The Island of Misfired Toys
Naughty or nice, you didn’t want to wake up to these gifts on Christmas Day!
By Billy [Eye] Ingram
One of our family Christmas traditions was all of us showing off those predictably lousy presents from various older relatives, probably the most revolting being a used baby changing pad my sister-in-law was horrified to unwrap. On the other hand, there were gifts that young and old alike eagerly anticipated Santa would deliver. Careful what you wish for: More than a few turned out to be potentially catastrophic, lethal even.
Gilbert Chemistry Experiment Lab
Gilbert Chemistry Experiment Lab No. 12006. Photograph Courtesy of Science History Institute
I thought the Gilbert Chemistry Experiment Lab my older cousin received in 1965 was the coolest thing ever, most likely purchased from Charlie Plummer at Friendly Center’s Fleet-Plummer Hardware where they always stocked a gloriously lavish toy selection over the holidays. Even the illustrated metal box was boss looking, depicting two hearty boys, younger and older brothers one surmises, exploring a better life through chemistry. Inside that compact, clasped canister was a row of test tubes, scales and two walls of minute glass jars filled with powdery substances with exotic names like calcium oxide, cobalt chloride and sodium ferrocyanide, a less toxic cyanide — all together a dizzying array of potions and poisons. There was even sodium carbonate, basically Alka-Seltzer, for mother after she realizes the potential chemical weaponry her offspring might be scheming to unleash upon the neighborhood. Come to think about it, has anyone seen little Fluffy lately? That noxious apparatus was lots safer and saner than its predecessor. In 1950, parents would have ventured out to Harry and Faye Rimsky’s Tiny Town Toyland on South Elm to locate A.C. Gilbert Company’s U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, aka “The Most Dangerous Toy in History.” A mad scientist’s dream come true, it came with a Geiger counter; a spinthariscope for observing decaying atoms; a Cloud Chamber assembly; alpha, beta and gamma sources of radiation in addition to four vials of actual radioactive uranium ore; plus an instruction booklet where Mandrake the Magician explains how science works. All the contaminates and gaseous emissions a glowing boy needs to make the family home go poof!
Sold at Sears on Eugene Street in the late-1960s, Jarts was a set of 1½ foot tall, aerodynamic, metal, pointy darts, the kind you would throw in a bar, only many, many times larger. When I was about 12 years old, the jolly one brought us a box of these lawn darts. Did we javelin those heavy, spiked missiles at each other threateningly or use them as weapons against neighborhood kids? Of course we did. Judge if you must, but dodging lawn darts made us more resilient to life’s slings and arrows.
One of the most dangerous devices ever to hit the toy market, Clackers were made right here in Greensboro in a small factory on Smyres Place in the early-1970s. An immediate sensation, the inevitable risk of injury was just one of the reasons they flew off the shelves. Clackers consisted of two dense, colorful acrylic balls connected by a small rope on a stick, allowing kids to “clack” them together by moving their hand up and down vigorously and with precision. The idea was to slap those globes together above and below your hand, making the loudest possible noise. When you eventually missed, those rock-hard balls rocketed into your wrist and knuckles, resulting in bruised and occasionally cracked bones. Ironically, the better you were at this rhythmic hand jive, the more dangerous it became. Wear and tear on those synthetic globes caused clackers to crack, sending shards flying in all directions, leading to a marring little Christmas for more than a few youngsters.
1972 Ford Pinto
Can you imagine anything more exciting than a brand new car in the driveway, wrapped in a pretty red bow, making it a December to Remember? Not if the year was 1972 and the automobile was a Ford Pinto, known for bursting into flames whenever they were rear ended. Twenty-seven drivers were roasted alive and numerous others seriously injured any time the gas tank was struck. Pintos built in Canada had an inexpensive part attached to the gas tank that prevented this very problem. It’s a mystery why the automaker didn’t similarly upgrade its American-built models. A friend of our family owned a ’72 Pinto, purchased from Bob Dunn Ford on Murrow Boulevard, that was plowed into from behind but he somehow spared a fiery demise. He happened to be pulling out of the gas station after a fill-up so there was no oxygen in the tank to allow for combustion.
Mr. Coffee Machine
Also in 1972, TV commercials starring Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio introduced America to the Mr. Coffee Machine, a tremendous leap forward for brewing java at home. An electronic marvel of glass and plastic replaced the simplistic percolators folks had used since the days of old. But with progress came growing pains, and by growing pains we’re talking family homes going up in flames. In the 1970s and ’80s, there were major Mr. Coffee recalls due to the devices being a fire hazard. As late as a decade ago, Mr. Coffee was again recalled for spewing hot grounds and scalding water on users. Even today, coffeemakers in general are considered one of the most dangerous kitchen appliances. Yet another reason Starbucks is a multibillion dollar business.
Thanks to Warren’s Toyland at Lawndale Shopping Center in 1968, our neighbor, Toot King, discovered an Easy-Bake Oven under the tree, 5 years after the toy debuted. Given the technology of the time, it seemed a pretty safe operation. Two 100-watt bulbs cooked itty-bitty cakes. The biggest drawback was that the itty-bitty mixes cost as much as the real thing. In 2006, a new Easy-Bake Oven design was introduced that made January headlines with kids getting their itty-bitty fingers and hands trapped inside the baking chamber, leading to dozens of second and third degree burns.
In 2007, Toys “R” Us on High Point Road sold Aqua Dots, candy-colored beads that could be arranged in any pattern and, when wet, fused together to create a necklace or a bracelet. They were swallowable and laced with gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB), aka the “date rape drug.” One shudders to think how many parents reading this now are thinking, “You mean I could be sedating my overexcited brats on Christmas Day and they took that of the market?!?”
A gift you do want this season (no joke): As I write this, local singer-songwriter Caleb Caudle is No. 1 on the Alternative Country Specialty Music chart with his album, Forsythia, that he describes as “somewhere where gospel, folk, country, blues, all that stuff lives together.” Rolling Stone raves about Forsythia saying, “There’s something very comforting about listening to it, but not in a cheap or obvious way. It’s more hard-won.” It’s an exquisitely produced album that resonates. I didn’t grow up listening to music like this, yet Caudle’s melodies sound like home. Available on the usual music platforms such as Spotify and Amazon. OH
Billy Ingram is O.G. — Original Greensboro. His latest book, EYE on GSO, is a collection of stories (mostly) about Greensboro originally published in O.Henry and other publications. A great gift idea, available where books are sold and on Amazon.