Monday, May 13, 2024

The Toy That Changed my Life

RHYS BOWEN:  I was watching scenes of volcanic eruption on Iceland and the display of frightening raw power brought back memories of a toy I had as a child. I must have been about ten when I was given a Viewmaster for Christmas. Do you remember those. They came with a reel of photographs and you looked through the viewer and they appeared in 3D. It was a brand new toy at the time and I was blown away with the reality of those 3D scenes. It came with a good assortment of reels, one of which was the volcanic eruption on Hawaii. I couldn’t believe it was real, it looked so scary. But the other reels were all travel scenes from around the world. You have to remember that this was before color TV in England so the effect was even more impressive.

 I watched them over and over, especially Venice. It almost felt as if I could touch that gondola on the Grand Canal. And I knew from that moment on that I had to travel. I had to see this big and beautiful world. Shortly after that Cinerama came to the big screen and we stared in wonder as we flew over the Grand Canyon or the Swiss Alps.





 I rather suspect that Viewmaster came from my Aunt Gwladys, who was the consummate traveler. She was the one who spent every Easter in Venice and inspired my book, The Venice Sketchbook. She took me to Wales when I was seven or eight then I started my travel abroad in my teens. With my parents I went to Venice several times, and through the Alps. With my aunt I toured the rest of Italy, and alone I traveled to Austria. And do you know what? In real life they took my breath away, just as they did on that Viewmaster reel. They still do. I don’t know how many times I’ve stood looking down the Grand Canal, or looking up at the snow capped peaks of the Alps and still find it hard to breathe. So a big thank you to Aunt Gwlad or whichever relative gave me that toy, all those years ago.  It changed my life.

 Now tell me about one thing that changed your life, your perception of the world, when you were a child.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I had a globe that was lit from the inside. I don't remember now if it was a Christmas or a birthday present, but I was entranced by it. My grandmother (who lived with us) had a subscription to National Geographic, and we would read about places, find them on the globe, then draw imaginary trips on the globe with erasable markers. I'm sure this inspired my adult love of maps and geography, and I still have the globe–it sits on the console table in my office!

 HALLIE EPHRON: What wonderful gifts! And they definitely set you both on a path…

I’m afraid one of the few toy/gifts I remember receiving was a doll who wore high heels. (Before Barbie, before Women’s Lib…) I’d begged my mother for a “high-heel doll” and the one I got that Christmas was a blonde. WRONG!  I cannot say why this gift stuck in my brain. It was so not what I really wanted, and it didn’t change my life, but it did define for me who I was, in a backwards sort of way. (I was not a blonde.) 

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Huh. That is a truly thought-provoking question, and I guess. OH. Certainly. It was a gift from my grandmother, and I was maybe–10? Or younger? Younger. 

 I had fallen in love with…typing. Typing! And she had a typewriter that came in its own carrying case.  You’d open the top of the suitcase-like holder, and the typewriter was inside.  I think I remember that it was pale blue.

So, thing was, and I SO remember this, I didn’t have anything to type. It never crossed my mind to make up something of my own. Seriously. So I got Gramma’s Readers Digests, and I would type out, like, the Laughter is the Best Medicine articles, and Humor in Uniform. I mean–I just copied them, because I loved typing so much.

I loved that typewriter.

JENN McKINLAY: Oh, Hank, I love that story. I found my mom’s red portable typewriter when I was a kid and I would type up the family news like a newspaper (ratting out all of my sibs) and then sell it to my mom for 25 cents so I could go buy candy! LOL.

The gift (not really a toy) but still a gift that changed my life was my very first journal from my Aunt Nancy when I was 14. It was hardbound blue leather with silver embossed swirls all around the edge of the cover and it came with a matching pen. I wrote down everything! So much teenage angst. I still have it but am not ready to read it. Too cringey. Still, I genuinely believe it helped me find my author’s voice for which I am ever grateful.

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: What changed my life wasn’t one gift, but a series of them over and over: tickets. My mother loved art, music and performance, and she managed to fill my life with them (despite some extremely lean years after her divorce and before marrying Dad.) In Stuttgart, we went to the Staatstheater, where we saw operas like Hansel and Gretel and The Magic Flute, and ballets like Swan Lake and Ondine. Then, when we moved to upstate NY, we went to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center every summer, sitting on the lawn and seeing the greatest dancers of the day from the NY City Ballet. 

