The Iron Toys Make A New Year's Resolution
It comes as a surprise to today's children to learn that for thousands of years, no children's toys were made of plastic. In more recent centuries, toys were made of wood or tin, and painted by hand, and kept in a toy chest, so that all earnest boys and girls, when told to clean up their toys, had a natural place for them. As you might imagine, the toy chests were made by hand, too, as making a simple nail - much less a hammer - was a chore for strong men. So, the toy boxes were sturdy things, and the toys themselves were no slouches.
There comes a day, not marked on any calendar, when a child no longer plays with the toys of childhood - in olden times, a son crossed the sea in a soggy, malodorous ship, or a daughter was told to marry the son of a shoemaker or egg candler in the next village over. And so it is true, especially in Europe, but also in the homes built of hand-sawed planks of oak built by wealthy sea captains above the shores of Maine, that precious toy chests have survived for many years, filled with toys made of wood or tin, perhaps in an attic or even in a basement. Indeed, a shout out must be given here to the trade in antique toys, which has always preserved toys and toy chests made long ago. Naturally, such antiques need tlc, and crazy glue or beeswax, along with fresh paint, and pins and new padding, but, the effort has been made, and even in recent times there were still a handful of toy chests still around that were first made by woodworkers who sang sea chanteys that recalled their younger days as sailors chasing the last pirates of the Caribbean.
There is a house in Maine that was owned by a sea captain who built it for his new wife, a maiden of nineteen, who waved a handkerchief at him from the rainy dock as he left for his final voyage over the deep sea. No one knew it would be his final voyage, of course - if they did he would have stayed in bed, and never left. Yet, even without whales and sharks, the sea is a dangerous place, and was especially so in those days, filled, as the seas were, with pirates, storms, ill-conceived diets and maps made by chubby landlubbers who never really wanted to make maps at all, but instead had desired since their youth to paint tall murals with scenes of Roman landlords eating red grapes and similar scenes of ancient grandeur. Such maps, creative though they were, often led a sea captain with a starving crew to look for a mountain that never existed as a landmark to a river that was equally fanciful. Oh yes, the sea can be a dangerous place, and it was so for the sea captain.
The word spread that, when the sea captain drowned, he went down with his ship, smoking a corn cob pipe to the last.
Back when the sea captain married the maiden in the Whaleman's Chapel, her family gave them a toy chest made of a bright orange tiger wood with hinges of bronze. The maiden's family thought that the newlyweds would have many children: a wagonful, at least, they thought. It was a large wooden chest, which opened at the top and had no lock. Inside the chest were dozens of wood and tin toys, and at the bottom of the chest was a motley collection of iron toys, though, to be honest, the iron ones only looked like toys when you picked one up and looked closely through a squinty eye. The fact is that the iron toys were never molded very well and some of them were never even painted. And the ones that were painted did not hold the paint very well, and the paint soon flaked and chipped. So, even by the time the pastor had pronounced the sea captain and the maiden man and wife, the iron toys were part green, and part black, and part orange, and rusty, chipped, oily and sooty. They were, in the eyes of the other toys, a real mess.
It was not long after the sea captain exhaled his last blue smoke and began his underwater travels as a drowned man through the seven green seas among octopi and slowly waving pink plants in his never-ending search for the coast of Maine, that his bereft wife gave the toy chest away to a family with eleven children. That began a custom that lasted among generations of children until the times of the radios, when toys became plastic and stayed red or blue forever and shiny, too. The custom was that no kids wanted to play with the iron toys, and the iron toys stayed in the toy chest while the kids played with the well-made and brightly colored toys of wood and tin. One spoiled boy, upon seeing the iron toys piled and clasped together like a maddening crowd, cried: "What's that? A pile of junk?"
It is time to learn about the wood and tin toys in the toy chest; many toys would have belonged to the children of the sea captain and his wife, if they had ever had any; many toys were added over the years by families who said, "That's an adorable toy chest for the kids!" We have learned about the iron toys. What else was in the toy chest at the time that this story begins?
These were the small wood toys: a team of four white horses with blinders who pulled fancy carriages with seats like couches and a drum horse of gray with thick white hair over its hooves and a saddle that held drums on either side of the cavalryman. There was a rocking horse - a white Arabian with gray knees and a dark muzzle and a long light colored mane draped down one side of his head - he was mounted upon a rocker, and had a fancy harness and stirrups, and his tail reached the floor.
