Fantha Tracks hope you enjoyed the introductory chapter from Kurt Vonn Gutzman’s book ‘Collect Them All! Confessions of a Recovering Action Figure Thief’.
We are pleased to welcome you back for exclusive access to chapter two, charting Kurt’s childhood challenges with escapism afforded by a galaxy far, far away.
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Punch it Chewie……
May 21st, 1980 saw the Earth-shattering release of the most-awaited sequel of all time: The Empire Strikes Back. Considered by many to be the best of the saga. We were 10 and 11 years old. Our prayers had been answered. We anticipated the magic of Star Wars being reborn, renewed in our lives.
Unfortunately, we actually didn’t get to see the movie until a re-release in late 1982 or early 1983. So late in fact, that the movie was preceded or followed by a sneak-peek preview of the final chapter in the Star Wars saga, known then as “Revenge of the Jedi.” So killer. The magic was back.
Part of the delay in seeing the movie was due to us living in the country outside a small town. I doubt Elk Point even had a theater. The other part was that by this point in the Gutzman family’s timeline, Dad went through a rollercoaster ride with his career, and we couldn’t afford the luxury of going to the movies.
We did, however, get a copy of the Marvel Comics adaptation of Empire, depicting a gaunt, purple-skinned Yoda. Which was strange considering that a lot of the illustrations elsewhere in the digest were based on actual shots from the movie. Aside from our book, there were tons of other publications in which to see images from the new movie as well as a prime-time feature showing of “SPFX: The Empire Strikes Back” on PBS, I think. It was a behind-the-scenes program that had a full-page ad in TV Guide. Kids at school thought the movie was going to play for free on tv. Idiots.
The first 11 new figures were right around the corner. To celebrate, we managed to get a second Stormtrooper. One could never have too many Stormtroopers.
At this point, we still lacked Snaggletooth from the first movie. We always kept an eye out but never saw him. He’d continue to elude us for some time to come.
The other creative realm connected to Star Wars figures was that we enjoyed to scratch-build our own “playsets”. Especially for Hoth. We would build Rebel Bases out of geometric Styrofoam blocks; the “tv packing” kind with little compartments and shapes molded into them, pretending it was the laser-carved ice. Often we’d make little control panels with markers on white sticker labels Dad would bring home from work and apply them to the sets. Some pieces even served as ships. One of our playsets incorporated a makeshift “elevator” made of a cardboard platform that slid up a clear acrylic tube. We had a couple of huge soft dark foam blocks that served as foundations for these creative base constructions.
In one of the rare “mistreatments” of our figures, we painted the original Luke’s white shirt with tan paint to mimic his “Bespin Fatigues” look. Original Han Solo’s shirt sleeves were painted with black nail polish to portray the “jacket” look from Empire. Still not sure why we did this, knowing we’d eventually get the figures.
I can just picture us glumly painting our figures, lamenting aloud, “Sigh! I guess since you guys won’t buy us the new figures, we’ll paint the old ones! Poor stepchildren!”. What a couple of little jerks.
Even with these moderations, we were far less destructive than some of our fellow collectors. We’d seen lost arms, filth and even burn damage sometimes. Unthinkable.
The first wave of eleven came, and I can’t be sure of the pairings except for two: a pair of Hoth Snowtroopers and Luke in Bespin Fatigues & Leia in Bespin Gown. Luke & Leia were brought home by Dad & Ruby after a trip to Sioux City. It was at this time I realized how much attention they had to pay to make sure they weren’t buying duplicates. Never happened. All-in-all, not the worst parents ever.
But anyway, the other thing that was so significant about the arrival of Luke and Leia in Bespin outfits was the tasty era-specific treat creations Magic Shell and Pizza Quick Sauce. Two more points for Dad and Stepmonster.
After Ruby, known now as “Bobbie” via her confirmation name, “Roberta”, makes a visit to our elementary school, comprised mostly of children who’ve only seen black people on tv, we started getting crap and strange looks from our classmates. A couple of kids told my brother and I that we were adopted. As an adult, it makes me sad looking back on how people in these remote towns we lived in regarded my stepmother. I mean, honestly you guys, she actually was a bitchy person, but people’s ignorance toward others based on race just amazes me.
