Every Christmas season produces at least one toy that can hardly be assembled without professional help.
This year's winner must be the GI Joe aircraft carrier kit, a 30-pound leviathan measuring 7 1/2 feet long, more than 3 feet wide across the deck, and 2 1/2 feet high, from the keel to the top mast. Sold by Hasbro Inc., it costs more than $100, but everyone knows defense isn't cheap.
The problem is, the kit has 150 parts. If you've tried to put together a simple tricycle late on Christmas Eve, you'd wonder how it's possible to assemble the aircraft carrier kit in an hour and a half, as Hasbro promises.
I heard a story about a father who spent weeks trying to get the thing together and running right, and almost didn't make it by Christmas. The story can't be vouched for, but it sounds right.
The father was given the aircraft carrier kit as a gift for opening an account at a Maryland savings and loan. His wife was dubious about the project from the start. "You couldn't get a hobby horse put together on time last year," she said.
But he works for the Pentagon, so he knew just where to go for help.
A contractor who used to be at General Dynamics Corp. said he could get it done in three weeks. "That's too long!" the father said. "There's an admiral who could help," the contractor said. "Throw in some cuff links and maybe I can move up the delivery date."
But the admiral turned the offer down, so the father called on other contractors. Everybody had a price. One contractor wanted a payment on the side to cover the cost of his office Christmas party. Another suggested a political contribution to a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
With a week to go, the father still was struggling to make the pieces fit and discovered that a key part for the rotating radar dish was missing. The next day, he happened to be talking on the phone to Joe Jamail Jr., the Houston trial lawyer, and complained about his predicament.
"Hasbro violated an implied warranty when they shipped it without that part," said Jamail, who recently won an $11 billion courtroom judgment against Texaco Inc. "If you can get the case into a Texas court, it would be worth at least $1 million." But that wouldn't produce a finished carrier by Christmas.
Word about the project got around the neighborhood, and a man who works for Lockheed Corp. said he could have the part made for $500. "That's more than the whole aircraft carrier cost," the father protested. "Okay, but it's cheaper than the toilet seats we made for the Navy," the Lockheed employe said.
Other parts were missing, and everywhere the father turned, he got the same story. He couldn't afford the replacement parts. A Grumman Aerospace Corp. contractor said his company had some $659 chrome aircraft ashtrays left over that could be used as a stand for the carrier, but, of course, he couldn't afford it.
A friend said the father could raise the money by selling pictures of the model to Jane's Fighting Ships, but someone beat him to it.
Somehow, corporate raider T. Boone Pickens Jr. heard about the man's plight and called. "If you build it, I'll buy it for $200 -- $50 in cash, $50 in convertible debentures and $100 in junk bonds," Pickens said.
"Why would you pay so much?" the father asked.
"I can bust it up and sell the pieces for $300," Pickens replied. "It's a natural junk-bond bust-up deal."
He even got a call from the Russian Embassy. An attache assigned to improve U.S.-Soviet cultural relations said he would be glad to help. "Fantastic," the father said. "I'll be right over with the plans."
"We have the plans," the man from embassy said. The father hung up.
Finally, on Christmas Eve, the desperate father called the local Toyota dealer and reached the head mechanic, who promised Toyota could replace the missing parts and finish the assembly that night for $10. "How long will it take?" the father asked. "We'll do it in 20 minutes," the mechanic said.
And Toyota was as good as its word, but first they made the father sit through a quality-circle lecture for two hours, so it was early on Christmas morning when he finally got home.
He wrestled the carrier into the house and put it near the tree. It was a great hit, except that the battery-powered deck elevator didn't work and the ship left a small oil slick on the rug.
But the experience left the father disillusioned. At a party Christmas Day, he was muttering something about an "incredible and unwieldly monster" and a colleague overheard him. "Are you talking about the Pentagon?" asked the colleague, who heard those same words used before by Navy Secretary John Lehman.
"No," the father said. "Christmas toys."