Saturday, June 8, 2013

No. 362 – Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds

Performer: The Beatles
Songwriters: John Lennon, Paul McCartney
Original Release: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Year: 1967
Definitive Version: None

I always have been a collector, and the first thing I ever really collected—really, my true first love if you go chronologically—were Hot Wheels cars. Hot Wheels, of course, were much cooler versions of Matchbox cars, and I jumped on the bandwagon shortly after Mattel rolled out the first versions in 1968.

In 1969, my maternal great-grandparents—Homer and Fern—celebrated their golden wedding anniversary, and the whole family met for a reunion dinner in Marion, Ohio. My cousin Tommy, whom I worshipped as a quasi big brother—he’s 4 years older than I am—brought some of his Hot Wheels.

I don’t remember now whether he introduced me to Hot Wheels at that reunion, but for sure, he made it so Matchbox cars just weren’t good enough any more. Besides the cars being super glossy, the biggest reason was the track.

In the big open living room of my grandparents’ house, Tommy set up an oval of bright orange track. In the middle he had a Supercharger, which, of course, was a battery-controlled gizmo that powered the cars around the track, so the cars could take laps on their own without you having to push them. Hokey schmokles, that might have been the coolest thing I’d ever seen.

And, like that, I was in the throes of Hot Wheels love. My first car was a bright red Beatnik Bandit, and my collection grew steadily. I got the track and a Supercharger and a set that had a two-lane starter with a plastic C-clamp to attach to my desk and the finish flags for gravity-assisted drag races in my bedroom as I listened to my Beatles 45s.

I became a member of the Hot Wheels fan club and got the silver Boss Hoss that came with it. Part of that membership included a catalog, so I could see other cars. I liked the funky-looking cars, like the Splittin' Image or Twin Mill, the best, and if there was one that was really cool, I had to have it right away. Fortunately, Hot Wheels cost, like, 49 cents back then, and it was no problem for Dad to fork over a couple of quarters.

Sometimes, however, he had to fork over a little bit more than that. To this day, he remembers the wild goose chase he was sent on regarding the Classic '31 Ford Woody.

The Woody was a must have—an old-fashioned panel truck (the original SUV) that had a tall roof, exposed engine and fenders. But when Dad ran by the Kiddie Korner on Lane Avenue, there was no Woody to be found. It had everything else.

He tried another Kiddie Korner, which was the toy-store chain in Columbus at the time, long before Children’s Palace came around. This one was at Graceland Shopping Center, then he tried the one at Northland, then Westland. Nothing.

Apparently every other kid realized that the Woody was in fact the coolest Hot Wheels car they’d ever seen. Now it became as much a quest for Dad to find the damn thing as it was for me to play with it. We both had to have the Woody.

The quest went on for months. Every time Dad and I or just Dad went shopping anywhere near to a store that sold toys, we’d check to see … no, no luck. No Woody.

One summer day, I was coming home from playing at a friend’s, probably Mark’s, while the sun was starting to set. Dad was in the driveway working on his real-life ’31 Ford Model A, affectionately known as Putt.

As I came up on my bike in the driveway—I had recently learned how to ride—Dad was excited to see me and said he had a surprise. He pulled out a Kiddie Korner bag, and inside were two Hot Wheels cars—a sky-blue Classic '32 Ford Vicky and … A WOODY!!!

I can’t remember now where Dad said he found it, but he did, and, oh, it was as glorious as I thought it would be. It was gold with a black top, and it gleamed like nothing else my hands had held to that point. The Vicky quickly became an afterthought.

There were other great Hot Wheels cars, cars I loved and coveted and, yes, were difficult to find. The Demon immediately comes to mind. But nothing topped getting that Woody. It was the pinnacle of my Hot Wheels collecting.

Naturally, not long after getting the Woody, my Hot Wheels collecting came to an end. Part of that had to do with the fact that the cars weren’t as cool as they were at first. The design got too weird for me, and they didn’t look as good. By 1973, the few new Hot Wheels models that came out were fairly dull.

But getting out of the Hot Wheels game had more to do with the fact that something replaced it in my collector’s heart, a thing I had found at the Kresge’s at Kingsdale in 1970. It’s no coincidence that when Dad started bringing home packs of baseball cards on a regular basis for me in 1971, it marked the end of my first true love affair.

Not that the Hot Wheels cars ended up like my Tonkas or Matt Mason figurines—forgotten and eventually discarded. I continued to play with them on occasion up to my teen years. I also kept my Hot Wheels in excellent shape. (Scott, unfortunately, took care of some of them when I was away at college.)

For the heck of it, after Debbie and I moved into our house, I got all the track out and set up a tournament of drag races in The Baseball Room—for old time’s sake. I probably hadn’t played with my Hot Wheels since college, and I spent a winter’s day before work reliving my childhood. The white Jack Rabbit Special won the whole thing, just like it always had.

Now, more than another decade later, I still have all the cars that survived Scott. Most still are in good shape, and I still have all the track, although it’s been at least two decades since the Supercharger worked. They’re in a storage garage, awaiting a time when I have room to maybe get them out and run races once more.

One car, however, is separated from the rest. It has a place of honor, retired to the firebox I keep in my apartment.

As if there were any doubt, it’s the Woody.

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