Like many people who grew up in the 1970s — unsupervised and aimless — I sometimes wonder how I survived.
This topic and the role of plastic toys in the summer fun of that decade is part of a recent feature in Sports Illustrated. Writer Steve Rushin takes a look at that bygone era, when kids played outside more with a wide range of plastic toys. But Rushin also writes about how unsafe some of those toys proved to be.
Toymaker Wham-O — which still produces a wide range of plastic toys — is described by Rushin in the magazine's July issue as "the Thomas Edison of summer fun." He labels the firm's 1970s headquarters in San Gabriel, Calif. As "the Menlo Park of backyard bedlam."
"Among other gifts, Wham-O gave us the Slip N Slide, a 25-foot sheet of polyethylene on which children still dive headlong," Rushin writes. "The Slip N Slide was the perfect vehicle for landlocked Midwesterners, deprived of ocean waves, to surf on turf."
He also praises Wham-O's Frisbee plastic disc, which became a pop culture fixture in the mid-70s. According to Rushin, when a fan went onto the field and threw a Frisbee to his dog during a baseball game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds, Wham-O paid his fine.
"Frisbees were enjoying a golden age, with men and women in short shorts and long tube socks leaping skyward in backyards and public parks," Rushin writes.
Unfortunately, some 70s Wham-O products like the Water Wiggle sprinkler and Super Elastic Bubble Plastic proved to be unsafe and were discontinued, according to the piece.
Beyond Wham-O, Rushin devotes part of the feature to the history of lawn darts — metal darts with plastic fins that resulted in multiple injuries but somehow weren't pulled from the market until the late 1980s.
The rise of stuntman Evel Knievel also is covered in the piece. Knievel's plastic-heavy action figure set was the top-selling toy of Christmas 1974, according to Rushin. But numerous kids were injured when trying to duplicate Knievel's jumps on their own bikes.
(In my Ohio neighborhood, we also made use of the plastic-intensive Big Wheel — made by Marx Toys — when jumping curbs, ramps or various uneven parts of sidewalk.)
Rushin also cites the affordability of plastic products in the 1970s, quoting prices of $1.50 for a Wiffle ball and bat and 99 cents for a polystyrene foam cooler.
The SI piece is entertaining, but thankfully stops short of that "things were so much better in my day" tone that a lot of similar stories take. Now that my own kids are in their early 20s, I realize that they had just as much fun as kids as I did, they just did it in their own way.
Rushin seems to acknowledge this by pointing out how "the world is different" in 2020. "Captain America wears a seatbelt, and probably sunscreen," he writes. "His Schlitz is a craft beer. His child is drinking from a water bottle, not the hose."
The SI piece seems all the more relevant in this summer of COVID-19, with kids needing to make their own fun. Thankfully, Frisbees still continue to fill the air. It's a pastime that's perfect for an era of social distancing.