Like most kids, mine was a magical worldview. And advertisers knew it. Theirs was a common stratagem for selling children’s products. Make it magically delicious. They’d wave some wondrous, feature-laden item in front of us kids so that we would pest-pest-pester our parents until they gave in and bought the item, if only to shut us up.
Or so it was said. It never worked for me.
For example, when I was about seven, the gang and I found out we could clothespin playing cards on the back struts of our bikes so that the spokes would continuously flutter the playing cards, making a sound that sort of resembled a motor, I suppose.
And that was just fine, until Mattel dangled the V-RROOM Engine in front of us boys. You’d strap it to your bike—a hunk of plastic in the shape of a motorcycle motor. You even get a “special key” when you purchased the engine. “Start it like dad’s key starts his car!” the commercial taunted.
I was convinced I must have a V-RROOM Engine, as it would enable my bike to growl with barely contained rage. With this icon, I would win back the city, breech the . . . thing, some shit like that. Magical stuff.
Best, I could reach unsafe speeds. We didn’t know how. It just would. Stop asking!
“You can tell it’s Mattel,” the commercial said in closing, waggling the V-RROOM engine just out of my reach like you’d hold baloney in front of the family dog, “because it’s swell!”
Were it to be mine, this awful machine, I’d sleep with it. I’d bring it to school to show in class. I’d polish it each morning even though it was (part of me knew) just cheap plastic, that it was a . . . toy. It’s so cool! Just think of all the unsafe speeds I could reach with that thing, whooshing past my envious peers, appearing just as a blur the color of faded jeans. In my wake, just the smell of burnt rubber and twice-worn underpants. Frozen in impotence, they would think, “Why is the universe so structured that I am here?”
Must . . . have . . . V-RROOM Engine.
It didn’t occur to me to start saving my allowance so that, one day, I could buy the V-RROOM Engine myself. My parents gave me allowance to teach me the Value of Money. It didn’t work. Money tended to burn its way through my pockets.
Also, it just didn’t seem right to save up for magical items. To plan for them. It seemed against some code of childhood. As if we had entered into a blood oath, perhaps during a sleepover after the last grownup had drifted off. There it is. We would have gathered our sleeping bags into a circle and pricked our fingers by candlelight. We’d have each narrowed our eyes and nodded knowingly to show God we meant business. Our promise: Never to be lured off the path, snake-charmed by how neatly the pieces and seams could fit together (they promised us) were we just to be Responsible. For once.
Never! Life had to fall in our lap. It had to be ad-libbed—indecorously, shirttail untucked. As if we were raised in a barn for godsakes—else it wasn’t life. Just some wretched pantomime. Each of us knew the moment we gave in, the second we thought before acting, childhood would be over and—ZOOK!—you’re down the tube and straight into your suit, tie, and name badge.
Or maybe it was just me. I was lazy and disorganized, come to think of it. And irresponsible. The politically correct phrase is “happy go lucky.” I tended to feel the best way to deal with problems is to ignore them. They’ll solve themselves. Magically, I guess. For example, dirty dishes come clean when left in a sink of water. Else your mom just does it. Try it. You’ll see.
Well, it was not to be, the V-RROOM Engine. Its magic was lost on my mom. “You’ll lose interest in it in five minutes,” she said. It wasn’t like we couldn’t afford it. My dad was a trial attorney so we had some means. She wasn’t opposed to buying me gifts. In fact, she loved giving me gifts—but nothing purely frivolous or cheap, which in effect meant nothing magical. And not too many at one time. That would spoil me. The gift had improve me in some way. Our parents knew that Hard Work, not magical doodads, was the key to life. It’s why they were secretly jealous of us kids as we bounded about like village idiots, taking our bliss for granted, secure in the knowledge that we had free room and board and dessert with most dinners. (Imagine if your’ childhood wasn’t like that. That would suck.)
It only made it worse that there was one kid in the neighborhood whose parents bought him a V-RROOM Engine. “Why is the universe so structured that I am here?” I thought when I saw it rush past me.
