Gumby and Pokey

Circa 1968, there probably wasn’t an American Boomer kid alive who hadn’t heard of Gumby and Pokey. However, a surprisingly large percentage of them knew them only as toys. There were over 200 TV episodes of Gumby and Pokey produced, yet their distribution via syndication was not nearly as encompassing as Leave It to Beaver, Sea Hunt, or the Donna Reed Show. Those canceled TV series were familiar afternoon fare for schoolkids all over the nation. But Gumby and Pokey didn’t become widely seen on television until the Nickelodeon Network started showing their episodes in the late 80’s.

Gumby was created by animator Art Clokey. In 1955, he created a claymation answer to Walt Disney’s Fantasia called Gumbasia.

The short was a big hit, and Clokey was invited to create a series that would be featured on Howdy Doody. Gumby made his debut on the show in 1956, Pokey and the pesky blockheads showed up shortly afterward.

They were such a hit that NBC granted the clay characters their own series beginning in 1957. That series lasted a mere single season, but Gumby and friends weren’t done with television.

Gliding Gumby

The show went into syndication, but much less widely distributed as the previously mentioned series. Yet it proved a steady performer, profitable enough that new episodes were added in 1962. A few new episodes would be produced each year until 1967. The syndication continued, but the show was effectively gone by the 70’s.

However, with the debut of Nickelodeon, demand for reasonably priced syndicated series that would appeal to both kids and nostalgic adults brought Gumby and his pals back to the small screen. In fact, new episodes were produced that introduced new characters.

Besides Gumby, Pokey, and the blockheads, there were his parents, Gumbo and Gumba; the yellow dinosaur Prickle; Gumby’s dog Nopey; Goo, the flying mermaid; Minga, Gumby’s sister; Tilly the chicken; and Denali the mastodon. Surreal, fun stuff.

But kids like me, who missed out on the TV series, still had the Gumby and Pokey toys to play with. And play with them we did, even though we knew nothing of their television presence. The toys were cool enough, and responsive enough to a kid’s imagination, that seeing them portrayed on the idiot box was not necessary for a kid to greatly enjoy playing with them.

Clokey, who also handled the much-more-marketed Davey and Goliath, launched the careers of many who would one day be giants in the animation business. Claymation, invented so long ago, continues to be a cutting-edge animation technique.

One last bit of trivia: Gumby’s favorite mode of transportation, gliding around on one foot, was devised by Clokey to keep from painstakingly creating a walking stride, many, many hours of work in the world of claymation. Indeed, the wheeled sneakers commonly seen today on kids’ feet may be a byproduct of an animator’s shortcut.


Wishniks were all the rage in the 60’s. They were available in all sorts of sizes, from plastic dolls nearly a foot tall to mini-wishniks that fit inside a plastic container that was dispensed by vending machines that took quarters. They were utterly worthless and totally irresistible.

Supposedly, they brought good luck. Whatever. I just know that I used to have a few of them sitting on various shelves in my bedroom. I don’t recall my fortunes as being particularly provident.

The troll doll was first produced by a danish woodcutter named Thomas Dam the same year I was born, 1959. Genuine Dam trolls from the period are quite valuable.

It wasn’t long before cheap knockoffs appeared, the most prolific of which was the Wishnik.

Even wishniks found themselves cloned, by toymaker Mattel.

One of the Thingmaker series of toys was Creeple People, which let kids make trolls that fit on the end of a pencil out of Plastigoop. Hey, you could tell they were just Wishniks with orifices that allowed a pencil to be, ahem, inserted.

Trolls never really died out. They have had various comebacks over the years. But the early-to-mid 60’s was the time when the Wishniks ruled the toy stores.

Wham-O SuperBalls

Wham-O Toys were a big deal in the 60’s. One of their products came out in 1965, a big year for toys. It was a ball made of highly compressed rubber. That gave it amazing bouncing ability. In fact, as the ad said, you could bounce it over a house!

And I did, too. Once I convinced my parents to shell out the 98 cents necessary for its purchase, the first thing I did was bounce it over the house. What a rush!

The SuperBall traces its origin to a California chemist named Norman Stingley. He compressed rubber under 3500 lbs. of pressure to create a sphere that bounced like no ball had ever bounced before. Realizing its potential as a craze, he offered it to his employer, the Bettis Rubber Company of Whittier. The rubber was not quite ready for prime time (it would fall apart within minutes of play), and they declined any interest in it.

