Some people can only remember horrific instances of childhood agony. Traumatic childhood experiences. I remember my toys.

When I was real young, barely old enough to walk, it was Lincoln Logs, the wooden building blocks and red plastic roofs. Shortly after it was a steel erector set. For some reason I loved building things up as high as I could until all the pieces were used. My towers didn’t resemble anything and they weren’t structurally sound; I just wanted to see how high I could build before gravity and poor foundations brought them tumbling to the ground. But if I ran out of pieces before then and they were still wobbling but standing, my real joy came in tearing them down. One fell swoop of my fist, or even better, a toy truck rammed at full speed brought down the towers with a resounding and satisfying crash. And then I got to do it all over again.

My destructive age passed into a wheels stage. I loved everything on wheels and things that moved of their own power. My father, who had grown up playing with trains, bought me a small one for Christmas. He took a huge sheet of plywood and set up a little village that the train could chug around. It reminded me of Mr. Rogers’ little village on Sesame Street, complete with trees and fake grass and a Styrofoam mountain tunnel that made the train’s lights come on. Right in the middle of the table I placed a racing speed track with two loops that my matchbox cars could rumble around on their way to the train station.

My favorite speed toy was an old go-kart made of a lawnmower motor mounted on a steel frame with two bike wheels and two lawnmower wheels. It was a bumpy ride, especially across the uneven furrows and mole hills of our lawn, but when you got it out on the paved portion of the road it took off faster than any bike fiend could pedal. My sister and I took turns racing around the house and when dad came home he let us go out on the road. You couldn’t hear much when you rode the go-kart, but that didn’t matter. It only sounded more like Daytona that way.

My sister took that go-kart for its last ride. I will never forgive her for it. She was older than me and bigger, so big her knees were scrunched up near her chin when she sat down on the go-kart. Just as she was heading back up the paved part of our road toward the mailbox where I was patiently hopping around waiting for my turn, the wheel came spinning off and went rolling into the weeds. I hadn’t even had my turn. Nor did I get to. The go-kart never did get fixed.

My dad must have felt bad, because not long after I got a Nintendo, the best present I had ever gotten. I was instantly hooked and I was much better at it than my sister, who I still hadn’t forgiven. Nintendo was my payback. I beat her at Mario Brothers and RC ProAm and loved how frustrated she got every time I beat her. I played so much that my mother had to start limiting my time. Only an hour a day. That was like torture, to have a toy so addicting sitting right there in the living room and not be able to play with it.

Eventually, my sister outgrew her playing days and I was left to play alone. I had no neighbors. At least not within walking distance. The closest neighbor lived a mile away, but the closest neighbor with a child my age lived two miles away. For a young boy, it felt like he lived on the moon. But I had He-Man and G.I. Joe to keep me company. They were much cooler than Transformers and didn’t seem to break apart or loose arms when they fell from trees or when a grenade in the bunker tossed them twenty feet in the air. Yet, they all paled in comparison to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They were so cool that I went around the house practicing my ninja moves and even made myself a pair of nunchucks out of a branch and an old dog chain. I wanted to be a ninja turtle too. I probably turned green I loved them so much, and my parents quickly enrolled me in martial arts in the hopes of focusing my energy in the right direction. I was a little older than the other students, four years older than the next oldest to be exact, and so our sensei used me to demonstrate his moves. I quickly became his toy, flipped over a shoulder one minute, jump kicked the next, until I lay bent and unmoving like one of my discarded G.I. Joe figures.

The toys have become different these days. They have beeps and whistles and colorful screens. They fit in the pocket, but can reach across space to communicate instantly with someone fifty or five thousand miles away, and every kid seems to know the ins and outs of all electronic gadgets out there. Toys have names that sound like drugs: PSP, iPod, and MP3, and they look like weapons stolen out government test labs.

Things have changed. I remember the days when puzzles were cool.

And I remember having to create my own toys when I grew tired of the toys in my closet. I used my imagination. That’s what I like about the old toys. They weren’t quite as real. They looked like toys. They required imagination for them to be fun. And I used it. But that’s also how I knew how to draw the line between what was play and what was real. I knew what was acceptable in my “play” world and what was acceptable in the real world and I always had one foot in it.

I like the toys that are coming out these days. They are fantastic advancements on sight and sound and can be absorbing. But I am not always sure that we are better for them. It seems to me the less we have to think and use our brains, especially as children, the less we will.

© Seth Crossman