Hopalong Cassidy was all the rage when I was born. He'd been all the rage as a cowboy hero for years and smart marketing had Hoppy's licensed products all over the place. The Hopalong Cassidy television show was on the air from the time I was an infant until I was about four or five years old. Even then I thought he was a rather peculiar cowboy star, but adults seemed to think kids should like him so I guess we did--kind of.
Cowboy and Indian movies had been around since the earliest days of film-making. My father had grown up with them. They were still quite popular in the 50s, but science fiction and war movies were starting to become more ensconced in the cinematic hearts of young American boys. I preferred the uncertain threats suggested by the sci-fi genre, but I still loved a good Western.
Some of my favorite toys included the plastic little men that usually came in the form of soldiers or cowboys and Indians. The army men were always a drab green color. They often came with nifty green colored accessories like guns, artillery, and vehicles. For some strange reason the bags of cowboys and Indians were brightly multicolored red, yellow, blue, and other colors. Oddly the horses were in the more natural colors of white, black, and brown. I could never figure out why those little men had to be so colorful, but that's they way it was and we just had to accept it.
The little figures came in assorted poses that represented cliches that met the expectations that we had developed after watching countless Western films. The Indians always included the archer on one knee poised with an arrow in a drawn bow, the wild running brave with tomahawk in the air, the warrior with knife ready for attack, and the noble chief holding a lance. Most of the tiny faces looked fierce and intimidating. The cowboys' faces were stern and stoic. They usually stood in various stances of gun readiness. Both groups had riders that could be mounted on horseback. It was a cast of characters that was perfect for directing my own cowboy and Indian spectacle.
Sometimes my little men clashed in battle. I simulated gunfire and ricocheted bullets with weird little kid mouth sounds. Tiny bodies fell from furniture that stood in for high cliffs and buildings. Riders tumbled from horses. Figures fought in hand to hand combat as I deftly maneuvered the little bodies to create blows with arms that were locked into permanent poses. My imaginary Westerns had some violence, but they often had something that most kids' play did not have--circus.
Circus and show business were an integral part of my life when I was growing up. If there had been toy sets that consisted of miniature jugglers, clowns, and acrobats I would have probably had those, but since there were not I had army men and cowboys and Indians. Army men did not seem to fit well into the circus, but I could easily create my own tiny circus with a Wild West Show theme.
My miniature show had trained horses from the Western toy sets and some other animals from a safari set that I had acquired somewhere along the way. The circus owner and the hero of my playtime movie stories was a little man dressed in safari clothes. His greatest distinctions were that he was made out of black plastic (I had never seen a little man made of black plastic) and he had a missing arm. It looked almost as though the arm had been chewed off, but I had no recollection of how he lost the arm. Then again I don't even remember where the man came from.
There was something rugged and heroic about the little black man with the missing arm. I imagined that he had been a famous lion tamer who had lost his arm to one of the big cats. Even with one arm missing he was tough and commanded respect. No one dared to go up against the lion tamer turned circus owner. He did not see a missing arm so much as a handicap as much as a minor inconvenience.
One of the Western sets had included a cowgirl so she became the love interest of the one armed circus owner. There was only one cowgirl in my toy collection so she was naturally the sweetheart of the only hero. My hero had a few sidekicks and pals, but most of the cowboys and Indians were just movie extras on the imaginary set of my imaginary Western.
I no longer remember the stories. They lasted from day to day over a time span now forgotten. The men, the animals, and the set pieces have long vanished to unknown places and reside only vaguely in my memory now clouded by the passing of the decades. Only dust lingers from the parade of circus wagons that have long disappeared over a distant horizon toward a soft sepia sunset.
Do you have any special playtime memories or toys that were especially significant to you? Did you put stories to your playtime and did they continue from day to day? How have the imaginary stories of your childhood play affected you to this day?
And now a "Theme from an Imaginary Western":