Tops On The Sidewalks

Beyond the warming weather and the greening of the trees and shrubs, there were four sure signs of spring for students at St. Cloud’s Lincoln Elementary School in the early 1960s:

At the three or four mom-and-pop grocery stores near Lincoln – including the one around the corner and down the block from our place – you could find a rack full of balsa wood glider planes, and very nearby, a cardboard bin full of kite kits. I dabbled with both over the years, the planes more frequently than the kites.

And in stores with larger customer bases – drugstores, larger grocery stores, and places like Woolworth’s and Kresge’s – you could find new displays of Duncan yo-yos and spinning tops. Again, I dabbled with both of those from, oh, 1963 to 1967. I was never very good with a yo-yo, being much more likely to end up with a great tangle of string than I was to make the toy walk the dog or jump the camel or whatever it was a yo-yo did.

But I could wrap cord around a top, unleash it and watch it spin, and I joined my classmates and other friends for top-fests on the sidewalks in front of our house and on the concrete driveways in the neighborhood, and I spent plenty of hours spinning tops on the smoother concrete of our basement floor. (Dad’s work to create the basement rec room was still a few years away.)

And one spring, sometime around 1964, I got a package in the mail. In it, I found what was called a Campbell Kid Play-Kit, which consisted of a yo-yo, a spinning top, and a handball – a small rubber ball connected by a rubber cord to a hand-held disc – all stored in a plastic bag with a drawstring and all emblazoned with the faces of the Campbell Kids, the cartoon characters used at the time to market Campbell’s soups.

campbells-soup-campbell-kids-play-kit_

Its appearance at our place on Kilian Boulevard was, I’m sure, the work of my grandmother or my Aunt Ruth (who still lived on the farm with Grandma and Grandpa, and whom we called Tudy). Every now and then, Grandma or Tudy would see an offer for a toy or game on a cereal box or in an ad in one of their magazines, something they thought that my sister or I might like, and they’d send in the cash and the required number of soup labels or cereal box tops and put either my name or my sister’s name as the recipient. And some weeks later, a surprise gift would make its way to our door.

(And I wonder for the first time if they had similar gifts sent to my cousins in Pennsylvania, four girls by 1964 with two boys yet to come. I imagine they did.)

I never played much with the handball. It was similar to – but harder to control – than the paddleballs one could buy at dime and drug stores, and those had never interested me much. I gave the yo-yo a try or two, but – as noted above – while other kids might master The Creeper or The Elevator, I could only perform The Tangler.

The top, though, got a lot of use for a while. Its bright red appearance got some appreciative glances from the top aficionados in our neighborhood, and it spun nicely on its plastic tip. At least it did until – as with all tops I ever had – continued contact with the harsh concrete of the sidewalk abraded the tip until the top’s spinning was at first wobbly and then comically impaired. (The thought hangs in my mind that replacement tips were available at drug and dime stores – or perhaps the hobby shop downtown – but I never thought to replace the worn-down tips.)

And with that, the top joined the yo-yo and the paddleball in the box of ignored toys, and sometime during the forty years between 1964 and 2004, all three were likely discarded, as sometimes happens to our childhood things. But the memories this morning of tangled yo-yo strings, of the awkward paddle-ball (and of a few elastic-powered bops to my face), and of the red top spinning its way across someone’s driveway, well, those memories brought back a little childhood joy. And along with them came pleasant memories of my grandmother and my aunt, both gone now for decades.

The digital library brings no joy from a search for “spinning top.” (There are, however, thirteen versions of Blood, Sweat & Tears’ “Spinning Wheel.”) So we’re going to dip into the Billboard Hot 100 from this week in 1964 and drop down to No. 25, because at a guess, the gift of the Campbell Kids Play-Kit likely cost my grandmother or aunt no more than twenty-five cents (along with the required soup can labels).

And at No. 25 in the Hot 100 from April 25, 1964, we come across an instrumental I’ve never heard before, “Forever” by Pete Drake & His Talking Steel Guitar. Drake has, of course, popped up as a studio musician on many tracks I’ve heard over the years, but I’ve not encountered much of his solo work. A sweet and romantic track, “Forever” peaked during this week in 1964, going no higher than No. 25. The record also went to No. 5 on the magazine’s Easy Listening chart.

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4 Responses to “Tops On The Sidewalks”

  1. Marie says:

    Hi Whiteray,

    The Orlons ‘Spinnin’ Top’ would be perfect for your post today.

    I hope you and the Texas Gal are safe and well and keeping up your spirits in these sorely trying times.

  2. jb says:

    “Forever” is one of those songs I knew before I knew that I knew it. Before Drake recorded it, it was a Top-10 hit for the Little Dippers in 1960. Four different versions charted in all, but none of them sound like what plays in my head when I think of the song, so there’s either a fifth one, or I hallucinated the whole thing, which can never be ruled out.

  3. Yah Shure says:

    I still have at least one of my old Duncan yo-yos around here somewhere, and the Cat Stevens “Izitso” promo yo-yo has been sitting in one of the kitchen display cabinets for almost 35 years now. But I’d forgotten all about Duncan’s line of tops, one of which I did have.

    “The Sleeper” was about as far as my yo-yoing skills ever got me, and I, too, had better luck with the top. I think the color scheme on it resembled the white and metallic light teal on the Duncan Satellite yo-yo I had.

    Pete Drake’s cover was the one I specifically remembered hearing on the radio, mostly on KDWB, but when KRSI switched to oldies and began to play the Little Dippers’ version, I knew I’d heard it once upon a time. Even though we always listened to WDGY, there were quite a few stretches between 1960 and 1962 when I was apparently more interested in doing kids’ stuff than in listening to the radio.

    Thanks for the memory joggers!

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