There was also a tiny wooden Viking with an ax, and there were two medieval archers with their bows pulled back and ready to unleash deadly arrows with sharp tips of splintered coal, along with a group of little Roman soldiers with helmets and swords and shields and red capes and also a sharp looking group of West Point cadets standing ramrod-straight and carrying white-handled swords.
Each wooden toy was made of invincible woods, for it is often a fact that vivacious children play with great verve and without finesse. And wooden toys are easy to paint, so the wooden toys looked brand new for many years.
Now we need to describe the tin toys. It should first be noted that tin does not rust. So, tin toys stay bright and shiny on and on into time, and now and then are pleased to have a sword straightened out with a pair of pliers, or to receive a fresh coat of paint or a dollop of hair coloring.
It should also be pointed out that tin is a soft metal, and easy to mold and cut, so tin toys are made with clean edges and excellent form.
The tin toys included a Russian soldier from the war of 1812 - he had a long coat, for he had fought in the winter, with gold buttons, a rifle in one arm and a sword in the other. There was a British officer with a white sash and white pants and gold epaulets, who permanently pointed the way forward with his arm. There were three members of Napoleon's Imperial Guard, and one of the men had a horn. There was a samurai swordsman with his hair tied back and crouched in a ready-to-strike pose. There was a sturdy cannon with red wheels.
The tin horses were made by craftsmen who studied all of the breeds in the known world for strength, speed, beauty and bravery. There were two taut and controlled thoroughbreds from Kentucky with fine, silky untrimmed tails; a Russian war horse from the steppes with a neatly trimmed mane; and three white Appaloosas with brown spots and yellow tails and strong necks and legs, speedy descendants of the Appaloosas belonging to the Nez Perce Tribe, who fought the U.S. Army and won for a while.
Sometimes children would play with just the wood toys; sometimes a mix of wood and tin toys. A brother and a sister, at the time of this story, had the toy box in their house, and it was chock full of toys. It was winter time, and the freezing wind and mounds of snow kept the children indoors by the fireplace for many days. On more than one of those chilly days, the brother and sister had, after three hours of play, all of the wood toys and all of the tin toys spread out on the floor. "Look, Momma," they would cry, "we're playing with all of our toys!"
These words from the brother and sister were not true for two reasons. Firstly, forgotten at the bottom of the toy box - once again - was a pile of discolored, disjointed metal, clumped together by gravity and misuse. Secondly, the boy had another toy that he had just gotten for his Christmas present - a red magnet shaped like a horseshoe, which he kept under his bed. The iron toys were used to being forgotten by children; but this was the first time for the magnet; she wasn't sad, she was mad.
"My name is Maggie and I'm brand new and I can lift up a hammer!" said the magnet loud enough for the toy box, and everything in it, to hear. "I thought I'd get a better welcome in this home."
The iron toys were too preoccupied at the time to give much thought to Maggie's predicament. For, as crusty, rusty things all crumpled together at the bottom of the toy box, those with legs could not stretch their legs, and those with wheels could not spin very easily, and iron is quite stiff to begin with.
It is time to take a look at the iron toys. There was a young woman with a banjo, a bearded man with a fiddle, and a pirate with an eyepatch and a dagger. There was a black man sitting hunched over a stand-up piano and a wooden pull toy with heart shapes in the iron wheels and a brass bell in the middle of the iron wheels which clanged when it was pulled by a string. There was a horse-head made of felt with an iron bridle and four missing wheels. The horse-head had no body: it sat atop a smooth piece of wood with rounded edges, like a skateboard. Back when it had wheels, a child just pulled a string attached to the horse's rein, and the horse-head was thusly able to travel. There was a wind vane made of an arrow with a little red rooster on top. There was a Chinese boy on a sled, stomach down, facing forward. There were two fighting Mexicans from the Mexican-American War, sporting tall black hats with gold chinstraps, along with dark blue coats and scarlet cuffs and collars; each carried a musket.
And there was one more thing made of iron: a cap gun that was plated with nickel.
The last iron toy that must be mentioned wasn't made of very much iron and wasn't even a toy. It was a tall marionette: a figurine of a wizard, with a long white beard made of white strings and a long, white mustache and a long, loose dark gown that once sparkled with stars. In his left hand he carried a staff with a white globe on top; he wore sandals. Strings attached to nothing fell from his wrists and knees. His staff was made of iron, and for that reason alone he had been rejected by both the wood and tin toys.
