British Foxes, American Joes & Russian Bears: The Birth of a Storyteller

My older cousins called my grandfather “Granddaddy.” My younger ones referred to him as “Bapaw.” Me, I called him “Ernie” or more familiarly “Ern.”

Somewhere in my childhood, I had articulated to him that I was Bert, so it only stood to reason he’d be my tangerine-faced counterpart.

Once, when far too old to continue the charade, I referred to him as “Granpa.” He put his finger in my face and said sternly, “Don’t do that. I’m Ernie.”

Doesn’t matter that a few days prior my grandmother had thrown her hands up in exasperation. “Why do still call him that? I’d rather you just call him Jim.”

He died when I was in 8th grade, on my first date, one of those parents-drop-you-off-at-the-movies deals. I’d held hands with the girl, even stolen a kiss or two in the darkness, while Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise strove to forge a new life as Irish immigrants in some over-the-top, sweeping epic titled Far and Away.

Looking back, I get it. His mother was full-blooded Choctaw, sporting the middle name “Moon.” But his father was hardcore Anglo-Irish. Wherever it came from, he was reared in a tradition of stoicism and maleness that never allowed men of a certain age to articulate the simple sentiment of love towards another of XY chromosomes.

Our little game of Sesame Street make believe was how we showed emotion.

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Obviously, we make exceptions for male puppies. We’re not heartless.

I still remember being in his hospital room, respirator in his nose, wires running out various veins and godknowswhat in his body. He was in pain, but his black eyes stared into his fate unflinching. I don’t know if he ever read William Ernest Henley’s poem of defiance in the face of death, but he was living embodiment of it.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
      Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
      Finds and shall find me unafraid.

When I exited the night before he left us, sensing the shade was closing in, I wanted to tell him I loved him. We were alone, no other alpha-males with their toxic-masculine judgment at the utterance to berate me.

I stood over his bed and took his hand, giving it a gentle squeeze. His eyes bore into me, as if he knew. I gave it a gentle squeeze and froze.

“Night, Ern.”

He squeezed my hand so hard, smashing knuckle into knuckle that I begged him to let go. It hurt so bad I fell to a knee. The he released it.

I still recall his lips curling in a wry smile. It was his final lesson to me, one I’m still struggling to interpret.

I did hear the faint whisper of his valediction. “Night, Bert.”

***

In my younger years, I recall my father calling me “Fred” more than he did “Stephen” or “Son.”

That was because I ran around the house yammering “Yabba-dabba-doo” and proclaiming Barney and I were going to be chewed out by Mr. Slate if we didn’t get to the rock quarry.

Dad still laughs as he tells the story of knocking on the bathroom door when I was three or four.

“What ya doing, Fred?”

“I’m not Fred,” I replied. “I’m Stephen.”

“Why aren’t you Fred?”

“I’m stinky-stuffing.” (That was my euphemism for shitting. It could be both a noun and a verb apparently.)

“You mean Fred Flintsone doesn’t stinky-stuff?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“He doesn’t have a fanny.”

(To my friends across the pond, I feel it necessary to point out a strange divergence in our shared language. In America, fanny is a mild synonym for “ass.” I know what it means on your isles. Believe me, it was the Americanized take.)

Not like we ever see a fictional character on the throne. I guess in my pre-pre-school years, I assumed none of them had butts.

***

When I look back, my favorite subject in kindergarten was recess. We got to go outside and gallivant like wild animals, get all that pent-up energy out of our system.

The supervising adults would probably see it as random hooting and hollering. It was far more sophisticated.

In the spring of 1983, Disney’s Robin Hood aired on TV. The entire class of 5-year-olds had apparently watched it, or at least my circle of friends. We divvied out parts. I suppose I was a natural leader, because I was slated to play the vulpine version of Robin. Shawn, towering over the rest of us, would be Little John. Chip was Friar Tuck. Neelie, the one girl who braved our cooties and played with us, was Maid Marian. Chris was Skippy. And Russell was going to be the Sheriff of Nottingham. Two other petulant brats whose names I don’t recall took on the mantle of Trigger and Nutsy.

