Cruel Summer

Calling out around the world
Are you ready for a brand new beat?
Summer’s here and the time is right
For maintaining safe distancing

Well, as my state slowly reopens and everyone rushes back out to get infected by (and spread) COVID this guy is going to spend much of the summer hanging by the local pond with his nose buried in a good book. I don’t need to go to a bar (because I don’t drink), a restaurant (because I know how to cook), brick-and-mortar retail (because online shopping exists), movies (because I have Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and hundreds of DVD and Blu-Rays) or attend any large social gatherings (because I hate crowds). Until there’s an effective – and proven – treatment or vaccine I’m staying put.

Also, because if you can’t trust people to look out for their best interests you sure as hell can bet they won’t look out for yours either. So I plan to do both, for myself and my family, and for the local idiots clustering in groups, sans masks, figuring “hey we beat the virus, time to party, because we’re a generation and a culture that prattles on about ‘sacrifice’ yet is ill-equipped by choice or by upbringing to do either.”

[For the record, I would love to go out and about unencumbered. I’d love to go to the beach, the local pool (closed for the season), the museums and art galleries and aquariums and zoos. And, depending on how the next month goes, I may actually do those things regardless. I mean, Christoper Nolan and Wes Anderson both have movies coming out this year I would LOVE to see on the big screen. But not at the risk of my health or my family’s health. I WILL visit my local comic book store in another week or so as he’s got some holds for me to pick up. But I won’t stay long. “Browsing” will remain a thing of the past for now.]

Call me a coward, call me “panicky”, whatever you want. I have nothing to prove. If COVID-19 as taught me anything over these past three months, it’s that I do not require social contact with other people to live a happy life. In fact, I think I’ve been much happier not having people around other than the barest, briefest transactions of grocery shopping. I’m in this for the long haul, because like COVID, this all isn’t going away anytime soon.

Plus, I have a book to write.

Have a good summer. See you in September. Maybe.

You Spin Me Round

Growing up, our family were generally late-adopters of new technologies. While I remember having a color television throughout the 1970s and beyond, we also had a small B&W set in the kitchen that pre-dated it. We didn’t have to get up and tune the dial to get our 13 channels on the main set; we had a converter box, but that was hard wired to the TV set. For a time, my parents had an 8-track player in the station wagon, but for the most part long car rides were accompanied by Light FM/AM stations that to this day gives me a reflexive dislike for the music of John Denver, The Carpenters, and Jim Croce.

Though I will confess I’ve been coming around a little on ABBA.

We got our first VCR in, I believe, 1983. It was a Betamax. Recommended to as the superior format (which it was), but made finding movies to rent a little difficult as the decade progressed. We didn’t get our first VHS player until 1988 or 1989. Though to be fair, the Beta player lasted well into the 90s, and ended up being used, for the most part, for recording TV shows (because, yes, the picture and sound quality of a Betamax tape was noticeably superior). The Beta resided in the rec room downstairs, hooked up to a 19 inch Sony Trinitron. It sat in an entertainment unit built by my uncle, along with our stereo and record player. There were more than a few jokes around my home in the early 90s, mostly from friends who said descending into the Abraham rec room was like taking a trip back in time to 1981.  

So what does all of the above have to do with Vinyl? Keep reading.

Pictured: $42 in music

Our music collection was, for the most part and for a very long time, strictly Vinyl. It was my parents’ record collection from their formative years. My dad’s Beach Boys and Chicago and Billy Joel albums; my mom’s Beatles and Ray Charles ones (and my then and still-favorite, the American Graffiti soundtrack album). Our home stereo had a tape deck, and both our family cars – Volvos, natch – had cassette players, so most of those vinyl records were recorded to tape to be played in the car. If there was an album we wanted to listen to in the car and at home, we bought the vinyl and made a copy to listen to. This was how I experienced Purple Rain and Seven And The Ragged Tiger, and the Miami Vice soundtrack. This always meant the sound quality was lesser than what you got on the radio tuner, so by and large pre-recorded music was saved for when you traveled outside the range of any decent radio stations, and had to choose between static and crazy-fire-and-brimstone religious radio (we preferred static).

