Childish Things

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I had a childhood wish fulfilled on Christmas Day—and this within mere months of my thirty-fifth birthday. My big sister gave me the Forgotten Prisoner of Castel-Maré, a plastic objet d’art I’ve desired since I first saw it in a comic book ad years ago. The Prisoner is a plastic model kit, an example of a once-honored craft barely hanging on in contemporary American male pubescence. Following a medieval dungeon motif, the Prisoner is simply a skeleton in shredded clothing chained to a wall. Mouth agape and body slack in a postmortem slouch, when fully constructed the figure serves no earthly purpose, save to amuse young boys and make grown men realize they need to get out and/or laid more often.

Brief decades after its apogee, model kit building was unceremoniously tossed on the lost childhood pile along with slingshots, soapbox racers, and string-wound tops. Where once young boys huddled in suburban basements and rec rooms to assemble Chevys, P-51 Mustangs, and Panzer tanks while dabbling in remedial mind expansion through model glue, today they memorize control-button combinations to remove their opponents spine in Mortal Kombat V. But models had their day, from the late forties to the late seventies, with an Alpine peak of popularity near the end. The variety was staggering. Military vehicles, cars, TV characters, dinosaurs, and historical figures—it’s unlikely any human endeavor escaped memorialization in ABS plastic.

“It seemed like every kid in America wanted his own monster.”

The most successful kit manufacturer was likely the Prisoner’s creator, the Aurora Company, which fostered a loyalty among its young customers bordering on the cultish. Aurora sold kits with modest success for years when, in 1959, Marketing Director Bill Silverstein led the company into the plastic simulacrum avant-garde. Silverstein hit upon the idea of putting a contest form (read: marketing survey) in every kit, asking young builders to suggest what they would like to see enshrined in plastic. In the eternal voice of boyhood, the lads demanded the grotesque. Out of three thousand submissions, Aurora selected a fifteen-year-old who proposed the old Universal Films monsters.

After much cajoling, Aurora’s skeptical and skittish honchos allowed Silverstein to release a Frankenstein kit in 1961. It rapidly sold out. “It seemed like every kid in America wanted his own monster,” Silverstein told the author of The Aurora History and Price Guide. Emboldened, Aurora produced other molds and gave their plants the okay to churn out monsters. Frankenstein’s monster was followed by Dracula, the Wolfman, the Mummy, the Bride of Frankenstein, and others. One by one, classic horror icons populated America’s bookshelves and nightstands.

The Prisoner was an interesting exception among the traditional fiends. Released in 1966, the kit was developed and trademarked by Famous Monsters of Filmland, a periodical shrine to horror fandom and embryonic geek culture. Aurora was a faithful FMF advertiser, and the magazine backscratchingly promoted Aurora by running contests that challenged their readers to submit customized versions of the monster kits. Knowing their readers’ morbid tastes, the publishers put their skulls together and came up with the Forgotten Prisoner of Castel-Maré. Upon reflection, it’s a repulsive concept, really. While Aurora’s other models recreated cinematic chimerae, the Prisoner was essentially a representation of violated human remains. (Not just left to starve, the poor devil was also snacked upon by the model’s ornamental rats, spider, and snake.)

In a way, the Prisoner betokened a relaxation of America’s sheltering of its young ’uns. Like Siddhartha in his palace, young boomers seemed purposefully hoodwinked about life’s ickiness. Death occurred everywhere in Greil Marcus’ “old, weird America,” but in the postwar period dead and decaying things were quickly swept away. Imagine, then, how the typical sixties mom and pop reacted upon entering Sonny Boy’s room and finding him assembling make-believe corpses.

Yet Aurora continued to push propriety’s limits. Kids soon could build torture chambers equipped with red-hot pokers, guillotines, and gibbets. New character kits included mad scientist Dr. Deadly, too-sexy-for-junior-high Vampirella, and, inevitably, a terrified girl. Hot-pantsed and halter-topped, the latter kit left much flesh area exposed for the model builder to lovingly paint with Testors’ #2001 (Skin Tone). Lacking not only clothes but also a name, she was called only “The Victim.” Soon, organizations like Parents for Responsibility in the Toy Industry protested the pernicious influences the models allegedly exercised over the kidlings. Moreover, the National Organization for Women somehow failed to appreciate the Victim and joined the outrage choir. Family-loving Nabisco Company, which bought Aurora out in 1971, moved to soothe protesters by having Aurora produce less shocking models. Perhaps feeling betrayed, Aurora’s fans stayed away, and in 1978, the company tanked.

