Odd memories, part six

Scott Meyer of Basic Instructions fame speaks with the insight of the classic philosophers:

The Nerf designers may actually be missing the point – part of the skills of childhood is repurposing toys to your own ends. Things that are too specific cripple kids’ creative (and destructive) powers.

In my youth, GI Joe was a nine-inch (metric wasn’t invented then) fully-articulated dude with fuzzy beard and blue Speedos, perhaps a step up from my older brothers’ Joes, who were clean-shaven, plastic-haired, and conspicuously neutral in the nether regions (the action-figures, not my brothers.) I had a six-wheeled ATV “Banana Buggy” and a Schweizer 300 helicopter, though I did not know this at the time, for him to chase semi-military adventures within. Both of these were cool, but they didn’t provide half of the amusement of hurling Joe out of the third-story attic window with his homemade parachute. Joe, it must be said, was more accident-prone than YouTube stars, and curiously, his chute failed more often than it worked, especially when my friends and I figured out how to tie the knots for only momentary security. Joe would often regain consciousness on the front walk, limbs splayed at traumatic angles that the animators of Family Guy are quite familiar with; they know. But Joe never grimaced, never hesitated, never shirked his duty of running his ATV at full speed under the couch, which the ATV cleared but Joe did not…

Stairs are an important part of a child’s development, I am sure – we had four flights of stairs in the house that I grew up in and look how I turned out. The flight of sixteen steps in the main foyer was an excellent acceleration ramp for the Hot Wheels tracks that I inherited from my brothers. The orange plastic sectional tracks, able to be bent vertically but not horizontally, retained a bit too much warpage from being curled into loops, so it was hard to keep the cars on the track in the bottom third, often flying clear before reaching the jump we had placed at the end. Ah, but when they stayed true, we could send a Deora (without surfboards) or Whip Creamer sailing out the front door without touching the floor. Those that collect Hot Wheels in vintage condition nowadays, still in the original packaging even, are total dweebs – a Hot Wheels has not been christened until the paint is chipped or a wire axle bent down a bit. Ones with heavily-damaged front ends are true classics, bearing the history of numerous childhood experiments.

In my very early childhood, kids still actually stuck playing cards in their bicycle spokes, something I’d better explain because I suspect a lot of readers no longer know what the hell this is: the rattling made a sound reminiscent of motorcycles. Bikes are anything but bikes at that age, becoming motorcycles, aircraft, and even spacecraft. The physics that we learned from Hot Wheels we carried over into bicycles, or at least tried to, making ramps of various sizes when we couldn’t find our own in natural conditions. Bear in mind that this was the Golden Era of growing up, when playground equipment was metal and concrete and there was no such thing as helmets and pads – I still have a scar on my knee from wiping out in gravel, a scar that carries the fond memory of having banged the scab a week later and reproducing the tears, only to find a stone still embedded in my skin and now adhering to the scab. Fun times! I did a lot of bicycle jumps, learning that steep ramps often cause the bike to want to pitch forward on landing. You get over the pain quickly because your friends will only laugh that much harder if you moan or cry. Had we continued to use playing cards in this manner, some of our bikes would have sounded like Harleys at idle from the missing spokes (budda budda budda – blap – budda – blap blap…)

As I got older, model kits took over, and as most boys know, there’s a period of time that they don’t turn out how they were intended; this is coupled with those that get knocked down and obtain too much damage. At such times, their appearance is improved with the time-honored application of gasoline, usually anointed well out of the presence of stodgy uncreative adults. Several of my kits became masses of blobby plastic out Behind The Barn, which is another important developmental area. This achieved new heights of awesomeness when my brother-in-law brought over his 12-gauge shotguns and we attempted to extinguish the flames with birdshot. One gains valuable scientific knowledge of atomization and vapor ignition from watching the USS Constitution with full rigging, after having been damaged by pirates (tumbling it from the top shelf,) take one in the powder magazine and vanish in a classic fireball. Much is said about the joys of children’s laughter, but past a certain age, it means you better check to see what they’re doing.

Actually, just a little older than that, it then means you probably shouldn’t…

It is worth noting that this is a period in time when reality, and what your friends tell you with utter confidence, are two entirely different things, often polar opposites. My sister convinced me that the air freshener in the bathroom with strawberries all over the can actually tasted like strawberries, from her personal experience. I can save you that experiment: it does not (c’mon, I was four.) One of my model rockets was destroyed because a friend told me that a two-stage engine and a single-stage were pretty much the same, and a two-stage would successfully pop the chute. I watched my carefully built model return earthward at a high velocity with its chute aflame, never to fly again.

Oh, yeah, I should probably say that model rocket engines are a source of very useful chemicals. Split open the compressed cardboard casing with an X-Acto knife and you get a cylinder of varied packed powders that ignite easily. They smell terrible, of course, which makes them very useful for twisting small amounts into buds of toilet paper and sneaking into cigarettes. When you do this, you dump out several cigarettes and place the loaded one well into the pack, so it’s not found until sometime later – helps cover your tracks. The bottom charge flares brilliantly, because that’s the propellent, but the middle charge (we’re talking single-stage here) is the bit that produces the smoke trail to spot the rocket, and it works quite well. Being careless at one point, I ignited an entire cylinder of this stuff in our living room (on the fireplace hearth – I had a little sense back then)… right before my dad came home. The living room was filled with smoke about halfway down to the floor, but I suspect my dad got too much of a kick out of my sheepish and terrified admission of guilt and merely told me to air it out before my mom got home. Or maybe I’d given him ideas of his own; come to think of it now, some of my rocket engines went missing soon after. I’d always blamed my brother…

So, yeah, with all that, especially for the women reading, you can begin to understand where Mythbusters really came from. Even Homer Hickam, one of the pioneers of rocketry and author of the book Rocket Boys (later to become the movie October Sky,) engaged in shenanigans of this sort – if you’re lucky, you never grow out of it.

One free internets to everyone that knew what a “Banana Buggy” was. It’s the least I can do now that that song is going through your head… ;-)