We never made the transition to CD though, and through my high school years and into college, I was still buying cassettes. This was for a number of reasons. Portability for one, cost for another. In the early 90s a CD would run you close to 20 bucks. A cassette could be had for half that. You could score two cassettes for the price of one CD. Were I to buy a CD I’d have to take it home, copy it to cassette, then listen to it on my Walkman. A cassette I could pop into my Walkman outside the store or in my car tape deck, and be listening to new music before I was out of sight of the store.

I didn’t transition to CDs formally until 1995, when I got my first Laserdisc player, which could play CDs as well as LDs. Once hooking it up and running the audio through a roommate’s stereo system was I able to start buying/borrowing CDs and making my own copies on cassette.

I still buy CDs, though my new music purchases have dropped off in the last five or so years, picking up one, maybe two new-release albums a year. Yes, there’s MP3s and streaming audio, but I prefer to have a solid, non-digital backup of my albums of choice. Yet coinciding, roughly, with the beginnings of a global pandemic of which, right now, there is no end in sight,  I began to take a deeper dive into Vinyl records and Vinyl collecting.

If your music collection doesn’t include Cheap Trick at Budokan what are you even doing with your life?

Why Vinyl? There are arguments for and against. Most audiophiles will tell you it’s superior sound-wise to CD. It’s warmer, you can pick up nuances with vinyl you can’t with digital downloads. For me though it’s a little more complex, and gets to the heart of my long preamble to this post.

Example: I own Jack White’s Lazaretto on both CD and Vinyl. And I will concede that side-by-size, I can’t quite hear much of a difference. But with the Vinyl, if I want to listen to Lazaretto the album, I have to commit myself to spending the next 40 minutes or so doing just that. I can’t skip tracks, I can’t pause, I can’t do dishes or make dinner, or do work while spinning the vinyl. I have to L I S T E N to it and nothing else. I make a tea, I sit in my comfy chair, I drop the needle, notch the groove, and just sit there and listen to it. Side A. Side B.

Usually I won’t stop at just one either. As one album is nearing the conclusion I’m already flipping through my collection and deciding what comes next. Do I keep with the Third Man Records theme and put on The White Stripes: The Peel Sessions next, or do I backtrack to one of the White Stripes (and Jack White’s) bigger influences – the garage rock pre-punk sounds of The Kinks?

A band whose work I only own on vinyl.

Another band whose work I only own on vinyl (outside their Greatest Hits collection from 1985 and one of the first albums I bought for myself with my own money – cassette, natch), is The Cars. If I want to spin their self-titled debut it’s pretty much a given I’m going to be at it for a while. I’ve more than once killed a weekend afternoon spinning The Cars, followed by Candy-O, Panorama, Shake-It-Up, and Moving In Stereo (I don’t yet own Door to Door; I’m working on it). If I want to listen to the Cars or The Kinks, I need to listen to the Vinyl. As a result they’re both in my top pantheon of favorite bands, despite only really “discovering” their back catalog in the last couple of years. To listen to either requires a commitment of time. I can’t do anything else but listen.

Shake it up …

It’s quite easy to collect vinyl these days too. I’ve scored some great finds at yard sales, at Church fundraisers, and at used bookstores. And eBay has also been a great source for affordable copies of some classic (and not-so-classic) albums. While you will pay through the nose for The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, I scored Preservation Act I and II together for eight bucks with shipping. Big bands and big albums will command big dollars wherever you look, but there’s always going to be some more interesting stuff lurking in the margins if you know where to look.

The other thing about Vinyl that draws me to it, is because it’s not a perfect format. There’s always going to be a hiss, a crackle, a pop, maybe even a skip. I’ve been able to restore some 50 + year old records with a cleaning kit, but they’re never going to sound pristine, which I kind of like. Those little imperfections are what makes vinyl such a better listen, particularly used records. Used albums have a life to them. Those little crackles are signs of a long life. They may be well into middle-age, but they have lived their lives. How many times were they spun on some bedroom briefcase turntable in the 60s and 70s? Did they have a long life of use, or did they spend the intervening decades sitting on a shelf, waiting to be played again? Old vinyl can be magic; the simple act of playing one releasing its music to fill your room and your heart. The little flaws in them are just that bit of grit or sand in the gears of a machine; the imperceptible flaws that give its engine a unique thrum that can be recorded but never duplicated.

