There’s hardly a memory I have from my childhood that cannot be, in some way, associated with Star Wars. When I was five years old I had my first job – harvesting blueberries in mid September in central Maine. I remember this because I lost my Han Solo action figure in the endless blue and brown ocean of berry shrubs. I was paid fifteen dollars (a fortune for a five year old in 1980) for filling up two buckets, a job that, because I had much better things to occupy my time, like playing with my Star Wars action figures, took me nearly the entire day to complete. I remember the exact amount of my modest restitution very clearly because I had used the money to buy myself a toy x-wing fighter, the space ships flown by the Rebel Alliance. My first memory of going to the movies was a drive-in showing of The Empire Strikes Back. I lost my virginity on Star Wars bedsheets. I was reprimanded in the Army because I had to see the midnight showing of The Phantom Menace, the first of the contentious prequel movies, and I overslept the next morning. My divorce to my first wife was as amicable as a divorce can be, the only only thing that I reserved for myself in writing was my collection of over four hundred Star Wars action figures. Star Wars taught me everything I needed to know about morality, honor, love, and redemption, and did it in a far more enjoyable framework than church or school.
For most of my life I had kept this obsession hidden from everyone but my closest circle of friends and sometimes even from them. I’ve always tried to blend in to the crowd, to remain unnoticed, a vestigial defense mechanism from my harrowing high school years. So it was not without a small degree of fear that I decided to “out” myself publicly and join the 501st Stormptrooper Legion, the premier adult Star Wars costuming organization.
The Legion was founded in 1997 by Albin Johnson, a Star Wars fan with enough talent and skill to create his own Stormtrooper costume in his garage. What started as a small group of friends is now a multinational charity organization with over 4000 members worldwide. And each of these members has a highly detailed and screen accurate fan made costume. I had seen them before, grown men and women, dressed up as Stormtroopers and other bad guys from the Star Wars movies, and had secretly envied them, even as I made fun of them with my friends. Even though I didn’t think of myself as the kind of person who would dress up and attend conventions (I’m married, I don’t live in my parent’s basement, and I am only moderately socially awkward), I still wanted to join because nothing seemed cooler to me than dressing up as a Stormtrooper. If you are familiar with Star Wars, you know what a Stormtrooper is, and even if you’ve been hiding under a rock since the mid 1970’s or you’re a visiting dignitary from another planet, you’ve at least seen those ubiquitous white-armored shock troopers of the Empire on pop-culture posters, games, t-shirts, and countless other merchandise available at nearly every store on Earth. They are the most iconic of the Star Wars characters. They are the face of the franchise, and I wanted to be one.
The costumes, as it turns out, require a lot of work and skill to construct and are not cheap. It took me over six months to put my costume together. During that time I had to learn how to form plastic, wire cooling fans, rivet metal, nylon and plastic, use a glue gun, solder, sew, and make boots. My Garrison Liaison Officer spent a week looking over high-res photos of my uniform from every conceivable angle to make sure I qualified. In the costuming world we are the elite, yet even within the Legion there’s an unspoken hierarchy. The do-it-yourselfers, like me, are looked down by a handful of troopers who have the cash to blow on top-of-the-line gear. Costuming in the 501st is an expensive hobby – for all my penny pinching, my costume still cost me nearly a grand. But some of these guys have outfits that cost as much as my car.
Once completed and approved however, I got my official ID number – TK9839 – and my first opportunity to showcase my new armored alter-ego at the All-Con science fiction convention in Plano, Texas. Unlike most conventions, this one is not dedicated to one particular obsession, like comic books or Star Trek, but is an aggregate of all types of nerd fetishes, a yearly Mecca for internet shut-ins who, rubbing their eyes from the intensity of the sun, brave the outdoors for their annual offline weekend of socialization with other human beings. I imagine a boys-on-one-side-of-the-gym-and-girls-on-the-other, middle school dance kind of awkward atmosphere as I arrive at the Expo Center.
