Belfast Telegraph

I was a teddy boy dad who hunted with my bear hands

By Mike Gilson

Here's something of a confession. I'm a teddy picker obsessive. You know, those glass cases at the amusement arcades with the cranes and the deliberately tightly-packed, terribly-made cuddly toys of often indeterminate character made for 5p in Taiwan.

I can't go past one without spending at least a fiver in what nowadays is an increasingly forlorn effort to win a Buzz Lightyear, although one that looks like its narrowly survived a reintroduction to the earth's atmosphere without the protection of a space rocket.

Cold sweat breaks out as the pounds slip in the slot and Buzz touchingly refuses to leave Woody and Jesse behind as he wriggles free from the crane and cartwheels ever further away from the tunnel of triumph and my joyous grasp. It wasn't always like this. I was a teddy picker champion in my heyday. An unswerving nerve, a dead eye and a technique that the Russians would have given their teddy picker arms for meant the house was festooned with what looked like the inmates of a mad scientist's laboratory attempt to turn every childhood favourite into an extra from Day of the Dead.

Insanely cackling Winnie the Poohs vied for space with murderous looking Mowglis and blobs of fur with one eye. The worst were a couple of Aristocats that looked like twisted, burnt victims of Vesuvius, their faces frozen in silent screams for all time.

In my eyes, this menagerie of fire-risk toy mutants was testimony to my fitness to be a father. My sons were infants. It was important I showed them I had some use. Many centuries ago, the ability to teach them to fashion a spear and hunt woolly mammoth was the thing. In modern times, a father had to be seen to have some skills and pass them on.

At the arcade, their faces would light up, illuminated by the glaring neon and the prospect of a Donald Duck with Bell's Palsy dropping into the hatch.

It was all in the wrist action, as the advert used to exclaim about that 70s' classic game Battling Tops. You had to get a bit of steam up and then drop the crane at an angle, hurtle it into the midriff (never the head) of the creature, so that the grip would survive the "turn of death", the violent judder that was the teddy picker manufacturer's last attempt to keep its treasures before you set them free.

And there was pressure, let me tell you. With two sons, you couldn't just win one toy. The youngest's bottom lip would begin to tremble as time went by without a second prize and the eldest deliberately waved his droopy Snoopy joyously above his head. This is by way of introducing what is probably my greatest feat of fatherhood. An event so rare it is talked of in hushed whispers among the picker fraternity: a double.

Yes, you read right. One cold December morning at the height of my powers my crane grabbed onto and held TWO Rudolf "the nuclear reactor meltdown victim" Reindeers. I can see the boys' stunned, disbelieving, but admiring looks now.

I guess if they'd been brought up as bush kids an equivalent would have been watching me wrestle a live crocodile to the ground and saddling it up.

There is no happy ending to this story, however. Lately, as my eyes get worse, my touch less sure, I have the teddy picker yips. They, on the other hand, reel out garish Garfields and petrified Pingus with insouciance. At least a skill has been passed down, I suppose, but when I watch them these days, I'm tempted to bowdlerise Gloria Swanson's famous quote from Sunset Boulevard: I am big: it's the teddy picker cranes that got weaker.

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