Deadly, Dangerous Toys of the 1960s

As far as I can determine, my brain is composed of a lump of Swiss cheese filled with marbles, and all day long the marbles roll up and down, all around and against one another, like monkeys in a cage or  hamsters fueled by Diet Coke, causing misfired synapses and weird thought trains. Or maybe it was something somebody said that triggered this blog, because last week I half-closed my eyes and started remembering all the dangerous toys my sisters and brother and I grew up with. We’re all still alive (loudly and colorfully so, especially in groups, and often when alone) considering that toys in those days didn’t come with warnings about small parts or sharp edges or even polyvinylchloride fumes; even plastic bags today are covered with dire warnings– you’re not supposed to leave the baby alone with them. These days, even pool toys are oddly labeled:


In my conscious childhood, which lasted from 1959 through 1969, many toys were potential weapons of mass destruction, and you didn’t have to travel all the way to Iraq to look for them– they were right there under the tree, shiny and beckoning…

The Easy Bake Oven. These small ovens painted in lead-based (no doubt) enamel enabled the young future Mommy to bake tiny cakes and little cookies for the family. My little sister Lois had one– in Aqua, I think– and she fed us for days on her little creations. First introduced to an innocent world in 1963 by Kenner, it’s gone through various permutations.  Originally, the heat was supplied by a ten thousand megawatt light bulb which rendered a metal cooking top hotter than the surface of the sun. Christmas morning, 1963… prescient Mothers and Fathers also gifted their daughters with fire extinguishers and boxes of bandages, but I always imagine the still, chill air sundered by the sounds of thousands of screaming ambulances rushing their little charges to emergency rooms as the scent of burned miniature chocolate cakes wafted across America.

But did things change? From Wikipedia: “In February 2007, Hasbro and the Consumer Product Safety Commission recalled 985,000 Easy-Bake toy ovens after finding that children’s hands and fingers can get caught in the oven’s opening, thereby posing serious risk of burns. Since the recall, there were at least 249 reports of children getting their hands or fingers caught in the ovens, including 16 reports of second- and third-degree burns, and partial finger amputation.” How lovely! And this after a re-design. I rest my case.

Lego. I loved Lego building blocks and, in fact, any type of construction set. Lincoln Logs? Check. Skyline by Elgo? Check. Kenner’s Girder & Panel and Bridge & Turnpike sets? I had them all, and loved nothing better than creating dream cities with no slums, no packs of wild dogs, and no visible garbage cans.

One day I took all the girders and panels from the Kenner set and constructed two very tall towers rising from a complex of very short buildings. Mom asked what it was, and I said “it’s a world trade center, where all the countries of the world can meet and do business.” This was in about 1964, when I was eight; she expressed doubt that anything like that would ever be built.

Lego sets were especially composed of tens of millions of tiny pieces, though I remember no warnings about not swallowing any of them. You could build working clocks and little gas stations, but the projects never looked quite sleek enough, what with all those lumpy raised dots.

Last year when I went to Disney with cousin Matt, I bought myself a new set, which allows you to build three different house models. They now have pieces that resemble trees and bushes and flowers, and there are clear swinging doors and ways to make ornate front porches. All very fascinating, though I still have to remind myself not to swallow the pieces.


Some parts from one of my building kits. Condo, anyone?

Flubber. Apparently still made, this is a rubbery compound that, especially after a day of play, resembles nothing more than a huge wad of something that comes out of your nose. A movie was even made in 1961 about its gravity-defying properties, starring Fred MacMurray and Nancy Olson. Unfortunately, the Flubber of my youth was recalled; it was giving off something noxious, and all of us– we ALL owned a glob– had to get rid of it. (That’s what the Staten Island landfill is made of.) These days I presume that the formula is non-toxic, but for a while there it was thrilling to be the owner of something that could have brought civilization to a screeching halt.

