When I first read The Trade--a story ostensibly about Star Wars toys, but really about so much more--I was immediately pulled into a series of vivid and nostalgic memories of my own childhood. I've been hesitant to put those memories into the following essay as I felt a bit strange writing something so clearly inspired by such a great--not to mention famous--essay.
But a couple months ago I attended the amazing Star Wars in Concert in Boston. Sitting in the same building as Anthony Daniels while the Millennium Falcon flew across a giant screen scored by a real life orchestra...well, let's just say it put me in a major mood to tell a story about Star Wars toys that's really about more that Star Wars toys.
So, with all appropriate apologies to Wil, here's my version of growing up Star Wars...
Some time before I had any cool Star Wars toys of my own--in the years between the release of Episode IV and Episode V--I spent a day at my godmother's house while my parents were off doing important grownup things. My godmother's daughter Amy and I were still too young for that whole school thing, so we spent the afternoon catching up on Sesame Street, raiding the cabinets for cookies, and rooting around her older brother's room.
"You like Star Wars, right?" Amy asked as we dug through Jonathan's toy box.
"Are you kidding? Who doesn't?"
She nodded very seriously and took out two plastic cases wrapped in soft vinyl. I am sure I couldn't read yet, but every boy my age--and I would guess a non-trivial percentage of the girls--had been trained from birth to recognize the distinctive stylized lettering embossed in gold on the side of each case.
"Whoa, are those Star Wars guys?" I asked, barely able to contain my excitement.
"Jonathan would kill us if he knew I was touching these." Amy's voice took on a nervous, conspiratorial tone as she carefully placed both cases on his bed and opened them. I watched in awe as Amy removed each of the Star Wars guys and meticulously stood them up on the handy peg board on the bottom of each of the cases.
"He must have every one of them!" I reached out to brush a finger over pilot Luke's white helmet. "He's so lucky."
"No," Amy said, pushing my hand away. "Don't touch them! If he finds out I showed these to you..."
I struggled to keep my excitement in check. While I was sure Amy was being just silly--were older brothers really that mean?--I didn't want to get her in trouble if I were wrong. But still...all those Star Wars guys, right there just begging to be played with. Han, Leia, Chewy, C-3PO, R2-D2, Vader, Stormtroopers--even Jawas! I couldn't imagine what it would be like to have such a collection.
"Do you know the story of Star Wars?" she asked, pulling me from my drooling fascination.
I had seen the movie, of course, but...well...the details of the story? Those were a bit fuzzy in my young mind.
"Um...actually no," I said.
She got a big smile across her face and then carefully moved all of the good guy figures to one peg board and all the bad guy figures to the other. Princess Leia (in her gleaming white jumpsuit) she put in the middle.
"One day," she told me, "the bad guys came and kidnapped the princess."
She took Darth Vader from his peg stand--oh my god, he had a light saber that came out of his hand!--and had him carry Princess Leia over to the bad guy board.
"The good guys wanted to save her, but they weren't sure what to do," she went on. "So they waited until nighttime when all the bad guys went to sleep."
She took each of the bad guys and laid them prone on the peg board. I was pretty sure Darth Vader didn't take naps; he was an evil robot or something. But I didn't question her.
"Then, when they were all sleeping, Luke and the other guys sneak in and take her back."
In a dramatic motion, she scooped up Luke, Han, and Chewy into her hands and had them steal Leia back to the good peg board.
"Wow, and then what happens?" I asked, enjoying her take on the Star Wars story but secretly hoping it would be my turn to have a go with it next.
"Ah...well, then they go off in their ships and have wars," she said, carefully arranging the characters again. "Star Wars."
I was almost sure she had it completely wrong, but I just nodded along.
"That's so cool," I said. "Can I see R2-D2 for a minute? It looks like his head spins just like in the movie."
"No, we need to put them away now."
I felt my heart sink into my chest.
She flipped over the cases and started putting the figures away, meticulously sliding each character in his or her own slot.
"He's going to be home any minute," she said, a deadly serious look on her face. "He'll kill me--Kill. Me.--if he finds out I touched these."
Not for the last time in our relationship, I heard the strains of the ABC Afterschool Special backing track as Amy looked at me with terrified, sad eyes. I am sure I briefly considered looking for the phone and reaching out to the 1979 equivalent of Soleil Moon Frye to ask for help.
The rest of the afternoon was uneventful. As I had predicted, Amy had misjudged the time horribly, and my mom arrived to pick me up long before Jonathan was due home from school. As I waved goodbye to Amy, I cast a longing look back down the hallway to Jonathan's bedroom, wishing I could have had just a few minutes alone in there.
Not too long after that day--that is, not too long in adult terms, but a veritable lifetime in kid time--my godmother took Amy, Jonathan, and me all to see the rerelease of Episode IV at the discount theater in Salem. I remember sitting at the kitchen window waiting for her to arrive, my very own star wars guys (pilot Luke and R2-D2) clutched in my tiny hands. My mom and godmother both thought it was beyond adorable that I was bringing my Star Wars guys to the movie.
