Rock 'em, sock 'em Christmas

My son came home from school with an interesting assignment. He was to interview some adult about his or her favorite toys from childhood. Upon hearing this, I couldn't help jumping up on tiptoes and wagging my hand, pleading "Me! Me!"

Alyosha clucked his tongue and rolled his eyes. "Oh, all right," he said, and I was sated.

I have a fond affection for the playthings of my boyhood and often lament their passing. While my own father's childhood was a time of mechanical toys, and my son's represents the era of computer electronics, I lived in a 1960s world of electrical marvels, the most memorable of which were robots. How did I love these toys? I sat my son down and began to count the ways.

"The early space age had inspired a phalanx of robots," I told him.

"What's a 'phalanx'?" he asked.

"Never mind. Just listen."

I told him about my first robot, which I got for Christmas at the age of 5. It was metal, battery-powered, and stood about 12 inches high. Its red plastic eyes sparked with the suggestion of intelligence, and it had a plastic shield over its trunk, through which one could observe yet more electrical activity. The little robot shuffled forward, first one foot and then the other, making a harsh zipping sound as it proceeded. One day I took it out onto the front porch and set it off on its steady path. I left it for a bathroom call. Upon my return, it was nowhere to be seen. It had apparently caught another boy's fancy.

"Were you sad?" asked Alyosha.

"For a while," I told him. "But there would be other robots."

My younger brother, Steve, was the recipient of a much larger robot - The Great Garloo. This was supposed to represent a reptilian entity of sorts, though it looked more like the Jolly Green Giant and stood about 2-1/2 feet tall. This green, scaly robot was controlled with a wire lead from a hand-held battery pack. The Great Garloo rolled forward on wheels and had two claims to fame: It could bend over at the waist, and it could oppose its hands to pick things up from the floor (although, to my mother's lament, it had little effect on the tidiness of the room my brother and I shared).

On that same Christmas Day, I also received a robot: Robot Commando, the appropriate answer to the threat to sibling bliss represented by The Great Garloo.

The blue-and-red Robot Commando was a beauty. He (it?) was equal in height to The Great Garloo, standing square and stalwart, with sharply defined angles, his two arms held rigidly at his sides. Like Garloo, Robot Commando was controlled by an electrical lead and also moved forward on wheels. Unlike his nemesis, though, he couldn't bend at the waist (he had no waist) and he couldn't pick things up with his hands (he had no hands). But he could fire missiles from his head and fling cannonballs with his arms.

So, after the initial flurry of opening presents, my brother and I set up our robots on the living-room floor while my parents still slept (it was 4:30 a.m.), and there we did battle to see which was the better automaton.

The Great Garloo made the first move, lurching forward as Steve worked the controls. I watched as the robot raised its arms and ratcheted its hands wide apart. I picked up my robot's control and ordered it forward. Robot Commando set off at a speed approaching 0.2 miles per hour. The two robots collided, and there they stood, buzzing and humming against each other, neither giving way, as my brother and I punched at the controls .

"What happened then?" asked Alyosha.

I had no choice but to engage the secret weapons to which Steve was not yet privy. I twirled the knob on my control unit, and we both watched in amazement as the top of Robot Commando's head opened like the lid on a tin can. "No fair!" shouted Steve.

"Yes, it is!" I countered.. With an anticlimactic "click," the rubber-tipped projectile flopped out of Robot Commando's head and plopped onto the floor. A clean miss.

"Ha!" exclaimed my brother.

The battle raged on, with The Great Garloo trying to get his slow-motion arms around Robot Commando as the latter attempted - fruitlessly - to fling its ping-pong-ball-weight cannonballs in self-defense.

A few moments later, as the first light of Christmas morning spread itself along the horizon and a gentle snow began to fall, my parents entered upon the scene, to find me and my brother rolling on the floor, wrestling for the honor of our robots. "The Great Garloo is better!" shouted Steve. "Robot Commando won!" I shouted back.

"And that was my Christmas of the robots," I placidly told my son as I eased back in my chair.

"Cool," he said. "But who really won that robot fight?"

Leaning forward again, I tapped his assignment sheet with the tip of my finger. "Robot Commando," I said. "If anyone ever asks, it was Robot Commando."

I am, after all, the older brother.

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