Illustration by Russell Christian.
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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel
When the Novelty's Gone
I can't for the life of me remember the first thing I ordered from the Johnson Smith Company. Something I saw in the back of a comic book, I would imagine.
There were so many things to choose from back there--the incredibly inexpensive two man submarine, the "creeping hand magic bank," the fake vomit, the finger guillotine, and of course the X-Ray Specs.
(I was always a little suspicious of those--how could you see through someone's clothes on the one hand, but see all the way through to your own bones on the other? How did the glasses know when to stop?)
My best guess is that the first thing I ordered--I must've been about six at the time--was the skeleton. If you read comic books back in the late '60s/early '70s, you know which ad I'm talking about. Not the crawling skeleton hand that comes out of your pocket, but the "7 Foot-Tall Glow in the Dark Skeleton." It was advertised alongside the "7 Foot Tall Glow in the Dark Frankenstein."
I'm not sure why I decided to go with the skeleton-except that I was a little obsessed with skeletons at the time, for some reason. There was am illustration of a human skeleton in a children's encyclopedia we had around that scared the hell out of me. So what better than to have a giant one to keep in my room?
I saved up the requisite $1.99 from my allowance, filled out the tiny order form, checked off the "skeleton" box, shoved everything in an envelope and sent it off to lord knows where. About four months later, I had forgotten about it. And as these things happen, the moment I forgot about it, it arrived.
I was confused at first-how could they fit a 7-foot skeleton into a package that was so small and flat?
I opened it, and sure enough, inside was my skeleton. Well, not the giant skeleton I was expecting, but rather a drawing of a skeleton printed on a long sheet of cheap black plastic. As for the "glow-in-the-dark" part, that came in the form of two tiny reflective dots, which I was supposed to stick in the skeleton's eyes. I don't think I ever bothered with that snazzy touch. With a heavy sigh, I hung the poster to the back of my bedroom door.
There was another item in the package, however. A catalog from the Johnson Smith Co. That catalog quickly became one of the most important pieces of reading material I'd ever encountered in my young life. Everything I'd seen advertised in the back of the comics was here-and much much more. It was even in color, most of it. Page after page of all those things that made life seem like it was worth living when you were six: Trick gum, cigarette rollers, weird mechanical banks, laughing bags, chattering teeth, those creepy cymbal-clanging chimps, stink bombs, exploding matches, a wide variety of masks, fake dog and human shit, fake blood, sound effects records, remote controlled helicopters. Lots of things you would never, ever be allowed to sell to a kid today--and most of them for under ten bucks. We had a novelty store in town (Spookie's, it was called), but they didn't carry half the stuff that was in that catalog.
I began saving my allowance money again. Disappointing as that skeleton had been, I figured whatever I ordered next had to be better.
Several months later, the gorilla mask arrived. After my skeleton stage, I'd moved on to my gorilla stage.
It wasn't exactly what I expected. It didn't look much at all like the drawing in the ad. It was made of thin latex, covered only the front half of my head, had some sort of black fright wig glued to the top of it, and was painted sort of haphazardly. It dangled loosely off the top of my skull, stretching down to the middle of my chest. The nostrils had a tendency to keep turning inside out. It wasn't very convincing. It bore more of a resemblance to Andre the Giant than it did to any gorilla I'd ever seen. In the end, it didn't matter. I wore it everywhere.
To go along with the mask, the next thing I ordered was a pair of "gorilla hands." They'd fit right over my own hands, I was promised. What could be better? I'd put on the hands, put on the mask, and with my regular clothes covering the rest of my body well, I'd fool everybody!
The gloves turned out to be lumpy affairs made out of the same gray latex the mask was made of. And, like the mask, they were about eight sizes too big. I had to wrap rubber bands around them to keep them from slipping off my scrawny arms. I never became quite as smitten with those as I did with the mask.
Then one October, in preparation for a cub scout Halloween party, the den mother stopped by my house while I was at school and asked my mom if she could borrow the mask.