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Pictured: Me sans Merry Men.

It didn’t go as well as planned. Because this was the early 80’s and we didn’t think children were quite so fragile, we had go-to games provided for us: jump ropes, dodge balls, etc. One of them was a bastardization of horseshoes. There was a wooden stick sharpened to a point. Around it was a rubber circle. We were expected to drive it into the dirt and toss the plastic rings as close to the stake as possible.

Hey, lawn darts were still a thing too.

Instead, Russell held the stake in his hand, pushing the rubber until it made a hilt, the point serving as a sword. He also placed the rings around his head, like a crown.

“You’re the Sheriff, not Prince John,” I said.

“I killed that lion. I’m king now.”

The Merry Men battled him until we were summoned back indoors to be taught how to color between the lines. He put up a good fight.

The next day, we again fought for control of Nottingham and Sherwood Forest. Russell and his minions still didn’t give in by the time we were called in for more schooling.

That weekend, Chip was having a spend-the-night birthday party. His parents let us watch Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back on VHS.

Monday, there was a new narrative at recess. I was Han Solo. Chip, with his golden hair, was Luke. Neely was Leia. Towering Shawn would be grunting his way through a rendition of Chewbacca. Chris was a miraculously resurrected Obi-Wan Kenobi. Of course, Russell took on the mantle of Darth Vader with his underlings as Storm Troopers.

When Chip and Neely jumped on the swing set, they were in X-Wing fighters. Shawn and I side-by-side were piloting the Millennium Falcon, pushing that Kessel Run under eleven parsecs.

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Pictured: The Rebel Star Fleet

We invaded the Death Star. Russell choked us from across the playground. We got close to defeating the Empire and freeing the galaxy, but Darth Russell would never let us triumph.

The faux-horseshoe stakes became lightsabers, with Chip also wielding one. I turned mine horizontal and made laser sounds at a kid named Dana, who wore a bow-tie every day. I told him he was Greedo and he should fall to the sand.

He looked at me like I actually was from a galaxy far, far away and walked off.

The teachers were the real Empire. They kept tearing us from our adventures and using their tractor beams to pull us back to earth. I still wanted to soar among the stars.

Shawn’s “Grrrrrawgh” affirmed this sentiment.

Once, I as Han dared to go toe-to-toe with the Sith Lord. We fought to a standstill, even though I knew I should have had the upper hand. As he was trying to use the Jedi Mind Trick on the old intergalactic smuggling anti-hero, recess ended.

Our teacher stood waving her hand in the air, the definitive sign that the best part of our day–aside from swilling orange juice and eating instant mashed potatoes, had ended.

Russell dropped his makeshift lightsaber. I dropped my blaster.

“You know,” I said, “you are going to have to lose. Good guys always win.”

“Says who?” he asked.

***

I may have had a little five-year old’s crush on Neely. Honestly, I don’t recall.

I do have a memory of awakening from a vivid dream where she and I exchanged nuptials. Actually, I had red fur and wore a nice kelly green outfit. She too was a fox. But I knew it was actually us.

Still, we were never boyfriend and girlfriend, never “going together” in the parlance of our elementary school. In fact, we never really spoke out of character, unless we could tear a second away from the lesson on how to tie our shoes or the difference in a circle and a triangle long enough to discuss our next move against Russell’s Empire.

We might have been Han and Leia making googly eyes at one another in the midst of a galactic civil war, but when were back at our desks–on opposite sides of the room–we seldom if ever glanced in the other’s direction.

Russell, on the other hand, was a friend. I’d gone to his house after school, where his grandmother always provided a snack. We would hope for M&Ms or at least pretzels, though too often we were stuck with the wincing shudders wrought by mouthfuls of grapefruit.

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He came by his evil lineage honest. Only a monster would serve this to a five-year old.

