And while I try not to sound like an old man I do happen to say “back when I was a kid” pretty often. A complaint or concern a lot of parents have about raising children currently is “screen time.”
Back when I was a kid there just wasn't too much stuff to watch on TV. Saturday morning cartoons only lasted a short while, and most of the sitcoms at the time had kind of a depressing
brown hue to them.
Not to mention that the inner workings of TV's
only lasted so long and took a lot of power, so screens weren't automatically turned on as constant background noise and left on at all hours.
Technological improvements and an absolute glut of pretty idiotic, garishly colored
“content” is now available to stream 24/7.
You know what I mean. Those sugary sweet dum-dum candy-coated shows where every character
is kind of shouting with the horrid “Disney lilt” that child actors are taught to accentuate by their acting coaches who's only qualification to teach is that they did a few local pageants and were part of some teen song and dance group that performed next to the swine barn at a county fair.
I really try not to sound like a [crabby] old man.
And sometimes I think there is hope.
Retro toys seemed like a neat thing.
The old “The Farmer Says” pull toy is back on shelves.
The Fisher Price toy record player is available again.
But are they?
Back in my day (sometimes I say that as well) you would pull the string on the See-N-Say and you could feel the tension of cogs and springs. Things were clunkily clicking into place, building and storing potential energy that was going to do something magical when you released that plastic ring from the tip of your finger. Sure, all that happened was a muffled voice and odd sound effect. (That turkey sound still sticks with me.)
But the real magic was in the feel of that thing. There was a little record player in there. And a needle that ran on that record. And a little plastic disc that worked as a speaker to produce the sound. And to make that work... is friggin magic. Try to place a needle on a record on the song you want to hear. First... try to find a record player. This plastic, cheap, mass-produced, and pretty indestructible toy did just that over and over and over. And you could totally “D.J.” on that thing. Slow the spinning arrow down, and the audiiiiooo slooooowwwwd doooooooowwwwn also.
The new See-N-Say is digital. It has a pull string for that old-time look. But it's really just a simple MP3 player stuck inside a slightly smaller version of our old favorite toy.
There's no magic. And the turkey sounds a bit too crisp. That record player toy? The old version had “music box guts” built into the arm that you set down on the plastic record disc full of bumps that played the various notes in that music box. You could rub your finger against the slightly sharp prongs of that music box and doink out strange wind-chiming music. You could watch the bumps of the record flick the prongs in the arm and hear the resulting tinny pings and pongs. The new version is... another disguised MP3 player with all the songs loaded into it. The records themselves have no information other than a little signal to tell the record player which track to play. The head of the record player arm does nothing. No scratchy music box guts to fiddle with. No feedback. No magic. No point. It might be those early toys along with the creepy jack-in-the-boxes and Rubik's Cubes that came later that constantly reinforced my love of the complicatedly mechanical. Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet (please don't confuse him with Lost In Space's robot who flails his slinky arms around in warning) was absolutely fascinating to me with his clicking and clacking innards visible through his dome head. Automobile transmissions, which (BACK IN MY DAY) were relatively common to find in various states of disassembly in oil-coated garages around the neighborhood, always looked like beautiful hungry monsters full of spinning teeth. Saxophones art fun to study.
Levers and buttons that could be pressed individually, while other levers and buttons twisted shafts that ran the length of the instrument while activating groups of other buttons and levers and valves.
Look at a saxophone and try to imagine how that overly complex system of finely machined brass evolved from a hollow, wooden tube with a few holes drilled in it.
Someone made the first one of those things.
And if it was to be made today?
It would be a MIDI controller triggering a collection of pre-designed tones.
I saw typewriters evolve into affordable home word processors and then nearly disappear completely as computers took over. And screens? Of course, they are crisper and more vivid. Of course, they use far less power, create far less heat, and last far longer – usually only “failing” to live up to the latest new technological advancement in super ultra-high resolution. But... no clunk clunk feel of that old faux chrome and wood grain dial – sometimes with a mini “transmission” built in to push or pull the knob to select UHF or VHF frequencies. No faint, ultra-high-pitch warm-up buzz that you could “feel” even when outside on a summer evening – like a beacon that Mom found something fun in the TV guide and probably has movie watching snacks at the ready.
No hint of ozone wafting through the family room.
So now that I'm old enough to say such old man things and miss the physical clatter of cleverly complicated devices, I've taken to memorializing them. They have little real purpose anymore. Typewriters are neat, but as many times as I've tried to write a play or story on one over the past 10 years, I realize that they are best for just sitting on a desk or shelf for decoration.
My father's old power drill. Sure it works perfectly with enough gumption to break your wrist if it binds up. And it has a great “feel.” It's basically a Flash Gordon ray gun. But it's heavy. It needs a cord. And it doesn't have any digital read-outs or built-in LED flashlights like my modern, ugly, plastic-feeling cordless impact driver.
Old 8 mm cameras. Brilliant works of art. I have several that are pre-battery and loaded with delicate clockwork to pull the film through spindles and work shutters and adjust focus. I was surprised to find the automatic photo-eye iris adjustment still working – again, without batteries or digital sensors. Not a “chip” to be found.
But most of the magic of these wonderfully complicated tools are hidden from view. So... I've been “exploding” them. Popular Mechanics and other magazines of that type used to have (BACK IN MY DAY) pretty amazing cutaway paintings of devices so that you could appreciate all the hidden gears and cogs and springs and worm drives and... magic.
I think these exploded devices, mounted like anatomical models on monofilament or thin metal wire, are pretty respectful display techniques for things that really helped define our lives. Every vintage typewriter has clacked through someone's great novel idea or series of love letters, or an important resume. Every old drill has been a part of some craftsman project, whether a simple birdhouse that hung outside the kitchen window or the repair of a Radio Flyer wagon wheel... or drilling thousands of ground screws into the backs of electrical boxes during a lifetime of a skilled journeyman. I enjoy the dissection of these devices.
Finding the factory grease still lubricating internal bearings. Discovering bits of eraser shavings built up beneath the alphabetical hammers of an old Smith Corona. That's where the magic is. Where the “feel” comes from. If you have an “outdated” device that deserves honorable display, I'd be happy to discuss a commission project.
Exploded and mounted devices can be built into their own tool boxes, wooden frames, metal structures, and can be illuminated or even set up to rotate manually or with motors. I'm also happy to discuss any tips or things I learned through these projects with anyone who may be inspired to create their own. Well, this got pretty long and rambly.
Like old men tend to be.