Sunday, June 23, 2013

Action Figures (They're Not Dolls!)

1960s Vintage GI Joes
(L to R) Army, Navy Air Force, Marine
When I was a kid, GI Joe came out. My oldest kid brother (the Old Vermonter) and I immediately wanted one. But there was a rather huge fly in the ointment on this particular toy. Seems that Dad had an opinion. It was not a favorable opinion.

Seems that Dad took one look at GI Joe and declared, "That's a doll." And of course, no son of his was going to be playing with dolls. The Old Vermonter and I were sorely vexed at this proclamation.

So what made GI Joe a doll, rather than just another toy soldier?

First of all, toy soldiers are supposed to look like this -

And they should come in a bag.

You shouldn't be able to change a toy soldier's outfit uniform. (Yes, that's right GI Joe has a uniform, not an outfit. Well, they do belong to an outfit. But they don't wear outfits.) So to my Dad, that's what defined a toy soldier versus a "doll". I should note that the term "action figure" had not been invented yet. Probably that whole "toy soldiers are one molded piece and come in bags" versus the one per box and he can change his clothes sparked the invention of that phrase. (Uniform, it's a bloody uniform!!!)

Sorry, I'm still a bit touchy about that.

Then one day my mother happened across a new kind of toy soldier. This guy -

Stony was his name, the only thing you could change on Stony was his weapons and his headgear. You couldn't swap outfits uniforms or any of that nonsense. (And not until today did I realize that Stony was actually short for Stonewall. Or that his last name was Smith. Maybe I knew this as a kid and had forgotten. But I think I would have remembered that.)

So this new guy met my Dad's definition of what was a toy soldier. He was somewhat skeptical as Stony was the same height as GI Joe and didn't come in a bag like other toy soldiers. But it was close enough. Dad couldn't stretch things and call Stony a doll. He was a toy soldier in Dad's book.

So come Christmas morn, the Old Vermonter and I both received Stony. We were ecstatic, until we realized that Stony could only move his head and his arms. He couldn't bend his legs or anything. Poor bastard couldn't even take cover when he was under fire. He could just stand there and return fire. Of course, he did have a pretty awesome array of weaponry as you can see in the photo. (I just noticed the bugle. What in the Sam Hill does Stony need with a bugle? Hhhmm, I don't remember the bugle from back in the day either...)

So Stony was okay. The other kids in the neighborhood (who did have GI Joes) would mock his inability to go prone, or sit, or run. Stony was always getting his ass kicked in firefights with the more poseable and limber Joes.

But in hand to hand combat, Stony was formidable. It was that stoic look I think. But still, if one of the Joe's knocked him down, the poor bastard was like a turtle on his back. No flexibility you see.

Eventually the Old Vermonter got two new action figures for his collection, but they weren't toy soldiers. They were these two guys -

Chief Cherokee

Johnny West
Now these guys were the first cowboy and Indian action figures on the street. They were cool, but there were only the two. Couldn't really reenact the Wild West with just one cowboy and one Indian. So the Chief and Johnny got drafted into the armed forces. They would be equipped with some of Stony's extra weapons and headgear.

Of course, old Stony was really feeling left out now. The new guys (who were fully poseable like GI Joe) were seeing more action than he was. Seems Stony's new job was to be a rear area pogue. Wherever Stony was, that marked HQ. Due to Stony's inability to take cover, he had been demoted to "in the rear with the gear".

Things got worse for Stony. The Old Vermonter got a GI Joe for his birthday. A sailor! Not sure what Mom was thinking. Of course, she's a Mom, what did she know about toy soldiers or playing army? But at least the sailor Joe came with his own equipment. Though that blue uniform did tend to give his position away in the field, at least he could go prone. Stony? Yes, still "in the rear with the gear". Until one day the Old Vermonter had an idea.

He recalled that Stony was a paratrooper. Maybe he had really stiff legs to withstand the shock of a parachute landing (what did we know, we were kids?)

So we made parachutes for the two Stony's. They could drop behind enemy lines and blast the enemy as they came down. Wouldn't matter then if they couldn't bend their legs or take cover. So we went ahead with that scheme. (Mom still probably wonders what happened to some of her bed sheets. Between parachutes for Stony and winter camouflage for us kids I'm surprised we had any sheets at all in the house!)

Stony as paratrooper worked out pretty well. Stony's pride was back and he was no longer a pogue, he could go into action. Then the Old Vermonter had another bright idea. As Chief Cherokee was a Native American, he should be pretty good at tracking and sneaking. The Chief should be the head paratrooper! (Not sure how Stony felt about that. He'd been on the roster a lot longer than the Chief.)

So Chief Cherokee got outfitted with a parachute. But it was then that tragedy struck. On his very first training jump (which was unfortunately from our raised front yard onto the street ten feet below) the Chief had a "Roman candle". His chute was a streamer, didn't open at all.

When the Chief hit the asphalt his legs kind of separated from the rest of him. Seems there was this big spring inside his hips which held him together. When the spring let go on impact, the Chief was never the same again. Oh, we patched him up as best we could but his legs were ever after wobbly.

Just as Stony couldn't sit, now the Chief couldn't stand. He could still fight, he just couldn't move all that well. And it really affected his buddy, Johnny West.

