A Childhood in Bricks

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This week's #ThrowbackThursday article has been wriitten by Philip Boyes:

As adult LEGO fans we get used to seeing LEGO online in a pristine state – in reviews of newly released products or in envy-inducing shots of our fellow-builders’ carefully-sorted LEGO rooms. But that is not how most kids experience LEGO. We have probably all had big mixed-up boxes of jumbled bricks – a builder’s nightmare but the reality of how most children play with LEGO. Over the years those boxes grow, reflecting our changing tastes and gathering random bits of other toys – marbles, game counters, dice and so on. They reflect and shape our childhoods, encoding our formative years in brightly-coloured little bricks.

As I move into my first proper house and finally have a bit of space to gather all my stuff together, I have retrieved my childhood brick boxes from my mum’s shed. As I crack them open, smell that familiar slightly-sweet scent of plastic (did old LEGO have a distinctive smell or is it the boxes themselves? I have never worked it out) and begin to sort through them, I thought I would take the opportunity to do a bit of personal archeology on my collection, and the memories bound up in them. It’s not special in any way, really, except to me. But I hope that’s why it’s worth doing. Because as LEGO fans we probably all had boxes like this, and all of them tell somebody’s story. These just happen to tell mine.

Inheritance

My first LEGO was inherited from my uncle. If I stretch I can just about bring to mind memories of playing with it at my Grandma’s, before it became mine. I must have been extremely young then: four-ish, maybe? I had thought that initial gift of LEGO was just a little bit of Classic Space: some discoloured crater baseplates and landing pads, a few tiny vehicles with very tatty instructions, and either the 928 Galaxy Explorer or the 918 Space Transport – I could not remember which. The first surprise going through these boxes offered was I had both those ships, and a lot more besides. My uncle had clearly had a pretty large collection – Classic Spacemen actually outnumber any of my other space minifig factions, and that’s just counting the complete ones. Most were very faded, but on one blue minifigure, under a Shell logo sticker I spied a glint of gold. I carefully peeled back the worn paper and revealed a pristine Classic Space logo, probably covered up since before I was born.

Why did these wonderful old sets get diminished in my memory? Maybe because they looked old even in the late 80s and early 90s. They were yellowed – the baseplates especially – and the instructions always threatened to fall apart in my young hands. When I did build ships and vehicles, they looked blocky and simplistic. Beyond that, I did not quite know what they were: everything else in my collection had been bought after poring over catalogues and posters (also mostly preserved in these boxes, with only minimal cutting-out and ticking of wanted sets). I had no catalogues for the Classic Space. It was undocumented, prehistoric; split off from everything else by a gaping discontinuity.

But if my childhood self did not quite know what he had with Classic Space, the bigger surprise is that it turns out some bits of my early collection were considerably older. I have found some very chewed and perished tyres, a ‘waffle-bottom’ plate, a 10 x 20 brick with no anti-studs and a 1x8 brick with the extremely worn remains of ‘Esso Service’ just visible printed on it. These are relics of the 60s, possibly fairly early in that decade. They are too old to be my uncle’s, at least originally; he must have inherited them from someone else. My dad perhaps? Someone else? I’d always taken it as an article of faith that Classic Space was the oldest stratum in my collection; learning it’s not comes as a bit of a shock.

Beginnings of a Collection

So what was the start of my own collection? I can’t recall and the boxes offer few clues. The Black Falcon and Crusader sets must be the best contenders. I can just about remember being given 6074 – Black Falcon’s Fortress by my mum one Christmas. I was two when it was released so it must have been a few years old by the time I got it. I was castle-mad as a small child. I loved King Arthur and especially adored Robin Hood. There’s a certain phase of my childhood when it’s hard to find a photo of me where I am not miming a bow and arrow. Just looking at these old sets conjures up memories of holiday trips to any castle within vaguely easy reach, of running through woods dressed in green or wearing a plastic tabard emblazoned with royal heraldry.

From this beginning my Castle collection grew to encompass the Crusaders, the Dragon Knights and the Dragon Masters. Despite my devotion to the cult of Sherwood, I only had one LEGO Robin Hood set – 6066 Camouflaged Outpost – and to be honest I think that was probably my brother’s. Possibly there weren’t any in the shops round our way.

