The Ultimate Toy

WILLIAM K. GOOLRICK, JR., spent most of his six years in the Army on General Patton’s staff. A Virginian by birth and a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, he is now on the staff of LIFE in New York.

Until a few months ago my wife and I believed that we were enlightened parents. We studied Spock and Gesell and never shouted at the children except when we were angry. But in one area of our children’s development, their toys, we learned before Sputnik started to beep that our ideas were as outmoded as a Gatling gun.

We first realized how backward we were when our boy celebrated his fourth birthday. A neighbor gave him a burp gun. It is about three feet long and operates on a pair of flashlight batteries. You press the trigger and half a dozen “rounds” spurt out before you can remove your finger. It sends off a shower of simulated sparks, and the total effect of flash and roar is almost as upsetting as a burst of live ammunition.

Before the burp gun arrived we lived in the “Stick ‘em up! Bang bang!” age. Battles that broke out in our back yard raged endlessly, because neither side could develop the fire power to overcome the other. The burp gun changed the tactical situation abruptly. It enabled our side to lay down such a volume of fire that the enemy was quickly routed. But the burp gun was not an ideal weapon. It gave us the tactical advantage, but it had no effect upon the strategic situation.

What we needed was something that would deter aggression, a weapon that was so powerful that nobody would dare attack us because he would know that any attack would be met with massive retaliation at a time and place of our own choosing. In the era of nuclear fission and John Foster Dulles, I was confident that such a weapon existed.

I decided to search the stores, starting with F. A. O. Schwarz, “America’s Most Famous Toy Store.” Before I went there I scanned the catalogue with discouraging results. “Watch the children, if you would learn to laugh,” it said. “Watch your own youngster . . . watch him push, pull, run, stomp, swim and laugh. This is a world of young fun, bounded only by the child’s imagination and your love.”

I was afraid that a store that concerned itself with the “world of young fun” would be a waste of time, but when I stood in front of the store my spirits soared. The window was given over to a military display, featuring an aircraft carrier that must have been twenty feet long with a deck full of toy jets ready for action. Flanking the aircraft carrier were a pair of life-sized dummies, one in a frogman’s suit and the other in the high-altitude helmet and breathing paraphernalia of a jet pilot. In front of the display, right up against the window, were a pair of honest-to-God 50-caliber machine guns.

“This is the place,” I said to myself. I went in and found that for children who could stop laughing long enough to penetrate the outer defenses there was a real 20 mm. gun inside the door.

Encouraged by the presence of these weapons, I toured the store. I found automatic pistols, machine guns, rockets, and a remote-control tank that crawled across the ground with a machine gun and tank commander revolving in the turret. There were airplanes, from the halfforgotten World War II B-17 to the latest F-100 Super Sabre jet, and ships of all sorts and sizes up to the Navy’s big new supercarrier, the Forrestal. Doting parents could buy their offspring uniforms of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force with ribbons to denote service in the ETO, the Pacific, and Korea.

For a moment, when I came across an “atomic air gun,” I thought I was on the track of the ultimate toy. The clerk cocked the gun, and as she pressed the trigger a mass of pressurized air was forced out of the barrel, making a dent in a distant paper target. But this was a tactical weapon, to be used against enemy tanks and other obsolescent weapons.

I visited half a dozen other stores. I saw machine guns, M-47 tanks, a 155 mm. “Long Tom” gun, the Monitor and the Merrimac, planes, pistols, and rockets. A clerk demonstrated a rocket gun. It had five levers on a firing mechanism that looked like a miniature organ console. He fired each of the rockets separately at a target of makebelieve airplanes. “The youngsters like it because you can fire a salvo,” he said, and then he pressed all five levers at once and a volley of rockets hurtled toward the planes.

I also saw radar guns, elaborate toys that track a moving plane and mow it down with unerring accuracy. Nearly all of the stores had a set of toy soldiers called a “GI Battle Action Group.” It included a threestar general, who looked like Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., two bazookamen, two mortarmen, two machine gunners, and a squad of riflemen, all in battle poses. For those who like to carry the realism further there was a toy-soldier set that included several badly wounded men, bleeding and maimed as they awaited ambulances coming up to evacuate them.

For a while I was afraid that the progress in toys had not matched the progress in weapons. But then there was a toy show in New York that renewed my hopes. The newspapers carried a picture of two small boys aiming a small “atomic cannon” which was “part of a 5-gauge atomic train” on display at the show. “The cannon, loaded with jelly bean ammunition, is coupled to the atomic reactor car which according to these young railroaders carries a small piece of ‘uranium’ under the three blinking lights that alert onlookers to ‘fissionable’ materials,” the caption said. “Actually powered by electric current, the train also includes an ‘atomic’ engine, a flat car with an ‘Honest John’ Rocket, and bringing up the rear a fire direction center car which resembles the familiar caboose.”

But again this was a tactical weapon, designed for employment by the ground forces, and would have little value as a strategic deterrent. It was encouraging, though, and I felt certain that if this toy existed, the ultimate toy must have been developed.

Then the Russians announced that Sputnik was orbiting around the earth, and while Washington was still trying to find different ways to minimize its importance, Macy’s brought out a satellite. I hurried down to Macy’s toy department, which must cover at least an acre. I found planes, tanks, machine guns, and amid the chatter of burp guns, a satellite launcher.

It was a mobile plastic platform, with a revolving radar screen, a launcher, and four satellites, two of them white and the others blue. A sign on the launching platform warned the firer to “stand back when launching satellites.”

I asked a clerk how high the satellite would go, and he said, “Well, I’ll put it this way. They’ll hit the ceiling of this room.” It seemed to me that I couldn’t ask for more, indoors, and that this was a lot better than the Department of Defense had done out of doors.

But I knew from reading what the then Secretary Wilson had said about the satellite being just a clever scientific trick that had no real military significance. It wouldn’t have any effect on the backyard wars that I was trying to eliminate. Hard as I looked, I could not find the ultimate toy.

I was about to leave, but as a last chance I asked a clerk, “Are these all the toys?" thinking how absurd it was to suggest that there might be more.

“There are some in the Hobby Shop over there,” he said.

The counter of the Hobby Shop was covered with toy planes like the ones I had seen in the other stores. But then I spotted a wondrous object, right across the aisle from the butterfly nets. It was a three-stage missile, red and white, that must have been two feet high.

“What is that?” I asked the clerk.

“That’s the Atlas, the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile.” she said proudly, reached under the counter, and handed me an unassembled missile. The directions on the box said that it was “a replica of the Atlas, the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile . . . an accurate scale model based on the most dependable information available, of the missile designed to carry the first man-made satellite into outer space. It can also be used to carry an atomic or hydrogen warhead over 5000 miles.”

It was the perfect toy. It did not fire. It didn’t even make a sound. All we had to do was to take the missile home and let the word leak out to the neighbors that we had it and had successfully testfired it, and nobody would dare attack us.

Satisfied that my search was over, I asked the clerk what age child the ICBM was intended for. She said, “He should be eight or nine. He should be able to read.”