fatherlyFIRE, Chapter 4.
“There’s Gaylord!” I said to myself, almost out loud. I couldn’t believe it. Gaylord, built in 1962 by the Ideal Toy Company, is a sleepy-looking, brown and white, 24” long battery-operated basset hound. A loud, clumsy mechanical beast, six-year-old Billy (my mother called me Billy; don’t you call me Billy) could tug on Gaylord’s leash to get him to plod forward; another tug and he reversed course, about as gracefully as some kind of Franken-Dog. The little magnet in his nose was just strong enough to snatch up his plastic-with-a-metal-center bone if I got him to wander close enough to it. Big fun in Battery-Op Land.
Two times a year, I drive up to St. Charles, Illinois to attend one of the nation’s largest antique toy shows. I get giddy with excitement as I prepare to go on these particular Sunday mornings. I get up early and drive to the fairgrounds, rain, snow, or sunshine. It’s a personal pilgrimage of sorts I think, a pilgrimage to my lost childhood.
One day several years ago, I was on a general reconnaissance mission at the show. That means I wasn’t looking for anything in particular. It was time for the toughest part of the reconnoiter, my least favorite, the dreaded Doll House. Ugh. I didn’t think I would find anything in there. I began to make my way through the Doll House, it one of the fairgrounds buildings now converted into a toy-filled street bazaar with dozens of individual vendors hawking everything from antique iron toys from the 1800’s to hot new toys snagged from Target by dealers attempting to gouge unwitting collectors. I re-tied my sneakers and prepared for a quick trip through this building. It was 90% dolls.
There in a booth that mostly featured older Barbie dolls sat Gaylord. I was alone in this booth so I took my time looking at Gaylord. Scratched up some, yes, with one leg about to break apart, and his tail was missing, but his battery box was clean and his collar on-off switch clicked back and forth with unfettered ease. I decided then Gaylord was going home with me. I had to contain my excitement, my unchecked over-the-top delight, as I stood on the edge of saving a long-lost friend from utter Barbie-infested doom. Yet I didn’t want the seller to think she could get full asking price out of me; the negotiation is part of the fun.
With some things though, getting a deal isn’t a priority. I sauntered up to Gaylord, stopping to feign interest in the Barbie as Lion Tamer Career Edition (not really), just to hide my real target. Actually I did glance at the Barbie and Ken in Marine Corps Dress Blues. Sorry Ken. G.I. Joe does it better.
Gaylord wore his $48 price tag like a bling-blinged dog license. That seemed in the ballpark and I looked around for the booth owner. An older woman with a heavy European accent came up and the negotiations to restore a little portion of a happy childhood moment began. She had no idea I saw Gaylord as nearly priceless, so we ended up agreeing that $30 was reasonable. She explained that this Gaylord was no “flea market” find (pardon the pooch pun). No, this fine canine was decidedly upscale, coming from an estate sale, she said with a very misplaced air of hoighty-toightyness over a beat-up 58-year old plastic battery-operated dog she admitted she didn’t think worked. Sold!
I soon had his leg repaired. I took him apart to clean his way-ahead-of-its-time drive equipment: motor, chain, and gears. Four fresh “D” cell batteries later, I was ready to see if Gaylord would live. A little tug of his collar switch brought an old familiar, sort of labored motor sound. Gaylord worked! The sweet raucousity (I made up that word; we scholars do that) of his battery-operated internals and the gears in his legs made me smile. He was missing his tail, but it didn’t take long to find one on eBay. Gaylord is once again whole and part of my family.
Gaylord first showed up on my sixth birthday. My parents’ marriage was at the breaking point, but they managed to get me a present. My home was chaos. My father was increasingly hostile. Gaylord was the perfect companion to me. He was cold and lifeless, true enough, but friendly looking, and I controlled him. And I had very little control of anything else in my life in 1962.
Yes, Gaylord and I are both lots older now, and no, it’s not the exact same Gaylord that clomped around my Kentucky kitchen floor. This one had a cracked leg and was missing his tail. So what? I’ve lost a lot of hair and have a lot more weight to haul around. But it is Gaylord from 1962. I think he recognized me.
A real toy story.