Chemistry Sets. Don’t even get me started– I don’t want to know how much sodium bisulfite I may have absorbed through my fingertips when I was a boy. When I got my first chemistry set, Mom diligently helped me through the first few experiments in the instruction guide, which were achingly boring, and then trusted me to continue on my own while she went into the living room and read Valley of the Dolls. Who knows whether I stunted my growth, jump-started my growth, or even brought on early puberty thanks to my ministrations? Like a bespectacled Dr. Jekyll, I mixed and measured and decanted and brewed, all toward an end I have mercifully forgotten. (If I glow green at night, it’s because the street light is shining through my bedroom window.)

The Great Garloo. This 2-foot tall, green plastic monster arrived in 1961, and of course I had to have one. A battery-driven device made him go every which way but the way you wanted him to, and his head sported an attractive raised ridge. He was supposed to be a monster but, unformed blob that I was, I always felt a sadness emanating from poor Garloo. Why? Probably because, as fierce as he looked, he was at the mercy of some stupid kid’s whims– give a boy a remote control, and suddenly he’s Napoleon. Poor green Garloo could only wreak mayhem when you ordered him to, and that frozen rictus of bared fangs and red maw snapped at nothing.

Yet– he harbored danger because, in all of America, there was not one little boy who didn’t go to sleep thinking that Garloo was going to come to life, grind toward the bed, and snatch little Jimmy from sleep, eventually managing to drag him outside and into the darkness. Even when you remembered to remove the batteries from the control unit, you suspected that, somehow, Garloo was going to pull off his big shining moment– finally he would become the monster he always wanted to be!

It wasn’t to be; our family came driving down the block from an outing one day and saw Garloo hanging upside down from a tree in the Jones’ front yard; I think one arm was missing. Slow curtain… the end.

I did see a Garloo sold on eBay recently, for more than five hundred dollars. Now, perhaps, the Great Garloo is planning a terrible revenge on some nostalgic Yuppie who remembers the innocent days of his youth. If I were him, I would be very careful when going to sleep.

The Great Garloo. Copyright

The Great Garloo. Copyright

Fargo 2000

Some Lutherans Approaching A Stave Church
Some Lutherans Approaching A Stave Church

Since we’re going to Bismarck, North Dakota, for Kirk’s family reunion later this year, I thought it would be nice to share some reminiscences about our trip to Fargo in the Autumn of 2000. I know you’ll be endlessly fascinated– I mean, everyone goes to Rome, but how many people actually go to Fargo?

We did. It took us almost two days to get there, thanks to Aunt Nancy’s generosity. I think she was a stewardess or something for Frontier Airlines, so we flew on family rates. For $50, we went from Orlando to Denver on September 1 (it snowed); stayed overnight; flew to Minneapolis the next morning where we stayed the day at a flea bag hotel downtown; and then boarded Amtrak near midnight for the last leg of our journey to Fargo. The train men called out the stations as we rumbled through the night: “Coon Rapids… St. Cloud… Red Wing… Chicken City… Alexandria… Fergus Falls.” Fergus Falls?! That sounds like one of those towns that always figures in hatchet murders: “Twenty-three bodies were found in a refrigerator in Fergus Falls, Minnesota early this morning, at the home of  Sigmund B. Neighbors are understandably perplexed. ‘He was such a nice, quiet guy, ya know?’ said Edna Lindstrom, a next door neighbor.”
Those Lutherans you see in the picture above are Kirk’s Aunt Bunny; Kirk; and our personal tour guide, who took us through that beautiful stave chuch, a full-scale replica of the Hopperstad Church in Vik, Norway. It’s actually situated in Moorhead, Minnesota, right across the not-very-raging Red River from Fargo. It’s a feature of the Heritage Hjemkomst Interpretive Center, which displays artifacts and exhibits of Scandinavian life in the Americas– Hjemkomst means “homecoming.”
They really do treat you like you’ve come home to North Dakota– everyone is friendly and interested, nobody is in a hurry, and there’s hardly any traffic.
We spent some time in Jamestown looking at some buffalo at  the National Buffalo Museum there, where I disgraced myself on the prairie by acting silly while standing beneath the world’s largest buffalo statue.
"Cough, please!"