Yet his bullish insistence on subverting the obvious narrative, of never relinquishing control of the Death Star or allowing the rebels to free the galaxy caused me to grow more bitter than the blasted fruit’s pulp.

One particular day after shoving his Storm Trooper guard off the monkey bars, Solo got a mano-y-mano rematch with the Sith Lord. I had him on the ground, face in the dirt, wooden-staked light saber having been dropped.

It was hard to explain to my mother why I was in the principal’s office after a scuffle with my former friend. Apparently, “He won’t let the good guys win,” was not a valid excuse.

The next day brought an edict banning the use of the ring toss game for anything but ring toss. It took the observant teachers weeks to realize that letting kindergarteners joust with pointed wooden stakes was a liability.

We swung on mundane swings that day. When that grew tiresome, we sat at the edge of the blacktop, waiting for the teacher to mercifully wave her hand in the air, a signal to line up and file inside like trained automatons.

Thankfully, I had a sleepover with Chip that weekend. His parents rented Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Monday at recess, I took a jump rope, rolled it up, and laced it through my belt loop. Neely, my former Marian, was Marion. Chip was Sallah. We didn’t invite Russell or his entourage to be Nazis.

I snapped the jump rope into the air at nothing, invisible enemies that only the three of us could see.

Two days later, another decree was handed down: jump ropes can only be used for jumping rope.

That day, I joined Dana on the see-saw, and we chatted about how much we liked strawberries and hated grapefruit. He told me he hated his mother’s forcing him to wear a bowtie every day.

Summer was mercifully creeping near.

***

There’s a reason we late Gen-Xers are filled with cynicism. We look back with warm nostalgia at our favorite toys and Saturday morning cartoons. Then we realize they were one in the same.

He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Transformers, Robots in Disguise. My Little Pony. The Care Bears. G.I. Joe, a Real American Hero.

My collection of Joes was massive. I sat through countless commercials for bubble-gum flavored toothpaste, Happy Meals, and enamel-rotting sugary cereals waiting for the latest 30-second slot announcing a new member of the crack military team or its well-funded terrorist nemesis.

I dreamed of owning each one. I’d dig through couch cushions, beg my Grandmother, offer to rake leaves or clean out gutters. Anything to cobble together enough change to zip down to K-Mart and add to the cast in the action movie melodrama.

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Only six more pennies, and I can buy Snow Job!

Christmas and Easter lists were spelled out specifically. I would like Monkeywrench, Wet-Suit, and Strato-Viper (NOT Viper. I already have him). Thanks, Santa!

I was amazed when a newly acquired figure would miraculously guest star on the latest episode of the cartoon. Almost as if they planned it that way.

Today, we limit how much advertising children see, countless psychological studies proving that youngsters are even more susceptible to pitches than we adults. In my heyday–the Regan-era, Gordon-Gekko-Greed-Is-Good, rip-roaring 80s–our entertainment was basically a half-hour toy commercial, intermittently interrupted by other commercials.

Not that we’re much better today. There’s a reason Tony Stark builds a new set of armor before each new film. Sure you have the Mark XLIII, but that was way back in Iron Man 3, dude. It’s Spiderman: Homecoming, for crying out loud! He’s on the Mark XLVII!

I didn’t know I was being taken for a ride by the unethical intellectual descendants of Don Draper. I just knew that the cartoon and comics weren’t satisfying my need for complex narratives. I needed new characters to expand the serialized battles taking place across my house.

When we lived in Tuscumbia, the living room contained a beautiful fireplace, gray stones stacked to the ceiling, a mantle of the same material. The hearth was brick and jutted a few feet from the mouth. My mother scattered decorative ferns around.

It was Cobra’s stronghold, a towering castle located in the dense jungle of–somewhere far off.

I filled a baking pan with water where lurked Croc Master and his deadly crocodilian minions. I brought in sand from the sandbox outdoors and made a beach of the brick. I positioned Cobra foot soldiers and Elite Guardsmen in the ferns.