It’s a cool morning, not cold enough to see my breath but the sun is low and the shadow I cast in the parking lot is a long and blue. It seems to be laughing at me as I get out of my car and haul out the three 30 gallon plastic containers it takes to hold my all my costume parts – you don’t belong here! They’re all gonna laugh at you! I put on my armor slowly, all three layers snapped, velcroed and strapped in place, compulsively checking myself in my car’s side mirror to make sure I’ve got it all on right. The last thing I want is to have a strap hanging out, or something on backwards, only to be put in my place by a spectacled acne-faced loser. The Expo Center is pretty small, compared to other sci-fi conventions I’ve been to. There’s not much of a crowd yet either, I got here early to avoid the added anxiety of finding my way around in a throng of con-goers.
I strap on my boots and give myself one final armor check. Ready. Deep breath.
There is only a small line at the receptionist desk. The guy in front of me is taller than I am and he’s wearing a brown sweater, a multi-colored knitted scarf, a red velvet coat and a fedora. He’s speaking to the receptionist in a terrible Cockney accent. I’ve never seen the show but I don’t doubt he’s supposed to be someone from Dr. Who. I’m joined in line by a group of three girls, two of whom are way too loud. The only quiet one, dressed as a black samurai, is a plain looking girl with a slouching posture. I can’t tell what the other two – the obnoxious ones – are supposed to be. The skinny one is definitely some anime character. She’s wearing a lime green bikini with a cartoonish skull on top of her head and enormous pink fuzzy boots. The other girl is a plump little round thing with a red sweaty face, dressed like a nineteenth century Midwestern housewife in a blue floral dress, a lace apron and a white bonnet (think Mrs Olsen from Little House on the Prairie for those of you old enough to remember that show). She’s carrying a frying pan.
The line moves quickly and the receptionist calls me forward. I hand her the tickets I paid for online and she hands me my badge. It’s a weekend pass hanging from an orange NOS lanyard (NOS is a brand of energy drink and they are sponsoring the event). She puts a neon-green piece of tape around the barrel of my gun, after making sure it’s made of resin and not a functioning firearm, and reminds me that there’s a 501st meeting in an hour. Mandatory for all club members (what would they do if I didn’t show up?). I thank her and take the elevator up to the main floor.
Inside the elevator are two sheriffs in brown khakis and smokey bear hats. I wonder why they need law enforcement here. These seem like the most docile people to ever converge in one place. I look down and notice their pistols are tagged with the same green tape. Their unit patches on their shoulders say “EUREKA COUNTY SHERIFF.” I feel like an idiot when I realize that’s from a TV show on SyFy. These two are really just costumers but they look every bit like legitimate officers. They’re tall, well-muscled men who could no doubt slam me bodily to the ground if I were to step out of line.
Upstairs I see a lot of Star Wars costumes. Stormtroopers, Biker Scouts, Royal Guards, and more. I see the 501st official booth (no one manning it at the moment) with it’s banner advertising membership benefits (JOIN THE EMPIRE!) and informational brochures. I look around and start to silently panic. I don’t know anyone here. I don’t know what to do or where to go. What is my job here? I know the Legion hosts events and they members to help set up and organize them, but I don’t know when or where they are. Not finding answers to my questions I decide to walk the halls and just look around.
The main floor is starting to fill up with costumers. I see video game characters; pirates; anime girls in sailor outfits; girls with cat ears, tails, and claws; anime guys sporting brightly dyed, spiked hair with enormous cardboard swords (now would be a good time to mention my unconditional disdain for anime – I’ve always thought it was juvenile, poorly written, ineptly animated, cringe-inducing garbage). There’s a giant blue phonebooth being set up in a corner and guarded by an entourage of bescarfed and sweatered men. Dr Who again. I roll my eyes underneath my helmet. Nerds!
About fifteen minutes before the 501st meeting is set to begin I meet an older couple who call themselves Dr. and Mrs. Livingston Forrester. Their unique costumes immediately catch my eye so I stop to talk to them. They tell me their style is “Steampunk,” a mix of Victorian Era clothing with steam powered retro-futuristic gadgetry, a kind of steroidic Jules Verne. Dr. Forrester is a short man, with long grey hair, a mustache, and a dark complexion. He’s decked out like a Victorian big-game safari hunter, with a pith helmet and giant blunderbuss rifle (he gives his occupation as Applied Paleontology) and his wife, a pale skinned but healthy looking blonde, whose hair is just frosted with grey, has on a corset and a top hat, complete with aviation goggles. She tells me she is a writer – “Dr. Forrester’s biographer, to be precise.”
