What Were Your Favorite Toys as a Child?

(As a holiday gift in December 2022, Chloe, Ella & Alex provided me a gift subscription to something called Storyworth. Each week in 2023, I’m being provided a writing prompt designed to get me to reflect on some moment in my life. At the end of the year, my reflections will be printed in a bound book as a family keepsake. I have the option of editing or even selecting the prompts, as do Chloe, Ella & Alex. This was a suggested prompt and I made it my fourth reflection essay.)

In Denver, Christmas 1970, at my maternal grandparents’ house. My first rod hockey game.

I had many favorite toys as a child and the more I think about this question, the more that come to mind. I better start writing and ease up on the reminiscing or this essay will be book-length!

The first toy that comes to mind is my slot car track. This is an electric toy in which small cars are placed on a track, held in place by a device on the bottom of the cars that is set into a slot on the track. You power them around the track with a hand controller. This was something that was a neighborhood activity when I was a kid, both in Omaha on 69th Street and after we moved to Bellevue. This toy was so significant that I recently acquired a small vintage set for my office in our recently remodeled Seattle home. It’s become a talking point with some of my online students.

The second toy that comes to mind is my rod hockey game. To play, two players sit opposite of each other with the game in between. You each control five rods, one for each player on your team, and a slider for the goalie. You pull and push the rods to move your players up and down the “ice,” the game’s tabletop. You quickly twist the rods to pass and shoot the oversized puck, and you move the goalie side to side to try to make saves. I loved, loved, loved this game, so much so that I included it in the mental fire drills I practiced when my fertile imagination of worry got the better or me. When (not if) our house caught on fire and I was trapped in my bedroom because of the flames, I would first throw the game into the firefighter’s net to keep it from burning. After it was safe, I would then jump.

Note to readers – our house never caught on fire.

The third toy are the Walkie Talkie sets my brothers and I had. These days, what with the ubiquity of cell phones, the idea of Walkie Talkies must seem quaint. But to me as a single-digit-aged kid, they were the epitome of cool. You’d have this little battery-powered device that allowed you to talk to someone else with the simple push of the button. Imagine! I could be upstairs in my room and Steve could be down in the basement and we could talk to each other. The actual toy, though, the specific Walkie Talkie that comes to mind now is a Christmas present I got one year. It must have been around the time of “Get Smart,” that silly TV show about spies and a spoof of the popular James Bond movies. My gift was a plastic briefcase that had a built-in Walkie Talkie. I pushed a button, talked into the briefcase, and could be heard on one of those hand-held devices. I could also hear someone talking back to me through a built-in speaker. Too cool! I remember the inside of the case was red and that the toy had a pretty distinctive plastic smell. I don’t think it was made too well, though, as I have a recollection of it not lasting too long.

The other toy that comes to mind, and the one I’m most significantly writing about, is my stuffed animal, Bunny. I believe I got him in a large Easter basket, the kind that involves plastic grass, candy, and a stuffed toy, all covered in colored cellophane. While I don’t trust this memory as being accurate, where I was when I first got him was in a car in a large empty parking lot, the kind that might be part of a high school or church. Why we were there and who I was with, I don’t know, my mom, perhaps. I was in the backseat and got to remove the cellophane, thus uniting Bunny and me for the first time. And while I ended up having a lot of stuffed animals, so many that I successfully lobbied to have a double bed in my room after Steve moved out because of my night terrors and our bunkbeds being separated, Bunny was always my favorite. Pooh and Kanga may have gotten married, but it was Bunny who performed the ceremony.

This is me at the end of my double bed. I don’t have any pictures of Bunny but I do have this one from when we raised bunnies!

Like the famed Velveteen Rabbit, my Bunny grew super-flabby, dirty, and worn. While he could sit up on his own, he really didn’t have any hind legs and only two small stubs for front legs. The way he sat and the way I played with him made his front legs seems more like stunted arms. I bounced him around on his soft backside by holding his neck in my hand, my thumb on one side and four fingers on the other. Over time, this pinching action caused his inner filling to separate and his neck to flop to the left. The fur on his neck all rubbed off and eventually the fabric wore down, first to threads like the knees of my jeans, and then to a hole. I would try to replace the lost stuffing with Kleenex in order to prop him up.

Bunny went everywhere with me, including on vacation. Once, while on vacation, I nearly lost him. As a kid, if I ever wanted to take my breath away with one of those fear-based “What if?” stories, all I needed to do is remember this event. We were driving, from Omaha to either Colorado or Wisconsin to visit a set of grandparents, and stopped at a rural gas station to refill. I went to use the bathroom and when I came back, Bunny was on the ground under the car. Seeing him there really shook me up. What if I hadn’t found him? That worry (of something that didn’t actually happen, mind you) could put me in a tailspin of concerned panic at any point in my childhood thereafter, sometimes keeping me up at night. To this day, I can still recapture that anxious feeling in my stomach when I think about it.

