When not at war, the Rebel Alliance, loyalists of the Galactic Empire, and all the creatures in-between were split up between three Star Wars collector’s cases. The first was a Darth Vader shaped case which held 31 figures (more, if the Stormtrooper, Jawas, and Sand People doubles agreed to share compartments) and their accessories. The second, a smaller rectangular case with illustrated scenes from The Empire Strikes Back, held 24 figures. And the last, a gold life-size bust of C-3PO, held a whopping 40 figures. All three cases along with various playsets, vehicles, and creatures lived with my father, available to me only on weekends, as my parents could no longer agree to share a compartment.
Weekends with my dad usually meant trips to Kmart, Bradlees, or Zayre where we’d rifle through the peg boards in the Star Wars section of the toy department looking for missing pieces in my collection. When we’d get hungry, we’d head to either McDonald’s, Burger King, or Burger Chef. Our dining choice usually relied on which establishment was offering the best prize in the kid’s meal or movie tie-in promotion that week. But no weekend was complete without taking in a movie, or two. Once the activities were exhausted we’d head back to my dad’s house, which was actually my grandmother’s house.
After separating from my mother, my father went to live with his mother in her immaculate 1960’s era ranch style house in rural Massachusetts, two towns away from where I lived. My grandmother was a selfless host and an incredible cook who overstocked the cabinets and fridge in the way that only a person who had gone without during The Great Depression can. Her pantry was endlessly stocked with chips, popcorn, sodas, and ice cream rivaling even the most reputable concession stand. There, the television was always on and tuned to shows like Solid Gold or Battlestar Galactica on Saturdays and the Brady Bunch and The Creature Double Feature on Sundays. Above all, my grandmother was a fastidious housekeeper, coastering every drink and stooping to pick pills of lint from the carpet. Pieces of clear plastic protected the arms of the couches from wear or staining, and similar thick plastic runners protected higher traffic areas of the mustard-colored carpet. In the kitchen, you simply could not leave a dish in the sink. Immediately after use, the dish was done and then the sink was wiped dry. This was the way things were done at Grandma’s house, and everyone followed suit. It was very different from the slapdash way in which I lived at home. In exchange for perks, I’d abide.
Once back at my grandmother’s house, my father would make multiple trips to the convenience store, returning from each with cigarettes, scratch-off lotto tickets, and a six-pack of beer for him, and comic books or trading cards for me. These nights, I was allowed to stay up later than I could with my mom, thumbing through comic books, drawing pictures, eating junk food, and drinking soda, until I succumbed to a sugar crash.
The following mornings usually saw may dad in a less festive mood than the previous night. I’d take this time to lug my three cases of Star Wars figures into the living room so I could keep one eye on whatever was flickering on the monolithic console television. I’d carefully set up the playsets, arm my figures with their respective accessories and send them in to reenact my favorite scenes from the movies. But instead of nosily mashing my figures together and mimicking the vwoom vwoom of lightsabers, or the pew pew pew of blasters, I’d act out the scenes silently. I’d quietly think the dialogue and sound effects while moving the figures through the playsets.
Additionally, I recall treating this playtime like a film production meant for some unknown audience, usually remaining faithful to the actual Star Wars movies. This meant that if one of my actors flubbed a line or fell over because they weren’t set securely onto one of the foot pegs in the scenery, I’d have to start from the beginning. “Creature Cantina, Han shoots Greedo, take two! Places everyone! Quiet on the set, and…ACTION!” I’d repeat this process until the scene felt right. It was orderly and disciplined, if not clinical. It followed script and there was little room for improvisation. My figures were the exhausted plastic actors to my Stanley Kubrick-like direction. When playtime was adequately completed, I’d pack my figures and accessories methodically into their cases, strike the scenery, and lug the entire production back to my room. This behavior would later be diagnosed as obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Inevitably, my father would reprimand that while vacuuming my grandmother’s Electrolux had sucked up a lightsaber or blaster that I neglected to put away. This meant that the vacuum bag needed to be torn open, and the filth combed through to retrieve the toy that I’d lost to the pile of the living room carpet. If a figure’s hand was incapable of holding its blaster, as was the case for my Walrus Man and IG-88 figures, my father would Krazy Glue them in place. It’s likely that this was done to prevent losing any more blasters to the hungry Electrolux and spare the collection any future loss from my careless hands. This limited my possibilities in play. If I ever wanted to incorporate an alternate scene into my production in which Walrus Man shakes hands with Luke Skywalker apologizing for his quick temper, the constant presence of a weapon made this truce impossible. Similarly, IG-88 could never entertain the idea of surrendering to the Rebel Alliance, because he knew that when the Rebels commanded him to drop his weapons, he’d be unable to do so and be shot dead on the spot.
At the time, I didn’t think much of my father’s heavy involvement in my Star Wars collection. After all, he was the executive producer to my versions of Star Wars, and for that I was grateful; probably feeling that all adults should share my in my Star Wars fervor. In hindsight, I recognize that he was experiencing his own appreciation of the Star Wars toys. While living vicariously through me, his adult imagination was limited to experiencing the figures as they behaved in the films, once even freezing my Han Solo figure in a block of ice so I could reenact the carbonite scene from The Empire Strikes Back. On another occasion, I was thrilled to find that my dad had added Yoda to my collection while I was at home with my mom during the week. The figure stood atop my toy box waiting for me, unpackaged, and ready to go. Though happy to have him as a member of my collection, I was confused by his unpackaged state. Part of the joy I found in getting new figures was inspecting the imagery printed on the packaging, and looking at the photos of the other figures on the card. Was my father unable to resist tearing the bubble from the card to get to the tiny figure inside, so he could experience the whiff of new plastic and the endorphin rush of being the first to pose and play with a fresh action figure? Reluctant to seem ungrateful, I never asked.
Perhaps I played silently to avoid drawing attention to my play choices. Maybe my earlier scenarios saw Princess Leia falling noisily in love with Hammerhead, and I was trying to avoid criticisms of my plot holes. Maybe I was embarrassed by my inexplicable need repeat the scenes until perfect. Was I avoiding any behavior that might distress the anxious adults in my care? Clearly sharing space with two generations of obsessive-compulsive people amplified a behavior that I was genetically predisposed to.
I still have all my Star Wars figures and regard them as treasure from my childhood, but not without a sense of melancholy. Outside of yellowing from growing up among smokers, some missing accessories, and a few figures with blasters glued into their hands, they are in great condition. Almost as if the have never been played with at all.