My favorite toy was the simple ball. I tossed it, caught it, rolled it, kicked it; I went from small ball to big ball, plastic to rubber, toy ball to sports balls. In the end, I think it was my early play with the simple round “object of my attention” that led to my future love of sports. Through my schooling years, I played on baseball, basketball, volleyball and soccer teams, as well as joining in on classic playground games of kickball and dodgeball. Ah, the ball. A simple, endearing — and enduring — toy. May it never go out of style.
My favorite toy was a big, blue Hippity Hop ball I got when I was 6 or 7 years old. My parents promised to get me a pony but they didn’t, so I tied a rope to the handle of my Hippity Hop and pretended that it was my horse. For about two years, I played with that Hippity Hop so much. I hopped all over my family’s farm and even put the ball in a stall in the barn! You know, I’m still waiting for that pony...
My favorite toy growing up was without a doubt my teddy bear. His name is Teddy. When I was 6, Teddy had a son named Theodore. The more I think about it, the more I realize that Teddy is more than a toy; he and Theodore are a part of my family. I took them on family vacations, I slept with them in my arms every night, and they helped me to let others know how I was feeling. When I felt like I couldn’t tell her myself, Teddy would let my mom know when I was injured, sad, or angry. Theodore is still in pretty good shape, and you can tell that Teddy has been well loved. Teddy is missing one eye and his nose is barely hanging on. They currently live in their den in my closet. Teddy made me very happy and made me feel comforted. Every once in a while I will wake him from his new den for a big old hug!
I remember preparing “dinners” in a pink, metal toy kitchen. The refrigerator had pictures of food painted on the inside door -- eggs and milk. Many memories involve sailing down the road on my red Schwinn bicycle and plunking away on a toy upright piano. Because I had eight brothers and sisters, there was always someone to play with. And what we loved to play were board games -- back when the pieces weren’t made of plastic -- like Clue (“is it Colonel Mustard in the library with a candlestick?”) or Monopoly (“I want to be the metal race car!”). What I didn’t know then was how much I was learning about who I was, what I could do, and what made me happy. So when the girl whose very favorite pastimes were reading Nancy Drew books and telling stories grew up to be a reporter, I just know it was hours of childhood play that helped inform that choice.
Not that I was a deprived child, but it always seemed other kids had better toys than I did. I had nearly a dozen Barbies, but I didn’t have the Barbie airplane, complete with stewardess serving cart like my friend Gale did. She also had an Easy Bake Oven, which is perfect if you want to make muffins the size of your fingernail. I was spinning mad that my neighbor Ken and the other boys in the neighborhood wouldn’t let me join in a game of Battling Tops, pitting Dizzy Dan and Twirling Tim in a death-defying match of warlike whirling. And I could only “take out wrenched ankle” playing Operation at my cousin Maggie’s house. Luckily my priorities have now changed, and I treasure the six Raggedy Ann dolls my mom made me, even if they were never advertised on TV.
When I thought back as to what my favorite toys were when I was young, the Green Machine, circa late 1970s, was the first that popped into my head. To me it was a sleeker, more stylish ride than the neighborhood kids who had boring old Big Wheel trikes. Unfortunately for me, my love of the toy came at a price. The Green Machine was long and clunky and its controls were like driving a tank without power steering. Despite its faults, I loved cruising on pedal power. So much, that by the time I was done with it, the front plastic wheel was grinded down to nearly a square wheel.
We have always been a “board game family,” but the game of Monopoly was particularly meaningful one summer. I was about 10 years old, spending time “up north” in Montreal, Wisconsin with my grandparents and cousins. That summer my diabetic cousin was very sick. Her mother would stay up very late to keep a close watch on her. I joined my favorite aunt in that late night watch and we started playing Monopoly. It grew into a mega tournament. We would leave the board after each session, couldn’t touch the money, and would add on multiple hotels. We were the Donald Trumps of the pretend real estate world! The best thing is I couldn’t tell you who won those games. It didn’t matter. My cousin and I now both have children of our own. I hope to share our stories of the late night Monopoly tournaments and pass on the tradition.
My grandmother gave me a Shirley Temple doll that I groomed and guarded like a treasure. I loved her curly hair and her spunky personality in the movies. I remember having two or three outfits that I could change her into and for a short time when I was around the age of 7, my friends and sister would sit in our bedroom and play “Shirley Temple.” We had lots of adventures. I am glad I had Shirley. She fueled my imagination because she didn’t have a car and a house. She was my friend and not an adult doll that I might aspire to become, like Barbie. And she had a warm, smart and funny personality that no Barbie could match. If Shirley taught me anything, it was that little girls could prevail even if they have curly hair, dimples and an extroverted personality. Her lessons through her movie roles and bedside play are no doubt locked in the reptilian memory that pushed me to become the woman I was meant to be.
I have fond memories of a toy robot I received as a gift from my cousins in Clintonville after they grew too old to play with it. While it was second-hand, I never let it out of my sights. In fact, I didn’t play with it a great deal for two reasons – the two D-cell batteries were expensive, and I didn’t want to wear it out or break it. It had a Mars exploration scene in the belly of the robot that used to move. The legs also moved on small wheels that made a terrible noise.
