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Toying Around

The oldies but goodies

By Bill Fields

For adults, the first month of the year is a time when we tend to take stock of ourselves and make resolutions on a host of fronts in the name of self-improvement, even though sometimes vows are gone quicker than the crispy tree put by the curb. But when I was a kid — back when a pressing concern was trying to convince my mother to splurge on a half-gallon of name-brand ice cream instead of store-label ice milk — January was perfect for another kind of inventory.

On the heels of Christmas, it was natural to consider the toys and games that you had — not just what a generous Santa Claus might have recently delivered, but diversions that stuck around season after season.

For staying power and hours of enjoyment, my Monopoly game was hard to beat. It brought the family together at the dining room table for years, my relatives tolerating my absurd early desire to be allowed to improve properties before owning all the properties in a color group. (I matured and played by the rules.) After many years of action, we had missing hotels, dog-eared money, Pepsi-stained Chance and Community Chest cards, and my mother, a teller by day, still detested being the banker or being stuck with the iron token.

In contrast to Monopoly’s time-tested appeal that made me love it from Day One, whatever initial excitement that came with receiving Lite-Brite and Etch A Sketch dissipated quickly. As for the former, when you start out with two misspellings in your name, how good can you really be? I would much rather watch Mickey Mouse on television than attempt to create his likeness by punching translucent, colored plastic pegs through a sheet of black paper illuminated from behind. When it came to Etch A Sketch, the detailed scenes said to be possible on the mechanical drawing screen by turning the two knobs weren’t in my wheelhouse. A crappy-looking mountain range was about the best I could muster. It never brought any cheer to realize that Lite-Brite and Etch A Sketch were in the recesses of my closet.

Then there were toys such as Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots and Electric Football that were much loved until fun turned into frustration. The heads of boxers Red Rocker and Blue Bomber were supposed to be knocked off with a powerful pushbutton punch. Over time, though, the heads would develop a mind of their own and occasionally raise from the shoulders without a hit, just from moving around the ring. Electric Football had a lot going for it — I don’t agree with author Bill Bryson’s contention that the game was “possibly the worst toy ever built” — but the vibrating players too often did want to spin around in circles as if drunk around a maypole instead of making forward progress. This was a reality regardless of how much surgery you’d done on their brushes that touched the metal field. And the tiny felt football utilized for passes and kicks was hard not to lose even with the excellent eyesight of youth. It was easy pickings for the Electrolux.

Just as a pet cat can enjoy an empty cardboard box more than an expensive “home” purchased by its owner, so it was with simple toy and game options growing up.

My plastic army soldiers fought multiple battles on hardwood, carpet or dirt, undeterred by bent bayonets or broken bazookas. A yo-yo was fun despite mastering a limited repertoire of tricks. Hot Wheels cars largely performed as advertised. Matchbox vehicles punched above their weight; opening and closing the doors to the ambulance shouldn’t have been fascinating but it was.

And there were the hours playing with things that didn’t cost a dime. While watching the Sunday afternoon NBA game on TV, by the second quarter I would have fashioned an indoor goal out of a clothes hanger on a door frame, convinced that neither Hal Greer nor Jerry West could fill up the hoop with a crumpled ball of tin foil better than I could.

A paper football was the only origami I was interested in, the finished product a much better use of a sheet of loose-leaf paper than multiplication tables. The thrill of having flicked a long touchdown by getting the triangular “ball” to hang over the table’s edge was only slightly less than scoring a TD out in the yard. If no corneas were scratched in the kicking of field goals, everybody was happy until next time.  PS

Southern Pines native Bill Fields, who writes about golf and other things, moved north in 1986 but hasn’t lost his accent.