By Marc Gilson
You’re about to read an article from my series, “A Vintage Upbringing.” These pieces are stories distilled from my own experiences growing up in Portland, Oregon with my rather unconventional but loving family, including my mom, grandmother, grandfather, and a half-dozen cats and dogs. They’re snapshots of my own experience of the 1970s and 80s when I was in school. I don’t know that my experiences as a kid in the 70s were any more or less “typical” than anyone else’s. But I do hope these stories appeal especially to others of my generation – the latch key kids, Generation X.
Spike TV was showing all three old school Star Wars movies the other night. I watched most of the first one. Episode IV. A New Hope. What a film. Even all these years later, it still surprises me at how entertaining that movie is. I’ve seen it a million times and still get sucked into watching it.
I’m old enough to have seen that in the theater, first run! That movie really changed my life, and I guess, everyone else my age who saw it. What better age than 10 years old to see that come out! Wow. I was such a Star Wars junkie. I still miss my X-wing fighter with my action figures. I once pretended that Greedo broke into a Rebel base and stole the X-Wing. I never had the Millennium Falcon, so I used my Big Jim camper to soar through space, track down Greedo, shoot him down, and salvage the X-Wing. Yeah. A camper. In retrospect, Douglas Adams would have been proud. It was a very “Hitchhiker’s” moment.
Big Jim, in case you don’t know, was not a porno pseudonym. He was an action figure from the 70s, and man did he look like it. He was basically Mattel’s answer to Hasbro’s GI Joe. But see, GI Joe was all militant and shit, all dog tags and camo fatigues. Big Jim? He was into motocross, and exploring, and martial arts. He didn’t have a buzz cut. He had hair over his ears and sideburns! He had a tattoo! And he had cool friends. One was a Native American dude, another was an African American badass, and a third was some sort of Australian big game hunter. I don’t remember their names, but think: Tonto, Shaft, and Crocodile Dundee. Man, those guys were fun. And unlike GI Joe, these guys had lots of special features. You pressed a button on their backs and their arms did this karate chop action. You could flex their muscles. Ok, so they were all built like Chippendale’s dancers on steroids. But they rocked. With the amount of time I played with those guys, I guess it’s amazing I’m not gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But hey. I was an only child! I needed friends. (Still do). Back then, my friends were all plastic and under 9 inches tall. Ahh…good times! So yeah. If it weren’t for Big Jim, one X-Wing would have fallen into the hands of the Empire, and then, well, let’s not even go there.
Another toy I loved as a kid was the Evel Knievel stunt cycle set. I received that as a birthday gift when I was about 11. That big ring of fire you see in the picture was made of cardboard, so it lasted about three days. But I think I put more mileage on that motorcycle than the real Evel did on his. It was everything a toy should be: durable, detailed, and freakin’ loud. I don’t know why toy makers always feel compelled to include crap like the little plastic gas can. Like any kid is going to sit around pretending to gas up the bike when you could be sending Evel careening down the driveway! Unless you’re going to include REAL gas or some other flammable liquid, spare us the little gas can and tool set. I mean, if you really wanted to make it true to life, they should have included a bottle of bourbon, some pain pills, and a pair of crutches.
To get your fun out of this toy you first attached Evel to the motorcycle, which meant wrapping his little rubber hands onto the handlebars, and jamming his ass onto the seat. If you were rebellious, you’d leave his helmet off, although the helmet was really too cool to leave aside. Then you shoved the bike onto the red thing that geared into the real wheel, cranked the hell out of it, and when you were pretty much out of breath and the little motorized engine was whining and growling like an angry Rottweiler, you released the safety and Evel went buzzing across the living room, usually straight into the coffee table, wall, or occasionally, cat. If you were lucky, Evel would go flying off the bike, soar through the air, and collapse in a heap in the corner with a satisfying THUNK (much like the real Evel would do on horrifying occasions).
As anyone who has ever owned action figures knows, they take a lot of beating. They’re tossed from 2nd floor bedroom windows onto the concrete driveway below. They’re drowned in bathwater while combating rubber sharks. They get tossed down staircases. They’re sometimes shot at with boys with bb guns. They sustain such a range of injuries, they’re completely uninsurable. Broken limbs, twisted torsos, and head injuries are common. Yet like the real Evel, my little toy Evel stood up to whatever life (or me) threw at him. But one problem with Evel was that his sparkling red, white, and blue jumpsuit was actually made of cloth. This was a nice attention to detail, but it resulted in Evel looking like he had spent 3 days sleeping off a serious bender under a bridge somewhere. The other problem was that he was about three inches shorter than the rest of my Big Jim guys. So if Evel happened to show up during one of Big Jim’s adventures, it was a little like Frodo showing up at an Orc convention. And Big Jim couldn’t ride Evel’s motorcycle without looking ridiculous. Being imaginative, I compensated by deciding that Evel had undergone some secret government experiment involving a shrink ray. In spite of his smaller stature, Evel did take part in several Big Jim escapades. Once, he was assigned to rev up his bike and plow through a handful of plastic dinosaurs that were threatening to trash Big Jim’s Rescue Rig – something no one, even dinosaurs, should attempt.