At the meeting later that week, we were all asked to sit around in a circle. The den mother killed the lights, then began passing around various food items that were supposed to be parts of some dead guy's body--grapes for eyes, spaghetti for veins and the like. When the cabbage that was supposed to be his head was passed to me, I froze. In the darkness, my fingers felt around the surface. It only took a second for me to recognize that the cabbage had been adorned with my gorilla mask. Worse--my gorilla mask without hair.
The stupid bitch, without my permission, had ripped off the wig for her stupid Halloween game. Well what the hell kind of gorilla was that? A bald one, that's what! I left the meeting in a fury. They'd ruined it. It was no good to anybody anymore.
(Years later, I would pine for that mask again, after seeing it used in an Ernie Kovacs skit filmed ten years before I was born.)
There were still so many things in that catalog I coveted. But most everything was out of my price range (anything over $3). My parents weren't going to shell out for this crap, which meant it was an issue of setting aside my quarter-a-week allowance until I had enough. It took time.
Maybe it was out of sheer frustration that I ended up ordering the helicopter which, according to the ads, would "fly up to 500 feet in the air!" The illustration showed some sort of attack helicopter hovering in the clouds, far above the tiny buildings below.
The ad didn't make it real clear how this thing was powered, but I figured if it was going that high up, it had to use one of those model rocket engines or something.
What arrived in the small box a few months later was a flimsy plastic device that appeared to be constructed out of drinking straws. It had a rotor, though, and a vaguely copterish shape.
As for the "engine," well, that was another story. The box also contained what appeared to be a plastic spray nozzle. Sticking out of the side of the nozzle was a small handle--the kind of handle you'd yank to start a lawn mower or an outboard motor. It was attached to a length of fishing wire wound up inside the nozzle. The idea was that you were supposed to snap the helicopter onto the end of the nozzle, point it at the sky, and give the handle a yank (it took me a day to figure that much out). If you yanked it hard enough, well, there was a chance that the copter might just go 500 feet in the air, depending on the wind.
I went out into the back yard. It was a calm summer afternoon. I stuck the helicopter onto the nozzle, raised it to the sky, and yanked as hard as I could.
Up and up it went--a full three or maybe even six inches--before flopping back to earth. What was even more frustrating was that the rotor stayed perfectly still, while the body of the helicopter spun around beneath it. Maybe it was a question of perspective, I'm not sure.
It tried it a few more times with similar results, then I went inside and put it away.
That weekend, my dad asked me how the helicopter was working, and I told him.
"Well," he said, "why don't you let me give it a try?" He was a big guy--I was sure he'd be able to do better than I did. So I retrieved the helicopter, and we went to the back yard again. I set it up and told him what to do.
He grabbed hold of the plastic handle and yanked, at which point the entire thing fell to pieces. The fishing line attached to the handle snapped, the helicopter did nothing, it was all over with for good. Another two bucks down the drain.
It occurred to me then than almost everything I'd ever ordered from that catalog had been a disappointment. And even though I loved the mask, it was never what I had hoped and dreamed it would be. Yet I kept going back, kept ordering things, and kept winding up disappointed,
It's like a freak show that way. I always got suckered in by the banners but was always disappointed by what I found inside. Yet I kept going back.
I guess there are a lot of things in life like that. We get suckered in by false promises, we have dreams of the way things could and should be, but they never are. It's a basic human impulse-we desperately cling to these hopes and keep going back, knowing that this next one, this next time, will be better.
I think that helicopter was the last thing I ever ordered from the Johnson Smith Co. I still kept the catalogs around, though, and was always thrilled when I got a new one in the mail (they kept coming for a few years).
It struck me only much later that I had much more fun with that damn catalog than I ever did with any of the crap I actually ordered from it. The catalog at least sparked my imagination.
Just out of curiosity, the other day I took a peek, and sure enough Johnson Smith, founded in 1914, is still around. And happily, the new online catalog still features many of the classic old novelties-sneeze powder, marked cards, trick coins, lots of fart related toys. But over the years they've expanded. They sell lots of t-shirts now, and electronic games, collectibles, security devices-even a "hand grenade belt buckle." Prices have gone up too, though you can still get a pair of X-Ray Specs for about $3.
Yet for some reason, no matter how addictive I still find their catalog, I wasn't even briefly tempted to place an order.