Family Life

Favorite Toys of Christmases Past (1960s)

 Santa putting gifts under tree


If you were a kid in the 1960s, historical events of that decade may not be easily remembered - but what Santa placed under the tree on Christmas morning is probably still etched in your mind.  Here are some of the presents I remember most fondly:



This ranks as my all-time favorite present.  It was a full dashboard of a car with working windshield wipers, turn signal indicator and ignition which made a purring motor sound when the ignition was turned on.  Little did I know back then as a 5-year-old that this would be the closest I'd come to owning a car since I've lived in Manhattan for my entire adult life and haven't needed one.





"Krispy Kritters" was a new breakfast cereal with the maniacally sung tagline of "The one and only cereal that comes in the shape of animals!" as an array of animated creatures from the savannas of Africa scooted across the TV screen in a stampede.  Linus was the spokes-animal and his stuffed likeness was a premium with box tops.


Linus the lionhearted



The projector showed slides of various Hanna Barbera cartoon characters.  I got a kick out of projecting the images on the ceiling of my darkened bedroom or on my pillowcase and playing around with the focus band to show the images as huge or tiny.  




HANDS DOWN! (1964)

This was a game that required hand-slapping action onto one of four plastic hands (called the "Slam-o-Matic").  Suspense was created when a player picked a card from the deck and the other players wondered if he/she had two-of-a-kind, which would instigate slapping down of his/her assigned hand.  The last person who slapped was penalized.  Fun came when someone faked and got others to foolishly slap their hands. Because of the vigorous slapping action I worried about the plastic hands breaking off.





Using marbles as playing pieces, the route to the top of the hill included detours/holes that could lead your marble to reappear far away.  If your marble made it to the top a crown would pop up.  This game brings back a nasty memory.  On Christmas night we drove my grandmother home and upon arriving at her house I got out of the car to let her out and stepped in a large puddle of dog excrement.  On the drive home we kept the car windows rolled down and I hung my shoe out the window.  It was one of those "we'll laugh about this later" moments.





Clothes as a favorite gift for a child?  Absolutely!  This long-sleeved pullover jersey was in the style of the outfits worn by the male characters of the new CBS show Lost in Space.  I think it was the first time I was excited to get clothes for Christmas and I couldn't wait to wear it to school.  My older brother, Darrell, also got one; his was blue, mine black.





It made separate sounds for taxiing and for flying and had flashing red lights.  It was about 12 inches in length and made out of metal.  I'd walk from room to room imagining routes the plane was traveling to all over the world.  That Christmas was made memorable by the Hong Kong Flu which was raging throughout the country.  Because everyone in my family had a touch of the flu we didn't go to Christmas Mass.  Also, the first space mission to orbit the Moon, Apollo 8, took place during the holiday.





This arts/crafts kit enabled aspiring juvenile artists to make beautiful, somewhat psychedelic images through a selection of colored pens, pins and design templates.  It was a safe way for a child coming of age in the "Age of Aquarius" to experience mind expansion without using pot or LSD.





I spent many a weekend in the winter of 1970-71 in heated competition with my parents and older brother playing this variation of bowling.  We'd place the board on the kitchen table and each of us took a turn pushing out the billiard-sized wooden ball (attached to a post by a chain) in an arc.  The ball would strike miniature bowling pins.  Me and my mother were rather mellow players but my dad and brother were hyper-competitive which sometimes led to tension that occasionally lasted beyond the match. 





My gushing over these cherished toys is not meant to slight the myriad other wonderful gifts I've received over the years, such as Lincoln Logs, Matchbox cars, the games Operation!Yahtzee and Mousetrap, a miniature Lionel train set and many more.  To immerse yourself in even more toys you may want to consider the DVD Classic Toy Commercials of the 60s or the book Classic Toys of the National Toy Hall of Fame.



The Hijacker Vanishes: The Legend of DB Cooper (November 24, 1971)

Pittsburgh_penguins The day before Thanksgiving 1971 was a snowy one in the hills of Western Pennsylvania (about 4" fell).  I was in the 9th grade at the time and my dad had gotten four tickets at work to tonight's Penguins hockey game at Pittsburgh's Civic Arena.  I went with my older sister Linda, older brother Darrell (home for the holiday during his freshman year at Indiana University of PA) and a neighbor from down the street.  The Penguins lost to Toronto 2-1 but it was an enjoyable outing nonetheless. 



