I spent my childhood in a never-ending cycle of escapism from the world around me. In the daytime I was at school, where I was ostracized for being a weirdo (which, by all accounts, was an accurate description of a kid that pretended he was a werewolf and drew zombies). My evenings were spent either running away across fields of imagined peril, or hiding under my own bed by the subdued light of a Lite-Bright with action figures and books. I did anything I could to be out of sight and mind, because being noticed is when the nightmare would begin, and would never end until tear-filled sleep took me to dreams of Darth Vader, Predator, and other monsters that I at least felt I could face. This method of coping made me an expert at “playtime”.
To that end, I memorized seasons of cartoons, fantasy, and science fiction movies. My toys included vast amounts of Star Wars, GI Joe, He-Man, GoBots (the cheap parent’s Transformer), and Hot Wheels/Matchbox cars. I would imagine dimensional rifts across the different realms, so GI Joe could end up in Castle Grayskull, and I would have a scientific reason for the size differential between figures. My cars would drive with realistic drift and crashes, and my figures would be crushed in the Death Star trash compactor if the door didn’t pop open in time. Death or disfigurement was always a real possibility, and the good guys didn’t always win. My bedroom was like Apocalypse Now meets Wargames. I didn’t laugh very much.
I remember putting gasoline on my Duke figure and letting him burn for a bit, so I could study the effects of fire on human flesh. He survived, but spent the rest of his action figure existence with third-degree burns to the face. Scarlett could never look him in the eye again. I would dig caverns in my sandbox, populating them with guards and outposts, and then stomp the edge of the box to cause a cave-in, just to study the structural integrity and statistical probabilities for subterranean rescue efforts. I would load up my GI Joe hovercraft with a full crew and put it in the pool, so I could watch it sink, slowly. I would study the way the craft would twist or flip underwater, and make educated guesses at to the possibility of survival of each soldier, based upon weather conditions, undertow, and proportionate water pressures (Shipwreck died many times, which I somewhat took glee in).
I would simulate a fighter jet crash with my Skystriker jet. I’d take into note the probable reaction time for the pilot, chances of canopy malfunction during ejection, relative distance from the ground, height needed for chute deployment, final speed of impact, and injuries sustained (broken legs, spine, or even fatality). I would go on to judge his distance behind enemy lines, remoteness of rescue, ability to limp/crawl/walk through the jungle, local predatory wildlife, and his capacity to stave off shock and stay mentally alert enough to steadily aim a gun in the event of any hostile encounter. I was about 10 years old.
I would see other kids play, but they would take action figures and just throw them at each other while making explody noises with their mouths. They would make their toys jump through the air at impossible distances towards each other and perform acrobatics that defied all physics, while trying to be the first to yell “I win!”. I couldn’t wrap my head around that playstyle. It lacked rules, realism, or any true sportsmanship. This may be one of the reasons no one ever played with me. The kid three doors down said he would play with me if I were to pay him in toys. The kid living right behind me wouldn’t talk to me. The next door neighbor would come into my yard and beat me with his bullwhip or kick me. My home life had left me without the courage or self-confidence to even react. I would just go further and further into my own head, where I could be a spy, or a wizard, or a Terminator.
I was sent to a babysitter that wouldn’t babysit so much as neglect me. She was young, and would spend the day watching soap operas on the TV and talking on the phone. To keep me out from underfoot, she would lock me into an empty room at the end of her trailer for the day, where I wasn’t supposed to make any noise. The room was very hot, but I remember the thick shag carpeting. Lacking any toys, I would spend the hours using my finger to draw roads and buildings into the carpet and use my imagination to construct little cars to drive the roads. Back then, considering the way I was treated at home, I just assumed that I was getting what my babysitter was paid to do. I had come to feel it was what I deserved, so I never complained or even brought it up to my parents until 20 years later. They had no clue.
Lacking friends in the neighborhood did limit my options for physical play. To play cowboys & indians or cops & robbers you need to have at least one friend to play along. Instead, I would play Indiana Jones. I had a little brown jacket, a brown satchel bag, and I took a short piece of rope and tied it to a piece of broom handle to act as a whip. I even was able to make it pop when I cracked it. I had some Egyptian sarcophagus game that came with a golden Tut head, and I would carry that head in my little satchel as a relic. There was a grove of trees with an old stump in the center, and I would set up the head on the stump, and imagine the entire grove of trees to be an ancient tomb. I remember crawling over the rusty crushed barb-wire fence, creeping slowly into the grove, then taking a little pouch of sand from my sandbox and swapping it for the golden head. I would always set off the booby traps regardless, so I’d scamper quickly across the clearing, dodging invisible arrows and blades, before jumping and tumbling back over the fence and rolling down the hill. I would jump onto my bicycle and rev the imaginary engine, jumping ravine ditches to outdistance myself from my Nazi pursuers. I would come to the tall weeds, where I would have to ditch my bike and grab a stick (machete) to beat my way through the 3-foot tall jungle, until I fell into the relative safety of my back yard sandbox.
When I was around 11, I recall my little sister asking me to play house with her. I never had anything to do with her, preferring my imagined world to her Barbies and My Pretty Ponies (I was NEVER a Bronie). She kept begging, and it got on my nerves, so I concocted a plan. She told me to act like I was just coming home from work, and she would be cooking dinner in her toy kitchen. I finally agreed. I waited for her to get set up, and when the time was right, I knocked open the door, and staggered my way into her room, empty soda bottle in hand. I slurred my speech drunkenly, and started screaming at the little girl Cabbage Patch doll that she needed to get out and get a job. My sister cried, but she never asked me to play again. I feel kinda like a jerk for it, though.
Later on in life, my obsessive attention to detail came through when I would play Dungeons and Dragons, paint exquisite detail on figurines, or act out my clan in a Vampire LARP. I never did what everyone else would do, but instead I would do an in-depth analysis of the character, its motivations, and its history. I believe I even chased an interested girl off once because she thought I would be nicer to her in character when we played Vampire. If I had known anything about women back then, I very well might have. But mine was a brain filled with dark elves, chromatic dragons, analytical robots, and psychic assassins. I didn’t have the slightest clue how to interact with human beings. I’m not certain I ever really learned.
They aren’t “toys”. They are “figurines”! I mean, look at the details I painted! Now will you go to prom with me? My aunt can pick us up…*click*….hello? Hellooo?
Playing with toys is now something stored away in dusty memory. Most of my collection trickled away in yard sales, and what’s left sitting in boxes awaits me making an Ebay listing. I don’t get to act as Indiana Jones anymore (except when excavating the remote from the Temple of the Couch), nor do I draw imaginary streets into shag carpeting (although Google draws plenty of imaginary routes for me). And like it or not, I can’t avoid playing house anymore, although I try. Suspension of disbelief is becoming harder to come by, although a good Pixar film or Joss Whedon TV show can do the trick. Now my imagination gets poured into lyrics and music; poems and art. I don’t need laser beams or flaming swords to strike down the monsters of memory, those demons were exorcised years ago. No more hiding under the bed, up a tree, or in my mind. But every now and then, I remember how fun it was to flip the mattress and create pillow forts full of mad scientist doomsday weapons and unstoppable demon-gods. If I ever have a child, I want to play WITH him (or her). I want to be the Godzilla walking through his Tokyo, or the Lion-O to his Mumm-Ra, or the cop to his robber. I never want his playtime to be an escape from me.