But I was into LEGO in time for the start of Pirates. We had a lot of the first wave. Sadly, the monkey - disfigured among the rigging when a birthday cake candle-flame caught the rice-paper sails of my brother’s pirate-ship - seems not to have made it.

Journey into Space

Alongside knights and castles, it was Space that was the other main love of my childhood; more so as I got older. The boxes reveal a smattering of Futuron and Space Police I, fewer Blacktron I astronauts than I would like and none of their vessels, but it’s the sets of the early 90s that predominate. Back then the future was accented with transparent neon green or orange, and those colours run through this collection like a seam of gold. I was in love with M-Tron, Blacktron II and especially Ice Planet. Between us, my brother and I collected almost all of them. My family did not have a lot of money so this was quite an achievement and a testament to my parents’ generosity.

As I went through these boxes, I could not help stopping to build something. I chose the Blacktron 6981 Aerial Intruder, a truly iconic set, to me at least. It’s one of the ones I have the clearest memories of receiving, not at Christmas or a birthday, but on a trip to Blackpool. My dad had taken us to visit a Thunderbirds exhibition. When we got there it was cold and raining and the exhibition was closed. My dad bought me the Intruder to cheer me up. I think my brother got the 6933 Spectral Starguider.

I mention this because it symbolises how much Thunderbirds and LEGO Space intertwined themselves in my early childhood. I was obsessed with Gerry Anderson shows when I was about 7 or 8, and LEGO was perfectly suited to recreating those kinds of vehicles – the space sets most of all. I rarely played ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ – the different factions all worked together, helping each other and rescuing one another when things went wrong. I once built a fairly obscure aircraft carrier from the Stingray comic and sent in a photo. They printed, to my enormous delight. Another time I wrote a series of stories that would now be called Captain Scarlet/Ice Planet crossover fanfic, filling them with lovingly crafted drawings. When I took them on a Cub Scout weekend at Morecombe Pontins, other boys found them and tore them up. It was not easy being a geeky kid in 1990s north-west England.

There’s probably no LEGO set more Gerry 'Andersony' than the M-Tron Mega-Core Magnetiser, the huge crawler with its chunky angles and industrial aesthetic. I can still remember unwrapping mine one Christmas or birthday in the front room of my dad’s little post-divorce house in Oldham. I think we spent the afternoon playing Super Mario and Duck Hunt on his new NES. You can see from the picture the set’s still more or less assembled. Christmases offer less to do as a young adult and a few years ago I took advantage of the time between presents and dinner to rebuild the set, revelling in being 8 years old again.

My favourite theme was Ice Planet, and the extent to which I loved it is told in a sorry tale by the yellowing of parts – all that white suffered badly from years on display. It’s going to be a long summer with the hydrogen peroxide, restoring them to their original colour so I can build them all again.

I had lots of other Space sets – almost a full collection of Space Police II and Spyrius – but even as a child I found them a little less compelling. Evidently that did not stop me collecting them, and I remember thinking the Spyrius robots were extremely cool-looking minifigures.

So that’s the story I tell myself about my collection: Castle – Pirates – Space. Except the boxes don’t quite bear that out. Sure, there’s a lot of Space and Castle but what really struck me as I went through these boxes again was how much Town I had. I would find half-built vehicles or old instructions and I would remember them then, but until I had the physical thing in front of me, they had almost disappeared from my memory.

Ends

The remains of a couple of home-built Daleks memorialise a shift in my interests around when I turned ten. I became obsessed with Doctor Who. Its books and videos began to monopolise my pocket money and Christmas and birthday lists. LEGO fell by the wayside, and I began to slip into my dark age.

As well as the plastic boxes containing my ‘main’ collection, I have one more box – the cardboard packaging of the UCS Star Destroyer. This became a graveyard of my very last childhood LEGO, not even dismantled to be used in other models; just tidied away into a Jakku-like spaceship graveyard of big chunks. These were either the last sets I received or the ones that stayed out on display the longest. My beloved 6973 Deep Freeze Defender was in here, discoloured almost to tan, and the wreckage of my last System theme, Aquanauts (that old Stingray influence had not quite let go). And of course, the massive hull plates of the 10030 Imperial Star Destroyer itself. Because even as I slipped into my dark age, I never quite completely stopped getting LEGO. In the excitement around The Phantom Menace, I picked up a few of the early Star Wars sets. My dad, a LEGO fan himself, would occasionally get me other sets as surprise Christmas or birthday presents. The Star Destroyer was one of these, just as I was starting university. I had no idea LEGO could be that huge and had no room for it in my college room. It sat far away in my childhood bedroom, a fitting endpoint to that phase of my life.