Enter Wham-O.

Wham-O worked with Stingley to create a more durable rubber. By mid 1965, the SuperBall was released, along with an avalanche of TV commercials. Wham-O scored yet another instant hit, and more than seven million SuperBalls were sold by year’s end.

The ball, besides having tremendous bouncing power, also has a mighty grab. You could drop it on a hard floor with some english and it would hop back and forth, reversing its direction each time. We also threw them back and forth the length of a city block.

Like many toy crazes, the mighty rush to buy them soon died down, but the toy itself survives to this day. Wham-O still cranks out SuperBalls, as do many imitators. But in the mid 1960’s, the entire country was caught up in SuperBall fever.

By the way, as I penned this article, a 1965 SuperBall in its original packaging was up to $31.00 with three days left on its eBay auction. So if you have an original, put it in a safe place!

Using Your Imagination to Create Toys

Kids have great imaginations. And some of us lucky ones keep it throughout our whole lives. I know I couldn’t crank out six new memories a week without lots of imagination!

But the cost of toys has dropped, and their quantity has grown in the average home compared to the 60’s. And I fear that kids today no longer feel motivated to devise their own toys out of mundane objects.

I remember being entertained for hours by throwing my hand-made parachute up in the air and watching it float back to earth. All it took was a handkerchief out of dad’s drawer, a rock, and some string. Oh, and also some imagination.

The paper airplane is another example. By the time I was twelve years old, I could make a half-dozen different styles of paper airplanes. I’m not sure today’s average twelve-year-old could duplicate that feat.

It was pretty cool taking a sheet of paper and skillfully transforming it into a flying machine. I learned how to make a flat airplane that would take great swoops up and down as it made its way to earth after a good hard throw. My friends and myself would sometimes just make a mess of paper airplanes and head out to the yard and toss them for hours.

Pipe cleaner toys

Pipe cleaners were another source of entertainment. I’m not sure anyone ever actually cleaned pipes with them, but mom would sometimes purchase a pack of them at Woolworth’s and thereby provide me with more hours of entertainment creating strange looking creatures out of the wiry, bendable stuff.

You could also create toys out of scrap lumber. I remember building some pretty impressive structures just by stacking short pieces of 2×4’s and 2/6’s. There was a cabinet shop in the neighborhood whose trash cans were frequently raided by kids looking for pieces of wood that would be transformed into houses, skyscrapers, and other miniature engineering projects.

Empty thread spools were also a blast to play with. You could stack them as high as possible without tumbling down. You could use them as mines or bombs for your G.I. Joe to avoid. You could set them up to make an obstacle course for your Tonka cars to drive through.

I could go on and on, but I think there may be a second column’s worth of making toys out of non-toys.

In the meantime, do your grandkids a favor. Teach them how to make a handkerchief parachute.

The Toys in the World of Plants

Maple seed helicopter

Every previous generation had it tougher when they were kids. My own children grew up in a world of Nintendo, VCR-recorded cartoons and movies, and light-up-sneakers. My world was playing outside all day long, black-and-white TV, and PF Flyers. Our parents, of course, grew up during the Great Depression. Food was much more on the minds of many of them rather than play.

But we Boomer kids enjoyed the privileged days of play that our parents never enjoyed. Instead of spending long hours working in the field, as did my father, we spent long hours pursuing imaginative new forms of play.

After all, asking for toys meant hearing about those long hours working in the field all over again. So we learned to keep our requests for toys at a strategic, effective minimum, and to make toys out of things at hand. Many times, these things were provided us by various members of the plant world.

For example, springtime meant natural helicopters! Our neighborhood had lots of those nasty silver maples that nowadays I view as brittle-branched, too-fast-growing giant starling nests. But when I was a kid, all I knew about silver maples was that they would deliver a bumper crop of miniature helicopters every May.

You would throw a maple seed like a dart as high as you could, then watch it come spinning earthward like the Hueys that we saw a half a world away every night on the news.

Sure, you would get tired of it after a while, but an hour or so later you would spot another maple seed lying on the ground and the fun would start all over again.

