When I was about seven, I got my first bronzed dinosaur, the Tyrannosaurus Rex. I earned bribe money for being good about getting my butt stabbed by penicillin shots. In any case, I discovered these dinosaurs on the last page of my grandpa’s The Natural History Magazine. They looked really cool! The designers had chosen to make the T-Rex’s forearms look more robust than would have been a perfectly scale model with those teeny hands. The T-Rex was great! It was solid and cold and heavy because it was metal. There is something about metal or wood or stone that resonates with me much more deeply than plastic ever could. (Sorry, plastic. I know you are a cool invention and really inexpensive and very malleable and all of that. But, you just don’t touch my soul like wood, metal, and stone do.) When I moved the T-Rex, my muscles felt it. Perhaps this is one reason that I still have much of my dinosaur collection 65 years later. (How many of your plastic toys do you still have from 65 years ago?) I didn’t think so. But they are out there somewhere, along with my own forgotten plastic toys, polluting the world for centuries to come.
Bronze, as you have seen many times in your life, does not look worse when it oxidizes as iron does when it rusts. Instead, Bronze turns a beautiful powdery light green with the slightest hint of blue. So, T-Rex looked beautiful as well. So, you might well think that the next time I had enough cash for one of these statues (1$ for the small size and 2$ for the large size) I would get another T-Rex. No, I got a Dimetrodon and a Stegosaurus. Later I got a Trachodon and a Brontosaurus. Anyway, what was fun about this diverse cast of characters is how different they were from each other and the richness with which they interacted. There’s no way it would have been as much fun if it were one army of T-Rex’s against another. (Poor brontosaurus’s tail fell off many times but my dad is no longer here to solder it back and anyway, the tail got lost in the last move).
Similarly, a few years later, when I owned toy soldiers, I enjoyed having ones with different properties; that is, mainly different weapons. Liking the variety must have been true for other kids as well because the sets that I could buy were always mixed. My favorite type of soldier were hollow lead ones. They were well enough hand-painted that you could see their faces, although not so well that you could determine whether they were fighting out of hate, out of fear, loyalty, patriotism, duty, because it’s a job, or for some private demon. I especially liked the bazooka men. I think I owned four of them. Of course, this weapon takes a while to reload and there probably aren’t a huge number of rounds. On the other hand, there were machine gunners, riflemen (more of them than anyone else), and a couple of officers who were pointing a pistol. There were also a couple of dudes sitting on the ground with a *serious* machine gun tucked between their spread-eagled legs. There were also a couple of hand grenade throwers. Another soldier had a rifle with a bayonet raised up above his head. This made arranging them for a pitched “battle” all that much more interesting. Although they had very different weapons, all of them had obvious lethal capabilities. All but one. There was one poor guy with no weapon whatever. His job was communications. His only visible “weapon” was a rather large boxy radio set. I suppose in a pinch, he could whack someone in the face with it. Even if that didn’t kill them, it would for sure put a crimp in their dinner plans.
It was difficult for me to decide which one of these soldiers I would “be.” I liked the bazooka man a lot. The rifleman looked cool. By the way, there were three versions. One type of rifleman lay on the ground with legs spread and the rifle stabilized by his elbows on the ground. Another type of rifleman sat on the ground and put the rifle across his upright knees for support. The third type, and my favorite, was the proudly standing rifleman. Thinking about it from an adult perspective, he’s probably the guy who was voted by his platoon: “most likely to die quickly.” But I didn’t think about that then. Sometimes, I thought it would be cool to be the officer pointing the pistol. Obviously, in most ways, it wasn’t as devastating a weapon as a rifle. Although conceivably in very close quarters, he might outmaneuver a rifleman. But there was one guy that I definitely did not want to be.
You guessed it. I never wanted to be the guy on the radio. Let’s call him “Claude.” Claude didn’t get to actually fight! And, it seemed to me at that point that I could stay alive no matter what obstacles and enemies were thrown at me — if only I were an excellent enough rifleman (or bazooka man, or pistol-wielding officer). On the other hand, it seemed as though “anybody” could do Claude’s communications job and would do it equally well. Furthermore, it seemed any enemy could just walk right up and shoot this dude Claude before he knew what hit him and way before he transforms his awkward radio set into a lethal weapon. Of course, Jason Bourne could do it, but I don’t think Claude had that kind of training. And, anyway, the first movie didn’t come out until 2002 and this was the early 1950’s. Treadstone didn’t exist back then. (BTW, this is not “my” Claude but it’s the closest image I could find.)