I started to come out of my dark age around 2010, while I was at University for the third time, doing my PhD. I was getting the itch to build something big and managed to pick up the UCS Millennium Falcon when it was merely very expensive, rather than requiring an actual mortgage. In 2013 my dad fell ill and the next year he died. That horrible period brought me back to the world of LEGO. It had always been one of the main interests we shared and losing him made me reflect on that. I would see sets and think ‘he would have loved that’. Gradually I was sucked back in, and a new collection began to form, separated by hundreds of miles from the old.

I don’t want to end on a downbeat note, so I will return to the physical, tangible reality of those childhood LEGO boxes. I have talked about the LEGO they contained, but what about everything else? All that random gubbins that finds its way in among our bricks and tells us as much about the children we were as the LEGO itself? Well here is what I pulled out.

K’Nex, lots of Playmobil, a few Action Man accessories, a bit of Meccano, a tangle of wool snarled up around an Octan fuel cart. Some knight figurines, one of whom was meant to sit atop a horse, but who has come loose, the glue on his bottom turning an unfortunate brown. A switch trailing two wires. A cork. Some cardboard somethings. A bit of hull from the fuselage of an Airfix model plane (never made). A Stingray badge.

That is my childhood, there, in those LEGO boxes. What did yours look like?

 

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35 comments on this article

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By in United Kingdom,

Wonderfully nostalgic. There is always a knight with no horse isn't there?

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By in United Kingdom,

Love this article, how many of us can relate to this. The picture at the end is exactly right, the pile of none Lego stuff that slowly creeps in amongst the Lego pieces, over time, it's like a time capsule.

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By in Finland,

Wonderful! I'm slightly younger but I can see myself in many parts of the story. Oh and that last picture is just exactly what I found when I went out of the dark age two years ago in the big box of bricks!

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By in Portugal,

Great throwback! My experience is more or less the same, but the first set I remember is a bus stop from 1979. There are still some older stuff, probably from my aunt and uncle that I was unable to sort and that found its way into my collection. However, being an AFOL these days only got me sorting pieces by colour... Maybe that's my inner child still trying to play with Lego like I used to.

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By in United Kingdom,

Nice #tbt article. The passing of a parent or close family member can mark the end of one's Lego 'dark age'. I came across all my old sets when clearing out my Mum's attic after her death- she also left me some birthday money, which was spent on 7620, Indiana Jones Motorcycle Chase and 7621, Indiana Jones and the Lost Tomb. My collection has grown steadily since then, and the kids and I take great pleasure from it.

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By in United States,

YUP! ditto on the memories. My parents just gave me the old Legos from my childhood as well. I think my dad want to sit down and build as I looked through them. To give you a timeline, I'm 46 and still building with Legos!!! I still refuse to keep a box.

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By in France,

wonderful article. my 6 year old's box looks just like your last picture!!

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By in Australia,

I no longer have my actual childhood LEGO but like Phillip I was in love with LEGO. I still remember getting the 6285 Black Seas Barracuda as a reward for learning to ride my bike. Had a lot of Space as well (or bits that I used to make spaceships anyway) including the 6973 Deep Freeze Defender.

I do know my childhood LEGO ended up in the hands of someone who would appreciate it.

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By in Germany,

A horse, a horse. My kingdom for a horse ;-)

Seriously though, thank you. Another wonderful article I can so much relate to. Just recently I also rummaged through some old boxes of toy stuff, looking for some old Lego bits I found were missing from when I got them over from my parents to our house a couple of years ago. Turns out I did manage to find some, along with Matchbox cars, Kinder egg figurines, Playmobil bits and bobs, Fischer Technik parts as well as an assortment of stuff like the one you found. A nice mix and match of happy childhood memories.

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By in United Kingdom,

Lovely blast from the past - even if your main focus is after my dark ages start I can well relate.