Our yard was kept neatly mown, but it was by no means ever in golf course condition. Witness the thousands of dandelions that would spring up all over our corner lot.

After a couple of days of blooming yellow, the flower would magically transform itself into a little sphere completely covered with miniature parachutes. Picking dandelions and blowing the seeds all over the place was an activity completely irresistible to a seven-year-old. Any neighbors who were striving for the golf course look with their yards would have harrumphed their displeasure, but we kids didn’t notice if they did. We were too busy launching planeloads of paratroopers over Germany.

Grass whistle

That reminds me of an interesting little fact about playing army. We NEVER acted like we were in Vietnam. Young men in our neighborhoods were actually dying over there, there was nothing light-hearted about that. No, we picked a nice harmless vanquished enemy, those pesky Germans.

But play with plants wasn’t only a boy’s activity. Girls figured out how to have fun with them too. At Nichols School in Miami, Oklahoma, many early fall and late spring recesses were spent by the girls making clover necklaces.

They would take a clover flower with a stem at least a couple of inches long and use a fingernail to cut a small slit in the stem end away from the flower. they would then take another clover flower, thread the bare stem through the slit until the flower head stopped it, then repeat the procedure. Eventually, they would create a beautiful necklace or tiara made from nothing but clover flowers.

A boy who was sweet on one particular member of the female gender might just find himself wearing a clover necklace created by the object of his affections, at least until he started playing another round of army.

So the next time your twenty-year-old last-kid-still-living-at-home asks for a loan to obtain a new set of headphones for his iPod, tell him about how you used to entertain yourself with maple-seed helicopters.

Sure, you’ll get eyerolls, but the ultimate effect is fewer loan requests.

Tonka Toys

Many of us Boomer kids had toys that were only obtainable locally, or perhaps handmade ones that were absolutely unique. And some toys appeared too late for our more senior members to enjoy. But I would be willing to venture a guess that any American Boomer boy in the United States either owned Tonka toys, or at least played with them at friends’ homes.

It is difficult to imagine a toy that was more appealing to its intended customers. Kids love cars, trucks, and construction equipment. And they particularly love durable, big, colorful models of them. So to no one’s surprise, Tonka toys are one of the biggest sellers in history.

And they showed up just in time to entrance the Baby Boomer generation. Our back yards would never be the same. Somewhere, we created a construction area where we could grade roads, haul dirt, and drive our trucks.

When I first launched I Remember JFK, I wrote a short article about how much I adored the Tonka bulldozer. But, like all of my buddies, I loved all of them.

Tonka tow truck, in typical condition after being passed down a few siblings

Tonka got its start on September 19th, 1946 when Mound Metalcraft was created in Mound, Minnesota. Their intent was to produce garden tools. However, the building that they obtained had a former inhabitant who had tried and failed to make miniature metal toy vehicles. The partners thought such a sideline might produce a little extra income, so they reworked the tooling a bit and started making Tonka toys, from a Dakota-Sioux word meaning “big.” They started selling them a year after founding the company.

That first year, their initial offerings, a steam shovel and a crane, sold 37,000 units.

With sales like that, who needs to be making hoes and shovels? So the company began ramping up Tonka production, creating many new designs. In 1955, Mound Metalcraft changed their name to Tonka Toys Inc.

Parents, particularly those with more than one child, loved Tonka toys as well. They were made to last forever. That meant you could buy one for your firstborn, and it could be passed down from sibling to sibling. There were certainly cheaper plastic alternatives to Tonkas, but there was no better long-term investment.

An immaculate 1950’s fire engine and box, what a thrill for a kid to be handed one of these

Tonkas taught us a lot. For one, they showed us that someday we would be agonizing about that first scratch on our new car.

Many of us were given Tonkas obtained at yard sales, or perhaps we were the younger brothers who received hand-me-downs. But some of us were fortunate enough to get mint models straight from the store. When we opened the box, we were greeted by a metal machine with gleaming paint, in many cases yellow. But sooner or later, it would get its first ding. And that would hurt.

But soon we would forget about it, and our road grader or tow truck would obtain in short order many more scratches, dings, and chinks. They were badges of honor.

A shady area under a big tree would frequently have sparse grass coverage, and would be summarily transformed into the aforementioned construction area. I spent many, many happy summer hours digging under our big elm tree. I’m pretty sure my older brothers had their own projects there as well.

