Toys Gone By

My mom has long been one of my heroes (heroines?) and a champion of my creative impulses and flights of imagination.  One of the earliest examples of her limitless support was the Fiddlesticks sets she bought me.

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Here it is. The Knickerbocker Fiddlesticks World of Mazu building set. Been looking for it for about five years now. This is one of the earliest toys I can ever remember having.

Gaze upon this image and appreciate it. You don’t know what I had to do to get it.  Well, okay, I actually just had to look it up on Google, but it was only after five years  of searching for the set, in addition to another couple of nights looking for it again  (due to the fact that, uh, I forgot what it was called).  But MAN, that second search was ridiculous; there were virtually no pictures of the set anywhere on the net, no matter how many search terms I submitted.  Eventually, I had to resort to looking in the one place I suddenly remembered the pic would be – on my Facebook page, where I posted it three years ago.

This is what happens when I put things away.  I can never find them again.

The Knickerbocker Fiddlesticks sets were comprised of a series of multi-colored tubes, about the thickness of a #2  pencil, which varied in length, along with  a variety of two-, three-, and four-pronged connectors for putting the tubes together.  Every unit was packaged with larger, plastic shell pieces that allowed the builder to make various objects, from vehicles, to buildings, to otherworldly Lovecraftian horrors of gargantuan proportions.  “Action” figures (they could bend over and sit down) were included with the sets.  The Knickerbocker company had a long tradition of making toys from licensed characters, and they continued in that vein with several popular Marvel and DC superheroes, including Spider-Man and Superman.  One side of the figures was decorated with decals, with the characters standing invariably with arms akimbo.

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Above:  A Batman set.  I had that one too.

 As my little brain grew more and more complex in its ability to comprehend and appreciate my toys, I began to realize that the Fiddlesticks World of Mazu set had a certain aspect to it that I hadn’t noticed in other building toys:  you could build stuff with Legos and Lincoln Logs, but this thing was candy-colored conflict and excitement in one large box.  On the one hand, you get two astronauts.  On the other, you’re presented with an absolutely massive alien, the dimensions of which you, the builder, could dictate.  Though it’s solid, intimidating face and clawed feet looked a bit incongruous when mounted on its skeletal rainbow body, for one of the first times in my young life I had been presented with a toy that contained both antagonist and protagonists (or vice-versa) in one package.

Being a child who enjoyed the simple narrative of good-vs.-evil, the two astronauts would always have to be on their guard from becoming a snack for the malignant Mazu (I don’t recall ever using that appellation, however.  Prolly just called it ‘the monster’).  For his part, Maz was no passive threat.  He was packaged with two huge pincers that the builder could operate manually, trapping the perpetually-in-profile explorers and dragging them off to their doom.  Sadly, it wasn’t in my nature at the time to spin an adventure wherein the obviously enraged Mazu was an innocent actor somehow being provoked by the astronauts, possibly bugged by their environmentally-destructive attempts to score some unobtanium or some such.

But it mattered little.  What I had was a toy that allowed me, though I was unaware at the time, to explore my ever-growing love of speculative fiction and storytelling.  This was a toy that I could build into almost literally anything I wanted (a spaceship could be constructed as well, as the packaging shows), with an obvious push towards the realm of the FAR OUT!  If I wanted to follow the included instructions and build Mazu, or a starship, or just a plastic thingamabob from Fancyville, I was free to do so.  It wasn’t the little white connectors that kept my creations together, it was my imagination.

And this was one of the many reasons why my mom was my hero.  No matter what my report card may have said, no matter how unprofitable a future in being a chronicler of the impossible may seem, she never stopped feeding my imagination, never stopped inspiring me, pushing me, challenging me to consider things from different angles in order to become a better storyteller.

Between that, those wonderful memories of her showing me how to put Mazu together, and the tireless work she did to keep Mike and me rolling in toys to begin with (obviously having dealt with proper food, housing, and healthcare first), my mom enriched my life in ways I can’t begin to thank her for.