Ten or so years ago, I was hanging out at a neighborhood park while my daughter Ella was at her weekly soccer practice (learn more). Wandering around, enjoying some alone time, I came upon a telephone pole with one of those “Lost” posters on it. I assumed it would be for a lost dog or a cat, certainly cause for sadness if I imagined a family missing their cherished pet. What it was for, though, was a missing stuffed animal. Bam, I was back in that car on my family’s vacation, caught up in how awful I would have felt if Bunny had gone missing. I’ve seen similar posters a couple times since. Each time, my heart breaks a little bit for the child missing their beloved toy. I can’t stop myself from imagining them at bedtime, lost and forlorn without their sleeping companion, much as I would have been without Bunny. As an adult and parent, my empathy extends to the parents, too, who undoubtedly are trying to cheerlead a replacement, “Maybe Bearie can sleep with you tonight?” Clearly, any parent who takes the time to help their child create a “Lost” poster for a missing stuffed animal is worthy of my attention.

There was always a downside to having stuffed animals, too, at least for me as a boy in the 1960s and 1970s. First, I don’t remember either of my older brothers having them, something that convinced me that stuffed animals weren’t “boy toys.” Supporting this, I don’t recall any of my friends having them, either. Their sisters, yes, but not any boys I knew. As such, I was embarrassed that my friends might discover that I played with “dolls” and begged my brothers not to tell anyone about them. Seeing how important this was to me, I think they by and large honored this. More accurately, they probably didn’t really care about it and it was more in my head than something they thought about.

Still, this didn’t keep my brothers from giving me a hard time about my stuffed friends in the privacy of our house. One time, perhaps the first time our parents didn’t hire a babysitter (I can only imagine how long Scott had been lobbying for this), the three of us were home alone. I was supposed to take a bath but was busy doing something else. Somehow, eventually, Scott got me in the tub. But once in, I didn’t want to come out. I mean, how much fun is it to be in a tub of water with a bunch of toys and a washcloth parachute? Besides, I’m sure I sensed the power I had in NOT coming out. Something I could hold over my big brothers, look out!

Steve, as I recall, even though closer in age to me than to Scott, was a lot more mature than I was and liked being Scott’s partner in moments like these. So as long as I stayed in the tub, I had some semblance of power over both of my brothers, holding their attention, as it were.

I can’t say which brother came up with the idea but before too long, my stuffed kangaroo, Kanga from Winnie-the-Pooh, was being dangled above the bathtub by one of my brothers. They were threatening to dunk her if I didn’t get out of the tub. Why they chose Kanga, I don’t know. Maybe they realized that holding up Bunny would be too traumatic for me. More likely, she was the first one they saw when they went to get one of my stuffed animals off of my double bed.

I started screaming but it was really half-hearted as I knew this was a bluff. The penalties they’d face for dropping one of my stuffed animals in the tub were simply too great. So how what happened next actually took place, I don’t know. I suspect it was an accident, that they really didn’t mean it to happen, that perhaps one of them bumped the arm of the other who was holding Kanga. What I do remember is Kanga moving in some kind of slow motion flipping action, like a replay of an Olympic diver on TV, before splashing into the tub.

All hell broke loose then, Scott, Steve, and me each lunging for her. The longer Kanga stayed submerged, the more water her stuffing would soak up. I was out of the tub at this point, naked, wet, and cry-screaming. Scott was trying to reassure me that she’s fine, his new life of no-more-babysitters undoubtedly passing before his eyes. He’s got Kanga in a towel, I’m yelling that he hand her over, him being reluctant to do so, and Steve being torn between supporting Scott and soothing me. What I actually remember quite vividly is Scott telling me that Kanga is super lucky because she’s going to get to take a ride inside the dryer and no stuffed animal has ever been this lucky. It’ll be like going to Peony Park (a nearby amusement park), he said.

How the rest of the night went, I’m not sure. Clearly, we all survived this ordeal, Kanga ending up the worst for wear. Her fur was forever matted, never the same. I was a bit traumatized about her bouncing around inside the dryer but it was more show at that point, me testing to see where I held some sway. I think I did gain something, at least for a little while, some power with my brothers who I think felt genuinely bad about what had happened. Still, that didn’t prevent other forms of elder brother-imposed terror on my stuffed animals, like when Scott held Bunny to his backside and farted into him.

While I can still see his face while he did it, I’ll save that story for another time, although I do want to add that pouring your father’s Old Spice after shave on your little brother’s favorite stuffed animal doesn’t mask the smell, it just creates a new one. And Old Spice plus flatulence is not an aroma I’d recommend.

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