Though a little cleaning care goes a LONG way …

That’s why I limit myself to used vinyl. Records with a history. They may hiss and pop and skip, but they have a life to themselves. I also won’t spend more than $8.00 on a single record album. I haven’t splurged on those deluxe vinyl reissues with bonus tracks and booklets and the like. If I may use a cooking metaphor, a good used vinyl record is like a good cast-iron skillet you’ve been using for ten plus years. It will retain the flavor of everything ever cooked in it, and and if you take care of it, it’ll last forever.

Collecting vinyl, also, gets to the heart of Why We Collect Things. Why? Why do we keep old books, old albums? Why do we still buy DVDs and Blu-rays? Why do we collect old toys? Why do we (okay, just myself) create a comic book about mixtapes? I think it’s because these things, these objects, possess a meaning beyond their physical form. Toys are just wood and plastic and metal. Mixtapes are just recordings on tape. Records are just grooves carved into vinyl disks. Books are words on wood-pulp wrapped in a slightly sturdier cover.

But a box of old paperbacks isn’t just words printed on slowly moldering paper. It’s the aged creases in the spine of that Stephen King you bought brand new. It’s every time you read that book and re-read it. It’s the smell. My copy of Different Seasons pictured below isn’t just a paperback; it’s the Caribbean vacation I took it on and read cover-to-cover. It’s the ocean breeze, it’s the sandy beach, and it’s the sea-salt from the waves crashing to shore. 

Yes, I collect these too …

Same thing with old comics. It would be easy to sell off my old collection and just repurchase them digitally or in trade paperback form. Yet I have seven or eight long-boxes full of comics taking up space in our storage unit. As a semi-regular contributor to the G.I. Joe: A Real American Headcast comics podcast, once a month or so I get to pull another issue out of the long-box, slide it out of its Mylar bag and hold, in my hands, the very same comic I bought at the corner store spinner rack 35, 36 years ago. I still own it, but “it” isn’t just the story. It’s the slowly fading pages of artwork, it’s the creases in the spine and it’s the old ads I used to gloss over but now instill a nostalgia for things I never appreciated at the time.

Ten bucks from a local thrift store. They gave me the Conan comic for free.

We collect things from our past, from our childhood, for many reasons. But I think it’s during times like the ones we’re living through at present that make collecting, that make nostalgia and its pain of remembering all the more essential. There’s a tangible quality to those things that made us happy a long time ago. The 60s had Vietnam and civil unrest. The 70s had the oil crisis and national malaise. The 80s had the cold war and nuclear saber rattling and exploding space shuttles. The 90s had the Spice Girls (sorry). Every era has its ups, it has its downs. It has its struggles. We’re currently in the middle of the next one. And I think if you look around you’ll find people are pining very strongly for a time when things felt simpler.

You can dig through your memories for those seemingly happy moments, but that dig is a lot easier having something tangible tying you to that point in your life. It’s why when I sold off my collections of old Transformers and Star Wars and G.I. Joe toys, I made sure to keep a select handful of items from each line. I wanted to retain something of that old era; something I could pick up in my own hands, and feel beneath my fingertips.

Vinyl is the same thing. It’s not sequences of 1s and 0s on a CD. It’s not music recorded onto ever-deteriorating magnetic tape. It’s not an internet-connected audio stream. Vinyl is a tangible thing. It’s grooves carved into vinyl plastic creating vibrations that are translated into music, and from music into feeling and memory.

So as we enter month three of this uncertainty I think we’re all trying to find things to distract us, to keep our minds off the current predicament by submerging them in the memories of a time and place when we felt safer. Where the world felt like it still made some sense. So I can be expected to keep spinning my vinyls until this current crisis ends and probably beyond it too. To the day when, years from now, I’ll give my by then VERY old records a listen and remember a time when they became a life-raft and kept us all going while we waited for the tide to wash us back to shore.

No word of a lie these JUST arrived as I was proofing this post.

How about you? What was/is your favorite album, Vinyl or otherwise and why? Sound off in the comments below!

