The Johnny Lightning 500 set was my personal Daisy Red Ryder. Doug down the street had Hot Wheels, and the toy intelligentsia thought Johnny Lightning was just a cheap ripoff, but I knew better. Hot Wheels cars had to run downhill on a soft plastic track. You used a little lever apparatus and flung Johnny Lightning up a hill and around a hard track — it was human-powered slot car racing. This clearly was better in an it-goes-to-11 sort of way.
I knew I was going to get my Johnny Lightning set for Christmas. I’d already raided the Hidden Christmas Stash in the basement, treading through forbidden and dangerous territory on a little spy mission. For most of my family, such a mission was inconceivable. My sisters thought Mom was omniscient — even when she was at the store, like she was at the moment I went searching, she seemed to find out what was happening in the house. I knew that this was because my sisters had big mouths and ratted on each other. Thus, I conducted this stealth mission with the utmost of secrecy, making sure that not only Mom but that my sisters were not around.
And then I clammed up about it, letting my sisters twist in the wind as they debated whether they were going to get what they wanted for Christmas. I already knew, but I’d occasionally add such helpful bits to the conversation as, “I don’t think Mom would get you that.”
My knowledge actually made the tense wait for Christmas Day a little bit harder, not easier. I knew I was getting what I wanted; I knew it would go faster, faster, faster with the Johnny Lightning speed! like the commercials all said; I knew it was the bestest toy ever — but it was out of my reach, tucked away in the recesses of the house under a tarp. This was like locking a loaf of bread in a jail cell and letting the starving man stand right outside the bars.
My stomach was in knots all Christmas Eve. The cramps came and went, and I had to lie down on the bed a couple of times to calm myself down. The night passed fitfully as I heard my parents haul up the basement booty — and with seven kids, there was a lot of booty — and finally, Christmas morning arrived.
We always went to Mass before we opened presents, a bit of Catholic sacrifice that I found harder to tolerate than anything I ever did for Lent. And finally the moment came for me to rip open the giant box, and I didn’t have to act surprised because my excitement came across the exact same way, and then I had to wait for the interminable time while the rest of my sisters and my brother opened their stupid presents before I could take off with my new prize.
I put it together, shot a few cars around the track, and then two of my sisters charged through my play space and there was a SNAP.
A support beam had been broken by one of my sisters’ big feet. It was essential for the proper operation of the whole track. My sisters had just carved out my heart with a rusty spoon.
But it was a clean break. I broke out my Testor’s Modeling Glue in those pre-Super Glue days, applied a little and clamped everything together as best as I could. The resulting repair wasn’t perfect, and cars occasionally flew off the track at the point of the repair once I put everything back together, but it was good enough.
I’m not exactly sure what happened to the Johnny Lightning 500 track. I know I burned through hours upon hours of play with that set, but I don’t remember throwing it away or doing anything else with my favorite toy of all time. I just outgrew it, but it’s hard to outgrow that sort of joy.