I was born in 1972, cheapest which means my childhood was roughly split between the touchy-feely hedonism of the Seventies and the glossy-greedy hedonism of the Eighties. It also means that I’m just old enough to remember a time before Kenner and George Lucas completely transformed the notion of “boys’ playthings.” (The concept of action figures didn’t originate with Star Wars, but the line codified benchmarks for the toy industry has been imitating and incorporating ever since.)
Granted, brands like Lego and Hot Wheels didn’t up and vanish in the wake of the 1977 holiday season, and action figures’ share of the market has waxed and waned though multiple trends over the past thirty-five years. My point is that I can recall a time when the Millennium Falcon playset (or latest “hot” videogame) didn’t top the list one’s crayon-scrawled list for Santa.
It’s a odd era to look back upon, marking the event horizon of clear recollection as dulled by decades of mnemonic noise and the natural distortions of a pre-schooler’s cognitive awareness. Most of the surviving memories are fragments, disconnected impressions of specific stimuli — the smell of the lemon-scented powder kept in the bathroom closet, the stark terror concerning the monster under my bed, getting kicked in the stomach with a fuzzy slippered foot because my the gibberish noises I made to amuse myself irritated the shit out of my (somewhat unstable) mother.
(The earliest complete memory I can recall is the fall of Saigon — not because I was aware of politics at the grand old age of three, but because the special news report interrupted whatever I was watching on TV and so I wandered off to play with the set of magnetic letters on the fridge.)
Of the favored toys of that primordial era, my impressions are generally clearer. There were the “Paddy Wagon” Hot Wheels car, with the old-school red circles on the tires and Mighty Mo’s with their inertial powerhouse engines (and ability to inflict massive pain should one’s sugar bowl haircut get to close to the moving axles). The SSP Smash-Up Derby with the destructable VW Bug and plastic ramp was another cherished treasure (and one that I’ve searched long and hard to replace but have been confounded by insane asking prices for acceptably complete sets).
There was one plaything, however, which I remembered vividly but could not place either the name nor manufacturer. It haunted me for decades — a mid-1970s series of toy planes made from foam rubber/soft plastic with a hard plastic spine used to launch them from elastic-powered catapults. Even worse, I actually stumbled across an ad for the line in an old funnybook sometime during the 1990s and…then promptly forgot the name and the particular comic in which the ad appeared.
It wasn’t until I acquired a collected edition of old Sears “Wish Book” catalogs that the irritating mystery was finally laid to bed…
…and a quick Google search filled in the details about Mattel’s Flying Aces.
I owned the flight deck playset featured in the commercial, and remember it being rather unwieldy and dangerous in the context of a crowd of hyperactive boys roughhousing in the backyard. (You wouldn’t think you could brain someone with a flimsy sheet of pre-molded plastic, but such is the magic of childhood.)
I didn’t care much for the jet models at the time, though I did have a very 70s (as in “tan with yellow and orange details”) MiG I found in a brownfield next to the Wilmington car wash while my dad vacuumed out his 1973 T-Bird. As a child who came of age when the concept of “war” was invariably bracketed by “World” and “Two,” I gravitated to the prop-driven warbirds of two generations previous — and this Christmas gift was as good as it got:
While the carrier playset was a pale shadow of power projection playthings to come, it was a glorious oversized centerpiece for countless mock battles waged on the treacherous linoleum seas of the kitchen floor. Time and photographic evidence have undercut my impressions of how huge it actually was, but it was massive from the perspective of a five year old.
The craft remained in service long after its catapults had succumbed to the entropy of shoddily made playthings and its complement of fighter craft had completed passage through the family dog’s digestive system. In fact, I’m pretty sure non-evil Boba Fett and a Fisher Price Adventure Person used as a idealized projection of my old man took part on the ship’s final voyage before it was scrapped during a spring cleaning and consigned to the dumpster.
eBay has listings for the playset in various states of condition. A few years ago, I would have jumped at the opportunity, but less enthusiastic about recapturing every lost and cherished artifact of my youth (or filling the attic with more crap I spend an hour waxing nostalgic then never touch again).
I got what I wanted out of this exercise in personal archeology — a mystery solved, fond memories rekindled, and a sliver of closure. Anything more would be pointless and redundant…though I wouldn’t mind scoring another one of those MiGs, just to marvel again at the earth-toned pallete of the Cold War at its most mellow.