"Cough, please!"

Aunt Bunny took us one day to the Fargo Sons of Norway lodge, where they were so happy to receive out of town visitors that they opened doors to rooms normally verboten to strangers. A nice old gentleman showed us around, and when we got to a meeting room, Kirk asked if the huge carved chair was where the King of Norway sat when he came to visit. “Vell, he hasn’t come yet, but he vould sit dere if he did.”
Kirk Warms A Seat Fit for A King

Kirk Warms A Seat Fit for A King

Then I admired the ceiling, painted in the Norwegian folk style called rosemal.  “Ja, ve asked a big shot artist how much vould she charge to paint the ceiling, and she told us hundred dollars a square foot. I said, de heck vit you! So ve asked a young local guy, and he said ten dollars a square foot… is not so much detail, but ve like it!”

A Not-So-Detailed Ceiling

A Not-So-Detailed Ceiling

A tiny lady corralled me after I almost knocked her over in the hallway. She asked my particulars, and I explained that, while I wasn’t Norwegian, I was certainly interested in the language and the culture. “What are ya then?”   “Italian.”   “Oh,” she replied, staring up at me balefully. “Ya look it.”

We also bought a tub of romegrot at the lodge, which is a tummy-filling concoction often confused with wallpaper paste. Since it’s white and mushy and you could see all the ingredients, I loved it; so did Bunny’s husband Jerry, but then again he was raised on it. We were also told that all orders for lutefisk  had to be in starting the next week, as it is very popular during the holidays. (I can’t understand why.)

There’s a steepled Catholic church in Fargo, located right across the street from the steepledLutheran church, and so it’s fun imagining the two congregations glaring at one another when services conclude and everyone pours into the street. The truth is probably more along the lines of “we might have our differences and stuff but if the town caught fire or somethin’ like that, we’d all pull together to put out the flames, ya know?”

I tell you, it was beautiful driving through the state of North Dakota. All that open space helped clear my head… just watching the combines slowly combing across acres of crops had a soothing effect on me.
The sky was wide and deep blue, and everything seemed planned and safe.  The people are friendly and decent. It was exactly what I needed at that time in my life.
We got back to Winter Park on a Sunday evening, and work loomed the next day– a stressful former job which was threatening to kill me. As I was hanging up shirts, the closet rod– all ten feet of it– broke free of its moorings and dumped eight thousand pounds of clothes onto the floor. Instantly, the clean Dakota feeling was whisked from my head and replaced with workaday angst and trauma. I actually cried. At the time, I never thought I’d be back to North Dakota any time soon, but here it is 2009 and we’re finally planning a trip. We’ll probably be there some time in July, which means we won’t have to bring the thermal underwear we bought for our first trip. As sexy as they are, some things just don’t travel the year ’round.






Foreign Tongue– You Too Can Learn Another Language!



I never make resolutions, mainly because I don’t have any bad habits. And bad habits, as we all know, are the annoying things we do in public- anything we do in the privacy of our homes is ours to enjoy.

This year, however, I vowed to learn more languages. I know a lot of tiny phrases in a lot of languages, but I’m not really proficient enough in any of them to keep myself from getting into deeper trouble should I find myself in dire circumstances while traveling abroad. For instance, I can carry on a very rudimentary conversation in Norwegian but, if I had to call downstairs to the lobby to report a flaming hotel room, probably the next thing I would be doing would be filling out a fire insurance claim:  “Extent of loss?”  “Everything.”

Knowing other languages is good, and very helpful. Not only will it keep you out of the Tallinn Burn Unit, it will help pave the way toward smoother international relations between what xenophobic Americans refer to as us and them. (Them being anyone who grew up east of Long Island.) However, I’m not one of those who insists “this is America! So speak English!”  While I do hope that our newest citizens learn to communicate with me, I also think it’s welcoming– and far reaching!– to learn a little bit of the  languages they speak.