You never knew when magic was going to strike when you were a kid. I remember the first time it happened. There I was, little scamp, just minding my own business, laying in front of the TV, tapping my toes on the floor. I was watching Jonny Quest. The show aired in 1964 so that means I was five. Then it happened, unbidden and unexpected: the commercial for PF Flyers sneakers featuring Jonny Quest—and offering a Jonny Quest decoder ring upon the purchase of the sneakers. Race Bannon is caught on the side of a volcano that is moments from eruption and he signals to Jonny down on the jungle hardpan using the reflective face of his special ring to send a flickering message in dots and dashes. “In danger . . . bring rope!”
How “special” of a ring?
Well, the “center stone” of the ring was a see-through circular piece of plastic that served several purposes, here described in order of ascending neato-ness. One, it was a magnifying glass. Two, when pulled from the ring, it revealed a “secret compartment.” (You know you’re old when you no longer see the point of secret compartments or lucky charms.) The base of the secret compartment was lined with a foil-like material and if you tilted it this way and that while pointing the ring at the sun, you could send a message in flashing code to a friend, or so the ad promised—and what possible reason would they have to lie? In the ad, Jonny responds to Race’s plea with the flickering response “Coming!”
Lastly, the circular plastic centerpiece was inscribed with odd markings around its edge. Runes from dead language or something. I don’t know. Stop asking! The centerpiece could be rotated in its base so that the odd markings on the centerpiece’s edge could line up with other odd markings of the lip of the ring and, together, somehow act as a “code circle.”
God, what a ring! You imagined yourself on a precipice, triumphantly holding the ring toward earth’s sun. With your free hand, you’d shield your eyes.
Jonny “runs like the wind”! According to the commercial, “Only PFs have the Action Wedge built right in so you run your fastest and jump your highest!”
Action Wedge, Schmaction Wedge—that ring was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. Just think of all the people I could rescue from volcanoes with that!
What I didn’t realize was that PF Flyers were made by BF Goodrich, the tire manufacturer and that I was being toyed with. My practical adult brain, the one I take to the grocery store, realizes now they probably just cooked up the idea of selling sneakers as a way to get rid of leftover rubber that wasn’t any good anymore for making tires. Why not take advantage of the kids? They’re stupid. Nowadays, sneakers are high-tech, athlete-tested, using only the finest ingredients. The BF Goodrich people just plopped out these shoes as cheaply as possible and left it to the folks in Marketing to sprinkle their magic dust:
“Say, boys and girls,” Jonny said after he had rescued Race, turning to the camera, “want a PF Magic Ring like mine? It has a magnifying glass, a secret compartment, a message flasher, and a secret code circle. You get one free at the store with PF Flyers. So, get the shoes with the PF patch and get your PF Magic Ring free.”
Must . . . have . . . magic ring. (Shoes . . . too . . . would be cool.)
My mom, though, sitting on the couch, looked over the top of her book pointed out I already had sneakers. Some children in China don’t even have one pair of sneakers and here I wanted a second pair of sneakers—not to mention the decoder ring!
The other day, I told my cartoonist friend Mark Monlux about my lust for the Jonny Quest ring. I figured he could relate. We’re a lot alike. Roughly the same age. Both avid viewers of Jonny Quest. Both scrawny and artistic as kids. Mark avoided some of the abuse I received because he had three older brothers who would stand up for him. Also, he had the excuse of a heart murmur. Anyone who beat up the kid with the heart murmur would himself be beaten. The only worse crime would be hitting a girl. The unforgivable sin. He Hit A Girl would be all his tombstone would say.
We both preferred staying home and drawing to playing any kind of sport.
Mark drew monsters, mainly. Dragons and goblins and such. He liked to draw fantastical anatomies because “I never could be wrong. I could draw anything I wanted.”
I mainly drew superheroes, fueled by the 10 Marvel titles I’d reach each month. Spider-man. Daredevil. Captain America, Silver Surfer. Thor. The Avengers. Iron Man. Sub-Mariner. Fantastic Four. Hulk. There was a wrong way and a right way to draw superheroes. The right way was the Marvel way. So I’d trace the images from my comic books to learn the general rules. Then it was just a matter of repetition. I still do it. I’ll be on a phone call and I’ll be doodling pictures of superheroes in my tablet.