What was cool about Tonkas is that they were scaled the same, so if you had, say, a car hauling rig, you could load it with your other Tonkas. And as other children got older, your collection was continually being increased as you got them handed down to you from other relatives or friends of your parents.

Many of us still have a Tonka or two around. I held onto a semi-truck that my boy played with, intending to restore it someday. But even if I don’t, I’ll put in a yard sale so some lucky kid will have it brought home by a parent who knows a good investment when they see it.

Tonka Bulldozer

A well-worn, well loved Tonka bulldozer

We all grew up with Tonka toys (and Structos) in the sandbox or the bare dirt part of the yard. But the ultimate for me was the bulldozer.

Tonkas were amazingly durable toys that weren’t cheap to buy, but that was all right. You usually inherited a few from your older brothers or cousins. Mom and Dad might make a special gift of a new one that would quickly assume the same battle-worn appearance of the veteran pieces.

I built hundreds of mini-miles of roads with my Tonkas, and my bulldozer was the star of the fleet. I could quickly demolish massive hills of dry humus beneath our tall elm tree in the front yard. There was just something about those mega-cool rubber treads and the patterns they would leave in the dirt.

My Tonkas were long ago sold at yard sales, but maybe someday I’ll start rebuilding my old collection.


As I recall my childhood, I can remember that there were some toys that were owned by just a few of us. These were generally at the higher end of the price scale. For instance, I was the only one in the neighborhood to be the extremely proud owner of the James Bond Attache Case. My best friend had the only G.I. Joe Space Capsule. But some toys were universal. Take green army men, for instance. Or Hot Wheels cars. And, of course, the subject of today’s article: Tinkertoys!

One of the most familiar and delightful sounds we were all familiar with was the sound of those Tinkertoys hitting the metallic bottom of that cylindrical cardboard container when we were finished building whatever construction projects were slated for that after-school session with our friends. It’s a sound I haven’t actually heard since childhood, yet it’s still fresh in my memory banks.

Tinkertoys, like Lincoln Logs, was a Baby Boomer plaything that was actually created long before our births. Tinkertoys, according to the Great Idea Finder,

“were the invention of Charles Pajeau, a stonemason from Evanston, Illinois who established The Toy Tinkers company. Inspired by watching children play with pencils, sticks and empty spools of thread, Pajeau developed several basic wooden parts which children could assemble in a variety of three dimensional abstract ways. He designed his first set in his garage, and with high hopes, displayed the toy at the 1914 American Toy Fair. But nobody was interested. He tried his marketing skills again at Christmas time. He hired several midgets, dressed them in elf costumes, and had them play with “Tinker Toys” in a display window at a Chicago department store. This publicity stunt made all the difference in the world. A year later, over a million sets had been sold.”

Tinkertoys plans were as engrossing as the toys themselves!

They have obviously delighted untold generations of children since their introduction. Yet, if your parents were children of the Depression, they probably never had them. However, they made sure WE did!

Tinkertoys were often passed down from generation to generation. They wore very well. The first thing to go would be the plastic fan blades. The next thing to break would be the split ends of the long sticks. The round pieces would last forever.

I remember playing with a hand-me-down set when very young, then being presented with a set just like the illustrated one during a holiday. It was with that new set that I discovered something new car buyers also appreciate: the wonderful aroma of the brand new product. It was a delicious smell of wood, paint, and just all-around newness.

You could freelance your own creations, or you could build the illustrated ones in the manual that came with the set. Most of the kids I knew still had those manuals with their sets, it was easy to tuck into the can when you were finished. Of course, it would also age rapidly, soon developing tears and such.

The ultimate Tinkertoy creation was the Ferris wheel, and I constructed dozens of them. It would turn, just like a real one, and would even give rides to those aforementioned green army men.

I have no idea how many architects were inspired to pursue their careers by Tinkertoy sets, but I’ll bet it’s a significant number. As the sets are still being produced, that’s a number that is no doubt increasing daily.

I went a different direction myself, careerwise, but still have fond memories of constructing bridges, vehicles, and, of course, Ferris wheels long ago.

The Texaco Fire Truck

As this column began to come together in my head, it was a result of the simultaneous collusion of the time of year (lots of Christmas commercials on the tube), my suspicious eying of low gas prices (I doubt that it will last), and a jingle that has been bouncing around in my cranium since 1965 or so (“You can trust your car to the man who wears the star, the big bright Texaco star!”).

