Armagideon Time

We must be strong and brave

November 8th, 2018

On an overcast afternoon, some time in 1980, my father picked me up at elementary school and dropped me off at my maternal grandparents’ place. I can’t remember the reason for this break in regular routine, but there did always seem to be some minor crisis going on with my family in those days.

The door was locked when I got there, so I fished out the “back-up” key hidden behind the old circular washing machine in the back porch and let myself in. My grandmother had left a note on the table to let me know that she had to run out and take care of an errand with my pre-school age brother and that there were whoopie pies on the counter and juice in the fridge. Next to the note was a blister-carded Captain America branded Hot Wheels Trans Am, which the note said Lil Bro had picked out for me when they went shopping earlier.

I gathered up some treats and my sweet new prize and plunked myself down in front of the tiny color TV in the living room. After a few minutes of turning the dial and fiddling with the set’s rabbit ears, I settled in to watch the latest installment of Star Blazers.

The chopped ‘n’ dubbed localization of Space Battleship Yamato was my first exposure to the world of anime and also happened to hit several of my pre-teen sweet spots — an epic space opera akin to Star Wars, told in serialized format like a comic book, and featuring futuristic iterations of massive naval vessels. (Some kids obsess over tyrannosaurus rexes and pteranodons. I obsessed over the Bismarck and the Hood.)

I strove to catch the show when I could but it aired almost immediately after the school day ended, which was prime “dicking around with my neighborhood friends” time. Despite some gaps, I did follow it closely enough to understand the overall gist of the plot.

By this time, the series was substantial way through its second season, in which the members of the Star Force had reunited to confront a new threat to intergalactic peace. That threat is the fearsome Comet Empire, a bunch of lime-complexioned evildoers who roam around the universe in a weaponized Roger Dean painting while ominous organ tones play in the background. While the concept was pretty much a weak retread of the first season’s urgency-driven quest to save Earth from becoming a radioactive tomb, the weaknesses were offset by greater sophistication on the animation and plot-weaving fronts.

The episode I tuned into that afternoon was a critical one. Having returned from its intel-gathering mission to planet Telezart and conferred with its very wispy and very blonde last survivor, the Battleship Argo joins up with the rest of Earth’s defense fleet to make a desperate final stand around Saturn. Facing them is the entire naval might of the Comet Empire minus its support carrier groups, which had been destroyed by an Argo-led sneak attack.

The looming confrontation between the two fleets was the Star Blazers equivalent of “Oops! All Berries” — an episode length space battle with scores of imagination-capturing capital ships blowing the bezeejus out of each other with the fate of humanity on the line. I savored every minute of it, my body riding one adrenaline spike after another as the tides of war shifted back and forth on the small screen.

The Earth armada eventually prevailed over its invading counterparts, but only after suffering severe losses from the Empire’s superior weaponry. The victory celebrations were cut short, however, by the arrival of the Comet Empire’s wandering throneworld. Even a massed volley of continent-shattering “wave motion gun” shots can’t stop the behemoth from wiping out the Earth fleet within a couple of minutes.

Its engine ablaze after a collision with one of its escorts, the wounded Argo can only drift helplessly as the leader of the Earth forces wishes the Star Force good luck as he rams his dying flagship into the throneworld as a final gesture of defiance.

Thankfully my grandmother wasn’t there to hear me mutter holy shit as the end credits came up and I tried to process what I had just watched. It made such an impression that I managed to retain other associative details alongside it — the feel of the Hot Wheels car in my hand, the texture of faux leather ottoman I was sprawled across, the painless welts the orange pile carpeting left on my forearms.

I only caught the episode once (until recently) but it loomed larger in influential memory than anything from Star Wars or Star Trek combined. Multiple reams of manila drawing paper were given over to trying to recreate the tableau from memory or etch my own epic space battles. The doomed flagship Andromeda became my platonic ideal for spaceship design, and the subconscious need to capture the grandiose scale of that episode tripped me up while trying to get various Mekton campaigns off the ground.

