This is a story about toys. My toys. Not the computers, cameras, and guitars I play with today. The toys of my youth were a very different thing. When I was very young, WWII was still in bloom and there were shortages of everything. To deal with that, the U.S. began rationing everything from sugar and gasoline to steel. We all had to tighten our belts for the war effort. Even kids.
I remember my mom digging through the drawer in the dining room looking for the ration book. With that, she could buy what we needed for dinner. Because of the war, the choices were slim, but she always found a way to keep us fed without worrying us about the cause of the shortage.
My sister and I never noticed the shortage of food, gasoline, or any of the stuff we needed to get by. The one that got us the most was the rationing of steel. That hit me especially hard. A little boy’s world revolves around toys, and the toys he most wanted were trucks, cars, airplanes, and such. This was before plastics were pervasive in toy boxes. Most of the toys I wanted were made of metal meaning the adults in the world had to come up with a substitute.
In came breakfast cereal. Somewhere in the land of Kellogg’s and Nabisco, a genius decided to make the cardboard of cereal boxes into toys that they hoped would engage us. And they did. The back of a cereal box was big enough to hold the parts for a variety of toys. All we had to do was cut them out and put them together.
At that time, the radio was the centerpiece of the family’s entertainment. And the companies that made cereals were sponsoring ten-minute segments of shows for us kids. Superman, Red Ryder, and a host of others starring heroes that came in all shapes and sizes.
My favorites were Straight Arrow and Sgt. Preston of the Yukon Trail. Both were my heroes, and I believe that the influence they had on me back then still haunts my comings and goings all these years later. They were both adventurers with roots in the outdoors. Sgt. Preston and his dog King chased bad guys all over the Yukon. The Yukon! How could that not pique the interest of a kid dying to get out of the confines of Greater Cleveland? The Quaker company had his number, and there he was on the back of their Puffed Wheat boxes. If Mom bought enough of it,a kid could build the villages of the Yukon Trail.
And there was Straight Arrow. He was another favorite of mine, and his story and his people have followed me to this day. When working on this story, I was reminded that this was a long time ago, and Straight Arrow was not Native American. He was an “Injun”. I’m glad I was unfamiliar with political correctness, or I might have written off the Original People of America.
Back then, Shredded Wheat came in a box with 3 layers of biscuits separated by cards about 4 X 7 inches. On these cards, Nabisco had printed everything a kid needed to know about Indians. How to make a war bonnet, split a log, or pack a blanket roll. I believe I collected every one of them.
There were others. Masks were always a big thing. Forget Halloween. We kids wanted masks 365 days a year. I only have brief memories of the masks but I do remember the Devil which appeared on the back of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. He was a nasty-looking fellow and I loved him.
I’m not going to get into box tops. They had been around for a long time, and the promises they made seldom came true. What looked good on the cereal box usually fell short when the toy arrived. We saved a lot of them as kids, but I can’t remember one toy that I ended up liking.
I have no complaints. My early childhood, without toys made of metal, turned out just fine. In fact, growing up with toys I had to cut out and put together myself often led to wild fantasies about the people and places I was assembling. My toys weren’t pulled from a box and played with. They were something I had to make, based on my favorite radio show. The whole process was the opening to a wonderland that is still with me.
To that end, I have to thank the makers of kids’ cereal for their contribution to my life as an artist. The radio shows they sponsored and the toys they put on the back of their cereal boxes set me off into a world of fantasy that I manifested by making things. Songs, recordings, videos, and this One Toke Tom site to name a few. So the ravages these products did to my body with their high-fructose corn syrup and starches were offset by the dreams and fantasies visited on my heart. So for that, I say thank you Kellogg, Quaker, and the rest. My childhood would never have been the same without you.