Thursday, October 29, 2009

Toys R Gus?

My friend Gus is nine-years old. He’s a smart kid, and I’m not just saying that because he’s a friend or because he’s a kid. I’ve known nine-year olds who weren’t exceptionally bright, but this isn’t about them. It’s about Gus, sort of.

Gus is an only child. That coupled with the fact that he has his share of aunts, uncles, grandparents, and adult friends who, from the very beginning, unwittingly conspired to teach The Guster (my name for him) that he was in fact the very center of the universe, has made my child friend the beneficiary of two fabulous treasures, each accompanied by a known and dreaded curse.

Attention is of course a wonderful gift, but one to which a little prince can become easily addicted. When little princes summon the attention that rightfully belongs to them, and that attention is slow to arrive, or worse yet, shared among others, little princes lose their patience. Sometimes real bad.

Toys can also be a wonderful gift. Toys engage a child in play. And playing, when it goes well, is happy learning. Ever since Gus could walk, a common event at our house was seeing Gus show up with a new toy – usually some foot-tall action figure that could light up or make sounds or launch small rockets from its hand.

Gus had “always” wanted that toy. He was excited to get it. He loved doing the show-and-tell, but we rarely saw him with the same toy more than twice. Well, once you see Action Figure #8 do the one cool thing that Action Figure #7 couldn’t do, you’re pretty much done with him.

Fortunately, this is not a problem. Action figure #9 will soon appear on Gus’s TV screen, saving the day by firing rockets from his boots or his helmet or from a special rocket vest, or well, you get the picture.

The toy designers are not at all alarmed by the age-old “novelty wearing off” factor. In fact, they keep their jobs because of it. And make no mistake; Gus will want their next plastic hero. He’s a smart kid, but he’s nine. He has no idea that a major corporation with a big budget is right now using little prince focus groups to test their ideas for Action Figure #17.

That’s right. They actually have other little princes on their payroll. The bastards!

When Gus was around five, his parents generously invited us to baby-sit Prince Gus while they would be out cavorting. This posed a problem. On the night of this opportunity, there would be a televised political debate that my wife, Elodia and I were anxious to see. To watch and listen to the debate would mean not just dividing attention rightfully belonging to Gus, but actually denying that attention.

We needed a strategy. Without one, the evening would end in disaster. So I did what I needed to do. I took a trip back to my childhood to see if I could find a solution. It didn’t take long. It was right in front of me. Maybe. Just maybe.

Days later, the moment of truth was upon us. Gus showed up at our door with toys in hand and his parents behind him. We told them to have a good time and not to worry. Everything would be fine. We were of course lying. Everything would probably not be fine. We simply meant that no one would die.

They’re not stupid people. They smiled and left quickly.

Oh, about revisiting my childhood. I was not an only child. I got some toys that had cool bells and whistles, but for reasons we all know, they didn’t last long. And, when they were quickly abandoned or junked, they were never replaced with something newer and better. In fact, they were never replaced by anything.

Actually, I didn’t need them to be replaced, because I had something that meant an awful lot to me, and that consumed almost all of my toy-playing time. I had toy soldiers. Hundreds of them. It started at a local Woolworth’s.

If you’re old enough to remember "five and dime" stores, that image of your own Woolworth’s, Ben Franklin, McCrory’s, W.T. Grant, or J.J. Newberry’s just popped into your mind from nowhere. You can see that store. You can smell that store. I know you can.

Strolling the aisles with my mother, who was probably shopping for sewing supplies, I discovered an aisle that had been put there just for me. It contained bins of toy soldiers.

No fancy packaging, in fact, no packaging at all. Little 4-inch figures piled high like french fries. There was a bin of Civil War soldiers, another of mounted Calvary soldiers and Indians, and the best one of all piled with World War II Army guys. Most of the soldiers were plastic, but these Army guys were heavy cast iron. After rummaging through the bin, I found that there were about a dozen different Army guys, each holding a different weapon, or striking a different pose.

I got to take home one of each. I had a collection!