With apologies to Pixar and Disney. I really like the “Toy Story” movies, but I want to tell you Gaylord is part of a real toy story. I do like toys. I even managed a Circus World Toy Store for a couple of years. But am I a toy collector? Yes. but limited in scope. At first, I simply found it fun to find toys just like I had in my rough childhood. These toys represent moments of fun, and times of escape from the hardscrabble environments in which I lived.
I can look at each of these toys I’ll describe and place them at key moments in my childhood. They do tell a story. I’m going to record it here, offering a few of the toy markers in my life. What is a toy? A plaything. Often a miniature or replica of something, like a toy car or horse. Broader, a toy for a kid is also an escape from reality. An imagination portal. It creates an “Anything goes” environment in a wholly different world. A world under my control. A toy is a friend. Here’s my real toy story, 1956-1970, 0-12 years old.
Birth. Rin Tin Tin.
Once upon a time, I got my first toy. I’d love to tell you my brainpower enables me to remember back to that Christmas Eve, 1956. I was just under a month old, firstborn to William Norman Boggs Senior and Joan Boggs. No, of course I do not have any such memories. That’s what pictures are for. Here’s me and Rin Tin Tin. He was an early animal star in a number of movies. He died in 1932. His progeny lived on, and may still. Rin Tin Tin IV and others were cast in a TV show, “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin” from 1954 to 1959. Rin Tin Tin was again popular in the late 50’s. That’s why my parents chose this stuffed version of the German Shepherd hero. Here he is, guarding me faithfully.
Though I don’t know, I hope I loved this, my first toy, until his head fell off in true Velveteen Rabbit style. And this representation of being protected or lack thereof was a concept I would one day ruminate on in anguish. I wish I could be safe and at peace just by having Rin Tin Tin on my bed. I recently found the same late 50’s version of Rin Tin Tin made by the Ideal Toy Company. I touched up his badly scratched nose. That’s all Rinty needed. He carries his nearly 64 years a lot better than me!
Two years old. “I Yam What I Yam.”
November 1958. Still no actual memories. My second birthday evidently came complete with a little party. At this stage in my life, my home life seemed normal as far as I can tell from the few photos I have. That’s my father next to me in the photo. Big smile. Seemed to be enjoying being a dad. Wouldn’t last. One of my gifts at that party was a Mattel Popeye in a Spinach Can Jack-in-the Box from 1958. Turn the crank, the “Popeye the Sailorman” tune plays, then POP! Bladder control out the window. Still makes me jump. As I walk past my current 62-year old Popeye (and he still makes me jump) I’m reminded that not all was so bleak in the early days, at least for me. My second birthday photo me with the man who would desert us all just four years later.
I found out subsequently that my mother was suffering even at this time as she put up with an increasingly abusive, adulterous, alcoholic husband. But Popeye was symbol of strength. That was a quality I would come to long for. He was “strong to the finish ‘cause I eats me spinach.” So eventually I ate spinach. And eventually, I adopted his “I yam what I yam” motto too. Accepting myself is not a bad bit of advice from a sailorman.
Six years old. “You can tell he’s Mattel, he’s swell.”
Yes, he really says that. Meet Matty Mattel the Talking Boy, a Billy Boggs buddy. I was six and things had passed the breaking point in my home. I didn’t know what or why, I just knew something was bad and getting worse. The threat my father made to kill us during a crazy middle-of-the night commotion was the last straw. My mom divorced him and we never saw him again. I carried Matty around for pitiful comfort.
With the divorce final and my mom uneducated and untrained, she depended on the court-ordered child support from my father. He never paid one cent. My mother sought refuge with her parents. So began a time of wandering, leaving me never in the same living situation for more than two years through high school. We left Kentucky and were off to California to be with my grandparents. All aboard the Santa Fe train.
Mom gave me Matty Mattel, the Talking Boy as a Christmas gift. A prized possession. This talking thing was high tech in the early 60’s. I just had to pull his string and Matty would let fly some insight crafted by some old marketing guy at Mattel. I’d pull Matty’s string and probably hoped to hear “I like you” and not “I got hurt.” Talk therapy 101. It became a lifeline for me, though I definitely prefer counselors who can actually listen to me. My recovered Matty Mattel today doesn’t always talk too well but otherwise, he’s worth a grin. He was a friend in the fury, a companion in the craziness. Something I could tangibly clutch.