We used to keep our Lego in the box for an old projector screen, with bits of cardboard stuck inside to make dividers.

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By in United States,

Love it. I'm a psychotherapist, and I have a great deal of Lego in my office. Some time ago, a 50 year old autistic client and his mother gifted me with his childhood Lego collection. Going through it was amazing, particularly the bits of non-Lego that had found its way into the collection some 40 years ago. Then the old pieces were absorbed into the rest of my office bricks. And the slightly worn and discolored blocks live on in the creations of the young people who come to talk with me...

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By in United Kingdom,

Awesome article, makes me want to look in my dads loft as I know there is an old holiday suitcase full of lego from childhood that looks remarkably similar to yours. Also is that car in the last picture a Wrist Racer?

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By in Portugal,

Thanks for calling the space sets of my childhood "prehistoric"!... :P
Fantastic article. I myself have a bag of old Lego to rummage through, but the level of clutter/solar melting/mixing with other toys, after three generations of children have had at them, is a bit daunting...

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By in United States,

Nice article.

Was that the middle half of an Imperial Dalek?

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By in United States,

Seeing all those Blacktron II minifigs made my day. Nostalgia!!

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By in Australia,

I think that Octan fuel cart is from 6341 Gas N go flyer. I own that set myself. Also owned a knight the same as that. Bought from a toy store in London on our overseas holiday as a kid.

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By in United Kingdom,

Very well written. It reflects much of my own experience and evoked many happy memories.

As someone who remembers static minifigures and the advent of the articulated ones we know today, I would have preferred if the author hadn't made me feel quite so old! :~D

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By in Australia,

Brilliant! Very well written. The part about the random toys in the Lego took me right back! :D I also built Doctor Who and Thunderbirds Lego. Thunderbird 4 ended up being just a yellow 2x2 brick on a yellow 2x4 :)

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By in United Kingdom,

Some lovely comments - thanks everyone. I'm really enjoying reading them.

Chouju_X[SPAM] - Yep, it was definitely an Imperial Dalek.

Privatematrix - You're right about the Octan cart. I went through all the instructions the other day and there was indeed a 6341. I think it was my brother's.

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By in Puerto Rico,

Cool story, thanks for sharing the memories with us.

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By in United States,

I really love this look back on your childhood LEGO collection. I always find it funny how we can never really remember every detail about what we had or when we got them.
My wife's brother was back home for the first time in 8-9 years and he was going to sort through all his old toys in storage. He has two of every G.I. Joe from the 80's and 90's. I helped him get everything ready for the trip back to his home. In that time we got to know eachother very well, swapping childhood story's and sharing memories of toys we had, and the ones we lost over time.
I think the biggest reason I collect and play with LEGO still (even being in my 30's and poor) is to keep my childhood alive and to relive a simple, happy time in my life.
Keep up the great work, I love this website and will be here till the end!

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By in United States,

I didn't have ton of childhood Lego, most of my pre-adult collection was acquired later when I started part-time work. My early Lego sets were 2 copies of 113 Universal Building Set, 565 Moon Landing, and 461 Rocket Launcher. The 113's and Rocket Launcher were stored in one of the 113 boxes, and Moon Landing (plus extra little bits gathered here and there) had their own shoebox. 6363 Auto Repair Shop and 6861 X-1 Patrol Craft were added to the mix later. Not a large collection, but I played the snot out of those bricks, and built some amazing (if I do say so myself!) models along the way. Did you know that the old baseplate-bricks with no studs on the bottom can make a great base for a tractor-trailer truck if you attach the old wheel assemblies just so to the limited anti-stud areas along the outside perimeter?

Now my collection numbers in the thousands of sets and hundreds of thousands of bricks. But I'll never build like I did when I was 9 years old again...

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By in United States,

I remember sorting my two large bins of bricks into several smaller bins by color--along with a small, compartmentalized box devoted specifically to the various technic pins, gears, and bushings. That was a mammoth task (according to the stats here, I own around 43,000 bricks--not a huge collection, but unwieldy without a sorting scheme).

That was certainly a turning point in my collecting. And I still fear sifting through "The Dreaded Black Bin" where all the black pieces blend in with eachother and it's considerably more difficult to find what I need!

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By in Germany,

Marvelous article and poignantly written. Thank you.

