The Toys I Can’t Let Go

The Toys I Can’t Let Go

I’m writing this on Easter, remembering how when I was a kid, the holidays were fundamentally about toys: new toys that would come in Easter baskets or birthday presents or under the Christmas tree. The farther I get into adulthood, the stranger it is to remember just how intensely invested I was in those little plastic figures that came in plastic bubbles glued to cards, or in plastic bags in glossy boxes festooned with a careful balance of dramatic illustrations showing the fierce freedom fighters the toys were meant to represent and disappointment-forestalling photos of what the toys actually looked like.

I loved that shit. After an initial period of precociously self-aware resistance during which I deliberately spurned anything resembling a stereotypical “boy toy”—I preferred Legos, which in the early 80s had even more of that progressively androgynous, European quality than they do now—I succumbed to a three-pack of Star Wars bounty hunter action figures I received for Christmas when I was about five. Star Wars figures and playsets quickly replaced Legos as my toys of choice, and they were in turn replaced by Transformers, my last and greatest toy obsession. During that period—basically, the 1980s, during which I went from age 4 to 15—I also had serious affairs on the side with franchises including G.I. Joe, Robo Force, and Inhumanoids (the latter mostly because they immediately flopped and thus became dirt cheap on clearance).

My parents and I spent a lot of money on toys for me, but boy, did I ever get our money’s worth. I’d spend countless hours up in my room behind a closed door, where I’d arrange the toys into careful displays on my many shelves, taking them down to enact elaborate wars and exploratory missions—all soundtracked with KZIO, Duluth’s top 40 station. I specifically remember a thrilling starfighter battle that unfolded to the strains of “Material Girl” and a triumphant “We Don’t Need Another Hero” Autobot dance party that went on a little too long for my friend Nathan, who wanted to get back to the fighting.

Every new toy was an additional character in the constantly unfolding epic. My toys’ adventures always drew from the official lore supplied by TV shows, books, and movies (along with many other boys my age, I went to see Transformers: The Movie and got real vulns when Optimus Prime died), but I adapted the stories since I had a personal rule against imagining adventures involving characters whose PVC avatars I did not personally possess.

As I advanced into middle childhood, I became increasingly interested in the unseen machinery by which commercial toys were provided with story lines. One of the first things I remember consciously wanting to grow up to be (besides generically “famous”) was continuity manager for the Transformers line—I figured someone had to be tasked with keeping the TV shows, books, and packaging internally consistent, and I knew I could do a better job of it than he was. (How big is Megatron when he transforms into a gun? Is it possible for characters to partially transform, or is it all-or-nothing? Do the human characters age in real time?) This was of particular concern to me, as I’d started drawing my own Transformers comics and inventing my own new characters, for whom I typed detailed biographies with my manual Royal typewriter.

Increasingly, the toys and the comics and the typewriter started to weigh my imagination down—they were crutches I didn’t need. So I’d take my pink rubber ball (a tennis ball or even a golf ball would do in a pinch) out to the patio and walk around in circles, bouncing the ball to occupy my hands while I imagined adventures for my toy characters to have. I’d narrate them to myself in a mumbling tone, simulating different voices as needed. I even had a name for this: if you were in our kitchen in about 1986, you might see me dash through wearing short shorts and a Madeline Island t-shirt, yelling, “Mom! I’m gonna go dribble for a while. Call me when dinner’s ready!”

In 1987 we moved to St. Paul, to a house that didn’t have a private backyard patio like our house in Duluth had. I never even unpacked all my toys after the move, but I kept my “dribbling” going strong through junior high—I’d just have to do it out in public, on the sidewalk in front of the house. At the time I believed it was out of sexism that the neighbors started hiring my younger sisters as baby-sitters before they hired me, but in retrospect I think it probably had more to do with the fact that they believed me to be a lot further along the autism spectrum than I actually was. I’d be out dribbling until the sun set, and at least once a neighbor had to stick his head out his window and ask if I was all right—I’d imitated one of the Decepticons’ death shrieks a little more loudly than was appropriate.

Eventually I stopped dribbling, but I still have that rubber ball, once perfectly round and now cratered with wear so that it resembles a dirty pink asteroid. I still have all the toys, too—all of them. My parents are probably going to sell the house within a year from now, so my free storage is going to be over and I’m going to have to decide what to do with Omega Supreme, the Ewok Village, the Cobra hyrdofoil, the fishing tackle box full of weapons and accessories…legions upon legions of well-worn but carefully preserved warriors, buried in full battle readiness like my own personal Terra Cotta Army.

The actual Terra Cotta Army is being carefully excavated and put on public display in climate-controlled museums, and I wish I could do the same with my toys. Not in my home, 40-Year-Old-Virgin-style, but in an appropriately majestic temple to all those years I spent with them—my chubby little body and their crappy plastic ones sitting on a pea-green shag rug in Duluth, Minnesota, but our true selves having adventures in a galaxy far, far away.

If I could build that museum, it would be designed to resemble the Autobot city of Metroplex, and it would sit atop a wide grassy hill like that city did in the Transformers cartoons. Its voice would welcome you when you’d walk in, and you’d totally be able to convince yourself that if the Constructicons ever united to form Devastator, the museum could transform, sheltering your fragile human form in his chest as he kicked the evil metabot’s ass. You could dribble a pink rubber ball while he did it, and no one would even judge you.

Jay Gabler

Photo credits, from top: ChrisM70, mdverde (second and fourth), and Rodimuspower. All Creative Commons.