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.