I grew up in a working-class home, and while I never felt deprived, I also knew that my family was not exactly top shelf. As a child, my immediate evidence of this condition came from toys. While I had more than enough toys for any child, I had fewer than many or most of the other kids I knew, and there was also a qualitative difference as well as a quantitative. As much as my parents wanted to me to have the latest and the greatest, the actual items I would up with were usually second- or third-tier. I didn't ever resent this pattern, for it brought me the first great triumph of my life.
During the holiday shopping frenzy of 1961, when I was just past my fourth birthday, this was the hottest toy going:
The Johnny Reb Cannon by Remco. The TV commercials showed boys in Civil War garb straining to drag it up hills and over embankments; those wheels must have been a foot in diameter. A resounding boom! echoed every time they let loose a shot onto enemy forces. Of course I wanted one.
What I got was this:
As I set up my artillery piece, who should come walking down the street but two Big Kids, perhaps seven years old, or maybe even nine, pulling a Johnny Reb Cannon.
They stopped and laughed at my little howitzer. Close up, I could see that their Johnny Reb was no great shakes: all plastic and flimsier than it seemed on television. There was a metal rod in the center of the barrel, and the cannon balls had holes in them and were slid down the rod with the rammer, which also had a hollow core; it all seemed very un-cannon-like.
The Big Kids decided we were going to have a war and moved a little further down the sidewalk, turning Johnny Reb to aim right at me. I had no choice; the battle was on, and it was beyond my control to stop the conflict. Gamely, I cocked the spring mechanism of my Marx Howitzer and dropped a shell down the barrel. The Big Kids made quite a show of loading the Johnny Reb, and then graciously offered me the first shot.
Twannng. The little shell popped out, covered maybe half the ten-foot distance between the gun emplacements, and hit the sidewalk, rocking back and forth just for a moment before lying still and impotent on the concrete. I sighed, resigned to my fate.
One Big Kid shouted. The other pulled the lanyard. Johnny Reb fired with more of a scrrrape than a boom. The cannonball whistled over my head.
And bounced on the sidewalk.
And rolled into the street.
And was promptly run over by a passing car (with perfect timing) that flattened it into a small black disk.
One Big Kid ran bawling into the street, picked up the now useless hunk of plastic, and just sort of hunched over it, weeping and cursing. The other Big Kid retrieved him and guided him back onto the sidewalk and the Johnny Reb. Together they grabbed the toy cannon by its tow line and went back they way they had come, their skirmish with me forgotten.
I picked up the spent shell and looked at it, thinking how things that were round like balls rolled a lot and things that were round like crayons didn't roll quite so much.
Smiling, I picked up my little howitzer and scurried back into the house for some Yoo-hoo.