When I was 8, I picked out a stuffed seal from the gift shop at SeaWorld in San Diego. He was gray, firm and fuzzy, and I promptly named him Salty using all the imagination my tiny head could muster. (Seals live in the ocean. The ocean is salty. Voilà!)
I owned a sprawling menagerie of stuffed animals, including Bugs Bunny, Snoopy and this cruddy sawdust snake I won at a carnival, but Salty immediately became my favorite. When I accidentally spilt milk on him, I erupted in tears. I liked him that much.
A handsome fella with a minimalist design — nubby flippers, dark glass eyes, a few canine whiskers — Salty beat out Bugs and a hand-me-down teddy bear as my preferred plush, realigning the delicate balance of the toy hierarchy. Indeed, during my last move, I donated all of my stuffed animals except Salty, who even now sits out, visible to all. He radiates pinniped pride.
Salty had it easy. His job was to be an object of cuddle-osity and little more. I never drafted him for elaborate games or humiliating role-playing frolics. He has an almost comically serious face, and I could tell he would brook no foolishness.
I left that to my, huh-hum, KISS dolls, creatures that were all about foolishness. Infected with the KISS bug before I turned 10, I greedily got my hands on the original dolls of Gene, Ace, Paul and Peter and was thrilled. I built them a big stage trimmed with Christmas lights. I never used it.
Because what does a non-collector — the dolls’ valuable packaging went straight into the garbage — do with plastic figures of rock stars, who also happen to be comic book heroes? Well, you play dolls, naturally.
This is where I look sillier than usual. My next-door neighbor Joanie, a year older than me, owned the requisite Barbie and Ken dolls. I brought over the KISS guys and we dreamt up a scenario of Ken secretly being Gene Simmons without make-up, and then, when his superhero powers were conjured, I’d pull out the Gene doll.
And there you have the presto-chango transformation from a blonde beefcake Republican to a hairy, tongue-wagging Neanderthal who belches blood and exhales fire.
Lest you think I only played with a stoic seal and kabuki-faced clowns, my brother and I also wrung creative mileage from a caped Evel Knievel action figure (including a small motorcycle); a doll of sensible chimp Cornelius from “The Planet of the Apes”; and, of course, a kung-fu grip G.I. Joe, whose buzzcut fell out when we put him in the bathtub.
I also liked the thick rubber dude called Stretch Armstrong — he was very stretchy, pull, and that was it — who met a grisly demise when, out of pure boredom, I sliced him open and synthetic pink jelly oozed out. (I think my plastic Army men found a gnarlier fate: I lit them on fire and watched them melt into gooey puddles.)
Only Salty survives. His plush playmates are somewhere in the Salvation Army ether, hopefully finding good homes, many, like that pitiful carnival snake, probably sacrificed to the incinerator. The KISS dolls are somewhere, packed away. I think. I don’t really know. And I kind of don’t care. I don’t exactly have any friends who’d want to play dolls with me anymore.
Perched in the open like a noble sphinx, Salty is none the worse for wear (the milk didn’t stain him; my tears might have). His whiskers are slightly bent out of joint, and he could maybe use a dusting.
Otherwise, that stuffed stalwart hasn’t aged a bit. In so many ways, neither have I.