Of course, the two had come up through the ranks together. They knew each other "out west", as it were. When Chief Cherokee had his accident, Johnny took to the bottle. Of course, he was a cowboy and did have a certain predilection for hanging out in saloons anyway. So the Chief was a cripple, Johnny was a drunk and Mom found out about the sheets so we lost our supply of parachutes. So Stony was back "in the rear with the gear".

Also more GI Joes were coming into the ranks as Dad had given up his "that's a doll" stand when all the other kids on the street had GI Joes. And GI Joe was getting a lot more sophisticated as well. Hasbro was producing "foreign" GI Joes now as well. Germans, Brits, Russians and Japanese.

So the old guys were quietly retired. Sent to live out the rest of their days in the toy box. I know they were bitter. You could see it in Stony's face -

And yeah, that's a mug shot. After his time in service, Stony fell in with the wrong crowd. He and the Chief were picked up out in Arkansas when they knocked over a 7-11.

The judge cut them some slack based on their service records. Especially considering Stony's disability. Poor guy couldn't even run from the cops.

So yeah, I was into action figures as a kid. Still collect them. There will be more stories along this line. But this one's for Stony. You were one stoic dude.


  1. Seems that Dad took one look at GI Joe and declared, "That's a doll."

    Heh. Your Dad was correct. I was disappointed to read he backed off on his position as the years passed by.

    (BIG-ass sigh)

    Mom prolly had more than a little bit to do with that, and your father prolly knew best as to which battles should be fought and when discretion was the better part o' valor. I've made similar concessions in the interests of Peace In Our Time.

    1. I hear you on the concessions thing.

      And I did figure you for "Old School" on the topic of doll versus action figure.

  2. All I want to know is why is that AF guy wearing a...yellow raincoat? Plus, those stands look pretty dang uncomfortable. Just sayin'.

    1. I think that's supposed to be a 1960s era flight suit. But those were orange, not yellow.

      I wasn't going to mention the stands. Yeah, uncomfortable to say the least!

  3. Way back in the good old days when boys were encouraged to play with toys related to war I inherited a great one from my older cousin. I was about 6 (1948) at the time.
    This very simple toy had been made during WW-II. It came in two pieces and both were made of plastic or electronics.
    The first piece was a shoe box shape about 3 inches high, 12 inches long and 4 inches wide with a viewing port at one end and a 45 degree tilted mirror at the other so that when you looked through the viewing port you were looking straight down at the floor. The mirror had cross-hairs painted on it. Beneath this rudimentary bomb-sight was slung a wooden dart weighted at one end with a needle like nose piece. It was released by thumbing a simple lever.

    The other item, also wood was a wooden battleship about 18 inches long. It had a red Japanese flag painted on the fore-deck.

    Of course the object was to place the ship on the floor, stand over it, center the red “meat-ball” in the crosshairs and release the “bomb”as you yelled the obligatory: "Bombs-Away". If you were successful the bomb (dart) stuck square in the red circle.

    If your aim was off you dropped the bomb and it stuck in grandma’s polished oak hardwood floor and there was hell to pay when she spied it.

    1. That sounds like a pretty cool toy. I can see all sorts of room here for imagination to come into play.

      I'm picturing a step-ladder with the kid with the bomb sight sitting on top. Another kid tows the battleship under the step-ladder to simulate the target moving, then the kid on top of the step-ladder has to pickle the dart as the ship moves through the cross hairs.

      Of course, none of this should be attempted if Grandma is around. Otherwise, as you said, there would be Hell to pay!

      Great story Toejam!

  4. Went through the GI Joe phase as a kid, then I discovered BB Guns, and that pretty much put paid to that account... Until a few years ago. Daughter got a W.A.C. action figure (note that I didn't say "doll"). She showed up with tunic, shirt, tie, cover, skirt, nylons, purse, and, believe it or not, a cat...
    But she was also realistically articulated... I had an old M1 Garand from the "good old days", and this gal could snuggle into the tighest firing position I've ever seen since my days on the Known Distance Course at Parris Island. Plus, when you set her on her feet, her hip cocked out a bit, and she seemed to take on a "what are you going to do about it" attitude. Not I'm as "grunt centric" as any old Jarhead, but I does love me a strong woman. So "Miss Annie" as she was now called, was in the club.
    Later I got another hyper articulated figure, "Mac", a WW2 Marine Machinegunner. He could also assume more realistic positions, slumped over after a long firefight, standing "At Ease" during formations, and a plethora of good firing positions. (No, we had a Sexual Harassment Brief, and Mac figured he was too old to be dating Annie, but he looked out after her like a good senior NCO.)
    Plus some of Mac's old uniforms fit Annie, if you rolled up the sleeves and tightened the belt. Annie looked like a bag of crap, but she didn't seem to care, not with the M-61A2 on her hip and her eyes on the bad guys on the next ridgeline.
    And then there was that redheaded gal, come over during an exchange program with the Ukrainian Army. A dead shot with a PSR...

    1. Nice story B! The girl sounds like she can take care of herself!

      (Some of the newer action figures have some amazing articulation, even down to moving the fingers and thumbs!)

  5. Great story, can we expect more?

    1. Indeed you may.

      I've promised the Old Vermonter a sequel.

      I guess now I'm promising you a sequel as well.


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