Eight years old. “A dream comer-truer was he…”
Daniel Boone. “What a Boone, what a doer, what a dream comer-truer was he,” so went the theme song from the “Daniel Boone” TV show. I remember the day I got the 12” tall Marx Daniel Boone action figure, at a 10-cent store in downtown Ashland, Kentucky. I was eight. Hasbro had their 12” G.I. Joe. This military Joe was a hit, so other toy companies scrambled to offer something similar. Marx tried the Old West route, and one of the first figures they produced was Daniel Boone. He was already my Kentucky hero, so I was thrilled my mom bought him for me. That day still brings strong memories and feelings of well-being. D. Boone was a part of that.
I’d love to tell you my Daniel Boone helped me realize I too could conquer the Life Wilderness I was entering. That I was on a path to face my own hostile forces and big, mean bears. Nope. I was just fascinated by posing him in 1,001 positions and outfitting him with his 24 pieces of action figure gear. Daniel really became an escape portal. Pure and simple. I turned to him often and became immersed in his world when thoughts and questions arising from the divorce of my parents were too much to bear.
Later, I would have a Daniel Boone lunchbox, Boonesborough playset, coonskin cap, and fringed leather coat. And still later, as an adult I would have a full-on Daniel Boone outfit, complete with a replica Kentucky long rifle and a real raccoon cap. The Daniel Boone figure was one of my all-time favorite toys, helping me through some tense times. There was a storm looming, and even Daniel Boone couldn’t fight it for me.
He was one of the first toys I added to my new collection. He needed new shoulder joints and a spring. And a little hair touchup. The day I first got him from my mom still brings strong memories and feelings of well-being. Even in 2020, D. Boone is a smile factory.
Eleven years old. “Bold and brave, strong and true, streak of lightning across the room.”
Captain Action. “So super powerful you can change him into the nine of the mightiest superheroes of all time. Get official uniforms to change Captain Action into these superheroes: Superman, Aquaman, Steve Canyon, Batman, Captain America, Lone Ranger, Sgt. Fury, Flash Gordon, and more…”
Ideal Toy Company’s offering to compete with Hasbro’s G.I. Joe had my full attention. Something about Captain Action transforming into all those different heroes by changing uniforms and face masks. “Action” was his name and staying very busy being all those super guys was his game. In 1967, I was 11 years old. The pain from the aftermath of my father’s abandonment would come and go. Captain Action helped me imagine myself changing into someone else, maybe a superhero, even for a little while. And doing that trick was a decent, helpful thing to do, at least for the Captain. The masks surely let the good captain hide from being himself.
I never heard why Captain Action wanted to be the other heroes or how he could be…where would he get Superman’s powers, for example? I really wanted to know. Still, this doll could be many others, because he, like Barbie and G.I. Joe, had outfits, yet unlike Barbie and G.I. Joe, he changed his very persona with masks and helmets. I thought he was great. And my desire to transform into someone else was born, metaphorically and eventually in my real life. Acting on stage, teaching in the college classroom, preaching from behind the pulpit, and doing character appearances for charity would all come later. DIfferent uniforms, different personas. One aspect of my rough hewn adult pain management plan was taking shape. Coping strategy under construction? Check.
No surprise that I ended up with two favorite Captain Action uniforms…Batman and the Green Hornet, two of my favorite characters to portray today. Captain Action rose to the top of my toys, outlasting the others and helping ease my youthful pain better than Children’s Bayer Aspirin. And later, as an adult, I continue to use what I learned. Today, I can be Judge Colonel Julius Randolph, USMC in a community theater production of “A Few Good Men,” or I can appear as Batman for a “Make A Wish” event, or the Green Hornet for Ronald McDonald House. Doing good and having fun while wearing my own Captain Action uniforms.
Twelve years old. “The doy dought a dasketdall.”
After the divorce and through elementary school into junior high school, I don’t remember thinking a lot about my parents’ split and my father’s disappearance. There were some strong exceptions. During this time I heard and overheard comments directed at my mother and her three children. These comments primarily came from some members of my mother’s own family. There were painful put-downs because of the divorce and indignant comments because we were living with my grandparents.
My constant battle of never feeling “good enough” began here. The rattletrap platform on which my life was being built had my father’s abuse and subsequent disappearance as its shoddy, put-your-foot-through-with-every-other-step foundation. On top of that, a mental-termite-infested, rotted wooden ladder was cobbled together from a variety of hurtful statements about my mother, my father, and even my brother, sister, and me. I would use this rickety scaffold to to try to climb out into life. Shaky and crack-prone.