She also took me to my first Broadway show, my first play, my first Shakespeare. While I wound up not pursuing my dreams to be an actress, I’ve retained my love of performance throughout my life, and am much, much richer for it. Thanks, Mom!

57 comments:

  1. A subscription to Highlights magazine . . . we were five or six; I remember how much I looked forward to each issue . . . I loved being able to read that magazine by myself . . . and I never lost that love of having a book to read . . . .

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  2. Ah, I would have to say the repeating gifts of art, music, and books. When we could afford it (which was seldom), we went to the opera (cheapseats, but magical). What we COULD usually afford were the library and art museums in any town of my mother's vagabond life. So, early on, my brother and were in the habit of hanging out at the library and or walking to a nearby museum (and exploring other departments in addition to the art). I would definitely say that such an early exposure became the gift that kept on giving - the world of books and the world of the arts.

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    1. That was very much my experience, Elizabeth. Lots of moving around in the military, and then after my mom's divorce, several years of what I now recognize is an adult was close to the poverty line. In all circumstances, my mother found ways to keep us connected with, as you say, the world of books and the world of the arts.

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    2. It takes a long time to realize what a gift that is, doesn't it. Growing up, I took it for granted.

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  3. I had a subscription to Humpty Dumpty and I enjoyed reading the magazine from cover to cover and doing the games.

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  4. I don't remember any gift that changed my life. I remember loving to get a Breyer horse (I built a stable for mine and my sister's... Dad would take me to the lumberyard if I could draw a plan to scale and make a materials list). I remember the orange Hermes portable typewriter I received when I turned 12. But mostly I remember the gift of love, stability, and kindness they gave me (and all of us kids). Our family life was centered around the Episcopal church, in which they were both very involved, and I was shocked to grow up and learn how many people were/are harmed by organized religion. (Selden)

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    1. You had a blessed childhood! So many people these days complain about what they lacked and how they suffered

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  5. I still have my Viewmaster! It was a hand-me-down from my older brother as were most of my childhood toys, and it's one of the few things I kept when we cleaned out Mom's house. It sits here in my office because I can't bear to part with it.

    I can't think of any gifts that changed my view of the world, but looking back, my favorite Christmas gift was a stereo record player when I was a teen. After that, I drove my parents crazy, buying albums every time we went to the Kmart. Alas, unlike the Viewmaster, we got rid of all my vinyl at a yard sale. Now, with the it making a comeback, I so wish I'd held onto that collection.

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    1. Annette, do you wish you had your vinyl collection to play it again or so you could sell it off. If it is the latter, you'd be surprised at how little stores are paying to buy stuff. In order to make it worth your while, it would either have to be rare or in pristine condition or both.

      And this current vinyl boom is hilarious to me anyway. The prices they are charging for newly released material is insane. You can get two CDs for the price of one regular vinyl.

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    2. We still have all John’s vinyl in the garage!

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    3. Jay, no, I wish I had it to play again and drift down Memory Lane. I never thought they'd have players for vinyl again.

      Rhys, that's great!

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  6. I love all these. (Jenn, I have read my teen diary. Cringey, yes, but such a snapshot into my life and where it sat in the world of 1969.)

    The gifts I got were the less-tangible kind. Our family tent-camped in the Sierras every summer, and my mom taught us about birds and how to identify the constellations. It was a magical time.

    My sisters and I had (inexpensive) ballet lessons for years. Once my mom took us to see Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fontaine dance in Los Angeles, my first professional ballet viewing. I was swept away. Now I can't imagine how she afforded the tickets.

    Both parents gave us the love of reading and we had a house full of books.

    And when I was 17, they had no qualms letting me hie off for a year in Brazil. That experience truly changed my life. It gave me a world perspective instead of a narrow American one and turned me into an international traveler for life.

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    1. Edith, I saw Margie Fonteyn when I was a teen. She was magical, wasn’t she? She seemed weightless

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  7. I don't know if I had any one toy that changed my life. Even when I graduated to more clothes and non-toy gifts, I can't think of anything that changed my life in some fundamental way.

    Don't get me wrong, I got great gifts no doubt but causing a seismic shift type of gifts, no.

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  8. It didn't change my life per se, was part of my life. My dad bought a Viewmaster camera. Most of my childhood pictures are on the reels, in 3D. I was given a marionette when I was about 7 or 8. It was the beginning of making up stories and acting them out. Very frustrating because I could not coordinate the strings. Mom understood, and next holiday I got hand puppets. Kitty and Jocko are in a box somewhere waiting for a new adventure. Reflecting now, I had a magical childhood.

