Monday, January 5, 2009

When toys attack

Over the holidays WB did a bit of channel cruising to escape insanely fluctuating temperatures and head-numbing winds. Ironically, sitting immobile and avoiding the outdoors was exactly what led to finding VH-1's marathon of I Love Toys, a nostalgic look back at some of the greatest kiddie amusements in the last 50 years.

All of the usual suspects made it into the countdown of top toys — GI Joe, Cabbage Patch Kids, Easy-Bake Ovens, et al. — but one toy was glaringly left out of the discussion and even now is absent from the network's list of faves: Clackers.

Or, if you prefer, Kabongers. Or maybe Knockers, Klik-Klaks, Clikkers, Poppers, or a few hundred other variations on the theme. But no matter what they were called, these things represented the zenith of toy design at a time when toys still had the potential to kill and maim — and everybody knew that, but bought them anyway. Whacking a set of these colorful acrylic balls together could easily:

- develop such force that one or both balls would whack into a kid's forearm and leave a bruise for weeks

- forget about mere bruising and instead smash into a kid's wrist and fracture it

- forget about fracturing bones and instead shatter the acrylic into tiny shards that went into a kid's eye(s)

In addition to these enjoyable and memorable functions, Clackers could also be used as weapons if a kid bypassed the center ring on the connecting rope and instead used one ball as a handle to swing or throw the other at a despised opponent. (This toy's design was taken from the South American bola, a throwing weapon.) But maybe because this was the 1970s, when people still understood that just about anything can be used as a weapon — e.g. a steel buckle swinging from the end of an undone leather belt in a schoolyard fight — "outrage" over Clackers focused more on the insanity-inducing noise they made by knocking together than on the bruises, arm casts, and eye patches they could leave behind.

This was, after all, the era when Vietnam and its real-life horror shows were grinding to a close, and a few hundred toy-battered kids were lost in the enormity of 50,000 older American kids having been killed in that pointless quagmire. And maybe because of the reality of war — with its dead, disfigured, scarred, amputated, burned, and decomposed bodies guest-starring nightly in living rooms throughout the country and around the world — people tolerated "common sense" injuries from toys in a way that seems unimaginable today.

Creepy Crawlers, for example, were made from plastic forms melted on a 300-degree hot plate. Kids got badly burned if they touched the hot plate while it was making bugs. Parents warned, "Don't touch it," and if that wasn't enough, one contact experience between kidflesh and scalding steel would pretty much take care of preventing any future repeats.

During the same lethal-toy epoch, grown-ups were playing a fun, wholesome outdoor game called Jarts, where spike-tipped airborne missiles sailed toward plastic rings on the lawn. Or at least that was the plan. Something as simple as a sweaty hand (and this was a summertime game) could send a Jart veering wildly off course. Even so, parents warned, "Stand back," and that was that, except when the victim of a Jart-tip through the skull was an innocent toddler who didn't understand, and the launcher of the wayward missile was a beer-impaired family member who didn't know where the kid was in the first place.

Two quick points about Jarts. First, they might seem to be just a lethal alternative to horseshoes, an American backyard favorite. But anyone — whether a player or a spectator sitting what was thought to be a safe distance away — who's been zonked in the shin, or kneecapped by a badly thrown U-shaped piece of steel rolling end over end past the sand pit and then taking a bad bounce, knows that horseshoes are already plenty dangerous without a plastic "alternative." (Still, Jarts did allow for quick and easy setup without digging pits in the yard and measuring out the NHPA-required distances between and beyond them.)

Second, Jarts were "missiles." That's what the box said. They actually had nothing to do with horseshoes, but everything to do with the Cold War that had until just recently seen the Soviet Union and the United States aiming their full arsenals of nukes at each other in a testosterone-driven staredown. The plastic circles were targets, and the missiles could nail those targets dead on or else land close enough (within the length of one Jart) outside the target to still inflict heavy damage, i.e. a scoring point. In other words, Jarts were an opportunity to play Dr. Strangelove with the aroma of summer barbecue in the background.

Estimates are that nearly seven thousand people were injured and four were killed by spike-tipped yard missiles before Jarts were banned. But nearly seven billion people could be incinerated by the 11,000 nuke-tipped missiles that are still poised to unleash hell on the planet.

Good thing there's someone watching over us to protect us from dangerous toys.



G-Fab said...

I always loved the name Ed's Redeeming Qualities for a band--they were good. Here's a YouTube video of them singing "Lawn Dart."

More on ERQ here:

Anonymous said...

When I was a kid we use to melt crayons and pour the wax into creepy crawler molds. I can still remember the burns I received when fighting with my brother over who got to pour the wax.

Marcy said...

How did we ever survive our childhood?

Unknown said...

I don't know but it sure was fun