20 Years

I’ve been writing professionally for 20 years. The official anniversary would have been February 2 or 3 of this year. That was the start. I haven’t held a regular “day job” since. I’ve been a writer longer than I’ve been anything else. My cumulative school years, from preschool and kindergarten through college were 18 years. In all that time I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing, which is writing.

I was going to do one of those “What I have Learned In 20 years Of Writing” posts, but instead, I want to bring you something called “Things I Wish I’d Done Differently”. So on that note:

  • I would have traveled more

When Robocop went to camera I was paid my production fee, aka the balance of money the production owed me my writing. This was in the form of a Very Large Check With A Lot Of Numbers on it. All in one big lump sum. I did the sensible thing and banked it all, knowing I’d have to manage that money wisely, because by that point my next paying gig hadn’t materialized. But if I could do it over, I would have earmarked some of that money, renewed my passport, and trekked to Europe for a few weeks. That was one golden opportunity I had that I passed up. Because then, as now I was always worried that my good fortune was one bad day from ending forever.

  • I might have taken that day job after all.

My then writing partner took a day job at a local comic book store a couple of years after Robo. Both because money was tight and he needed a little more but also because he’d always wanted to work in a comic book store, to get some experience on a ground level of the comics biz. I kind of wish I’d done something similar – comic book store, bookstore, video store. At that time I didn’t need the money, but could have easily managed my writing at the same time. While the freelance life has forced me to hustle like crazy for work, having a bit of a reliable source of income might have made it all a little less stressful.

  • Those Big Life Decisions would have been made sooner.

I’m a procrastinator and a time delayer. I hate making BIG DECISIONS when times are uncertain. But if I had that do-over I would have gotten married sooner, and started a family sooner. When I got married, it was only a couple of weeks after the honeymoon that the economy crashed and times were tight. We managed okay, but there was a significant drop-off in work on my end. The birth of our child was a happy moment, and even then in the lead up I worried we weren’t ready, that we didn’t have enough money. But believe me when I say there’s never enough money and you never really are ready.

  • I would have diversified earlier.

I had ideas for novels and comics well before I made by debuts with both. I spent my focus on film and TV writing because that was where my main interest lay, and where the money was. But I wish I’d knuckled down on the comics and novels earlier because I feel both of those made me a much better writer.

  • I would have mastered the art of surrender sooner.

I know the adage of not giving up on your dreams. It’s drilled into you. Rejections, passes, dropped by agents, fired by producers. It’s all happened to me. And I’m not saying if I had a do over I’d walk away from this profession at all. But what I would NOT do is make it the be all/end all of everything. Sometimes walking away just means taking a step back from the fire. It means taking that vacation. It means realizing that this project you’ve invested a lot of time and effort in really isn’t going anywhere. It would also mean not swallowing the many lies spun by the snake oil merchants out there. If it seems too good to be true that’s because it is.

  • I would have realized experience is greater than things.

I own a lot of books. And movies. And CDs. Because I didn’t travel much in those earlier years I spent my leisure money on those things. I couldn’t afford Hawaii or wherever, but I could afford that three disc special edition. And now I’m just trying to get rid of a lot of them. Take books. Of all the books I own that I’ve read I very rarely have given them a second read. So in the last move I culled maybe 20% of them. I know the bibliophiles out there just screamed in horror, but to them I ask: what’s more valuable; the book, or the story that book contains? Once you’ve read it, do you still need it? This year I’ve really embraced all my local library has to offer. eBooks. Borrowed books. As of this writing I’ve read 35 books, graphic novels, etc all thanks to my library. Varying degrees of difficulty, but the point is I’ve read them. While I still buy books movies music et al it’s to a lesser degree than before. I’d rather save my money for experiences, even if they’re the local variety.

  • I would have trusted my gut more, personally and professionally.

Holding onto relationships, be they personal or professional well past their expiry date helps nobody. It hinders you. When those relationships turn toxic as in “this person is working behind the scenes against me” its best to sever ties immediately and without preamble. I’ve ended more friendships than the ones I’ve maintained. I’ve severed business relationships just as fast, especially when I realize that there’s no more opportunity in it. Of course I’ve done these well after the point I was aware I should have but held onto because I’d convinced myself a toxic relationship was still a relationship and better to have that than to have nothing. I was wrong. You’ll lose months if not years trying to be something to someone you aren’t. All that does is make you miserable.

