Saturday, September 26, 2015

Teddy Defies the Odds

The minute I saw him on the store shelf during the 1986 Christmas season, I knew I was a goner.

Never mind that this was the most impractical Christmas gift ever for a four-year-old child. Never mind that it cost way too much. The minute Teddy batted those huge animatronic eyes and crooned, "Come dream with me tonight . . . ," I was ready to hop in the airship myself and fly away.

Manufactured by Worlds of Wonder, Teddy Ruxpin was an animated teddy bear who was activated by cassette tapes inserted under his tunic. Once the tapes began (I never understood why they ran backwards, by the way), Teddy's eyes would blink open and shut and his mouth would move in sync with the stories and music they contained.

Each tape came with a storybook, and an audible signal would inform children when to turn the pages. Through Teddy, we all met a delightful cast of characters that included the Woolly Whats-It, along with Teddy's best bud, Grubby the octopede, and their scientist friend, the aptly named Newton Gimmick.

Although Teddy's popularity skyrocketed in the mid-1980s, that fame fizzled out just about as fast, mostly due to the unfortunate timing of his arrival on the toy scene. Even early on, Teddy  bounced from company to company as he struggled to rise above a plummeting stock market.

He also had the misfortune of being a tape-playing machine arriving on the cusp of the compact disc era, and therefore was doomed before he could get a good paw-hold. Adding to the problems were the facts that his four C batteries tended to deplete rapidly, making upkeep even more expensive, and his mechanism was especially sensitive to damage.

Furthermore, consider the way four-year-olds generally treat their teddy bears. Is it really a good idea to give them an expensive piece of sensitive machinery and hope for any kind of good outcome? Think about it.

Although daughter Cookie was pretty careful with Teddy, he still went through batteries like a herd of cows through small bales of hay in the dead of winter. (It didn't help that his switch often got left in the "on" position.) Then, eventually, his animated features stopped working, forcing him to tell his stories like a ventriloquist with his eyes shut. But even then I couldn't stand the thought of getting rid of him, so he found a home for many years on a shelf in the bedroom closet.

That is, until just this past summer. To my delight, it seems that Bootsie, four years old herself, took a shining to Teddy, who, despite the fact that his eyes and mouth are frozen shut, still tells a story as well as ever. During the week that Bootsie stayed with me in July, this was a common sight:

An so, with nearly thirty years under his tunic, Teddy lives to entertain another generation of children in my house. That is pretty amazing, and I am so glad I didn't give up on him.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Our Fair Friend Otto

By the time the state fair pulls into our town every August, the kids and I already have a mental list of the things we will do. We will gaze down from the top of the Ferris wheel to see buildings that look like Legos, and people and cars that appear no bigger than toys.

We will go to see the "butter cow," hand-sculpted from hundreds of pounds of butter, in its refrigerated compartment of the dairy bar. And, of course, we will talk to Otto.

Otto will talk to us, too, because that's what Otto does. He is, after all, a talking car. Specifically, he is a 1931 Model A Ford roadster of the kind formerly used by the Missouri State Highway Patrol. Every year, Otto comes to his special open-air garage in the fair's Highway Gardens to converse with children about any variety of topics, safety-related and otherwise.

Most fortunately, daughter Cookie captured last month's visit to Otto in a rare digital moment that includes me and all six grandkids:

There, totally immersed in as deep a conversation as you can have with a hunk of metal, are, from left to right, Sooby, Bootsie, Googie (no, I am not a midget; I am on my knees), Beenie, Beenie and Heero's mama, Heero, Zoomie, and Pooh (who, microphone in hand, is acting as our spokesman).

As I understand it, Otto first came to our fair in the late 1960s. He not only talks (with appropriate help from a trooper with a remote device) but also blinks his eyes and honks. As you leave his garage, he will see that the kids all get a T-shirt and a coloring book. What's not to like about a guy who can do all that?

Like Smokey the Bear in the Conservation Building and the llama in the petting zoo, Otto wears one of the iconic faces of our fair. He is a true personality, complete with jokes and teasing and the occasional safety tip.

The kids dearly love him, and so do I. No trip to the state fair would be complete without a detour through the Highway Gardens where kids are loyal subjects and Otto is king.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Silver Lining

I would never want this boy to be sick. I would always wish for him to be as happy and healthy as he looks here at our family reunion last month:

But if sick he must be, I would wish for it to be just barely bad enough to ban him from daycare--because this means that he gets to spend the day with me.

This week, a minor throat infection struck Beenie, and I had the pleasure of his company all day yesterday and the day before. His mild illness may have created a little cloud of intermittent fever and a runny nose, but our time together edged that cloud with a silver lining.

With no time to plan and no particular agenda, we were content to simply let the days unfold on their own and go with the lazy flow of late summer. We ate when we wanted to, played when we wanted to, and napped when we wanted to.

On their own, our two days assumed a kind of animal theme. Here, in ascending order of time spent, are the three activities that kept us the busiest:

Number 3: A Berenstain Bears Book Titled The Spooky Old Tree

When it comes to a simple story and illustrations that truly captivate a three-year-old, Jan and Stan hit the nail on the head with this delightful book. In it, the three Berenstain cubs, equipped with flashlight, stick, and rope, take off on an adventure inside a gnarled, darkly ominous old tree nestled in a wooded area inhabited by bats and vultures.

One by one they lose their possessions to an alligator, a broad axe falling from a suit of armor, and Great Sleeping Bear, who wakes up in a really bad mood when the cubs crawl up over his back as he sleeps. Although Great Sleeping Bear chases them with a large, growly scowl, they are able to hightail it out of the tree and back home to Mama Bear, but not before having the biggest adventure of their little ursine lives.

Beenie was most fascinated by the "suiting armors" lined up in the "spooky old hall" that the little bears dared to investigate behind a secret panel deep inside the spooky old tree. Many questions and comments related to Great Sleeping Bear came in a close second: "Is he mad? What's he doing? What's he saying?" You get the idea.

Number 2: The"Elefun" Game

My most recent (and best) dollar spent at a garage sale went for a game in which a battery-powered fan blows plasticized paper butterflies up through the soft, collapsible plastic trunk of a jolly blue elephant. Once the fan motor is turned on, twenty-something red, yellow, and green butterflies fill the air above and flutter down to be netted by an excited, giggling boy who is supposed to be sick but is not acting like it.

The whole process takes less than thirty seconds, and then it is time to reload and do the whole thing over . . . and over . . . and over. I can't say enough about how much true "Elefun" Beenie and I had with this. In fact, it is so much fun that you don't even mind the reloading.

Number 3: Dinosaur Flash Cards

The same garage sale got me, this time for 50 cents, a like-new deck of thirty-six flash cards with pictures and facts about dinosaurs. Although the cards are recommended for ages five and above, Beenie absolutely loved these. Early in the game, he picked out a dinosaur to represent each member of his family. (I am proud to say that I am the allosaurus.)

Beenie wanted me to go through the deck over and over pronouncing those difficult multi-syllable dinosaur names (Thank you, pronunciation key!). "What's this one called about?" he asked each time he turned up a new card. I'll be honest--tuojiangosaurus and pachycephalosaurus took a little practice--but I venture to say you haven't lived until you have heard a three-year-old say struthiomimus. Many times.

Dorothy and her friends on the Yellow Brick Road may have had their fun in the realm of lions, tigers, and bears.  But--Oh My!--what fun Beenie and I had this week with dinosaurs, elephants, and bears. It may not have been Oz where we were, but for the past two days this old house has been every bit as magical.