Tuesday, May 24, 2011

B is for B-Wing


Long ago in a place far, far away I lived in the shadow / aftermath of Kenner. Kenner is the toy company that made the toys for all of the classic Star Wars films, as well as for Indiana Jones and Bionic Man, and later, for the Ghostbusters cartoon & Robocop shows. At some juncture their stocks dropped through the floor and Tonka bought them out, or so I‘ve been told, and subsequently Hasbro gobbled up Tonka. These days Hasbro dry humps the dickens out of the Star Wars license, the classics as well as all the more recent abominations, er, I mean expansions to the Lucas helmed universe.

When I had to stand on tip toes to reach the kitchen counter for stray snacks, the best sense of what exist in the broad array of Kenner offerings came from a few limited vantage points.

Back of the card. Each action figure featured a roll call of figures on the back of the card the figure had been festooned too inside a clear plastic blister bubble, typically with a small bit of cardboard pinched beneath their feet. Row after row, each subsequent release added to the line updating the card with more characters, until by time the figures came out for Return of the Jedi, there were 92 characters arranged like the Live-Aide lineup on the back of the card, 93 on Australia exclusive Yak-Face’s card, the character that looks exactly like the cartoon camel mascot for Camel brand cigarettes, a likeness not lost on collectors and Aussie teenage delinquents alike.

When you really only get figures added to your personal collection on birthdays, Christmas holidays, and occasionally for being a brave little trooper surviving a visit to the family Doctor, your card backs varied enough to always have some new additions to oogle over extensively, or at least, until your Dad uses the card backs your saving to kindle the wood burning stove heating the living room in our house in Telford during the cold winter months, the same stove that melted my Battle Star Galactica Viper pilot after I accidently discovered how tricky controlling the trajectory of action figures could be with improvised rubber-band sling shots.

Also the same stove that spat sparks through the chain link curtain onto the wool blanket my Mom and Dad were sleeping under one winter evening when their room at the back of the house became untenable, nearly catching the blanket on fire. Fortunate the burning hair smell woke my Dad up and he put out the fire before it had a chance to take. As a child, less than thrilled my cards had been used for kindling, I thought the burned up cards had tried to take revenge. I hid all subsequent cards from then on, not wanting my parents to be burned up or my home down.

I’ve always been weird and somewhat neurotic about the prospect of a house fire. This began from the second house we lived in after Dad and Mom got married, a weary old roadhouse of a place across the road from Mamaw Crawford’s place, owned by the Crawfords. After we moved out of that house and on to Telford, Mamaw’s older son Pete, the one that slept all day, hated children, and generally smelled of hard liquor, who had once terrified me when I went into his room to reach a second bathroom without knowing he was passed out on the waterbed in there, threatened to make my mouth his personal urinal if I didn’t leave and stay out ever after. After that when I read in a book about a monster, ogre or troll that terrified people, it’s the silhouette and smell of ol’ Pete that sprang to mind for me.

That guy cleaned up his act somewhere around the time my Mom and Dad were getting hitched, married a preacher’s daughter, swears off the bottle, moves into the house across the street, perhaps we’d moved to Telford to make room for them at Mamaw’s request, I don’t know since no one confides those sorts of facts to a kid still enthralled with dancing in puddles with an umbrella and clipping editorial cartoons from the front section of the newspaper because there is a funny animal in them or an allusion to Star Wars. Pete and his clean slate twelfth step wife set about spawning some children of their own, and have been moved into the house we’d left about six months when the house burns down around them as they’re saying grace over dinner downstairs. As far as I can recall, no one died, and a bad cable that ran under a carpet to a lamp had been to blame, not someone falling asleep drunk on the sofa with a lit cigarette like most house fires told about on the news during my childhood.

Speaking of, that remained a predictable staple of regular scheduling through my childhood, that hour block of local followed by national news, initially with Walter Cronkite and later replaced by Dan Rather. We gathered the whole family to watch Walter’s final sign off episode of the news. Strange how such an epic career of reporting the news and helping to define the very practice of televised broadcast journalism transcended voyeurism to become news itself?