After chatting with the Forresters about their Steampunk philosophy (it’s a way of life for them), I decide I’ll have to look into it more. Mr Forrester (I learn that’s not his real name) tells me that they incorporate the Victorian ethics into their everyday life. I jokingly ask if those ethics include colonialism and social Darwinism. “Ethics is probably the wrong word,” says Mrs Forrester. “It’s more like Victorian ’sensibilities,’ really. Their sense of propriety and aesthetics”
I listen to them talk about Steampunk with a moving passion. They call it “retro-futurism” – the future as envisioned by the past, filled with strange flying machines, fantastic steam-powered mechanical gadgets, and people who speak with eloquent faux-British accents. I look around and see a lot more Steampunk outfits. I see pirates, mechanics, and military officers, all with characteristic retro-futuristic flair. I find the booth for the local group, the Airship Nocturne. I take a flier, and head for the 501st meeting room.
On the way I’m stopped by two men who want a picture with me. They compliment my armor and ask if I’m a member of the 501st. It’s a little strange and uncomfortable, but also somewhat exciting. As a stormtrooper, I expected to blend in with all the other troopers here, but they seem to be MIA – I’ve only seen a handful of them and we are getting an awful lot of attention from the “normals” walking around. They snap their picture posing with me and I hurry along.
The meeting is being held in the Willow Room, one of the larger sized rooms on the mezzanine. It’s already almost full and I feel like I’m late. I’m not sure what to do. Everyone seems to be talking in small groups, but I don’t know anyone so I wait. There are plenty of chairs, but nearly half in attendance remain standing (including me – it is next to impossible to sit down in Stormtrooper armor). There’s tables arranged in the front of the room and the Texas garrison officers are seated there, talking to each other, looking over papers, and checking their cell phones. The 501st and garrison flags are positioned, crossing each other, behind the VIPs. A sign by the door reminds us to take off our helmets so we could all get to know each other on a more personal level. Twenty minutes after the meeting was scheduled to start, the Garrison Executive Officer calls us to order. He’s dressed as a Clone Trooper from the shitty Star Wars prequel movies. The officers introduce themselves one at a time (there are at least ten of them – Garrison XO, GML, Armorer, PR Liaison, half a dozen squad leaders and a merchandising officer) and then they get down to the serious business of running an adult costuming club.
A female officer, the North Texas squad leader I think, calls out one of the guards in the back for having his helmet on, telling him that it is “regulation” to remove it for the meeting. We all turn to look at him. He looks around, presumably to see if everyone is, indeed, sans headgear, and, realizing that he’s the odd one out, finally capitulates and takes off his helmet. He apologizes sheepishly and tells us he prefers to be behind the mask, he’s not like the rest of us “pretty boys.” I can see why. The poor kid is afflicted with an Old Testament, wrath-of-God kind of ugliness. Like he not only opened the Ark of the Covenant, but he pissed in it for good measure. His cheeks are so deeply pockmarked that they look like cheese graters and he has a plague of acne so severe that even his pimples have pimples.
The meeting is dull. They talk about upcoming charity events, new officers, new rules, and there seems to be some anger among a vocal minority over the handling of a recent unauthorized merchandising run that resulted in several officers resigning from their posts. A man sitting two rows in front of me speaks up in a thick Texas drawl, demanding to know exactly what happened – the exact chain of events that led to the resignations. The garrison Commanding Officer stands up and tells him it is an internal matter and we all need to put it behind us. I see a few heads shake in disapproval. I’ve been enjoying dressing up in character so far, but not enough to take it this seriously. My feet hurt from standing around and I can’t listen to any more motions to amend the Star Garrison charter, so I duck out for a walk. By now the vendor area is fully set up and I want to get first dibs on some goods.