And you should join me, so let’s begin. “I don’t have time, Jim!” you’re probably thinking, which is why I’m writing this blog.  This batch of phrases taken verbatim from language guides will open doors in countries you’ll probably never visit– still, now that many of their people are re-locating here, you’ll be ready to impress them!


Kemi me se të lëvdohemi. We do have reason to be proud of ourselves.        Dhe hiqe mushamanë nga trupi! And take your raincoat off!         Dhe ai pas tij me cadër është shefi i policisë. And the man behind him with an umbrella is the chief of police.


Hiztegi hau txikiegia da. This dictionary is too small.        Lo pixka bat egingo dut. I’m going to have a nap.        Ez zenuen ezer erosi behar. You shouldn’t have bought anything.   


Perbesarlah lingkaran ini! Enlarge this circle!        Menari! Dance!        In tibapada hari Sabtu. He arrived on Saturday.


Nkliuto vaz dziernye tsu camailadorrnke opuno takmizyertza!!!  No!!!       Pastina! Stop before we are forced to contact the highest authorities in the land!        Dobrootzye fanoochie niut ledd lemmye davortzienyetzu! Next window, please!  


Kbar huma d-dwejjaq tal-fqar. Great is the anguish of the poor.        Il-gnejna ta’ Pietru akbar minn dik ta’ Ganni. Peter’s little garden is larger than John’s.        Wiccha hmar bil-misthija. Her face grew red with shame.       


Blein Vie Noa, dhyt, Ealish. A Good New Year to thee, Alice.        Va dy jarroo, agh atreih! Yes indeed, but alas!        As feeackle y jiargan nagh bee dy mie. And the tooth of the flea, may it not be good.


Sa-i dam fiacarei infermiere un cadou? Shall we give each nurse a present?     Acola este studentul care se tot uita la mine. There is the student who keeps looking at me.     Pe cit era de urit, pe atit era de prost. He was as stupid as he was ugly.


Em trai toi noi rat nhanh. My younger brother speaks very fast.        Xiec Viet Nam– hay lam. Vietnamese circus– very interesting.        To nghi to thich phim hai nhat. I think I like comedy films best.  

All kidding aside, sometimes I fantasize about standing up in front of the General Assembly at the United Nations. Like a myopic, half-deaf U Thant, I would raise my hands in supplication– the universal symbol for “why?!?!” Okay, maybe it’s the Italian symbol for supplication, but still– I’m just saying. I would ask them all why they’re so intent on not getting along with one another, considering the fact that languages and racial labels are all artificial and man-made.  We’re apparently all descended from a single blob of landed protoplasm, yet we’ve managed to box ourselves off into countries and creeds and language groups, most of which seem to have a pre-disposed affinity towards not living in harmony. Every time a new decade dawns, I think– naively– that maybe this one will be the decade with no wars or atrocities or unmarked mass graves– but it hasn’t happened in my lifetime.

So: it pays to learn a little about different languages and the people who speak them. After a while, we might just realize that we all do a lot of things in exactly the same way, and that the planet can be a lot more hospitable than it is now. To be able to go anywhere and see anything– works of art, ancient monuments, timeless ruins… what a world this could be for all of us.

Happy 2009 !      

 For more fun with languages– specifically Dutch– go to:





Christmas in New York, 2008

Why does a four-day trip to New York for the holidays always seem so much shorter? I’ll tell you why– it’s because you have to interact with seventeen million people all at the same time, all running around at a hundred miles per hour, never standing still… flying buying rushing driving talking eating waiting and trying to get to Macy’s before it closes: New Yorkers don’t have time to do all these things in a sane, orderly way so they have to do them all at once and that has an effect on the time-space continuum. Really. Time shifts in New York– you look up at a clock tower and it says 4:30 PM, and you cross the street and have a short delay because the hot dog vendor is blocking the sidewalk, and when you look back at the clock tower it’s 6:00 PM.

