Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The World Where I Once Lived

As unlikely as it may sound, I was a child who took very good care of his toys. A few years ago my parents decided they needed to clear out their attic and arranged a day for my siblings and me to go through the stuff that had belonged to us. As you can imagine, it was an afternoon spent on memory lane as we pulled the various road signs of our childhood from those cardboard boxes.

We managed to relegate much of it to either Goodwill or the garbage, their stories being told one last time before they went, but since all of us have young children in our lives, and most of it was still in good condition, everything with any play value left in them found new homes, much of it at the preschool.

I've written before about how it feels to watch the children play with toys with a history. When it comes to new toys, I'm inclined to be hands-off, allowing the children to figure out on their own how to play with them, but these toys are different. They're better, I think, for having real stories attached to them as opposed to fantasy histories invented on Madison Avenue and printed on the label. Even if they were once cheap crap "Made in Japan" (that's where the cheap crap came from when I was a boy) they are now treasures that come with a living, breathing instruction manual in the form of a grown-up who has already put that toy through its paces and can often tell you, to this day, exactly what he learned from playing with them.

My Matchbox car collection is one of those. I must have been one of the last of the original Matchbox car collectors because even my brother who is only 20 months younger than me, collected cars made by an upstart competitor called Hot Wheels. It was one of the ways we knew whose cars were whose. I disdained the Hot Wheels as a Johnny-come-lately even while I envied their undeniably greater speed, more modern designs, and orange tracks. The makers of Matchbox obviously saw the writing on the wall, coming out with their own Superfast line of cars, but it obviously wasn't enough to staunch the inevitable.

The transition from Matchbox to Hot Wheels was one from what was essentially a form of "doll house play" to one of raceway action. While the Hot Wheels were toys designed to teach the physics of speed and motion, Matchbox cars sought to recreate, down to the smallest details, both the common and exotic real world vehicles we saw on the roads, in magazines, and on television. Looking over my cars today, I'm struck by how many are simply scaled-down versions of the Detroit-built sedans found in everyone's garages at the time. There were a few racing cars, but mostly the cars in my collection would today be considered too hum-drum for the toy aisle.

It was the trucks and working vehicles that really stand out, even today.

I still have all the small parts that came with these toys.

You can actually build with the pipes, girders and scaffolding in the beds of
these trucks, but it takes a mighty steady hand.

Whoa! I have very fond memories of these vehicles. No wonder I feel so
betrayed and angered by what's happening in the Gulf of Mexico.

We do have a small set of Hot Wheels with tracks at school, and they are very popular, but when my Matchbox collection comes out, they stay on table tops. I tell the children the truth, that these are very special toys, that I don't want the parts to get lost, that I don't want them to crash the cars together. I don't put many caveats on other toys, but I have no qualms about doing so with these.

You should see with what reverence the boys -- and indeed it is mostly boys -- fold out the case, peering at the vehicles behind the slightly yellowed plastic windows within.

They point to the ones they want to play with, handling them carefully, as they drive them around the table while making soft motor noises. It's not the usual wild, on your feet, zoom zoom kind of play that our Hot Wheels evoke, but rather a nose-to-the-table kind of play that stimulates conversation, comparisons, and doll-house style dramatics.

It's not a particularly large collection by today's standards, but it's large enough. Whenever they come out, they draw a crowd, many of those boys spending an hour or more lost in the Matchbox world where I once lived, but can now only visit with them as my guide.

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Barbara Zaborowski said...

I am always impressed with the care and even reverence children will treat something that the teacher has singled out as "special," whether it's grown-up paint (like acrylics) or a special toy or something breakable.

Scott said...

Tom, you filled me with nostalgia today. I remember making roads in the dirt for my Matchbox cars. And now I feel the need to rummage at my parents' house. Maybe those cars are in a closet somewhere....

Anonymous said...

What an amazing collection. That is so great that you let the kids play with it even though it means so much to you.
Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Wow, Tom! You really appreciated your toys and they have remained so perfect! Sometimes I feel sad to see children in school throwing our toys or forgetting how to look after the things in our classroom properly. Providing toys with a story - toys that have received so much care, is a great way to model how toys should be valued and shared! Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I was definitely in the Matchbox camp growing up myself. Hot Wheels were ok, but how many race cars do you really need. Matchbox cars had more diversity and, to some extent, utility. You could create the basis for your own little city with Matchboxes. I can't wait until my son is old enough to play with them.

Shelly said...

Charlie covets your collection. He is especially fond of the horse trailer, which he has mentioned to me several times. We were just over at my friend's parents' house for 4th of July and her mom broke out their old collection of Matchbox. The cars and trucks were crafted so much better than the ones are today. I wish my mom had saved ours.

Hippy Goodwife said...

Tom, I have the same case and a very similar collection, the horse trailer, the white flatbed with red plastic I-beams. I have all of the parts too. My boys know that they are special and treat them with great care when they come out. How wonderful that you share them at school.

Unknown said...

So beautifully written. I love that you still have this treasure of childhood.

jenny said...

Oh Tom, I have 3 brothers and lived in Matchbox world for many years. My mum has saved all the cars and carry cases similar to your own and my own boys never fail to get them out of the cupboard when they go and visit. It is so special to keep and share treasures from childhood.