A toy I remember getting early and frequently is the Etch A Sketch. The mysterious drawing screens were as high-tech as it got during my childhood in the 1960s and ‘70s. I say “frequently” because, over the years, I must have had five or six of the things. Of course, curiosity forced me to break open a couple just to see what was inside and how it worked. Coincidentally, years later when I was working as a news reporter in Toledo, Ohio, I traveled to Bryan, Ohio and toured the factory where they make the Etch A Sketch as part of a series of stories on local businesses that were known around the world. And, to this day, I can easily spend half an hour trying to draw a perfect circle with the one my son got last year for Christmas.
When I was about ten, I developed an interest in Matchbox cars. I had always liked model cars, but Matchboxes were real favorites because they were well-made and there were so many to collect. I remember looking at the catalogs to see what cars I wanted and stopping in at the Little Chute Five and Dime to see if the newest models came in. I had a carrying case and tracks…I even liked the boxes in which the cars were sold. A couple of my friends had them too and we used to play with them on the sidewalk.
My favorite toy was the toy ukulele I received as a Christmas present in 1960. My parents were notoriously early holiday shoppers, so I would begin gift hunting in late fall. I got home from school at 3:25, while they got home at 4:00, so I had a 35-minute “mischief” window. That year, I found the ukulele, along with a “how-to” book, under their bed. I began practicing from mid-November until Christmas Eve when I opened the box containing the ukulele, feigned surprise, and, much to their amazement, played a near-flawless rendition of “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain.” But it gets better. They were so proud of their “musical prodigy,” they went out and bought me a guitar!
One of my favorite childhood toys was the Creepy Crawlers Thingmaker that I received for Christmas when I was seven years old. For those unfamiliar with the original Thingmaker, it was a small metal box that when plugged into an electrical outlet would warm to a temperature about four degrees hotter than the surface of the sun. They might as well just named this device “Junior’s Lil’ Third Degree Burn Maker.” Unfortunately, the next year I was to receive a wood burning set and a completely new assortment of scars.
I had the APBA baseball game and the Strat-O-Matic football game. They were both great. I spent hours - days, weeks, months, finally years – playing them. There was a science to it. The games used actual players and actual teams, with a player’s ability changing each year based on his statistics from the year before. You could play an entire season, keeping statistics, and compare it to what had actually happened in that earlier year. As I say, I loved both Strat-O-Matic and APBA, but if I could have chosen only one, it would have been APBA baseball. It was the first game I got, and I remember my parents wincing a bit at the $10 charge. Still, they bought me a revised set of player cards each new season until I quit playing. I’d race to the mailbox when the new season’s cards were due. Why I quit I can't remember. Girls or golf, I suspect.
I was fascinated as a child by the trains that went by my house in Hortonville. I desperately wanted a train set of my own, and begged for it for my 4th birthday in 1953. I recall being told by my folks that getting a train set just wasn’t in the cards because my sister had just been born, and there wasn’t going to be enough money for me to have the coveted train set. I was astonished at my birthday party when my folks gave me the train set, complete with figure-8 track, transformer, and the engine and several train cars. My dad helped me set it up and I played with it non-stop for hours, even waking in the middle of the night to get up and play engineer. It was one of the most treasured toys I ever received.
I remember the almost sleepless Christmas Eve nights at my grandmother’s place in Whitefish Bay as we kids awaited the plundering of the Christmas morning bounty: Erector Sets, Lincoln Logs, model railroad equipment. The most memorable present may have been one that seems to have disappeared, no doubt for liability reasons: my chemistry set. Who knows what kinds of foul vapors I inhaled as I thought, “What might happen when I mix this with that?” Maybe that explains why I am the way I am today!
When I was six years old, it was 1942, and my father bought two sets of electric trains, one for my cousins who lived out in Wauwatosa, and the other for my brother and I. And, you know, they played Father Santa, and they set up the trains, my uncle and my dad, in the middle of the night. My brother and I awakened on Christmas of 1942 (these were the last train sets now because the war is going full blast), we plug in ours and turn on the switch and smoke comes out of the locomotive, long before they invented smoke for model trains. The whole thing burned up before our very eyes. And…it’s kinda been downhill ever since.
Transcript courtesy of Milwaukee Public Television
Photo: Bonnie Schiffman/CBS
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World War II had just ended and Ed Fuhrman’s Rexall Drug Store in New Glarus was holding a Christmas season contest that included an array of kids’ toys as prizes. Customers would get points for each $1 they spent at the store in the weeks leading up to Christmas. First place was a Lionel electric train set that to me, a six-year-old, was the most awesome thing I’d ever seen. Fortunately, Ed allowed families to pool their points and the Zweifel family was quite substantial. My mom got the train and it was under our Christmas tree Christmas morning. I spent hours and hours running that train. To me, that train was heaven and I protested when mom said it was time to put it away when the Christmas tree came down in mid-January. But, next Christmas it was back and for many Christmases afterward. That great little Lionel train, I’m sure, is what caused my fascination with railroading that has stayed with me to this very day.