Snow_covered_street Walking home after getting off the bus we were playing around in the snow and throwing an occasional snowball.  At one point I jerked my head to avoid one being thrown and my glasses flew off.  After looking for them for some time with no luck I ran home to get a flashlight (Mom joined us).  Finally, in the midst of our search a neighbor approached in his car and stopped when he saw our search party in the middle of the street.  He stayed so we could look in the light cast by his high beams and shortly thereafter we found my glasses.  We had been out in the cold for close to an hour.


Db_cooper Meanwhile, while we conducted our search another was about to unfold in the Pacific Northwest.  A passenger named DB Cooper had hijacked a plane, demanded parachutes and $200,000 (about $1 million in today's $) and then jumped from the plane during a rainstorm into the wilderness north of Portland, Oregon.  Although hijackings had become a hazard of air travel since the late 60's, the way this one was carried out made it unique.  And although a bundle of deteriorated twenty-dollar bills was discovered in 1980, and traced back to those given him, Cooper himself was never found. 



(The book D.B. Cooper: Dead or Alive? provides the full story of this mysterious man and his curious caper.)  The following clip goes into greater detail about Cooper.






Remembering the Day President Kennedy Was Assassinated (November 22, 1963)




The assassination of President Kennedy is the first vivid memory I have of any historical event.  In the fall of 1963 I was six years old and in the First Grade at Fenton Elementary School in the Pittsburgh suburb of McKees Rocks.  Nov. 22 was a Friday and early that afternoon I had just returned to school after having lunch at home.  My classmates and I waited for our teacher, Mrs. Foley, to arrive but for some unknown reason we waited an unusually long time for her (this was too good to be true!).  Finally, she walked in and told us the news that the president had been shot and that we could go home.




It seemed fitting that the afternoon was overcast, which added to the somberness of my walk home (and Saturday would be dreary and rainy).  Although I was aware this was an awful event I don't recall feeling any strong emotions.  While waiting for my father to return from work I sat on the sofa in the living room and paged through my mother's December issue of Good Housekeeping that arrived in the mail earlier that afternoon (pictured).  On the cover was a little girl holding a large Santa lollipop.  Although its festive nature was incongruous with that day's tragedy, it was a nice escape for a young child.  And the next day my brother and I spent much of that rainy Saturday afternoon at the movies.



Another thing I remember about this day was my surprise at the word "assassination", which I had never heard before.  Although I quickly learned its meaning, I found it somewhat amusing/shocking because it had the word "ass" in it - twice - yet everyone was saying it, which my six-year-old self found curious and amusing.  After all, back then words like that weren't spoken in polite company.


Just two days later the nation witnessed the shooting death of accused assassin, 25-year-old Lee Harvey Oswald on live TV.  It was just past noon and my family was eating Sunday lunch.  The TV was on in the background in the living room because my father, a football fanatic, insisted on watching the NFL game that was being broadcast.  The telecast was interrupted by coverage of Oswald being brought into police headquarters in Dallas.  As he was being walked in, surrounded by detectives, a man named Jack Ruby jumped out of the crowd and shot Oswald in the stomach.  I didn’t see the shooting because my seat at the dinner table was obstructed by a wall that blocked my view.  But I heard the commotion and saw the reaction of my parents.  This was very likely the most shocking event ever seen on live TV until 9/11 when millions saw the second plane (United Flight 175) crash into the south tower of the World Trade Center.




Because of these events, for a long time I viewed Dallas (and Texas in general) as an evil place, not unlike enemy territory such as Red China, and it took a long time for me to shake this feeling.


In 2013, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination, journalists Guy Russo and Harry Moses asked a cross-section of Americans to share their memories of that tragic day, and turned it into a book titled Where Were You? 






