Vital Signs

Toy Story

As federal cannon boom from the smoky ridge to the west, a rebel foot soldier darts through underbrush, scrambles over a fence and crouches warily behind a tree. Raising his rifle to fire, he takes a volley of grape-shot in the chest. Tumbling, tragically, from the coffee table, he lands on the floor among the pirate Legos and Play mobile knights.

Retrieved to fight another day, the otherwise admirable Southern infantryman is found to possess an unsettling flaw. His face has been gnawed away (by a farm dog last petted in 1961), a hideous abnormality which lowers him in the esteem of four-year-old Ned who has inherited the small gray infantryman from his dad.

Still worse (cynical papa notes with sarcasm), the Confederate rifleman will not command a tidy sum if put on the open market at one of the so-called toy shows now conducted at fairgrounds and convention centers. Evidently, the plastic Civil War soldiers of my boyhood have become—horrid word—"collectibles." So, apparently, are figures of Davy Crockett, Johnny Tremain, and just about anybody who, in the 1950's and 1960's, had his own television show. (This cast of immortals, so help me, includes Fred Flintstone.)

There is something unsettling, perhaps unsettled, about a society that so readily turns the playthings of its immediate past into objects of unwarranted reverence—or, worse yet, campy condescension. It cannot speak...

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