(Tom Cramer was born in Chicago, and grew up on the southwest side. He will be writing a series of nostalgic posts about growing up in the 1970s, and invites readers to share their own memories in the comments.)
I think the first toy that I can clearly remember really wanting, and loving for more than five minutes when I received it, was Cuddly Dudley. It was a stuffed dog, and a character from "The Ray Rayner Show" on WGN. He was always in the bedroom with me at night time, or else I couldn't fall asleep, which is fine when you're very young. When I got old enough to go outside and play with all the other kids on the block, I quickly learned not to drag good old Cuddly with me, or I would face the ridicule of the "big boys."
There were plenty of "big boys" on the block, and the only toys they would play with (at least in public) were G.I. Joes. When I first noticed this, I watched a big group of kids, all with their own G.I. Joes, spending hours inventing war scenarios and playing out battle scenes. I would sit on the side and watch them, completely enthralled. I remember asking if I could play and being told that I was too little, I'd just get in the way, and besides, I didn't even have a G.I. Joe.
I'm sure this sparked a campaign of asking, nagging and whining. I'm equally sure that it was my parents' suggestion, and not my idea, that I would have a much better chance of actually getting one if I changed my approach to "acting like a big boy" myself. I'm sure I tried this. I'm not sure how effective I was, or if enough time passed that I actually did behave better, but eventually I got one. Everything was so cool -- the uniform, the boots, the little dog tags, and of course, the guns. The only downside was the "big boys" still wouldn't let me play with them. No matter, I would pretend ole Joe was being attacked by a giant stuffed cocker spaniel.
I used to go to the Five and Dime with my mom, and I would hang out in the toy aisle while she did her shopping. I loved looking at the bags of additional accessories you could buy for the action figures. Eventually I lost the original rifle that came with the G.I. Joe, and I had to learn my lesson. I would have to behave and be patient (neither has ever been a strong suit of mine), and eventually earn the replacement rifle. So there I'd be in the toy aisle, looking at the big bag of accessories, and kind of squish it with my hands, so different parts would become visible through the plastic bag. Apparently, I wasn't the only kid who did this. One day, the plastic bag was already broken open on the end, and the rifle I wanted was sticking straight out.
It was like a personal test from God and I failed. I had never even heard the word rationalize, but I think it just may be a basic human instinct. I didn't open the bag, I thought. I only want the rifle, not all the accessories. Maybe that neighbor kid stole my rifle -- that wouldn't be my fault, would it?
I pulled that rifle out, stuck it in my pocket quickly before my mom found me, then I went to look for her. It seemed she could shop forever: Would she ever finish? Can't we just leave now? Then, when she did say it was time to go, it was even worse. I knew full well I was doing wrong, and I was scared to death I'd be caught. I remember my heart pounding as we stood waiting to pay for (her) items. Mom put everything on the counter, and after the cashier rang everything up, I swear he looked at me and said "Is there anything else?" in a voice dripping with echo and extra bass, like the Wizard of Oz. My hands were clenched and sweating as I shook my head no. He gave my Mom her change and we were out the door.
I was free and clear! Then it dawned on me: I couldn't even play with the rifle right away, or else I would be asked where I got it. I had to stop asking for the rifle, behave for weeks, and wait for everyone to forget all about it before I could even use the darn thing. It definitely wasn't worth it.
It was my first and last act of action-figure larceny.
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