On the other side of the race coin, on the rare occasion she’d see another black person, she’d wave and smile enthusiastically. I thought that was weird. Total strangers. What if they were serial killers? Who liked killing people’s white stepchildren?
I believe that maybe it was around this time that we got a hold of a six-compartment cardboard liquor box to store our figures in. We labeled the top flaps to correspond with the compartment contents like, “Droids”, “Rebels”, “Imperials”, “Aliens”, “Weapons” and “Bounty Hunters.”
One sunny day when classes were dismissed early to attend a performance of Barnum & Bailey’s circus near downtown, I hustled over to a tool store where they had a Bossk figure. He was available for free by mail-in at one point, there was a tv commercial and everything, and again, I’m not sure why we didn’t get him that way. I just recall him specifically due to all the trouble I went through to get him. Dad picked me up at the tool store, as we had planned. It seems the school didn’t have a problem with 10-year olds running the streets unsupervised that day. Then again, this was a different time.
I’m not sure where the money for Bossk came from but I know this: I didn’t spend a dime of it. In an adrenaline-soaked impulsive moment, I shoved the entire carded figure into my pants. The store was nearly empty, not to mention understaffed and I found myself all alone in the sparse toy section, far from prying eyes.
Jay might not back me up on this theory but I think the money might’ve came from some spare change and a couple of dollar bills we found in the living room one Saturday morning. The night before, Dad and Ruby were entertaining some guy. Didn’t bring a wife with him. I dread to think of what all went on. My brain is crying.
Another hard-fought-for figure was Han Solo Hoth Battle Gear. He had a built-in holster for his gun! So mint! Dad had lost his job and the car wasn’t working, so he, Jay and I had to hitchhike in the blinding snow ten miles into town for groceries to be bought with food stamps. On the way there, we were picked up by a man and his daughter in a truck with some kind of huge oil tank in the back. We had to ride in the back with no tailgate, clinging for dear life to this smooth, cylindrical oil tank. I thought I was going to fly off the back of that truck. I swear.
On the way home, we were picked up by a man in a nice truck with a luxurious crew cab. As he and Dad chatted in the front, Jay and I sat in back and snuck a peek at Han in the grocery bag. We smiled at each other. When we got home, it would be time for a new adventure. So awesome.
This was another example of Dad being cool. Buying us a $3.00 Star Wars figure when times were tough. Nice. Thanks Dad.
We went on to get Lando Calrissian and Yoda, who we complained was a rip-off since he was so small. In his defense, with his robe, belt, snake and cane, he was the most complicated figure to date. We had the “orange snake” version.
A new job called Dad to Watertown, South Dakota in early 1981. Since we still had the horses, we had to move to a farm again. Jay and I were lucky we had each other to play with because there weren’t any other kids around for miles for most of our youth. Any kids that were nearby tended to not be any fun. We really were best friends and our Star Wars figures were a spectacular common outlet for our shared imaginations.
In May 1981 the nine new figures in the second wave of Empire characters came out. We still had a few to go from the first wave, not to mention Snaggletooth from Star Wars. It was clear that things were ramping up at Kenner when it came to Star Wars. It was also during this time that they came out with a couple of lines of accessories that were smaller, easier to afford, and in some cases, completely fictional designs. Jay and I, much like any other impoverished sibling figure collectors, hoped to offer a compromise to our parents; forgoing the traditional “2 figures” in favor of one of these Mini-Rigs or the Tri-Pod Laser Cannon or something. Nope. No dice. At least not yet.
While collecting the figures continued, I’m once more uncertain about the order or pairings. It seems as I grew older, these details became less and less important or were crowded out by more pressing matters like school or our less-than-perfect home life. It’s possible with continued hard economic times, figures may have arrived one-by-one.
I recall taking a picnic basket to school to show off some figures in a 6th grade “hobby” presentation. I brought AT-AT Driver for sure. I still have a crystal-clear vision of pulling him out of the basket while standing in front of the class, terrified of public speaking. One of my favorite figures to this day. He…he saved my life that day.
