TOYS THROUGH TIME. Put some jogging shoes on your imagination, because we're going to take a dash backwards to long ago. Actually, to lo-o-o-ong ago.

We're going to visit some kids way back in time. They didn't know anything about Barbie or toy cars. They'd never seen Christmas trees, either. But they had fun, just the same, playing with wheels and whistles, dolls and cradleboards. Naturally, no one really knows who owned the toys listed below. So, we're going to pretend. The boys and girls in these stories are all make-believe, but their clothes, customs, and homes are true to their times. For starters, we'll peel away about 4400 years from the calendar for a visit back to the city of Kish in Sumeria (a piece of Iraq today).

Ready? Zaboosh. We're standing outside a mud brick house, peering through a tiny window covered with wooden grillwork. We watch. Even though the room inside is dim, we can see that the father is angry. His words are stern. But his son says nothing, merely looks downward, watching his toes wiggle. The boy's name is Zabaja. And he wants to play with his new toy. But like many boys in many places throughout all times, he hasn't done his homework.

In Sumeria, only the rich go to school. And the price of undone homework is high: The teacher whips with a stick. So when Zabaja's father leaves, the boy takes a tablet of wet clay from the bench. Slowly, he makes wedge-shaped characters with a reed writing tool. Over and over, he copies his lessons.

Then he stops, eyeing the toy that sits in the corner. It's a chariot crafted from clay, no bigger than a bowl. Zabaja thrusts his tablet aside and begins to play. His chariot has a splashboard to keep the miniature driver from getting speckled with mud on the make-believe battlefield.

Outside on the alley-wide streets, real soldiers march by, their metal helmets and spears of copper flashing in the sun. They're friendly soldiers. And knowing this, Zabaja pays little heed. He's used to soldiers because his city is constantly at war with neighboring cities. Unconcerned, he rolls his chariot along the bench top. He's proud of its two real wheels. After all, wheels haven't been around all that long. And to have them on a toy is something special.

Yes, his city has wheels and writing, metal tools and big temples. But lots hasn't happened yet. Jesus hasn't been born; the Atlantic Ocean hasn't been crossed, and the moon is thought to be a god, not a place for spacemen to visit. There's no pizza or soda pop, either. But Zabaja doesn't care. He has his chariot.

All set? Zaboosh. We're in Egypt - about 1600 years ago. Isadora is sitting on steep stairs, three stories up, in a narrow house. She's thinking very hard. Somewhere she has misplaced her doll. Where?

She had been playing with it when her mother called her to help bake bread. Now it's nowhere around. The doll is small and carved from bone. And it's Isadora's only toy. Maybe it's in the wall niche that holds the water jug? She looks. No. Or mixed in with the family's clothes? Isadora pulls out folded tunics and a purple shawl from a basket. Not a sign of her doll. There's almost nowhere else to look because the room has almost no furniture - a bench or two and a few floor mats to sit on, but that's all. The only decorations are the Christian crosses and symbols scratched into the white plastered walls.

Isadora and her family live in simple style. They're Copts. That's what Egyptians who've turned Christian are called. By this time in the fourth century, there are lots of them, clustered together in crowded settlements, keeping away from the Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Romans who worship many gods.

Eventually, Isadora gives up her search and goes to help her mother. The aroma of freshly baked bread hangs heavy in the air, along with the fragrance of incense that pours from a bronze dove. One loaf looks so funny, with lumps in the wrong places. No wonder. She starts to laugh. That's where her doll is hiding. She must have dropped the toy, and it was baked inside the bread.

Away again. Zaboosh. We're in China, more than a 1000 years ago.

Our dragon boat glides along the Grand Canal, taking us to Changan, the imperial city where the emperor lives. Crowds cram into the marketplace, bargaining over silks and saddles, firewood, fruit, and fish. A flame-colored carriage clatters by, its brilliant orange-red telling us that someone important rides inside.

Half hidden amid peach trees, we find the house of Po Chen. We see him sitting, quietly. He has been waiting all day for his brother, Han. It's today that Han finds out about his examinations. If he passes with honors, he'll become a government official. (And for certain, he'll bring Po Chen a present!) To take the exams, Han studied for years to learn law and mathematics and how to write beautiful poetry.

Po Chen likes poetry, but he likes music more, and he hums while he waits. Then he hears something behind the bamboo screen - a whistle. Out steps Han, tootling away on a bird whistle that plays all sorts of tunes. Han's face is happy - he has passed with honors! How lordly he looks in his green silk gown with purple belt, just like a government official should look.

Han hands the whistle to Po Chen. Then another whistle. And another. Six whistles in all, so Po Chen and his friends can make music together. The boy starts to play, but the musical sounds are drowned out by drum beats from the city's center. At sunset, the drums warn that it's curfew time. Soon the streets will be silent. So we race to the dragon boat before the city gates clank shut.

Let's travel. Zaboosh. We're on an Apache Indian reservation about 100 years ago in the southwestern United States. An open wagon bumps along the mountain trail, the wheels riding in deep ruts. It's pulled by horses and driven by a white man. In the back ride six Apache children.

Guyan, who's almost eight, has nothing to say. She looks at the others riding with her. They, too, say nothing. They're being taken to a boarding school where they'll learn the white man's ways. They'll eat at the school, and sleep at the school, and they won't go home for nearly a year.

Sadly, Guyan looks down at the toy cradleboard in her lap. It was a gift from her grandparents, something to remind her of home. When she was a baby, she had been laced into a cradleboard that looked almost like this one. Made from tanned buckskin and oak, it was strapped to her mother's back every day. In this way, Guyan could be with her mother all the time. Pushing back her black hair, Guyan holds the toy cradleboard close to her face. Already she misses watching her mother sew buckskin leggings. And when will she see her father again, bringing home deer meat?

Up ahead, Guyan sees it - the big building. This is where she'll live and go to school. She has never been in a building before because in the mountains she has always lived in a small wickiup made of branches and hides. Tonight - although she doesn't know it yet - she'll sleep in a bed. Tomorrow, she'll wear a white girl's dress. Within three months she'll be speaking English.

Guyan had been taught not to cry. But she cries anyway, and holds the cradleboard close to her face.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.