Alexander Pope was not sentimental about children. The famous British poet lived during an era that saw kids primarily as miniature adults and seldom gave much thought to childhood. Like many 18th century writers, on the rare occasion he broached the subject, Pope could be rather dismissive:
Behold the child, by nature’s kindly law,
Pleased with a rattle, tickled with a straw;
Some livelier plaything gives his youth delight,
A little louder, but as empty quite.
All he could say about young people — bless their hearts — is they are easily amused with simple toys, the noisier the better. Of course, Pope himself stood barely above the average child. As a grown man, he was only 4 feet, 6 inches tall. And out of fairness to the poet, I should point out that he could be equally cynical about adults and their empty playthings.
I bring all this up to add a literary patina to my latest midlife crisis. I have been wondering lately just exactly what it means to be a grown-up. On the surface, the usual markers are there. I have had a mortgage for the last 10 years. I have owned the same car longer than my students have been alive. During the winter, I wear a long, black, wool coat of the kind one normally sees on undertakers.
Most of my favorite movie stars are dead. I now have reading glasses, gold-toe socks and more than one pair of house slippers. Every bit of this evidence points to adulthood.
But I’m trying to square all that with my giddiness last week over opening a package and pulling out — fresh from eBay — a vintage Touché Turtle push puppet. I literally giggled all the way from the mailbox to the kitchen when the parcel arrived. I could not undo the bubble wrap fast enough to unveil my prize, which I held aloft like an Olympic torch, admiring it from all angles.
Then, when I could hold off no longer, I pushed the button in the base over and over, watching with glee as the 50-year-old plastic tortoise flopped around with his rapier and white musketeer hat dancing in all their glory. “Pleased with a rattle,” as Pope would say.
Perhaps I should provide some context. When I was a kid in the ’70s, William Hanna and Joe Barbera were among the reigning kings of Saturday morning cartoons. Their best-known creations are still household names: the Flintstones, the Jetsons, Scooby-Doo and Yogi Bear. To identify some of their other characters, you would have to find someone reading a newspaper in house slippers. He could tell you about Huckleberry Hound, Magilla Gorilla, Quick Draw McGraw and Touché Turtle.
The latter’s name is pronounced “too-shay,” as when you begrudgingly admit that someone has topped your joke with a better one. Wielding his fencing foil, Touché Turtle battled villains and rescued victims alongside his dense sidekick, a dog flatteringly named Dum Dum. Whether they were stopping bank robberies or battling dragons, the heroic turtle would shout his catch phrase “Touché Away!” before charging into the thick of it all.
This cartoon only ran for a year, and it predated me by a decade. But thanks to the magic of re-runs, all the Hanna-Barbera characters — along with Bullwinkle, Bugs Bunny and Woody Woodpecker — kept me laughing while I munched on Count Chocula cereal every morning. It was a golden era of childhood for me. I would gladly spend my mornings the same way now if I did not have to earn money to pay the water bill.
Nostalgia is not in style these days, which is why I like it so much. I’ve liked it for 30 years. Even as a teenager, I started collecting toys that brought back the old glory. I still vividly remember the day when Dad and I hit a yard sale and found two vintage Atom Ant and Secret Squirrel “Tricky Trapeze” toys for 10 cents each. With this toy, you press buttons on both sides of the base and watch a plastic figure loop around in circles. If you’ve never played with one, I don’t see how you can go around claiming to have lived.
I saw a Touché Turtle push puppet not long after that at an antique show. The dealer knew its value and priced it accordingly. It was above my budget in those days, so I had to pass. That was 30 years ago, and it’s haunted me ever since. But last month I saw one on eBay. I outbid some other misty-eyed sap, and now the 1960s tortoise sits on my shelf next to Ricochet Rabbit. It looks like adulthood means being able to buy back childhood.