Trips to Woolworth’s became a welcome experience, especially since (and you’re not going to believe this) that bin of soldiers started including newer varieties of Army guys that I didn’t already have. I couldn’t believe my good fortune.

After learning a little about the Civil War, I realized that I needed those guys too. And, after hearing the story of George Armstrong Custer, I really did need to have my own Little Big Horn. So, it quickly grew into a large and motley collection. I would set them all up on my bedroom floor, until I had the scene that I wanted. It was historically confused, but it made perfect sense to me, and that was all that mattered. Sometimes I tinkered with the scene and other times I just sat and admired it.

One day I returned home from school and they were gone. My heart stopped. Turned out that the room had been cleaned and the soldiers were in a box in my closet. Whew! Well, I knew the job ahead of me.

Now, back to The Night of The Guster.

When I got home from work, Elodia was setting the table for dinner. I held up the plastic shopping bags and flashed a cocky smile. She looked in. Individual packages of plastic toy soldiers, displayed in a clear plastic bubble, secured to a cardboard backing.

“For Gus?” She asked.

“Nope. They’re mine. Gus can borrow them whenever he wants.”

Was she pretty damned intrigued by her husband’s master plan for the psychological warfare that would soon be unleashed on our unsuspecting five-year old? Oh yes.

Dinner went as expected. At this stage, Gus was not just a picky eater, he was more of a non-eater. We gave him his favorite dinner of plain pasta noodles. He ate about three of them and played with the rest. He was growing antsy for some kind of after dinner amusement. He had no clue.

Elodia slowly reached behind her and grabbed one of the plastic shopping bags. Gus’s eyes followed her. She removed one of the packages. Gus’s eyes found the first of the soldiers. And, he knew there had to be more. He jumped up and found the other bags. There they were. A treasure trove of toy soldiers, each begging to be maniacally separated from the plastic and cardboard.

“FOR ME?” Actually more of an exclamation than a question.

“No.” I said. “They’re mine. But you can borrow them, anytime.”

He paused and processed. He would need time to digest this rather peculiar information, but while doing so, his hands would need to get to work. Immediately.

We cleared off the table and the three of us began ripping apart the packaging. This was fun, and it ate up lots of “So, where’s my attention?” time, because each package contained some tiny accessories, like guns, knives and backpacks that needed to be carefully removed and attached to that soldier.

Now, with all soldiers free of their packaging, it was time to stand them up. Not as easy as you might think. These were not the solid cast iron soldiers that I grew up with. These were modern day, made in China, highly disposable toys that were made with feet too small to easily support the body of the soldier. You had to carefully place them where you wanted them to stand.

At five years old, Gus lacked the patience needed to perform this task. So I carefully stood them up, while he watched and advised, and then he did what came naturally. He knocked them all over and cheered like he had just scored the game winning hockey goal.

The awaited debate began. Gus continued making friends with the soldiers. We got through the night. Then Elodia took him home and put him to bed.

The next day he brought his father over to see “Bruce’s soldiers.” Apparently, he had been talking about nothing else. A few days later he came over and asked if he could play with them. We had started something, though truthfully, I had no idea how long this something would last.

A few days later he was employing some never before seen patience struggling to set up the soldiers on our table when I asked him, which were the good guys and which were the bad? Without looking up, he answered that they “were all good guys.” “Which one is the boss,” I asked. Without hesitation, he replied, “I’m the boss.”

Later, he decided that the soldiers needed to be taken outdoors. “As long as you bring them all back and put them away,” instructed Elodia, keeper of the rules. Gus discovered that the soldiers needed to be placed in trees, around our fish pool, and sometimes hidden behind rocks and bushes. Gus worked purposefully. He knew which soldier belonged where.

He casually mentioned one day that “Bruce really needs more soldiers.” So, I bought more. And, I bought a large plastic container to hold them, which I kept upstairs, behind a door in my home office.

One day, Gus showed up with a friend. “Can we play with Bruce’s soldiers?” “Sure Gus. You know where they are. Just remember to put them away when you’re finished.” Gus hesitated. We have a number of neighborhood kids who drop by and hangout in our house. They make themselves at home, but they are not allowed upstairs.

