Like most kids, mine was a magical worldview——and advertisers knew it. Theirs was a common stratagem for selling children’s products. Make it magically delicious. A leprechaun in buckled shoes and pantaloons slid down a rainbow and waved his sparkly wand over a pot of gold and turned it into a bowl of cereal. The idea was to dangle some wondrous, feature-laden item in front of kids so that they would pest-pest-pester their parents until they gave in and bought the item, if only to shut them up. Or so I heard. It never worked for me.
For example, when I was about 7, the gang and I found out we could clothespin playing cards on the back struts of our bikes so that the spokes would continuously flutter the playing cards, making a sound that sort of resembled a motor.
And that was just fine, until Mattel dangled the V-RROOM Engine in front of us boys. A hunk of cheap plastic in the shape of a motorcycle motor that you could strap to your bike. Cheap plastic? No way, man. You even got a “special key” when you purchased the engine. “Start it like Dad’s key starts his car!” the commercial taunted.
I was convinced I must have a V-RROOM Engine, as it would enable my bike to growl like a teenage werewolf and would enable me to reach unsafe speeds. We didn’t know how. It just would. Stop asking!
“You can tell it’s Mattel,” the commercial said in closing, waggling the V-RROOM Engine just out of my reach like you’d hold baloney in front of the family dog, “because it’s swell!”
Were it to be mine, this beautiful, mysterious machine, I’d sleep with it. I’d bring it to school to show in class. I’d polish it each morning even though it was (part of me knew) just cheap plastic, that it was a . . . toy. This isn’t just a toy! It’s the key to coolness! Just think of all the unsafe speeds I could reach with that thing, whooshing past my envious peers, appearing as just a blur the color of faded jeans. In my wake, just the smell of burnt rubber and twice-worn underpants. Frozen in impotence, they would think, “Why is the universe so structured that I am here?”
Must . . . have . . . V-RROOM Engine.
It was not to be. The V-RROOM magic was lost on my mom. “You’ll lose interest in it in five minutes,” she said. It wasn’t like we couldn’t afford it. My dad was a trial attorney, so we had some means. She wasn’t opposed to buying me gifts. In fact, she loved giving me gifts—but nothing purely frivolous or cheap, which in effect meant nothing magical. And not too many at one time. That would spoil me. The gift had to improve me in some way, usually teach me some lesson, probably the Value of Money, which I ignored. My parents knew that Hard Work, not magical doodads, was the key to life, which was why they were secretly jealous of us kids.
It didn’t occur to me to start saving my allowance so that, one day, I could buy the V-RROOM Engine myself. That’s not the way I’m miswired, useless since I came off the assembly line. My parents gave me allowance to teach me the Value of Money. It didn’t work. Money tended to burn its way through my pockets as I spent it on superfluous things, usually candy and other things that captured my interest for five minutes or less. There’s a reason they call it The Impulse Aisle. For impulsive true believers in magic.
Also, I was, and am, hopelessly lazy. I tend to think the best way to deal with problems is to ignore them. They’ll solve themselves. For example, dirty dishes come clean when left in a sink of water. Try it. You’ll see.
It only made it worse that there was one kid in the neighborhood whose parents bought him a V-RROOM Engine. “Why is the universe so structured that I am here?” I thought when I saw it.
You never knew when magic was going to strike when you were a kid. I remember the first time it happened. There I was, little scamp, just minding my own business, laying in front of the TV, tapping my toes on the floor, watching Jonny Quest. The show aired in 1964, so that means I was 5. Then it happened, unbidden and unexpected: the commercial for PF Flyers sneakers featuring Jonny Quest—and offering a Jonny Quest decoder ring upon the purchase of the sneakers. (Race Bannon is caught on the side of a volcano that is moments from eruption and he signals to Jonny down on the jungle hardpan using the reflective face of his decoder ring to send a flickering message in dots and dashes. “In danger . . . bring rope!”)
Jonny “runs like the wind”! According to the commercial, “Only PFs have the Action Wedge built right in so you run your fastest and jump your highest!” Action Wedge, Schmaction Wedge—that ring was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. Just think of all the people I could rescue from volcanoes with that!
What I didn’t realize was that PF Flyers were made by BF Goodrich, the tire manufacturer, and that I was being toyed with. My practical adult brain, the one that files my taxes, at the 11th hour, and makes sure I show up to work on time, roughly, unless my boss is taking the day off, that very brain realizes now that they probably just cooked up the idea of selling sneakers as a way to get rid of leftover rubber that wasn’t any good anymore for making tires. Lawsuits Waiting to Happen. Why not take advantage of the kids? They’re stupid. They believe in magic. Brilliant! Nowadays, sneakers are high-tech, athlete-tested, using only the finest ingredients. The BF Goodrich people just plopped out these shoes as cheaply as possible and left it to the folks in marketing to sprinkle their magic dust:
“Say, boys and girls,” Jonny said after he had rescued Race, turning to the camera, “want a PF Magic Ring like mine? It has a magnifying glass, a secret compartment, a message flasher, and a secret code circle. You get one free at the store with PF Flyers. So get the shoes with the PF patch, and get your PF Magic Ring free.”
