Friday, March 11, 2005

Melting dinosaurs for Christmas

I remember a lot of things from early childhood, I think because we moved across the country when I was about to turn six. The drastic difference between New Jersey (snow covered when we left it) and Arizona (hot, dry, hot, dry, and did I mention hot?) kept those early memories from melting together.

And speaking of melting together, let's talk about one of my favorite toys from the New Jersey Era: Strange Change. Or more specifically, "Strange Change Featuring the Lost World."

I must have gotten this toy at Christmas, 1971; I think we had gone to my Other Grandmother's house in Mountain Lakes to get together with some of my father's family. My cousins were intensely jealous of this toy, with all its plastic dinosaurs, scorpions, and other assorted creepies.

Here's how it worked: the machine was roughly a foot square, made of red colored metal. There was a heating chamber that had a metal mesh floor and a clear plastic dome, which had a door which swiveled open and closed. Once you plugged the machine in, the chamber got very hot. You put a plastic square (looking vaguely like a Starburst chew, but twice the size) into the heating chamber; the square unfolded into a dinosaur, a pterodactyl, or some other bizarre little shape.

After they cooled off, you could play with the dinosaur, running it around the plastic mountainscape that came with the toy. Then, you would put the dinosaur back into the heating chamber to soften it up; once it was suitably gooey, it got dropped into the press on one side of the machine. Then you cranked the press, which squeezed the dinosaur back into a square, with "Mattel" stamped on it.

I can recall the smell of the molten plastic very well - that aroma of slightly burned brontosaurus. I'm surprised I didn't burn myself with this toy - it was one of those toys that you could probably never sell today without a consumer advocate group freaking out: heat, small parts, toxic fumes. But of course, I loved it.

The plastic mountain landscape was the first part of the toy to break; the landscape developed a fissure and then tore apart. Never mind that - the dinosaurs were the important part. Then some of them succumbed to overcooking, getting a little brown around the edges.

Later on in the 70s the "shrinking-growing-plastic-toy" category got hot again when Shrinky Dinks became popular. This toy (or "craft kit", I think you'd say) included plastic sheets onto which you would trace designs - like, for instance, my Taurus key ring. Then you colored the designs and cut them out; when popped in the oven, they shrank and became thicker. Hours of fun for the whole family. Actually, looking back, we were a fairly craft-oriented family. Not insanely so ... but in the 70s we made our fair share of macrame, string art, make-a-plate, paint-by-numbers, soap, candles, and even plaster molds (in keeping with the astrological theme, I made a Taurus plaque which I painted gold.)

I wonder sometimes about toy inventors; I know that Strange Change was inspired by the invention of plastics that would remember their shape when heated. But I always like to think about whoever was in a room, brainstorming: "What if there were ... dinosaurs! Yeah, that's it! Little dinosaurs that ... grow! Yeah! And then you can squish 'em back up again! In a little cooker that gets to be about a thousand degrees ... ! Sounds great! Aw, don't worry about the kids, if they get burned, they'll just learn not to touch it again! It's a life lesson! With dinosaurs!"

If only all of life's lessons came with dinosaurs, I'm sure I would have learned much more along the way.

5 Comments:

Blogger Zenchick said...

Goddess BLESS the Shrinky Dink!! I think if we all band together we can bring them back...
(I can't believe *I* commented before David!)

9:18 PM  
Blogger Hanuman1960 said...

I remember that toy! (Er..um..my babysitter told me all about it when I was just a wee bairn!)

Seriously, the only toy from that era that might have been MORE dangerous was Mattel's "Creepy Crawlers". I remember it consisted of this heavy, metal, hot plate, where you would take metal molds which were in the shapes of insects and spiders and such, and pour this goop into them, and then set the molds, using a pair of tongs that had to latch into these pre-placed holes in the mold just so, into the hot plate. Then we got to watch them cook! Then, when they were done, you had to put the entire mold into a cool water bath in order to get the "creepy crawlies" out!

Hello! Can you say "third degree burns?!"

7:46 AM  
Blogger Rindy said...

"Ooh, something smells good in here. Whatcha cookin'?"

"Dinosaurs."

6:46 PM  
Blogger Knottyboy said...

I had this chemical kit as a kid that you could make rubber balls with. Powered components that with some sort of caustic liquid that would heat up and make a fully formed [once poured into the mould] rubber ball. If you were impatient with the heating process you ended up with a handfull of rubber sand.

7:58 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

I'm kind of jealous...I never had any dangerous toys as a kid. Does an EasyBake count?

11:38 PM  

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