Alright, so this next post is only comics-related in the most tangential of ways, but cut me some slack, willya? It’s Father’s Day!
So I had the idea for this post a while ago, but then held off on it because I figured it would be most appropriate to wait for this particular day (for reasons that should become clear rather shortly). It started when I was browsing through old pictures for my “comics-geek odyssey” series, and I stumbled across this:
That’s my dog Ginger and me in the old playroom (a small walk-in closet where I kept my toys). First, in the upper left, you might be able to discern a classic Mr. Spock Mego doll leaning against a gray, wooden box. That box was my homemade Star Trek Enterprise playset. Just beneath and to the right, you should notice this yellow thing in the middle of that stack of toys in my old toybox. That yellow thing was my homemade bat-copter.
Let’s start with the bat-copter. Here’s a closer look:
Okay, so not the best picture, but it’s all I’ve got. In case you can’t tell, that’s a yellow Prestone antifreeze bottle. Attached to the top is an old wooden coat hanger. That was my bat-copter. How did this monstrosity become my bat-copter, exactly? This where my father enters the story.
As all of my good friends already know, I’m a huge Mad Men fan. One of the things I like about the show is that Don & Betty Draper are fairly close in age to my parents and I often see many of the same generational ticks & foibles in them. Like Don, my old man grew up dirt-poor during the Great Depression. People of this generation have certain ideas about money.
For example, in the first couple seasons, we see Don throw away thousands of dollars on mistresses, boozing, cars; plus thousands more at his half-brother just to make him go away. Then we get to late in season three and his daughter Sally wants two dollars to buy a Halloween costume at Woolworth’s. Don refuses to buy it for her because, as he puts it, “it’s just cheap plastic and you’ll only use it once.” It’s not that Don doesn’t love his daughter—as any fan will tell you, he adores her. And it’s not quite as simplistic as him being a penny-pincher, either. He doesn’t mind spending money (obviously) if he’s getting perceived value for it. What he refuses to do is waste his money on something frivolous or something he believes is a scam. His generation also takes particular pride in doing things for yourself; of not just buying your way out of every problem.
That’s why when I went to my Pop and told him I wanted a bat-copter to play with, his first natural response was: “Okay, I’ll make one for you.”
In all candor, this was not one of his better efforts. He obviously didn’t build any of it by hand, he just re-purposed some old junk he would have otherwise thrown into the garbage. He taped the coat hanger to the top to serve as a propeller and cut a little window in the front so I could put my Batman doll in there (and also to allow Batman to see where he’s going when he’s piloting!).
Now go scroll back and take a look at the original picture again. In the very bottom of the left corner, you’ll see the yellow and black portions of another plastic toy. Most of you won’t recognize it, but that is the actual, official bat-copter from Mego. I honestly don’t remember the exact circumstances of how I got the “real” bat-copter, but I can take a fairly educated guess. My mother likely saw me playing with my homemade bat-copter one day and logically inquired: “Why are you playing with that old junk? It belongs in the trash!” To which I likely answered: “This isn’t junk. This is the bat-copter Daddy made for me.” Her response, in turn, was probably a roll of the eyes accompanied by a loud groan. When the old man got home from work that night, I imagine my mother’s first words to him when he stepped through the door were: “What the hell is wrong with you?”
And within a few days, I’m guessing my mother went out and bought me the actual, official bat-copter. Eventually, I would figure out that if I really wanted a toy I should ask Mom, not Dad—but this was a lesson that would take a while to sink in. Meanwhile. . . let’s circle back to that homemade Enterprise playset. The story behind that begins with this:
My first thoughts upon seeing this commercial on my TV screen were: “Holy $hit, they built a Star Trek toy with a working %$&*ing transporter!! They made Mr. Spock disappear for real!! OMG!!!”
I went to my father and reported this discovery with psychotic glee. Then, the next time the commercial came on, I screamed and dragged him into the living room to see it. His reaction to it was much less enthusiastic than my own.
“What’s the big deal?” he likely said (or words to this effect). “I can build something like that for you, easy.”
And so he did. Forty years later, here it is, ladies & gentlemen. A little worse for wear, but still holding up surprisingly well—my homemade Star Trek Enterprise toy:
. . .About ten years back, I stumbled upon the Mego Star Trek Enterprise set on ebay and couldn’t resist buying it. Here are some pics of that Mego set for reference:
Again, although my old man meant well, there’s not much comparison. The one thing I’ll say in favor of the homemade version: It’s definitely more sturdy. Other than that, it ain’t got a lot going for it. The key feature, of course, is the transporter. I remember my father insisting he could make one that worked just as well, if not better, than the toy in the commercial. As you can see, what I got was a cardboard box attached to a metal knob that would make it spin around. . . which actually wasn’t that far off from how the Mego toy worked from a practical standpoint.
This is the key word. Practical.
As I said, my father grew up in the Depression and valued practical things—things that worked, that did what you needed them to do. This was reinforced by his experience working as a foreman in a machine shop. He was not the type of man to be impressed by bells and whistles; quite the opposite, in fact. From his point of view, the toy he made accomplished everything it needed to do.
“But my Mr. Spock doll won’t disappear!” I protested.
“Sure he will,” the old man told me. “Just stick him in the cardboard thing here, turn the knob, reach in behind and take him out, then turn the knob ‘round again and he’ll be gone.”
I could not argue with him there. He was right; I could do that. But that magical effect of Spock disappearing with a spin of a knob and the press of a button was lost. There was nothing I could do to make him understand this. He had grown up in a different world, and in that world the toy he had made was just as good as the one in the commercial.