Thus, parental action saved the day, and children were nevermore corrupted by plastic boogymen.

How is it then that on Christmas morning 2002, I could unwrap the distinctive “long box” of the Forgotten Prisoner of Castel-Maré kit, admire its art by James Bama (a pulp illustrator famous for his stirringly homoerotic Doc Savage book covers), and huff the scent of fresh styrene? Thank Thomas E. Lowe for that. Son of kitty litter inventor Edward Lowe, Thomas made his own pile of dough selling household doohickeys throughout the eighties. Longing for the toys of his youth—and perspicaciously recognizing the growing trend in post-boomer nostalgia—Lowe founded Playing Mantis, a company dedicated to reconstructing toy memories. Starting with Johnny Lightning-brand die-cast car reissues, Lowe moved on to the old Aurora monster models, selling them under the Polar Lights label.

Discovering the Prisoner’s reissue during a Web search, I felt the prickles of memory of wanting-wanting-wanting but never getting the Prisoner in my kidhood.

It was Lowe’s reissue, not the original Prisoner, that turned up under my Christmas tree. Original Aurora kits, mint in box [audible gasp], now command upward of three grand, which tells you how badly some people want their childhood back—or how badly they want something denied them the first time around. The Aurora monster models aren’t the only reissues out there either. Those obsessed, mostly adult males, with collecting childhood talismans, now support thousands of sellers of inconsequential crap. Thanks to the Internet god, pre-adolescent relics can now be bought and sold at auction, and for objects chased into obscurity by the action groups, cheap facsimiles are easy to find.

So, what’s my excuse? Put me in the camp of the denied. Discovering the Prisoner’s reissue during a Web search, I felt the prickles of memory of wanting-wanting-wanting but never getting the Prisoner in my kidhood. I added the Prisoner to my Web site wish-list (itself an interesting Internet phenomenon that permits adults to unashamedly maintain a year-round letter to Santa while letting marketers, as with Amazon.com’s wish-list feature, pinpoint a consumer’s past, present, and future desires). Seeing the Prisoner on my list, my big sister undoubtedly sought to redress this cruel omission of my youth.

While I was tickled to finally have the Prisoner in my mitts, when it came time to construct it, my mind went, to quote Brett McNeil, “exquisitely blank.” I’d forgotten the specifics, the “art” of model building. I needed paint. I needed brushes. I needed fixer, exacto blades, and that marvelous glue. A visit to Toys ‘R’ Us provided an expected shock. Besides a few Snap-tite kits (idiot-proof models requiring neither paint nor glue), model kits were no longer for sale. No planes, trains, or automobiles; no tanks, no dinosaurs, and certainly no Forgotten Prisoners. Apparently, Toys ‘R’ Us once carried the Polar Lights reissues, but now nary a wolfman hair was to be found.

A later trip to a hobby shop increased my suspicions that bona fide adolescents no longer thrilled to model kits. I perused the racks in earshot of several kids and their older male companions. It was these fathers, grandfathers, and uncles who baritone-squealed in joyful surprise to discover that “they still make” such-and-such, breathlessly recounting for their young charges how they built this or that model, which they eventually immolated, blew up, or picked off with a pellet gun.

The process of assembling a model is a meditative act. My Prisoner arrived in thirty pieces, each numbered and attached to stiff styrene trellises that became superfluous once the fruit was plucked off. The numbers and assembly instructions, accompanied by an exploded view, were a joke. Even the most mentally challenged child, I thought, could recognize the front and back of a skull, and know not to attach a forearm to the knee joint. While not up to the standards of Gray’s Anatomy, the Prisoner is a fairly accurate portrayal of a skeleton. Its educational aspect is still questionable, however, as the poor creature’s tattered clothes conceal 70 percent of the bones. Valuable information regarding the pelvis, vertebrae, femur, and humerus bones is lost.

The Prisoner is a Level One model, one that can be constructed within a half-hour’s time. My adult schedule, persnickety attention to detail, and fumblethumbed approach to construction stretched that out to about three hours, not including paint drying time. The instructions recommended that I use black for the Prisoner’s clothes and red for his waist band. I vetoed those colors. With his buccaneer clothing and rakish sash, I thought my Prisoner would look like a waiter from a Spanish restaurant. I outgeeked myself by creating a visual media pun. Painting his coat black with white piping and his trousers a buttercrunch tan, my prisoner became The Prisoner, protagonist of Patrick MacGoohan’s Kafkaesque television series. I giggled over my little joke. My wife declared me a dork.