As I mentioned, these hand-painted lead soldiers were my favorites but I owned three other types. One were extremely detailed and beautiful lead soldiers. These suckers were expensive and, as I quickly discovered, not very durable in real “battles.” When you smashed them into each other, the horses tended to break, or what was more typical and worse, not break but bend into an uncomfortable and unrealistic position. At that point, I would very carefully ease the broken leg into position, Angstrom by Angstrom… Snap!! It would break off in my hands. That was worse. I felt as though I had personally snapped that beautiful white horse’s leg in half. It always seemed as though I could ease it back into position and I almost succeeded each time. Then, SNAP. Suddenly I am holding a three legged horse in one hand and a piece of horse leg in the other. My favorite of these collections were the “Coldstream Guards” with their white and bright red uniforms with splashes of gold. It is sad, I can tell you, to be an eight year-old general and not be able to put your most beautiful soldiers into battle. But, beautiful as they were, they were fragile. I did manage to break a few of the hollow leaden ones as well, but I had to work at it.
Then, there were unpainted plastic soldiers. They came in a kind of gray-green suggestive of olive drab. Let’s call it “off-olive drab” like the olive from that bottle of garlic clove filled green olives that you accidentally left at the very back of the fridge for five years. Then, when you finally discovered, it, the olives looked as toxic as rain forest frogs; but far from a beautiful bright warning color, these were so drably off-olive that you almost didn’t see them. But, as for the soldiers, it wasn’t just their uniforms that were off-olive drab. All of them, including the little flat plastic stands, their expressionless faces, and their normal-sized (well, normal scaled I should say) hands exuded that same toxicity of colorlessness. Their one giant advantage was that they were far cheaper than the painted leaden ones. And, whereas the fancy ones were fragile and the leaden ones were rugged but breakable, these all-plastic soldiers could not be broken. For some reason, I do know that they can be cut with an ordinary steak knife provided you have enough patience and are smart enough after you’re caught the first time “ruining” the steak knives, to make sure the second time you experiment when you’re alone. The plastic ones can also be melted. However, melting them had the side-effect of greatly disturbing my parents because of the toxic fumes that permeated our house. (I think we will have to leave for another time the question of why I wanted to know these things). One great thing about these plastic soldiers was that they were to the same scale as the metal ones. So, they could all participate in the same battles without stretching the credibility till it snaps like a rubber band and stings the soul of make-believe.
Ah, but there was as well a fourth type of soldier. These were insanely cheap plastic soldiers! A hundred soldiers for a dollar! I ordered two sets so I would have an amazing two hundred soldiers along with the probably 75 I already had. And then they arrived. Yay! Imagine! My army would now rival those of Caesar, Hannibal, Grant, Patton!
My first clue that something must be terribly wrong was the size of the shipping box — unbelievably small for 200 soldiers. I opened the boxes and then got to the actual soldiers. They were in 2 point font. They were approximately the size of one of the feet of my other soldiers. And, these soldiers gave a whole new depth of meaning to the expression, “cheap plastic.” These soldiers were fabricated out of some material that was like what plastic uses when it doesn’t bring out the good stuff for company. And, “fragile” doesn’t quite do justice to the care with which these teeny slats of plastic needed to be handled. Oh, by the way, speaking of “slats,” did I mention that they were two dimensional? Did I mention that not only couldn’t you discern the motivations of the solider from their face, you couldn’t discern whether they even had faces. These soldiers were not of molded plastic; they were basically stamped. In fact, each solider had to be detached from a long plastic rod by twisting.