I don’t know why this “Star Wars Figure” story ties in with sexual stuff. Just does. Maybe it’s like therapy or something?
I almost had a “gay experience” in 6th grade. My friend Chris had a Halloween get-together at his place in town. Eric and I stayed over. Chris dressed as a princess. Eric was a Pirate. I was a Hobo. I did not bring a costume.
After watching a little tv and chowing down on some of our trick-or-treat candy, we three boys retired to the basement. Chris slowly introduced the subject of homosexuality and eventually, he and Eric kissed and then did some other stuff.
I suffered from un-diagnosed bronchitis in my youth and any time I stayed over at a friend’s house, I’d end up wheezing. Needless to say, I wasn’t in an “experimental” mood.
Oh God – I just had a flashback involving…glowsticks. Help, brain, help! Stop remembering!
May of 1982 the 9 new “third wave” Empire figures were released. On a summertime trip to visit our Aunt Florence in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1982, thanks to her generosity, we came much closer to completing the first two waves.
My Dad’s older sister, super-religious & widowed, no children, Florence paid for bus tickets for Jay and I to come visit for a couple weeks.
Her husband, Uncle Ernie, was a WWII Vet like Dad, but went on to a humbler career working for the city of St. Paul, MN. He died in 1977 not long after Mom died. I got real sick and ended up in the hospital, missing his funeral. Florence was set to marry another guy in 1980 but he died. In the house. Although she was a devout Catholic, she swore she heard noises, “signs”, from both her former suitors around the quiet house. She said that the day she replaced all her old furniture, and Ernie’s favorite recliner, she went to the top of the basement stairs after hearing a strange noise. She tumbled down the stairs but she swears it felt like someone pushed her. I guess the ghost of Uncle Ernie was abusive and hot-tempered.
She was nice enough to buy us clothes, take us out to eat, make us go to church and more important than all these things combined, she would take us to Target or K-Mart to buy Star Wars stuff.
Auntie got us Dengar, Bespin Security Guard, FX-7, Imperial Commander, Rebel Soldier, Rebel Commander and IG-88. In the realm of transportation, she bought us the Snowspeeder, Tauntaun, the Twin-Pod Cloud Car and one of those odd mini-rig vehicles, the CAP-2 “Captivator”. This one had suction cups on its legs so it could cling to walls for a couple of seconds then crash to the floor. We really wanted the Imperial INT-4 but could never find it. Actually, I did see it once but when we went to get it, it was gone.
I should take a moment to note that there was a variation on the Bespin Security Guard who had a regular, “non-Fu-Manchu” mustache. We didn’t have that one.
Another case of a figure’s “update” was the Tauntaun. First release, you’d stick your figure’s legs into the creature’s back and the saddle made it look like the figure was “riding” the Tauntaun. The updated version? Yeah, it was the one where you could open a flap in its belly and stick a figure in there to keep it from freezing to death. Gross. Did we really need that kind of update? A double-penetration Tauntaun?
Another job mishap for Dad brought us to Aberdeen, South Dakota. Sometimes Dad would get fired, a couple of times, the companies shut down. It wasn’t always Dad’s fault.
The new house wasn’t exactly a farm like our previous moves, but there was a pasture and a small shelter for our horses, which now included the addition of a 1-year-old filly. It was in the middle of vast farmland. The snow would pile up, drift and freeze solid. Dad drove a riding lawnmower over a drift once. It was like living on Hoth. We used shovels and pick-axes to carve out foxholes and forts for our outdoor Star Wars adventures!
For my blaster pistol, I ran around with a crude ice-fishing pike tucked in the belt of my snowmobile suit. There was a strange, casket-like structure in the woods made of 3 doors. I would crawl inside and pretend it was a tiny ship or fort. There could’ve been a hibernating rattlesnake in there. I could’ve died a rusty-pike-impaled, poisoned or freezing death a million times over. But didn’t. Such is childhood.
I’m almost positive we stole Lobot at a local grocery store.
