If someone asked you what toy defined your childhood, what would you say? My kids would probably say Gameboy (Ryan) and Micro Machines (Nolan.) My brother would probably say NES. My sister would probably say Cabbage Patch Kids. My dad would probably say Baseball cards.
My answer comes without a moment's thought or second guessing: Star Wars figures.
They were affordable, easily obtainable at K-Mart, and allowed me to create my nine year-old version of fan fiction, reenacting scenes from "my most bestest movie ever" or making up my own. My core cast was Han Solo (in Hoth and regular outfits) Luke Skywalker (X-Wing Fighter or Bespin version) Greedo (shoots second, goddammit, version) Obi-Wan Kenobi (I lost the plastic robe and broke the tip off the light saber version), Princess Leia (pre-slave girl "man I wish I could hit that" version) C-3PO (tarnished version) and R2-D2 (head stopped clicking a long time ago version.) They spent a lot of time fighting on Tatooine (torn cardboard backdrop version), flying around while crammed into a TIE fighter (one wing really wants to fall off version) or rolling around the kitchen floor in my LaNdSPEEdR (kEpP YOU hANdS OFF OF It OR ELSE !! version.)
Yeah, I loved my Star Wars figures, and I took them everywhere with me. I never owned one of those official carrying cases that looked like C-3PO or anything, but they travelled with me in a Vans shoebox that could double as a rebel base whenever the need arose.
Last night, Nolan and I ate dinner at Islands, and right after we put our order in, I saw a kid, sitting in a booth at the end of our aisle, playing with Star Wars figures on his table. It was like looking through a wormhole into 1981, and seeing myself in Bob's Big Boy with my parents.
The kid was eight or nine years old, and had a mop of shaggy long hair that was probably cut by mom. He wore a dirty blue Hot Wheels T-shirt, maroon nylon shorts, and velcro tennis shoes. On the seat next to him, there was an open shoebox. His Star Wars figures were lined up on the table in front of him, and he made two of them fight.
I fell into the wormhole, and landed at K-Mart in Sunland, in 1981. It was back to school season for me, and my brother, and we were there to buy clothes and school supplies. My parents never let us feel how poor or white trash we really were back then, so I didn't know that shopping at K-Mart and getting an ICEE and a pretzel was a real luxury for us; like all kids, I just took it for granted that we got to have new clothes and treats, because, well, they were there, you know?
After our corduroy pants and collared shirts and Trapper Keepers and economy packs of pencils and wide-ruled paper were piled up in our cart, our mom took our three year-old sister with her to the make-up department to get shampoo and whatever moms buy in the make-up department, and my brother and I were allowed to go to the toy department.
"Can I spend my allowance?" I said.
"If that's what you want to do," my mom said, another entry in a long string of unsuccessful passive/aggressive attempts to encourage me to save my money for . . . things you save money for, I guess. It was a concept that was entirely alien to me at nine years old.
"Keep an eye on Jeremy," she said.
"Okay," I said. As long as Jeremy stood right at my side and didn't bother me while I shopped, and as long as he didn't want to look at anything of his own, it wouldn't be a problem.
I held my brother's hand as we tried to walk, but ended up running, across the store, past a flashing blue light special, to the toy department. Once there, we wove our way past the bicycles and board games until we got to the best aisle in the world: the one with the Star Wars figures.
Row after row of glorious Star Wars figures in blister packs hung from pegs in a wall that stretched up to the sky. Bright orange price tags, cut into jagged sunbursts marked $1.99! were on the corners of them all.
The smell of slightly-burnt popcorn, kind of like the smell in the Rainbow theater (where I'd go on countless dates of the 8th grade variety and watch Ghostbusters over and over again in 1984) hung heavy in the air as I stood there, experiencing what Douglas Coupland would eventually describe as "Optional Paralysis," pondering one of the most difficult and important decisions I would ever make: which Star Wars figure would I purchase? They didn't have the Chewbacca that I really wanted -- and needed -- to fill a gaping hole in my cast of characters. They had lots of droids, but I already had the only two that mattered. They had some cool snow troopers, but they could only fight Han Solo in his Hoth outfit, and I didn't even have a Hoth playset (it made sense at the time.) They had IG-88, who was kind of cool and had an awesome gun, but was only in one scene in Empire Strikes Back and didn't even talk. I stood at the wall of toys and wished, as I always did, that I could just get them all, and sort them out at home, while my jealous friends watched.
My brother said, "Come on, Wil. I want to go look at the Legos."
"In a minute," I said. I flipped through the ones I could reach, and hoped that maybe Chewbacca was in the back behind one of the lame figures up front (that's how I found Luke Skywalker in the Bespin outfit, which had a really cool lightsaber that you could take out of his hand and lose in the back yard the first day you played with it.)
"Come on, Wil . . ." my brother said, tugging on my hand.
"Quit!" I said. "This is important!"
"Lando Calrissian? He was a dick in the movie. There's no way I'm getting him. That guy with the bald head and the light up headphone thing around his head? What is this, the Bespin Cloud City store?" I thought.
"Willlllll," my brother whined, as my mom came around the corner.
"Willow, look what I found for you!" She held up a package of Luke Skywalker X-wing pilot Underoos.
"Oh cool!" I said. "Thanks!"
"And I have Batman for you, Jer Ber," she said to my brother.
"Wow! I'm Batman!" He said. "Thanks!"
"Did you find something?" My mom said, then pointedly added, "or are you saving this week?"
