Monday, January 07, 2008


Before I was in grade school, my mom and I spent a lot of time together during the day. With my father at work and my brother in school, she had to take me with her wherever she went, whether it was running errands, going shopping, or visiting with family and friends. One of my favorite day trips was visiting with my mom’s sister, whom we called Aunt Kay. In those days, my aunt and Uncle Al and cousins Albert and Amy lived in a row home in a residential neighborhood on the northern edge of Baltimore City. Although their house was slightly smaller than our own, they had a coveted “end-of-group” home, meaning that their house was on the end of the four or five houses that were connected together, giving them a much larger yard wrapping around three sides of the house. This afforded us kids a great, open area in which to play.

My cousin Albert was four years older than I, so he was usually at school unless it was summer time. My cousin Amy was three years younger than I, so we usually played together, although that was somewhat limited since she was a girl and barely able to walk or talk. This left me on my own most of the time, so I would bring my toys along to play boy stuff on my own, but I always coveted Albert’s toys. He had several of the old Aurora model kits, assembled and painted by him. Something I was not yet dexterous enough to do. My brother had models too, but his were almost exclusively cars, which didn’t interest me as much. Those Aurora dioramas, especially the horror characters, really fascinated me.

During the summer, my brother Craig would join us on these visits. Since he and Albert were closer in age, they would play together while I obligingly played with Amy, coloring in coloring books or playing with her toddler toys. There was only so much of this I could take, however, and one day, I finally worked up the nerve to ask Albert permission to play with his models. To my surprise, he said yes. I was so thrilled, although looking back, I’m not sure exactly what I did with polystyrene dioramas of Frankenstein and Dracula. All I can remember was that I loved playing with those things and looked forward to going to their house.

Of course, as with all good things, something has to happen to screw it up. While I was always pretty careful with toys and delicate things like models, I guess I got carried away one day and broke Albert’s Phantom of the Opera model. It was a complete accident, and I was truly sorry since I probably loved that model even more that he did. Nevertheless, his trust in me was broken. I tried one more time to get permission to play with his models, but he was adamant that I couldn’t touch his stuff anymore. I understood, but it made going to my aunt’s house a lot less interesting.

One afternoon when we were visiting, I guess Amy was taking a nap or something, because I followed my mom and aunt into the basement. My aunt was complaining about all the stuff that was accumulating down there. I was shocked when she matter-of-factly announced that my uncle had years of Playboy back-issues piled up, and even pointed them out to us. I guess she didn’t realize that I was old enough to know that Playboy was one of those “dirty magazines.” I was startled, but it made my Uncle Al seem a little cooler in my eyes.

While my aunt talked about other grown-up stuff, I zeroed in on the leftover toys piled around. Not particularly a toy, but one item that always fascinated me was a papier maché volcano stacked up in a corner. Meticulously detailed, I couldn’t figure out why on earth someone would have a scale model volcano in their basement. I never asked. My guess, in hindsight, was that it was probably an old science project of my uncle’s and it was so nice, he couldn’t bear to part with it.

Another item that elicited far greater excitement was this curious little action figure. He was about five inches tall, and at least two inches of that was taken up by his head. A giant, blocky sort of head far out of proportion with his dainty body. He was molded out of solid plastic, and dressed like an Army soldier. He even wore a combat helmet and had tiny belts and weapons attached to him, molded out of tan vinyl. He reminded me of the old Stony Smith action figures, but seen through the reflection of a funhouse mirror.

I experienced that unique childhood thrill I can only describe as toy lust. Your pulse pounds, your heart races, your breathing becomes irregular, and your stomach flutters. That immediate, chemical rush anyone under the age of 11 experiences at the sight of a new toy that is exquisite and irresistible. I had to possess this odd little soldier man. Showing a sense of boldness I ordinarily did not possess, I asked my Aunt Kay if I could have the diminutive soldier.

“We’ll have to ask Albert, but I think it’ll be all right,” Aunt Kay told me.

I wasn’t as sure as she was. Albert never forgave me for the Phantom of the Opera incident. A sacred trust had been betrayed. I didn’t have much of a chance. We went outside where Albert was torturing my brother in some form or fashion. My cousin had a way of irritating my brother all day long until they would usually end up at each other’s throats. If I saw Albert and my brother fighting, I knew it was about time for us to go home. Anyway, Albert and Craig were engaged in some sort of argument when my aunt interrupted to ask about the soldier figure. Completely distracted, Albert shrugged it off with a, “Yeah, sure.” I was stunned and elated! Triumph was mine.

As soon as we got home, I showed the action figure off to all my friends. Just like me, they had never seen one like it before. I played with him for all of maybe…oh, a week or so, before the magic wore off. Thing was, he was too small and oddly shaped to be compatible with our other G.I. Joes and Marx action figures. He was a one-off novelty, destined for limited playability. Perhaps that’s why Albert parted with him so easily.

Decades later, I learned that the little fella’ was made by Remco in the mid-60s and was call L’il Soldier Joe. He was part of their line of “Big Head” dolls, which included versions of The Beatles and The Munsters. There was also a L’il Cowboy Pete, who had the same head as L’il Soldier Joe but had a cowboy body and appropriate acce
ssories. I also discovered on eBay that L’il Joe once came with an “Ack-Ack Jeep set.” I told my wife the story of L’il Joe and, being the wonderful spouse that she is, got me several L’il Joes for Christmas. Only one is totally healthy, while the others have sustained various injuries from past battles untold. I intend on rehabilitating these guys. It’s the least I can do for abandoning him so quickly when I was a callow lad.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Cool, always wondered what this head I got with figures parts lot was.