The merchant’s square in the Oak Room is the hub of activity and by far the most crowded area. The t-shirt stalls are particularly popular. Designs range from retro video games, to every variety of sci-fi movie and TV show, geek pop culture (BAZINGA!), and comic book logos. Farther in are the specialty shops selling obscure autographed photos (TOM TROUPE – PLAYED “AUGUSTUS” IN EPISODE 13 OF THE PLANET OF THE APES TV SERIES (1978) – $35.00). One of the smaller booths has bumper stickers and pins to display your geek obsession with phrases like “MY OTHER CAR IS A TARDIS” and “BEAM ME UP SCOTTY – THERE’S NO INTELLIGENT LIFE DOWN HERE!” are among the best that are offered. There’s a booth for Jordan’s Sabers, a company that sells unlicensed lightsaber replicas that deviate just enough, aesthetically, to avoid copyright violations. Despite their slick evasion of licensing fees, their cheapest item sells for just over three hundred dollars. To my surprise (and deep regret) there is only one vendor selling action figures.
The biggest attraction here is Neither Noir, a photostudio that specializes in costuming portraits. Not only is there a line waiting to be photographed, but they have also attracted a sizable group of spectators who are watching the costumers pose for the camera. I take a number and get in line. There are several people in front of me, but the line moves at an agreeable pace. The girl under the lights who is currently being ogled by the crowd is a pudgy little thing, dressed as Toadette, a minor character from the Super Mario video game franchise – a sort of feminized anthropomorphic mushroom. She seems to be devouring the attention and she makes a series of increasingly sexual poses. She has a youthful beauty despite, or maybe enhanced by, her sausage-like limbs and frank sexuality. The flash of the camera pulls out some repressed psycho-sexual deviance and the photographer reluctantly calls short her session before any decency laws are violated. She giggles as she steps out of the studio area and the next number is called. This new girl doesn’t fair as well under the lens. She’s a member of the Rebel Legion and is dressed as a Jedi Knight (for those of you who are unfamiliar with the Jedi Order, imagine a martial arts outfit with a laser sword). She’s a short girl, with thick glasses, a long face, and a drooping posture that gives the impression that she would look uncomfortable at her own birthday party. Her thin lips are pressed tight together and her brows are furrowed in concentration as she attempts several “action shots,” wielding her lightsaber with less grace than a newborn fawn, goaded on by the photographer who encourages her with allegations that each shot is somehow “Awesome!” or “Bad-Ass!,” occasionally offering up an, “Oh, I like THAT one!” as she stumbles through another pose.
At length it’s finally my turn. I take only one picture. Standing upright, stoically, I fancy myself like a grim-faced civil war soldier, posing for his daguerreotype to send home to his wife. The photographer is insistent that I do more, that I take some shots with my gun out and pointed at the camera like James Bond, or maybe lying down in the prone position, or something equally stalwart. I refuse. I’m terrified of looking stupid. The fear of looking like a complete tool overshadows any want for a dynamic picture, and ten minutes later I walk away with my somber antiquated photograph.
There’s a hush from the crowd and I turn to get my first glimpse of Slave Girl. Standing under the photographer’s lights she poses naturally, not awkward or overtly sexual, but with an easy and inherent grace. Her costume is Princess Leia’s slave outfit from Return of the Jedi, that metal bikini that leaves gloriously little to the imagination. Her costume is flawless, as is she. I sidle closer through the crowd and take full advantage of the tint provided by my helmet’s lens to get a good look. She has a Helenic beauty, an untouched elegance and simple, undeniable comeliness. She has a thin frame but large, well-formed breasts that signaled, deep inside the mind of every man watching her, that she is fully capable of providing nourishment to any number of our offspring. She stands with masterful confidence. She calls her entourage, two more girls dressed like her, in metal bikinis. I scarcely notice them. I watch her while she makes her poses (many more than anyone else was allowed to take, but no one complains) and the photographer, who was so animated and vocal before, is now snapping pictures in complete silence. She finishes and floats off stage. Sighing deeply, I move on. I leave the Merchant’s Square with a vintage Star Wars t-shirt, an autographed photo of a Star Wars extra, and my own 8 x 10.
