Sunday, February 18, 2018

How The West Was Lost

Originally read at The FREE ASSOCIATION Reading Series
on February 18th, 2018 
at Alphabet City, Pittsburgh, PA

BY THE MID-1970s, my little family had already registered considerable mileage migrating around Pittsburgh, living in various neighborhoods. I remember when my mother, younger sister, and I moved into the two-story, two bedroom house on Lyric Street in East Liberty. It was rented to our mother by her sister, in an effort to provide a measure of stability for the three of us. Later, this became four, when my youngest sister was born in the living room. Sometimes the head count grew to five, when our father would come to live with us for a while, though this was always temporary. All told, I was a happy kid.

However, even at six years old, I knew innately that something was off with our family. Specifically, something wasn’t quite right with my mother’s skewed perspective of the world. She loved her children with a ferocious volatility, but would turn on friends and loved ones at the barest provocation. Sometimes even we weren’t spared her wrath, which could be terrifying to the uninitiated, and tiresome to those who were. We weren’t so much a nuclear family as a family that was prone to going nuclear for the most mundane of reasons. Still, we kids were very close to our mother, even when her behavior was unstable, which was frequent.

Like most six-year old boys, I also looked up to our father, even though he typically wasn’t in the picture; he was a photographer so he preferred to instead take most of the pictures. That’s more than a metaphor: He wasn’t built for helping to maintain much day-to-day familial structure, so he existed at the periphery of our world, observing but not guiding. Sometimes he’d live with us for a week or month or so, otherwise he lived with his own mother in the Hill District. He was usually on-call as a special visitor more than anything else, and I looked forward to his visits. To make up for his absences, he frequently came bearing gifts. This was how I became exposed to comic books, which would chart my path through everything that was to come. Other times, he brought us toys.

Various G.I.JOE figures from the early-mid 1970s.
I had owned several just like these!
(Photos taken by me at The Strong Museum)
I had most of the things any little boy from the mid ‘70s would remember. I had a Big Wheel (and loved that thing), and a talking J.J. Walker doll that said his catchphrase, “Dy-no-MITE!” I had a Six Million Dollar Man action figure, and Johnny Lightning racing cars, and a battalion of G.I.Joe figures (the big ones with dog tags, and kung-fu grip, and fuzzy heads of hair and beards that scuffed off as you played with them). My middle sister and I shared full-headset walkie talkies, and model kits that our father sort-of helped us put together. Considering all the tumult our family experienced, I remember our parents, despite their issues, being pretty good about getting us kids the playthings we wanted.

They were so good, in fact, that I never believed in Santa Claus. That wasn’t bad; I just saw how it worked. We wanted toys, we asked for toys, if our parents could, they bought us the toys. This made total sense. I didn’t need to believe in a middleman…although, as the years went on, when other adults tried to convince us in Santa, I played along. It seemed to make the grown-ups feel good, and it didn’t matter to me. Toys were toys were toys, right? The delivery method didn’t matter.

But one toy stood out from the rest.

*     *     *     *     *

Variations on this poster appeared in comic-book
ads and point-of-purchase displays.
IN MANY OF the comics my dad bought for me, there were ads for the Johnny West Adventure series of action figures, MARX Toys’ answer to the G.I.Joe line. They had over a dozen characters, cowboys and cowgirls and Native Americans, real and fictional, that were sold along with horses and playsets. Each figure came with a surprising number of accessories, including pots, pans, and cups (because toys have to eat on the wild frontier of a kid’s imagination). And central to it all was the main character, Johnny West himself. This was what I wanted, and I wasn’t shy about asking for it. My life would be made more complete with a Johnny West doll. Of this, I was sure.

Several of the other characters had appeal too, for various reasons. I liked the colors of Sherriff Garrett, and there was even a Black character named Jed Gibson, dressed very Daniel Boone-like. However, the main figure, Johnny himself, proved elusive. My father took me on a couple of trips to department stores in search of one, and each time I came away with a different figure.

