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Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Ghost of Christmas Presents

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Joyful Hanukkah, Groovy Kwanzaa, and Pleasant Other December celebrations that I don’t know about. Now shut up and get shopping. There are toys to be bought.

These days, all the danger is taken out of toys. Everything has to be touched, tasted, burned, crash-tested and, of all the stupid things, checked for lead content. What hogwash. I was snacking on lead paint chips more often than Lay’s has potato chips, and do you see anything wrong with me? (He asked, typing with his tumorous stumps.)

I grew up in the golden years before the Consumer Product Safety Commission was born. Giant head-piercing Lawn Darts, blinding projectiles, small choking hazards, and BB guns were all the rage. We had hand-burning Thingmakers that cooked toxic Plastigoop Creepy Crawlers. We loved our pinching, scalding, finger-amputating Vacu-Forms that created plastic molds you did nothing with. It was just fun to melt the molds and inhale the toxic, new-car-smelling fumes. We danced in clouds made by DDT-spraying, mosquito-killing trucks that went up and down the streets on summer nights. Pesticide smelled so good in those days. Okay, maybe that wasn’t a gift. We are still monitoring our cells for a possible class action lawsuit.

I am a bit loathe to admit that the first Christmas present I completely adored was a Swingline stapler. I wanted that more than anything, and after I got it, I spent hours putting that stapler to work, and evaluating its power. Could it staple my sister’s sleeves shut? Absolutely. But could it staple her shoes shut? There were scores of experiments to run. It occupied me for days on end. Boys push their toys to the limit to determine what it takes to break their Christmas presents. And once they find out, they ask for another one for their next birthday. Hopefully by then it would be new and improved.

Thanks to government regulation, we no longer have to worry about getting shot with the teeny-tiny little James Bond figure that ejected out of a toy Aston-Martin into my cornea. My eye was bloodshot and sore four days after the ejection took place.

And speaking of cars, my sister wanted, but never got the Barbie Dream Car. She only got the cardboard Barbie Dream House, which, along with a fifth of bourbon, kept my uncle awake while he put it together one Christmas Eve. Those were the days when “some assembly required” meant, “hope you have at least a Master’s degree in civil engineering and the patience of a saint.”

I have a friend whose sister received the Barbie Dream Car. Alan’s sister built an intricate ramp on their front steps to send her Barbie dream car down. That was all fun and games until Alan poured lighter fluid all over it, tossed a match on it, and sent the Barbie Dream Hearse down in flames. Literally. With Barbie in it, of course. And Ken. To my knowledge, Mattel never did manufacture Flame Retardant Barbie. Now get the collectable, breakable Flame Retardant Barbie, made of genuine terra cotta clay and now with long, flowing, brushable asbestos hair! Ask your parents to give it to you for your next birthday!

Girls kept their dolls clean and groomed back then, but boys lived to destroy their Christmas gifts. It was more fun to crash your electric train into a cinder block rather than just watch it go around in circles. I had a battery-operated Hot Wheels Power Blaster that sent toy cars flying off the track, across the living room, and, if you aimed right, into your sister’s face. We’d bring in a ladder and build a Hot Wheels track from the top rung. This caused the gravity-powered cars to have momentum beyond what they were engineered for, and we’d sail them off a ramp to nowhere and tried to get them to plunge into a tub of Cool Whip. After that we just ran around the room with the tub of Cool Whip and tried to catch the car in it. Naturally this ruined shirts, stained carpeting and made upholstery, in spots, suspiciously shiny.

There was this stuff that came in a tube, the precursor to Super Elastic Bubble Plastic. It smelled like a combination of leaded gasoline and ammonia. You’d squirt a blob of it on the end of a straw, blow on it, and sometimes it would make this dreary, blue-gray, brittle, plastic bubble. Other times, you would just see a girl with kaleidoscope eyes.

There was a compound sold around the time of the movies The Absent-Minded Professor, and its sequel, Son of Flubber. Flubber was a moldable plastic clay-like substance that had more bounce to it than Play-Dough could ever dream of. Mothers loved it because even though it was clear when new, Flubber turned black with dirty hands and was often ground into the new carpeting without a trace of hope of being removed.

Everything worth having back then contained the word “Super” in it. There was this tub of pink gelatinous slime, which I think was called Super—perhaps Sooper—Goop. It was hot pink, came in a small tub and smelled like formaldehyde. You would form a blob of it over your mouth, blow on it, and a bubble would form, pop, and drip down into the carpeting to piss off your mother, who was already busy scrubbing the blackened Flubber and Cool Whip out of the new shag. After Sooper Goop became passé, you could use it to preserve your dead parakeets.

There was the rock-hard, high-bouncing Super Ball, which could break car windows or give you a concussion. After that came the Super Small Ball, a tinier version. My friend, Ray, and I would go into the bathroom and throw it against the side of the bathtub and see how many times it hit parallel walls. That lasted until it bounced out and cracked the medicine cabinet door. How’d that happen? I dunno.

