Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Charles Owens

August 15, 2012

Water-pressured rockets helped launch memorable childhood summers

While lawn darts were a popular and, admittedly, somewhat dangerous summer adventure, there was another outdoor activity that I preferred as a child growing up in McDowell County.

It was a simple pleasure involving water and plastic rockets. Yes, I was somewhat of a little Rocket Boy myself growing up. You could buy plastic rockets — both big and small — at the old GC Murphy store in Welch.

As a child growing up in the small town of Anawalt, I loved launching these plastic contraptions. And they actually worked. With enough water and a little patience, they would often fly high into the air after being pumped up with air and released. The water pressure was enough to send these often spaceship-shaped toys soaring into the air.

A quick Google search brought back plenty of memories of the beloved rockets. The photos online look just like the old plastic toy rockets I would launch as a kid. Today, these water-pressured rockets are labeled as “dangerous toys” by several websites. Just like lawn darts are. But I never looked at these little toy rockets as being dangerous. They didn’t go that high into the air, and they never hit anyone. Not even a bird. Sure, they would sometimes land on the roof, or in the yard of a next-door neighbor, often never to be seen again. But they never caused anyone to be maimed, blinded or seriously injured. Lawn darts by comparison could cause serious harm, particularly if your aim would be off by a few feet. But the plastic toy rockets were just a simple childhood joy. A chance to dream as a kid about shooting for the stars.

Mom bought me lots of plastic rockets each time we would travel to Welch. I don’t really remember us buying any rockets in Bluefield. It seems like they were all purchased at the old GC Murphy store. Back in the day, that beloved department store was a giant toy land, just as the Hill’s Department Store was in Bluefield.

So while toy trains were a year-round joy, plastic rockets were the ideal summer distraction. Later on everything would change when the Atari 2600 arrived, and outdoor recreation would be replaced by sitting on the living floor in front of a giant television set playing “Space Invaders.”

You could say that video games are to blame for a loss of outdoor recreation for youth, and it’s probably a correct argument.

When I finally received my coveted Atari 2600, or Atari Video Computer Entertainment Center as it was originally called, outdoor fun took a backseat to indoor gaming. It was perhaps the beginning of a decline in outdoor recreation for an entire generation. No more rocket launching. No more lawn darts. No more riding the bike up and down the gravel road. Just a fierce battle against a never-ending wave of invaders from space that was later replaced by a particularly hideous home port of “Pac-Man” where everything flicked so badly you had no idea what was happening on screen.

But those were the great nostalgic days of summer. Precious memories of a kinder, gentler and more innocent age. As a kid, I had never heard of the story of the Rocket Boys of McDowell County. Coalwood was an eternity away from Anawalt. And a successful moon landing had already been completed well before I was born. But I still liked rockets. As well as trains. I don’t know what happened to all of those old plastic rockets. I guess Mom would throw away the remaining ones at the end of each summer with the knowledge that we would be buying more next year. After all, a new year would bring new models, and bigger and better, plastic rockets. There appeared to be a never-ending supply of these beloved toys at the grand GC Murphy department store.

Summer is much, much different nowadays. You rarely see kids launching rockets anymore. And that’s a shame. The great train sets of the day also appear to be long gone. Although thanks to the kindness of a loyal reader, I have the beloved “Spirit of 76” Tyco engine now on display in a downstairs bookshelf. The old lawn darts are long gone, and that is probably a good thing.

But some things haven’t changed. Kids are still out riding bicycles. So at least they are getting some exercise in between their marathon gaming sessions.

The next time I’m out at the store I will probably stroll through the toy section. It will be interesting to see if there any water-pressured rockets for sale nowadays. Considering that the old rockets are now labeled as dangerous toys of yesterday, I would suspect there isn’t. But it’s still worth a look. And I do know for a fact that a few things haven’t changed.

There is still an abundance of “Star Wars” figurines to be found, and the local department store even has an “Atari Flashback 3” on sale. I would purchase it if they weren’t asking $40. That seems like a slightly high price tag for a brief stroll down memory lane. But it is still good to reminiscence about the good old days every now and then.

Charles Owens is the Daily Telegraph’s assistant managing editor. Contact him at cowens@bdtonline.com. Follow him @BDTOwens.

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