Gus quickly grasped the fact that he was being given a special pass. He could go into the restricted zone for the sole purpose of fetching Bruce’s soldiers. And, any friend of Gus had an automatic guest pass. No need to show I.D. or answer any questions. If you’re with Gus, you’re in.

They climbed the stairs to my room, then came down with the container of soldiers and headed for the backyard.

I went outside and watched them at work. I asked Gus, which were the good guys and which were the bad. He pointed out the best of the good guys and the worst of the bad. I asked him how he knew. He said he could tell by their faces. I asked him who was the boss. He pointed to one of the soldiers. “Him. He’s the boss.”

One day Gus did not put the soldiers away as he had agreed. When Elodia, keeper of the rules, brought this to his attention, he explained that it was his friend, Zach’s fault. “No, Gus, you know that you are in charge of the soldiers. No matter who you let play with them, putting them away is your responsibility, because you’re in charge.” He nodded.

After a couple of years, Gus suddenly stopped coming for the soldiers. I told Elodia that the experience had ended. He had outgrown them. Then, one day, he showed up with a new friend, Charlie. After asking permission, they made the march to my room, and then to the backyard, where I heard Gus explaining to Charlie that he was making mistakes. You don’t just stick any soldier in a tree. Some belonged in trees, and some didn’t.

I think that for Gus, the soldiers had become part of his new-friend ritual.

I’m sure there are those who are horrified that I taught a child to make a game out of symbols of war. Let them be horrified. I will never catch Gus hiding behind a tree, reading the latest issue of Soldier of Fortune magazine. I did teach him something about the power of imagination. And I’ve been rewarded by seeing him teach others. And I’ve discovered that I’m not too old to learn from a nine-year old.

Many years ago, I was making breakfast and half listening to one of the morning news programs. It was before Christmas and a child psychologist was talking about toys. He reported on a study where toddlers were placed in a room full of toys and observed from the other side of a one-way window. There were toys that lit up, made loud noises, and moved across the room. I don’t know if back then, they could fire darts. Who knows?

The little lab rats went to those toys first, then soon got tired of them. Time after time, the two toys that toddlers played with over and over again were a ping-pong ball and a beach ball. They were fascinated by the tiny white ball that would make such a loud noise when hitting the floor and by the huge colorful ball could so easily be made to bounce high in the air.

It has now been more than a year since the U.S economy started to fall off a cliff, taking the rest of the world with it. Lives have been changed forever. We know lots of the statistics but only a fraction of the stories.

One of the statistics will be the total number of U.S. retail stores that will have closed their doors in 2009. I have heard predictions that they will number in the hundreds of thousands. So many people losing their jobs and businesses is a national tragedy.

But I have to wonder if we ever really needed all of those stores. Are we, after all, hard-wired to be fascinated by the ping pong ball, the beach ball, and the toy soldier that does absolutely nothing, other than what a mind can make it do?

In the summer, we go to the beach a lot. We see children who have been taught to cry, whine, and scream for adult attention. Fortunately their voices are often drowned out by the sound of the waves.

And we watch other children who arrive with shovels and pails and dig for hours. They pile up sand into mounds and they fetch ocean water to fill holes that need to be filled. From adults, they may seek approval, but never involvement. They seem to know their jobs. Should they encounter problems with the project, a pint-sized supervisor usually emerges to give the necessary directives. By the end of the day, it has all worked out.

And something was built that could possibly last forever.


  1. I've always thought imagination is the best playtime companion, and my kids and grandkids were all taught to play 'makebelieve'games that cost nothing but time.

  2. You get better every time Bruce. How do I invite people here? Everyone should be reading you. Tina

  3. You're a good writer and story-teller - I really enjoyed this. It reminded me of that classic Christmas morning cardboard box syndrome - when kids have more fun with the big box something came in than the item itself.