And, after clearing family photos and knickknacks from the mantle, Cobra Commander, Serpentor, and Destro lurked at the summit. Leatherneck dangled from a piece of dental floss above. Not only captured, Cobra had executed him via hanging.

(The next day, I was trading the figure to Andy, the boy across the street from my grandmother, for Big Boa. What a putz! Leatherneck was old, but Big Boa had only been out for a few weeks. Besides, I needed another villain.)

The crack team of Joes had a long, hard slog to get through the ready-made booby traps. Not only did they, for the sake of human decency, need to play Priam to Cobra’s Achilles, but they also had to save the world.

I’d positioned a toy ray gun on the mantle, pointed at the ceiling. It was poised to deliver a fatal blast of radiation to Washington D.C. unless our commandos could reach the pinnacle and put a stop to it.

They overcame the obstacles on the ground, braved the cannon fire as they made the arduous climb up the castle walls. They were engaged in the climactic battle, me standing on a kitchen chair in order to gain access to the high-borne slab and manipulate the figures, when my mother came home from work and flipped.

Must have been the sand. Perhaps the fronds, scattered on the carpet in the aftermath of the battle in the thicket.

Again, my explanation failed to sway her. “But in exactly one minute and twenty-three seconds, this death ray is goinna’ destroy our nation’s capital!”

Some patriot she was.

I was forced to clean up the mess, replace all the items, and do a bevy of other chores as punishment. By that point, it was bedtime.

Leatherneck, the modern-day Hector, never received his funeral games. He was passed to Andy the next day, but I had Big Boa, a new foul-tempered serpent to torment our fair society. And he came with boxing gloves. He was truly going to be a menace to my machine-gun wielding grunts.

***

In 6th grade, the gifted class was taking a trip to D.C., which–no thanks to my mother–had been spared imminent destruction at the hands of a death ray.

One Saturday we held a yard sale outside the middle school to raise money. Having long outgrown childish things, my classmate Ronnie set up a table laden with more G.I. Joe figures than I had seen outside the aisles of a K. B. Toy.

He had them all in pristine condition. Each was showcased in a ziplock bag with all accessories: weapons, backpacks, animal companions when applicable. He even had the information card, neatly cut from the back of the packaging, included for each. Who kept up with all that?

I proceded to spend most of the money I’d already saved for our ensuing northeastern jaunt. That counts as a donation, right?

Yeah, I was too old to be playing with toys, yet I persisted. I didn’t have Ronnie’s penchant for care, however. I was reckless.

They fought hand-to-hand often because guns were the first items to vanish into air vents or trash receptacles. Some would lose legs, arms, fingers. They were relegated to advisory roles.

After all, this is war. Injuries are going to happen.

As are casualties.

The figures’ upper and lower bodies were held fast by means of a thick rubber band attached to a metal hook amid a bar that held the legs together. This implement was susceptible to dry rotting, or could be weakened due to submersion in water or vigorous play. You could twist their upper bodies around several times, building up tension, then watch as they whirled around to right themselves, like Linda Blair’s head in the Exorcist if you hit fast-forward.

I stopped abusing them in such a manner when I realized how fragile they could be. Nonetheless, bisection at the waist was a common occurrence.

When that happened, a solemn funeral was held for the fallen comrade, and the war for global domination continued.

Game of ThronesGrey’s AnatomyThe Walking Dead, anything by Joss Whedon. Heh. My presentation of Joes vs. Cobra was the original serialized saga where you’d better not get overly attached to any given character.

The cartoon had been cancelled, maybe. At least I wasn’t watching it. I stopped buying the comics, content to spend my meager cash on The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man.

My narrative was surpassing them all.

Discount stores like Fred’s and Dollar General offered knock-off Joes. They were cheaper, but roughly the same height. I snatched them off the shelf, creating a triangular struggle. Enter the Russian Bears.