One night, just two days after Christmas, Maggie got even. She leaned her whole horseshoe-shaped body against the side of the toy box and said, "Here comes the force, people, prepare to be dazzled!" And Maggie's magnetic powers were felt inside the toy box by each and every iron toy, and they began to move up the side of the box, with the cap gun on top, and the other iron toys below it, with larger toys attached one by one and smaller toys attached two by two. The wood and tin toys did not feel a thing, and, in any event, the wood and tin toys were asleep.
"That's curious," said the wizard, "we are moving. It must be that the little boy knows a special trick."
But the little boy was asleep, too.
Soon, the lid on the toy box opened as the iron toys were lifted by Maggie's magnetic powers up and out of the toy box and onto the floor. The wizard, who was old, stayed laying down on the floor and stretched his legs, and the capgun, a heavy thing, sat still next to the wizard. But the other iron toys jumped into action. The piano guy struck up a bouncy tune and the young woman with the banjo and the fiddler joined in; the two fighting Mexicans looked on, tapping their feet all the while; the fingers of the Chinese boy on the sled kept time on the side of the sled.
The pirate pulled the string of the pull toy with the brass bell and faced the pull toy towards the band; the pirate also pointed the horse-head that sat on the smooth wood towards the band. The wind vane was already pointed in the right direction, for, if there is one thing that a wind vane knows, it is direction.
The wizard stood up and looked around by the light of the fireplace; he was still wondering how it was that the iron toys had been pulled out of the toy box. As Maggie explained her magnetic powers to the wizard, who was fascinated and entranced by her explanation, the pirate snuck away into the kitchen. The pirate returned from the kitchen with a thimble-full of rum. "Ahoy, maties!" said the pirate. "Let's boogie!"
It is perhaps true that it might be best to skip parts of a story, for the sake of the very young and the ultrasensitive, and this must be done here. A few hours later, it was the middle of the night. The man still played the piano, but it was a slow, quiet blues in the key of E, and he closed his eyes and truly hunched over for the deepest notes. The young woman with the banjo was asleep, as were the Mexican soldiers and the Chinese boy on a sled. The bearded fiddler had fallen asleep sitting up against the right side of the piano, and the pirate had fallen asleep on the left; they snored loudly in the wrong key. The rooster snored, too, and was in no condition to announce the coming dawn. Maggie and the capgun were in the shadows together; the wizard spoke.
"Wake up, wake up! Our secret will be betrayed if a human comes into this room while we are still here!" said the wizard.
And one by one the iron toys roused themselves, grousing all the while, moaning for aspirin; they were lifted back shortly before sunrise into the toy box by Maggie. Maggie returned to her spot under the boy's bed.
That day, the brother and sister played with the wood and tin toys in front of the warm fireplace. They arranged the wood and tin toys like an army: six tin horses stood at attention with a team of four white wood horses along with a sturdy drum horse with two kettle drums on either side of his saddle. There was also a rocking horse that was far bigger than the other horse. Behind all those horses stood the cannon with power. A French soldier blew his horn. Nearby, with discipline and strength, was a formation of Roman soldiers and graduates of West Point, keeping ranks with exactness. On either side of the formation stood the samurai and the Russian. On a command by the British officer, who pointed towards the fireplace, the archers let loose a volley of arrows that lit like firecrackers when they reached the flames.
While this crisp and noisy military drill went on outside the toy box, inside the toy box the piano player and the Mexican soldiers had joined the fiddler in a chorus of snoring, and the rooster called in sick.
"We are pathetic," said the wizard.
That night, Maggie hoisted the iron toys out of the toy box again; again the music played, again the pirate stole rum from the kitchen, and again the rooster was too lazy to crow for day; noon saw a snorefest of iron.
On the fourth day after Christmas, Maggie lifted the iron toys out of the toy box, while the army of wood and tin slept a healthy, sound sleep, and the well-fed and muscular horses slept standing up; the wooden Viking dreamt that he wore a silver crown. Before any party could start, the wizard spoke.
"Heed my words, my fellow iron creatures. We have been treated poorly for generations, and we simply do not get any respect from the humans. Maggie has done us a great service by using the power of magnetism to liberate us from the forgotten bottom of the toy box. But, for we iron creatures to be free, we must be strong and organized like the wood and tin toys. They have fast horses and clean and powerful weapons and superb soldiers. Frankly, I fear that either the wooden Viking or the tin samurai with the scary sword could defeat us all by himself," said the wizard.
