Saturday Mornings, Then And Now
I’ve fallen into a definite routine since the warm weather arrived. The rest of the year, it’s anyone’s guess when I’ll be up…I’ve always had insomnia to deal with to one degree or another, but since multiple sclerosis sank its claws into me it’s gotten much stronger, and much more random. I might wake up at 5 AM one day, be up for 20 or more hours at a time, and find myself getting up in the late afternoon a few days later.
Since late April, even though the weird sleep patterns are always there, my body seems to have learned to arrange things so I return to getting up in the evenings. I’m usually up till 3-4 AM when I grab a nap, then get up at 6 to go out if the weather’s decent, armed with one of my micro radio control airplanes to do some aviating.
These miniscule aircraft are an absolute godsend for me since their compact size makes them easy to transport in my power chair to the largish parking lot of a bowling alley that serves as my aerodrome about a mile away. They’re a very recent addition to the hobby, becoming available as everyday retail items only a couple of years ago. Talk about good timing, huh?
When I was a kid in the ’70s we’d have just about killed to get our hands on something like these aircraft. We built model airplanes to be sure, but they were simple rubber powered free flight planes…the thought of being able to really fly these tiny machines, to go hundreds of feet in the air, cavort in the sky under full control and return safely to earth was pure fantasy at that point.
We had no idea that the marvelous ships we dreamed of would not only exist but become commonplace realities one day; had we known, I suspect a piece of our present time would have lost some of its color and appeal with the knowing we’d have to wait so many years for those dreams to be realized.
I was reflecting upon this as I motored over to my site at daybreak this past Saturday. I’ve always loved Saturday mornings, especially when the weather was fair. There’s something special about a Saturday, an indefinable sense of promise of fun things happening and good times just waiting to be had.
This is a universal phenomenon that’s grabbed kids…and adults with at least a scrap of the kid they’d been left in them…for a long, long time. I can’t tell you how far back the lure of a Saturday has been ingrained in people, but you can find examples going back for hundreds of years if you look.
Mark Twain captured the spirit of the day masterfully in his book Tom Sawyer. I hope you’ve read it before, but if not you owe it to yourself to do so. Tom Sawyer more than deserves its status as a classic in my opinion, and never loses its charm no matter if it’s your first or hundredth time reading it. From the opening of Chapter II, he paints us a scene of the fictional town of St. Petersburg, Tom’s home:
Saturday morning was come, and all the summer world was bright and fresh, and brimming with life. There was a song in every heart; and if the heart was young the music issued at the lips. There was cheer in every face and a spring in every step. The locust-trees were in bloom and the fragrance of the blossoms filled the air. Cardiff Hill, beyond the village and above it, was green with vegetation and it lay just far enough away to seem a Delectable Land, dreamy, reposeful, and inviting.
Man alive, I can relate.
In my own case, kidhood was in the early 1970s. Video games were still a long way off. So were computers for that matter, but kids fooled with their radios, portable phonographs, and if they were among the enviably anointed, a real stereo in exactly the same way they obsess today over their computers, cell phones and PS3s. Obviously nothing has fundamentally changed from one period to another, kind of a comforting thought in some ways.
I rarely watch television these days, but I sure did then. Saturday mornings particularly, if you were lucky and your timing was right, could be a fine time to find really good material on TV.
While the other kids were watching mediocre drek on the major networks, you could find neat stuff to see on the second tier broadcasters like New York’s WPIX, channel 11 or WNEW, channel 5. Old Hal Roach Little Rascals and Our Gang shorts, ancient (to us) Warner Brothers, Fleischer, and TerryToons cartoons, and kids’ shows that were really kids’ shows like Captain Kangaroo and Wonderama rather than glitzy, long animated ads for marketing junk toys you see today. I became a fan of Betty Boop, Popeye, Mighty Mouse and the other icons of classic animation thanks to the willingness of these stations to air them.
Apart from running great late night old movies on both channels, I was especially fond of WPIX for featuring the great Chiller Theater on the weekends, showing cool old horror flicks for our delectation. I ask you: how could any self-respecting kid not love Chiller’s marvelous Claymation intro with the six-fingered hand emerging from a pool of blood to pluck the letters spelling out the show’s name one by one before slowly descending back into the grisly mire, awaiting its time until next week when its time came to rise again???
On Saturday mornings a kid could get fired up with Junior Scientist/Young Adventurer fervor watching reruns of the original Jonny Quest cartoons from the mid ’60s.
