This toy remains legendary in my mind today, a marvel of innovation and physics.
I am the youngest of seven children, two of whom died shortly after birth due to my parents' "incompatible blood." Something to do with "RH factors." Apparently, my parents' blood types were at war with each other, a condition that can be remedied easily nowadays with the proper medications and care during pregnancy. But in the 1940s and 50s, it was a real crap shoot. One way to look at it is to realize that I, my brother, and my sisters are lucky to be here. As a result, three of us have AB- blood, a type that occurs in a small segment of the population (My 10th grade biology teacher, Mrs. Schoonover, told us that the occurrence of AB- blood in the general population was something like one-third of one percent.). All I know is that I have it, and I feel pretty darn special and rare because of it.
I don't really know my elder and sole brother Tommy. By the time I was old enough to ride a bicycle, he'd followed a job with AT&T to Atlanta, moved his family there, and never lived in Chattanooga again. His visits were sporadic--usually on major holidays and parents' birthdays--and the fact that he was the same age as many of my friends' fathers created a polite distance that has never really been overcome to this day. I'd be sad about it if I really knew what I was missing, but, frankly, he's a figure in my life that I know little about.
The rest of the family always viewed Tommy as "rich." None of us really knew his finances--nor do we now--but his vacation to Disneyland in California seemed pretty out-of-reach for us. Then there was the time he bought a riding lawn mower and towed it all the way up to Chattanooga just to show us. I remember wondering about two things during that visit: Why did the lawn mower have headlights? Did people mow grass at night? And, if my brother had so much money, why didn't he buy Daddy a riding lawn mower? Daddy labored every week with a push mower beating back the thick and fast-growing grass that covered the two acres on which our trailer--and my sister Audrey's--sat. At the time, not only were riding lawn mowers a new suburban concept, I was still too young to be entrusted to operate a push mower (a status that came to an end too soon).
But at Christmas, Tommy often bought me a gift that reflected not only his "wealth," but also his interest in gadgets. The Best Christmas Gift I Ever Received came from Tommy: a Johnny Astro. This toy remains legendary in my mind today, a marvel of innovation and physics. I've since read the concepts explaining how Johnny Astro worked, but they are lost on me like so much mathematics. I'll describe it through a child's eyes, but know that I'm still enchanted with it to this day and I regret that it was ever lost to time.
The control center of Johnny Astro looked like an array of instrumentation, none of which actually "worked," but on either end of the plastic panel was a control that resembled a stick shift. The control center was T-shaped, with the instrumentation arrayed on the top of the T, and at the end of the long bisecting plastic arm was a dish-like "antennae" which was actually an electric motor and fan. One stick shift controlled the speed of the fan from barely a turn to a full force gale and the other stick controlled the movement of the antennae dish/fan itself.
The "spacecrafts" that came with Johnny Astro were simply white balloons festooned with an Air Force-type symbol, and light plastic four-legged stands were taped beneath the balloons. When properly outfitted, the spacecrafts would stand alone and look similar to a hot air balloons.
Here's where the amazing part came in: With the spacecraft sitting a few feet from the dish antennae/fan on a little cardboard runway, I would point the fan at the spacecraft and slowly start the blades to turning. The trick was to increase the air speed to just below the point of blowing the balloon away while gently lifting the dish antenna/fan skyward. Done just right, the spacecraft would rise in place, and with the proper finesse of wind speed and direction, I could "fly" the spacecraft around the room in about a six foot radius of the control center. IT WAS ASTOUNDING! THE THING SEEMED TO DEFY GRAVITY! I now know that it has something to do with air flow and drag around the body of the balloon, but it was (and, to a certain extent, still is) pure magic to me. Since then, I've seen a few summer displays in department stores involving box fans on their backs keeping dancing beach balls afloat in their air flow that simulate the same principle, but a beach ball rolling in place three feet above a box fan pales in my mind to actually "driving" a balloon around my bedroom with precision.
Tommy also bought me the first Sony Walkman® that ever existed, and the cassette junkie in me rejoiced mightily. The first song I listened to on it was "Whisper to a Scream" by Elvis Costello, a song I still use to this day to christen any new piece of sound equipment that I buy.
As I got older, the gifts tapered off, as did that tenuous thread of our fraternal relationship. I still see Tommy a couple of times a year. We've weathered the deaths of our parents, our sister Audrey, and his wife. I watch him closely for clues as to what to expect when I reach 70. We are the only two of the siblings who do not smoke, so I see in him the key to my longevity. How long can an Ingle live without self-inflicted lung cancer? His mind isn't what it used to be, and that concerns me on a number of levels. And when I consider that I've revealed more of myself in this blog than I've ever revealed to my own brother, I am given pause.