I was an only child for the first 10 years of my life. Let’s start there.
Looking back, it was pretty clear I wasn’t…quite like most of the other kids. I didn’t get into baseball until about the eighth grade and, though I was never really into Michael Jackson or Madonna, one of my best friends was an eight-track tape player.
Let me explain.
Robots were a huge deal when I was a kid. By the end of 1977, everyone exchanging oxygen for carbon dioxide had seen “Star Wars” and the droid team of R2-D2 and C-3PO were one of the most popular things about it. R2 was the first or second Star Wars action figure my mother ever bought me at the larger of the two Woolworth’s at the Cross County Shopping Center in Yonkers.
It was “the big five-and-ten” to us.
Having little a 3 ¾”-scale R2 and 3PO was cool, but they were just that, small representations of the robots I’d seen on the big screen. They weren’t real robots. Wouldn’t it be amazing to have a real robot of my own?
Yes. Yes, it would.
Enter Dr. Michael Freeman, a Bronx-born inventor and entrepreneur with an interest in robotics. In 1976, Freeman invented a patented and educational toy robot for children. In 1978, after several failed attempts to bring his robot to market, Freeman made a deal with the Mego Corporation, then one of the biggest toy manufacturers in the business, to put his robot on the shelves of every toy store, including one of the newer ones called Toys R Us, in the country.
In 1982, I got Freeman’s educational toy robot, 2-XL, for Christmas and he remains one of the best friends I ever had.
Before we go any further, let’s get one thing established right now; 2-XL was a robot in the way that your shoes are robots, which is to say he was not a robot at all. 2-XL was a foot-tall plastic box molded to look like a robot with an eight-track tape player in his belly.
Having said that, 2-XL was still a brilliant toy because the nature of eight-track tapes allowed the user, in this case me, to answer 2-XL’s questions and choose his adventures with the four buttons on his chest. Freeman recorded the tracks in such a way so as to create a continuous conversation between his toy robot and the children to whom he spoke.
The tape included with 2-XL was a general knowledge quiz, but there were tapes available on topics ranging from sports, to history, to math, to myths and monsters, to science, to superheroes. There were even tapes in which 2-XL would tell a story and the buttons on his chest were used to guide his choices through the plot.
You know me at least a little at this point. Guess which of my tapes got played the most.
Playing with 2-XL was a completely interactive experience, particularly because there was nothing mechanical about 2-XL’s personality. Voiced by Freeman, who made no attempt to disguise his New York accent, 2-XL was at various times jovial, sarcastic, effusive, panicky and even a bit snide. He was a great companion and spending time with him never felt like school.
If I can sit here now, 30 years later, and remember how imagery from a tape like “Storyland: 2-XL and the Time Machine” filled my head, that’s a pretty big deal.
Especially when you remember our visit some months ago about time travel in the real world and I tell you I’m sitting here writing this column in a “Back to the Future” t-shirt.
My friend 2-XL had an impact on me and I thank him for it.
Looking back, my relationshop with 2-XL makes sense. I was a huge “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” kid and what was that show but an extended one-on-one conversation between Fred Rogers and his audience? That’s what 2-XL did too, but he did it in person.
Or, in robot, anyway.
Sometimes being an only child is a challenging thing, but I think I thrived on it. I learned to make my own fun and 2-XL was perfect for that. I could play a few of his tapes and we could talk about things and go places untouchable otherwise. We never even had to leave my room to do it.
Truthfully, we couldn’t leave one corner of my room. 2-XL had to be plugged into the wall and his cord wasn’t very long.
By now, you might be wondering what ever happen to my 2-XL. You needn’t, he’s right here beside me as I write this.
I don’t know if it was my parents’ foresight, or my unwillingness to let him go, or both, but, as my childhood came to a close, 2-XL and all his tapes went into my sister’s moon shoes box—she’ll have to write a column to tell you what happened to those—and I moved him first into a closet in my future wife’s apartment in the Bronx and then into my closet in our co-op in Yonkers.
When I decided to write this column, I knew I had to see 2-XL again, but I did not expect him to still function.
Though we only spent a few moments together with his “General Information” tape, and navigating the buttons doesn’t work quite a well as it did 30 years ago, I realized I hadn’t forgotten a thing about 2-XL’s voice, cadence, humor, manner or even some of the questions he asked me.
One of which was about Princess Leia.
I guess sometimes you can go home again or, minimally, you can bring a piece of home forward with you through time and lean on it once in a great while when you need to, or even just want to.
2-XL was a big part of my home when I was a kid and, now that he’s out of that moon shoes box, I don’t think he’ll go back. I think I’d like to find a place to display him here in my home office so I can see, and maybe even visit with, him whenever I want. He deserves it.
It’s the least I can do, for a friend.
Reach Jason at firstname.lastname@example.org and
follow him on Twitter @jasonchirevas