"Oh, Jonathan has his too," my godmother giggled as my mom helped me on with my coat. "I guess we'll be really prepared for the movie!"
Needless to say, that afternoon was nothing short of a religious experience. Amy had explained the story completely wrong, but I was too enthralled to point that out to her as I marveled at the x-wings and tie fighters filling the screen above my head.
A few years later--sometime between the release of Episode V and Episode VI--my parents moved us into a new house. As grownups often do for events like these, we had a large party with pretty much everyone in our family in attendance. I was excited to see everyone, but no one more than my cousin Shaun.
Shaun was a year older than me and was by far the coolest person I knew. More than that, he was quite possibly the only other person in the world who took Star Wars as seriously as I did. Most of the time I was stuck explaining the details of Star Wars to my sister--who would have preferred to play with her My Little Ponies--or my mom--who I was pretty sure just humored me. The chance to spend an entire party with Shaun discussing the finer points of the lightsaber dual in the bowels of Cloud City or how cool the AT-ATs were was just the thing my young Star Wars obsessed mind needed.
"You've got to check out my room," I told him not long after he and his family had arrived. "It's so big!"
"Totally, lead the way!" he said, helping me gather some chips and other snacks from the table my mom had set up. We were both more than eager to ditch the boring adults--leaving them to do whatever it was grownups did at fancy parties while kids were off having fun--and go where a pair of serious second graders could trade some important Star Wars knowledge in peace.
"Check out my toy closet," I told him as we stepped into my room.
I had a giant walk in closet in that bedroom full of custom built shelves. It's something I am sure my wife would be quite jealous of today--especially considering I used it for little other than storing my Star Wars ships and guys.
"Whoa, is that a snow speeder?" Shaun asked, his eyes going wide.
"Oh yeah, I got it for my last birthday," I told him, bursting with pride as I carefully handed it to him. If I could trust anyone with my Star Wars toys, it was Shaun.
He pressed the little square button under the right wing and the laser cannons along the sides squeaked to life.
"This is so wicked!" he breathed, flying it around a bit in the long, narrow closet. (I've mentioned I grew up in New England before, right?)
"Yeah, I like it even better than my x-wing, but I don't have the snowsuit Luke yet. I totally think he should fly the speeder."
"Well, Luke puts the orange suit back on when he flies the snow speeder, doesn't he?"
I closed my eyes, trying to remember the scene from the movie. This was years before VCRs, nearly two decades before DVD players, and close to twenty-five years before wikipedia. Back then all we had were the mental images we managed to capture during the one or two showings of the movies we had been lucky enough to see.
"I think you might be right," I said. "Wow, that's awesome! All this time I had been worried I had it wrong."
"So you have a pilot Luke?"
"Oh sure, he was my first guy." I pulled down my shoebox of guys from another shelf. I never got around to getting the fancy vinyl covered plastic case. "He's pretty cool, but check this one out."
I handed him my newest guy.
Yoda was about half the size of the other Star Wars guys I had, but he was by far the coolest. He came with a walking stick, a utility belt, and a giant orange snake (most guys only had one accessory), and he wore a real felt robe that you could take off and everything. He was the newest of my collection, but easily my favorite.
"Isn't he awesome?" I asked, digging through my box for my Boba Fett. He was in there yesterday, wasn't he?
"Wow, I wish I had one," he said, carefully moving the arms up and down. It was a little hard to do without knocking the walking stick free.
"No, a Star Wars guy."
I felt my heart skip a beat.
"Wait, you don't have any Star Wars guys? Not even pilot Luke?"
He just shrugged his shoulders as he handed me back Yoda and started looking through my box at the others.
This news was incomprehensible to my little seven year old brain. Shaun was the most hard core Star Wars kid I knew--besides myself, of course. How could he not have a Star Wars guy? In what universe was that supposed to make sense?
Looking at Shaun then, I remembered exactly how I had felt back in Jonathan's bedroom, looking at those carefully arranged Star Wars guys and not being able to so much as touch them. This wasn't fair, and I was going to do something to fix it.
"Here, you can have this one," I said, reaching out and handing Yoda back to Shaun.
"Ok sure," he said, reaching up to pull my Dagobah playset down from one of the shelves. "You want to take Luke in the x-wing and have him crash-land?"
"No, I don't mean for now. I mean to take home."
He looked at me with a confused expression that slowly melded into one of pure joy.
"You mean...you mean like to keep? Like forever?"
"Sure, I've got tons," I told him. "Yoda's cool, but he doesn't fit in any of the ships. I think he'll be good to start your own collection."
"Thanks, man! You are the best! This is like the coolest thing anyone has ever done!"
