We Were Green Before Green Was Cool
It was like cutting through steel. I had to get out my electric Black & Decker scissors to cut through the hard clear plastic that entrapped brand new remote-controlled helicopters for my grandsons from North Carolina. That plastic is as tough a substance as I’ve come across, a sort of flexible clear steel. As I cut the helicopters free, I thought, “Man, we had nothing like these when I was a boy.”
And then I went back to the days when toys encased in hard, clear plastic didn’t exist. I went back to the days when we made toys.
As a kid, nothing thrilled me more than walking up to a thick stand of bamboo. (We called it cane.) Emerald green and tropical, the stems (culms, technically) tall and strong transported me to the jungle, a world where headhunters shot poison darts from bamboo blowguns. But there was another reason to be excited, a better reason. Those jade stalks, with a little work, could be turned into toys: peashooters, and during more peaceful moments, flutes. The key to converting these wonderful plants to toys was simple. Cut the straightest stalk you could find and saw it off inside the joints, which were solid. A beautiful, natural tube resulted.
I used to slip my bamboo peashooter into school, pull it out, and pop a fellow student with an inaudible puff of wind. Alas, I lost many a peashooter to teachers. But, hey, it was all in fun, and I didn’t, by the way, ever once conceive of taking a real gun to school. What innocents we were.
I’ve already written about making slingshots for my grandsons and how the sheer simplicity of the toys fascinated the boys. As a kid, I didn’t go anywhere without my slingshot. It rested in my hip pocket and in one fluid motion I could whip it out and send a piece of gravel flying at a rusty old can sitting on a post.
A close cousin to the slingshot was a rubber band pistol. They were easy to make. Draw a pistol-like design onto a pine board, cut it out with a handsaw, nail a wooden clothespin on its top, and cut a notch in the end of the barrel. Cut some stout rubber bands from a tire inner tube of an appropriate length and you added yet another weapon to your arsenal. Getting smacked by a rubber band didn’t hurt. Today, I suppose, making a toy gun is politically incorrect and just cause to expel a kid and then pack him off to a counselor to work out his so-called “anger issues.”
Another great homemade toy was a “tractor” made from a wooden spool of thread, a matchstick, rubber band, and an ice cream stick. By the way, you’ll be hard pressed to find a wooden spool of thread today. They’re all plastic. Making a tractor from a wooden spool was simple. Cut notches into the spool’s outer flanges, insert a rubber band, and secure it on one end with the matchstick and the ice cream stick on the other. Wind up the ice cream stick, then set it down and watch it roll off. It could even go uphill.
Nothing fascinated me like magnets as a kid. To this day I maintain that a magnet is about the most fascinating object on the planet. I used to tie magnets to a string and loop the string over a nail in a door and just like that I had a boy’s version of a tall crane able to lift loads of tacks, whatever small metal objects I could find. Boys in the 1950s truly loved magnets. The band members in Pink Floyd grew up about the same time I did, and they paid homage to magnets’ power to inspire in a song called “High Hopes” … “In a world of magnets and miracles, our thoughts strayed constantly and without boundary …” How true, nothing worked my imagination like a strong magnet.
Another simple toy we made was a dart fashioned from a matchstick, straight pin, and paper. We’d cut slits into the matchstick and insert paper fins, cut off the match head and insert the pin. These little darts were deadly, laser beams of accuracy.
We made parachutes from bandanas and rocks. Throw them into the air and watch them drift to earth.
Making your own toys was a fine tradition. My Dad told me many times how he and his friends used a simple iron hoop from a barrel as a toy. They’d get it rolling and keep it rolling with a stick that guided it as well.
Looking back, one of the darker days in my life, a day that marked a big change, came from a cereal box. Perhaps you remember the deep-sea divers billed as diving frogmen. You’d put baking soda into a compartment under their feet, drop them into water and watch them bob up and down. Why a dark day? Because it was a sign of things to come: the advent of plastic and mass-produced toys. The 1950s gave us plastic hula hoops, Silly Putty, Mr. Potato Head, and by the end of the decade, the invasion of plastic Barbie dolls.
Before plastic and batteries came along, before Walmart and Toys R Us existed, we made do. Folks made dolls for little girls from cornhusks. We made simple propellers from small blocks of pine. Carve out the blade and drill a hole in the middle where a loose-fitting nail attached it to a wooden handle. Hold it out the car window and listen to it go.
We kids of the 1950s were “green” before green was cool. Just about all of our toys were biodegradable and Earth friendly, and best of all they didn’t depend on batteries. Bamboo, cornhusks, and wood break down. You can’t say that for plastic toys. Broken and abandoned by kids, a plastic toy buried in a landfill can take hundreds of years to break down. And just imagine how many batteries end up buried in landfills each year.
We made our own toys back in the day, and in a way our little inventions made us. Entertaining yourself with a toy fashioned from scraps of lumber or a fine piece of bamboo made you feel good about yourself. It boosted your self-esteem. “Hey, look. I made this.”
We did little harm with our delightful do-it-yourself toys, I might add, and I suppose today’s economists would have looked on our homemade toys with an approving eye. We weren’t consumers; we were manufacturers. In the true spirit of American ingenuity and capitalism, we filled a void with a much-needed product.
Today’s kids? They’re one of the country’s most coveted consumer markets. And that means that a whole lot of bamboo stalks have nothing to fear.