Also had those plastic knights, often with arms or weapons snapped off.

Last year found my old 918 in my Dad's loft amoungst a few other gems. Well chuffed!

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By in Netherlands,

Dude, just signed up to send you a bro-fist. This story brought up the days where you knew Every Page of the annual catalog by heart. Why did those spacemen helmets always break near the chin? Remember those lego technic 'minifigs'? I always thought of them as cyborgs, as no one in their sound mind would allow connector pins the size of their femur to be stuck into their femurs. Cruel, that.

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By in United Kingdom,

This is so evocative - thank you. :)

I remember a slightly older friend having inherited his older brother's Classic Space Lego. Before I had any Space stuff of my own, I was so intrigued by the trans yellow windscreens. Getting my first space set (a little Futuron ship) was a big moment...

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By in United States,

@PhilipB

Love the Imperials, I've built quite a few myself.

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By in Australia,

My parents recently sold their house and as part of the clean up Dad went through the garden shed and found a box. It contained my old LEGO from when I was 7 years old. I am 43 now at the time of writing. It was the House and Garden 376 and the Yellow Lego Castle 375. For some reason the box for 375 was in the garage but the pieces were not there. So to suddenly find the pieces in a plastic bag in a cardboard box was amazing. It felt like I found gold. I spent that same night building both sets and stayed up until 2am. After all these years only one piece was missing. The stickers are obviously not brand new and are a bit worn. And some of the castle pieces are a touch worn, but the thrill of building them was the same. It took me back 35 years in time. I saw my parents again in their youth. I remembered the sensation when dad pulled up in the driveway and gave me the Lego Castle in the box and how I hugged him and mum. All those great memories came flooding back. I only ever had a few sets. I lost contact and the love for Lego once I entered my teens and didn't rediscover that love until my son was born back in 2012. When I went looking back over the old sets, this LEGO castle turned out to be the best LEGO set of its time. It had the most mini figures. As a child we don't fully appreciate what our parents did for us until we are much older and in adulthood. It made me look back and love my parents even more. Dad always worked in factories. His wages were never the best and mum stopped working since I was 5 years old. Yet they bought me the best set of them all. It really made a few tears well up in my eyes. They are memories to treasure.

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By in United Kingdom,

I can definitely relate to this, I know exactly what you mean by that sweet plasticky smell and bits of other toys finding their way into the Lego box!!! Who else suffered with never quite having enough pieces in the right colour or end up substituting pieces you don't have with completely inappropriate pieces just to finish what you was building? Ah, memories.

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By in Australia,

Great article, and I love the pictures, especially the bits and bobs that always end up in a box of Lego. One thing I've never quite worked out is why different Lego ages differently. I've got some from that era that is faded and brittle, and others that still look like they just came out of the fresh packet. And they've all been stored together. I wonder why that is?

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By in United States,

As of right now, my broken sets consists of many broken MOCs and Ninjago sets from the first two seasons.

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By in United States,

cool great article

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By in Australia,

Wow. Heck of a TBT article. Even the comments from you guys…

Right. In. The. Feels.

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By in United Kingdom,

Absolutely fantastic article, and brilliantly written. Probably my favourite Throwback Thursday piece yet. So relatable and nostalgic!

I know I had a red plastic crate full of different bricks - mainly from Pirates sets from the late 80's/early 90's. What I would give to see that crate again and piece back together the likes of Black Seas Barracuda and Eldorado Fortress, along with the few Town sets I had and my brother's Space stuff.

Sadly I gave away all my childhood Lego in my late teens/early twenties , so alas I will never get to do that. However, I did re-purchase Forbidden Island (the first big set I remember owning) a couple of years ago and re-building it, as well as seeing that box with the plastic windows again, took me right back to Christmas day as a 7 year old kid!

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By in United States,

A wonderful article, Philip, reflective of
the reasons many of us AFOLs return to LEGO, the visceral reminder of our childhoods. I also deeply felt your passage about your father. When my mother was diagnosed w metastatic lung cancer in 2013, something drew me to the soothing action of clicking brick to brick. While supporting her through a two year course of treatment I often retreated to LEGO for a safe comforting reprieve from the brutal realities involved. Thank you for giving us readers a chance to experience these reminders with you.

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