I think around this time, our parents got us Han Bespin Outfit & Leia in Hoth Battle Gear. Two-Onebee the medical droid came from a Fleet Farm store, I think. Maybe the Ugnaught too?
The figure *”then known as” 4-Lom was a bounty hunter with a bug head and a tan pleather coat held on by some kind of back / chest pack piece and came via mail-in offer. Underneath it all, a very blousy, luxurious jumpsuit. If you asked me which one of the Bounty Hunters was gay, I’d guess 4-Lom.
*I say “then known as” because Kenner mixed up 4-Lom & Zuckass’ names. I thought they were right up until about two years ago.
Tie Fighter Pilot was hard as hell to find. Took forever! Alas, Bobbie wasn’t in a charitable mood when we found this long-sought treasure. It was not until we got home that I learned that Jay “took matters into his own pants” and stole the figure. He would not be denied his prize and I idolized him for it. We celebrated with hearty figure action that glorious day, my friend! Songs would be sung of Jay’s victory.
We had earned some money somehow, or maybe it was Christmas money, whichever it was, it went to buying Boba Fett’s ship, Slave 1, which came with the “Han Frozen in Carbonite” accessory. A splendid addition! Splendid, I tell you! The wings were weighted and remained in place as the ship rotated, or could be locked into position.
In late 1982, we moved into the city shortly after the little filly died in the cold and the other horses were “repossessed” for debts. Now living across from a Jr. High we refused to attend, Jay and I would ride with Dad to his downtown office in the morning and bike or walk to our school of choice, depending on weather. We’d endure this commute for a few months just to go to the same school that our friends attended before our move. I believe our parents had to pay some kind of tuition for us to do this. Another example, despite my whining, of how great my Dad and Stepmonster could be. This was also when they sprang for a clarinet for me to be in band class. I played terribly as repayment of their kindness.
On that same note, forgive the pun, this was also the time we were getting more and more into music. Jay bought our first 45 RPM record, “The Girl is Mine” by Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney. As our record collection did grow to feature many titles over the years, it is now clear that any loss of interest we were showing in the Star Wars figures was beginning then and there. We were starting to grow up.
Another cool addition to the collection, thanks to Jay’s trade with a friend, was a couple items from the “Survival Kit” of accessories you could order through another mail-in offer. I’m not sure why we didn’t take advantage of the offer ourselves when it came out. I’m sure we still had the figures’ cards on file, “Proofs of Purchase” still intact. Bah. We secured a couple of the backpacks and gas masks, which were pretty cool. I think the gas mask didn’t fit Chewbacca, which I don’t feel is fair to him.
At some point during our walks to and from school, enticed by the rich bounty of Star Wars figures in stores along our route, the thievery resumed. As you may recall, the Gutzman Brothers were no strangers to shoplifting. We had just been contained by country living. The boys were back in town.
Anyway, I’m pretty sure Jay got the ball rolling. Sure, let’s blame him. I was home sick one day and Jay brought the Cloud Car Pilot into my room to cheer me up. Great figure. I like his icon above too, if you’re reading the illustrated version. Kinda psychedelic.
Another figure that was stolen, I think I did this one, was C-3PO with removable limbs. He would become the “go-to 3PO” as his stiff limbs helped him stand better than our old 1978 3PO who had become quite loose-jointed in his old age.
Filled with confidence, one particular snowy day as we walked to our Dad’s office after school, we decided to split up and hit two targets at one time, our trusty bulky duffle bags in tow. Jay in his green stocking cap went to Osco Drug store and I was off to Coast to Coast hardware.
Their toy section was in a dark, unattended basement. Beautiful. Not even a challenge. We could’ve robbed them blind. Anyway, I spotted what I wanted on the shelf: the Tri-Pod Laser Cannon. It was in a 6” x 6” square box, sized perfectly to fit in my duffle bag. In moments, it was in the bag and I was on my way up the stairs.
Jay wasn’t waiting outside Osco as he said he would be, so I went inside to find him. After a couple of minutes, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a green stocking cap. I turned my gaze to the upper deck management office window where Jay sat. He looked right at me with a soul-crushing expression of terror. My heart exploded and adrenaline blasted through my veins as I thought about the ill-gotten Laser Cannon in my bag.