Somehow, you manage to squeeze everything in that you planned. We arrived on the Tuesday and settled in to the Gregory Hotel, a Best Western in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn– close to home, and the scene of many wild nights in the 70’s when it was down and out like much of the City. After unpacking and then collapsing on to the beds and staring up at the ceilings for a few minutes, bewildered after all that travel, we made our way to the 86th. Street subway stop because I had an idea that I wanted to go see the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, which is way up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

It’s incredible, apparently the largest church on the planet. A huge stone pile, it soars up from the cathedral close like a monstrous medieval starship, stretching toward the heavens– and it’s not even finished! Begun in 1892 by the Episcopal diocese (they have GREAT real estate– I’m thinking of converting!), various delays have impeded its progress. Some of you may know it as the church where they bless the animals on St. Francis’ name day. That would be hell on us asthmatics, but I’m sure there’s a chapel dedicated to us, too. And once a month there is an AIDS memorial service. (They do pride themselves on their inclusiveness.)

The incredible unfinished tower.


I had a scintillating conversation with a church lady, who appeared from within the gloom to arrange linens on an altar.:

ME: This is a beautiful place!

HER: Thank you.

ME: I see you all have an altar guild?

HER: Yes.

I guess she preferred that I read one of the many brochures that are sprinkled like manna throughout the vast space, but no matter! Our spiritual yen tweaked, we were off to Macy’s to buy my mother a scarf.

Another sort of cathedral, Macy’s dominates Herald Square at 34th. Street and Broadway. It’s the world’s largest department store, which seemed fitting after visiting the world’s largest church. And was it ever packed! There was no hint of a recession here, as hundreds of thousands of shoppers pawed and grasped and grabbed and chose. We found the scarf department right away, thanks to a harassed young lady whose directions dripped with the cadences of central New Jersey, but we’re still wondering if we bought a scarf for Mom in the Muslim Women’s Department– it unfolds to wrap the entire body, apparently, and its fringe is decidedly ornate. Still; on Christmas morning there were no complaints, or threats of returns. A brown scarf is what she wanted, and a brown scarf is what she got.

We retired to the restaurant in the Cellar for a restful lunch, and were treated to Mrs. Fifth Avenue Mom with the Straight Golden Hair reasoning with young Bethany-Margaux as to the girl’s dietary requirements: “Why don’t you ask if they have French fries? You like French fries, right? How about a nice hamburger? Salad? Why don’t you ask the lady what they have?” If this had been a Brooklyn Mom with the Black Curly Hair, Bethany-Margaux would NOT have had as many choices: “You’ll eat what they have, for crying out loud!”

We headed back to the Gregory and, after a short rest, met our stunningly beautiful friend Carol in Park Slope for dinner. Fifth Avenue, which used to be the slums, is now home to a dizzying array of little restaurants, cafes, boites, and boutiques, and Carol chose a wonderful little place called Aunt Suzie’s. Packed to the gills, our welcome consisted of shrill tones from the  Birkenstocked young lady sitting by the front door: “COULD YOU CLOSE THAT DOOR PLEASE?” Gladly, after we usher you through it and back onto the street! She held court with eleven others like her, all apparently unaware that this sort of tiny restaurant isn’t the best choice for large pow-wows of the Libertarian persuasion. But the food? Great, as were the Manhattans.

We spent the afternoon of the next day in Midwood, catching up with Eugene and his sisters Cassie and Gaby. Their house is only a short bus ride away, but it passes through multicultural neighborhoods the likes of which can only be experienced in Brooklyn. You have your Italian people; your Yiddish people; your Asian people; your Arabic people; your Russian people; and everybody else, all tended to by an Irish bus driver who speaks only one language. It’s amazing that we all managed to get on and off our stops with little trauma, even considering the fact that the payment system is more complicated than ever. Metro Cards? Cash? No dollar bills? What’s going on?! You should have seen us on the subway– two country bumpkins trying to figure out how to assess, buy, and swipe our Metro Cards without delaying half the City. And THIS after I asked the woman for “four tokens.”  (Tokens can only be found in museums now, or in the bottoms of old pocketbooks at the back of your mother’s closet.)