Overall, my model-building experience was tranquil, my mind no more riddled with images of rape and bloodshed than usual. Happily, I was not transported back to my youth. I was no younger when I finished the Prisoner than when I began—in fact I was noticeably older. Here and there, memories wafted up like glue fumes. I recalled the last time my hands were caked with acrylic paint and rubber cement, back in ’79 when I built C-3PO. Never particularly adept, I could never make my results look like the boxes’ elaborate illustrations of, for instance, soaring Grumman F4F Wildcats strafing Japanese Betty bombers. My efforts on the Prisoner were not helped by my now much larger fingers either. Still, I did have, as they say, “fun,” even if the glue has lost its kick.

Model kit popularity has faded, but parental invigilators remain: some noble, most simplistic and reactionary. Groups like the Lion and Lamb Project, Christian Peacemaker Teams, and the quite potent National Institute on Media and the Family (NIMF) continue to push for softer-edged toys. Their mission statements sound helpful and uncontroversial. The NIMF supports the First Amendment, to be sure, but seeks to “maximize the benefits and minimize the harm of media on children and families through research, education, and advocacy.” The Lion and Lamb Project “is an initiative by parents for parents, providing information about the effects of violent entertainment, toys and games on children’s behavior.”

If a toy’s “psychological damage” involved the mopping up of juvenile gray matter, the shelves would bow and creak with only the fluffy and furry.

The horribly irresponsible media certainly love them. The Lion and Lamb Project provides tasty holiday newsbites with its yearly “Dirty Dozen Toy List,” in which playtime no-nos have moved beyond guns, knives, and bombs. Consider a recent target, Take Two Interactive’s game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. This video game encourages players “to hijack police cars, gun down pedestrians, kill policemen, pick up prostitutes in order to get ‘health points’ . . . and then kill the prostitutes in order to get their money back.” Yikes! Yet Lion and Lamb also analyzes the heck out of the most harmless-seeming toys. For example, it pillories Nerf-Blastin’ Zurg, a “brightly colored action figure” from the Toy Story franchise. Zurg is a bad boy, Lion and Lamb declares, because he can “shoot darts from a triple-barreled toy gun. ‘Prepare to meet your DOOM!’ reads a strip on the back of the box . . . ‘ARRGGH!!’ screams Zurg as a dart bounces back and hits him in the chest.” The toy “takes cartoon violence off the screen and puts it into children’s playrooms.” Lion and Lamb makes the predictable mistake of suggesting alternative, peaceable, and inarguably lame toys, such as Phlat Ball. (“Is it a disc!? Is it a ball!?” inquires the copy. In an uncaring universe, does it matter?)

These groups frown heavily on macho, and so tilt most of their attention toward boys’ toys. Yet skimming through their Web sites, it’s notable that while they all decry violent toys, little direct protest is made about war or violence itself—other than to say that they are very bad, and we must keep our children far removed from them. (The Mennonite-based Christian Peacemaker Teams are an exception: they send packs of Anabaptists to military hot spots as well as to Toys ‘R’ Us parking lots to advocate nonviolence.) NIMF has a vocal proponent in Senator Joseph Lieberman, too, who stated about Vice City-type games, “This relatively small but highly popular minority is not just pushing the envelope—they are shooting, torturing and napalming it beyond all recognition, and beyond all decency.” So stated the senator who later voted to give Our President permission to use real guns and bombs on real human beings.

In contrast to their counterparts in the button-down sixties world, today’s parental action groups have lost a valuable weapon: their target’s sense of shame. Many of the worst offenders, like Grand Theft Auto, are obviously aimed at adults. Consequently, a new refrain is: “What if a child were to get his or her hands on a copy?” So gonzo, over-the-top violent is Grand Theft Auto and its kin, it just doesn’t seem right to let the little urchins near them. Damage must be done, right?

If a toy’s “psychological damage” involved the mopping up of juvenile gray matter, the shelves would bow and creak with only the fluffy and furry. Thus, the desensitization argument continues to be pushed, with numerous psychological studies cited (but rarely named) “proving” such damage. NIMF, for instance, presents factoids like: “Studies have shown, and experts agree, that a reduction of violence in the media will not only reduce violence on our streets, it will reduce the cost of health care by as much as 25 percent.” So will lobotomies, and with greater certainty. In every sense, psychological damage is difficult to assess, but since the toys look so damned awful, that’s proof enough for parents. Note the rush to judgement in media firestorms like the Columbine aftermath, where antisocial behavior was immediately traced to toy (Doom) and/or media (The Matrix) “damage.” Never you mind that Eric Harris was on Luvox and Kip Kinkel heard voices long before exploding.

