Recollections / December 11, 2018
“Unwrapping” the G.I. Joe U.S.S. Flagg aircraft carrier playset that Kelly put under the (virtual) tree for me this Christmas is a bittersweet reminder of childhood desires scuttled. I think, even at age 10, I knew that I’d never receive this giant (seven and a half foot long!) Nimitz-class aircraft carrier that retailed for $110 in 1985 (that’s over $250 in today’s dollars). But, ahem, I did actually end up getting the Cobra Terrordrome for Christmas ’86, which retailed at about half the cost. Er, and if I remember correctly, I’d also already gotten the Transportable Tactical Battle Platform, at a much more modest $17. So my parents, as dedicated to spoiling their only child as they might have been, did have their limits!
I look at this Sears catalog entry from 1985, and the sheer size of the thing is such that they need to lay it out across two pages! That’s going to have a profound impact on the Hasbro-crazy 10 year old who scours that year’s Wishbook for gift ideas to bring to “Santa” (pretty sure I’d dispensed with the Santa myth by this point, but my point stands). And I’m not going to gild the lily here: in 1985, the debut year of both my Transformers and G.I. Joe addictions, I was a Hasbro fiend. It was the year that both cartoons were in high gear (the continuity-twisting time jump and childhood-crushing mass murder of Transformers: the Movie was still a blessed year away), the year that the Transformers collection doubled from its debut as a bunch of repainted Japanese toys, the year that Joe stalwarts Flint, Lady Jaye, Alpine, and Bazooka debuted, among others (I still remember buying Alpine and Bazooka at Eaton’s in Montreal on a childhood vacation to Canada and being blown away by the bilingual dossiers on the back of each blister pack). That’s not even taking into consideration all the Joe and Cobra vehicles I got that year with my allowance, going up to the catalog showrooms like Sears and Service Merchandise, and local toy stores like Mr. Big Toyland, to get the hard-to-find Cobra Rattler and rare ’83 and ’84 G.I. Joe figures. Was this the annus mirabilis of my consumerist, toy-coveting childhood? Maybe just that, yeah. And a more perfect age than 10 for this kind of compulsive collection couldn’t be contrived.
And I played with these things. There’s a reason grown-up collectors (shudder) have to pay nearly $1000 for a complete U.S.S. Flagg in 2018: kids lost so many of the little accessories and clip-on weapons that these figures and playsets featured. I remember a summer trip up to Maine with my cousins who had their own collection of Joes back in ’85. We’ve got a place by the lake? Sure, I’ll use my Cobra Hydrofoil out in the water; after all, it’s designed to be seaworthy! Several side-rail guns lost over the side into the silty sand of the lake and a couple of crying jags later, I learned not to trust Mother Nature with the products I’d purchased with the sweat of my brow (or rather, my weekly allowance).
Anyway, I’m sure none of these recollections are new to late Gen-Xers; some people have built an entire fortune on such nostalgic woolgathering. And honestly, I’ve done enough of that myself on this site the past two and a half years. Let’s get down to brass tacks: why did I covet that U.S.S. Flagg so badly—that useless, bigger-than-a-person hunk of plastic—when between my own collections and those of schoolmates and cousins, I could have put on a performance of the entire second season of either the G.I. Joe or Transformers cartoons?
Hey, let’s be honest: part of it was that I knew if I had the Flagg, other kids would want to come around and see it and play with it. I was an awkward, weird, “gifted” kid and wasn’t really able to bond with the other kids in school the usual ways. Then again, maybe consumerism in the ’80s was a typical way to bond with other kids if you weren’t athletic, or didn’t play outside a lot. I needed social bridges with my peers because the more traditional approaches didn’t always work for me, and “bribing” the cooler kids to come over and check out my toy collections was a solid strategy. Unlike my esteemed Southern California-raised editor-in-chief, I wasn’t doing ollies, grinding rails, or pulling rad BMX tricks in 1985; I was sitting indoors, my nose either in a book or glued to the family TV. I was a lonely kid most of the time, and when my toys and games weren’t able to be my gateway to social interaction, they were my social interaction.
Of course, part of it was the sheer monumentality of the Flagg. The Terrordrome and other playsets were great, but the Flagg was too big not to be respected. I didn’t have model trains growing up (although by the time I was in high school and playing Warhammer 40K, I spent a lot of time at Malden, Massachusetts’ legendary Charles Ro Supply Store checking out scale model scenery for my battlefields; it occurs to me that in a post-model train age, Boston-area wargamers were spoiled for choice between Charles Ro and our local gaming store, Excalibur Hobbies). So, generally speaking, my toys as a 10-year-old were compact, storeable, and didn’t need a room all their own to hang out in. But there were friends of mine whose dads loved model trains and would have a basement rec room dedicated to storing them. They usually remained tragically unplayed-with.
I think the thing that most disturbs me about the Flagg as a middle-aged adult is how desperate and audacious a cash grab it seems now. As I mentioned, 1986 is the year both Hasbro franchises could arguably be seen to “jump the shark,” as G.I. Joe introduced more overtly supernatural and comic-hero-style plotlines with the introduction of characters like Serpentor and Dr. Mindbender, and Transformers lurched into adolescence by fucking killing Optimus Prime. I still remember there came a day, possibly late in ’86/early in ’87, where my friend Steven, his brother and I decided it was time to put childish things aside and have one last blowout weekend of creating adventures with both our Joes and Transformers. The cartoons had left us behind, and we no longer had any urge to tell stories with these toys. The short two-year reign of both lines was over.
So now those very toys languish in my folks’ attic. I don’t dare sell them or throw them out. They sit up there, frozen in amber, having soaked up that ineffable childhood energy of belief that Disney so expertly depicted in the Toy Story series. And as I look back at all the toys-that-never-were, the ones that got away, I think about the stories that these toys implied—stories of conflict, militarism, war—that not unjustifiably expanded and blossomed into something approximating adult sophistication in my juvenile eyes. Like so many American boys in the middle of the 1980s, I was rooked, and as an adult I fully accept that I was rooked. But I still can’t hate these toys and all they stand for. They gave me too much. They fostered my imagination and my love of narrative, and even though now I see them as symbols of everything that was wrong and twisted about a Reagan-era childhood, on some level I can’t—won’t—give them up.