Updated: Mar 22, 2021
My favorite thing to see is the delighted face of a child receiving a toy. That moment of delight is magical. As a parent, it is satisfying that we made our child happy, at least for a moment.
As a toy designer, I see it as a moment to spark a child’s imagination. I still remember the very young moments opening my GI Joe Dress Marine and Marx Gold Knight. While there were plenty of other (broken, hand-me-down) toys in the house, those were my favorite.
The mid-1960s to the end of the 1970s were truly the golden age for 1/6th scale figures. That time brought us the classics: GI Joe, Johnny West, Captain Action, Six Million Dollar Man, James Bond, and Big Jim (yes, he is a little short).
Through rummage sales, thrift stores, and aging siblings, my group of “Joes” grew. I used them to act out scenes from TV or wild stories that my brain concocted. As I grew older, and other kids were less interested in toys, I found I could use my birthday money or grass cutting funds to buy off their old toys from them.
In high school, I remember using the Joes to work out the blocking for a play I was directing. Later, I used my Joes to try making stop-action 8mm films. I completed my first short, “The Assassination of Adolf Hilter,” which exists somewhere buried in dozens of reals of film. Then based on the test, I became more ambitious, but at the height of filming the epic “The Phantom’s Dinosaur Adventure” starring Captain Action, GI Joe, Barbie, and some Aurora Dinosaur model kits, the family camera jammed, and the project was shelved half-shot.
Sadly, many people had their Joes thrown away by OCD moms wanting a cleaner house.
I was fortunate to be raised by two packrats who lived through the Great Depression and did not throw ANYTHING away. (When they both passed away, we were still finding stacks of odd things like green strawberry baskets kept under the guise of “the cub scouts may need those to make bird cages.” Of course, by that time, not only their children had outgrown cub scouts but all the grandchildren too.) So, all of my Joes, Janes, Johnnys, Steves, Sams, James, Jims, etc. that I have not traded off, are still in my possession.
As adults, many of us pulled our Joes back out to recapture a bygone age of innocence, or to replace all the ones our mothers threw away. This phenomenon is how all of the GI Joe, Marx, Mego, and Toy conventions started. This issue leads to my second favorite thing to see.
I love the sight of seeing parents bringing their children or grandchildren to toy conventions. Toys are a way to connect generations. It is a way to share the passions we had/have with kids who still understand how to play.
The GI Joe Collectors Club used to have a special area for child attendees to come in and assemble a figure any way they want and take it home. It was also funny to watch some of the collectors cringing while seeing some valuable parts available to the kids for free.
By the way – I think it is sheer cruelty to buy a toy for a child and make them leave it unopened on a shelf in its box. I know of one family who would buy Holiday Barbies for their daughters that they could only look at under the guise “You can’t open those. They are an investment and will be worth something someday.” Of course, Mattel made close to a hundred thousand of each of those, so they are almost worthless now, so all they succeeded in doing was scaring the kids. If you want to make a kid happy, and plan for their future, buy them a cheap toy and a savings bond. This way, they can understand now and later how much you care for them.
Many of us just handed our old figures to our kids, but they were not quite sure what to do with them. Here is a clue – like anything else in life, this takes effort. Kids are not watching the same TV commercials, and few have any idea what to do with them.
One highly involved 12” collector tried his best to bridge the gap and get his son interested by buying him all the 12” Star Wars Figures since he loved Star Wars.
For some of us, our kids just used our 12” figures to augment their current toy world. GI Joe would often be used by daughters to take our Barbie on a date. (Even our daughter’s know Ken is a wimp!) They might even use a GI Joe Jeep to for the date… but Barbie still drove.
With my daughter, there was no problem bringing out Marx knights to defend the Little Tykes castle of Barbies. We also spent many hours taking turns dropping GI Joes from the second story window to watch them float down in their parachutes. We had many backyard battles.
It was a little harder to get my son interested. But timing is everything, and it is possible I started too young.
He was much more into puzzles and pokemon, so I tried an unusual approach. I gave him prewarning that we would be playing Joes on Saturday morning. I had it all planned out and awoke early to get things ready. During my final set up time, I asked him to pick ten superheroes to battle with but gave no guidance beyond that.
He picked a set similar to those pictured but with a few more customs that did not exist at the time in 1/6th scale. Once that was done, I handed him a 1/6th scale note from the Riddler. (Since there was no 1/6th scale Riddler on the market at the time, I had to make a custom one.)
The note warned him of impending doom if he did not solve the riddle. He had to figure out where the first event would take place in our large basement. Once he discovered the peril, he had to pick a superhero as I picked a supervillain to fight. Then we shouted out attacks and defenses in Pokemon style.
Of course, I filled the room with just about every supervillain I owned.
Then I augmented the scene with the cannon fodder of mindless Action Man Dr. X robots for easy kills. Note the Gorilla Grod we made with a King Kong wearing a Captain Action Buck Rogers helmet. Missing from this scene are the Toy Biz Venom, Magneto, and a Godzilla we used as the Lizard.
While the details of the event have faded over the years, I do remember a Temple of Doom created out of a ten-piece sectional couch and all of its removable cushions. It was near Christmas, so there was an unsuspected trap made of an undecorated pine wreath and two matching garlands which Poison Ivy made come to life to strangle some supers. There was even a time vortex they entered which pitted the heroes against the Aurora Dinosaur models. Four hours later, some of his team survived after saving the day.
Backyard adventures continued even on vacations at beaches.
Over time I must have desensitized my son. He has since cut me off many times at military museums by saying, “Yes, I know, you have one of those for your GI Joe too.” But now that he is taller than me at 6’ 3” and working summer jobs, he is less interested.
In hindsight, I wish I had set up more of these events for both children. Fortunately, I have another chance. Doesn’t my granddaughter look like she is asking, “When can I start my first backyard adventure?”
Don’t miss your chance. Give a child a toy that you were passionate about. Share the passion with them. You will build a bridge of understanding that can last a lifetime.
What Passion are you going to pass on?