Another of my favorite toys was called TCR Racing. This was one of the first electric race car sets that were NOT slot cars. The cars raced freely on the track and could change lanes with the flip of a switch on the controller. You could pass, slow down, accelerate, and crash! Take a turn too fast, and you’d be off the track and into the shag carpeting faster than you could say “Dale Earnhardt Senior” TCR = Total Control Racing. It also had another feature no other racing set had before: the jam car. The jam car was a third car on the track that ran around on it’s own, usually at a slower speed. This meant that you had to deal with your opponent’s car, as well as the jam car, apparently driven by a little old lady lost who had taken a wrong turn on her way to the piggly wiggly. For me, this proved too frustrating, and I eventually just left the jam car off the track. To this day, I wish I had the same sort of option on my commute to and from work.
Another action figure I was fond of was my Six Million Dollar Man figure. For those of you who don’t know, The Six Million Dollar Man was a TV show airing from 1974 to 1978 starring Lee Majors as “Colonel Steve Austin” (NOT the pro-wrestler “Steve Austin, who is neither a colonel, nor bionic as far as I know).
Steve, as everyone could plainly see from the opening credits of the show, was involved in a little fender bender while test piloting some new sort of advanced aircraft. Ok, so that’s a little bit of an understatement. He actually slathered himself and millions of dollars in Air Force technology all over a runway after a serious mechanical malfunction in the aircraft he was testing. During the violent crash, he managed to lose both legs, an arm, and an eye, but somehow survived. His friend, Dr. Rudy Wells, just so happened to be an expert in the field of “bionics.” So when Steve disintegrated himself, Rudy stepped in, picked up what was left, and rebuilt him. “We have the technology,” said Rudy while the opening theme music played, “we can rebuild him. We can make him better than he was. Better. Stronger. Faster.” And all for a measly six mil! So they scraped what was left of Steve off the runway and replaced his missing human parts with biomechanical parts. His legs and arm now have super strength, and his eye is replaced with a bionic eye capable of seeing like a telescope. And he goes to work for the OSI (Office of Scientific Intelligence – you know, as opposed to those dorks over at the Office of Scientific Ignorance) to combat, umm, bad guys? I don’t remember.
I do remember the show featuring Bigfoot in a few episodes. You heard right: Bigfoot. Now I do happen to have a certain fascination with all things Sasquatch-related, and I’m sure I’ll get around to explaining myself regarding that at some point. But with regard to the Six Million Dollar Man, the addition of Bigfoot to the roster of recurring characters was just a dream come true for me as a 9 or 10 year old.
Watching the slow-motion, overly dramatic fight scenes between Bigfoot and the bionic man, I felt so many of my inner personalities being satisfied (cryptozoologist, hand-to-hand combat expert, technology geek, etc.) Bigfoot was actually played by Andre the Giant (and sometimes by the guy who played Lurch from the Adam’s Family). I really don’t remember why or how Bigfoot made it into the storyline for the show, but I didn’t care a bit. I expect the whole thing stemmed from one of those, “Hey, who would win in a fight? Bionic Man or Bigfoot?” kinds of debates among the show’s writers.
Anyway, the show was highly successful, so of course there had to be an action figure. He wore a red jumpsuit (what the hell was with all the jumpsuits in the 70s??), had a bionic grip, and a bionic eye you could look through (thanks to a hole in the back of his head), which provided some degree of magnification – but also made Steve look a little like a cyborg pirate. But as with Evel, there was a height discrepancy, although on the other end of the scale. Steve stood 13 inches tall; massive by most action figure standards. Even though he was a lot bigger than my other action figures, he was also a little more fragile. The joints of his arms and legs seemed a little less durable than Evel’s or Big Jim’s, so when Steve went tumbling down the stairs, he’d end up looking like a pile of tanned limbs in a red jumpsuit staring back at you with that one pirate eye glowing and one arm laying in the opposite corner. It could take awhile to re-attach and straighten out his arms and legs back to what looked like a normal human being (I was no Rudy Wells). Steve’s bionic arm was covered in some kind of soft rubber you could pull back to see his “bionics.” This was cool, although with time, this stuff began to loosen and flake off, which wasn’t pretty. I wish I had held onto this figure, because the word is that they’re relatively rare these days and fetching a pretty penny with collectors. Sadly though, my Steve Austin action figure suffered a severe head injury when I inadvertently ran over him with my bike. His head was broken into pieces, the lens for his bionic eye lost, and he was just unrepairable. However, my Six Million Dollar Man lunchbox survived longer, and made me the envy of my friends in 4th grade. I can still remember making the “bionic” sound as I unscrewed my thermos in slow motion- “Cha-cha-cha-cha-sst-sst-sst…”
As a kid, these toys were a part of my world. I thought of them as possessions and playthings, which they were. But I guess as I get older, I also see them as childhood memories in their own right. They were a part of the substance of my world and the world of thousands of other kids my age. So I guess in one way, they do hold some cultural or developmental significance. I can’t say my life in any way reflects that of Big Jim, Evel Knievel, or Col, Steve Austin. But in a way, I suppose a carry around a little of each of them in my psyche somewhere. You’d think my life would be a little more exciting! But hey, isn’t that what toys and imagination are for?