In these days where childhood nostalgia has become the lowest of hanging fruits, grip I appreciate when someone eschews the facile listicle/slideshow route in favor of a deeper and more personal engagement with the artifacts of his or her bygone youth.
This is exactly what Pal Dave has set out to do with his new Sunday feature “I Had That!” If the upcoming installments match the quality of Dave’s initial one — and I have no doubt that they will — we’re going to be for a real treat.
To pay Dave the sincerest form of flattery, symptoms I’ve chosen to dedicate a few (hundred) words to the star player of my own childhood ensemble of plastic fantasy avatars…
…A.J. Foyt himself.
The above playset (image ganked from an Etsy seller’s site, stuff because mine has been lost to time) was a Christmas present from my father’s youngest sister. It’s an artifact from a different era of playthings, made of a nigh-indestructable (and accidentally weaponizable) combination of sheet metal and plastic light years removed from today’s methods of toy manufacturing. It also represents a collision of historical trends, when old guard firms like Tonka scrambled to retain market share in the face of the post-Star Wars mania for action figures.
A van-and-race-car combo may been viable in the distant past of 1975, but the children of 1980 (or thereabouts) weren’t going to settle for driverless vehicles, buster.
I knew nothing about A.J. Foyt, apart from my dad informing me that he was some kind of auto racing dude. What I did know is that his plastic depiction was absolutely perfect for my playtime purposes. As a kid, I had a fondness for action figures which sported helmets, masks, or other forms of face coverings. This can partially be attributed to the imperfect face scuplting technology of the era, which ran the gamut from “goofy-as-hell” to “utter nightmare fuel.” Not only did face-obscured figures sidestep this issue, but they also provided a blank canvas upon which I could imagine their hidden features.
Boba Fett, the AT-AT Driver, a Snow Trooper — maybe they were horribly scarred, maybe they were hiding from some dark past, maybe they looked like Thomas Magnum under their get-ups. The choice of narrative was mine to make. “Ayjay’s” helmet and jumpsuit combo made him suited for a variety of roles — astronaut, fight pilot, deep-sea diver, and, yeah, dude who drove a Formula 1 car in the prestiguous Kitchen Linoleum 500.
The only thing the figure couldn’t do (thanks to his downward-facing palms) was hold a gun correctly, though with a little effort he could manage an awkward sideways grip which anticipated HK action flicks by a good fifteen years. Ayjay’s weapon-wielding days came to tragic end, however, when his right arm was chewed off by my dog, Circe. My maternal grandfather, in a misguided attempt to rekindle my interest in my disfigured plaything, then tried to redeco the figure with a coat of Testor’s enamel which partially melted the softer plastic parts of the figure and turned it into a magnet for attracting pet hair.
Though I did eventually locate a non-licensed replacement figure (with a orange/black color scheme and a Tonka logo in place of Foyt’s) at the Stuarts in Billerica, my action figure affections had already been transferred to a Biker Scout figure I purchased during a family trip down the Appalachians. Ayjay and his adventures slipped entirely from my memory for almost three decades, and were rekindled only when Maura brought home a box of estate sale leavings that included a slightly rusted version of the van that came with the original playset. I dug through the rest of box in hopes of finding an equally worn Ayjay figure and his trusty ride, but in vain.
I consoled myself by driving to Target and picking up one of the fancy new “whatever the hell Biker Scouts were called in the Prequels” figures. Hey, at eight or thirty-eight, a kid needs his faceless plastic avatar fix.