ekm’s 31 DAYS OF THE FOURTH: EPISODE 9 – LIES I TOLD BECAUSE OF STAR WARS
One of the best things about being a kid during the release of the original STAR WARS Trilogy? The toys. Toys, toys, toys. Their like had not been seen in the world before this time. Every character from every film (including ancillary, bit-part players, many without actual dialogue) was given his or her own action figure and weapon/accessory; every starship or transport vehicle was available as a stunningly faithful* and expertly-designed figure-ready mobile unit. Even the locations were presented as play sets where all these elements could come together to create a perfect storm of commercialism and fertile imagination, granting kids (of all ages) the chance to act out scenes from the films they’d seen, and scenes from films still unmade. I had many, many, many STAR WARS toys, and I still haven’t forgiven my mother for throwing most of them out during one of the many great Bedroom Purges of my youth.
But there was one collectible that I wanted, needed, more than all the rest: the STAR WARS Micro Collection play set called “Bespin World.”
What happened was, many of the environments from the movies were just too damn big to accommodate 3.75-inch action figures, and so a second line of toys (Moichandizing!) was rolled out. These were smaller than the main line by about two hundred percent, and featured areas from various sequences that, when locked together, formed locations such as the Death Star and the Rebel base on Hoth. Each set included tiny, die-cast figurines for characters specific to each filmic sequence.
I distinctly remember my parents buying me several of these (and my uncle Skip got me a groovy Dagobah-ready X-Wing that, once you pushed a button on the rear flank, became disjointed and lay there on the ground as if crashed). I was accumulating quite the STAR WARS horde when, during a shelf-scouting session in the J.C. Penny’s at the Valley Mall during the autumn of 1981, I saw “Bespin World,” and became immediately and irrevocably obsessed.
It included figures and locations from three of the most important (and, for a child of six, impactful) moments in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, including Luke’s defeat in the Cloud City reactor core, and his subsequent disarming and emotional castration on the gantry. Given the narrative importance of these events, it was criminal that play sets hadn’t yet been made for Bespin; but here it was. It even came with a one-handed Luke for micro-gantry-clinging, which made talking my mother into buying it for me a mission.
But the stand-out feature was the carbon freezing chamber -- the site of Han Solo’s still yet-unresolved fate. And from what I could discern from the packaging, it was real. It actually froze action figures. Look, I was six; I was dumb. I still believed commercials and what was shown on the box. With that said, you’ll have to understand that when I saw the step-by-step procedures depicting a die-cast Han Solo lowered into the pit and then coming back out again sealed in carbonite, I absolutely one hundred percent believed it. And I had to have it.
Mom didn’t buy it for me. It was too expensive. “Maybe for Christmas,” she said in that off-handed way mothers speak when they want you to shut up and behave yourself in the clothing department. I didn’t shut up, though: I talked about it all the rest of that day, and when my Dad came home from work, I gave him a commercial presentation designed to send him straight to the mall. It freezes stuff! Think of the possibilities! Strangely, my father wasn’t sufficiently impressed by the forty-dollar, portable carbon freeze unit that could be used to preserve objects smaller than a chess pawn. Parents really just don’t understand.
I couldn’t stop thinking about. I couldn’t stop imagining all the things I’d freeze! So firmly was this maggoty obsession burrowed into my mind, that when I went to school on Monday, I slipped up during a conversation in which my classmates were measuring dicks by bragging about which STAR WARS toys they owned.
“I’ve got the Imperial Walker,” sniffed one smug bastard.
“I have the Walker and the Snow Speeder,” sneered the little shit across from him.
“I have the Walker and the Snow Speeder and I have the Death Star play set they only make in Australia” erupted some putrid little fuck whose identity I’ve erased from memory.**
Having none of these particular items and wanting all of them, I did the natural thing: I lied. “Well, I have the Bespin play set with an actual carbon freezing chamber that actually freezes actual things.” If you’ve met me, you probably know the tone of voice I used, and yes, if I could reach back through time, I’d punch me, too.
Naturally, the previous conversation ended abruptly, the dick-measuring forgotten. These tiny creeps were in awe, and wanted to know everything imaginable about my carbon freezing chamber. It was real? It really, no kidding, froze things? Why, yes it did, I told them, becoming sufficiently lofty and turd-like; and when they asked what happened to my Han Solo once he was frozen -- presumably rendering him incapable of un-freezing -- I explained that if you left him in the sun, he’d melt. Made sense, since carbonite and ice are clearly the same thing. I was such a little asshole.