About a month or so back, I got the itch to go back and watch the first two seasons of Star Blazers. I’d tried to do it a few times over the years, but the dated animation and “it’ll do” dialogue dubbing drove me to give up after a couple of episodes. This time, I did manage to stick it out (by switching to subtitled episodes of the original Japanese run about halfway through, which include a lot more on-screen suicide and creepy fanservice than what us North American kiddies got).

A lot of it is hokey and nonsensical by contemporary standards, but a surprising number of the emotional beats have retained their power. One moment, I was rolling my eyes at a goofy line read. The next, I was gripping the arms of my chair with white-knuckle tension. The second season was an even more interesting experience because I remembered so little of it apart from that one specific episode. I could feel myself getting twitchy as that moment approached. This was partly because of the dramatic tension building up to it but also because I’d be confronting a significant artifact from my past for the first time in almost four decades. There’d be no nostalgic inflation or rose-tinted filters, just the genuine article in the raw.

I caught it earlier this week and…it still affected me on multiple levels. I tend to be a sucker for doomed acts of defiance, a personality trait that operates in a “chicken or the egg” relationship with my leftist politics. The animation was cruder and the battle slightly less majestic than I remembered, but the holy shit came from my lips as reflexively as it did when I was eight. In some ways, it shook me even more as an adult presently living through painfully “interesting” times — the sense of camaraderie and support among the crew of a vessel that spends a great deal of time getting the shit blasted out of it.

For all the time spent showcasing the scars of past psychic traumas here, I still tread lightly when it comes to the “High Eighties” period. That block of time — roughly spanning 1984 to 1988 — is such a tangle of regret, embarrassment, and pain that anything associated with it dredges up muck better left undisturbed.

They were my junior high years, which would’ve been agonizing enough without all the extra flourishes thrown in my direction. My family moved from North Woburn to the center of the city. The spacious new digs were a welcome upgrade from a crowded two-room apartment, but it also brought home how much my childhood circle of friends had drifted apart. Though the move seemed like it would alleviate some of the pressures on my already dysfunctional family unit, the respite was short-lived and followed by an escalating downward spiral of deterioration.

On top of all this, I was trying (and mostly failing) to get a handle on my raging adolescent hormones and struggling with what in hindsight was a minor nervous breakdown brought on by crippling anxieties over an imminent-to-my-eyes nuclear holocaust. To cope with all this, I leaned heavily into geeky escapist tendencies that only amplified my sense of alienation. I futzed and fumbled through those years with little in the way of self-awareness or personal restraint, leaving a wide trail of debris in my wake.

It was awful and I knew it was awful, but I couldn’t help myself. It’s why I consciously decided to seal that part of my past off, behind my mother’s death, behind punk rock, behind a reflexive disdain for anything that remotely evoked those memories. Very select bits and pieces of it were allowed to remain in my ever-shifting personal narrative, but the bulk of the memories remained walled up in a psychic quarantine zone.

The cordon held for the better part of three decades, with the first breaches only opening in the past few years or so. Maybe it’s because I was forced to confront it when working on the series of RPG posts. Maybe it was a natural reaction to sifting through physical artifacts of those times while cleaning out my late grandmother’s house. Or maybe I’m just getting old and realize that the shame actually does have a half-life.

I wouldn’t call it nostalgia, but an ongoing process of re-evaluation. It’s hard to romanticize when even the few cherished blossoms sport vicious barbs beneath the petals. There’s very little sweet in the lot without a stiff dose of the sour thrown in for good measure.

This tragic case of after the fact introspection has also begun to manifest in my record collection. I’d already reclaimed specific Sixties soul and pop releases from my wayward youth, where the quality of the material transcended any unpleasant memories it might have evoked. Approaching more contemporary stuff was a trickier business, fraught with questions such as “do I really want to listen to this” or “will Maura think any less of me for admitting I kinda like this thing?”

