I loved to build things as a child. While I enjoyed Lincoln Logs and Legos, my favorite was a kit I was given to build skyscrapers. I can’t remember the name of the kit, but gray plastic girders snapped into one another to form the building infrastructure. Then plastic panels that looked like glass windows could be applied to the building exterior. I loved the fact that I could use this kit to build a skyscraper that was taller than I! I had many of the fad toys of the day including an Easy Bake oven, that I probably only used once or twice, and a Lite-Brite, that I played with a little more frequently. My favorite toy was my Spirograph!
My very first memory of a favorite toy was a red, wooden wagon that my father made for me. We were living in Manitowoc at the time. What I thought was so special about it was that I could do everything with it! One of the things was that I would put all my comic books in it and haul them all over the place – to wherever I would want to read. Another favorite was given to me by my grandmother in Green Bay. It was a handmade (but not by my grandmother), big, wooden doll house. She must have gone to lots of antique sales and stores, as she had that doll house furnished, down to the teapot and teacups. I played with that house for hours and hours.
I loved anything to do with baseball. I had baseballs, a bat, a mitt, and even a Milwaukee Braves baseball uniform. I even had a baseball card collection (and today, I wish I still had it). I spent hours and hours with my collection and playing the game. One Sunday morning when my family was getting ready to go to Mass, I insisted on wearing my baseball uniform to church…and I finally did.
These days, kids have PS2s, iPods and robotic dogs to keep them busy. But, when I was growing up kids had to be a little more imaginative during play time. As a boy one of my favorite games was pretending to be a cowboy. On the back of my trusty steed, which happened to be a hobby horse, I traveled the west taking on the “bad guys” and saving the day. There wasn’t much to my horse – just a cloth head and a wooden stick – but we sure had some great adventures.
When I was between five and ten years old, my grandmother brought a ceramic toy tea set back from Mexico. I just loved that set. Although it was rustic, the set was pretty and exotic to me. Because it was breakable, my mother kept it on a top shelf and brought it down whenever my sister Christy and I wanted to play with it. We were told to take very good care of it. We used to set it up on a little table in the corner of the dining room, and every time we played with the tea set, it was a special event.
There was not a lot of glamour in Virginia, Minnesota, the little mining town where I grew up. That’s why, when my mom and dad gave me a Revlon Doll for Christmas in 1957, it gave me a chance to inhabit a different world. She had curly auburn hair, and came with a green organza cocktail dress and white high heels. Norma, the woman I stayed with when my parents were working, was a seamstress, and, for every birthday for many years, she would create a new outfit for my doll. I still have the doll and the outfits and the wonderful memories of the hours I spent playing with them.
Some amazing battles took place on the floor of the bedroom I shared with my two younger brothers. My toy soldiers – hand-painted plastic American Revolution and WW II figures and metal WW I ones – fought together for days in battles that spilled over into the closet and under the beds. The soldiers, artillery pieces, tanks, and other equipment were divided into two groups, but not equally. The Americans got the good stuff, and the Germans usually got an old fire truck or a tank missing its treads. I still have my toy soldiers, and the great memories of the hours I spent playing with them.
My favorite toy was a baby doll with a porcelain face and cloth body that I must have gotten when I was four or five. I named her Janie after a favorite relative. We were very poor, and I didn’t have a lot of toys. Our family Christmas gift was usually a bag of fruit or nuts, but every year I got one piece of doll furniture to complete my collection.