After news of the fire destroying the Crawford house we’d lived in, I felt sure fire had a mind of its own, and had intentions on coming to find me and take my home and family and toys away, probably in that order. Didn’t occur to me until years later to frame the fire as some sort of karmic retribution for a bully, one of many in my life, and certainly one of the most terrifying. Still, thinking that is really just a way to serve my own sense of righteousness, or self-pity, or indignity depending on the day. Really, the house had been a tear down at best rife with sketchy hand me down furnishings and handyman patch ups. Could have been us when the house decided to go, could have been anyone, and thankfully, it happened during the day, when people could react, escape, and when firefighters, lead by ol’ Pete’s dad Zeke, the fire chief, could at least beat back the blaze and keep it from spreading to other houses or adjacent landscape, something of a feat considering the dry, hot time of year the house had ignited.

Insert booklets. If figures came into our home infrequently, vehicles were even more so. The first Christmas with Star Wars in our lives, I received a Tie-Fighter with wing panels that popped off and a cockpit with seating for one, or three if you were Jawas. I didn’t have a Stormtrooper yet so Darth Vader had to pretend his long winged ride had gone into the shop and make mischief with the more standard model. I think my Mom, er, I mean Santa, knew the right one to get because I drew little H versions on my papers constantly, sometimes with a dot or open circle on the crossbeam to denote a cockpit. Occasionally I added a few Xs with little dashes pointing out from the intersection for X-Wings, though mostly I just drew explosions. 

From my perspective, the Tie fighters were always coming out on top, no idea why.Perhaps because I thought myself so clever for deciphering the name came from resembling Gene Shalit's bow tie when all the other kids on the playground seemed so confused by it. All the Rebel vehicles resembled letters, why didn't the Empire's? The Empire is stupid... You know how that sort of us vs. them argument goes.

The remainder of my vehicle garage armada typically contained thinks crafted from Lego, a clever vehicle made from a 2 liter pop bottle, the sort that still had the black plastic cup on the bottom that could be detached, inverted, and turned into a rocket engine. For my birthday in Telford Dad spent massively secret time on the back porch and built me a multi-roomed, two level rocket ship. The front end had a rounded out hole that a clear Micronauts dome fit snugly into so the bridge could have a good view, and the back of the thing bristled with inverted black plastic caps and cups for the engines. The body had a hexadecimal shape to it, painted off white, had spare yet functional furnishings, and stood up on end it stood taller than me at the time. My brother had to help me carry it and beg me amply to help me play with it. Best Barbie dream doll house rocket ship play set ever, wish I still had it!

Each vehicle from Kenner had in its box a booklet of toys now out and coming soon, sometimes on simple landscapes evocative through color or backdrop of the locales in the films where the vehicles appeared, other times the toys were bringing clear and present pants splitting euphoria to some boys or girls, predominately boys, of those, mostly Swedish style white with big bangs and bowl cuts, the sorts the 70’s can be so known for. I still have some of those booklets, amazing stuff, longer than tall, full color, and dripping with items I wanted so badly then, and wouldn’t mind at all now, if only to share with Otis when he’s older.

The Sears Christmas catalog. Essentially porn for the prepubescent, toy section stuck together by candy and sandwich fixings rather than bodily fluids. Like Dave said in 2001, “My god, it’s full of stars…” Star Wars more like. For as many as six solid pages, Kenner would represent a mix of golden oldies from earlier in the year, a sampling of the line up for next year, and end with a chainsaw juggling wooden kittens impact, the Sears Exclusive, some figure or play set or combination thereof that would likely never be the sort of thing I would ever see with my hands or hold with my heart.

