For the better part of two decades, my retro holy grail was a complete SSP Smash Up Derby car with its gyro-revving “t-stick.” They were a beloved artifact of my early childhood, when I’d send the battle-worn VW Beetle screaming across the linoleum so it could explode in a shower of spring-loaded plastic pieces when it hit the baseboard on the other side of the dining room.
I missed them even before I understood the concept of nostalgia. Pop-off panels and other bits from the set somehow managed to survive whatever fate befell the actual vehicles. When an excavation of the lower strata of the toy box unearthed one of these fragments, I’d feel a twinge of sadness over a cherished plaything lost.
As I grew older and succumbed to the retrograde melancholy ascribed to my generation, the SSP Smash Up Derby set took on a mythical significance. It wasn’t so much a toy as a totem, one that evoked a primordial swirl of hazy and distorted memories from my earliest days of self-awareness. That’s a lot of epistemological weight to throw on a plaything, but the trauma of my mother’s death did things to me that I’m still trying to untangle after three decades.
Many things went missing and unaccounted for in the aftermath of that event, including the bulk of the material culture I’d surrounded myself with up until that moment. It was just stuff, but it was stuff that functioned as a distraction and escape from a less-than-pleasant reality. My Smash Up Derby cars were long gone before the storm hit, but they came to symbolize that odd notion of restoration by re-acquisition that governed me through my early thirties.
I never seriously acted upon obtaining a set, however. They functioned as an aspirational end goal as I worked towards reconstructing myself, one shitty Bronze Age comic or vintage robot toy at a time. It helped that any Smash Up Derby car complete and intact enough to meet my minimum threshold was well out of my price range, as you’d expect from a decades-old toy designed specifically for the roughest of play. I was content enough with occasionally scanning the eBay listings, shrugging my shoulders, and telling myself “eventually.”
This backward-looking form of self-therapy started to fall by the wayside around the time I got married and bought a home. I didn’t abandon my interest in all things retro, but the restorative impulse faded under the realization that the highs were short-lived and the crates of plastic crap were taking up a lot of a space in our attic.
I don’t regret the experience. It gave me something to focus upon during some rough times, it provided a framework for a good deal of self-knowledge, and it spurred a broader interest in socio-cultural history in general. You know how it is — come for that one limousine Go-Bot with the goofy top hat and stay for detailed critiques of post-WW2 American consumer culture.
My list of objects worth pursuing was pared down to a handful of significant and symbolic examples. The old sense of loss was still in play, but divorced of any delusions. It was all about the fleeting contact high of hazy nostalgia, baby. Not long after I adopted this new posture, I found myself (though a fortuitous series of events last autumn) in a position to actively seek out and acquire most of this much coveted crap. It didn’t take long to tick off almost every entry on the list and cover the top of the living room bookshelf with a fresh assortment of retro-evocative nonsense.
I did not chase down a Smash Up Derby car, despite having the means to do so. I did pick up a simpler and sturdier SSP vehicle with a t-stick, which gave a close enough approximation of the ol’ thrill without the anxiety of a dealing with a forty year old agglomeration of easily losable and breakable pieces — and for a small fraction of the cost, to boot.
It should’ve been a relief to let that long-standing obsession go. Instead, I filled that grail shaped hole with another one. This time it wasn’t about something I’d lost, but something which had eluded my grasp during the days of polyester and malaise.
I never cared for the original Battlestar Galactica series, even when I was a dumb kid looking for anything capable of replicating even a faint echo of that Star Wars magic. Galactica was Star Wars stripped of everything I loved about that franchise, and reduced to boring talky bits and cheesy production values on the small screen. The only parts of it that did grab my attention were the space battle scenes shot for the movie-length pilot and re-cut in various ways for the weekly series.
The Colonial Viper was the big attraction, with its sleek and distinctive design. It was Young Andrew’s platonic ideal of a kick-ass starfighter, head and shoulders above the X-Wing. It was also easier to draw, and was the default “good guy” ship in the videogame-inspired space battle tableaus I sketched on manila paper during indoor recess. My mom (a locally renowned artist) even did a poster-sized crayon rendering of one which I hung on my bedroom wall until the newsprint succumbed to a combo of gravity and entropy.
For all my love of the Viper, I never managed to ahold of the official Mattel-manufactured toy with the miniature pilot figure and the shooting missile that was deemed a mortal threat to the eyeballs and windpipes of America’s children. I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, because I was the first kid on my block to own both the Millennium Falcon and X-Wing toys, but I still envied the classmates who brought their Viper toys to school for show-and-tell.
There was no parental malice or interference involved. It’s just that Star Wars was a bigger deal, and thus got priority when Christmas and my birthday and overindulgent grandparents came around. I don’t recall feeling disappointed over not getting one and there was no ferocious sense of longing after the toy — until the moment when I put my Smash Up Derby obsession behind me. The psychic traumas of my formative years have conditioned me to fixate on objects that are theoretically obtainable, but just slightly beyond my grasp. It’s absurd, but it’s true, and it transferred in force to another toy aisle relic of the Seventies once I lost interest in the previous one.
I assumed it would follow the same course as the last go-round — occasional window shopping with no real action taken, hunting for the sake of the hunt. That’s how it did indeed play out for all of two weeks, when I scanned the eBay listings and discovered some estate sale dude in Florida was selling a Viper and a couple of other Galactica vehicles in good condition with the pilot figures for forty bucks. A decent condition Viper alone typically sparks a bidding war upwards of a hundred dollars, and this lot was a “buy it now” jobber.
I jumped on that shit in a heartbeat, though I felt a bit stupid about it afterwards. I’ll be forty-six years old in a week. My wife and I are in the process of adopting a child. There’s a long list of other priorities I should be attending to instead of huffing the faint fumes of Carter Era nostalgia. It was an impulsive, stupid, and reckless thing to do and then the package arrived.
I carried it with me last night while I was doing household chores. I chased the Ollie the Rock Stupid Puppy with around the living room until Lucy the Chi-Weenie got scared and Maura made me stop. I looked up how to clean the bromide stains off the plastic. I named the pilot “Big McLargehuge.”
And the weirdest thing? I didn’t experience that familiar rush followed by a sense of ambivalence that typically accompanies these things. The need or desire to find something new to chase simply isn’t there anymore. I’m sure there will be other dumb retro purchases in the future, but that “white whale” feeling is entirely gone.
It feels like closure, and it wasn’t at all what I was expecting.