  • I would have tackled those passion projects sooner.

Mixtape was a passion project. Magicians Impossible was also a passion project. And to read both you can kind of tell that. Not that I feel my film or TV work have been sub par because people keep paying me to write for them on the basis of that previous work. But the projects that came from a place of personal memory and personal pain are the ones I feel are the best of my work. I wish I’d spent more time nurturing projects like those over the ones I was being paid to churn out (i.e. the ones that, if and when they finally saw life on screens big and small, bore such little resemblance to my work it was like I’d never done the work at all).

  • I would have worked less

You read that right. I used to be the write every day type, and I did. Seven days a week, 365 days a year, for years. And all it made me was miserable. It actually had a detrimental affect on my overall health, and was at the orders of my doctor as well as my family that I take time off. My first “vacation” in that regard was over 2 weeks in 2001 where I got out of town and just read, relaxed, hiked, swam. Didn’t think of work at all. And when I returned to my home and my desk I found the world had kept turning, that nobody I worked with had begrudged me the time off. It made my work on resuming so much stronger because I’d had distance from it.

  • I would have done most of it pretty much the same way.

In that first year of writing, I had an potential opportunity to move to LA, to join the staff of a then moderately successful genre show. And I seriously considered taking the offer. What held me back were a couple things. One, I didn’t think I was ready. I was still new, still green, and felt that I would have been one titanic screw up to being fired. Of course, who knows? I could have flourished down there. But to do so might have meant all that I have done in the last 20 years might not have ever come to pass. I might not have written that comic book or those novels. I definitely wouldn’t have met my wife. I wouldn’t have my son. I might have been astonishingly successful down there but I don’t know if I would have been happy.

So on reflection, my life and career have been okay for the most part. I’m both very lucky to have made it this far, but I’m not ashamed to admit it’s also because I do have talent with the written word. Luck and chance opportunity might get you in the door, but if you can’t step up, knuckle down, and do the work, they’ll show you that door again just as quickly. I’ve had up years, I’ve had down years. I’ve come close to quitting many times. But I’m still here, and fate willing, will still be here doing what I’m doing for the next twenty.

Which is why, after a nice little break I’m back at my desk, and back on the clock. I have one manuscript to red-pen, and another to finish outlining. I might even find time to take a vacation again too.

Pictures of Plastic Men (Part II)

If you missed Part I you’ll find it at:

Pictures of Plastic Men

It’s 1993. I’m 20 years old. I’m sitting on a bench atop a hill, watching the kids at my old school play at recess down below. I’m remembering a time not long before; only ten years but those might as well be a lifetime. I remember that old life, and the things in that life that meant the world to me, if only for a short time. I think back to a day in 1985, shortly after my 11th birthday when my dad came home to tell us we were moving again, this time to North Carolina. This was to be a temporary move, a 2-year “loan assignment” that meant at the end of the assignment, in 1987, we were moving back to the same house on the same street, and I’d start high school with the same kids I’m in Grade Six with now. The promise of return is a salve, because I really like it here and our house and our pool and all of it and don’t really want to leave. But we have to, and come July, that’s what we do.

The first thing I notice about our new city – Greensboro – is the abundance of shopping malls and department stores, each with a toy section out of my wildest dreams. And my parents, knowing this is a rough move on my sister and I, are very generous with the toy purchases. My dad even finds me a local comic book store and says we can go there once a month to buy the latest GI Joe comic book. While I missed  my friends, it looked like our time in North Carolina would be enjoyable.

Then school started. I hated it.

Bane of my existence, 1985-1986

This wasn’t like the other moves. Those were always met with some excitement. But this felt different because I was different. I was settling in. I had friends. I had a life I was happy with. And it was all being torn away from me.

