PHOENIXVILLE - Do you remember your most prized possession at various times in your childhood? Most of us do. Plus we are reminded of the precious pleasures associated with certain toys when we see our children or grandchildren at play.
During these cold winter days and nights, new toys received during the holidays become introduced to older ones scattered in various storage areas. The action that follows is determined by the child's age, attention span and number of companions available to join the fun.
I have observed that there are at least two basic differences between modern toys and those available in the pre-television era, specifically during the depression years 30s and the wartime 40s. Ours were made to last much longer and the modest purchase price was far less that the cost of the hundreds of batteries needed to keep the modern electronic toys operable for more than a month.
Frequent readers of this column are well aware of my love of animals. I believe that this strong affection came from my first contact with surrogate buddies during my infant and toddler stage. Seeing old photographs from those prehistoric times, it appears that I had some type of stuffed animal as a buddy during both formal and more candid shots. My mother was a "saver" so I later recall seeing a ragged doggie on wheels named Roxie and a life-size Mickey Mouse minus one ear. I was told that there were many stuffed buddies that later would be replaced by the real thing for each member of our family.
When I learned about construction toys my life's ambition changed abruptly. Vet, no; engineer (two kinds), yes.
During my kindergarten year, my dad built the first of many Christmas platforms that featured a standard gauge Lionel train set. The entire elaborate village took up half of our modest living room. I'm not sure the latest date that the complex was removed and life returned to normal.
I do recall valentines being added as neither dad nor I wanted to see the project dismantled.
Each year, the engineering project grew larger and I became a full partner in the operation. The non-railroad part of my engineering education occurred with the arrival of my favorite toy, the Erector set.
The gifts were received in three stages until finally the largest set allowed me to create motion in my projects. The two motors and various gears allowed the builder to adjust speed and direction to produce a variety of marvels. One of my first introductions to electrical currents helped solve a problem by using a soda straw for insulation so that the light on my lighthouse could rotate without twisting wires.
Nobody said that these were educational toys but my friends and I surely learned a lot from them.
Many men still enjoy the hobby of building model railroad layouts and they are all the richer for doing it. It has been said, in a different context, the only difference between men and boys is the cost of their toys. But that is what helps to keep us forever young.
Most of my teachers believed that I would find a career in science. By later elementary school years, I put a variety of my toys to work in various science fair projects. Jimmy was my best friend in sixth grade and his father taught electrical engineering in college. His basement was a cornucopia of gadgets, wires and other secret equipment. It was safer than using chemicals as the most we got were a few shocks instead of burns and fires.
I should note that toys available during the depression were solidly built because money was tight for everybody. During the war years, cardboard became the material of choice as steel and rubber went to war with our troops. The metal toy soldiers during the 30s were replaced by cutout cardboard figures later. Lincoln logs created solid structures but colored cardboard forts were a poor substitute.
In the early 40s, I joined the modern era by using plywood and tissue to build model airplanes patterned after the heroic Spitfire, P-38, P-39, P-40 and B-17. Miss television? I wouldn't have had time for it!
Perhaps board games with family and friends were another sign of the times. The traditional checkers, chess, Chinese checkers, Monopoly and numerous card games meant spending quality time with each other. I was always competitive so I recall the first time that I beat my favorite uncle in chess. If he let me win, he surely covered it well. Togetherness was important as families were interrupted by wartime service. But we never let a blackout stop us. Games continued when the All-Clear siren sounded.
Being a sports fan from my earliest memories, I always had my share of bicycles, scooters, wagons, sleds, baseball gloves, bats, etc. But on the coldest winter nights, the warmth provided by playing games or sharing toys with family and friends will never be forgotten.
Although many of my toys were educational by nature, the best lesson that I learned from them was quite simple. My parents taught me that if I wanted a toy or game bad enough and there was no money available, I was told to go work for it. That work ethic is still with me today and I am grateful.