One was General Custer. It’s doubtful I knew this was based on a real person, and I find it amusing that he existed in my possession as a 1/6th-scale figure with accessories I dutifully kept track of. Another was Chief Cherokee, a stern-looking indigenous chief made of plastic so hard you could concuss a playmate if you hit them with it. However, neither the chief or Custer could stand a lasting chance of diverting my need to own an actual Johnny West figure. It was absolute, and now whenever I saw the ads in comics I felt an even greater sense of longing. It was so close, yet still just beyond reach. But I never got to complete the West family of toys on Lyric Street. The harmony was interrupted.

*     *     *     *     *

Chief Cherokee action figure, just like the one I owned!
ONE COLD DAY in November, 1976, my sisters and I were forcibly removed from my mother’s care. It had to happen. Heading into winter, the house had no electricity or gas, as those bills had been neglected. Our father wasn’t staying with us, the house was in a horrible state (although, as kids, we didn’t see it that way…it was kind of an adventure), and someone had to intervene on our behalf. My mom physically fought the police, but her cause was lost. Within minutes, the three of us were whisked away and taken to a juvenile facility up off of McKnight Road called McIntyre Shelter.

We stayed there for months, and time took on a hazy, gossamer-like quality. The days blurred together, yet I still remember some aspects of being there in microscopic detail, and things the staff did to make such an unusual experience as routinized and bearable as possible. Kids were separated by gender and age, and I ended up with the boys of Cottage Three. It was here I learned to make a bed, and hang up clothes, and attend school regularly, and speak when spoken to. There was a large playroom in the cottage, perpetually covered with a haphazard landscape of toys. You entered the playroom at your own bouncy risk; everything was fair game. A few toys temporarily came out, but they all had to make their way back. Toys in the playroom were community property and it was usually like Lord of the Flies inside.

I was allowed to hold onto the comic books my parents brought me on visiting days though. In them, I would still see the ads for the Johnny West figures. As Christmas approached, I have the scarcest memory of being asked what toys I wanted by the workers. I may have told them verbally, or I might have written a list. The memory of this is hazy, I think because specific toys had in many ways lost their same importance for a while. I was more focused on going home.

One weekend afternoon closer to Christmas (or it may have actually been Christmas Day), without much notice that I recall, all of the boys in Cottage Three were gathered and made to put on good dress clothes, including clip-on ties and nice shoes. As we were led to school buses, we could see that well-dressed-and-tressed girls and boys from the other cottages were also being put on buses. The fleet was driven to Allegheny Center where we disembarked and were seated at tables, grouped by cottage number, in a large hall. At one end of this hall was a stage with a big chair at the center, which I didn’t pay much attention to. I figured we’d been brought out for a fancy holiday meal, and looked around for my middle sister.

Later, the purpose of the stage and chair was made clear when Santa Claus took to the stage and, table by table, the kids began to be led up to receive individual sacks of toys! I may not have believed Santa to be real, but I was just as excited as everyone else at this holiday magic. So I took my place in line, played right along, gleefully accepted my bag of presents, said “Thank you!” and exited the other side of the stage. I wasn’t as mercenary about this as it might sound. I was so genuinely enthused that I lost my bearings on the way back to my group’s table. In a daze, I dropped to my knees and decided to see what I’d gotten from Santa. It was quite a haul, and all good stuff.

There he is!
And then, there it was inside: A box containing a brand-new Johnny West doll, fully jointed, with quick-draw action, and 24 pieces of western gear. The world disappeared. This was something I’d coveted so badly, and been denied for so long, it had been relegated to the role of fantasy. I’d forgotten it was possible and wasn’t even thinking about it while looking through the sack, and now, here it was. Decades later, it’s how I would feel the night Obama was elected.

I was eventually escorted back to my table where I gushed to my cottage buddies about it, and we all compared notes. Then we were taken back to McIntyre Shelter where I couldn’t wait to open my toys and get to playing. And it was then that each child was given a decision to make.

The reason toys stayed in the playroom at the cottage was due to the constant cycle of kids moved through the system. There was no way for the counselors to track who owned what at any given time. I’d played with kids in the morning who were gone, with no notice, by the same afternoon, so the abruptness of change was very real.  My sisters and I were also going home every other weekend now for overnight visits to our parents’ new place on the North Side – just a few blocks from here – in preparation for return to their custody, but I couldn’t take the toys back until our time at the shelter was done.

