It was grandparents’ day in Brisbane this week, and along with other grandparents I was invited to my granddaughter’s Prep class to chat about memorable toys from our time as children. It was a Science class event with emphasis on materials that were used in the construction of toys. I prepared a short story in three Prep-sized chapters, about a toy boat named Phantom. It begins with the childhood of my father, Winston.
Chapter One: Canoes
When my father was only 12, he began constructing canoes so he and his younger brothers could have some fun paddling on the Manning River; a mighty river that ran by their dairy farm in NSW. He used a large sheet of galvanised corrugated roofing iron which he flattened out a bit with the help of the heavy roller at the local tennis court. He shaped and folded both ends then rivetted them in a few places. To give the canoe its shape he made wooden spacing pieces and gunwales along the top edges. After the top decking was added front and rear, he soldered the ends to make them water-tight.
When Dad was 15, he won the local canoe race on the Manning River. The following year another guy won it; in one of Dad’s canoes. His canoes were popular and his mother had persuaded him to make some for families of her special friends.
Chapter Two: Radios
Almost 100 years ago radio was the new, emerging technology. In his early years at high school Dad was fascinated with the technical details of radio, preferring to read ‘Wireless Weekly’ rather than ‘Modern Boy’, a popular magazine with stories of mystery and adventure for boys in those times. Now to be able to tune in to radio you needed a broadcast receiver, but very few people had a receiver in these early days. It was a time of great hardship for many families and money was scarce; Australia was in the grip of the Great Economic Depression.
Dad was able to convince his parents to buy the components he would need to build their own simple one-valve receiver. It was such a success that they eventually funded him to build a more elaborate receiver. Following the instructions in “Wireless Weekly” Dad built a “New Era Three” – a three-valve receiver that allowed them to hear important news broadcasts and music programs. Dad’s mother loved tuning into the old-time dance music broadcasted all the way from Melbourne on Saturday nights.
It is no surprise that after Dad left school he moved to Sydney to study and work in the field of Radio Engineering.
Chapter Three: Remote-controlled toys
Dad and Mum had four children: boy, girl, boy girl. I was the youngest. The most memorable toy we had as children was a radio-controlled boat built by our father Winston, and named Phantom – a name inspired by the comic strip super-hero, “the ghost who walks”.
Remote-controlled toys were not available in shops when my older brother and sister were very young, so Phantom was unique. We were the only kids in Australia, that we knew of, to have a remote-controlled toy of any kind. The controls were made out of telephone parts. A telephone dial activated the battery-operated motor which caused the rudder to turn the boat left, right or straight ahead. The control box was made out of wood and the boat itself was a smaller version of the canoes Dad perfected in his childhood. The receiver, with its valves and other components, was safely covered up inside the little tin boat. With imagination and skills developed in his childhood, Dad was able to build a wonderful toy that made us feel loved and lucky.
Today, my granddaughters have remote-controlled monster trucks that are brightly coloured with giant tyres and can do all sorts of tricky manoeuvres and stunts. The girls can turn the wheels of the truck from a distance (remotely) using a specialised transmitter which sends radio waves to the receiver. The receiver, located inside the truck, identifies the signals and activates the motor to move the big wheels the way the girls choose.
The monster truck is a modern version of their great grandfather’s remote-controlled Phantom.
With Covid-19 protocols in place, grandparents were stationed on a number of work spaces and 24 children, two by two, visited each station to chat. A tinkling bell signalled them to move to the next couple of grandparents. It was much like speed dating – lots of fun and fast paced.
The kids in the Prep class were fabulous hosts. They entertained me with their inquisitiveness and their thoughtful hosting of a fruit break as a way to wrap up the morning.
I had my father’s book with me to show what we can achieve as adults when we let our interests and talents as children guide us in career choices.
The book is Australian Radio: The Technical Story 1923-1983 (ISBN 0949924822) written by my father Winston T. Muscio soon after he retired from his Radio engineering career.