The end result is today’s piece on the Holy Grail of childhood possessions, one that only a few of us were privileged to own (myself not among the elite): the Texaco Fire Truck.

Sadly, there is practically nothing on the web about the history of the greatest gas station promotion ever. But what I did find, I hereby share with you, along with my own personal remembrances of the amazingly wonderful Texaco fire truck.

The fire truck, to the best of my knowledge, could only be obtained at Texaco gas stations. I located an ad for the Texaco tanker, another wonderful promotional toy that I was too young to remember, which stated that you needed to buy eight gallons of gas and fork over $3.98 to get one. I assume that the fire truck, issued in 1964, had the same requirements.

The fact is that $3.98 was a TREMENDOUS amount of money back then. That was a full tank of gas. Not many of our fathers would trivially spring for that sized chunk of change for yet another toy for the ever-begging kid.

Ergo, I never had one. But that didn’t stop me from dreaming about them.

There were commercials on during the time showing what the truck would do. Sadly again, I was unable to find any on Youtube. So my memory banks will have to supply the spotty details.

The truck, first of all, was HUGE. It looked like it was four feet long (even though it wasn’t, of course). It had flashing lights, or maybe there were just flashing lights on the commercial. The eBay-listed models I found didn’t seem to have places for batteries.

But what made the Texaco fire truck magical was its ability to spray REAL WATER.

Seriously, you’re a kid who loves fire trucks (redundant statement, after all ALL kids do), and here, presented in glorious black and white, was a commercial for this absolutely bonzer big truck that could actually spray water!

I’m getting excited all over again just writing about it.

So dear in price was the Texaco fire truck that I don’t recall any of the neighborhood gang having one, either. But those commercials would be broadcast over and over, and we would all dream.

The company which produced the trucks was called Wen-Mac. They made miniature toys before AMF purchased them in 1959. They continued to exist for a while as a separate brand, but soon faded from sight. The outfit is so obscure that there is no Wikipedia article on them.

Wen-Mac also produced the oil tanker mentioned earlier.

The trucks were durable, as they had to be. After all, a father who did spring for the heady price wanted a toy that would last years, to be handed down to younger siblings.

They were. Many trucks still exist today, according to eBay listings, albeit in “parts only” condition. That is possibly the ultimate compliment to the Texaco fire truck.

You see, when playthings would have plastic parts snapped off, or possibly an axle would have a wheel come loose and summarily disappear, the toy would generally be tossed in the trash. But forty-four-year-old pieces and parts of Texaco fire trucks can still be freely had. Indeed, some listed for sale have been cobbled back into semi-working order by imaginative former owners who “frankensteined” parts from Tonkas or the like in order to produce a model that still was more or less capable of putting out imaginary fires.

So let’s all pay homage to the 1964 Texaco fire truck, a vivid memory for Boomer kids. My plastic helmet is off to you.

The James Bond Attache Case

The year was 1965. I was six years old. The James Bond Attache Case was considered the holy grail of toys. It was heavily advertised, and millions of kids all over the US were relentlessly nagging their parents to pony up ten bucks for this utterly magnificent collection of spy stuff.

My nagging paid off. I received one that year. I was the king of the block.

The attache case came loaded with gear that transformed you into a spy to rival Mr. Bond himself. There was a Luger pistol with a silencer. It shot real rubber bullets, as I recall. There was also a knife that transformed into a gun. Other items included a wallet with cash, a passport, business cards, a decoder, a holster for the gun, and the case, which was amazing in itself.

You could booby-trap the locks so that caps would go off if an intruder tried to break in. Also, the gun lined up with a hole in the side, allowing you to shoot it by pressing a button from the closed case!

I had lots of cool toys, but I don’t remember any that were more exciting for a six-year-old kid. It took forever just to get all of the components out of the case!

In researching this piece, I have found that this is a very treasured collectible. Mint sets go for thousands of dollars! Imagine putting about ten of these away in 1965. Even partial sets go for hundreds.

I count myself very fortunate that my parents sprang for the steep price and got me one of these. I have no idea where it is now, but I hope at least part of it survived to be in someone’s collection.