New York City's First Big Blackout (November 9, 1965)

1965blackout_in_nyc I was in the 3rd grade and after dinner on the evening of November 9, 1965 I was doing homework in the living room with the radio playing in the background (my parents listened to the evening news on venerated Pittsburgh station KDKA while we ate dinner).  Mom and Dad were getting ready to leave for Parents' Night meetings at each of the schools my brother, sister and I attended.  That's when the news bulleltin came on about a massive power failure affecting New York City and the Northeast during evening rush hour. 


Lifemagazine_1965blackout Years later (as a resident of NYC) I was on a date when the conversation turned to our tastes in music, in particular, the Supremes.  My date told me that whenever he heard their song I Hear A Symphony it brought back memories of the Blackout of '65.  The song was being played on radio station WABC the evening of the blackout when the melody and voices became distorted as the turntable slowly wound down after losing power.  And my second memory of this date was that when we said goodnight he hugged me so hard (it came out of nowhere) that he broke one of my ribs.  Literally, a painful memory.





"It's the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown!" Makes Its TV Debut (October 27, 1966)

Greatpumpkin1 Charles Schulz's comic strip Peanuts surged in popularity in the mid-1960s.  It was the subject of a Time Magazine cover story in April 1965; the first animated Peanuts TV special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, aired in December 1965; and the following year a Christmas-themed novelty tune Snoopy vs. the Red Baron went to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 for four weeks.  And on Oct. 27, 1966, a Thursday evening, the special It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! aired on CBS for the first time.




Greatpumpkin2 I was 9 years old at the time and in the 4th Grade.  I watched the 30-minute telecast over at the house of my friend Mary Kay Opalanko, who lived across the alley from us (she was a year older than me).  We watched Linus and Charlie Brown's little sister Sally sitting in the pumpkin patch while we set up Mary Kay's new road-race set in her living room.  My older brother Darrell joined us because of the lure of the racing set (which he also helped assemble).  An added attraction was the Opalanko's new color TV.   (Mary Kay's family was also the first in the neighborhood to get a big, above-ground swimming pool.)




413cj7s2xwL__SL500_AA240_ "The Great Pumpkin" delivered a 31.6 Nielsen household rating, making it the 30th highest-rated telecast of 1966 (episodes of Bonanza dominated that year's top-30).  And although new Charlie Brown specials would proliferate, none would achieve the same beloved stature as this one or "A Charlie Brown Christmas".  (To purchase either on DVD doubleclick "Great Pumpkin" or "Charlie Brown Christmas".)


The Pirates' Bill Mazeroski Hits a World Series Home Run for the Ages (October 13, 1960)

Maz_rounding_bases_1960 Growing up in Pittsburgh, one of the proudest moments in the city's history, a story passed down through the generations, was the Pirates' World Series championship in 1960 over the mighty New York Yankees.  In the most dramatic ending in World Series history, Pirates second baseman Bill Mazeroski hit a home run in the bottom of the 9th inning to win Game 7.  It seemed fitting that the title came to Pittsburgh because the "Steel City" was going through its "Renaissance" at the time, a massive civic campaign to clean the air/water, create parks and rebuild parts of downtown. 


DSCN1091 In the first six games of the Series the Yankees had scored twice as many runs as Pittsburgh, yet the Pirates managed to win three games.  In the games won by the Yanks, they crushed the Pirates (by scores of 16-3, 10-0, 12-0) while the Pirates wins were games in which its pitchers shined (6-4, 3-2, 5-2).  Then in Game 7 the Pirates ramped up its offense.  It was a see-saw game and after the Yankees scored two runes in the top of the 9th the game was tied 9-9.


Images "Maz" was the first batter in the bottom of the 9th and he hit his famous home run a little past 3:30.  My mother was watching the game with my older brother and sister who were already home from school (2nd and 5th Grades, respectively).  As for me, I was just 3 years old so I have no recollection.  Since my father had bet against the Pirates, when he came home from work at 4:30 Mom and my brother Darrell met him on the sidewalk waving a "crying towel".  His bet was with a neighbor from across the street for a case of beer (Iron City, of course).  Mr. Zamanski magnanimously didn't want Dad to pay-up but Dad insisted and they drank a bottle together.