Now, being into toys, and being into GI Joe at the ripe old age of 12? That was a sure ticket to Loserville, Population: you. I found this out one afternoon during school, in the first or early second month. The way the campus was set up was the main building as this big rectangular cinder block running north-south along the street, with an annex to the south, and a gymnasium building with classrooms adjacent to the north. My homeroom was in the south annex – my first class of the day was in the north building. I’d have to transverse that distance within the three minutes we had between classes before the bell rang. I was walking along the path leading to the building when I passed a group of grade eight and nine boys surrounding a Grade 7. I slowed enough to hear them calling him “baby” and “little boy” and some other words I won’t get into. Lying at the boy’s feet was a small plastic toy I recognizes immediately as Snake-Eyes Version 2 – the Ninja version. I know this because I had it too.

And still do …

I slowed almost to a stop, enough so that the kid looked at me with these eyes I’ll never forget. Like a trapped, frightened animal. I don’t know the circumstances for the toy. Maybe he brought it to school because he liked having it close. Maybe he was hoping someone else would notice it, and recognize it, and maybe talk about their toys.

Maybe, he was looking for a friend.

I wish I could say I interceded and told these much bigger kids to leave him alone. I wish I could say I called a teacher over because bullies are bullies until they’re dealt with. I wish I could say I charged in fists swinging to protect this kid. But what happened was one of the older kids looked at me, and not wanting to get involved, I resumed walking, faster now, and leaving the group behind.

3:15 couldn’t come quick enough. I took the bus home; I went up into my room and closed the door. There were some toys left out from the previous day’s adventures but somehow they felt different. I couldn’t look at them, let alone pick one up without thinking of that kid at school.

Were this a movie or TV show, I would have shown up at school the next day with a GI Joe figure and tracked that kid down and ask what he thought. I wouldn’t have cared what some Grade 8 or 9 boys who would never be my friends anyway thought. Maybe that kid and I would have become friends. But i I didn’t do that. I saw that kid occasionally around school but I never approached him to say hi or that I thought those other kids were jerks and that Snake-Eyes was cool. I wish I’d done that, but I didn’t.

1985 became 1986, but GI Joe didn’t continue with me. It didn’t seem as cool as it once was. I felt like I had failed, that I wasn’t living up to the ideals I thought the toy was supposed to instill – bravery, honor, and loyalty to your comrades. I got self-righteous; this was Grade 7. 12 going on 13. Toys? They were for little kids. How on earth could I show up with GI Joe toys at school and expect to make friends?

It was a long, lonely time for me. I still had the comics and still kept up my collecting with that once monthly visit to the local comic store (subsequently branching out into more mature titles like Watchmen and The Shadow). I received my last batch of GI Joe toys that Christmas. I may have played with them a bit that holiday week, but they went into the closet come January and that’s where they stayed even. The toys were packed up and moved up north but they stayed packed away in those boxes for the next 30 years. By the time I started Grade 8 in yet another new town, I was heavily into music and that became the way I made friends; with mixtapes and playlists and record collections. Without friends to play with, my toys were all kind of … childish.

#

Back to 1993, back to that bench overlooking that park, and that playground. I sat there the full fifteen minutes watching kids ten years my junior playing. Kids probably born the year I discovered GI Joe and started to fit in with my new surroundings. I wondered what toys they were into now. I wondered if they helped kids make friends with other kids. I wondered how many of them would give up their toys in similar situations as I did. I remember feeling saddened by the whole thing. Childhood is one of those things you endure. Kids can become friends in an instant, and you can break that friendship apart just as quickly when you find other kids – hipper, cooler ones – that you’d rather be seen with.

The recess bell rings. They kids race back inside. The doors close, and I’m alone again. I pick myself up, trudge back down t to my waiting car, climb in, and drive home.

#

It’s 2018. I’m far from from that park and playground, far from that life. I’m a father now, and am re-experiencing childhood again through my son’s eyes.  The GI Joe toys are all gone – sold off to collectors a few years ago. I kept a few favorites though, because you can’t completely part with the things from your childhood. I didn’t need the money, or even the space. I just needed to say goodbye to them and let someone else take joy from their presence. And as I saw them all exit my life, one parcel at a time, I realized they were just … THINGS. Pieces of plastic and die-cast metal. That’s it. And I think the decision to sell them made all the difference in my life.

