G.I. Joes, Property Development and the Mother of Invention

I was on my way home from a business meeting the other day and had the chance to drive through the neighborhood where I grew up through elementary school.  While driving on the roads I had only biked or walked in the past, I had a vivid and unexpected flashback about G.I. Joes, property development and how they were the basis for my invention.  Come on back with me to the early 1980’s and you’ll hear more…

My childhood house through elementary school was about 7th or so from the end of the neighborhood street that was being  developed in fits and starts while I was growing up.  Beyond the last house on the street, the road went from asphalt to gravel to a dirt path carved through the farmer’s property that had been purchased for the development.  It looked like the bulldozer operator who cut that path  had been told to drive the shortest path from the current neighborhood to another existing road, since the new dirt road chopped through hills and gulleys without much regard to terrain.  Of course, this was an excellent playground for young boys, and we took full advantage of this rough, remote and un-parented wildland, establishing our own network of bike trails and tree forts throughout. Remember some of the shots from E.T. of the kids riding their bikes through half-developed neighborhoods? – that’s pretty close, except substitute Appalachian flora and climate for what you find in So Cal.

Also big at the time were the 3 & 3/4″ G.I. Joes action figures (emphasis mine). Around the neighborhood, there was a group of 4 or 5 boys of roughly equal age (along with a few obligatory younger brothers) who all had a decent collection of figures and vehicles.   We could muster a formidable force of Joes and Cobra when everyone answered the call of duty after school, and the rough-cut excavations offered great terrain for our campaigns. One of our favorite theaters of war was the tactical invasion of a cliff-side Cobra base by the Joes. This allowed us to set up an elaborate scenario in the side of one of those hills that had been cut away by the bulldozer, and provide that “fourth wall” to interact with and observe our soldiers at battle.  The other cool thing about the cliff-side battle scenario was that we could simulate air strikes and artillery barrages by pelting the battlefield with the ample supply of rocks in the area.   We would usually throw the rocks at about 1/2 power – we weren’t ostensibly trying to smash up the figures or vehicles – it was usually much more satisfying to cause a massive landslide that engulfed an entire force and drastically changed the course of the battle.

My present-day drive-thru made me remember a late fall campaign clearly – it was still very warm for the fall, but a recent heavy rainfall had carved a new ravine into our standard cliff-side area.  It offered the perfect terrain for a new vehicle one of us had gotten for his birthday: the “toss and cross” bridge-layer vehicle. Looking back, the bridge-layer really represented “jumping the shark” for the original G.I. Joe product line; they had  exhausted all of the cool planes, tanks, and ships by this point and really started to reach for new vehicles and characters.  But for our battles, it was perfect; we had lots of  rough terrain to cover and the bottle-neck of a bridge made for lots of cool encounters. For this scenario, we had painstakingly maneuvered and defended the bridge-layer up to the final ravine before Cobra’s base, and just needed to disable the guards standing at the lip of the canyon before laying the bridge and launching the final strike on Cobra’s lair.

Always in high demand for the these type of missions was Snake Eyes, the original GI Joe commando.  Although all of the boys in our battle group owned our own Snake Eyes (but ONLY one apiece, since he was a very popular figure and you could only get figures at the mall or Sears), there was always contention about whose Snake Eyes would deploy in the current campaign. Through whatever machinations that are lost to the ages, my Snake Eyes was the one who made the cut to take out the final sentries in this battle. I positioned him accordingly: in full stride, about to leap the chasm and take out a guard.  All of a sudden, another one of the boys called in a Cobra airstrike – pretty unrealistic, if you ask me, since in our scenario, it was the middle of the night and MY Snake Eyes was about to pave the way for another glorious GI Joe victory – but I dutifully got my rocks at the ready.  We pelted the hillside, mainly concentrated at the big force of Joes advancing up the hillside, and after awhile I only had one rock left.  I was just ready to get on with my guy’s role in the battle at this point, so I was looking right at Snake Eyes when I threw my last rock…right at Snake Eyes.  In a throw that I’m convinced a supercomputer couldn’t replicate today, my rock obliterated his left leg right above the knee.  For whatever reason, the whole battle group had been watching the throw, and there was a collective “Whoa” issued on impact.  Like I said, we weren’t usually aiming at figures or vehicles, so it was rare that anything got seriously damaged.

I was young enough to be devastated, but old enough to know not to show it, so I casually went up the hillside to gather up as many of the plastic shards as I could without being obvious. I took a quick survey of the battlefield and told the others that Snake Eyes had been hit in mid-jump during the airstrike and had been only been able to to take out one of the guards on the other side, but he needed help to take out the other one before the bridge could go down. Our battle group actually wasn’t made up of close friends, and we had more arguments than victories, but when the call for help went out, it was answered universally.  We went on to win the engagement, and I was able to pocket my disabled Snake Eyes, but it was a Pyrrhic victory for me.

We packed up our forces, and I laid Snake Eyes out on the table when I got home.  It was bad – his entire thigh was gone and I hadn’t collected nearly enough of the pieces to be able to glue it back together.  I did still have his calf and most of the knee joint, but it seemed hopeless that he’d ever be back in action again.  And, it wasn’t like you could get on Amazon or eBay back then and pick up a new one.  Getting new Joes involved a long trip to the mall or Sears, and it was doubtful that they would have anything other than the crappy “Grunts” or Cobra soldiers.  But these were the days I had way more time than money, so I set about fixing Snake Eyes.  I think I first tried to carve a new thigh from wood, but I remember that I had trouble with the ball joint at the waist and the wood didn’t glue well to the knee joint I still had.  I realized that I needed a leg that was already made in order to work with the joint and further found out that all the figures pretty much had the same extremities – they had different paint schemes or molded features, but the joints were all the same.  That was all I needed to know and had quickly cannibalized an old Cobra soldier’s leg for the cause.  I could have used the whole leg, but for some reason, I was determined to use Snake Eyes’ knee and calf that I still had left.  So that meant I had to cut off the Cobra leg, then mill it down until it matched the Snake Eyes knee joint I had left.  I ended up clamping a drill (those old metal-cased corded kind, of course) to the side of a toolbench so I could move the leg against a drill bit I had spinning in the drill.  Through lots of back and forth, I finally got a good match, and the surfaces were nicely roughed up from the milling that the glue took really well.  There never really was a consistent back-story on the leg in the following campaigns; sometimes it was bionic, sometimes it had been grafted from a dead Cobra solder, but my Snake Eyes was always the one who went into action.

This was a long blog post, and I really wrote it because I enjoyed the reminiscence, but there are a couple of things I took away from it. I learned early on about the power of asking for help – when Snake Eyes was down I was able to deflect the attention away from my misfortune by getting everyone to focus on getting the mission done.  Another lesson was to never underestimate the power of an incubator environment where kids have tons of time and minimal rules or expectations.  And finally, I wish I had that much time again!  I remember so many lazy days of zero accomplishment and no regrets about it at all.  Ah for those times, again!

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