Bucs_are_champs_headline Fast forward 50 years.  As the anniversary of Game 7 approached word came that a kinescope of the game had been found in the wine cellar of Bing Crosby's home outside of San Francisco.  Crosby had been a partial owner of the Pirates back in 1960 and was too nervous to watch the game so he arranged to have a tape made of the game being shown on the TV screen that he could watch later.  It's the only recording of the entire that exists.   


Maz_and_statue The Pirates also had dramatic World Series triumphs in 1971 and 1979, both times coming from 3-games-to-1 deficits to prevail (defeating Baltimore each time).  However, neither matched the adrenaline rush of that late afternoon home run over the scoreboard in beloved Forbes Field.  (The book The Best Game Ever: Pirates 10 Yankees 9 offers an in-depth, inning-by-inning account of Game 7.)  Happily, "Maz" is still with us (at age 77) and to honor him a statue outside Heinz Field was unveiled three summers ago.


Carl Yastrzemski Leads Red Sox to World Series on Final Day of Season (October 1, 1967)

Yastrzemski_baseballcard My nascent interest in baseball was boosted by the excitement created by 1967's American League pennant race, decided on the final day of the season.  The race was between Boston, Minnesota and Detroit.  Boston played Minnesota in the closing weekend and both games were telecast.  The rabid interest shown by my dad in these games rubbed off on me and the rest of the family.  Although our hometown team was the Pittsburgh Pirates he was closely following the Red Sox's Carl Yastrzemski because of their shared Polish heritage (truth be told, my dad was never a big fan of the Pirates).


Yaz_for_mayor Boston won both games over the Twins that weekend but then had to wait for the outcome of the second game of the Tigers' doubleheader against the Angels (the Tigers lost) before laying claim to first place.  As for "Yaz" he finished the season by becoming one of the select few players to ever win the Triple Crown (i.e., highest batting average, most home runs and most runs batted in).  In fact he would be be the last player to achieve this honor.  His storybook season was instrumental in making Boston a serious contender, a huge surprise after it finished next-to-last the previous season. 




Sandy_koufax Before this weekend the only other baseball event I had any recollection of was the 1966 World Series between the Dodgers and Orioles.  My 15-year old sister, Linda, had a crush on Dodger pitching great Sandy Koufax and at her urging we visited our Uncle John so we could watch one of the games Koufax pitched on his new color TV.


Ultimately the Red Sox's magical season would end in defeat in Game 7 of the World Series versus the St. Louis Cardinals.  The book The 1967 Impossible Dream Red Sox recounts Boston's enthralling season.  And here's a great clip from a 1967 TV special on Boston TV station WHDH celebrating the Red Sox's season.  




Rob_10yrsold Skip ahead to the spring of 1968.  I shocked my male classmates because here I was, the boy who preferred reading rather than go to recess, rattling off baseball statistics in front of them on the playground. It was the first instance of me being drawn to numbers and the math behind them.  This interest in statistics and the analysis of them is what would also interest me in meteorology (high/low temperatures, amounts of precipitation), music (Billboard charts) and many years later proved instrumental in fueling my career in media research. 


Two Popes Die Within Weeks of Each Other (August 6 & September 28, 1978)

Pope_paulvi The summer of 1978 was my last living in my hometown of McKees Rocks (a suburb of Pittsburgh).  This particular weekend in early August was a fun one as my older brother was visiting from New Jersey.  On Friday evening he, my sister Linda, her friend Ilene and I went to see a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show; the next day we saw Animal House, which had recently opened. 


Then on Sunday afternoon (8/6) Darrell and I went on a long bike ride that took us all the way out to Pittsburgh's airport along winding & hilly roads as well as some risky time peddling on the shoulder of the Parkway West.  All told, it was perhaps a 25-mile round trip.  When we got back home we heard the news of Pope Paul VI's death.  He was 80 and had been pope for 15 years. 


Pope_johnpaul Less than two months later I was back in school, my senior year at Penn State.  As I was getting ready for my Friday morning classes (Bowling followed by Broadcast Communications 325) I heard a news report that the new pope, John Paul I, had died the night before (9/28) from a heart attack.  He had been pope for just one month and was only 62 years old.  I told the news to friends at breakfast and they thought I was joking. 