This show had one of the coolest theme songs ever…and I’m not the only one that thinks so. Not too long ago a nifty album was released featuring modern artists doing covers of a bunch of theme songs from shows that were on at this time, and my personal favorite is the Reverend Horton Heat’s take on the Jonny Quest theme:
Jonny Quest remains one of my very favorites to this day. The bad guys were often fairly silly rather than menacing and there was a constant annoying undertone reminding us that The Government Is Our Bestest Pal, which time has shown to be a bunch of codswallop.
Who cares? In Jonny Quest the characters themselves were the ones that got things done…they didn’t need super powers or gimmicks, they were just individuals who solved their problems by being smart and resourceful. I have to note that this quality is something that’s conspicuously absent in today’s world with its collectivism, groupthink and political correctness, a sad commentary on the state we’ve reached.
The show sure wasn’t shy about depicting violence; in Jonny’s world, the bad guys might be silly, but they had guns, and when they started shooting, Benton Quest and Race Bannon would grab their own guns without apology and without feeling the need to deliver a lecture about how guns are actually very naughty and only the Proper Authorities should have them. The bad guys often died in these cartoons, too, usually with a loud scream of AIEEEEEE! as they were hit by a flying speedboat or crushed by falling rubble. The artists who created this cartoon made it abundantly clear that death was final.
The message was unsophisticated but crystal clear: if you attack people like the heroes in the show with lethal force, they aren’t going to scatter and hide like frightened bunnies, they’re going to defend themselves with whatever level of force is needed to make you quit it, and if that means your secret laboratory comes down on your head and squishes you in the process, too bad…you started it.
Getting back to the meat of the matter, there were the toys…those wonderful toys, to echo The Joker from the Tim Burton Batman movie. Saturday mornings were a great time to enjoy these…school was out, so you were usually mercifully free for a while of finger-wagging authority figures and assorted busybodies and nannies, with their lectures and platitudes.
There wasn’t some tiresome lesson to go along with your playthings, you just enjoyed them for their own sake. Sure, then as now there was lots of useless junk, but we kids knew the difference. And we knew what to ask for on birthdays and holidays.
The perennial favorites for me always seemed to be made by Mattel. You might get busy turning out bugs, monsters or assorted uglies with your Mattel Thingmaker, baking the liquid Plastigoop into solid, slightly rubbery creations in metal molds using the sinister looking (and smelling) Thingmaker heating device that got blisteringly hot…literally. If you were stupid and/or careless you got a nasty burn for your trouble, and so learned at an early age not to be stupid or careless.
Nowadays, of course, such a device would never come close to passing muster. It and its contemporaries were given the bum’s rush long ago, sacrificed on the altar of the new religion of the quest for perfect safety. Anything that might burn, cut, or cause harm if swallowed has been hustled off into oblivion, replaced by things with soft or round edges, things that could never hurt a child, no matter how badly mishandled.
Therein lies the real tragedy here: by shielding kids from the unpleasant consequences of a minor burn or scratch from their toys, they never learn the valuable life lesson that being stupid and careless can have (surprise!) unpleasant consequences. All too often they grow up into stupid and careless adults who often experience this lesson far too late, when they start messing with adults’ toys that can maim or kill not only themselves, but other people who get in the way.
Sorry to be blunt, but Rainbow Brite, her dimwitted Care Bear cousins, and the rest of the bumbling, ineffectual crowd of popular ‘characters’ representing toys that were thought up by soulless focus groups and committees, whose highest priority wasn’t making things kids would really enjoy, but making a quick buck while shielding their butts from all possible liability can all go straight to Hell.
I want my Thingmaker back.
A fledgling aviator from a very early age, I already had a history of thirsting for anything new and novel that had to do with airplanes. At the age of five or so in the mid 1960s,I remember clearly being thrilled to bits when a cereal company’s promotional toy arrived in the mail in the form of an airplane.
It was a red plastic Cessna 150 that had an electric motor and went round and round from a string suspending it. It didn’t light up or do anything fancier than go around on that string, but I loved it.
And yes, box tops were involved.
The Cessna was made of a crude species of 1960s plastic that couldn’t hold a candle to modern engineering plastics, but was actually not at all a bad representation of a 150…coincidentally the same type of full size aircraft I first flew ten years later!
Early impressions are the strongest ones, I’m sure. That first model was a harbinger of things to come, and was the start of a lifelong love of small flying machines.