Christmas Eve arrived, and we went with Mom and my brother Tony to the New Corner Italian Restaurant for our annual meal. After weeks of negotiations which would have rivalled the Third Partitioning of Poland between Austria and Hungary, we secured a spot for the 8:00 PM seating. My sister Gina, who was spending the Eve with her husband’s family, had made the convoluted arrangements for us; part of the plans involved inadvertently having New Corner mistakenly change the seating time of a family headed by a man named Gino– Gino and Gina look the same on a scrawled seating plan. It’s a good thing it was straightened out: “Or else Gino’s family woulda been waiting for us outside the restaurant with sticks!” Mom said. Though we sat down to eat at almost nine o’clock, the experience was heightened by spending the waiting time in the lobby, surrounded by nine thousand people from one family, all of who were named either Maria, Antoinette, Joey, or Rico. And Grandpa, who kept asking querulously, “where did she park?”  To which they answered in unison, “why do you care? You’re not driving!”

We were out of there by eleven o’clock– sated, stuffed, swearing that we would never eat again– but what about breakfast?

Gina and my nephews came over for Christmas Day, which was the usual celebration of presents, Manhattans, and lasagna. There was a ham, too, and stuffed escarole which I liked last year, but didn’t this year. (I probably hadn’t had enough Manhattans.) Earlier that morning, I walked to Visitation Academy from the hotel– not too many blocks in the cold, really– because I wanted to see the chapel. Mass was breaking, and I wandered from the street inside, directly into a clutch of lovely, delightful nuns. Once it was determined and understood that I was a visitor from Florida, they couldn’t do enough– in the midst of tidying up, they pointed out stained glass windows, statues, inscriptions, and other nuns. The marvelous tapestry behind the main altar was illuminated by a sister who insisted that I needed more light for my photograph, and the burst of light reminded me of when they turn on the klieg lights at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre whenever they have the premiere of a new Norma Shearer movie.


Visitation is named for the event in which Mary visited her elderly cousin Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist. And speaking of cousins– while waiting to be seated at New Corner, we ran into my father’s first cousin Mary’s husband Frankie, a widower; my father’s first cousin Lois’s husband Joe, also a widower; and Joe’s middle son Stephen. Stephen and I are second cousins, and he has two brothers who are married, each with three children, who are my second cousins once removed. Only I am able to keep these Byzantine convolutions straightened out because, frankly, I’m the only one who cares enough! Though we play at being a big Italian family, I think our attitude regarding staying in touch is really “oh GOD, here they come!”

We spent much of the next day with Eugene and family, centered around a leisurely lunch at the Mirage Diner in Midwood. It’s the sort of place which attracts people from all walks of life, who visit each and every day: the World War II machine gunner; the aged Russian stripper; the clutch of Ziegfeld girls whose feet haven’t trod the boards since 1914; the ex-pat reporter reading from an Albanian newspaper; the rabbi and his family; and us. Great food, fabulous coffee, and a full bar. What more could you ask? The bowls of pickles and baskets of bread, the coleslaw, the yellow mustard… it’s all so perfect, a preamble to the evening’s leftover lasagna, ham, and stuffed escarole. (Did I mention that I gained back the five pounds I had so conscientiously lost in the two preceding weeks?) I had an incident with the upstairs pipes that evening, which elicited a lot of angst and calls to the plumber, but it could have been a lot worse: I put my finger under Mom’s nose and said “don’t even go upstairs” after I reported the incident. A lot of mopping, a lot of drying of linoleum on my hands and knees, and then a trip to the basement with a plastic bag full of wet rags. The tenant down there came out into the hall to see what the commotion was all about, and she saw me with the black trash bag containing what was probablysomebody’s head, and there was a bit of a fright; Mom came down and introduced us, and so I will not be making an appearance on America’s Most Wanted any time soon.

The time-space continuum warped again the next morning, and I blinked awake, only to find myself back on the plane to Florida. It’s amazing– from cold, wet whiteness to lush greenness… you can actually smell the color green when you step off the plane. Were we really in New York? Did all these things happen in the space of what seemed like fifteen minutes? Probably. And we’ll do it all again next year.