Mark wasn’t into superheroes. The only comic books he had access to were those bought by one of his older brothers and they were fantasy-based—sword and sorcery. Also, horror. Also—this is Mark all the way—Mark liked the “Classics” comic books. Stories like Moby Dick and Kidnapped in comic-book form.
Yes, he read “Classics” comics. Moby Dick for godsakes.
I don’t think Mark and I would have been friends in grade school. There were no cliques but I had standards! Certain kids were untouchables—mostly the fatsos. I’m pretty sure Mark was a dork so I would have made fun of him. Look at the dweeb! As long as it wasn’t me.
Example: In grade school, Mark was the “ice cream boy,” which meant he would follow the lunch lady as she pushed her cart around the building. Kids could buy milk and ice cream from a flatbed cart he pushed. God! Ice cream boy? Good thing he had his older brothers and his heart murmur.
Mark felt no peer pressure to conform. He had lost that ability at his ninth birthday party. He and his parents had invited just about everyone in his class—and not a soul showed up. They all became irrelevant to him. In junior high and high school, he felt no need to fit in by drinking beer or smoking pot. He is himself. Screw ‘em. A real awakened attitude for a kid if you think about it
The closest I got to being ice cream boy was when I joined the crossing guard program in elementary school. The sash was cool. However, I was kicked off the squad after about a week and a half because I kept oversleeping and not showing up for duty. Story of my life.
In return for his labor pushing the cart, Mark received a free lunch, so each day, his parents would deposit 65 cents into a jar. He was saving to move up from a Stingray with a banana seat to a real ten-speed, which ran more than $100.
Such a strategy never would have occurred to my happy-go-lucky ass. I’d rather sit and draw or read comic books or watch cartoons. My mom would say, why don’t you go play outside? It’s beautiful out! If it was raining, she’d say, I’m sure you could find something to do. Which I could. I spent hours in The Woods alone as a kid, dreaming up superhero fantasies—just walking, saying the hero’s lines in just above a whisper. I’d gesticulate to give form to my words. If someone came ahead on the trail, I could suddenly pretend I was elaborately yawning. They were probably on their own adventure or smoking one of their dad’s cigarettes or looking at the Playboys they had stashed in The Woods.
After a year and a half of this, Mark was more than halfway to the ten-speed, and he wasn’t flagging in the least. Even the kid me would have had to admit: That was really something. One day, Mark came home from school to find out his parents had been secretly matching his efforts, trying to reward his Eagle Scout industry.
Yes, Mark was an Eagle Scout.
While working on this post, I asked Mark how many merit badges it took to go from Tenderfoot to Eagle Scout and I was shocked when he admitted he didn’t know—but, he IMMEDIATELY added, he went to Google and found it took 21 merit badges to become an Eagle Scout. He wasn’t obsessed with merit badges when he was a scout. He just loved camping and figured If You’re Going to Do Something You Love, Do it With Everything You Have. Things like that didn’t occur to me.
And, he IMMEDIATELY corrected me, he wasn’t just an Eagle Scout. He was an Eagle Scout with a Silver Palm.
The things Mark’s caught with his hands, without traps or snares, by virtue of being a Boy Scout:
Crabs, from tiny rock and hermit to Dungeness
Clams, from butter to geoduck.
Fish, small and big, from fingerlings to trout and salmon
Frogs/toads, small and big
Lizards, small and big
Snakes, small and big
Swarms of insects, spiders, and bugs
Birds—although Mark points out, “They don't really count as they were either ensnared or stunned. But that list includes, hummingbirds, goldfinches, starlings, sparrows, and robins.”
He has played with but did not catch:
Domestic animals—dogs, ferrets, rats, gerbils, hamsters, cats, horses, goats, donkeys, chickens
You’re probably wondering. I’ve done cat, dog, garter snake, frog, and grasshopper—and I didn’t really hold the grasshopper long because the way it felt when he jittered around in my palm kind of spooked me. Oh, yes, I took my oldest daughter on an elephant ride at the county fair.
Here’s a partial list of the stuff Mark accomplished as a Boy Scout:
He built wooden bridges, rope bridges
He used bicycles to go on bike treks that lasts for weeks
He camped and fished
He climbed cliffs with climbing gear and without gear
He went down a mineshaft
He swam in rivers and lakes
He peeled off leeches suffered bites bruises cuts.