10 years later I was dating a religion reporter for Time Magazine and he told me that it was widely rumored that John Paul (known as "the smiling pope") was a victim of foul play because 1) his liberal leanings clashed with those of the conservative Vatican hierarchy and 2) he was about to begin an investigation into financial misdeeds at the Vatican Bank.  The book In God's Name: An Investigation Into the Murder of Pope John Paul I provides further insight into the matter.




Pope_johnpaulii By coincidence the day of John Paul's death was one day after the anniversary of the death of Pope Urban VII, the pope with the briefest papal reign - 13 days.  And following John Paul's brief time on the papal throne John Paul II would have one of the longest reigns - nearly 27 years. 


Israeli Team Massacred at 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich (September 5, 1972)

Munich72 Up until today the 1972 Summer Olympics had been about the sterling performances of U.S. swimmer Mark Spitz and Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut.  Sept. 5 was the day after Labor Day, and the first day of the new school year for me, where I was starting the 10th grade at Sto-Rox High School.  When I returned home from classes that afternoon is when I first heard word that terrorist guerillas from the Palestinian Black September movement had taken athletes from the Israeli team hostage. 





Later that night at a little past 10:00 I was getting ready for bed.  My father was dozing in the living room in front of the TV and my mom was out bowling in her Tuesday night league.  I had my bedroom door open so I could listen to the Olympics coverage when I heard ABC Sports anchor Jim McKay give a brief update on the situation that ended with the words "they're all gone".  Nine of the hostages and five of the eight terrorists had been killed at the airport in a bungled rescue attempt (two other Israeli athletes had been killed at the beginning of the ordeal at the Olympic Village).  It was very distressing news to hear before going to bed.





Although I was aware of earlier acts of terrorism in the Middle East this one was by far the most audacious.  And distressing news from the Olympics continued later in the week, but in a very different vein, when the U.S. Men's basketball team was upset by the archrival Soviet team after a very controversial call in the closing three seconds (a play that was replayed repeatedly).  It was the first time the U.S. team failed to win the gold medal in that event.




(An in-depth account of the guerilla incident is provided in the book One Day in September: The Full Story of the Munich Olympics Massacre & the Israeli "Wrath of God" Revenge Operation.)  


Anti-War Protesters, Police Clash at 1968 Democratic Convention (August 26-29, 1968)



My parents and I had spent Aug. 28, 1968 in the town of Slippery Rock, PA (50 miles north of Pittsburgh) to visit my brother Darrell who was at band camp.  Back home that Wednesday evening, the TV was tuned to the Democratic National Convention, forever remembered for that night's fierce confrontations outside the convention hall between anti-war demonstrators and the Chicago police and the Illinois national guard.  Opposing points of view over US involvement in the Vietnam had finally come to a boil.  I remember seeing the TV coverage as I walked in an out of the living room throughout the evening.  (Pictured below is a young Dan Rather being roughed up on the convention floor.)  I was also adjusting to my first pair of glasses which I had gotten a few days earlier in preparation for the beginning of 6th Grade. (So was able to clearly see the baton-wielding police from a distance without squinting.)





Fast forward to 2013 where the TV drama Mad Men used televised coverage of the police brutality against demonstrators at the '68 convention as a backdrop for one of its episodes during Season Six.  Joan and Meagan are deeply disturbed by what they are seeing on TV while at a restaurant Don, Roger and their GM clients debate the intentions of the anti-war demonstrators who they conflate with draft dodgers.




Throughout the turmoil of the late 1960s my parents did a good job of not transmitting their worries to me or my older siblings.  How they reacted to what they saw on TV tonight was no exception.  (I'm sure they had growing concerns over the Vietnam War since my brother was in high school and in a few years would become eligible for the draft.)  Sure, I was aware that "stuff" was going on, but never felt alarm or realized how serious it was.  It was just background noise and it wasn't until I was in college that I realized how serious the clashes were at the convention (inside and outside) and how strained the nation was over the war as well as with other social issues.   




If you're interested in gaining a more in-depth knowledge of the combustible elements that made for such a tumultuous convention, you may want to consider reading David Farber's paperback Chicago '68.