Must . . . have . . . magic ring.
My mom, though, sitting on the couch, looked over the top of her book and pointed out the incontestable fact that I already had sneakers, the unsaid message being that only ungrateful children ask for a second pair of sneakers. Some children in China don’t even have one pair of sneakers, and here I wanted a second pair of sneakers—not to mention the decoder ring!
The other day, I told my cartoonist friend Mark Monlux about my lust for the decoder ring. I figured he could relate. We’re a lot alike. Roughly the same age. We were both scrawny and artistic as kids, though he avoided some of the abuse I received because he had three older brothers who would stand up for him. (Also, he had the excuse of a heart murmur. Anyone who beat up the kid with the heart murmur would himself be beaten. The only worse crime would be hitting a girl. The unforgiveable sin. The blot of your permanent record.) We both preferred staying home and drawing to playing any kind of sport. He mainly drew monsters. I mainly drew superheroes.
In so many ways, though, we we’re night and day. I don’t think Mark and I would have been friends in grade school. There were no cliques, but I had standards! Certain kids were untouchables—mostly the fatsos. I’m pretty sure Mark was a dork, so I would have made fun of him. Look at the dweeb! As long as it wasn’t me.
Example: In grade school, Mark was the “milk boy,” which meant he would follow the lunch lady as she pushed her cart around the building. Kids could buy milk from a flatbed cart he pushed. God! Milk boy! Why not just wear a sign that said Beat Me Up?
The closest I got to being milk boy was when I joined the crossing guard program in elementary school. The sash was cool. However, I was kicked off the squad after about a week and a half because I kept oversleeping and not showing up for duty. Story of my life: I’m impervious to life lessons.
In return for his labor pushing the cart, Mark received a free lunch, so each day, his parents would deposit 65 cents into a jar. He was saving to move up from a Stingray with a banana seat to a real 10-speed, which ran more than $100. That would be magic.
Such a strategy never would have occurred to my indolent ass, which was already growing soft from sitting too much and drawing superheroes. (I had drawn a large picture of Iron Man and mailed it to Marvel, asking if they’d hire me as an artist. I got a form letter back on Marvel stationery—thanks, but no thanks. I wonder where that letter is now.) My mom would say, why don’t you go play outside? It’s beautiful out! If it was raining, she’d say, I’m sure you could find something to do. (Which I could. I spent hours in The Woods alone as a kid, dreaming up superhero fantasies.)
After a year and a half of this, Mark was more than halfway to the 10-speed. (I never would have lasted that long. I would have given up on the bike and bought candy.) One day, Mark came home from school to find out his parents had been secretly matching his efforts, trying to reward his Eagle Scout industry. (Yes, Mark was an Eagle Scout. What a dweeb.)
There . . . stood. . . the bike!
They were so proud of their industrious son. He’ll go a long way in life! You can succeed from humble beginnings!
Another difference between us is that he came from a large, practicing Catholic family of limited means. As a result, he’s one of the cheapest bastards I know. Meanwhile, I came from a smaller affluent family. You could tell because I got all the sugary cereal I wanted—my mother excusing herself because the boxes all claimed the cereal was “vitamin packed.” He and his siblings had to eat Cheerios. And like it. Though it was a million miles from being “magically delicious.” Maybe Cap’n Crunch on the high holidays. They didn’t want the kids thinking the God of Catholicism doesn’t answer prayers.
Like me, Mark lusted after a particular magical item when he was a kid—but he did something about it. In particular, there was this plane with a real engine. You’d control it through a set of strings connected to a hand grip. The difference with him was that he saved up for it—and that’s saying something, considering his family didn’t have the means to give the kids allowance. Mark’s parents taught him the Value of Money by showing him he had to work for it. Cap’n Crunch only on high holidays—and then only if you’re good. For example, Mark’s dad helped him set up his own business when he was 13. Mark’s Murals and Sculptures. (Dweeb.) His dad showed him how to fill out the paperwork for the business license, taught him bookkeeping. To save up for the plane with the real engine, Mark weeded yards and did other similar jobs until he had enough.
This shows you a lot about Mark. After Eagle Scout, he attained an Order of the Arrow. He was a two-sash scout, one sash for his merit badges he accumulated en route to Eagle Scout and one sash for Order of the Arrow. (The latter being extremely cool: white with a large red arrow. Or so he thought. What a dweeb.)
