Childhood toys symbolic of happier times, feeling safe
Published: Sunday, June 8, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, June 5, 2014 at 12:54 p.m.
The tea party never ends at Mike and Debbie Williams' home in Dunnellon.
Let's see, there's Ashley and Mihuphil and Dog. Sometimes Mike and Debbie join in, too — when they can tear themselves from the pinball machines in another room.
We might think of Mike and Debbie as just big kids themselves — and we'd probably be right — rather than respected retirees from law enforcement in Virginia.
And they're among the dozens of adults in Marion and Alachua counties who emailed The Gainesville Sun and Ocala Star-Banner to tell about a favorite childhood toy they've dragged lovingly through all the days of their lives.
This is not uncommon, said Chris Bensch, chief curator at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, N.Y., which houses one of the largest toy museums in the world. "These are safety," he said, "symbols of happier times."
Debbie Williams received Ashley, a child-size walking doll, in 1962 when she was 7. "My parents didn't believe in spoiling us, so I didn't have many toys," she said. "Ashley was my baby" — one she's held onto for half a century, and one she still talks to on occasion.
Ashley routinely presides over tea parties in the Williams' guest bedroom. At Halloween she dresses up as a bumble bee, and she has special dresses for Christmas and Easter. "I had two other dolls, but she was always the favorite," Debbie said.
Dog is their son Scott's childhood friend — which they hold on to much like Mike's mom still keeps Mihuphil most days.
Mihuphil is Mike's; the name's a portmanteau of Mike, Huey and Phillip — "my two best friends in Cleveland in 1965, when I was 4," he said. Mihuphil went everywhere with the trio — up trees, doing "boy stuff."
Over the years he lost track of Huey and Phillip; he doesn't even know their last names. A bear who's definitely seen better days, there's no price Mike would accept for Mihuphil, who, he said, "is worth more because of what it reminds me of — a happy childhood."
Teddy bears as life keepsakes "predominate," Bensch said. "They've got an emotional tie to people, and lots of folks can understand that. They're also sometimes easier to store than other playthings.
"They are safety, symbols of happier times."
But not all of our toys of old are soft and huggable; and some, by necessity, fit into a small pouch — Patt Shille's Shmoos, for instance.
Without googling, who remembers Shmoos? Described as "bowling pins with legs," in 1948 they moved into Dogpatch, the fictional hills home of Andy Capp's "L'il Abner" comic strip — and soon they became one of the first cartoon-related mega-marketing trends, with more than 100 different items selling what would be $215 million in today's dollars.
They also kept the younger two-thirds of the Sokol family entertained on the six-day odyssey from Rocky River, Ohio, to Los Angeles in the early 1950s. Shille was 12 when her dad got tired "of seeing so many snowsuits hanging on the line" and decided California's the place they ought to be.
As the second-oldest of 10 kids jammed into the family station wagon, her role was to keep the younger kids quiet while dad drove the 2,300-plus miles. She made up plays using her magnetic Shmoos — a toy she could keep because they fit into a small pouch her mother made; each child could take only what fit into their own pouches.
On the road, the younger kids "were transfixed" by her Shmoos' antics, Shille said. "It was all you could do in a cramped space." She doesn't recall when or how she got her Shmoos; "I probably used some of my babysitting money," she said. "The idea of the magnets fascinated me."
For years now, her Shmoos have been retired to a dark, quiet life in a back corner of her jewelry drawer, she said. "It's kind of comforting."
Clark Dougherty, a regular with the Ocala Civic Theatre, presented the Bozo the Clown records that helped him learn to read in the late '40s. They're 78 RPM vinyls, and cost $1 "at the record store on Grand Avenue in Hot Springs, Arkansas."
With "Bozo Underneath the Sea," for instance, he read along with the record; when it was time to turn a page, the record would say to. Though he played them a lot then, they're still like new and still play — should we find a turntable that plays 78s.
"It was a safer world then, more comfortable," Dougherty said. "I have happy childhood memories" — and Bozo under the sea or at the circus are among them.
George Wilson, who's in the process of moving from Marco Island back to Gainesville, is convinced he "cooked his brains" by constantly wearing the rubber Buck Rogers space helmet he received as a 5-year-old in 1965.
"That helmet probably did more damage than any drugs ever could," he said — mostly because he never took it off, even during summer days on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where he grew up. With it came a ray gun that used heavy D-cell batteries. "I'd get tired of lugging it around," he said.
Wilson still has the helmet and lets his grandson cook his brains, too. "The only thing I lost was the chin strap," he said. "It's been with me all my life. It's a connection to childhood that's tangible."
We've always had toys, from the elaborate 3-D gaming devices of today to the faceless dolls crafted from plant material in prehistoric times. They are how we learn to interact with other beings, prepare for our roles in adult society.
In his "Philosophy of Toys," published in 1851, French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote: "All children talk to their toys; the toys become actors in the great drama of life, scaled down inside the 'camera obscura' of the childish brain. And in games, they reveal their considerable faculty of abstraction and high imaginative powers."
But not all of our playthings have been cuddly or "actors in the great drama of life;" in fact, some truly aren't even "toys," except in the broadest sense. For example, Bensch said, one unusual "toy" at the Strong Museum is a huge manual adding machine "that was one girl's favorite plaything every time she visited her grandfather's lumber yard."
Another is a Dirt Devil hand vacuum, a special treat for a pair of twin boys. "I would recommend this to all parents," he said, "if you can persuade your kid that vacuuming is a treat, and they should behave well or they won't get to vacuum …" It came, he added, with video "of the boys as toddlers competing to get their hands on this Dirt Devil."
And surely one of the most bizarre, and certainly one not available today, is the Gilbert Glass Blowing kit for children, a toy of the 1920s, Bensch said. "Just the thought of kids blowing glass, an open flame …"
A new arrival, he added, is a Kong Suni, the "farting doll" that was the rage in South Korea a couple of years ago; that's right, flatulence — an air blast that actually lifts up the doll's dress — is what little Suni does, besides going poo, too!
Still, like pets, our toys were always there: friends, confidants, protectors.
Lispbeth Gets of Gainesville recalled receiving Biggies, a Harrod's of London teddy bear, from her grandparents for her fifth birthday. "I loved him to death," she said.
Not long after, World War II broke out, and Lispbeth was sent to boarding school for safety. Biggies went too. "He was my security blanket," she said, as well as her pillow during nighttime bombing raids and comfort other nights when she feared for her father off at war and her mother still in London.
Biggies even came to the United States in 1952 when she and her husband, Terry, emigrated. "I held on to him," Gets added, "because he'd been through all that childhood experience with me."
Andy, too, is well traveled and much loved. He's been Karen Fine's companion since 1950, when she received the small teddy bear for her first Christmas. Starting in Ohio, where she was born, they've been to Virginia Beach, Miami and California with her family before settling in Ocala.
"Andy was always the one I would hold and cry to when my world had gone wrong," Fine said — no more so than when her daughter, Kimberly, was murdered four years ago. Andy was a special comfort then.
The bear is mostly threadbare now, an eye is missing, so is his nose — the result of cuddles over the years.
"Andy always was there," she added. "He was the one constant in my life."
Rick Allen can be reached at email@example.com or 867-4154.