My mom’s parents, Jim and Mae Pennington, were good to us. Very generous. Leaving California after just a year, we lived with them in Indiana for a number of years after the divorce. My grandmother confided in me where she kept her special ice cream. For that I was very grateful. But because we lived with them, we did not have our own space. I did not have my own space. My grandparents’ house meant lots of visitors, and lots of younger cousins. If I didn’t happen to be home, my bedroom was invaded with no resistance. Now this is the main reason none of the toys I describe are my originals. That and never living in the same household for more than two years from the divorce until I left for the Marines after high school. DBC. Destruction by Cousins. It’s a thing.
Mom gave me Mortimer Snerd, a “celebrity” ventriloquist dummy as a gift. That “doy dought a dasketdall” in the sub-title was a method to keep your mouth from moving taught by my Jimmy Nelson Ventriloquism record. “Say “Doy” but think “Boy”. One’s mouth doesn’t move when saying a “D” but does when saying a “B.” Do it enough and the “D” will sound like a “B,” according to ventriloquist Jimmy. It never worked, but Mortimer had very hard plastic hands attached to long rag-doll arms. If I returned home to find my little cousins disrespecting my things, ol’ Mortimer would declare war and bring down his hard plastic hand right upside their heads. WHACK! Why no, I didn’t do it. It was Mortimer Snerd, my trusted bodyguard with the mean karate chop. He was a weapon even if he couldn’t say his “B’s”.
Rin Tin Tin, Popeye, Daniel Boone, Gaylord, Mortimer Snerd, and Captain Action.
Besides being vintage toys just like ones that provided a few bright spots for me during my childhood, they all have something else in common. I chose every one of these toys because they were damaged in some way.
Oh, eBay makes it possible to get any of these “mint in the box” and I certainly could afford to buy them that way if I wanted to do that. I don’t. I seem to pick broken and damaged ones and work at fixing them, restoring them to some degree of functionality. As I remember them, I “re-member” them, i.e., put them back together. This is highly significant, too, in a metaphorical way. To put something back together from broken pieces is what I’ve tried to do with my life, with God’s help. To bring something back from uselessness is something I love to do.
As I work at restoring them I remember little positive segments of my childhood, and I act out the process I’ve been on much of my life, the process of personal restoration. When I finish, the casual visitor to my collection sees only the complete toy; they’re unaware of what I’ve had to do to place Gaylord and his pals there on my shelf. Same for me.
I see a little model of my life in all these restored playthings. As toys, they represented things I had little of….carefree play, fun, and peace. They were also mine. They belonged to me. Now many years later, these toys are still around—damaged, but not irreparably. Like me, I hope, still around—damaged, but not irreparably.
My toy story.
So that’s it. And yes, I’m pretty sure these restored toys do indeed come to life when I’m not around. With them, it’s like an organ recital. Rin Tin Tin has to have his sagging head propped up; Daniel Boone has had shoulder and arm repairs; Gaylord has serious joint problems, grinding with every step; Mortimer Snerd still can’t talk, but he hasn’t whacked anybody for 50 years; and Captain Action is fragile these days. Well, they are all about 60 years old.
I can relate to these guys. Older and weary, but still functioning. They do their job of bringing happiness and a smile. I too try to keep functioning, and on the way bring happiness and smile if possible. When I come into my home office, my own space, looking at these characters is almost like seeing a survival trophy case. In a very real sense, they helped me make this far. They still help me, because I can’t contain my grin when I pause to look. And it’s a special delight for me to explain these playthings to my video-game age grandkids. But by age 12, books had taken over as my “go to” escape. My mom worked at Rand McNally and brought me piles of them. I was one of those “voracious readers” I hear about. It was also around age 12 that my worship of Evel Knievel began, leading to bicycle and motorcycle ramp-jumping and driving in a demolition derby. All to prove my worth.
Still, sometimes at night I think I hear Gaylord clomping around on his shelf. And Matty Mattel saying, “Let’s go outside.” And Mortimer Snerd still spouting his “doy dought a dasketdall.”
They’ve got a friend in me.
This is chapter 4 of my book in progress, fatherlyFIRE. You can find the other chapters here in my blog.