A pet expert is retired Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, author of Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill and researcher of what he calls killology—the study of why people kill—which is explained at killology.com. Grossman proposes that violent video games and toys condition our children for mayhem, much in the same way that, ahem, the U.S. armed forces prepare soldiers for combat. (Is the message then, “Wait until you’re eighteen, kid”?) Grossman claims a “pseudosociopathy” is induced in training soldiers through simulation of combat conditions. Gradually abandoning his fear of death and taking life, the soldier can jettison the rationalism of the cerebrum for the self-preservation instincts of the reptile brain. Fair enough. We’ve all seen Full Metal Jacket. Still, Grossman is prone to statements like, “After nuclear holocaust, the next major threat to our existence is the violent decay of our civilization due to violence-enabling in the electronic media.”

Poppycock. The pervasive, unspoken fear is that this alleged relaxation of morals, taste, and restraint is not so much inspiring good kids to antisocial acts as leading them to believe it’s all right to roam savage and free. The more horrible yet rarely spoken thought is not the idea that Nerf-Hurtling Zurg, Marilyn Manson, and even actual firearms turn kids into monsters, but that the little bastards are monsters already. Consider children as insane adults. Rippling with hormones and rife with self-possession, kids are indeed nigh-psychopathic and stroboscopically twitching in the throes of a time period most adults considered nightmarishly uncertain. Amusingly, parent groups and marketers both seek to extend this sense of childhood, this “innocence,” for as long as possible. Spilling over into the twenties, thirties, even forties, childhood now leaves a larger and longer path.

Most little boys, however, are already terrifying. Whether flicking flies into spiders’ webs, squashing anthills, or hitching M-80s to frogs’ backs, their sadism is astonishing—and this in the days before Playstation 2. Boys no more need to be inspired to horror by model kits, television, or video games than simply bored by the universal law that most of the time nothing is happening.

School shootings predate our electronic scapegoats—remember Brenda Spencer’s 1979 “I don’t like Mondays” rampage? Columbine turned fearing for our children into fearing our children; music, media, and games were to be held accountable for Klebold and Harris’ rage; and the cycle spun on.

But remembering a golden age is always a mug’s game. Quantitatively, even qualitatively, violence may have increased in the past several decades, but equating its rise with the number of units of Toy X sold is dubious at best. Toy protests are an attempt to identify a tangible source of an intangible problem, a physical thing that we can destroy, thus preventing evil from getting ’em while they’re young. Despite this, and as toy history has proven, no matter how many Forgotten Prisoners of Castel-Maré or copies of Tekken 3 you round up and burn, violence isn’t going anywhere.

If denied in youth, you can now fulfill your every childish wish.

As bizarre as it may sound, the Prisoner is starkly honest. It is a nonironic representation of human remains—a genuine memento mori rather than a simulated horror. Yet I can’t help but chuckle at the Prisoner’s utter fakeness. Mandible drooping, he chortles at the absurdity of his past status as a death fetish for boys and the parents who feared them. Some toy designers do indeed create a steady supply of fun time gore, but only to meet a demand—perhaps spurred by the stern maternal “no!” of the parent groups. For every parental action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The current producers of the Prisoner, Grand Theft Auto, and likewise, I would guess, are male, in their thirties, and possessed of senses of humor black as the Ace of Spades. Protesting mothers—goaded by their procreative arrogance—are not. While my own parents never denied me the right to play Dungeons and Dragons, absorb Saturday afternoon monster movies, and read brain-rotting comics until my eyes glowed like red embers, many of my friends’ parents did, citing the old arguments of protecting them from Satan, smack, and sodomy.

The reaction and results were not what either expected. If denied in youth, you can now fulfill your every childish wish. Now you can own those psychologically scarring monster models. Couldn’t own the Victim in her day? With vector graphics, game designers grown up and intoxicated on Woo and Tarantino—and perhaps seething at past wrist-slappings—allow you to virtually experience the warmth of a whore’s blood on your bare knuckles and the intoxicating thrill of barreling down on pedestrians and randomly popping cops and passerby in the head with an automatic. Up yours, Mommy!

To repeat an earlier point, from what are we protecting our children? The drive is to soften the instinct to kill, and to shelter children from that which is horrible. In educating children to not be murderers, however, it’s rarely considered that shielding them so carefully might give them an exaggerated sense of the world’s goodness and a diminished idea of their own vulnerability. In short, we risk producing victims, and worse yet, benumbed proles oblivious to the fact that, in many ways, this can be a miserable world.

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