Kids grow up so fast, yet even as I outgrew clothes and shoes and haircuts, I still needed a napkin when I saw the new Sears catalogue sitting on my Grandmother’s coffee table in the family room, able to flip directly to the toys section by touch alone, though likely to dally on the women’s undergarments section for a bit as well, now that I’d gotten old enough to take a more active interest in the fine arts of strapping and cupping, 24 hour support and underwire alternatives.

And though I can’t recall if the vehicle had been an exclusive or simply cool enough to grab me, the Sears catalogue presented the B-Wing, aka The First Rebel Vehicle I Ever Wanted to Own. To be honest, years later I ran into a used Y-Wing and discovered the majesty of the thing, so I would say that ride is a close second to the B-Wing. The X-Wing is still way down the list behind all the Imperial vehicles though, A Wing too, despite the rare pilot, sold separately.

The other way to learn about Kenner offerings can from seeing what other kids had, though living in rural Tennessee and finding few friendly at school, at most I occasionally got to see a toy or vehicle in person I’d seen in pictures many times before.

Back to living in Cincinnati, or as I like to call it, Kenner-Land, the economy seemed pretty booming, and the secondary market saw a positive bump as well. EBay didn’t exist yet, and garage sales still announced themselves in the local paper. Lisa and I would hit a few each weekend before trundling off to work, as the bonus for working for movie theaters is a later to nighttime schedule, leaving mornings and sometimes even afternoons free. While in Cincinatti, before working for theaters, I worked downtown for an insurance office and later the 5/3rd bank. A topic for a post another day.

At one particular garage sale we arrived and seemed to have missed everything, it was after noon and Mom’s hit the places hard and do so at the crack of dawn. I blame clubbing the night before for our late arrival, but who knows? As we wonder around and are about to leave I notice a single red snaggletooth on a table, kind of back at the corner behind some VHS tapes and a wig. Having an affinity for that particular figure from a lesson in trading and Catholic guilt when I was a child, I picked it up and asked the lady minding the driveway how much. She squint against the sun to see the toy pinched between my meaty thumb and fore finger, then shrugged and called back over her shoulder a name, Brad I think, then again more loudly, enough to make other browsing shopped jump, and me feel guilty.

A kid with a mane of hair arrives from inside the house and out from beneath the car park like a diminutive version of the German mechanic in Raiders of the Lost Ark. He sizes me up, looks at the toy, says $0.50. I’m surprised, and dig a couple quarters out of my pocket. I’m more surprised by what he says as he takes and absently pockets the quarters.

“You interested in this stuff?”

“Stuff?” I wonder if he means toys in a general sense, his tone has a vague disgust in it, like I’d just shown him a Barbie doll, or a book about girls. “Like Star Wars stuff? Yeah, for sure.”

“You want to see more of it?” He looks more interested, perhaps pictures of a skateboard or electric guitar or drum kit sparking up in his mind’s eye. “I got a closet full of that stuff, if you want it.”

I closed my mouth with an audible clop and nodded. I said something unintelligible yet affirmative sounding, waving behind me to try to get Lisa’s attention.

“I’m right here, you know.” I jumped a little, because so she was, like the Ghost Who Walks, silently slipping up beside me whenever I failed to pay attention. All the time, basically.

The kid had already walked beneath the carport and reached the sliding glass door into the dim interior of his 60’s rancher abode. “You coming?”

I waved a red Snaggletooth past Lisa, “After you.” She smirked and glide across the driveway, slipping around scattered toys and an engine block, while I tripped on an oil canister and nearly broke my wrist on the fender of a half disassembled Mustang.

Soon we stood in the wood paneled, poster peppered bedroom watching the kid pull everything except a live rabbit out of his double wide closet. And then the Ewok Village came out, he sat it on his bed. Soon after figures began to tumble across the bedspread, each progressively causing more and more knots to form around butterflies fluttering against the light headedness I discovered forming. I looked as Lisa and she had her wallet out. Subtle. She separated the checkbook portion and handed it to me. Remember checks? The checks were drawn from an account we shared additional to our personal accounts. Somehow all of my money always ended up in the shared account. Probably because we kept going to garage sales.