You can appreciate your childhood, and should do so, but not at the expense of the here and now. For a time those pieces of molded plastic assembled in Taiwan and shipped overseas to fill toy-stores everywhere was our entire world. They were important to me. They meant something, at a time when I was still figuring out what life was all about. For a boy who moved around a lot as a child, those toys became my friends at a time when I didn’t have any. My childhood memories divide up into neat, tidy compartments; the toys I played with, the comics and books I read, are all linked to a place and a time.

I don’t know how long we’ll stay here in this new city. But I do know and hope that my son will find the same joy, the same warmth, the same friendship with those toys he comes to love. Because sometimes childhood is as much about the things you cherish for an all-too brief moment in time.

 

 

Pictures of Plastic Men

It’s December 1993. I’ve just returned a car-load of film equipment to the Film Building at my university, where I’m a student. I’m in a contemplative mood this day and with nothing else on tap for the afternoon, decide to take a little drive.

The car is mine. I was home for my mother’s birthday at the end of November and decided to drive back to school seeing as I’d be coming back after exams a few weeks hence. I’m renting a house in the city’s west end with five other film and theater students so I have free parking for the month.

I drive without any real destination, but when hunger pangs hit I decide to drive up to my old neighborhood – the one I lived in ten years before, which would become, in my memory anyway, the happiest time of my life. There’s a burger joint near there I used to frequent, one of those old-school 1960s establishments that hasn’t changed in the fifty years since it was started. I go and grab my favorite meal – steak on a Kaiser with pepper and a little bit of BBQ sauce, onion rings, and a chocolate shake.

I park, I eat, then I keep driving, the car smelling of my lunch. I drive north. I cruise past my old house; I swing through crescents and side-streets where I used to play with the other neighborhood kids. I swing past the house of my best friend, who’s still living there, but is at work that day. The memory tank has been refilled, but I’m not quite ready to go home yet.

I pull over and park at the edge of the local park, get out, and climb a slow sloping grade of landfill that’s been turned into a hill. We used to just call it the “toboggan hill” because that’s what we did on it in the winter. There’s a bench and a couple lonely pine trees at the summit, and when you sit there you have a view of the playgrounds and baseball diamonds, and elementary school below.

This was my old school. The one I attended for only a few short years – April 1982- to June 1985 – but it still looms large and casts a long shadow over my life then. 1993 has been a rough year for me, and December of that year marks the one year anniversary of my parents announcing they were separating. I’m so devastated I nearly flunk my first year of university, but I manage to pull my grades out of a nose-dive and pass. Barely.

So that’s my frame of mind as I sit on that bench and stare out over my old school. It’s just before 2:00pm. I know this because the recess bell rings a minute or so later, and the kids come streaming out. To play four-square. To throw the ball around. To jump rope and play on the playground equipment – the same I played on ten years before.

What does all of this have to do with GI Joe? Everything.

It’s April, 1982. We’ve just moved to this new city. Moves have been a fact of life for me. By 1982 I’ve lived in six different cities. I just turned 9 years old. By this point I know the drill; my dad comes home to say “we’re moving again” because he got another job transfer and promotion to go a long with it. A move means excitement and sadness in equal measure. Excitement because it’s a new city, a new house (our new one will have a swimming pool), and new friends. But a move also means saying goodbye to old friends. In this pre-internet era, goodbyes really do mean goodbye. It means never seeing those familiar friendly faced again. You move away, they move on, and pretty soon you forget what they looked like.

We move just before Easter, which means I and my sister are starting at our new schools nearly through the end of the year. I have two months of Grade 3 and then summer. Will that be time enough to make friends? So the spring as I remember it is cold, dark, and lonely.

I can’t remember the actual date, but the specifics of it, I’ll never forget. It must be some afternoon after school I first see the commercial. It’s slick, animated, and trumpeting what looks like a new cartoon series. But it’s not a cartoon series, yet. It’s not a movie either. It’s this:

Now let me paint a picture for all of you here in the year 2018. In the 1980s, things were slower. The pace was different. Your average hour long TV show ran 52 minutes. There were only a handful of TV channels. Music was on the radio. There was no MTV outside of a few small outlets in the US. If you wanted to go shopping, you went to a mall. Movies? The theater.