"Mom, I want to look at LEGOs," Jeremy said.
"Okay, Jer, I'll take you," she said.
She started down the aisle and added, "You need to be ready to go when I come back, Wil."
Left alone in the aisle, I could focus and make an informed decision. Suddenly, as if they'd materialized out of thin air, I saw several vehicles and play sets. The playsets were well beyond my budget, squarely in the realm of birthday gifts from relatives. A Death Star playset among them silently mocked me and my LaNdSPEEdR. However, the sunburst stickers on the vehicles were much more reasonable. I did some math in my head. If I saved, I could have my own Millennium Falcon in just a couple of months. If I could convince my mom and dad to let me do extra chores around the house, or if I got a commercial or something, I could even get it sooner!
Wow. The Millennium Falcon. It was so big, it took two hands to fly it. My friend Darryl let me watch as he put his together, and it had two sheets of stickers! It had this place where you could hide your figures, and you could recreate that cool chess game and Luke's fight with the training droid thingy!
Could I do it? Could I save my allowance until I had enough to buy it? What if they didn't have it when I was all saved up, though? Then what would I do? Mom would make me put my money in the bank, and I just knew I'd never see it again, while it earned something stupid called interest.
My brother came running down the aisle, nearly losing his ever-present blue baseball cap in the process.
"Wil! Look! I got an airplane!" He held up one of those balsa wood planes that always broke on the second flight, provided you didn't break them during assembly.
"Oh no," I thought, "Mom will be right behind him!" I could hear my sister fussing in the cart as it turned the corner and squeaked up behind me.
"What did you decide, Wil?" My mom said. "Amy's getting fussy and we need to leave."
I hadn't had nearly enough time to make up my mind. This was all a plot by my mom to get me to save my money! I had to stall, so I pretended I didn't hear her.
"Oh, that's uh, neat," I said to my brother. "What's it do?"
It's a plane, you dolt. It flies.
"Wil?" My mom said.
"It's got a propeller, and that means it can fly for a long long long long time!" He said.
"Uh-huh," I said, my eyes darting from the vehicles to the figures to the playsets and back. "That's cool." A stream of numbers and calendar pages flew through my head, accompanied by John Williams' famous theme.
"Wil, I'm going to count to ten, and then we're leaving." My mom said.
Oh no! She was counting! This was serious.
". . . three . . . four . . . five . . ."
"Three? What happened to one and two?"
" . . . eight . . . nine . . ." Why couldn't I just make a decision? All the figures sucked. This should be easy.
"But there are so many right there, and how can I walk out of the toy department without buying something?! Jeremy has an airplane!"
"Ten. What are you doing?"
As if commanded by some unseen puppet master, my hand shot out and grabbed the nearest figure from the rack.
"I'm getting this one," I said. "This one is awesome."
"Ha! Take that, mom! Nobody is going to trick me into responsibly saving my money!"
"Okay, put it in the cart and let's go."
I looked down at the package in my hands, and saw my triumphant purchase: Lando Calrissian.
In my head, I thought of the worst curse word I could muster the courage to think.
"Wait. Mom!" I said.
She stood there, hand on her hip, patience wearing thin. My brother flew his airplane -- which in the package didn't look anything like an airplane at all -- around in little circles. My sister's fussiness was turning to tears. This was my last chance to back out, admit defeat, and tell my mom that I was . . . I was going to save my money.
I took a deep breath, and said, "I, uhm . . ."
My sister scowled and started to cry.
The urge to walk out of the store with something in my hand and some stupid sense of victory overwhelmed the more rational thoughts of saving my money for something I really wanted.
"I, uhm, I want to carry it myself," I said.
"Okay, that's fine. Let's just go," she said. I thought of looking back wistfully over my shoulder at the Millennium Falcon, but I was so ashamed of myself, I was certain that I'd be turned into a pillar of carbonite. Instead, I trailed behind my airplane zooming brother and nap-needing sister, while my mother pushed the cart up to the checkout.
"Wil?" A voice that didn't belong at K-Mart in 1981 said.
I blinked, as the sounds of my infant sister crying were replaced with The Killers, and the smell of burnt popcorn was replaced with the smell of a fryer.
"Are you okay?" Nolan said.
". . . yeah," I said.
"Where did you go just now?" He said. It's a rather mature concept for a 15 year-old, but I vanish into memory so frequently he knows it when he sees it.
I told him about the kid over his shoulder, with all the Star Wars figures lined up on the table. "It's like looking at myself twenty-five years ago," I said, as John Williams' score began to play in my head.
He turned around and back. "You had Jar-Jar twenty-five years ago?"
I blinked, and looked at the line of figures: Han Solo, Chewbacca, Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, and way down on the end, there was Jar-Jar Binks.
A needle scratched across the record in my head. In my head, I thought of the worst curse word I could, and directed it at George Lucas.
Lando Calrissian joined my cast of Star Wars characters, but was always the first to get killed in every battle and never got to pilot any of the ships. I tried to trade him several times, but his lameness was universally known around my neighborhood, and I was never successful.
A few months later, shortly after 1982 began, I booked a commercial. I didn't go back to buy a Millennium Falcon, though. Star Wars mania had offically given way to G.I. Joe mania, fueled by ultracool villains like Destro and Stormshadow. Over the next few years, Star Wars mania would take a distant third to Transformers fever, fueled by Megratron and Shockwave. Yes, like everyone else during the 80s, I gave in to the Dark Side.
Unlike George Lucas, though, I eventually came back.