When I think back on those long car trips I took with my Folks and younger Brother in the late 60’s and early 70’s, one of my fondest memories is of how we kept ourselves busy during the long miles. Handheld computer games, even the simple ones like Mattel Football or Simon from Milton Bradley, were still quite a few years away. The truly overwhelming assortment of distractions offered today by Kindle or iPad were beyond anything even NASA could conceive of in those years. So, we enjoyed simple pleasures.
Most summers we would load up the Ford LTD and head out on highway. Two weeks away from home: staying in motels (the best of these had pools), eating at diners, seeing the tourist sites, and spending many hours driving each day. Aside from the occasional two day stop in a major city or destination, we lived on the roads.
Seatbelts technically came in most cars back then, but were simple lap belts that were soon buried under the seat cushions. A useful weapon to swing in a pitched battle with my Brother during our legendary back seat wars, their regular use was largely discouraged. These wars were always a conquest for more space, and usually settled with a hasty truce, after the third or forth threat from the front seat of “pulling over and coming back there” finally seemed imminent. And so, we could sit up and look out the windows, lay across the back bench seat, or scoot down in the floor wells of our old Ford. The floor was where we kept our toys and the best place to play, out of sight of Mom and Dad.
In the weeks leading up to vacation, it was a ritual to assemble the stuff we would bring to play with in the car. Aside from the back seat, there was no other place to pack our playthings, so we had to pick toys that would fit and still allow room to play, fight, and sleep. I kept several cigar boxes my Uncle had given me over the years, and filled them with toys, paper pads and pencils, books, and magazines, in preparation for the trip. It was a meticulous process, and my first real experience with decision making.
Of course, we also played car bingo, 20 questions, I spy, and tried spotting the license plates from all 50 states (no surprise that Hawaii was the toughest to find). But the tiny toys that filled many hours on the road for my Brother and I were tinkles.
I think my Brother and I coined that name, and it certainly doesn’t occur in this context anywhere else that I’ve found. It’s probably derived from trinket, as mispronounced by my much younger self. For us, it came to mean any small toy that would fit (with several others) in a cigar box.
These toys could include just about anything, from Crackerjack prizes to gumball charms, Matchbox cars, old campaign pins, souvenir pens, superballs, sliding puzzles, and magnetic corgi dogs. Whether discovered in a parking lot, bought from a vending machine, or found at the bottom of a Crackerjack box, they made their way into a cigar box to tour the U.S. with us.
My very first collection, and from which all of my later collections would grow, was my tinkles collection. They really did provide us hours of fun on the back floor of that old LTD. I remember drawing a crude map on a blank sheet of paper, and then setting a magnetic corgi dog on top, while its twin brother on the bottom moved it through parks, farms, and cities. Or taking apart the 3D plastic toy puzzle/keychain, bought for $.50 from a vending machine at a highway oasis, and then handing it up to the front seat for reassembly.
The souvenir pens were a treat, particularly the “floating” ones, where the Maid of the Mist sailed across the front of Niagara Falls, or the Disney Train crossed in front of the Contemporary Resort. Tipping the pen the other way let you relive the experience, pretty much forever.
If you were lucky enough to find one (and talk someone into buying it), the mini slide viewers were one of the best tinkles around. Sold as souvenirs at many of the places we toured, each was shaped like a camera or television, and looking through the small magnifier revealed a colored picture of the place. It was a personal and private show you could enjoy whenever you needed a break from watching the road.
Nighttime in the back seat was special, with most of the traffic gone away. It was quiet all around outside, and looking through the rear window revealed either the bright lights of tall highway lamps, or the soft glow of stars. The AM radio up front was usually turned down, playing soft jazz or country western. My coveted pen light was near at hand, and as long as I didn’t shine it up front or onto the roof lining (or directly into my Brother’s face), I was free to play with my tinkles so long as I could keep awake. Shining the light through the little plastic and metal figures made them seem to move. Worlds, cultures, and centuries came and went in the back seat of that lonely Ford, driving down the back roads at night.
Like all things from my childhood, taking tinkles along on car trips eventually came to an end. Those I didn’t lose ended up in a cigar box in storage, like so many sad scenes from Toy Story. But this story would be incomplete if I didn’t mention that some few were found and saved, and more than a few were picked up on eBay over the past couple of years.
I’ve shared them with my kids, getting them started on their own tinkle collections. Although these simpler toys may have a tough time competing with iPads and Kindles, I think it’s worth the fight.
And today’s seatbelts are harder to swing as weapons in the back seat.
– Pete Murphy May 2014