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A Like-New Toy Story

Christmas was different in San Francisco. Pre-kids, we spent our free time gliding through Chinatown, holding hands, searching for the best dim sum. And though we bought a pink, plastic tree and twinkling, white lights, something was missing from the season.

Back then, I would have said it was not having any ice to scrape. But now, the answer has changed. Sure, we lived in a city with weekly compost pickup. We also had Barry Bonds chasing Hank Aaron for most career home runs. But life was slow. We weren’t asking our boys, “Where’s the cat?” We didn’t have to call Poison Control after an aunt’s pills were mistaken for Smarties. And our backyard out west never saw its leaves used as toilet paper, as far as I know.

In San Francisco, we supervised no one except ourselves. Life required less assembly. I wasn’t in the garage connecting the plastic axles of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle dune buggy or affixing a broken fire pole onto a 4-story station house that came without instructions.

This relaxed pace never picked up, not even at Christmas. Shopping just meant spending hours listening to the morning foghorns and browsing eBay, my old homepage. While I combed and investigated for others, I’d check in on my own cravings: a vintage Slingerland tom-tom here or some 1950s Ray Ban Wayfarers there. It was too easy to find what I needed. I’d sip my Peet’s Dark Roast, breathe in the fog, and start clicking. My mother took me to estate sales as a kid, so I learned early that mothball smells come out in the wash. Fighting old junk back to life and scratching off a little rust makes sense to me. But today, I do less searching. When there is a dead raccoon in the backyard that the boys and I can poke, I forget about increasing my bid. The younger me needed Beatle boots and a 1973 Marantz tuner. Not anymore. I no longer require old stuff to feel cool. Except at Christmas.

When the wreath and stockings go up, I give myself permission to rev up my bidding skills and go on the hunt once again. I don’t like shopping. I hate it. But I need to show my boys what a real toy looks like. Last year, that meant bidding on a NICE Imperial AT-AT Walker-Hoth Vintage 1981 for my 5-year-old. To heck with Target and Toys “R” Us, I make it my mission to get our boys the good stuff. That means action figures with elbows that don’t move and legs that only goose step. While other dads might teach trick football plays, I’m handing down the value of the toys from my youth and the admiration of sweet, vintage plastic.

It all started in 1981 when I was six. His name was Walrusman. I tore through the package and instantly lost Aqualish’s blaster in the front yard somewhere. It didn’t matter. Walrusman brought me closer to my hero, Luke Skywalker. Wooden blocks and construction paper died for me after that. I had Kenner and Hasbro and the Dark Side to craft my play. That feeling that comes from stuffing a Star Wars guy in a Dixie cup and shoving him into the freezer is what I want to give my boys. The two biggest influences on my youth were The Beatles and Star Wars. And so, every chance I get, I aim to pass it on.

Last year, a Tie-Fighter got away, but I landed a Speederbike after staying up late to make a final bid at the 3-second mark. A laser cannon might be missing, or a torso could be scuffed, but I’m okay with that. I tell my boys the truth. Santa’s elves have lots of work to do. Sometimes, they get tired. Still, I get excited thinking what these action figures have been through – dunked in mud, lost in the ocean, swinging from dental floss. The
stories are there somewhere, buried under the surface. Now, the boys and I are just adding to the resume.

When heads fall off, I run to my workbench, an abandoned dresser in the garage, and perform triage like a wannabe Geppetto. That’s where the wires for a Darth Vader mask were stripped and re-attached, and where Ringo’s drumstick was returned to his palm. Other guys have Craftsman tools in chests, organized alphabetically. I get by with Duck tape and Super Glue. Teaching how fast that stuff dries is part of the lesson. “Not on your brother’s ear.”

I still remember tossing that pink Christmas tree into a dumpster in San Francisco. It was July. My wife, Dawn, was eight months pregnant and had already moved back east. I was left to pack up and figure out what Ikea bookshelves would survive a 2,900-mile trip in a Mayflower. When I walked the polyethylene tree to the trash, I remember hesitating. Throwing anything away is hard for me, but we were graduating. Two meteors were headed our way, and though I didn’t know it then, the years would start ticking by like mile-markers on the highway.

And these days, when we’re driving, I feed the boys facts about The Beatles. Ringo is really left-handed, George loved his 12-string Rickenbacker. John couldn’t see. So when my older son hears “Nowhere Man,” and says, “John sings this one,” I feel good.

When all three of us are on the floor, watching Help! or re-creating The Battle of Endor, I remember the day my father told me my favorite band was from England. It made little sense. I had always thought they lived down the street. I wanted to visit them and give them a high-five. Back then, I knew very little. Today, I’m still looking for lots of answers. But as I watch my Walrusman get chucked across the room, I realize that some songs never die and certain plastic is worth hanging on to, maybe forever. Just like my Beatle boots.

Married for eighteen years, John Morgan is the father of two boys, ages twelve and ten. He teaches creative writing and British Literature at St. Catherine’s School. Other than words, he loves vintage drums, cars, and Ringo Starr’s backbeat. Follow him on Twitter @johnlmorganiv.
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