Nevertheless:  Thanks, Mom.

Toys Gone By

You know what?  Barrels.

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It’s amazing to me, when I think about it, how much barrels had something to do with my upbringing.  Some of the happiest times of my childhood had something to do with barrels, and I remember them fondly.  The barrel was the menacing and relentless weapon of choice of the enraged ape Donkey Kong.  It was the container of sweet, orange fluid I would drink for lunch (Little Hugs.  You know what I mean).  And it was the centerpiece of one of my most fondly remembered toys.

I loved trains as a kid, which would prove to be a rather dubious statement if you had seen the way I treated them back then: neglected, broken, and on the floor.  Regardless, they held an endless charm for me.  One of the earliest trains I remember having was a Lionel O-Scale set, and one of the features that came with it was the Barrel Loader.  This, to me, represented the point of trains:  to get something from one place to another.

What was in the barrels?  What would become of the contents when they got there?  Well, this was make-believe, so, really, it didn’t matter what was in the barrels as much as they get to where they needed to go, get offloaded, and then re-loaded onto the building for another go-round.  Barrels, after all, were good things, with good, important stuff in them.  Whatever the contents, what mattered was that the train and the loader-guy did their duty to get the barrels where they belonged.

The brilliance of the toy is in its design.  Assembly was rather simple, and as I can recall, fairly sturdy in the hands of a six-year-old.  The piece did not necessarily have to be connected to the track.  The building is adorned with a number of molded decorations, such as a coil of rope, a mallet, a flight of stairs, and even a little shack that the workman “lives” in when he’s not on the clock.  Though these may seem insignificant – particularly since everything is one uniform shade of red or brown – they really actually add to the pretend factor. The little bits of detail nestled into the “background” of a toy really fueled my imagination.

The key element that really makes the piece stand out in my memory is its playability.  The problem with toy trains and small children is that the more elaborate the train becomes, the less kid-friendly it becomes as well.  Some model trains, after all, are meant to be set up and then simply observed.  The joy for certain collectors may be in arranging tracks and scenery in new and different ways, or sculpting mountain ranges and replicating towns and such, but a child’s first instinct is to get his/her hands on the thing and actually play with it, crash it into something, and cheerfully destroy its value as a collectable.

The Lionel Barrel Loader, on the other hand, clearly says “Play with me” in a sweet-natured tone.  There’s a big ol’ lever right on the side of the thing that’s the perfect size for a child’s hands.  The barrels are loaded into the bay up top.  You then pushed the barrel down the ramp, and then, by pressing the lever, had the workman shove the barrel into a gondola car waiting on the track below.  You did this as many times as you had barrels, and then you sent the train on its way.

This was a solid-red definition of simplicity, and I’m a bit astonished how easily I could fit the operation of the thing in one small paragraph.  This is because I remember being fascinated by this operation, which I would perform over and over again. This wasn’t just an articulated piece of plastic that dropped plastic into a car made of plastic; it was a workplace, an early 20th century establishment of industry had a schedule to keep, a place where things needed to get done, so I had to hop to it!

I’m not sure what became of the model train industry.  Oftentimes I would try to indulge in my enjoyment of the hobby, only to leave the poor things sitting broken and unused time and again.  Honestly, I think Lionel, Bachmann, and the others may have gotten sick of me.  Perusing different hobby and retail websites, I rarely ever see accessories that offered the interactivity that you see with the barrel loader, log loader, et cetera.  Of course, I’m sure that there are plenty of enthusiasts who would disagree with me, and rightly so:  The train I had was not necessarily a model train, but a children’s toy.  It was meant to be touched by clumsy hands and played with.  Play with it I did.  And I shouldn’t be so quick to write off Lionel – they have a version of the product listed on their site, this one fully painted, and featuring and exterior light!

Old school as I am, I may just have to upgrade.