Whimsy: May 2003 Archives

The "Tick Tock Toys" section of "The Imaginary World" has images from a 1970s catalog of playground equipment. The cover image is of the "Space Cruiser", which bears a slight resemblance to the original USS Enterprise. They had one of these in the park near my cousins' house in Midwest City; as a trekkie of 9 or 10, I thought it was very cool. Last time I was by there, a couple of years ago, it was still in use.

The "Tick Tock Toys" page is full of commercial baby boomer nostalgia. There are images of food you begged your parents to buy (like Space Food Sticks), very un-PCdrink mixes, and much more. Go have a rummage through the images of our collective past.

Hans Kistner sends along links to a 2-minute Honda ad, which uses the parts of a Honda Accord in a sort of Rube Goldberg / "Mouse Trap" arrangement, a chain of reactions that begins with movement of a single part. It took over 600 takes to get this to work perfectly -- no trick photography or special effects.. The Daily Telegraph tells how the commercial was made.

The bigshots at Honda's world headquarters in Japan, when shown Cog for the first time, replied that yes, it was very clever, and how impressive trick photography was these days. When told that it was all real, they were astonished.

One of the more striking moments in the film is when a lone windscreen wiper blade helicopters through the air, suspended from a line of metal twine. "That was the first and last time it worked properly," recalls Tony Davidson, of the London-based advertising agency Wieden & Kennedy. "I wanted it to look like ballet."

After that, a few yards and several ingenious connections down the assembly line, another pair of windscreen wiper blades is squirted by an activated washer jet. Because Honda wipers have automatic sensors that can detect water, they start a crablike crawl across the floor. It is as though they have come to life.

Go see it. It is very cool.

A web search for photos of old-time playground equipment (of the sort they have at Riverside Park in Independence, Kansas) turned up this little essay by Bill Van Dyk about a decision to tear down every playground in the Toronto school district despite the fact that the old equipment was safe:

What happened was this. An inspector from Ottawa had created a report that laid out some guidelines for new playground equipment, with the laudable goal of ensuring that they would be as safe as possible. The new guidelines were better than the old guidelines, of course. Some clever people have found ways to build playground equipment that is safer than ever before.

The Toronto School Board, having received their new guidelines, hired an inspector from a private service to check all of their playground equipment to see if they conformed with the new guidelines. They did not, of course. The old playground equipment is, well, old.

As it turns out, the old playground equipment was not very bad at all. Out of the hundreds of thousands of children who had played on them, no one had ever been killed, nor, apparently, were there many serious injuries. In fact, more children are injured on the paved areas of the playground and the yard than on the playground equipment.

Still, no cost is too high when it comes to children's safety. Except for the cost of common sense and rationality. The Toronto School Board ordered 172 sets of old playground equipment removed, on the off chance that someone, some day, might get hurt really bad.

Just back from a weekend trip to Lawrence, Kansas, to see my cousin graduate from high school. We made some stops on the way there and back to give Dad a break and let the kids run around.

On the way home tonight, we stopped for nearly two hours at Riverside Park in Independence, Kansas. Independence is a little city of about 10,000, county seat of Montgomery County. Like most Kansas county seats, it is a beautiful town, with tree-lined streets of tidy Late Victorian and Craftsman homes, a stately courthouse, and a downtown of beautifully restored commercial buildings which appear to be fully occupied.

Riverside Park sits on the north side of town, 124 acres above the banks of the Caney River, and features a small zoo, two playgrounds, an antique carousel, a lighted fountain, miniature golf, a miniature train ride, and tennis courts.

Our first stop on entering the park was the big playground near the Carousel. This is where Joe (nearly 7) wanted to spend his time. Visiting the playground is like traveling through time, starting with big metal behemoths probably built in the '50s, through '60s fiberglass bouncy horses, earth-toned climbing equipment from the '70s, up through a plastic play complex from the late '90s.

The behemoths to which I refer are old but very well maintained pieces of equipment which were designed with the assumption of a level of acceptable risk in child play which exceeds that of our safety-conscious age:

  • A 12 foot high platform, providing access to five slides -- two straight and flat, two straight but wavy, and a curly slide -- reached by two steep metal ladders. The platform has a "guard rail" about 18 inches high, just high enough to catch a grownup's feet as he falls off and ensure that he hits the ground head first. The steps of these ladders are wrought iron manifestations of the the words "FUN FUL", which I take to be the manufacturer's name. I only found one reference to such a company on the web, a photo of a merry-go-round ride called an "Ocean Wave", circa 1920. I remember something very much like that in the playground in front of Catoosa Elementary School, and I think I saw one in Seiling Park in Broken Arrow within the last 10 years (no longer there).
  • A twelve-foot high "fire tower" featuring a big hole in the floor (for a fire pole) as well as a straight slide.
  • A six-foot slide platform with metal sheets extending down either side -- the kind that will fry you like bacon on a hot summer day.
  • An antique ladder truck. A real one. Not something wooden and small with rubber bumpers over the sharp edges, not a relic fenced in and out of reach, but a real old fire truck that kids can climb all over. The steering wheel actually turns the wheels, which have real (mostly flat) tires. You can climb all the way back on the ladder. Sadly, the controls to raise, extend, and swivel the ladder have been disabled, probably by order of some safety-obsessed killjoys.
  • A spinning circle -- the kind with the raised elongated bumps at right angles for traction, and bars radiating and rising from the center, then forking out and connecting to the edge. Joe was riding it, having me spin him faster and faster. As he was spinning, and as I was pondering whether, out of appreciation for the City of Independence having the guts to keep this classic play equipment available, I would refrain from filing suit if one of my kids were injured -- as if he could read my mind, Joe launched himself off the circle. His foot was caught by one of the handholds and it seemed he might be dragged around, but the circle stopped quickly. Joe was fine, grinning. He got up, brushed off the sand (that's what they use around all the play equipment -- not hard, splintery wood chips, but nice soft sand). "I intended to do that. I thought it would be cool to jump off!"
  • Big heavy seesaws, the kind that will perform reverse traction on your spine if your partner suddenly scrams.