To obtain his Order of the Arrow sash, Mark went to a big campfire ceremony with tom-toms. After the ceremony, the scout leaders took the Order of the Arrow initiates deep into the forest, way out there, blindfolded, and left them there with just a knife and a compass. He was told to fend for himself for 24 hours and then find his way back to camp. He got a couple of hours of sleep before dawn. In the dark, he located a cedar and slept under its low branches. He found some wild rhubarb and berries and snacked on some grubs and crickets. Yes, he ate crickets!
Consequently, there is never a time Mark doesn’t make sure to Be Prepared, as advised in the Boy Scout motto. He has two fire extinguishers in his house, one for upstairs and one for downstairs. When he travels on planes, he makes sure to bring extra food in case he has a long unexpected layover in an airport. (He’s too cheap to buy expensive airport food.)
Me, I’m usually never prepared. I was the kind of kid who built his forts, from stolen lumber, without a blueprint. The fort would take shape as I encountered obstacles I hadn’t foreseen. I’d climb a high branch with a hammer in my teeth only to find when I got there that I left the nails on the ground.
Not surprisingly, I dropped out of the Boy Scouts after Tenderfoot, sash-less yet not bereft. Mark shudders when I tell him I don’t have a flare gun in the trunk of my car—and I wouldn’t eat a cricket if you put a flare gun to my head.
When Mark had saved enough from Mark’s Murals and Sculptures, he rode his bike to the store and bought the plane.
He went immediately to a park and started flying it—and was crestfallen. All it did was go around in circles. He had imagined loop-de-loops and all sorts of acrobatics. In the commercial, the kid flying the plane was surrounded by envious friends eager to get a turn. He should have been tipped off by the fact that the advertisement also showed a proud parent looking on. Any toy a parent approves of is de facto uncool, probably educational. Prevented cavities or something.
So he learned an important lesson. Your capitalist overlords will say anything to get you to part with your cash.
Me, I lost my belief in Bicycle Propulsion Devices and other such magical doodads long before I reached adulthood. That ring, though—I never lost my desire for that ring. Not because I thought I could use it to find buried treasure or something. I knew it was just a cheap plastic toy.
But it was meaningful to me. It made me nostalgic for that innocent time in my life when I didn’t know better, when I got as much Cap’n Crunch as I wanted and I lusted after plastic bicycle motors (back when my ass hadn’t totally gone to mush).
True, it’s not magic.
But it’s cool. There was still enough of a kid in me that believed in coolness.
I’d often bring it up with my kids. It became kind of an inside joke.
My kids went online and researched buying me one. But it was too expensive, $100 or so. At the time, they were in college and high school, so their cupboards were bare.
And me—I certainly could have afforded the ring. But to do that, I’d have to get up off the couch, turn on the computer, search on Google . . .
Meh. It’s much easier just to complain about it.
Mark finally heard me lament enough about the blessed ring that he went out and bought one on eBay for $100 in an uncharacteristic spasm of splurgiosity. We were out having sushi before a movie and he got up, went to one knee, and held out the ring case for me.
But then I actually took the ring from the box and held it. This is it? It’s for a child’s finger!
It wasn’t even cool.
When I was a kid, I had supposed the ring was forged from some precious metal, probably extracted from a fallen meteor. But now I saw the word for it was . . . flimsy. If I tried hard, I could have pulled it apart. It probably was made from rubber debris at the Goodrich tire factories. Happy birthday, kids, the night janitors would say as they swept the otherwise unusable tire bits into a special bin.
Mark, simultaneously Eagle Scout and dweeb, suggested that I fashion a glass display case for the ring and show it prominently—ostensibly as a joke. Something houseguests would see and remark on, breaking the ice.
It sounded like a lot of work to me.
If it was Mark, he’d scribble out all the numbers and come up with a plan to save for it. (Obviously, his wife wouldn’t let him spend any of their money on such a stupid thing, but he’d probably find a way, as he always has, through industry and thrift. Maybe sell some of his old pulp detective novels. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. They bear titles such as Cry the Lonely Flesh and Raw Fear in a Desert Town. Their covers usually feature a woman with her skirt hiked up above her knees, whose boobs strain against the buttons of her blouse, and a lantern-jawed gentleman with a fedora and a revolver. Mark started collecting them about 20 years ago, back when you could pick up a copy at a rummage sale for $1.
Being a cheap bastard, he stopped collecting them when they went to $5 a piece, but not before he lined the walls of his office with more than 500 lurid paperbacks. He figures he’ll sell them when he gets into his 60s and put the money into his retirement fund, something boring like that. Retirement? It will fix itself, man.) He would have used the wisdom he gained when he earned his carpentry merit badge to build the stand and case. When he finished it, he would have stood back, dusted his hands, and felt justifiably proud.
Some Cap’n Crunch sounds nice right about now. I can just eat it here on the couch. I’ll leave the bowl to soak in the sink.
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