Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 22, 2013

Nathan Payne: A 'batteries not included' Christmas

Local columnist

---- — What happened to the words “batteries not included?”

That phrase, once a godsend to most parents of young children, vanished from toy store shelves in recent years. The seemingly innocent omission may look like a bonus to outsiders, but it’s a forewarning to anybody experienced in child rearing.

It’s as good as the signs warning of radioactive contamination surrounding Chernobyl.

Those three words saved my parents from dozens of hours of ear-piercing synthesized sirens and obnoxious talking robot voices during my childhood.

I can remember plenty of plastic, noise-making thingamajigs that sat silent for the duration of the holiday season because my parents “forgot” to buy a pack of the AA batteries required to activate it’s electronic voice box.

But not me. Oh, no.

That generation, the one so often saved by the conspicuous absence of batteries on Christmas morning, managed to put an end to peace on Earth for its progeny.

Under the guise of technological progress, they managed to reinvent the battery. The smaller, cheaper and more powerful cells now come pre-installed in every plastic-hulled hunk of joy lobbed onto store shelves during the holiday season. And to add insult to injury, every “Johnny Choo Choo” train comes complete with realistic chugging sounds and a tiny, factory-installed screw that prevents any pre-Christmas parental sabotage.

It’s the ultimate revenge for the sins of a rambunctious childhood.

I mulled my parental predicament Friday morning before sunrise while standing in a local toy store aisle searching for the last pair of gifts for my sons, Spencer and James. I was on one of those wife-motivated missions to find a pair of identical manually-operated toys. I stopped at four stores Thursday night on my way home from work, wading through a sea of the most obnoxious gadgets known to man.

Despite my efforts, my search came up empty and landed me on a second search mission the next morning.

Surrounded by walls of brightly-colored boxes, filled with toys covered with flashing lights and speakers, I had flashbacks of my mom glancing at me during a recent Thanksgiving gathering. She uttered a very important message while I tried to convince my sons it isn’t a good idea to push trucks down a staircase toward unsuspecting bystanders.

“You deserve them,” she said with a somewhat sinister grin.

Unfortunately, I think it was as much a warning as it was a statement.

I have no doubt our foray to two grandparents’ homes next week will include plenty of the most obnoxious noisemakers to hit shelves this century.

And they’ll probably be followed by a chorus electronic chirps and whirs while James, 2, realizes he can conduct the screeches like a maestro by poking buttons continuously.

It struck me that toy manufacturers must be raking in the dough if they can afford to throw in the pack of a dozen lithium batteries it takes to power a “Matchbox Smoky” or a “Chompin Mike the Mower.”

Standing in an aisle stacked high with button-covered Tonka trucks, I began to lose my composure. The wall of electronic, no-imagination-needed monstrosities was nearly enough to land me curled in the fetal position on the floor of the store.

Then I found them two of the oldest of old-fashioned metal tractors. They come complete with realistic articulating axles and moving scoop buckets. They’re my Christmas present to myself.

And no batteries needed.

Reach Record-Eagle features editor Nathan Payne at