Thursday, September 19, 2013

With Them As My Guide

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 happened 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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Males in Early Childhood said...

I have a very similar carry case Tom, but without the viewing windows. Also, my vehicles are in a far poorer state than yours with peeling paintwork and wheels with bent axels or missing entirely. My own collection had a few working vehicles such as trucks, buses and vans, but had more flashy types such as dune buggies, dragsters, hot rods, production & custom built race cars, and the old favourite - the Kombi.

Alec from Child's Play Music said...

I never had a big collection of Matchbox cars - maybe 10, 15 at most, but I  would dearly love to know what became of my silver James Bond Aston Martin DB5 (with the pop-up bullet deflector and the working ejector passenger seat, and the front-mounted machine guns).

In good condition in the original box they are very collectible, but like Greg from Males in Early Childhood mine was battered and the ejector seat had lost its passenger and as for box? I don't even remember the box. 

I played with that car for years, and unlike your children I was not careful - I crashed it and bashed it and sped it into chicanes made of wooden blocks. Not worth a cent to a collector, but beyond price to me. Your post brought back rich memories for me; thank you, Tom.