Maybe the name was more fitting for a Moscow nightclub that catered to a very specific clientele, maybe the news was tossing around some convoluted word Glasnost, and maybe the Berlin Wall was months from crumbling. In this universe, the Commies were complicating matters, battling both Cobra and the good guys.

That wasn’t the only curveball in the plot. I was approaching the age where fleshly matters invade and conqueror the adolescent brain like the Russian Bears schemed doing to the U.S.

Destro had been working closely with the Dreadnoks, and along the way had forgotten his dedication to the Baroness. Zarana seduced him, and he eagerly shared her boudoir.

Always sly, however, Baroness discovered the affair. Before she could confront her philandering beau, the Joes invaded their lair where Dr. Mindbender was also hard at work on a device that would allow interdimensional travel.

When the Russian Bears stormed in as well, wanting the machine for themselves, the machine took gunfire and exploded. Though I was sad to see him go, Road Pig’s rubber band had snapped, and he died of shrapnel. Outback lost four fingers on his right hand.

And Gung-Ho, Bazooka, the Baroness, and Storm Shadow, caught in the blast, reeled into an alternate version of earth where Thunder Lizards still roamed.

I was fascinated by the Savage Land when I read Marvel comics, plus I had recently discovered a collection of dinosaur figures in my closet. Nearby were some generic knock-off figures arrayed in jungle attire, loincloths and spears and whatnot.

In one reality, the battle for our world raged. In the other, foes had to quickly learn to work together and survive the ravages of T-rexes and Allosauruses as well as the prehistoric humans, whom I cleverly dubbed The Savages.

Somewhere amid the chaos, Gung-Ho and Baroness fell into each other’s arms. Neither trusted the other, both knew it was wrong, but that just made it all-the-more enticing. Their passion torched the sweltering jungle.

When the Savages captured the Baroness, intent on feeding her to carnivorous lizards as a sacrifice to their sun god, Storm Shadow argued the effort to save her would be a waste.

Even valiant Bazooka vetoed the idea. She was, after all, the enemy, and they were schlepping their way across dangerous terrain in search of an ancient temple where, if the few cooperative Savages were to be believed, the veil between worlds was thin. Maybe a ticket home.

Undeterred, Gung-Ho broke from the pack and was planning a one-man offensive in hopes of rescuing his … whatever she was.

I tossed all the figures back into the red storage box. Originally, it had a faceplate full of Joes in action and plastic insets so each could be stored neatly alongside the accompanying gear. Ronnie probably had one of those.

The years had removed the faceplate, insets lost to fate. After each narrative session all plastic guns, backpacks, and beings were haphazardly tossed into a pile, awaiting the the next episode.

I may have ended each episode by uttering “To be continued …” I may have begun each one singing a self-composed theme song and imagining text flashing during the opening teaser: “Featuring: Gung-Ho, The Baroness, Storm Shadow, Shanna the She-Devil …”

(Yeah, ripping off Marvel right and left for my storylines.)

I’m not sure why I didn’t get them out the next day. Maybe too much homework. Not sure why I neglected them over the weekend. Maybe I spent the night with my buddy whose parents had pay-TV, eagerly awaiting their retirement so we could anxiously peer over our shoulder then back to the soft-core antics of Cinemax After Dark.

Whatever the case, days turned to weeks, and my interest waned, despite the season-finale cliffhanger and dangling narrative threads.

Stephen G. Melvin presents: G.I. Joe vs. Cobra vs. The Russian Bears vs. The Savages was cancelled, and viewers would never get the satisfaction of closure.

Feminist critics would never get to bemoan the trite “Damsel in Distress” subplot as Gung-Ho swept in like Lancelot. Post-colonialists would never get to see if the shifting social mores influenced the writing team to treat the “Savages” with the humanity and dignity they deserved.

It was just over.

***

I’m not sure when I knew I wanted to be a writer. I do know I was born a storyteller. Not always a good one, but …

Lucky I grew up when I did. Otherwise, I might have been one of those losers posting fan fiction on the web.

 


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