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    1. One Christmas my creative mom surprised us all with a box of hand-made hand puppets and a puppet theater made out of a painted refrigerator box, complete with a curtain across the performance window. Magical.

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    2. Your mom sounds wonderful!

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  9. One of the best Christmas presents was the slinky – it fascinated me until it tangled. Unfortunately, we had carpet on the stairs to upstairs and it didn’t work on carpet, and the stairs to the basement were wood but it was cold and (scarey) there.
    The most gob-smacking gift was a tape recorder- about 8X10 with little tape reels, but not the mini ones – it was the ‘60’s. It was a gift just out of the blue, and was probably given because they did not have a gift from Santa Claus for me and it was late, so they just took something from my father’s store. We had a lot of those gifts which included huck and yogi soap on a rope for years – they did not sell well!
    Back to the tape recorder – I thought I was so smart and set it up to tape my piano practicing, and then just kept playing it back to fool my mother. I doubt that it worked.
    As for non-tangible things, I will be forever grateful for the gift of freedom from June to September. We had 2 cottages side by each where my father and his brother’s family shared the summer together. It was probably more likely parental neglect than good parenting, but we were free from all restrictions, parental interference, and left to enjoy wherever our imaginations and whatever we could scrounge would take us. Want a treehouse – there are the woods, the axe, the hammer and go find some good wood and nails. Build it yourself. Want to fight – go for it, let me know if there is much bleeding. Can’t decide you gets the good wagon – not my mother’s problem. Bored – get a book, play a record, make a sandwich – whatever you want. Grubs between your toes – of course, it is raining out. Pick them out and put on some shoes. So many of life’s lessons not taught, just learned.

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    1. I’m laughing at the piano practice trick and envying the summer of freedom

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  10. Hank Phillippi RyanMay 13, 2024 at 8:34 AM

    These are such a great stories! And I am so touched by the effects of giving the gift of access to the arts… Magazine subscriptions, theater tickets, ballet, music. Books. Such an important thing to remember…

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  11. Oh, Jenn, you were a published author! Of a scandal sheet. So funny.

    My mother knew how much I wanted to sew, and the Christmas I was 9 or 10 I just had to have the Barbie Fashion Show. It was a shocking $8 (1960 or 61) for not much more than printed cardboard, but I overheard Mother defending such a dear purchase for me to my aunt, and it meant everything. My imagination flew, and I designed and tried to make umpteen ensembles for our dolls to model on the flimsy runway.

    Later, she bought me a sewing machine, on time, and I made all kinds of beautiful outfits for her to wear the three nights a week she went out dancing. I didn't know I shouldn't be able to sew fabrics like tissue metallic or velveteen, so I just went ahead and did it. Mother had a whole wardrobe of lovely clothes, including separates like tunics to wear with either a long skirt or palazzo pants. My sister and I wore uniforms to high school, so I made both of us (and my mom) cute skirts and vests to wear to church, and all our prom gowns.

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    1. Karen, I didn't know your sewing talent started so early!

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    2. You made outfits for your mom? You’re amazing!

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    3. Why do you think she bought me the sewing machine? LOL I was utterly fearless back then, even making bathing suits in high school, my own wedding gown, and a tailored man's suit when I was 20.

      Edith, when I was teaching sewing I had little girls whose mothers didn't sew, but their daughters burned with the desire to do so themselves. That's exactly how I was. I devoured every book our library had about sewing or fashion design or designers.

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  12. Our family had a gift subscription from my grandparents to National Geographic magazine for many years. I can’t say that they particularly inspired me to a life of travel, but they did open up our eyes that all these places existed outside of our small Midwest town.

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    1. I bought National Geographic Children’s version for my grandkids for years. I hope it inspired them

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  13. I'm in the non-tangible camp. When we moved to a larger house, I scored the attic bedroom. Hot in summer, cold in winter, I found pure bliss in my third floor hideaway! Two weeks of summer camp in the Poconos followed by three weeks at my grandparents Cape Cod cottage.

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    1. Margaret, that sounds like the blueprint for a wonderful children's book! I dreamed of having my own rattling attic bedroom when I was a kid. I think I got the idea from Little Women.

