Thursday, March 25, 2010

Rolling Stock

Preface:  What was your favorite toy when you were a child?  Thinking back to Lincoln Logs and footballs, electric trains and chess sets, it was hard for me to decide...but then I remembered the collection of little cars that occupied so many hours of my time when I was young.

Rolling Stock
childhood memoir
by Greg Larson

     The industrial elevator carrying two vehicles on the platform slowly came to a stop at the top of the shaft.  Immediately, the giant pillow shifted closer to the platform; the vehicles drove out onto the pillow case and parked on the soft mounded surface.  I grabbed the shiny black Morris Minor sedan and the brilliant orange cement truck and held them in my hands to take a closer look.  They were brand new…not a scratch on them, and on the bottom they were marked “Made in England.”

     At eight years old, in 1959 I was confined to my top bunk bed.  The doctor’s orders were for bed rest after my tonsillectomy, but it was difficult for my mom to keep me still.  To help me occupy the time in bed, my older brother built an elevator using parts from our erector set, and my mom and dad surprised me with the two toy vehicles they purchased at the dime store.  It was like Christmas in April.  The vehicles were not your run-of-the-mill toy cars and trucks; they were a new toy selection called Matchbox cars.  I was a little guy.  These were little cars.  It was a match made in heaven.

The first tiny, shiny cars of my collection

     I’d seen them in the display window at Duckwall’s, but I convinced myself that I could not afford to have my own.  The least expensive cars were 50 cents.  They were the prettiest little cars and trucks, and there was such a wide variety of colors and types from industrial vehicles to race cars.  But they seemed out of reach until my parents gave me the first car and truck.

     Wanting to build a collection of Matchbox cars, I was thrust into the world of commerce and finance at an early age.  My weekly allowance for completing household chores was 10 cents.  The thought of five weeks wages to obtain one car was almost too much to bear.  In my desire to possess the toy cars, I developed an accelerated savings plan based on my limited knowledge of income and expenditures.  I noticed the weeds in the yard were beginning to grow in earnest that spring.  Once I had recuperated from the tonsillectomy, I suggested to my parents that I could dig weeds for 10 cents a bucket.  To my surprise, they agreed.

     I had visions of stacks of dimes as I began with determination to rid the yard of weeds, but quickly learned the meaning of full measure.  My mom did not allow anything but full buckets with the weeds packed tight.  The buckets which I presented to her that were three-fourths full with fluffed-up weeds were not acceptable.  After investing more sweat than I had expected over several days in the afternoon sun, I was able to garner enough dimes to build a small collection of cars.  They each came in a simulated English matchbox, and my friends were envious of the smart looking group of cars.

Each car was packaged in its own box

     They were my favorite toys.  Nothing came close to my passion for Matchbox cars.  I coveted them so much that I would put the choicest cars in my pocket on Sunday morning and sneak them to Sunday school and church.  Surely God would bless them, I thought, even if I kept them hidden in my pocket.  If my little brother spied them as we rode in the backseat from the suburbs to the church in downtown Wichita, he would let out a squeal which would gain my parents’ attention, and the toys would be confiscated for the remainder of the day.  During the drive into town, which was the longest of the week, I looked for the most unusual real vehicles driving on the street or parked at the construction sites.  I fantasized that I would someday have a fleet of my own trucks.

     In the formative years of childhood, I had no idea of the impact the Matchbox cars would have on my architectural career.  I focused on every design detail of each car and quickly developed a keen sense of spatial concepts; I created roads, buildings and racetracks, using toy blocks, boxes, and pieces of wood.  I learned that the Matchbox cars were H-O scale, which matched the scale of H-O train sets.  There was one small problem.  We did not have an H-O scale train…we had a Lionel train set, which was much larger in scale.  Also, some of my friends brought over toys that didn’t match the scale of my cars.  This mismatch was a major burden that I had to bear during my years of playing with toys.  It really grated on my sensibilities when the scale of things didn’t match.  In my daydream fantasy world, everything was H-O scale, and I built cities and train layouts in the corners of my mind.

     My Matchbox collection grew, and I was ready to make a major addition…a Pickfords cab with a flatbed trailer and a Caterpillar bulldozer to fit on the trailer…the total cost being two dollars!  Again, I had to get creative in order to accumulate almost a half-year’s worth of dimes.  The big money could be made from mowing lawns or taking care of pets while families were on summer vacation.  My mom helped me line up a few of these jobs which built up my cash reserve and I was finally able to make the joyous trip to Duckwalls.  I was nervous with excitement, and ran down the store aisle to the Matchbox display, which I knew by heart.  I could have found the Pickfords truck with my eyes closed.  How sweet it was to leave the store, clutching the bag with the tiny Matchbox toys inside.

The centerpiece of my collection was the Pickfords truck and trailer

     I played with the cars almost anywhere, from our rec-room tile floor to outdoors on the patio or porch.  Sometimes I would climb behind the juniper shrubs and build roads in the damp, cool soil.  Frequently, I would get together with my friends to compare our collections and play with our combined fleets, pretending to build cities or race the cars around the room.

     When I turned thirteen, my interest in playing with the cars had declined.  I gave my five-year collection of cars to my younger brother, with the understanding that I could spend time with them whenever I had the desire.  To me, it was a temporary loan of the collection, since a piece of my heart would always reside with all of the rolling stock.  I’d driven too many miles and built too many cities with them.  I just couldn’t walk away from something that was such a big part of me.

     But other interests beckoned…scouts, piano, newspaper route, and most of all, drawing.  My eighth grade drafting class was the happiest hour of the day.  I honed my sense of scale that I had developed with the Matchbox cars, and enjoyed the accuracy of measuring and drawing while I used my T-square and scale.  The cities and buildings that I constructed in my daydreams were no longer H-O scale…they were actual size, and were fancier and more detailed than ever before.

     Note:  A special thanks to Michael Farley for allowing me to photograph his mint-condition Morris Minor and orange cement mixer, as well as the Matchbox package front.  The other photographs are what remain of my original collection, including the Pickfords vehicle. My collection has a few more scratches than Michael's, nor do I have any of the original boxes.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Greg,
    Thank you for a stroll through memory lane! I remember vividly playing matchbox cars with you. I also remember it was a rare day when you would let me actually "drive" your Morris Minor. I played with my cars and you with yours. Do you remember the planter just inside the front door of our house on Shade St.? We built an entire "complex" using the dirt and plants and my mother allowed us continue to add to it for several days. I think it was you and I that actually traded cars one time. I think I remember that I had a BP tanker truck and you really wanted it and actually traded more than the $ value in cars for the truck. I could be mistaken and it was vice versa. It did involve a BP tanker.
    I had always envied your Morris Minor. I still to this day scan the internet for the "real" Morris Minor to add to my collection of cars. The formative years of "building cities" and "playing cars" helped you to grow into architecture and I developed a wonderful hobby of collecting and working on cars. OH! to be a child again and realize what our futures would bring just through our imagination at "play".