Following up on Monday’s post about my Seventies holiday memories, here’s a quick and incomplete rundown of some of the cherished childhood treasures Saint Nick deposited beneath my family’s artificial tree.
The first on the chronological list would be Fisher-Price’s Sesame Street playset, complete with Little People figures of the show’s principal characters, a garbage truck, and a built-in chalkboard.
The set loomed large in an episode of childhood trauma during the 1976 Christmas season.
During the lead-up to the big day, my parents let my stay up late one weekend evening while they watched the “Killer Trees” skit on the then-fresh-and-hip Saturday Night Live. As a result, I became irrationally terrified of the family Christmas tree. It was bad enough that I had to pass by the tree to get to the kitchen from my bedroom to get breakfast every morning, but my completely empathetic dad also made a point of humming “O Tannenbaum” or shouting “I think I just saw a branch move!” whenever I approached the plastic monstrosity.
Despite — or because of — my terror, my parents placed the gifts from Santa directly under the tree. My Christmas morning was spent in a state of intense longing from a safe vantage point on the opposite side of the living room, whimpering and waiting for my parents to crawl out of bed at noontime.
The next gift of Christmas past has become something of a Holy Grail for me. I’ve replaced and repurchased a lot of my lost childhood treasures over the years, but the SSP Smash-Up Derby set is the one that has continued to elude me. The scream of the internal gyro wheel as the “T-stick” was forcibly yanked, the wobbly high-speed beeline the car would make across the kitchen linoleum, the satisfying explosion of parts as it hit a wall, table leg, or my dog’s ass — I can clearly envision every moment of it even as I feel a burning desire to relive it for even a few short moments.
I check out vintage toy sellers and auction sites every so often in search of a set, but the cards are stacked against that from ever happening. It’s a toy from the early-to-mid Seventies with a slew of pieces and designed for rough play. Anything approaching my “functional and reasonably complete” threshold is guaranteed to exceed the “how much am I really willing to pay for a nostalgia fix” limit.
Not to be confused with identically-named DC super-team, Zee Toys’ Metal Men were a die-cast attempt to cash in on the mania for Star Wars and Micronauts figures. They figured prominently in inexpensive bundle deals which were strategically placed in various Christmas catalogs, and gave parents and other relatives and affordable cop-out for tykes begging Santa for the pricier and harder-to-find good shit.
The set actually got a lot of use from Lil Bro and me during the early phase of our action figure days. The figures were nigh indestructible and made for great villains, though the joints quickly wore and reduced them to a state of floppiness non-conducive to malevolent poses. The ships did an adequate job subbing for an X-Wing and TIE fighter until we eventually got the genuine articles, and demoted the stand-ins for third-string cannon fodder.
The Lego Coast Guard Station was at the top of wishlist that Christmas season and was my intro to the new and exciting world of minifigs. The set came with five of them, posable and interchangeable wonders which combined the best parts of army men and action figures.
This was probably the largest individual Lego set I owned as a kid. Most of the local department stores didn’t carry Legos, and the ones that did tended to mark up even the smaller sets past the point of parental indulgence. Getting the Coast Guard Station was a big deal, and it overshadowed every other gift I received that year.
I never owned a much coveted Death Star playset, but I did have the Navarone. I got it during the Christmas of 1979 and it set the tone for the rest of my presents that year. By accident or design, every single one of my relatives decided to give me sets of army men. By the time I finished unwrapping gifts, I had hundreds of plastic soldiers, tanks, jeeps, and cannons arrayed about the living room rug.
I was perfectly okay with that. Action figures may have been the next big thing, but they never managed to completely eclipse my love of plastic army men. The cheapness and scale made it possible to wage battles on a scale that Star Wars and GI Joe toys could never match. It was the root of the Warhammer 40k fandom I’d go through in my teens and twenties — scores upon scores of soldiers facing off epic battles and getting wiped out en masse, their facelessness making noble sacrifices and tragic deaths easier to orchestrate.
But not the guy with the pistol and binoculars. He was special.