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    2. Meg Murray in A Wrinkle in Time slept in the attic bedroom.

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  14. YES, like HANK, I also got a portable baby blue typewriter when I was about 9 or 10 years old.
    I would pound out book summaries and synopsis on index cards.
    I was a hunt-&-peck typist back then. That was a problem when I had to take secretarial typing & shorthand class in grades 7-9. I had re-learn how to type as a touch typist. I was horrified at my horrible grade (70s) in grade 7 so I stubbornly practiced like crazy at home that first summer. My touch typing dramatically improved to 130 wpm (net) and I got a grade of 100 in the next 2 years + a spot in the provincial typing championship. That ability to be a fast touch typist has saved my bacon multiple times during my academic and career at Environment Canada.

    The second "toy" that changed my life was getting a Sony Walkman while I was in Japan in 1980. That portable music player gave me endless hours of enjoyment & the ability to do aerobic exercise to my fave tunes!

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    1. A typing champion.! I’m impressed, Grace. I never learned to type and suffered for years with the Whiteout. It was only when I got a computer that I got really speedy

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    2. During my second job at Environment Canada in 1986, I got to use an IBM PC with Microsoft Word (for DOS). One problem back then was that I still pounded the computer keyboard so hard (as if it was a manual typewriter). My colleagues joked that they could hear my fast typing from waaay down the hallway! I am a much gentler typist now on my laptop. :-)

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    3. P.S. The first Sony Walkman were made in Japan, and they became available in North America later. One drawback is that I probably had the volume up too high and it probably led to some early hearing loss that I am noticing now!

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    4. Grace, my husband used to pound the daylights out of his keyboard, too, for years!

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  15. Oh, I remember the Viewmaster! I thought it was the only way I'd ever see anything outside of Western New York. I have done a little traveling since then, but not all over the globe. I'll get to cross "See the Rockies" off my list this summer courtesy of a work trip.

    Toy that changed my life? I can't really think of one. Not a toy. But my aunt bought me my first Nancy Drew - the yellow covers - and I'd say that changed my reading life for sure.

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    1. Oh yes. My aunt gave me books too. More grown up than my mom thought suitable

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    2. Yes, I had an aunt who gave me books too. How lucky we were! Mine was a children's librarian of the best kind - she knew what I wanted/needed, not what she wanted for me.

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  16. As far as gifts, my aunt gave me a beautiful red leather little coin purse (2"by2") that was on a leather strap that you wore on your wrist. I loved it but soon lost it. Sigh. Other Christmas gifts were clothes my mother's made. She had worked for a Parisian designer when she was in her early 20's and made beautiful clothes.

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    1. Parisian fashion? Sigh. I had school uniform and maybe one or two outfits

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  17. I love this! What a magical post. I remember Viewmasters, they were wonderful.

    Like Julia, it was a series of gifts that changed my life. My dad signed me up for a monthly science subscription service. Some months were experiments, others were astronomy related. All different things. Completing the projects took about a month and then a new box arrived. Since we did the projects together, it was great father/daughter time.

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    1. How wonderful. I would have loved to do projects with my dad

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  18. Oh, I remember the Viewmaster. I loved looking at photos on the Viewmaster. I remember the Disney stories on Viewmaster. I was gifted a Disney storybook when I graduated from kindergarten and our kindergarten teacher gave me that book with her signature. When I wanted more photo ?reel? Slide wheel? We would go to JCPenney (not there anymore).

    There also were LEGO building blocks which were fun! I remember wanting toys for Christmas gifts. Not interested in clothes, except for party dresses.

    At the Renaissance Faire, they had handmade toys that I loved.

    Diana

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    1. Diana, Ross and I took our kids to the Renaissance Faire a couple of times, and I gave in to pleading and got each of them a wooden sword and leather baldrick. It was way more than I normally spent for toys, but it turned out to be a wonderful investment. They lasted through many battles and adventures and are still in perfect shape, waiting to be handed down to grandchildren.

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    2. Julia, as I recall, it was a wooden swinging puppet doll? Not sure how to describe it.

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  19. Hallie’s story about the doll reminded me of a coffee table book by one of my favorite actresses. Her daughter has Red Hair and the actress decided that if she was giving her daughter a doll, then she would only give her Dolls with Red Hair. I thought that was a smart move. There was a photo of her red haired daughter with her red haired dolls.