Boy oh boy, did I have a lot of neighborhood kids showing up on the doorstep unannounced after that. It got to the point where I was having to pick my play areas judiciously since everyone wanted to see the technological marvel stashed inside my bedroom. Why weren’t there any commercials on TV for the play set? they asked. For the same reason you don’t see commercials for microscopes, I improvised: after all, science stuff is too important for advertisements during BRADY BUNCH reruns.
But it was becoming difficult to avoid my peers, particularly at school, where my claims were now being disputed. I was given an ultimatum: Bring it in for Show& Tell, or admit I was making it up. Backed into a corner with no place to go, I did the rational thing and snottily declared I’d bring it in the next day and perform a wondrous technological marvel that none would believe. Then I ran home and literally went down on my knees and begged my Mom to buy it for me, that very night, so I’d have it the next day. Being a loving, supportive woman who put the needs of her child before her own, she laughed at my dire circumstances and then went to the bowling alley to do aerobics. To this day, I can’t hear “Pac-Man Fever” without imagining my mother in a pink leotard, dancing without any concern for my impending doom.
When I showed up at school the next morning, the kids were waiting for me. Like a pack of ravenous ewer rats, they jumped up from their desks and scurried over. Where is it? they asked, eyeball-fucking my backpack for signs of an unusual bulge. Did you bring it? I shrugged nonchalantly. All would be revealed during Show & Tell, I intoned in a voice that was theatrically casual. That gave me about three hours to figure my way out of this.
So when the time finally came, and Mrs. Sklencar went down the list of names on the chalkboard and came at last to mine, I got up in front of the room empty-handed. The girls didn’t give a shit (they were too fixated on Cabbage Patch Kids and My Little Pony); but the boys were burning into me a dozen pairs of smoking holes with their contemptuous eyes. They knew I was lying. And they were licking their lips and salivating for the juicy confession I was about to make.
And what a confession I made.
I opened my mouth, prepared to tell the truth…and then explained that I hadn’t been able to bring my carbon freezing chamber due to an accident involving my four year-old sister the night before: an accident during which she’d gotten her finger stuck inside the freezing apparatus, which then activated and caused her to become fused to the chamber shaft. She’d had to go to the emergency room, at which time surgeons used a laser to remove her finger -- thus separating her from the play set -- and then had to give her an mechanical digit, Skywalker Style. As a consequence, I was grounded, and my parents had taken the carbon freezing chamber away from me until the end of the month (which happily coincided with Christmas).
And they believed it. They ate up every word, the suckers. There were a million raised hands and two million questions, which Mrs. Sklencar tolerated far longer than was typical for Show and Tell time. I was on a roll, freewheeling improv and spinning an elaborate tale that grew in the telling; but I was also aware of how my teacher was eyeing me, with eyes that twinkled and a smile that wasn’t quite condescending, but nebulous nonetheless. I became suddenly concerned that she’d call my mom to verify the story, but the most that ever came of it was her hauntingly ambiguous statement on my report card: Erik tells very interesting stories. It set the tone for every review I’ve ever gotten as a filmmaker (usually good), and every review I've ever gotten as a boyfriend/husband/father/human being (usually bad).
Once you get a taste of success, though, you become an addict. Next week, I knew I needed to top myself. I signed up for Show and Tell, and this time spun an epic mythology involving my sister’s malfunctioning cybernetic appendage, a related movie theater fire, three emergency vehicles, and an evacuation. Whether the kids believed me, or whether they were just wrapped up in what subsequently became a weekly, serialized adventure best titled Adventures With a Portable Carbon Freezing Chamber, I had found an audience. It only ever got weird if my mom came to pick me up at school and she was queried about these events (which typically caused her to laugh and say, “Oh, Erik’s just -- “ before I yanked her out of the classroom by the hand).
And then came Christmas. The smell of fresh gingerbread. A light dusting of snow. And under my tree, the STAR WARS Micro Collection “Bespin World” play set. Santa had delivered my destiny in Snoopy wrapping paper.
I let out a cry as I tore through the paper, decimated the box, and removed the unit. There it was: a miniaturized replica of the movie set. There was a rod coming up out of the top of the structure, and at its base, the platform to which Han Solo would be secured, and then lowered. Han was included in a bundle with all the various characters that made up this collection, including Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Lando, and…a FROZEN HAN SOLO???