I should also point out that the artwork on the cardboard portion of the toy is mine, both interior and exterior. And I tried to follow the Mego design as best I could. I was in kindergarten (maybe even pre-k) when I did this and had not begun to read and write, but I knew my ABCs and such from Sesame Street. I had my father spell out the word “Enterprise” for me, and I wrote the letters down, left to right, in the order he gave them. But the “zap” balloons I copied visually from my “Super Adventures” colorform set. Somehow they came out backward, mirror-style. This concerned my parents, who worried that I might be dyslexic. I can distinctly recall looking at my “zaps” and the colorform “zaps” and thinking they looked exactly the same, unable to understand my parents’ alarm. My next visit to the doctor, they brought it up and he told them not to worry about it. I went on to learn to read and write without much of a hitch, so it remains something of a mystery.
My father’s next project for me would remain his masterpiece for many years. After we had an addition built onto the back of the house, Pop built me my very own clubhouse in the backyard from the leftover lumber. Here I am with some of my friends in front of the clubhouse on the day I made my first communion:
I know this was the day of my first communion because the toy we’re playing with in front of the clubhouse is the Amsco/Milton-Bradley “Marvel World” playset—a holy grail for Marvel collectors today. (See? I told you there would at least be some tangential comics stuff here!) My sister got this set for me for my communion. It remains the best present she’s ever given me—maybe the present I’ve ever gotten from anyone. It was pretty awesome.
But back to the clubhouse: My father asked me if I wanted anything special built into it and I think I actually tried to draw a blueprint for him. I know I wanted it to have a “secret” door and a lookout tower. From these suggestions, I think it was his idea to put it up on stilts like that. He wound up building my secret door into the floor.
The clubhouse lasted quite a long time. It ended up getting knocked down (not destroyed, just blown over) by a bad storm circa ’79 or ’80. We propped it back up and even built an addition to the back circa 1982. We finally tore it down the summer after I graduated high school, just before I started college. Mom was complaining that it had become an “eyesore” and needed to go. If we hadn’t torn it down, who knows? It might still be standing today.
Anyways, fast forward to a year or two after the clubhouse and the Enterprise (which were built around the same time, I believe) and somehow I wound up getting into pirates. I think I got a Captain Hook pirate toy and wanted a boat for him. I went to my Dad and expressed this desire and here are the results:
Now this one has some craftsmanship, as you can see, although it was nowhere near proportionate to the dimensions of my Captain Hook doll. (It was a great fit for my Star Wars figures just a year or so later, however!) My father originally made it with two masts on either side, but both ended up breaking off rather quickly. One mast was supposed to hold a paper sail, while the other had a crow’s nest (the plastic top of an old spray can turned upside-down). The spark plug is supposed to be a cannon.
Okay, so this must have been the point at which it finally sunk in that I should just start asking Mom for the toys I really wanted, because Pop would always try and build it himself. It would be almost thirty years before I asked him to help me build something again.
Jump to Halloween 2006. Because I’m weird, I wanted to go out dressed as the classic Tom Baker version of Doctor Who. Of course no one was going to recognize the costume here (though it would have been a smash in the UK, no doubt), so clearly I was dressing up to please myself at this point, having long since given up on the idea of being understood or accepted by the larger world.
Anyways, I got all the accoutrements, including scarf, sonic screwdriver, and jelly babies. The one thing I would’ve loved to have had to complete the picture was my own robot dog, K-9. So I asked my father if he thought he could make one. At this point, you should be able to guess his answer.
“Pffft! Of course! It’ll be easy!”
The one advantage I had at this point is that I was an adult with a job and was earning a living. In other words, I’d become a man my father could respect, so he’s going to be a lot more receptive to my input than when I was a smartass lil’ kid.
So his first inclination was to make a large, rectangular wooden box (the body) attached via pipe (the neck) to a small, rectangular wooden box (the head).
“Yes,” I told him, “that’s the basic design, but I really want it to look like the robot on television.”
“Isn’t that what he looks like, pretty much? Two boxes?” I showed him some pictures. “Well, I guess I could build something that looks like this if you want to be fancy about it. My way would work just as well though.”
If I had brought this request to him at age five, I would have gotten the two rectangular boxes. But as I said, he respected my opinion as a fellow adult now; plus I could better articulate to him what I wanted and why I felt it was important. This (after a whole lot of work on his part) was the result:
Amazing, isn’t it? I’ll bet that before we got to these K-9 pictures, there were a lot of you out there thinking my Dad was too much of a ball-buster; that your Dad was better. Come on, admit—you know you were. Some of you, particularly those of you from more affluent backgrounds, might have even felt a bit sorry for me. But now? After seeing this masterpiece? Now you’re probably thinking, “damn, I wish my father could make me something like that!”
Money can buy a lot of things, but it can’t buy you a father who’s able and (more importantly) willing to make a robot dog with eyes that light up for you. It also can’t buy those early lessons I learned from him, which include:
- Understanding and appreciating both the value of a dollar and the value of hard work.
- The inherent merits of the principle of D.I.Y. (Do It Yourself). No doubt this is part of why punk and indie rock would have so much appeal for me later in life.
- An appreciation for the power of my own imagination, which could make a wooden box just as exciting as a much slicker looking toy in a TV commercial, if only I bothered to use it.
- The priceless value of a unique object made by my own father’s hands that I can treasure long after childhood.
Thanks again for all of it, Pop, and Happy Father’s Day.