I could allow the counselors to put them into storage for me, to be given back whenever I went home for good, although there was no way to know how far off that might be. Or, I could play with them right then, but surrender them to the playroom, where they would become communal property, and would never leave the compound. The decision was mine alone.

I quickly chose to have them stored away. I’d already waited for my Johnny West this long; I could go a while longer.

*     *     *     *     *

BY LATE-JANUARY of 1977, our visits had increased to weekly intervals. My mother was especially faithful about making sure they occurred, and pressed my father into service to make the treks along McKnight Road happen. Every trip was a roller coaster of emotion, with elation at getting picked up on Friday afternoons, followed by normal family activities for two days (I remember anticipating a live broadcast of an Evel Knievel shark-jumping special with enthusiasm), and then a rapid descent to tears on Sunday evenings when we had to go back. For all of their faithfulness, Mom and Dad weren’t good at easing our transitions back at all.

One Sunday in February, nearly 41 years ago from now to the day, a few blocks away at 525 Armandale Street, my sisters and I prepared to gather our things for the trip back to McIntyre Shelter. Our father took a phone call, then told us we didn’t have to go back and could now stay. He had such a weird sense of humor that, even though we were little, or maybe because we were little, we didn’t trust him. (Remember, we didn’t believe in Santa Claus either.) After a while, it became apparent this was the truth and we really were allowed to stay. This was the moment we’d been waiting for!

And then I remembered the toy I’d never even gotten to take out of its box.

My mother recently corroborated that I’d then asked about going back for my Johnny West. She said they’d tried to make arrangements, but with the immediate requirements of getting us enrolled in school and settled in, it just didn’t happen. By the time I began attending Saint Matthew’s Lutheran School, with daily trips directly past this very building both ways, the sting of losing my long-sought toy had dissipated into acceptance.

The EVEL KNIEVEL action figure and stunt cycle!
(Circa 1977)
Just as Old West cowboys on horseback gave way to daredevils on motorcycles, my attentions in toys shifted and later that year I’d ask for and receive a new Evel Knievel figure with a rev-up stunt cycle. And I loved that thing. One of my fondest memories is walking with my family down Monterey Street to cross West North Avenue, and ending up directly across the street from here in Allegheny Commons Park. In the summer of ’77, you’d have seen me there, playing with my Evel Knievel, revving up his bike, and measuring my success by how far he travelled, and how big the obstacles were that he hurdled. You’d have seen a happy kid who made the leap from East Liberty to the North Side with no idea of the many miles ahead.


I'D LOOKED UP the toy online over the years, curious to see if any were out there, what shape they were in, how much they currently cost in collector markets, etc. I’d decided however that it was probably better to not buy one now. Nothing could compare to the memory of what I’d almost had.

Late last August, a few weeks shy of my 47th birthday, I was talking with my close friend Wayne when the subject turned to childhood possessions. He’d recently managed to track down a copy of an illustrated book he’d owned as a kid. The ability to see, as an adult, how this book had influenced him so early on, nudging him toward a path as a writer and artist, got him to thinking about the value of reclaiming certain objects of our youth. I agreed, which led me to the subject of my Johnny West doll. Wayne is a little older than me, and he’d owned different figures in the line too, several of which he still has in pretty good shape. He was also well acquainted with my story.

“I don’t think I even want one now,” I said. “It has more power as a thing of the past.”

“Really?” Wayne said, incredulously.

“Yeah, I think so,” I replied.

“Because, I got you one for your birthday. A new, re-issued one.”

I stopped mid-stride, sure that I’d misheard him. But I hadn’t. “This changes things,” I declared. “I said I didn’t want one before I knew that was possible!”

I now had a familiar choice to make: I could receive my gift that evening, now that I knew, or wait a month until my actual birthday to have it. Based on my previous decision, you might think I’d have decided to instantly play with my toy, but I chose once more to wait. I needed a chance to emotionally prepare for it. I really did. That night, as I worked late at the drawing table, I started crying at the thought of what he’d done.

And a few weeks later on my birthday, after over forty years, Johnny West, my long-lost toy was finally found.

Accessories included!

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