While I really doubt it was the coolest thing anyone had ever done, it was a pretty nice thing for a seven year old to do. Especially a seven year old as self centered as I was. Even so, as we made the mental transfer of ownership I knew I had done the only fair thing. No one who loved Star Wars as much as Shaun and I did should be without at least one guy of his very own.
Some years later--in the unbearably long drought between Episodes VI and I--Shaun's family joined mine on a family vacation up in the mountains. By then my once proud Star Wars collection had dwindled to an x-wing fighter with one wing missing (it crashed into the Dagobah playset one too many times) and an imperial walker that I got on clearance at K-Mart (though I never felt right playing with it because it didn't come with a driver like the box had lead me to believe).
All of my Star Wars guys had disappeared; lost behind couches, between the seats of cars my family no longer owned, or carelessly left behind somewhere. To say I had been less than careful was an understatement. I had taken them for granted, and with the public presence of Star Wars fading into a memory--at that point even the most hopeful rumors of an Episode VII were beginning to wane--I had come to grudgingly accept that my time owning Star Wars guys of my very own was over.
That is until that morning. As Shaun and I unpacked our things in the guest room of the condo, he produced a soft vinyl covered plastic case with a distinctive logo embossed in gold on the side.
"Oh wow, are those..."
"Star Wars guys? Oh yeah!"
Proud as any kid could be, Shaun opened the case and laid out nearly a dozen of his Star Wars guys, all lovingly cared for and in perfect condition.
"Have you seen the new Darth Vader?" he asked. "He comes with a lightsaber that fits in his hand. Not like that lame one that came out of his arm in the old version."
He handed me the new Darth Vader and the red light saber so I could try it myself. I was speechless as I held them in my hand. Whereas just a few years before--as we stood in my bedroom closet--I had felt nothing but generous showing off my own collection, now I felt only greed and jealousy as I admired Shaun's.
"Wow, this is so cool," I said, moving Vader around a bit. "I can't believe you still have all these."
"Oh yeah, and I even have this one." Shaun pulled out his Yoda--what had been my Yoda!--from the case. "This started it all for me, man. And I owe it all to you!"
I felt angry; so angry at my own carelessness. I had lost sight of how important Star Wars was, and how important it was to take care of your collection. And now I was paying the price. I deserved this. Still...
Shaun had a ton of Star Wars guys now. And, maybe--just maybe--I hadn't given him Yoda. Maybe I had only loaned it to him.
"Hey, do you think...I mean would it be okay if..."
Guilt racked me even as I tried to speak the words, but the greed of a twelve year old knows few bounds.
"Is there any chance I could get Yoda back?"
Disappointment filled Shaun's eyes for a moment, but only for a moment. He was a pretty cool kid--much cooler than I was.
"Of course, man," he said, his smile already returning to his face even as he handed me the action figured he had so lovingly cared for for the last five years. "He's all yours again."
There are only a handful of moments that I truly regret in my life; moments that still catch me by surprise even today and fill me with guilt and shame. Taking my Yoda back from Shaun that morning tops that list.
Shaun and I lost touch not long after that vacation. Our parents ended up in some sort of disagreement that was never really clear to either of us, and we pretty much went the next decade and a half without seeing each other. Grownups can be that way sometimes.
And while I vowed to keep my newly returned Yoda safe and sound as I rebuilt my Star Wars collection, I don't think he made it three months in my possession. The broken x-wing and clearance rack imperial walker soon found their way into the trash as I was "getting too old" for such things (or so I thought). For the rest of my childhood, Star Wars toys remained only a happy memory...well, a happy memory aside from one terribly regrettable moment.
Not too long ago--sometime between the release of Episodes II and III--Shaun and I finally reconnected. We were both full fledged grownups by then, with families of our own. We got together one afternoon at my house for lunch. As our daughters played together in the living room--doing whatever it is kids do while grownups catch up around the dining room table--Shaun and I entertained our wives with all the embarrassing stories we had on each other.
At one point, Shaun reached into his pocket and pulled out a small ziplock bag. With a wide smile across his face, he slid it over to me.
"It took me a week to find this on Ebay," he said, "but I had to get it for you."
I took the bag from him, instantly recognizing the small green object inside. The excitable seven year old still inside me nearly leapt out of the chair in excitement.
"Oh my god, I can't believe this!"
"That's a real one," Shaun told me as I reverently open the bag and held the small Yoda action figure in my hands. "Not like these new reissues out in the toy stores now. I really wanted to return it to, even after all these years."
Focused at that moment on fitting the small brown walking stick into Yoda's hands, it took me a second to process what Shaun was saying.
"Wait...you don't remember what happened? When I took him back?"
He just shook his head, the glee in his eyes momentarily replaced with confusion. I recounted the whole story to him, and both of us just laughed at the situation.
"Well, whatever happened," he said, "I think it's only right that he ends up back with you."
I set Yoda on the table in front of us. He was just as awesome as I remembered--as was the guy who had found him for me.
"You know what," I said, "I think this is the coolest thing anyone has ever done."