Writing hasn’t been easy for me lately. In lieu of many significant life changes, including but not limited to divorce, back surgery, and the clustered deaths of friends and family, including my father, I’ve felt my need to write extinguished by the inkless dark vacuum of writer’s block.
I miss rooting around in my nostalgic memories and sharing them in writing. Doing so through this website has connected me with so many people in the past, many of which I’ve come to value as friends. It’s not that I have nothing to say. There have been plenty of false starts over the past few years. Half finished articles and unrealized profundities sit in a digital limbo, cursor blinking impatiently as it awaits my next word. The idea that this very article may suffer the same fate feels like breathing the thinning air in a sealed cave. No use trying to start a fire here.
Today, as I drove home from work, I recalled a postal tracking notification from earlier in the day. The automated email stated that a recent late-night eBay impulse purchase, a hard plastic dinosaur toy from 1979, had arrived and was waiting for me at my front door. It was identical to one I’d owned as a child and lifted my spirits on this, a particularly melancholy day. It’s arrival today, a synchronicity as it would have been my father’s 71st birthday.
My dad loved dinosaurs. As a child he watched in wonder as Ray Harryhausen’s creatures strobed across screens and kept Korg 70,000 BC and Turok Son of Stone comics for drawing reference as an adult. One of his often retold childhood memories was of drawing dinosaurs on parchment paper to project onto a wall by shining a light behind them to entertain his siblings. As I grew up I remember being surrounded by a variety of dinosaur toys ranging from the small, one-color-each, bagged variety to the larger rubber or hard-plastic kind, the latter of which seemed suitable for brandishing as a weapon. I don’t recall picking out most of these toys. It’s likely that I did. But it’s also very possible that my father purchased them for me in my absence, another instance of him living vicariously through me and reconnecting to his own childhood.
The dinosaur toy is a weird crème brûlée-colored specimen made by Imperial Toys in Hong Kong and looks like a Tyrannosaurus rex/Godzilla hybrid. It stands upright (as most carnivorous dinosaurs were perceived to do in the unenlightened 1960s and 1970s) with the polygonal plates of a Stegosaurus running the length of its spine, blood-red eyes, and toothy mouth agape. Godzillasaurus was one of my childhood favorites, and stood in as my adversary one day when my father bought a fresh roll of film and proposed we spend it taking pictures of me “fighting” a dinosaur. He’d wistfully daydream of an alternate career as an animator or movie effects wizard, breathing life into the fantastic. As I neared home, I considered taking an updated picture of me fighting Godzillasaurus. A fitting tribute to the man on his birthday.
Opening the box from the eBay seller, I explained the story of the toy to my dear friend and frequent Junk Fed collaborator, Sasha, who also happens to be my ex-wife. My eyes were hot with the threat of tears as I told her the time my father tried his hand at some trick photography with a cheap camera and a toy dinosaur cast from the same mold nearly 40 years ago. Having known my father, and being present for his death and my mourning thereafter, Sasha looked at me and offered the second synchronicity of the day.
“Would you like to take a picture of you with the dinosaur now?”
Moments later in the backyard with Sasha holding the dinosaur by its tail in front of a smart phone lens and me standing in the distance, we forced perspective as my father had so long ago.
The smell of freshly cut grass hung sweetly in the air as he called out directions to me.
“Look up like you’re looking at the dinosaur!”
He pronounced the last word, “dinah-so-ah,” through his r-less Massachusetts accent.
The resulting photos show me standing in various poses with a blurry dinosaur entering the left side of the frame.
The relationship between my father and I was complex and strained in later years. While I have many fond memories of growing up with him, maintaining a healthy and pleasant relationship became harder as time passed. A photographic redux of my encounter with Godzillasaurus helped me realize that my decline in writing about my childhood was largely attributable to my nostalgic memories becoming more painful than they once had been. One of the most important players in my memories is gone forever and unavailable for re shoots. Perhaps I’d unconsciously hoped to create more pleasant memories with my father, despite the strain in our later years.
My father was the architect of most of what I’m nostalgic about. While my mother assumed the thankless but crucial role of the responsibly practical disciplinarian, my father was the fun-time parent, swooping in on the weekends to fill my head with the fantastic and my belly with junk food. My sense of humor, creativity, and sense of play are some of my strongest positive personal traits that I attribute directly to my his influence. He was a big kid at times often opting for fun and frivolity over responsibility and often struggled against the societal demands of adulthood. Perhaps it was a maladjustment attributable to his traumatic time in Vietnam. Nevertheless, I didn’t know any better and as a child and benefited from his jocularity. He seemed happiest when sharing something he enjoyed from his childhood with me, like drugstore Lime Rickeys at the last soda counter in town, or introducing me to Mad Magazine, movie matinees, comic books, and root beer floats. Unfortunately my father also suffered from PTSD, depression, and alcoholism so his moments of conviviality were inconsistent, and slowly faded from him as he recoiled from the world.
In the back yard I called directions to Sasha.
“I’m gonna look up like I’m looking at the dinah-so-ah! Does it look right?”
While I’d normally struggle against it, I felt an ambivalence to my own Massachusetts accent awakening on the word “dinosaur.”
I struck the same pose as I’d done before, looking up in surprise and fighting back a smile if only for the credibility of the photo. This time there’d be no impatient wait for the Fotomat in the plaza parking lot to develop the film. The results were instant, and only slightly more convincing than the originals despite the smile on my face.
As is the case with much of my collection, this vintage dinosaur is a totem of my past. I’ll never be able to return to that summer day in the backyard so long ago. But I can hold this object, run my fingers over the sculpted texture and plastic seams, and remember. What’s more is the arrival of this old toy provided an unexpected, yet welcome writing prompt. It’s inspiration proved stronger than the grief that’s kept me from writing about such things. Or perhaps my grief is beginning to fade allowing me to distill the painful memories and subsequent loss into something useful and sweet. No matter, It did get me outside on a beautiful day and showed me that I am once again strong enough to stand up to the menace of a giant out of focus toy dinosaur. Just like my father taught me.