    So when I was living in England, I saw a Doll’s shop with many beautiful dolls. Most of the dolls were Blonde with blue eyes. When I saw this beautiful doll with Dark Brown curly hair and brown eyes. A young relative, like most of the people in my family, has dark brown hair and brown eyes, so I got that doll for her. She loved it! This relative also happened to have curly hair so the doll was perfect!

    Diana

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  20. My life took a somewhat different turn. I had numerous medical issues as a child and experienced hospitalization and doctor visits as a way of life. I didn't realize until much later in life that these events taught me about compassion and empathy. They also led me to books and reading to pass the time. I admittedly have a serious addiction to books as a result. This combination of events actually created a need in me to give back in some way, which led to volunteering initially as a youth volunteer at our local hospital. Thereafter, I was always drawn to organizations or community efforts where I could give my time. It has been very humbling to give back after all that has been given to me by those in the medical field and various libraries. --- Victoria

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  21. Rhys, what a great post! I love everyone's comments. I think I would add to mine that when I was fourteen my parents have me a beautiful hardbound set of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Those books opened up such a rich world of imagination to me, and although those are not the sort of books I write, I think they set me on the road to wanting to write.

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  22. I loved my ViewMaster! I have a mix of travel and pop culture reels, but they were always so great to look at.

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  23. Hank, I also was intrigued by typing. I’d sit at the kitchen table with my mom’s typewriter and type anything I could (articles from the newspaper, ads from the mail, anything). I was probably in 6th grade when I was doing this so no touch typing, strictly hunt-and-peck. Later, in high school I took typing and became proficient at the touch system. Not Grace speed, but fast enough that I got the job done!
    My parents were generous to my sister and I at Christmas and birthdays, but I have to agree that the opportunity to see live theater and read books were the best gifts they gave us. And unlimited, unconditional love. I now know how lucky we were because not every kid gets that kind of emotional security. — Pat S

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  24. My parents gave me the gift of self confidence and belonging. After a sickly childhood, they supported me in joining 4-H at age 10 so I could raise puppies for Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael. Nine puppies in all. This meant meetings every Saturday for 8 years, plus many other 4-H events. 4-H taught leadership. The other was our place in the Sierras shared with my aunt , uncle and cousins. We slept under the stars in long rows of sleeping bags. Having your place among those you loved, often 15+ people gave a feeling of security

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  25. Rhys, Your story rang a bell with me. My Mom passed away in November, and while recently going through my Mom's things, found my old ViewMaster with both the American and the international landmark slides. I remember looking at them over and over again as a kid, and thinking how I wanted to visit every one of those exciting places. That ViewMaster definitely started my wanderlust to see the world. It's been years, and I've seen some of the landmarks, but looking at those slides again has reminded me there is still a lot of traveling to do. Johna

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  26. Viewmasters and kaleidoscopes! Loved them! I think the best gift was one kids today don't really get. Freedom. We kids were free to spend the whole day outdoors, as long as we were home for meals. We could ride our bikes everywhere, explore ditches and fields. It was wonderful.

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  27. Yes, yes, I do remember View Master fondly,but I don’t remember any special pictures. (Glasses were in my near future). And Hank, it looks like that typewriter was a crystal ball to your whole future, wasn't it? What I know changed my world was (no surprise) a book, Abraham Lincoln’s World, the first book I read by Genevieve Foster. She described what was happening all over the world in one iconic person’s lifetime. While young Abe Lincoln was learning to read in a log cabin an Indian boy in Mexico named Benito Juarez wanted to go to school, a Frenchman had the idea of building the Suez canal and in Greece, where men wore pleated skirts, there was a war for liberation from Turkey, where men wore turbans. History wasn’t just OUR story. It was happening all around the world, all at the same time. What a huge revelation that was!

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  28. Ahhh, the View Master was a door to the world when I was about 5or 6. And I received reels from family frequently- a handy gift. Yes, way before color TV and the 3D was magical.
    Also my Granny had a globe that fascinated me. She would show me countries and tell me about them. Then we played a game- she would spin the globe and she would put her finger on a country for me to name. (Years later I realized she was a master of entertaining her nerdy granddaughter by teaching me - countries, state capitols, and other facts )

    How much fun reading about toys and early childhood favs!
    Heather S

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  29. And I recall getting books as gifts growing up. I wanted toys and books were a close second favorite type of gifts. Not really interested in clothes. I was ok with wearing a school uniform.

    Diana

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