My favorite toy was a yellow plastic drum I got when I was about three. It had molding on the sides that looked like the rope on a military drum. I bonded with that toy. I took it everywhere - to the store, to the park. I used to play it to accompany songs on the radio. Before too long, I started punching a hole in the drum, and after that I used my mother's pots and pans. When those started getting beat up, my mother thought it would just be cheaper to get me a real drum, but I remember that first toy drum like it was yesterday.
Most kids have a special teddy bear they squeeze to death when they are little. But me, I had a stuffed whale. Ever since I can remember, I have been obsessed with whales. We used to take trips to Hawaii and go whale watching. They are such beautiful and mysterious creatures. Baleena has gone through a lot with me! To this day I still hold her when I'm lonely or sad. Even my license plate number is “BALEENA.” Seriously, I think I was a whale in a past life. Either that, or a barnacle.
My uncle Anthony worked as Vice-President of Public Relations at General Motors and every year between Thanksgiving and Christmas two or three medium-sized boxes arrived at my aunt's house in Racine. Inside each box were 25 small white, unmarked boxes that my cousins and I would line up and take turns selecting. Inside each of those boxes was a very detailed, plastic dealer's model of each of the new cars GM was introducing the next year. Each of us hoped he'd be the one to pick the new Corvette! From the time I was about 9 to about 14, I really prized those cars and showed them off to my friends. Among my favorites were a bright red Stingray and a Buick Riviera. The cars had moving wheels, vivid colors, and detailed styling, and I played with them all year long. They were really special.
On Christmas Eve when I was nine, my father sent my younger brother and me to the Baptist church across the street from our Milwaukee home to listen to Christmas music. When we returned, we found that he set up a Lionel train underneath the Christmas tree. We had wanted an electric train for years and years and for me, it was a dream come true. It had an engine, caboose, coal car, and freight cars and ran on an oval track. The train whistled and smoke came out of it when you put little pellets in it. After a season or two under the tree, my father set it up on a second-hand dining room table in the basement. It was just the best – a little material piece of heaven. That train was symbolic of the joy and spirit and the high romance of Christmas that is so important to me.
When I was about four, I had my tonsils out, and when I got home from the hospital, my parents gave me a pink and white stuffed bunny I named Wabbie. I carried him everywhere and slept with him every night. One fall day, I lost Wabbie and the following spring, my neighbor found him in the woods behind our house. She laundered and stitched him up and gave him back to me. And even though Wabbie was now brown and tan and bedraggled, that was a red-letter day! Eventually Wabbie was put away with my toys in the attic. One day I found him in a box that was going to Goodwill. I had a meltdown and ran away to my friend's house. My parents reassured me they'd never sell Wabbie. When I was older I discovered that my brother's girlfriend had asked him for a token from his childhood and that he had given Wabbie to her!
When I was about 8 to 12 years old, I had the most fun playing with Airfix HO-scale historical military figures. I got them as birthday or Christmas presents and also bought sets at the Hobby Horse in Milwaukee. My friends and I painted and traded them and used them in conjunction with HO-scale train sets and model tanks and planes that I collected. We used to stage massive, improbable battles involving armies from all time periods - ancient Britons, Vikings, Napoleonic soldiers, and figures from both World Wars. Sometimes we couldn't decide who should be the good guys or the bad guys. As I got older, though, I got interested in guitars, and that was that.
I remember a Lionel electric train. The smell of the ozone from the electric train going around its little loop was the best. I felt like I was a captain of industry. I had a junior science kit and I used to mix chemicals up in test tubes. I would also add my own stuff that I found under the kitchen sink. Mostly, I remember the thrill of a new box of crayons - the bright colors, the smell of the paper wrappings on the crayons, the clean fresh points of color - that was perfection.