One Christmas, Ray got something called a Water Wiggle. Picture a fire hose that gets dropped and starts flying around, willy-nilly, smashing windows, denting cars and knocking very wet people unconscious. The Water Wiggle was a scaled down version of that. It was a narrow, pressurized hose with a goofy, bell-shaped face on the end of it. You attached it to a garden hose and it would fly around, spraying water, until it finally wrapped around your neck and strangled you like a boa constrictor. We figured out on our own that if you just kinked the garden hose, you could save the victim from asphyxiation, but only if you got there in time.

After months of begging, I finally got my Slip-n-Slide. Wham-o, the manufacturer, made the assumption when marketing this lengthy sheet of plastic, that people would spread it across spongy, cushioning grass. You would hook up your garden hose to it, and it would squirt water onto the plastic runner, and one would take a sailing dive on it and slide across the yard. Yippie!

We had zoysia grass. It’s like the grass used on putting greens. You can bounce Super Balls off of it. It is short-bladed and packed firmly into the hard earth beneath it. Jumping onto a Slip-n-Slide on zoysia grass was like taking a flying leap onto wet asphalt. You could only take it two or three times before you got a splitting headache or a spinal injury. Fortunately, Alan never tried setting you on fire while you slid across it. But only because I didn’t know him then; he probably would have.

One Christmas, I received, though never asked for, something called a wood burning kit. Probing the Internet, I see these things are still being made. How do you look at a seven-year-old boy and think, “What this fatherless, unsupervised boy needs is a pen that heats up to five billion degrees centigrade. He could use it to burn his name onto a wooden shingle. Or maybe set the house on fire. Wouldn’t that be nice?” I used my wood burning kit twice or three times, and never walked away without several giant blisters somewhere on my person. Billy’s birthday is just two weeks after Christmas. Maybe we’ll get him that Mattel Battlin’ Blowtorch or the Marx Miniature Nuclear Reactor.

Some genius made millions by threading a heavy glass ball on each end of a string and putting a plastic ring in the center. These things were called Clackers, because of the deafening sound they made when you bounced them against each other. It took weeks of practice and a fractured wrist before you could rattle them to sound like machine gun fire. Even my mother recognized them as unsafe. Although she feared more for the safety of our newly-acquired color TV set more than anything else. “You’re not allowed to play with those in the TV room,” she warned. “They could slip off the string and go through the television tube.” These clever toys were known to shatter, cut, blind, break bones and were the culprits of hundreds of concussions and other brain traumas. But as long as you don’t blow out the picture tube, knock yourself out. Why can’t you be more like your friends who spend a lot of time in the emergency room?

But thanks to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, kids don’t get so damaged these days. Characters in video games don’t really shoot back and hurt you, or punch you until you’re unconscious. Hopefully one day technology will advance so electronic games can actually hurt you, by locking themselves down when they ascertain that the child’s homework hasn’t been done.

We have the Consumer Product Safety Commission to thank for shielding us from the Hasbro Slippery Noose, the Milton Bradley Slice-n-Run Chain Saw, the Parker Brothers Quaalude Fun Factory, Let’s Play Surgeon! by X-acto, the Just Like My Stepdaddy’s Tire Iron from Matchbox, Mommy’s Little Transvestite Schoolwear for Boys from Abercrombie and Fitch, Ideal’s Home Crematorium, and the Charlie Manson Map of the Stars’ Homes by Remco.

Actually, I visited the CPSC’s web page on children’s toy recalls and counted 823. One of my favorites is a desk set shaped like a submarine that houses a tape dispenser, pencil sharpener, scissors, and a razor blade cutting tool. Recommended for ages 6 and up! It houses storage drawers, convenient for, I would imagine, holding your barbed wire, ninja throwing stars, Ritalin, and, if you’re Alan, flammable liquids. Thanks for catching that, CPSC! Maybe if I’m lucky, I can find one on eBay.

I also was fond of the recall of Good Neigh Bears, a choking-hazard plush toy given away free by State Farm insurance agents from 2005 to 2007. I wonder if their life insurance claims rose those two years. Kind of counter-productive, wouldn’t you say, State Farm?

You can take the toy away from the boy, but you can’t keep the boy from his imagination. We made blow dart guns from straws housing pin-embedded Q-Tips. They were deadly accurate. We burned ants (sometimes aunts, if they were asleep outside) and started brush fires using only the sun and a magnifying glass. We made rockets out of matches, toilet paper, and tin foil. We made miniature Hindenburgs with suffocating dry cleaner bags, balsa wood and birthday cake candles. They would rise about 6 feet off the ground and then burn and melt, possibly on you.

God, this whole thing makes me sound so old. I need a diversion. Maybe I’ll go play some cards or a game of Scrabble.

Or would I get paper cuts and choke? Perhaps shuffleboard is in my near future.

Creative Commons License by Bill Wiley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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