Will J. J.

Day-to-day musings and occasional short stories for your delight.


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The Last Toy

 

Have you ever longed to return to a specific moment from your childhood, and change something? I can’t go back, but today it feels like I’ve finally done right by the little boy inside me, and I can’t help but smile.

 

Growing up, my family was very poor. My toys were few, mostly ragged trinkets from the goodwill. Every Sunday, my mom read the newspaper, and I would scour the toy ads, knowing that we couldn’t afford any of them. I would cut out the pictures of the toys and save them, playing with those pictures as if they were the toys themselves. I had an entire fleet of Star Wars ship pictures, and they were far more portable than most toys, because I could slip them all into a folder and take them anywhere. Still, any time one of my pictures was ripped or got wet, I was reminded of just how little I had.

kraft mac and cheese

In 1998, Kraft ran a promotion with their macaroni and cheese products for DC superheroes. If you mailed in a certain number of box tops from these kraft boxes, Kraft would mail back one of three toys: a Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman figure from the cartoons running at the time. As a kid, superheroes were the one fandom I was a part of, and seeing this promotion lit up my eyes. I had my sights set on the Superman balancing toy, because it portrayed him in flight, and I thought that was incredibly cool. We already ate mac and cheese on a regular basis, so all I had to do was collect the box tops and mail them in.

 

For the next couple of months, I carefully collected and stored the labels, until I had enough. I still recall the day I licked the stamp and mailed the envelope, specifying that I wanted the Superman toy. After that, I waited. Weeks went by, then months. In my naivete, I assumed that Kraft was simply slow with their response, and it would arrive any day. After over 6 months, I finally asked my mom, who had forgotten about the matter entirely. We called Kraft and explained that we had mailed in the box tops but never received anything back.The representative apologized, but said that they no longer had that toy line in stock. They offered me a Rugrats toy instead. A RUGRATS toy??? Are you kidding me? Rugrats cannot compare with the joy of imagining a hero flying over buildings and beating bad guys. Through tears, I told them not to send the Rugrats toy.

 

It might seem like a small matter, but to a 6 year old boy, it was devastating. I did everything I was supposed to. I collected the box tops. I mailed them in, following the instructions. I waited patiently for months, and I received nothing. When you’re a kid, your world is much smaller. You focus on the few things you’re aware of, and they are your everything. My view was even more narrow than most kids, so I invested a great deal of hope on that toy.

 

In the months and years to come, my life moved in other directions, but I never forgot about that Superman toy and that experience. I think it was the feeling of sorrow and injustice that stuck with me. Obviously I wanted the toy, but had I received it, I doubt I’d still be thinking about it years later. The lesson seemed to be that, no matter what you do, the world doesn’t always respond fairly, and that lesson stung. From that moment on, the toy represented far more to me than just play value.

 

When I reached my teenage years, I started intermittently combing through the internet, searching for the toy. It was years before I found any mention of the toy line or promotion, and I never found any for sale. After over a decade of looking, I had little hope of finding the toy, but I’d check every now and then, just in case. I never found any for sale until last week.

 

Emily and I were discussing a package UPS had shipped my way. There were issues with the shipment, and I was thinking through the steps I would need to take to get my package or a refund. Something about that thought reminded me of this toy, once again, and I offhandedly searched for it, the first time in a few months. Lo and behold, I found a man selling the exact toy on ebay, and I hastily bought the item, more excited than I would have thought possible.

superman toy

The toy came in yesterday, and I unboxed it in a fury. The man had never opened it, as the toy was still wrapped in the sealed plastic bag, as it would have in 1998. It felt like I was a 6 year old boy again, and all the expectation and sadness came rushing back to me, this time capped with a warm blanket of satisfaction, made all the more fulfilling because of the extremely protracted wait. I can’t go back and give this toy to that 6 year old boy, but even now, 19 years later, this is something worth celebrating 🙂

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Why Superheroes Mean Everything

Day 3036

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           Superheroes are awesome. They’re inspiring, iconic, and exciting. Superheroes have been a part of my life since a day when I was three years old, when my father bought me an assorted pack of comics from Kmart. Inside were issues of Iron Man, Captain America, Fantastic Four, Thor, and The Avengers. From that day onward, my love for superheroes was born.

            I may not have known what the words meant at three years old, but I knew that every panel, so packed with action, looked colorful and appealingly chaotic. As I grew up, those comics assumed greater meaning for me. My father and I used to visit the local comic shop every few weeks and pick up a few issues. My father was a stay-at-home dad, so I spent a great deal of time with him, but those trips to the comic shop were especially precious to me. I still remember the first time we stepped through the doors to that comic book store, and I spotted the display of action figures and statues lined along the walls. I knew that greatness surrounded me.

            What is it that makes superheroes so appealing? Beyond the colors and action, there is something distinctly relatable about most superheroes. They may possess extraordinary powers, but they grapple with their own personal struggles, just like the rest of us. The only difference is that their problems are amplified to ridiculous proportions.

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 yup, pretty ridiculous

            Iron Man has always been my favorite superhero. Interestingly enough, Iron Man was not a popular superhero until the first movie was released in 2008, so I spent my childhood collecting comics of a character whom most of my friends were completely unfamiliar with. In many ways, the character of Tony Stark was the complete opposite of me as a child. Whereas I was shy and reserved to a fault, he was someone bold and brash who wasn’t afraid to speak his mind. What attracted me to Iron Man above all other heroes, however, was his origin story.

            How do most superheroes gain their powers? Some are born with them, like Superman, Wonder Woman, and most of the X-Men. Many others receive their powers in freak occurrences, like the Flash, Hulk, and Spiderman. What made Iron Man so unique to me is that he created his own superpowers using only his mind, without any cosmic or uncanny influence. Iron Man’s real superpower isn’t his armor at all, it is his mind, and he used his intelligence to escape from his captors. The hallmark of many early Iron Man stories wasn’t the invincibility of his armor, but the ingenuity of its creator, and his ability to find a solution to the problem at hand, no matter the odds against him. That was a powerful message for me as a child, the idea that your mind could be the greatest superpower of all, leading you away from certain doom time and time again.

            When my parents divorced, that message became all the more meaningful. Throughout a custody battle that stretched on for years, one of the only constants in my life was Iron Man. His exploits were a sanctuary for me in times when all I wanted was to escape from my life. When the battles around me turned bitter and I didn’t know whom I could trust, I turned to Iron Man. He was someone I could look up to, even though he wasn’t real. What began as a bond between my father and me transcended that relationship entirely. The first comic I ever read was Iron Man issue 300, and that particular issue features a moment where Tony Stark must stand up to his father in order to escape a prison of sorts. Ironically, when push came to shove in my parents’ custody battle, my life mimicked that issue eerily, and it felt like déjà vu when I was forced to stand against my own father.

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           the comic that started it all for me

             Superheroes provide a sense of wonder and excitement, but that is not all they do. There is so much more beneath the surface, beyond the outlandish scenes. Superheroes represent a source of strength inherent in each of us, and all the explosions and epic clashes merely exaggerate the conflicts of reality. If there is one lesson superheroes have taught me, it is that the ability to think and the will to press onward are superpowers in themselves, ones every bit as powerful as those from the comics.