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Louis Marx may have sought this kind of liberation when he cast himself in white plastic and entered the community of small things looking for something bigger to animate them. On the contrary, he has humbled himself to become one toy among many, a portly man with a cigar who could be chatting with cowboy drifters and dull-witted dinosaurs—not just presidents and generals—if things were so arranged.

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The flesh-and-blood Louis Marx would have had little patience with such strained profundities. Still, he might have understood the visceral charge that comes from holding a mint brontosaurus in flat The Prospero of Fifth Avenue gray, weary-faced but ready for anything, just like Standing Roy and Ravishing Dale. Marx might even share my excitement at spotting a megatherium and iguanodon in flat tan with only twenty-three minutes left in the auction. Having become the proud owner of all the toy dinosaurs I need, assuming I really needed any of them, still I tell myself that bidding on these figures would be a perfectly rational act.

It might bring me two steps closer to having the complete second series of dinosaurs in tan, which might in turn bring contentment—and what self-respecting seeker could shun the possibility of that? O f the playset animals scattered throughout the desktop crowd, three—a horse, a dog, and a dinosaur—are standing in the second row, just behind the multiple Roys and Dales and only a trot away from Louis Marx himself. Bullet, ears erect and tongue lolling in a canine smile, sits bolt upright and awaits a new command, while a white vinyl Trigger stands nearby, proudly unencumbered by saddle or reins.

It is the dinosaur positioned between them, however, that holds pride of place. Al is a revered reminder of playset origins, a patriarch of First Things.


In the beginning was the dinosaur—a statement that holds true not just for my collecting life, which progressed from dinosaurs to other animals to people, but for my real life. Fourteen Marx dinosaurs were the first playset figures that I owned as a child. These variously shaped grotesques had a two-year jump on my original Roy and Dale, both of whom, once they arrived, wound up cavorting as often in the Jurassic as in the American West. Although I eventually owned other toy animals, mostly farm and jungle sets made by the Auburn Rubber company, they never saw much play.

Marx dinosaurs remained my favorites until I outgrew such toys altogether. After Snowball and Snooks got flattened on Ohio Route 15, Sue vowed never to get hurt like that again and joined Dad in maintaining a pet-free house. Absences beg to be filled, and I filled this one with fear. Though never bitten, I was often chased—probably needlessly, because I knew nothing of animal play; had I simply stood still, I might have made a shaggy friend or two.

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I paid a steep price for my timidity. Not only did I grow up without knowing the joys of animal companionship, but I missed out on the two great insights that animals can provide: empathy with creatures different from us, and an awareness of another, more visceral way of experiencing the world. My fear of animals did not stop me from being curious about them. This curiosity prompted my first remembered act of compensation: a boy who wants to learn about animals but is afraid to get near them might well seek a substitute in toy animals—and if he wants to play it double-safe, they will be toy animals whose real-world counterparts cannot possibly harm him. Thus began a longstanding devotion to plastic dinosaurs. By masking my fear of real animals, Marx dinosaurs made me feel braver and more adventurous than I actually was.

After my sister pronounced them creepy, they possessed bad-boy appeal even within our house, where no dog could get at me. I regret this deeply; nowadays I find it inconceivable to live without a pet. After placing all but one with a local farmer, we named the remaining kitten Left-Mark after a black mark on the left side of her otherwise white snout.

The human relationship lasted four years; the one with the cat, 31 32 Animal Husbandry sixteen—from my late twenties to my early forties. A Marx Pet Shop cat poised on my desk, its tail raised and its head pointing warily to the side, is aping a remembered Left-Mark gait. While the Pet Shop cat evokes an animal bond from the past, Bullet celebrates a bond that resides squarely in the present. His alert bearing reminds me of our dog Henry, a Hungarian puli bred to herd sheep and, apparently, to be incapable of remaining still for more than five minutes at a time.

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Even his sleep is fitful, punctuated by theatrical sighs and frequent repositionings, always with a scuttle of claws on the hardwood floor followed by a decisive flop. Though Henry is getting old, he still quivers with excitement at the slightest smell, sound, or movement, jerking his head and darting his eyes to gauge where to direct his bark. I can watch this dog for a long time without getting bored, although I do so furtively because being watched makes him even jumpier than usual.

Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong - Ella and Louis (1956) - [Classic Vocal Jazz Music]

Animals dwell in a sensory world of which we have only the dullest acquaintance, trapped as we are within a web of words and ideas and thus living at several removes from physical reality. Bullet, an inch and a half from his rump to the tip of his peaked ears, seems attuned to even tinier stimuli than Henry is: if Henry does physics at an observable level, Bullet deals in quantum mechanics.