I slowly started walking towards the door, my face likely either pale white or glowing red. Once outside, I walked to a bus bench just down the street. I cautiously opened my duffle bag and slid the Laser Cannon under the bench and quickly went back into Osco.
I don’t recall exactly what happened next but we ended up at the Police Station, to put a good scare into Jay I guess. Well, no. I think he was formally charged, actually. Jay tried to snag Snaggletooth, the last remaining Episode IV figure we lacked, and a clerk spotted him. The clerk was heard to say that Jay, “seen me saw him.” We still quote that sometimes.
The Cop brought Jay out from processing, his eyes and cheeks red from crying. Jay’s not the Cop’s. Dad was ready with his, “He knows if he wanted something, all he’d have to do is ask,” statement, which was getting to be less and less true in these past few years. In his defense, we were probably getting too old for “toys” by conventional thinking.
A family friend managed to buy Snaggletooth and give it to Jay as a Christmas present, which he opened to the guilt-inducing glares of Dad and Bobbie. She had this smug, mocking “smile-frown-smile” thing she would do. Snaggletooth was meant as a grim reminder to Jay of his awful, awful deed. Well played, parents. Well played.
In late 1982, after three years of searching and a failed theft attempt, the Star Wars Episode IV set was complete.
Hi. Our parents were pretty nonchalant about porno magazines. There was a bunch of them in a magazine rack outside the bathroom and we weren’t discouraged from looking at them but on at least one occasion were shamed by Bobbie for doing so. She called them “Prono Mags.” There were also softcover hardcore books left upon the toilet tank for reading whilst sitting down.
The hardcore magazines were in Dad & Bobbie’s bedroom under Dad’s side of the bed. I’m sorry but how was I not supposed to start masturbating at this point? I was 13 years old, surrounded by “prono mags”. There was even a stash in a broke-down car in the grassy lot behind our yard! It was everywhere!
Ahem. Yes, an exciting acquisition around this time was Luke Skywalker Hoth Battle Gear figure. The other “leaning” figure of Empire but very cool nonetheless. One scorching summer day we rode our bikes out to Pamida to steal him. Jay had bounced back from his earlier shoplifting mishap. I don’t recall which of us grabbed him but rest assured the other brother was the “lookout”.
On the bright side, we did legitimately purchase At-At Commander at Pamida. Essentially “Buy One, Steal One” was our understanding of the arrangement.
We also got our AT-ST “Scout Walker” there, which really was an awesome vehicle. There was a thumb trigger on the back you could push to make the legs “jog” up and down like it was walking. Side turrets clicked as you rotated them. Stood kinda funny, though. It leaned in the “locked” standing position. I remember this being one of our most exciting purchases ever. I could not wait to get the Scout Walker home.
If I’m not mistaken, this store is also where we managed to purchase the strange little Vehicle Maintenance Energizer with Hydrospanners (tools) and suction-cup-ended re-fueling hoses. It was one of the “mid-size” toys like the Tri-Pod Laser Cannon. Y’know, for poor kids!
I also vividly remember seeing the Tron figures being nearby. They looked cool, but we had to stay focused.
It was also time for another free figure. Not the stolen kind but the mail-in offer kind. Admiral Ackbar from “Revenge of the Jedi”, as it was called in the commercial. Offer expires January 31st, 1983. We got him but had no idea who he was. Just some lobster-looking rebel official. Not since Boba-Fett was there this amount of excitement for a mail-away figure.
Jay got Zuckuss and the black Bespin Security Guard for his birthday in January of 83. That Guard kinda had this “Gangsta lean” going on, like Hoth Luke.
Story and Art by Kurt Vonn Gutzman © 2012
Any resemblance to characters in Lucasfilm’s Star Wars Saga or Kenner’s toys is purely coincidental and/or protected under fair use as a “satire” or whatever. Then the Lucasfilm LTD. Lawyer says, “Well, yeah but that defense only works if its funny.” Then I start crying because the Lawyer hurt my feelings.
Copyright © 2012 Kurt Vonn Gutzman
All rights reserved.