  4. Mr.Bruce,
    I always wait patiently for your next post, I am never disappointed, this post is no exception.
    I remember in a seminar years ago, where the emphasis was put on "service". The speaker said, a business that provides service, will never lose business, if they provide the best service.
    You, my friend, provided the service, of your wisdom, by passing it on to this young person.
    I am impressed by this, and know in my haert, that YOU will always remain the same, and never fall out of the wisdom that you provide.

  5. Oh, what a wonderful post. There are some very deep lessons here - the type of lessons I find I often learn from children. Great job.

  6. I have heard you tell this one before. It is a great tale that shows your generosity and awareness of others and their needs. You are a mentor and a great storyteller and I appreciate it.

  7. Bruce

    Another post, well worth waiting for. A healthy imagination is possibly our greatest asset. Such a pity that it often gets educated out of us.

    Our eldest granddaughter (nearly three years old) involves us in all manner of complex games and plots. Occasionally she puts me in touch with a place I used to inhabit. For that, I'm truly grateful.

  8. I too get excited when Google reader shows me that Bruce has posted. I know that each time, it will be a great read!

    If toy soldiers fueled this imagination, perhaps everyone should have played with them in their adolescence.

  9. I remember when we where the first on our block to have Pong. It was the greatest thing ever for about a week. I also remember how my father taught me to play checkers and how in Elementary School I won the checkers tournament of Will Rogers Elementary and brought home a Trophy. When I had kids of my own I would always make sure some of their presents where wrapped in a big box, no matter what size the presents where because I knew that they, just as I did as a child would eventually end up in the cardboard rocket ship sliding across the room on a grand adventure. I pity the children now that have their imagination fed to them by Nintendo, PlayStation or X-box and that have missed out on Toy Soldiers, Lincoln Logs, real Electric Trains and Matchbox Cars. I remember my mother throwing me out of the house on wonderful summer days to adventure on my 3 speed Schwinn bicycle. And I remember having to come home for dinner when my Mom rang a cowbell that I could hear from miles away. You did good. You taught that Gus that the mind is the greatest gift of all and that will be a gift that will last forever. When Gus is middle aged he will look at things as you do, not so much as what it is but what it can become.

  10. Makes you wonder how many of those businesses could have stayed afloat if they would have focused on a little more substance and a little less glitz. I say we start a movement to bring back the toy soldier in quantity (with ping pong balls and beach balls of course).great post

  11. Great story and such a good point. To this day, my kids' very favorite "toys" of all are big cardboard boxes. There's nothing which could come IN a box which would keep my kids quite as busy or fuel their imaginations more.

  12. I wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed reading this post; you and my husband are like two peas in a pod when it comes to appropriate toys for kids. He said, "Our kids aren't getting ANY toys!" (He was kidding, of course).

    I also wanted to thank you for the comment on my One Year Plus post:

    To be clear: I loved the lecture! What you said about not being meant for anything else really struck a chord with me. I know just what you meant by it. We do what we've gotta do, but that doesn't necessarily mean that had I rolled the Career Dice and picked something that I all of a sudden would have been a happy Career Woman. I could have picked a Career, perhaps been successful (I like to think I am now!), but still wouldn't have been happy until and unless I become a published author.
    Guess I've just got to keep writing!
    Thank you for the inspiration,

  13. Great post. You're a fantastic and entertaining writer. I want to thank you for visiting my blog and let you know I'll be a regular on yours. BTW, have you ever thought about writing for a living if you aren't already?

  14. Thank you, Bruce. I'm fairly new here, and I can see why all of these people above me read your posts. The way you blend the storytelling with the lesson in such a personal style is wonderful, and in addition to having my day brightened by the read I think I learned a little bit too. Have a happy Halloween!

  15. Terrific post! Gus sounds a lot like my nephews and nieces. Any time I'm going to babysit, I know our time will not be spent on the Wii or in front of the TV, but making a fort out of the bunk beds, or creating a pint-sized schoolroom in the kitchen.

    Kids may be programmed to ask for all the things they see in TV commercials, but often find the greatest joy in the simplest toys that allow them to create their own story.