Although their faces and forms resemble mine, their stubborn materiality—I read it as defiance—makes them seem to inhabit the world more aggressively than I do. They assert themselves with bracing clarity: a soldier is unmistakably a soldier, a cowboy a cowboy, a knight a knight. Their ceaseless activity must make me look hopelessly inert.

Protective of their animal-like connection with a reality more concrete than mine, they have conspired to shut me out. My sudden glances never catch anyone off guard: every time I look, they stop moving. This illusion of suspended animation is especially powerful in the toy animals. A playset animal is a plastic object that replicates a fleshly object with hyper-connections to the physical world.

How could a middle-aged academic, especially a latecomer to animal appreciation, not hope to make up for lost time by experiencing some of that hyper-connecting for himself? I cannot help harboring an absurd, Dr. Dolittle daydream of talking to animals about animal otherness, about how they see the world. Such atonement will not come easily: even the Marx allosaurus, one of my earliest playset companions, issues a soft-plastic reproach by standing perfectly still and keeping his nonhuman secrets to himself.

The Marx company introduced its Prehistoric Times playset in Historical hindsight makes it easy to see why this item was so popular. The impact of Marx dinosaurs on the popular imagination was lasting. Since their appearance, along with the Life magazine series on prehistoric animals that inspired them, every generation has had its childhood love affair with dinosaurs, both the toys and the real things.

Walk into any Wal-Mart and you can still find plastic dinosaurs, now made mostly in China and packaged in clear tubes. Although I never owned the Prehistoric Times playset, Marx also sold their dinosaurs in small packs and loose in dime-store bins. Al and his scaly companions came into my life, without landscape, trees, or cavemen, on Christmas of , when I was two weeks shy of turn- 33 34 Animal Husbandry ing six. The company brought out a second series of eight new figures in , including three extinct mammals, but I never saw them. If I had, they would have been impossible to resist.

The fact that dinosaurs lived solely in my imagination made it easy to embrace their toy counterparts not only as danger-free animals, but as affable playmates. It is impossible, even today, to look at the fourteen figures that I owned without conjuring up the personalities that I once imposed on them. The Tyrannosaurus rex, with its sheer bulk and menacing fangs, was clearly the boss of the group even though its grimace could be read as a smile; its ferocity was further softened by a protruding belly and an oddly static pose, with one arm raised in a tentative wave.

The brontosaurus, with its unruffled expression and long, graceful neck, was a gentle giant—a born pacifist. The low-headed stegosaurus was a stubborn dullard; the pointy-beaked pteranodon, a nervous Nellie. The plateosaurus, small and sad-faced, looked lonely, so he often shared a pocket—the lucky lizard—with Ravishing Dale. My favorite, of course, was the deeply-pebbled allosaurus, whose quizzical expression and raised forearms made him look as if he were about to ask a favor. The pudgy, tentative Al offered a perfect blend of human personality and animal mystery.

Their exotic appeal was inseparable from the fact that they were not cute—a fact that my sister was quick to point out. With their reptilian bodies and poses, they were unmistakably lizards, which made them harder to read than the cowboys, presidents, and army men that came later. Their faces kept oscillating between the human traits that I projected onto them and a relentless animality that kept them mysterious.

Their position in time was equally paradoxical. But children at play will often find a bright edge even to sad things. In my case, the cheering antidote came from a half-formed notion that by playing with these toys, I was somehow keeping the actual dinosaurs alive. But just as I was beginning to absorb this dark possibility, Marx dinosaurs stepped in with their weird, living-and-dead doubleness to confirm that the past stayed alive for whoever bothered to remember it.

Other playset figures that I owned as a child reinforced this notion, especially the Marx presidents. I knew that only six of these thirtysix figures Hoover, Truman, two Ikes, and two Mamies represented living people—yet here they all were, the dead and the living standing together in gleaming white plastic, aggressively present and ready for play. The real Roy Rogers and Dale Evans were alive, too, and so were my cowboys and soldiers. When your play involves Honest Abe and Quizzical Al vying for the hand of Ravishing Dale, who is secretly in love not with Standing Roy but with the dapper William McKinley, the scary divide between the living and the dead will get blurred a little.

I did not consciously grasp this, of course, but its comfort was as tangible as a Marx brontosaurus, wonderfully grippable in textured plastic. Thus began a lifelong attraction to the past. A literary historian studies old texts and tries to reanimate the people who wrote them— 35 36 Animal Husbandry not so different, really, from a six-year-old peering into the inscrutable face of an extinct allosaurus and seeking a story there.

Although my adult profession did not stem exclusively from Louis Marx, I should acknowledge the initial push: his dinosaurs helped turn me into the sort of child who might grow up to teach old literature in an English department. In second grade I was paraded through our school and made to read aloud from what had become my favorite book, All About Dinosaurs by Roy Chapman Andrews.