This time of year makes me think back to when I was a kid, excitedly waiting for Santa to deliver what I hoped would be the equivalent of a small toy store. The period between Thanksgiving and Christmas seemed like 300 years to me, but that was nothing compared to Christmas Eve. That night had to be at least 1,000 hours long, and it all but guaranteed a bad case of insomnia.
I also think back to some of the toys that were on my annual Christmas list when I was young. These were the toys that I absolutely had to have…that I would have died without. In fact, if Santa hadn’t brought them, I probably would have found some way to get up to the North Pole just so I could picket the place.
One standard that appeared on my list every year was Play-Doh. I loved Play-Doh. It smelled great, it came in bright colors (unlike drab old modeling clay), and after I made something with it, it hardened into a permanent work of art.
Unfortunately, that also was the problem with Play-Doh. It hardened when I didn’t want it to. Too many times I opened the can, fully prepared to create another masterpiece (like a nose-shaped ashtray with nostril holes for the cigarette butts for my dad), only to discover a hard whitish-looking clump lying in there.
Then there were the exciting new things that I wanted to be the first on my block to own. I remember my first flying saucer, when everyone else still had sleds. It was a big aluminum disk with handles, and it was supposed to skim over the snow and downhill like a bullet.
The problem with flying saucers was that unlike sleds, you couldn’t steer them. The first time I went sailing down the hill on one, not only was I spinning like an out-of-control top, I hit so many bumps and rocks, the saucer ended up looking as if someone had taken a sledgehammer to it. And believe me, a lumpy flying saucer not only was uncomfortable, it lost most of its “flying” power. By the end of the day, my saucer was so slow, kids who were sliding down the hill on flattened cardboard boxes were whizzing past me.
The gift I begged the most for was the first talking doll, Chatty Cathy. When you pulled a string on her back, she spoke 11 different phrases in a perky, nasal-sounding little girl’s voice. When I opened the box on Christmas morning and saw Chatty Cathy lying in there in her crisp blue and white dress and blond pageboy hairstyle, I was so excited, I opened my mouth to scream and nothing came out.
From that day on, Chatty Cathy and I were inseparable. I pulled her string so many times, it frayed. And my parents got so sick of hearing the same 11 phrases over and over again, my dad threatened to tie Cathy’s string into one of his navy knots.
Maybe my parents wished it on me, but much too soon, my constant string pulling wore out Cathy’s voice recording and she began to sound more like a slurry old drunk than a perky little girl. It was pretty creepy.
Another new-fangled toy I just had to have was an Etch-A-Sketch. Little did I know that learning how to draw anything other than a square on an Etch-A-Sketch practically required a degree in engineering.
For one thing, I couldn’t get it to make anything round. Every time I twisted the drawing knobs, I got squares. I drew people with square faces, square mouths and square eyes. And because the Etch-A-Sketch made only one continuous line with no way to make spaces, every face I drew had to have glasses because the line always connected the eyeballs together.
The worst part was that when I finally did manage to create something I thought was art-worthy, I’d pick up the Etch-A-Sketch and rush to show my mother …and the picture would erase itself. I never quite got the hang of carrying the thing perfectly flat to preserve my masterpieces.
One Christmas I asked for a microscope. I had a lot of fun looking through it at things like salt and sugar, and even a human hair. Then one day, I shoved a drop of tap water under the microscope. I saw a bunch of clear, tiny bug-like things having a pool party in it.
I vowed never to drink water again.
And I’ll never forget my first Mr. Potato Head. Back then, a real potato was required for the head. The kit came with hats, eyes, noses, mouths, mustaches, and even a pipe for Mr. Potato Head to smoke. And each piece had a nice sharp point on the end of it to jab into the potato (and occasionally, your finger).
I gave my Mr. Potato Head a few really “cool” looks. In fact, I thought one of my creations was so cool, I decided to preserve it. I carefully put Mr. Potato Head, fully decorated, back into his box...and then forgot all about him.
“What smells?” my mother, her nose wrinkled, asked one day as her eyes made a sweep of my room. She finally sniffed her way over to my toy chest and dug out the Mr. Potato Head box.
That’s when we discovered that Mr. Potato Head had become Mr. Rotten Potato Head.
Toys sure were a lot of fun back then.