  16. I LOVE this post. I haven't had time to read older ones, but I'm definitely going to go back and read your older stuff when I get a chance.

    My little brothers (10- and 12-years-old) seem to also be more entertained with the things that don't move by themselves, light up, or say catchy phrases when a button is pushed. They have these little Star Wars Galactic Heroes figures (like seen here: that they play with all the time. They don't have special things that they do, they don't light up or make noise, but they do require creativity, which in turn translates to more fun. My brothers also have the kind of noisy toys that do this cool thing and that cool thing, but they don't play with them nearly as long as they play with their figurines.

  17. You probably did not notice my absence on the blogs and the fact you are following my blog is highly appreciated never less as plainolebob said... Mr. Bruce, I always wait for your next post, I am never disappointed eider, and this post is no exception. I also want to say thanks for also reading my blog and follow it, however I was on the hospital taking care of my wife which she is fine now. I will appreciated if you stop by and read my lattes postings which I hope you will find interesting.

    Sincerely yours:

    P.S: I also have been enjoying a lot your blog and your post that make my spirit rise up and have hope and good sense of humor and allow my self to grow and be grateful of choosing to follow you on the first place. God bless and hugs

  18. Yes, great post. I know that when I have kids, I'm going to want them to be able to entertain themselves with nothing more than a toy soldier or a bouncing ball. It's how I grew up as well and I don't see why anything should change. I know, I'm kind of naive that way.

  19. I really enjoyed this post - it made me picture him laying all the soldiers out.
    Kate x

  20. Very nice post, Bruce.

    I fondly remember the 'toy soldiers' of my youth. I appreciate you reminding me not only that the best play is creative, but also that creativity sometimes comes from play.

  21. Wonderful story Bruce. I may be a bit younger, but I had those Army men too. A huge plastic bucket full. And yes, time after time my step-brother and I would return to playing with those toys. Hours would go by without us realizing it. Can't wait till I can buy some for my little prince.

  22. I didn't leave a comment until now becaue I have been thinking about it and I was, frankly, a little torn by it. Yes, I agree we created much waste and greed in our culture and lost sight of simple pleasures and the power of imagination. However, the economic boom has it's beneficial side as well. Do I really want to go back to the good old days? I'm not sure if the whatever good will outweight the bad if we do. We may have to pay $2000 a year for Internet connection, and polio may be the number one cause of death for infants. Worse yet, I won't be able to blog! See what you have done? You made me think! :)

  23. Wow, Bruce! Great story, so very well told. So much of this resonates with me, as you might imagine. Woolworth's (Grant's, Kresge's, etc.) and the toy soldiers and making up your own games, and... well, I could go on, but you get the point, I think. I loved this. Thanks for giving me so much wonderful mind candy in one sitting!

  24. That is such a wonderful post. I quite enjoyed it. I always love seeing a new post from you. You have such a way with words.

    I remember all the bags of army men that we would get when my brother and I were kids. We would each build our own bases in our bedroom and then play war against each other. We could do that for hours.

  25. I look at your site not as a blog, but as a book filled with wonderful stories.

    ps. don't tell anyone, I have toy soldiers down in the chest in the living room. honest truth. :)

  26. that being the longest post ive red in remembered memory. (forgetting my comment)
    4 inch soliers?!!? wow man I wish i had those.
    the best lessons a child remembers, are taught, they are learned. Im glad to see you showed gus how, not to play with toys but to learn how life works best.
    Sometimes I wunder in a world ruled by these all knowing leaders, what would happen if ..
    Great story :D
    thanks for making me read bruce;P