I stowed the book in my back pocket and looked to see him placing a B-Wing on the bed. My knees buckled a little. A real, honest to goodness, loose yet pristine B-Wing, pilot included. “May I?” I asked to his working back.

“Sure, whatever.” He replied and turned towards us to place a couple carrying cases on the bed. One an old vinyl one, the kid with the flap lid and two trays inside, except the image on the top was from Empire rather than Star Wars, I’d never seen one like that before. The other case, a plastic bust clam-shell like the one shaped like Darth Vader, except this one of C3PO. The key difference, though, is that the case hadn’t been retailed. I could tell because the case had no shine applied to it. It was still matte plastic, looking more like the C3PO from the Droids cartoon than the one from the films. Very strange.

My pile of items grew in time with whatever he exhumed from that closet of infinite holding. I didn’t dare look at Lisa, I knew she’d shake me off if I tried to land all of that sweet goodness. So I pushed a couple figures back away from the pile. And the Ewok Village, I could like without that, though I’d be taking the Ewok hang glider and suggestively dangling boulders, thank you.

The last item to land on the bed I didn’t know to recognize, and not until later in a comic shop did I find out via sensing a dealer trying to swindle me what I’d run into. A real, honest to goodness, authentic and since then several times appraised Plastic Cape Jawa. At the time of sale I thought the kid had cut up a Kenobi cape and bought it anyway figuring I could find a cloth cape somewhere to replace the homemade one with. I didn’t stop to consider the kid orated while he worked and said the toys were all from his Dad, the one that worked at Kenner as a driver or something, the one that split when he was little but tried to buy back some love with all these wonderful toys. For the kid, the toys were tainted, a bribe or peace offering. For me, they were like hitting a jackpot, a mother load. Literally the most amazing garage sale discovery I had ever seen. Good thing, cause after that check I drafted and tore out of the book to hand the kid, there weren’t any more garage sales for months after that.

On that fateful day, we walked out of the house with a cardboard box and brown paper bag full of every Star Wars toy the kid had except for the Ewok Village and a couple duplicate figures. The sum would seem trivial now, but then, what we paid versus Tomart Guide market values had been an expensive steel. The B-Wing had been one of the more expensive parts at $30, the Plastic Cape Jawa, like the red Snaggletooth, a whopping $0.50. The non-shiny C3PO, $5. The Empire carry case, $1. So much stuff, once we got home I wanted to spread I out on the bed and roll around on it like Indecent Proposal.  I didn’t, of course, just saying I felt that enthusiastic, glowing as though already a winner, sweet toy lottery be my bitch.

And these toys mattered all the more once Lisa and I reached Oregon. Another story for another day, except to say that one of the items that fetched almost a full month’s rent by itself, of course, would turn out to be the beloved B-Wing. Even after the consignment cut, the vehicle on the west coast market well outside Kenner Land influence had a hefty price tag on its head, or cockpit, fuselage or whatever.

So how sweet it is to finally have a chance to replace the B-Wing with an equally immaculate model, this time with box and instructions to boot. Admittedly a touch more expensive now than $30, the glut of Hasbro product and the recession have cut toy market valuations considerably, such that this magnificent beast came home with us without threatening our ability to feed Otis or pay our mortgage. The time, indeed, right for a reunion. While I won’t probably chase or replace most of my old Kenner collectables, I am really happy to have this back in the fold, along side the Plastic Cape Jawa, the bootleg Stormtrooper from Billy Galaxy in Portland, the MIB (mint in box) Snowtrooper cannon from now gone Dr. Tongue’s 3D House of Toys, also in Portland, the Blue Snaggletooth Lisa & her brother Chris gave me one birthday, and the Red Snaggletooth from Ohio, and a couple dozen Gonk droids from all over the place and interspace.

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