And Star Wars movies were released 3 years apart. Three years to a 9 year-old may as well be a lifetime. But fortunately you have the toys – the action figures, the vehicles, the play sets. You have the comics and newspaper strips – al of which is designed to keep you interested in the property until the next installment.

But there was something else these little pieces of molded plastic were important for – something the designers didn’t anticipate. They were how you made new friends in new cities. Just the act of bringing a Star Wars toy to your new school was enough to get other kids to come over and talk to you. Several friendships (short lived ones, but friendships nonetheless) began that way. I’d bring a Bespin Han Solo or Hoth Luke to school; some kid would ask what other Star Wars toys I had. I’d tell them, they’d tell me theirs. They’d invite me over to play, and vice versa. Toys were how you got to know others. They were how you found your new tribe.

By the time I moved  it had been two years since The Empire Strikes Back. Five since Star Wars. Time moves slow as a child but it moves really slow when you’re a Star Wars fan. You need toys to fill the gaps between films. Between Star Wars and Empire alone there was Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, and The Black Hole. Between Empire and the third installment due next year – Revenge of the Jedi – there’s been Smurfs, and Indiana Jones, and a lot more I’ve forgotten. But they’ve all been peg-warmers and gap fillers. By 1982 nobody is playing Battlestar Galactica. They may still be playing Star Wars, but the wait between films is so long to a 9 or 10 year-old. You need something else.

Something different.

And so it was, one evening in April, when my mother was taking my sister to the local mall to do some clothes shopping one evening after school sometime in April. I begged off to browse the toy aisle, and when I get there the first thing I noticed were the colors of red, white, and blue on the floor display.

GI Joe: A Real American Hero.

The packaging was the first thing that lept off the shelf at me. Whereas the Star Wars figures featured the toy in a plastic bubble and a photo of that character (no matter how minor) from the movie, these featured a beautiful painted image of the character in action. The back of the card featured smaller paintings of the other figures in the line, and below those, a file-card with the character name, code-name, rank, specialty, and place of birth. With nothing else to go on but the packaging you had a psyche profile of what that character’s personality was like.

I begged my mom to buy me some. She ended up relenting and getting me three: Breaker, Grunt, and Snake-Eyes. I took them home, took them out of their packages, and plated with them until bed-time. But the real fun came the next day when I snuck Snake-Eyes into my book-bag and took him to school. Come morning recess, I brought him out and it was like moths to the flame. None of the other kids had seen a GI Joe up close before, though they had seen the commercials. So here was the new kid with the hottest new toy. And from that moment, friendships were born.

That was just the beginning though. See, I didn’t really get “in” to GI Joe beyond those first three figures. They were just three tots if many, and my heart still belonged to Star Wars.

In 1983, we were on vacation in Vermont, and on the first day I broke my leg skiing. That vacation became a three-month odyssey of traction and body casts and being stuck at home. And while some school friends did visit me (and I did have a tutor so I could keep up with school) it was a very lonely time.

Then my dad came home from work one night with a gift for me. Well, two gifts anyway. One was a new GI Joe called Snow-Job, the other was a snowmobile called the Polar Battle Bear.

Which I still have, by the way.

Maybe he picked those because he knew our ski vacation had been cut short and I blamed myself, maybe it was just because he wanted me to have some fun while I was bedridden, but it did the trick. By the time the cast came off I had acquired more GI Joe toys. I. Was. Hooked. By the time September rolled around Return of the Jedi had come and gone, but I was fully on the GI Joe train. Joe became the linkage to my friends, and their interests (including the aforementioned best friend who I met that September because he was talking about James Bond, another of my childhood touchstones).

And for a GI Joe fan the hits kept on coming. That September saw the release of the 5-part miniseries A Real American Hero, which aired on a local station after school Monday-Friday. That Christmas I added a whole slew of new GI Joe toys to my collection – the MOBAT Tank, VAMP Jeep, Dragonfly Copter, the Headquarters Command Center, and more figures. Joe became my life, but in no bigger way than the following summer when visiting some old friends out west who introduced me to the Marvel comic.

The first issue I ever bought. Still have it too.

That span of years, from 1983-1985 were some of the finest of my life, and it was largely due to those little plastic men and women.

Then, everything changed.

[To Be Continued in Part II]