Back at the 501st booth there’s a large crowd looking to catch a glimpse of us in uniform. I make my way behind the booth where there’s some breathing room. There I meet “John.” He’s a Stormtrooper, but he doesn’t wear his helmet. Instead, he wears an Army Ranger beret. He tells me he’s authorized to wear it in uniform because he’s currently enlisted. He’s a tall, barrel-chested man with frosted grey hair. Looks to be in his forties. He goes on to tell me that he just got back from a tour of duty in Iraq and will be leaving again soon for Afghanistan. He has the loud, confident voice of a long-time soldier. We talk for a while. He gives me the low-down on all the internal politics, who to stay away from, who not to mess with. He warns me against making any costumes of “named” characters – characters that are unique individuals in the Star Wars universe. On official troops only one unique “named” character is allowed (only one Darth Vader per event, for example) and people fight over who gets to go. If you’re buddies with the XO or squad leader, you get the first slot. A newcomer like me would never have a chance. It’s far more “good ole boys” club than I had imagined. More troopers begin to show up. They are loud and boisterous and all clearly well acquainted with each other. I feel out of place so I slip back into the crowd for more sight-seeing.
Back out in the hallway I notice that attendance has multiplied exponentially. There’s far too many costumes rushing by for my mind to process. Jedi Knights. Umbrella Security guards. A devil on stilts. Video game characters. A man from the movie 300 with painted on abs. The Disney Princesses. A few Browncoats from the short-lived (but much beloved) Firefly TV show. I push my way through the crowd, past some of the smaller rooms that are used to host some workshop classes. I note the signs on the doors as I pass – “MOLD MAKING FOR BEGINNERS” – “PROPMAKING 101” – “HOW TO STEAMPUNK ANYTHING.” Some of them are standing room only. The crowd is suffocating and I wonder why they didn’t choose a larger building to host this event. I’m stopped by some teenagers who want a picture of me “arresting” their friend. I grab the boy’s arm and put my gun to his back. Cameras seem to come out of nowhere and people who I am sure don’t even know this boy are snapping up pics and suddenly I am mobbed with picture requests. I take a few more, all variations of the “arresting” theme, before I manage to move on.
I make my way down one of the less crowded hallways and a voice calls out from behind an open doorway:
“Hey trooper! Come here.”
I turn to see who it is and my heart stops: It’s Slave Girl. She’s sitting at a table as part of a panel for one of those workshops. I glance at the sign on the door. It reads: “CREATIVE COSPLAY” (cosplay means “costume play” but I despise that word so I use it here only this once for the sake of authenticity). I walk into the room, panic setting in.
“Hey, this guy’s being a creep, can you help me out?” She motions to the guy sitting next to her at the table. What the hell, I think, I can humor her. I take out my gun from its holster and grab the guy by the collar, pulling him up to his feet. In my most threatening, authoritarian voice, I tell the guy to get on his feet and come with me. He turns on me, fists clenched and face red with rage. I instantly realize that this is not a random photo op. These people do not want a cheesy, staged picture of me “escorting” this “creep” out of the room. No, this is for real. This guy is a genuine jackass and he’s harassing Slave Girl and I’ve been lured in here (under false pretenses I think) to deal with the situation. This is usually the time during a confrontation when I shut down and look for a way out, some kind of escape or some way to remedy the conflict. I was just kiddin’ man! Oh, my bad, I thought you were someone else! But I can’t think of a way out, and I don’t trust myself to try and talk down the situation. Instead, I drop my gun and move between the Creep and Slave Girl. My legs can barely hold me up and I’m suddenly conscious that the inside of my helmet is soaked with sweat and smells like a Bronze Age Turkish brothel. Creep eyes me up and down, probably wondering what kind of man is underneath all the armor. After a few agonizing seconds, he throws his hands up and walks out. There’s an audible sigh of relief, both from me and from Slave Girl and she walks over to thank me for my help. I tell her it was no problem and I’m always happy to help. Inside I’m ready to vomit.
Back at the 501st booth word got around that one of our members had rescued a princess in distress. Somehow, they even know it was me. Creep got picked up by security and kicked out of the Expo Center, they tell me. I feel only a twinge of guilt about how it all actually went down, in my head, but I say nothing about it. There’s a party after the convention and I’m asked if I’m going to go but I make an excuse about needing to go to work early tomorrow so I can leave. I don’t feel comfortable socializing with everyone without hiding behind my costume, so I pack up my armor and drive home in my sweat soaked black undersuit.
By the time I pull into my driveway I have decided that “Nigel Ambrose von Edgecombe” is the perfect name for my new steampunk character.