Column: Careful: You'll put an eye out, Kid

Each year, I find myself wandering the toy aisles in the stores trying to find the "right" gift for my grandkids. Each year, it gets harder.

They just don't make good toys anymore. It seems it's all computers, video games and something called an "MP." I have no idea what that is. I want to give them things that they can build, where they can learn to use their imagination.

I find myself looking back to the times when I was a boy and compare them to the way things are today. Kids today are being cheated. Even though the toys our kids play with today are electronic marvels, I can't see as how they are very much fun.

Building blocks

One of my favorite toys was an Erector Set my older brother got for Christmas one year. I remember spending many hours building things with it.

My most ambitious project was a crane. It was mounted so that it could turn on a wheeled base. The set also had an electric motor that was geared so that the cable could be made to lift or lower. It stood almost 2 feet high when completed, and took me about a week to build, then about an hour to take it apart when I decided to build something else.

I also had a set of Lincoln Logs. It was fun to build cabins, buildings and such. Then one day, I traded with a friend for a B.B. gun. I would build my cabins, then position toy soldiers in the windows and doorways. Then laying a chair on its side, I would hide behind that and shoot at the soldiers. I often got excited after watching a war show on television and spent hours shooting enemy soldiers.

Training

I once had an electric train set. I had spread out an old piece of carpet on the floor of our attic and laid the tracks on that. I would let my imagination run rampant as I moved the locomotive backwards and forwards, putting trains together and taking them to far off exotic destinations, like New York or Chicago.

Chemistry

Another favorite was a chemistry set. It's really too bad that they don't make them anymore. I had asked Santa Claus for one and was very disappointed with the one I received. It only had about eight bottles of chemicals. I had hoped for the big set that had about 100 bottles.

I tried to make the best of it but soon tired of making invisible ink and rubber eggs. Then a friend told me about a local hobby shop that sold chemistry supplies.

I also learned that the local library had books on chemistry. I had great fun with my homemade experiments. I am sure that a gracious God was looking over me: How else can I explain why I did not either burn our house down or blow it up?

Tolls

Over the years, I received many great gifts for Christmas. When I was about 9, I received a toolbox filled with carpenter's tools. These were real tools scaled down for use by a small boy. The saw could cut wood, the hammer could pound nails and a drill could drill holes.

My dad was a glazier by profession but secretly wanted to be a carpenter or cabinetmaker. He told me that, as a boy, he had taken over a shed in his backyard, and it had become Alan's Carpenter Shop. He loved to build things. He had remodeled our home and had built the kitchen cabinets himself.

The first thing I built was a birdhouse. I found several pieces of scrap lumber salvaged from the wooden boxes that window glass came in. I would carefully measure and cut each piece. Sometimes I would make a mistake, and with the appropriate benediction I had learned from my dad, would have to cut a new piece. After I had finished nailing the pieces together, I "borrowed" some of the paint dad had for his model airplanes to finish the house. I was so proud when I showed dad my birdhouse. He seemed delighted and was amazed that I had built it all on my own. He never said anything about the paint, but then I had been careful not to waste it or make a mess.

Imagination

Nothing ever gave me greater joy than to do something that made my parents proud of me.

"Did you build that all by yourself? That's really nice." These comments from my dad were music to my ears. I loved nothing more than to build something or complete an experiment and share it with Dad. He made me feel 10 feet tall.

So how can a kid today share with his dad? "Dad, I got a high score on my new video game."

"That's nice."

Quiet pursuits

We also would receive games like Monopoly and Clue. These games required you to think, plan ahead and manage your money. The game of Clue required logic and reasoning, and I soon learned in Monopoly that it was not wise to buy every property you landed on, knowing it was best to wait for a chance to buy the choice properties like Boardwalk or Park Place.

I would often get a model airplane or ship for Christmas. These would come in a box, and the molded plastic parts had to be carefully glued together. It wasn't something that was done in 10 or 15 minutes. It would take me several hours to build one of these models. Then after painting it, I would carefully affix the decals that had come with it. I also received books, craft kits and puzzles, and one year I received a stamp-collecting set.

Curiosity toys

My folks gave me a microscope for Christmas one year. I was amazed the first time I looked through it at a drop of swamp water and saw tiny bugs swimming around. Then I put a drop of my blood on a slide and placed it under the microscope. Pictures in a book cannot compare to seeing the live blood cells.

This year, I tried to find a microscope and a chess set. It seems that none of the stores carry things like that anymore. You would think that with the popularity of the "CSI" shows that the stores would try to cash in. But I guess that's reality. A microscope will last for years, while a video game will lose its appeal in a few days. This is really a shame. Kids today are so curious and possibly more intelligent than I was. The toys I played with as a boy were the building blocks of our society.

An Erector Set has led some boys to a career in engineering. Building model airplanes has encouraged others to seek a career in aviation. Imagination is the fuel for dreams, and dreams are the stimulus for progress.

I have often wondered that if my folks had given me the big chemistry set I wanted, would I have grown up to be a doctor or scientist and discovered a miracle cure? I know that this sounds silly, but you never know.