A few years later when the 70s were getting into swing, good old Mattel came through with their Vertibird helicopter. I don’t recall when I first became aware of it, but it was just the sort of gizmo that could threaten to make a kid like me spill his bowl of Frankenberry in excitement.
I wasn’t much of a helicopter guy, but the Vertibird was exceptionally cool and I determined to acquire one. I don’t recall whether it took Christmas or a birthday to provide a suitable occasion to justify receiving one, but I eventually got one for my own.
Like my first little Cessna, the Vertibird basically went around in circles, but it was capable of a lot more action while doing so.
The helicopter itself was just a skeletonized plastic frame supporting a semi rigid arm that powered its rotor from a motor in its base and transmitted commands from a control unit to tilt it fore and aft to fly forwards or backwards as well as varying the power to go up or down. Of simple construction, it was brilliant in action, bringing an unheard of level of control to motorized toys.
You didn’t have to pretend to carefully maneuver your rescue helicopter to snag poor stranded people with the machine’s handy grappling hook and whisk them to safety back at the landing pad, you actually did it.
Of course, this taught another important life lesson: the difference between pretending to perform a task, where of course everything always worked just as planned, and having to do it for real, which required patience and finesse if you wanted to succeed. Those little people were hard to pick up…it took careful jockeying and power management to snag one, even though they were helpfully provided with oversize rings held over their heads!
I spent many happy hours on many Saturday mornings zooming around at speed in my helicopter or rescuing those poor hapless people over and again. I missed or dropped them many more times than I was able to pick them up and deposit them safely back at home base, but I learned a lot about the need to spend the time developing the skills required to do the job. Instant gratification? Never heard of it.
The ne plus ultra of toys came out around this time as well, again courtesy of our old friend Mattel.
The Mattel SuperStar was revolutionary in many respects, a free flight airplane with a geared electric motor for a powerplant, powered by small nickel cadmium batteries that could be recharged by simply plugging the included charging unit into a jack in the fuselage. This was the direct precursor to today’s free flight and radio controlled airplanes, and incorporated a lightweight molded foam wing and tail surfaces, mounted to a similarly lightweight fuselage of thin. flexible plastic. It was ready to fly, without any real assembly, right out of the box.
Since tiny micro radio control systems were still decades away and obviously unavailable, Mattel designers did the next best thing. Using a clever mechanism driven by the propeller shaft, a rotating cam could be snapped onto the underside of the plane that would allow a lever connected to the rudder move in and out of the cutouts in the cam, thereby making the plane fly a programmed pattern. As I recall, you also got a couple of uncut blank cams in the box so you could make your own flight programs!
Note done yet, the Mattel engineers went a step further, adding light sprung steel arms, also activated by the cam, that could release little skydivers with thin plastic parachutes in flight.
You don’t often see that kind of thoughtful engineering these days and I truly miss that kind of inspired innovation.
There were too many other fabulous things from those days to list, but I think I made my point…by making toys like I’ve talked about available to the kids of my time, Mattel and other manufacturers laid a solid foundation for us not only to play well, but to learn valuable lessons about the way things really work in the world.
This kind of thinking seems to have taken a back seat to slick marketing, hype, and making a quick buck in recent times…in short, there’s a whole lot more sizzle and a whole lot less steak around today.
The good news is that very thinking is alive and well, at least in my hobbies, even today. The new paradigm fascinates me: though the machines I enjoy may be constructed from inexpensive Chinese components, you can’t miss the signs of American and European ingenuity that put everything together.
Today I’m flying my Parkzone Ultra Micro T-28 Trojan. It is indeed tiny, spanning just under 17 inches and weighing a mere 1.3 ounces, but don’t be fooled by its size, this airplane is capable of almost every flight maneuver the prototype can do.
Though the landing gear is fixed, its low drag assures that it barely detracts from flight performance, but its soft foam wheels and spring steel gear legs handle the pebble strewn asphalt I fly from.
Best of all, if you keep the power around 50%, the plane flies in a realistic, almost stately way. I really need to get one of those inexpensive keychain video cameras to velcro to a hat to catch some of those neat flybys…there’s lots of videos showing the airplane in action, but I’d kinda like to see mine on the screen!
Of course I’m writing this part after the fact, my airplane flew as gracefully as always and returned home with me safely. It was a glorious morning to be out…which is what got me started thinking about Saturday mornings in general.
It was a welcome respite from the usual stresses, worries and pain…once one of these is up in the air, you really can’t focus on anything other than flying the airplane.
Both the kid and the adult in me…both pilots…were mighty happy.