  27. Excellent story! Great telling, presentation, and messages to be gleaned.

  28. You might want to amble on over to B3, Bruce, as you inspired me!!! (tee hee)


  29. Great post! I've become a follower to boot!

  30. The little green men took me back. I loved 'em!
    I am still amazed at how long in minutes, hours and days, (years even) my imagination was my "favorite toy", supplememted only by the random items I had at my disposal or on the floor of our garage. From GI Joes, (not the new ones with the cool theme song and cartoons, but the taller ones with the "Kung Fu grip" and wooly facial hair) were enough to hold me an my buddies captivated for hours. We meticulously set them up as if we were a stop animation pro making an episode of Robot Chicken (Adult Swim). Yes we used the little green army men and my son loves them now. I loved the guy lying on his belly, rifle drawn, rear legs sprawled as if shimmying under barbed wire...The same with playing "army/war" as kids (armed only with a length of rope, and an occasional bottle rocket.) I lament that todays imaginations and toys are in dire need of 4-6 AA batteries and need an occasional charging. Perhaps that energy could bet beter used to jump start imaginary play! Thanks for allowing me to go back for a moment...

  31. I loved reading this piece, and all of the comments left by other readers. Isn't it funny how many of us love our cardboard boxes. I definitely think it must be some kind of hard wiring. Personally, I lived in cardboard boxes ... when I wasn't jumping out of trees that is. These days I am often mesmerized watching my 4 year old niece pretend to make coffee and eggs for every one, using a tea spoon and an old gravy granules tin. The noise of banging the spoon off the inside of the tin is essential to a good cup apparently =0)

    Great stuff Mr. Bruce.


  32. nice! I don't think I'm 'old'...LOL I'm not even 30 yet, BUT I remember a woolsworth! (It could be because I grew up in Mississippi and we were slow to get things and get rid of things...LOL that Woolsworth may have been the last one in existance! LOL) ANYWAY- yeah, imagination is the BEST 'toy' and 'tool'. I'm so glad that I did grow up in the country! We had the best games and props from nature. LOL we played baseball with sticks and pantyhose that was wadded up. ANYTHING was the base, as long as it was placed in a circular pattern like the regular bases would be placed! It wasn't that we couldn't afford things, my parents were/are very gainfully employed... it's just that they kinda forced us (my sister and I...and all my cousins) to use our imaginations to find the fun and beauty in life... NOT what the manufactuerers want us to believe (i.e the latest toy and game...).. Good post!

  33. Bruce, your writing draws me in from the very first line...fantastic post, as per usual.

    Can't wait for the next one. :)

  34. Great post. I hope that boy remembers you when he is older and mentors a boy of his own and appreciates what you taught him.

    do you have children, if I might ask.

  35. A lovely post and a lovely blog. And this from a man with your career history. I learn something new every day ;)

    Keep it up

  36. This is powerful, and it makes me appreciate your writing and your story-telling prowess. As well as the fact that it has now been five weeks since this post, friend. I am returning the favor. Your world - which includes me - anxiously awaits your next post. Meanwhile, I will revert to my ping-pong ball diversions....EFH

  37. Hey Coltin, your fans are WAITING for a new post, ya know....hint, hint!!!


  38. What a wonderful post. My son is 13 and little toy soldiers have always been his favorite toys (right along with Matchbox cars). He still has them in a tub in his room and every now and then when he has a friend stay over and they tire of PS3 and all the other high tech things I will go up there and the room will be covered with intricately placed armies of toy it!!

  39. This is a great post. There is something to be said about childhood imagination and the value of that. Nice job.

  40. I just turned 15 about 2 weeks ago, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. In some way, you met a level of truth in imagination than I could have thought of myself. I always used to play with these army guys, with punch out weapons when I was around his age. They weren't mine though, they we're "ours" some of them were actually my older brother Michaels, some were my younger brother Blake's and some were mine. At the point that we all had some, we didn't care any more.

    At around 9-10 which was a couple years later, we still had these toys, I can still find a couple of them in storage boxes and my brothers yet to be cleaned out toy bin. It's true, I never thew them away. The more that I used toys, not just any but even these ones in particular, my imagination DID evolve.

    I make my own video games in my free time currently working on a game called Octopia, and even video games have never become such a part of my imagination and development as playing with small toys did.

    Thank you for your post, you're a great story teller.

    My video games development blog if anyone is interested:

  41. Loved the recounting..I have a nine year old too,who loves toys.but I am trying to get him into reading books.


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