He knows how to cook using a fire, skillet, pot and Dutch even.
He knows how to forage in the wild and know which plants can be eaten or are poisonous
“I never got the knowledge of morse code,” Mark sums up, “But if given a compass and a map I stand a pretty good chance of getting out of the woods.”
Besides badges, there were other awards, some for religious studies, some for civil studies. He got all the ones for Catholicism: Light of Christ, Parvuli Dei, Ad Altere Dei, and Pope Pius XII.
And he went on a bajillion hikes. Because of his heart murmur, he was always the slowest. Always last. And his entire troop had to go at his pace because no scout worth his merit badges would leave a scout behind. The other kids resented it but they wouldn’t have teased him about it in a million years.
“That’s against the Boy Scout spirit,” Mark told me when I asked him if he’d been picked on by the other scouts, obviously astounded that I didn’t know that—and a little irritated. “The Boy Scout code of ethics was so ingrained in us you would never pick on another kid. If you saw another scout picking on a fellow scout—and something like that would be exceedingly rare—you’d go up to him and tear him a new one. ‘How is this being a scout?’ you’d say. ‘You’re just being an asshole.’”
All four of his brothers were in the troop, and all four achieved Eagle Scout. Mark’s father was the Scoutmaster of his troop, which was connected to their parish, St. Thomas Moore.
My dad didn’t really get involved in my life, other than putting me in programs” so other people could be involved in my life such as pee-wee football and Boy Scouts. I didn’t last long in any of these programs, but, I assume, my dad could tell himself he’d “tried.”
Enough about Boy Scouts. Makes me feel unremarkable. Back to Mark, his parents, and the bike:
There . . . stood. . . the bike!
They were so proud of their industrious son.
Another difference between us is that he came from a large, practicing family of limited means. As a result, he’s one of the cheapest bastards I know. Meanwhile, I came from a smaller affluent family. You could tell because I got all the sugary cereal I wanted—my mother excusing herself because the boxes all claimed the cereal was “vitamin-packed.” Mark and his siblings had to eat Cheerios. And like it, though it was a million miles from being “magically delicious.” Maybe Cap’n Crunch on the high holidays. They didn’t want the kids thinking God doesn’t answer prayers.
Like me, Mark lusted after a particular magical item when he was a kid—but he did something about it. In particular, there was this plane with a real engine. You’d control it through a set of strings connected to a handgrip. The difference with him was that he saved up for it—and that’s saying something considering his family didn’t have the means to give their six kids allowance. Mark’s parents taught him the Value of Money by showing him he had to work for it. Cap’n Crunch on high holidays but only if you’re good. For example, Mark’s dad helped him set up his own business when he was a kid. Mark’s Murals and Sculptures. (Dweeb.) His dad showed him how to fill out the paperwork for the business license, taught him bookkeeping. (Can you see me learning bookkeeping as a kid?) To save up for the plane with the real engine, Mark weeded yards and did other similar jobs until he had enough. He was good at the lawnmower from all the ice cream cart pushing.
This shows you a lot about Mark. After Eagle Scout, he attained an Order of the Arrow. He was a two-sash scout, one sash for the merit badges he accumulated en route to Eagle Scout and one sash for Order of the Arrow. He could never keep his main sash straight what with the weight of all the merit badges tilting it down. The Order of the Arrow sash was particularly cool: white with a large red arrow. It made my crossing guard sash that had been stripped of me look like crap.
To obtain his Order of the Eagle sash, Mark went to a big campfire ceremony with tom-toms. After the ceremony, the scout leaders took the Order of the Arrow initiates deep into the forest, blindfolded, and left each there with just a pocketknife, a compass, and his can-do spirit. He was told to fend for himself for 24 hours and then find his way back to camp. He got a couple of hours of sleep before dawn. In the dark, he located a cedar and slept under its low branches. He found some wild rhubarb and berries and snacked on some grubs and crickets. Yes, he ate crickets—and didn’t care if anyone knew it.
Consequently, there is never a time Mark doesn’t make sure to Be Prepared, as advised in the Boy Scout motto. He has two fire extinguishers in his house, one for upstairs and one for downstairs. When he travels on planes, he makes sure to bring extra food in case he has a long unexpected layover in an airport. He’s too cheap to buy expensive airport food.