Baffled, I reached for the instruction booklet. It was all spelled out there in black and white. This was apparently not the STAR WARS version of a Snoopy Sno-Cone Machine. Instead, there were two Hans: one that was pre-freeze, and a second one incased in his carbonite coffin. The platform at the bottom of the lowering rod had two identical sides to which either Han was attached. So what happened was, you had Han Solo on the platform, and then you manipulated the rod to lower him into the pit; then, you turned the rod 180-degrees so that the frozen Han was now in the front position, and then you just raised him up. Ta-Da! He went down unfrozen, and came up in a molten block, just like in the movie. No batteries required.
Which meant the whole thing was a sham, and it didn’t actually freeze anything.
That was my very first taste of disillusionment. I had been lied to. Even worse, I had lied because of it. The world seemed suddenly very antagonistic and full of shit. My parents asked if I was happy to finally have the play set I’d talked about for months, and I grunted, Yeah, sure, it’s fine, and just stared at it like a dead animal in the road, its eyes wide and mouth open, a post-traumatic turd slowly but inevitably emerging from its cold and stiffening sphincter: a new and tasty feast for the insects, buzzing beneath a sweltering sun that burnt children’s’ happiness to a cinder. Had it been in my vocabulary, I would have told “Bespin World” to go fuck itself.
The first week of the New Year, I brought that goddam thing to school to finish this once and for all. I was going to get up there for Show and Tell and freeze Han Solo in carbonite in what I intended to be an ELABORATE PRESENTATION. My plan was simple: pre-load “frozen Han” inside the unit beforehand, and then dramatically place “unfrozen Han” on the platform for all to see; then, with a little sleight of hand, I’d lower Unfrozen Han and imperceptibly spin the rod 180-degrees, and raise it to reveal the frozen end result. Everyone would gasp and applaud, and I’d take my bow, and then take this shitty toy home and never speak of it again.
So there I was, every kid in class knowing that I’d brought it in with me (I even caught one kid sniffing around my backpack in my cubby when he was supposed to be using the Boys’ Room), and I wielded the power of complete and undivided attention. When my name was called to get up and present (first), I theatrically announced that I had to retrieve the play set from my bag, which I did with calculated slowness; then I returned and held it aloft to Ooohs and Ahhhs. The time had come at last: this was my grand performance. The most important performance of my entire life.
I described it in detail; I discussed what it did and how it did it, and then I announced that I was going to ENCASE HAN SOLO IN CARBONITE. Every desk was now about three feet closer than it had been moments before. I’ve got this, I thought, filled with renewed confidence, and turned to my baggie of action figures –
-- and realized I’d forgotten to preload Frozen Han.
Oh, Fuck. Me.
I faltered. I stammered. I looked in either direction for escape or distraction. I seriously considered pulling the fire alarm, or feigning a bathroom emergency that required me to abscond with the freezing unit. Instead, I did what every great performer does: I tried to play it off. I ran my mouth a bit, explaining what I was going to do, while subtly attempting to palm the orange-colored Frozen Han, secure it to the platform, lower it, spin the rod, and raise it back up to prep the vacant side of the platform.
And then ****** (name withheld because FUCK YOU) said: “Hey, what’s that in your hand?”
Just like that, I was caught.
Everyone was looking. A murmur rippled through the room. All eyes went, Eye of Sauron-like, to my hand – the hand holding a Frozen Han that now threatened to spontaneously explode into flames. I probably had the indentation of that stupid figurine in my palm for a month after; but I knew then, as if in an unwelcome flash of momentary maturity and future retrospect, that I would also carry the indentation of that stupid figurine in my pride, forever and ever, Amen.
I croaked. “It’s, uh, just…”
But there was no escape.
I sighed. I turned to Mrs. Sklencar. Her face was a granite slate, but in the corners of her mouth: a smile.
So I did what I had to do. I told the truth. And took my first step into a larger world.
“I ran out of batteries because my sister needed them for her finger,” I chirped conversationally, holding the Frozen Han aloft for all to see. “But here, look: I froze this one this morning!”
* Vader’s Star Destroyer was one of the few exceptions. I desperately wanted it, got it, and hated it. Even the meditation chamber was weird by virtue of the fact that, at the push of a button, it became a radioactive, red-lit, alarm-blaring hazard zone.
** Not really, but I’m still Facebook friends with some of these people.
Erik Kristopher Myers (aka ekm)