COLUMN: Daydreams and the Etch A Sketch

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The man who invented the Etch A Sketch died last month. I never knew André Cassagnes’ name until I heard it on a radio news program last Monday, but he’s been living in my head all week. He died in his native France at the age of 86.

Cassagnes invented the drawing toy that became the Etch A Sketch in the 1950s and I don’t know of many people who haven’t had their hands on one of the flat red boxes with two white knobs.

I owned two Etch A Sketches, the first a Christmas gift found under the tree when I was around the age of 8. I used it for weeks, sketching mazes and square-shaped labyrinths. I could never master the curves some people drew with such ease. In fact I was less interested in the Etch A Sketch as art than the practical fun of forming farms and fields.

While my brothers would build fences and pretended to plow, disc and plant corn on their imaginary farms sprawling across the living-room floor, I designed their farms, homesteads and barns.

“This is your cornfield and this is your wide hay field that stretches for miles,” I told uninterested brothers, who shooed me and my Etch A Sketch away.

For weeks after Christmas I doodled, creating as best I could not only parcels of farmland but mountains and skyscrapers and even people. I tried sketching the girl I liked at the time, but the end result was so sad I quickly shook her away.

Once, around spring, a brother took apart my Etch A Sketch. “Why?” was all I could ask when I found the broken toy, which came apart only with difficulty and couldn’t go back together at all.

I received a new one a few months later when my birthday rolled around and it remained a companion for a couple of years. I kept it under the couch and would doodle with it for hours while watching TV.

Gradually, however, I lost interest in it. I was too old for toys.

It was several years later when I ventured into a wooden crate our family simply dubbed “the toy box.” It sat in the living room, used more often as a bench and shelf and ignored except those rare times when kids would come to visit.

I found my old Etch A Sketch one evening inside. It had been in there for several years and was battle-scarred and faded. Its gray screen was worn clear in some areas, a result less of age than rough treatment.

My brothers’ metal toy tractors and implements were inside, too, and I pulled out the small tractors, a disc with missing parts and a wagon that hauled many a pretend load of corn and soybeans.

I should have kept all the toys in the chest, but didn’t. Like my youth, they disappeared over time, fading into adulthood.

I have never doodled or drawn much since I gave up the Etch A Sketch. My brothers farm real fields now but I suspect they too sometimes long to play again, to imagine and create, to fantasize about what could be.

I never heard of André Cassagnes until the other day. He and my old Etch A Sketch have hardly been out of my head since. That’s just fine.

I know already what a couple of nephews will be getting for their birthdays this year.

Millstone School Update

A story in Thursday’s edition omitted a few details from plans to move the building to the Shubael Little Pioneer Village. Organizers are looking for old school furnishings. Other than blackboards, all of the interior furnishings are long gone.

“We are going to furnish the interior with vintage desks and accessories that would have been prevalent when the school was in use,” Shubael Village organizer Chuck Poehlein said. “Purchase of these items is not in our budget, so we are asking the public to help us with that part of it.”

Old photos of the school, as well as student photos, are also sought. Anyone with items to loan or donate can call Glenda Gibson at 836-4344.