How could I have possibly known I would waste my two dollars? The picture that accompanied the advertisement for these soldiers depicted something other than their product. The picture showed something every bit as detailed and colorful and three dimensional as the hollow leaden soldiers. These same comic books also advertised “sea monkeys.” In the picture, there are “families” of little human-looking aquatic monkeys. You can tell what mood they are in and how the various family members interact. Well, I thought this was fantastic! But I didn’t totally believe it was possible either so I asked my grandpa whether they were real. He said they were just brine shrimp. I also saw that there was a teeny asterisk in the corner of the picture, half hiding in the seaweed that some of the “sea monkeys” were harvesting for the family meal. Then, in almost unreadably tiny type, the asterisk was explained, “visual depiction may not precisely duplicate visual characteristics of crustacean provided” or some equally incomprehensible legalese gibberish that very few 8 year olds are going to comprehend (in the more recent version shown here, I don’t even see that cryptic warning).
Apparently, we live in a society where that’s okay. I think part of the reason it’s okay is that we live in a very differentiated society. If you think about the single artist, craftsman, or chef, they are much more about substance than puffery. You don’t typically expect someone who makes something to be dishonest about what it was they did. However, hiring a advertising expert brings into play a different set of factors. The advertising person cannot make a better painting, or chair or soufflé. Their expertise and their “product” is in making people buy the substantive product. If they can lie, exaggerate, or mislead and get away with it, so long as sales go up, that is a win for the advertiser. Needless to say, they would never describe what they do as a lie. Because, after all, who would advertise a “lie” as being a “lie”? Then, you might not want to buy one. They have a whole raft of explanations as to why what they are doing is really in everyone’s interest. They’ve rehearsed it and perfected it and —- since this is what they expert in — they will probably have you agreeing with them. I’m not sure it is just fine and dandy, especially when it’s combined with a low quality product such as brine shrimp or “toy soldiers” that are too small to be used or played with as toy soldiers. In these cases, the actual product is nothing like what they “depicting” it as.
It gets a bit murkier when their are unstated but implied benefits. BMW actually does make a fine car. However, you are not going to be driving it long if you drive it the way it is portrayed on commercials. Similarly, a car is not going to be very often the snappifying head-turner among young people seeking a mate that the advertisers would have you believe. It isn’t merely that advertising tends to have us spend money on products and services that aren’t really filling our needs, although that is problematic. We spend a huge amount of money on junk food, cosmetics, and so on — and more than on medical research. But in addition to that, doesn’t it seem to undermine the meaning of truth in all human discourse? Or, is it okay to lie if you are an advertiser because they are doing it for money? In other words, it’s okay to lie if you are benefiting yourself, perhaps because you are undoubtedly benefiting your client even more?
We are more and more and more connected electronically. This is good news. And this is bad news too. One thing, though is certain. The potential impact of a lie is tremendous and much much more than it was in the past. In distant times, a lie had only local impact. Now, a lie could literally destroy the world. So, to me, the balance point of when it’s “okay to lie” is way different than it was 20,000 years ago.
I believe there is a way for people to provide value to each other honestly and still have a thriving economy. In any case, even if we never reach that point and advertisers continue to oversell products, can we at least try to be vigilant not to let that attitude toward the truth permeate every other aspect of life? A large complex and highly differentiated society can only exist in an atmosphere of trust. You must trust that the drivers of the other cars on the road are not trying to kill you. You must trust that the food you buy is not poison. You must trust that the policeman is there to protect you. If that trust breaks down, there is no longer a society. So intentionally lying in order to make a buck (or a point) is really a push toward utter chaos and anarchy. Obviously, no single push will bring us there, but we must be extremely careful. Why? Because lack of trust is contagious (as is trust). A slight imbalance between trust and mistrust could become a vicious cycle. Information is the resolution of uncertainty, not the multiplication of uncertainty.
A communication network of people becomes more valuable as the number of people increases. A network of, say, 350,000,000 people is much more valuable than 10 relatively homogeneous networks of 35,000,000 each. And, to take this to the extreme, it’s much more valuable than 350,000,000 networks of one person each, no matter how smart or strong that one person is or how many treasure-troves of weapons they have. We need to work together whatever differences exist. That’s why it’s important that we all keep communicating. That’s why it’s important that we try to be as truthful as possible. That’s why I now think that Claude, the radioman, may be the most skilled and crucial solider of all.
(The story above and many cousins like it are compiled now in a book available on Amazon: Tales from an American Childhood: Recollection and Revelation. I recount early experiences and then related them to contemporary issues and challenges in society).
Find it on: my Amazon author page