Friday, March 12, 2021

Thingmaker Featuring Creepy Crawlers


John Sain was a couple years older than me, which would have made him seven or eight. We always called him by his full name to distinguish him from his next door neighbor who was also named John. John Sain's father, Mr. Sain, had the caché of being retired military and having once killed a rattle snake in his garage with a garden hoe then called us kids in from the street where we were playing so that we could see first hand what these local dangers looked like. He even allowed me the honor of carrying the sack with the carcass around to the back of the house where we buried it. Mr. Sain once sucked blood from a finger I'd cut on a bit of glass while we worked together on a church-organized roadside litter clean-up crew. After spitting the blood onto the pavement, he told me it was to help avoid infection, which sounded both scientific and manly. Having such a father and being older, John Sain stood a little above the rest of us. He went to school during the day and so could only play with us in the evening and on weekends. When he was out there with us, it made our regular games special.

One day, I showed him some small plastic "army men" that I particularly treasured, which prompted him to invite me to his bedroom where he pulled out what he told me was an "army man making set." There was a small heating element, molds portraying the hollows of soldiers in various action poses, and pellets of lead. The idea was to choose a mold, put one lead pellet in it, melt it over the heating device, then, once the metal had fully liquified, you plunged it in a cold water bath to harden it. 

I expect Mr. Sain wouldn't have allowed John Sain to show such a "big kid" toy to a five-year-old, which is why we were being extra quiet and probably explained why he kept me at a distance as he worked. I admired how cautiously he handled the tools, how he used an oven mitt to handle the hot things, and the drama of the explosion of steam that leapt from the cold water bath. When he removed the newly shaped lead soldier from the mold, he handed to me saying, "You can't keep it" explaining that he would later melt it down again to make a new soldier.

This was the only time I got to see this toy, but I was sure I wanted one, badly. I begged my parents, who reminded me of Christmas and my birthday. I must have been consistent in my request for this toy because at the next gift-receiving opportunity I unwrapped my own casting set. I was only temporarily disappointed when the one my parents gave me melted plastic instead of lead and that the molds were of insects instead of soldiers. I suspect that the "Thingmaker featuring Creepy Crawlers" was considered a somewhat safer version of John Sain's set up, but it still involved heat, melting, molds, and steam blasts, although, to my disappointment, the instructions said to never try to re-melt cast figures. Still, I was absolutely thrilled. I can still experience the fumes of the melted plastic if I try, the heat on my hands, the electrical buzz of the heating element, the topography of the molds under my fingers, and the blasts of steam on my cheeks.

This was a toy I played with unsupervised, alone and sometimes with visiting friends. I emulated John Sain's authoritative caution, keeping others at a distance. Filling the molds took a steady hand. The whole process involved concentration, slow movements, and fine motor skills. The risk of doing things wrong was manifest. I didn't need an adult hovering over me to chirp "be careful" in order to be careful. I imagine my father must have helped me with the first batch, but from then I was on my own, a five-year-old with a toy that could not be sold today to children of any age, learning the kinds of lessons that simply can't be taught through theory. This is one of my earliest memories of play. To this day, I recall it as a kind of giddy balancing act. Always at the back of my mind was the reality that had been enforced by John Sain that one slip and I would be injured, perhaps badly. Indeed, without the danger, I expect it would have been a toy of a single day, something to which I'd never again return after that first afternoon, but as it was, I girded myself regularly. Each time I removed the box with its tidily organized interior from its shelf, I summoned a bit of courage as my heart beat with excitement that can only come direct experience. 

Lead is a hazardous substance, especially for young children, and while the box assured us that the plastic was non-toxic, I still wonder about the fumes it released while being heated. I'm not writing about this to "sell" anyone on the idea of purchasing such a toy for their own kids, but only to share what is one of my earliest memories, which is to say, an experience that made a significant impact on me. The two-time Nobel prize winning chemist Linus Pauling tells of a similar experience with an older boy who had a small home chemistry lab, saying that he was "simply entranced" by the experiments he was able to perform. I don't have a story anywhere near as dramatic, but to this day, I love few things more than cooking over gas flames on my stove top and undertaking art projects that require a steady hand and full concentration. I have no idea what impact my childhood experience had, whether it simply revealed something that was already there or inspired me to something that might have never been otherwise discovered, but I do often think of John Sain, Mr. Sain, and the Thingmaker as I work around heat or when I'm engaged in anything that requires a slow and steady hand.

What I do know, however, is that I have a fine memory of childhood, a real experience that is as much a part of me as the finger from which Mr. Sain sucked blood. There is truth and falsehood mixed up in it, science and myth. It lives not just in my mind, but also in my body and soul, having been fixed there by the manifest danger and the full concentration it demanded.

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If you think melting and casting might be something you want to try with your own preschoolers, here is a version I came up with for the kids at Woodland Park to try. It still involves real risk, concentration, and a steady hand, but without some of the unnecessary hazards.


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