Katherine (nearly 3) was not all that interested in the playground. She wanted to ride the carousel with Mommy. And she did, probably about 15 times. When it's only a nickel a ride, you can ride 15 times. The carousel is beautifully restored, protected from the elements by a recently constructed canopy.

The train wasn't running -- it's only 25 cents -- and we didn't take time for the mini-golf course which illustrates the history of Independence (only $1 a game). We did stock up on sodas from the vending machines for the ride home -- only 50 cents a can.

The extra carousel rides and time on the playground was in lieu of a stroll through the park's Ralph Mitchell Zoo. The zoo mainly features small animals, and the centerpiece is a WPA-built monkey island, which was once home to astro-monkey Miss Abel. As recently as our last visit, three years ago, the zoo was just part of the park, accessible whenever the park was open. Now there was a tall wire fence surrounding the zoo, and they close the zoo at 8 p.m. My wife asked the lady at the carousel ticket booth what had changed. She said federal zoo regulators required the fence and the 24-hour presence of a zookeeper.

As we loaded up the car for the trip home we could hear the wild cries of the peafowl which roam the zoo grounds.

Cute baby pictures!


First baby toad of the season! The toads return to our backyard goldfish pond every year near the vernal equinox with a raucous party by the light of the full moon. Within a few days, strings of toad eggs decorate the water, and shortly thereafter, thousands of tadpoles.

It's two months later, almost a full moon, and tonight we caught this little fella. I would tell you whether it's a boy or a girl, but such activity was prohibited by my alma mater.


Meanwhile, the grown-up toads (at least 11 by Mikki's count) are having another noisy full moon party, uninhibited by MIT regulations. More cute babies will be on their way soon, it seems....


Joe reminded me of another cute baby picture I intended to post. We saw this armored little bundle of joy near his T-ball field, scuttling off the road into the tallgrass. Couldn't be more than five or six inches long, excluding the tail.


Bookmaker of Virtues


Happy Fun Pundit also weighs on on Bill Bennett's gambling habit, with some thoughtful entries in the comments section. Some other time, I'll tell you about my views on gambling. For now, I just want to say how appalled I am at Bennett's choice of games -- video poker and slots. I had higher expectations of the man; thought he'd at least play a table game like blackjack where there is some skill involved and a way of narrowing the odds. And if he did just want to turn his mind off and push buttons, wouldn't the nickel slots work as well for that purpose as the $500-a-pull variety?

Some of the comments on Happy Fun Pundit's post suggest he did it for the complementary perqs given to high rollers -- free rooms, food, booze, limos, show tickets. My last year in college, in 1985, I went with several fraternity brothers to visit the parents of one of them, who were playing blackjack in Atlantic City. They had complimentary rooms at several casinos, had complimentary meals. They put us up in one of their complimentary rooms in the Trump Tower, and one of the guys ordered Dom Perignon via room service -- all included in the complimentary service. My fraternity brother's parents gambled enough at blackjack to qualify for all these goodies, but because they knew basic strategy, how to pace your bets, and possibly a little card counting, they never lost much, and usually came out slightly ahead, enough to pay for the airfare, and they got to live like kings for a couple of days.

Speaking of "High Rollers" -- remember that craps-based quiz show? It's what Alex Trebek did before Jeopardy, with Ruta Lee as his dice girl. Also in the '70s you had game shows based on blackjack (Gambit, with Wink Martindale), slot machines (Joker's Wild, with Jack Barry), and roulette-like games (Press Your Luck, Wheel of Fortune).

Sorry. I was going to say something about the "Book of Virtues", but I drifted a bit. Anyway, here's a page with memories of the 1974 game show line-up, including a photo of a very mod Alex Trebek. The author of the page recounts happy memories watching game shows with his grandmother during summer vacation -- me, too. My summer schedule was built around the game shows, and you could pretty much spend all day watching them -- every network had them, and they ran all day long. At Grandma's house, game shows were supplanted only by Cubs baseball or Star Trek.

I hereby change this entry's category from "Culture" to "Whimsy".

Star Trek Annoyances


Happy Fun Pundit says the Enterprise needs some fuses, WD-40, and seatbelts. And fabric more flattering than spandex.

Father of the Laugh Track


The Wall Street Journal's Michael Judge offers an appreciation of the life-work of Charlie Douglass, inventor of the "Laff-Box":

"Sometimes called the Laugh Organ, the first Laff Box stood just over two feet tall and was operated something like an organ. Different buttons could be pressed to combine different types of laughter--belly laughs or chuckles, hoots or guffaws--and the operator could even choose the sex and age (man, women or child) of the laughter. Foot pedals were used to control the timing and duration of the laughter."

Judge says the Laff Box serves a useful social purpose and won't be going away anytime soon.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Whimsy category from May 2003.

Whimsy: June 2003 is the next archive.

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