The response to my ramblings about the foods I miss was so amazing (thank you all) I’ve been in hyper-retro-reminiscence mode for going on a week now. And once I’d reminded myself of all the delectable morsels I could think of, my thoughts naturally shifted over to, what else, TOYS!
I fondly remember the arrival of the new Sears & Roebuck Christmas Wishbook each year. I’d heft that thousand-page, ten-pound behemoth into the living room, flop down onto my stomach on the rust-colored shag carpeting, flip right to the toy section (just past halfway through the catalog, if I remember correctly) and begin working on the Great American Christmas List.
I wrote with reckless abandon. Retail prices did not threaten my resolve. I scoffed at warnings of images being ‘representational only’. My juvenile sense of entitlement drove me, gave me the doggedness to resist the temptation of JP Patches and Speed Racer until the list had reached completion. After maybe two solid hours of furious page-flipping, cross-referencing, and chicken-scratching, I had composed a prize-winning (if nearly illegible) Xmas List. Little did I know that the very items I was asking for — many of which I would eventually receive — would one day constitute little more than a blurb in a schmaltzy mass-market publication.
The research of the various items I list here turned out similarly to that of the food items. Some are no longer manufactured while others are still on the market, but in name only. The main reason for this is, as you’d expect, safety. Or, rather, the lack thereof.
Status: No longer manufactured
The scares and controversy surrounding these injury-inducing contrivances notwithstanding, this is probably the one item I miss the most. Two balls of colored acrylic attached with a string. It’s not a particularly clever toy, nor is it something that commands more than fifteen minutes worth of continual playtime. But for some reason I can’t fully explain, it stands above all other toys as the One Great Bauble. Perhaps it was its usefulness as a weapon as well as a noisemaker. Maybe it was the thrill of knowing that at any time the clackers could explode from impact with one another and send tiny, cornea-shredding shards of Plexiglass into the eye sockets of anyone within a six-foot radius. Hard to say. I just remember that mine were green, that I got them at Disneyland, and that I have no idea what happened to them.
Clackers as I remember them are no longer made. There are crappy knock-offs made from run-of-the-mill plastic (which, due to the inherent differences in acrylic and thermoplastic, are completely useless). There are also a small number of the originals out there on the collector’s market if the manifestation of that particular memory is worth $35 to you.
Lawn Darts (aka Jarts)
Status: Available only outside the US
Quite possibly the most dangerous toy I was ever given. Heavy. Aerodynamic. Impalement-ready. Banned from sale in the US in 1988. Being a temerarious, by-the-seat-of-my-pants kid, I ignored the numerous warnings on the box and invented all sorts of insane games with these things. Revealing these games here would only serve to enlighten everyone to just how much of a lunatic I was and that has little value. What I want to mention about Lawn Darts is that despite their reputation as the World’s Deadliest Toy, they are only outlawed here in the US. This either means that Lawn Darts are only dangerous to Americans or that Americans are a bunch of craven ninnies who won’t be happy until every sharp corner and edged protrusion in the country is covered in bubble-wrap.
Status: No longer manufactured
The granddaddy of projectile-launching toys with more small parts than a two-year-old could even think of swallowing, Shogun Warriors — specifically the 24″ plastic monstrosities — were everything a twelve-year-old boy could want in an action figure. They were spring-loaded, relatively durable, and looked like truly bad-ass versions of Gigantor. They even had wheels on their feet which, when Hot Wheels tracks were employed, enabled them to traverse the gentle slope from the top of the driveway to the numerous regiments of hapless army men at the bottom all by themselves. I became pretty accurate with Mazinga’s red-tipped rockets, too. Got to the point where I could hit a kneeling bazooka gunner from ten feet away. Ah, good times.
Of course, once the critical number of children who had either choked on or lost and eye to the various Shogun projectiles had been reached, American legislators stepped in and put limitations on spring-loaded toys which ended up killing the Shogun Warriors line in the states. Kids quickly found that a spring-launched missile that was tethered to the launcher by a two-inch piece of string somehow lacked the same thrill. Go figure.
Status: No longer manufactured
Not sure why this one went the way of the dodo, since it wasn’t exactly a dangerous toy. Oh sure, the whirling blade smarted a bit if it whacked you on the side of the knuckle, but I doubt anyone ever ended up in the emergency room from a VertiBird-related injury. It was also an extremely popular toy; Wikipedia claims it “is one of the most famous and cherished toys ever”. I have to agree. I absolutely loved my VertiBird Airborne Rescue Mission set. You know what’s fun? One kid firing Shogun Warrior rockets at army men while another kid tries to ‘rescue’ the army men with the VertiBird. The resulting build up of anticipation and excitement was something that no amount of drug experimentation later in life could hope to replicate.
Interesting tidbit: I think the term ‘VertiBird’ might be the very first instance of the 21st century fad of capitalizing a letter in the middle of a word. It predates words like PowerBook and LaserJet by almost two decades.
The Green Machine
Status: Available in a revamped adult version!
Every kid in my neighborhood had a Big Wheel. Well, the kids with single moms had a knock-off called the Hot Cycle, but we didn’t concern ourselves with brands when we were kids. As far as we were concerned, the major difference was that the Big Wheel had an adjustable seatback while the Hot Cycle had an immovable bucket seat. Beyond that, the design style was irrelevant…
…until Marx Toys released the Green Machine. With turn-on-a-dime, stick-controlled rear wheel steering, the Green Machine was the instant bad boy of the plastic three-wheelers. Everyone was constantly bugging me to let them ride mine and I imagine it was probably the first item I ever used to get in good with a girl.
The Green Machine’s biggest advantage over the Big Wheel, though, was it’s inclination to go into a spin with the least provocation. In other words, a ludicrous lack of control was it’s greatest and most valued distinction. The pre-teen point-of-view being: Hey, I may not have won the race, but sliding sideways into that fire hydrant was a total blast!
The Green Machine is still manufactured, now under the Huffy brand. When I searched for information on it, I was utterly shocked to find that the new version has actually gone up in quality. It now sports a rubber front tire, steel frame, brake levers built in to the joysticks, and an adjustable bucket seat.
But wait! It gets better! A little more digging revealed that there is an adult version out there priced at under $100. Perhaps this is how I’ll deal with turning 40. My mid-life crisis will be satiated by a Green Machine as opposed to, say, a Ferrari GT308 Quattrovalvole.
Because, you know, I can actually afford the Green Machine. But then again, if I was feeling super industrious, I could try my hand at making my own.