Me, I’m usually never prepared. I was the kind of kid who built his forts, from stolen lumber, without a blueprint. The fort would take shape as I encountered obstacles I hadn’t foreseen. I’d climb a high branch with a hammer in my teeth only to find when I got there that I left the nails on the ground.
Not surprisingly, I dropped out of the Boy Scouts after Tenderfoot, merit-badge-less yet not bereft. It just wasn’t me, all the preparing. Mark shudders when I tell him I don’t have a flare gun in the trunk of my car.
When Mark had saved enough from Mark’s Murals and Sculptures, he rode his bike to the store and bought the plane.
Then he rode his bike straight to the park and started flying it—and was crestfallen. All it did was go around in circles. He had imagined loop-dee-loos and all sorts of acrobatics. On the front of the box, the kid flying the plane was surrounded by envious friends eager to get a turn. Mark should have been tipped off by the fact the box top also showed a proud pipe-smoking parent looking on. It was probably educational.
And, in fact, Mark learned an important lesson. Your capitalist overlords will say anything to get you to part with your cash.
Me, I lost my belief in Bicycle Propulsions Devices and other such magical doodads long before I reached adulthood. That ring, though—I never lost my desire for that ring. Not because I thought I could use it to find buried treasure or something. I knew it was just a cheap plastic toy.
But it was meaningful to me. It made me nostalgic for that innocent time in my life when I didn’t know better, when I got as much Cap’n Crunch as I wanted and I lusted after things and then girls.
True, it’s not magic.
But it’s cool. There was still enough of a kid in me that believed in coolness. There was enough coolness in me to think coolness was cool.
I’d often bring it up with my kids. It became kind of an inside joke.
My kids went online and researched buying me one. But it was too expensive, $100 or so. At the time they were in college and high school, so their cupboards were bare.
And me—I certainly could have afforded the ring. But to do that, I’d have to get up off the couch, turn on the computer, search on Google . . .
Meh. It’s much easier just to complain about it.
Mark finally heard me lament enough about the blessed ring that he went out and bought one on eBay for $100 in an uncharacteristic spasm of splurgiosity. We were out having sushi before a movie and he got up, went to one knee, and held out the ring case for me.
But then I actually took the ring from the box and held it. This is it? It’s for a child’s finger!
It wasn’t even cool.
When I was a kid, I had supposed the ring was forged from some precious metal, probably extracted from a fallen meteor. But now I saw the words for it was . . . flimsy. If I tried hard, I could have pulled it apart. It probably was made from rubber debris at the Goodrich tire factories. “Happy birthday, kids,” the night janitors would say as they swept the otherwise unusable tire bits into a special bin.
Mark, simultaneously Eagle Scout and dweeb, reflexively suggested that I fashion a glass display case for the ring and show it prominently. Something houseguests would see and remark on, a joke to break the ice.
It sounded like a lot of work to me.
If it was Mark, he’d scribble out all the numbers and come up with a plan to save for it. (Mark has never ad-libbed once in his life. Not once.) Obviously, his wife wouldn’t let him spend any of their money on such a stupid thing, but he’d probably find a way, as he always has, through industry and thrift. Maybe sell some of his old pulp detective novels. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. They bear titles such as Cry the Lonely Flesh and Raw Fear in a Desert Town. Their covers usually feature a woman with her skirt hiked up above her knees. Her boobs straining against the buttons of her blouse. A lantern-jawed gentleman with a fedora brandishes a revolver. Mark started collecting them about 20 years ago, back when you could pick up a copy at a rummage sale for $1.
Being a cheap bastard, he stopped collecting them when they went to $5 apiece, but not before he lined the walls of his office with more than 500 lurid paperbacks. He figures he’ll sell them when he gets into his 60s and put it into his retirement fund, something boring like that. Retirement? It will fix itself, man. He would have used use the wisdom he gained when he earned his carpentry merit badge to build the stand and case. When he’d finished it, he would have stood back, dusted his hands, and felt justifiably proud.
Some Cap’n Crunch sounds nice right about now. I can just eat it here on the couch. I’ll leave the bowl to soak in the sink.
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