured too much of the goo into the mold, and as a result the legs of the spider, for example, would be connected by a translucent sheen of plastic that you were supposed to trim off with a knife. Apparently, the heating unit and rubbery goo weren’t sufficiently dangerous, so the toymaker had to add knives to the equation as well.

The striking thing about all of these toys is not only that they seem awfully dangerous, but also that — especially when viewed from the perspective of an age where self-esteem is viewed as so important to child development — they were carefully designed to make most kids feel like abject failures. It’s hard to believe that any normal boy was able to produce anything of value with any of these toys. On the other hand, one can easily imagine Nikita Khrushchev chuckling gleefully and rubbing his hands together at the success of a plot that caused thousands of American youth to be maimed, physically disfigured, or psychologically crippled by these diabolical devices.