"Defeat us?" cried the pull toy with the brass bell. "Like we'd ever fight them! Why on earth would we fight them? Life at the bottom of the toy box is not so bad and anyway we can sneak out at night and have parties!"
There were murmurs of approval.
The fiddler growled to the wizard: "You just can't have a good time. You spend too much time thinking and not enough time having fun."
The wind vane with the rooster on top said: "It's the holiday season, we should be celebrating, not getting caught up with war talk!"
The others agreed, except for the Mexican soldiers and the capgun, who stayed silent.
"We could have the toy box to ourselves if we could defeat the wood and tin forces," said the wizard as he pounded his iron staff on the floor, "and then the human children would play with us every day."
The capgun spoke up. "What would we have to do?" he asked.
"To begin with we have to assemble our weaponry. If you have a rifle or bullets, come forward!" shouted the wizard.
The banjo girl, who luckily spoke Spanish, whispered to the Mexican soldiers: they stepped briskly forward.
The capgun said: "I'm here too."
But that was all there was: two muskets, sold to the Mexican government a century earlier by the British though largely unworkable even then, and a capgun.
"Now," said the wizard, "if you have military training, step forward."
The banjo girl whispered to the Mexican soldiers again and again those two men stepped forward.
The wizard stroked his long, white beard. "How, in the name of all of the stars and planets, will we ever stand up to the cannon with red wheels, not to mention many ferocious soldiers on horseback with their swords and axes?" asked the wizard.
The assembled iron toys sensed the wizard's doubt and the meeting broke up; soon, however, there was singing and dancing, and the piano player shouted: "I wrote this one myself!"
That night, the horse-head lost his voice from singing so loudly, the pirate took out his glass eye and scared the banjo girl with it, and the rooster announced that he had never really been a morning person. Maggie left the party early with the capgun. The next day, the wizard was alarmed at the fearsome noise of the military drills of the wood and tin toys.
"Perhaps," thought the wizard, "war is not the answer."
The next night the wizard again addressed the iron toys.
"Tomorrow night is New Year's Eve," the wizard said. "We must resolve to start the New Year as free iron toys." He banged his staff. "There is a way to do this without war. We must escape this house, and go on a journey, a trek, a march, to find a human family that loves its iron toys."
The pirate spat on the floor. "No offense, but if we get out, I'm going to go my own way. I like you people, but I'd rather rob and pillage."
"That's fine," said the wizard, "but we may run into a fight. You have to be ready to sacrifice your life for the sake of the others."
The banjo girl translated for the Mexican soldiers. "Claro!" said the Mexican soldiers with pride.
The fiddler flexed his iron muscles; the piano player flexed his, and the pull toy shook his brass bell.
Then the capgun spoke: "Will the fiery redhead - Maggie - be coming with us?"
"You'll have to ask her," said the wizard.
"What's the plan?" asked the wind vane with the rooster on top.
"Everyone come closer and I will tell you the plan," said the wizard.
That night there was no party, and no rum; the piano player played a somber classical piece by Chopin, and the banjo girl and the fiddler played along with respectful and measured high notes; the fiddler had even trimmed his beard. The rooster expressed his regrets for slacking off and made a somber promise to do his duty.
Just before dawn the next day as a snowfall fell gently, gently falling, Maggie used her powers and slid the latch open on the front door of the house; the relieved hinges of the heavy wood door growled for a moment as the door opened a couple of inches. Through the opening came the iron toys. The pirate said, "I love fresh air!" gave a high five to the piano player, gave an unexpected hug to the pull toy and winked with his one good eye at the banjo girl, before setting off for the sea.
If you had been out and about as the snow fell that day, and been close by, you would have seen quite a sight! Maggie was in front of the parade and with her magnetic powers she pulled the capgun, who had the piano and the piano man on top. Behind them came the pull toy with the brass bell, which, if you listened closely and there was not too much wind in your ears, was ringing chimes of freedom. On the pull toy sat the Mexican soldiers, alert for signs of danger, and the wind vane, pointing wherever Maggie was headed. Behind them, the Chinese boy on the sled whisked merrily along carrying the banjo girl and the fiddler; the fiddler's beard flowed in the wind. Last, but not least, a string attached to the back of the sled pulled the horse-head along quite easily, for the smooth, waxed wood that the horse-head sat upon was like a ski on the snow. Surfing aboard was the wizard. The wizard's white globe glowed triumphantly among the dawn-kissed snowflakes, he wore socks with his sandals, and it was said that, every night forever after, his stars twinkled.