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"The Best Toy Ever" - Power Wheels Jeep Essay

This essay was originally written December 5th, 2008 at one o'clock in the morning. My intention was to publish it here at some point. Somehow I managed to avoid doing so, until now. Thus it is now presented below as it was originally written.

For no other reason than the fact I can do so, I'd like to contrast how much difficulty I had in school with the essay/writing portion of standardized testing against writing this and many other essays. Standardized testing was something I did
very well on as a matter of course. More than anything else, it was the fact that I didn't care about the topics* they wanted me to write about back then. Nor did I feel overly obligated to explain why I didn't care.

While I don't ever recall an actual dislike of writing, it's possible that my view on the matter was just a result of being late to mature. Which has definitely been the truth at many points in my life so far. At some point I'd like to write an autobiography, and I should probably be gathering its parts as I go along instead of all at once later in life. After all, nobody knows how long they've got...

I think some of the best toys are the ones that kids can use in ways other than the manufacturer intended. Likewise, I also think that the best toys are the ones that have the potential to be dangerous.

Before you get too angry, or call me crazy, let me qualify that a bit. When I say "dangerous", I don’t mean toys that would cause serious harm or death to someone who used them improperly. Toys should be reasonably safe even when you color outside the lines with them (so to speak). I’m focusing much more on the "adventurous", "thrilling" or "exciting" meaning that sometimes comes along with danger.

What I really want to talk about, though, is the best toy I ever had as a youngster. It is because of the fact that said toy was both dangerous and later able to be used way outside of what the manufacturer had ever intended that it came to be one of our favorite toys.

That toy was a Power Wheels Jeep.

My grandfather bought it new in the 80s, and it fast became a staple of visiting my grandparents’ place every Sunday. My brother James and I loved cruising around their vast yard with that thing, and we later found out that one of the neighborhood children had a Power Wheels car...I think it was a Corvette. We’d catch up with her and spend a lot of time driving around my grandparents’ massive yard.

Of course, we loved to drive that Jeep as fast as it would go, and it was great fun up until the time James tried to drive it up alongside the base of a big old tree. It proved too much for the Jeep to handle, and it turned over with him in it. (I was inside at the time, and therefore got to see the considerable consternation this caused my parents.) I suspect that had we known of these things at the time, his little demonstration would have been amazingly prescient of what happens in these modern times with some SUVs.

I think that led to the high speed being disconnected for "safety" purposes. As children we begged and pleaded for dad to reconnect the high speed wire, so we could go fast or at least keep up with the ‘vette. He wouldn’t go for it, and in the end we figured out which wire to reconnect to get our beloved high speed back when nobody was watching. It was kind of a pain to do this, and we did eventually get caught. We chose to deny it all first, like most good children would.

Our attention to driving safety while operating the Power Wheels Jeep was, of course, impeccable. James and I frequently had our portable cassette players and headphones playing while driving (at the high speed of course).

The Jeep was not without problems. Since it was only used on the weekends, it tended to be left alone for long periods of time with the charger plugged in. This burned up more than one set of batteries, and even caused the electrical system to burn up at one point. I’m sure we begged for it to be fixed every time, and it was.

In time, my grandparents moved to a smaller house and the Jeep came to live at our home, where it got a lot more use. The batteries wore out once again, and I think the charger eventually quit working, leaving it powerless.

Fortunately, we were quick to come up with another idea. One guy could drive while the other pushed, and I frequently ended up doing the pushing, which was fine with me after a while.

This is where the true enjoyment of the Jeep became evident. We were older (with me being about twelve at the time) and supposed to be past the days of Power Wheels Jeep driving. It was certain that the two of us were past the official weight limit of the thing anyhow. Heck, just one of us in the thing was over the weight limit...

But we kept right on, with the weight limit out of our minds and my easily being able to push it much faster than Power Wheels ever intended it to be able to go.

At some point, we hit upon the brilliant idea of having "accidents" in the Jeep, and it very frequently was turned over, or crashed into some waiting garbage cans. In time this took its toll on the body, causing the windshield to break off and the hood to disappear to points unknown. The sun also worked on the plastic, bleaching the color out until our Jeep was a rather miserable shade of light red.

The Jeep always had a tendency for the steering rod to come out of the connection to the front wheels. This was bad enough when it was new. At our much higher speeds and considerably more reckless driving, it was a very common occurrence to be driving along and have the steering column come unglued. It would then careen wildly out of control, usually off to the left and more often than not we’d let it crash into something on its way down.

By now, our beloved Jeep was a rough looking wreck with more than its fair share of "bites" from accidents both contrived and real (when the steering shaft would pop loose at speed). The grille, hood and windshield were long gone. Now in our early teens, we still played with it regularly, even though we really were too big for it. And being teens, we were speed crazed...we simply had to go faster somehow. I realized how to achieve that goal pretty quickly when I took the entirety of the electrical system and the two rear wheel motors off. Without the resistance presented by the motors, it was possible to get the thing up to some really ridiculous speeds with me still running along behind it, and pushing with everything I had.

Ralph Nader would have been proud of us. Our Jeep was definitely unsafe at any speed.

Still, our Power Wheels Jeep saw a lot of miles racing up and down the streets outside our home. We drove it, the neighbor kids drove it, and even the odd young visitor would get to drive it.. I think we played with that thing until I was in junior high school at the least, and I know it sat around the house for quite some time after that.

At some point, we got a companion vehicle. This was a dangerous contraption made of Pipeworks pipes and wheels arranged such that one person could sit inside a sort of "cage" while another pushed from the back. Or, I suppose, you could have ridden it down a hill. We frequently took turns racing this dangerous contraption right alongside the Jeep.

Eventually, though, the Jeep was put aside and left to spend the rest of its days sitting outside, next to the dangerous homebrew "pipemobile" contraption. It sat around for another good few years, and the plastic began to crumble away into nothing, leaving only a small metal frame holding most of it together.

I do know what happened to it, although by the time I found out, it had been gone for quite a while. My mother quietly took the forgotten Power Wheels Jeep out to the curb for trash collection, and the garbage truck actually took it. The "pipemobile" survived a bit longer, coming out every now and again for a dangerous spin around the driveway, until a broken wheel sidelined it. (We did in fact have a nice set of Pipeworks wheels that had never seen the outdoors, but my mother forbid us to replace the broken wheel on the dangerous contraption with one of those. While I disagreed at the time with her decision, I’ve come to appreciate it now since our "indoor" set of Pipeworks remains in pristine condition.)

I miss that Power Wheels Jeep. It was truly the best toy we ever had growing up.

They say you can find everything on the Internet. As such, it pleases me greatly to point out a community of Power Wheels enthusiasts and "modders".

Bits and pieces of the Jeep's wiring harness somehow survived its being discarded. They ended up on my grandfather's workbench where years later, they were used to restore his furnace to working order. Though probably never intended for use at 120 volts AC, said wires were so incredibly overbuilt that I felt it'd be OK. It's still running that way to this very day.

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* Some of the topics found on these standardized tests included "how would you feel about a McDonald's restaurant taking over your school cafeteria" and some equally inane thing concerning whether the definition of what constitutes a "pizza" should be subject to some sort of central governance or standards body.