Armagideon Time

Sometime around my fortieth birthday, my interest in plastic crap took a steep dive. I’d like to say that a growing (if long delayed) sense of adult responsibility was the cause. The truth is I had a sad realization that these overpriced artifacts of arrested development would spend a couple of years cluttering up a shelf before I tossed them in a storage container which would then join too many similar containers tucked beneath the eaves of our attic. I’m sure my designated heir will get a couple of bucks for it all during the Great Estate Sale That’s Coming, but I no longer see the point of adding to the dubious hoard or plastic robots and action figures I’ve accumulated.

The money I used to spend on the stuff has mostly been diverted into the household budget. What remnant mad money I have left over tends to go towards retro-significant books and records, with an occasional videogame purchase thrown into the mix.

The allure of playthings past is a tough habit to kick, however. If I wasn’t going to shed myself of it entirely, I decided to channel it into something a bit more focused. The emphasis would be on quality instead of quantity, representative items rather than the basis of a “collection.” The items are bits of fondly remembered flotsam from my childhood, and all but one pre-date the all-consuming action figure mania which followed in Star Wars‘ wake. Together they form a long term wishlist. There’s no immediacy involved on my part. Some will eventually turn up in an acceptable condition and reasonable price, others will continue to be the stuff of nostalgic yearning.

The Heroes in Action were an evolutionary half-step between old school plastic army men and the action figures to come. The Heroes were burly Marine types with removable weapons and facial expressions reminiscent of a ‘roid-raging Don Rickles. Each one came with a special base with a lever that made the figure pivot in place while making a weak RAT-TAT-TAT noise (using the same principles as a baseball card jammed between a bicycle’s spokes). Toward the end of the line’s mid-Seventies run, the military theme and color scheme was changed to cash in on the popularity of the S.W.A.T. TV show.

What I remember most about them was their propensity for falling apart into a jumble of assorted bits that migrated to the bottom of the toy box (yet never enough parts to reassemble a complete figure). They were apparently huge in Italy for some reason, and most of the listings I’ve seen are for never-removed-from-box collector’s market extravagances. I’d settle for a single complete loose figure with its stand.

Mattel’s Flying Aces were foam-rubber airplanes stiffened by a hard plastic spine, designed to be sent soaring into the air through a variety of elastic-powered launching devices. I had both the aircraft carrier and Blue Angels flight deck playsets, both of which survived (minus the planes) the transition into the action figure era.

My favorite of the lot, and the one I’ve specifically been searching for was a MiG fighter jet. It had an oh-so-Seventies beige body with orange and yellow trim. I found it while playing in a brownfield next to the car wash in Wilmington while my dad vacuumed out the interior of his T-Bird, and my five year old self felt like he’d won the lottery.

The Hot Wheels assortment of military vehicles has seen several reissues, including a desert camo Gulf War re-deco and a partial inclusion in Mattel’s licensed Megaforce line of die cast vehicles. The original “redline” versions are what I’m interested in, though I only managed to acquire the van back in the day. Other vintage Hot Wheels on my “if the price is right” list are the faux General Lee “Dixie Challenger” (which originally sported a CSA battle flag on the roof before Mattel got woke) and the original version of the EMT truck inspired by Emergency.

A complete and functional SSP Smash Up Derby car had been by retro holy grail for decades, and the cause of so many failed bidding wars during eBay’s early days. That covetous pressure eased up a good deal after managed to score a working gas station promo “mini” racer complete with a “t-stick” to stroke its gyroscopic guts. I still scan the listings for acceptable Smash Up sets, but I’m at a point where I’d settle for vanilla full-size SSP car. No worries about losing pieces and my cats will be just as scared of it.

The Fisher-Price Movie Viewer was a very sturdy plastic “camera” which accepted equally sturdy cartridges containing short film loops of kiddie fare. Point it at a light source, turn the crank on the side, and — BAM — upwards of a minute of entertainment. It sounds low tech and limited, but it seemed like magic back in the days when a “portable media devices” meant a battery-hungry transistor radio.

I never owned one, though it felt like every one of my childhood friends did. I’m sure that has added to the mystique and my continuing fascination with the device.

Tomy’s series of Pocket Games are another example of analog portability in a less advanced age. Most were some variant of pinball, pachinko, or slots, but there were a few attempts at innovative complexity like the “Speedway” racing game. As simplistic and repetitive as they were, you felt like a golden monarch if you managed to smuggle one along on a family road trip.

I had an off-brand roulette one I used to keep in the pocket of my army jacket in junior high. I got yelled at by a teacher for letting some classmates use it to bet cash money during study hall.

Despite that less-than-fond memory, I’d still like to pick up a couple of the more interesting offerings in the line for nostalgic shits ‘n’ giggles.

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5 Responses to “And then I don’t feel so bad”

  1. Zeno

    I had a similar epiphany about having too much “stuff” sometime between turning 40 and the death of my dad – a bone fide hoarder whose house I had to clean out after his passing. I resolved I wasn’t going to leave any similar eclectic mess for my kids to have to wade through and began selling off huge lines of my various retro-fixations; mostly pre-1990 video games and consoles. I then took the money and plowed it all into getting a couple of decrepit motorcycles I had laying around (in addition to a ratty Harley inherited from my dad) back up and running.

    So basically I traded some piles of plastic and metal for other such piles, but at least I can roll these newer ones out of the way.

  2. Cygnia

    I had that movie viewer as a kid…

  3. Jon H

    A couple years ago (42 or so) I went to ThinkGeek.com and felt… nothing. I figured I had finally grown up.

    We had the SWAT guys. I think we even had the van. You’re so right about the ‘assorted bits’ and the facial expressions. The darn guns were too wimpy to be any use with other figures.

  4. DensityDuck

    On the one hand, it’s fun to be a grown-up and finally able to decide that yes, you WILL spend money on these little toys that you could only dream about playing with!

    On the other hand, you finally understand why your parents didn’t think they were worth spending money on.

  5. SJB

    Still have a few Heroes in Action…guns and stands (which I don’t even remember) lost in the wind.

    Loved the Flying Aces (never had a playset…count me jealous)

    And, like you, would be happy with a working vanilla SSP

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