Before I slipped away before anything resembling a social circle, before I stopped paying attention to the current Top 40 and went all in on the sounds of two decades before, my musical tastes were shaped by Top 40 radio and music video programming local broadcasters threw together in hopes of nabbing a little of that sweet MTV action.

There was no tribal sense of a “sound” or “scene” involved (though I did semi-incline towards hard rock and pop metal, thanks to my North Woburn upbringing). It was entirely predicated on videogenic allure and whatever slotted into my current flavor of adolescent sentimentality –

– and nothing exemplified this quite like “Lights Out” by Peter Wolf, in which the former J. Geils frontman goes solo and sounds even more like his old band that he did when he was with them.

The song is pure MOR party rock, extruded and polished to an acceptably scruffy sheen. It’s uptempo enough to keep the toes tapping but with enough melancholy schmaltz to close out a DJ’s middle school dance set. In other words, just the sort of song an emotionally addled thirteen year old would latch onto as he looked up from his pile of Deathlok comics and wondered if there was someone out there for him, somewhere. (It turned out she lived two towns over, was three years older than him, and was listening to Siouxsie and the Sex Pistols at the time.)

The entire thing is cheesy to the core. When I spun the single for the first time last week, I had face-flushing flashbacks about borrowing my famous junior high dance moves from Wolf’s white hipster gyrations in the video.

But I still love the damn song. God have pity on my soul.

Return to base

November 1st, 2018

There’s nothing like embarking on a theme month to inspire a host of potential essay topics that have nothing to do with the matter at hand.

For eleven months of the year, I flagellate myself trying to come up with marginally workable material. As soon as the Halloween Countdown starts, however, the ideas start coming in fast and furious and can’t be put to proper use until the festivities have ended. The vast majority of these concepts are either “now or never” deals that fade fast if not immediately acted upon, or simply get lost in my skull’s day-to-day churn. It’s rare for one of these flashes to linger long enough for me to get back to it at the start of November, but it does happen — and this post is proof of that.

I mentioned Mattel’s Flying Aces toys a while back during a post about beloved childhood playthings. The planes and playsets ran neck and neck with Kenner’s gyro-powered SSP cars for most favored status in the pre-action figure era, and one of the Polaroids I unearthed from my grandmother’s estate featured my six year old, platinum-haired self proudly clutching an oversized flight deck launcher as I sat in one of her kitchen chairs.

For decades the franchise existed as the dimmest of memories. The name and manufacturer of the line were lost to me, and my generational peers had few if any recollections about the toys. I’m pretty sure one of my earliest Yahoo searches was “Ideal foam rubber planes 70s,” which turned up diddly squat. Things didn’t start falling into place until a kind soul uploaded a page-by-page scan of a mid-Seventies Sears Wish Book to a photo-hosting site around the same time AT was launched. Tucked away in a grainy B&W cul de sac for last year’s Big Things was a listing for the aircraft carrier playset along with the correct name and company responsible.

The discovery launched a decade of periodic eBay searches for Flying Aces toys. Actual listings were few and far between, as wedges of molded foam rubber designed to be launched from catapults tend to suffer a high attrition rate over the course of forty years. What did survive the ages was either too rich or too shabby to merit serious consideration. I probably could’ve scored some random plane in decent condition, but I was really searching for one item in particular.

During the warmer months, my dad used to take his 1973 T-Bird (.05 MPG highway) down to the car wash in Wilmington on Saturday mornings. The place was just a couple of do-it-yourself power-washing berths and a bank of coin-op vacuum cleaners. It wasn’t nearly as exciting as the fully automatic one on Cambridge Road in Burlington — where you got to sit in the car and watch the giant rollers and buffers descent from the rafters — but tagging along with the old man could be an adventure in itself, since it often concluded with sipping a grape Fanta and watching the freight trains roll by on the Boston to Lowell line.

The car wash was located next to a post-industrial brownfield strewn with all manner of rubbish, which meant it was a perfect place to tool around while my dad buffed and polished his petroleum-guzzling land barge. On one unforgettable occasion, I was kicking my way through the discarded pull-top cans and stryofoam fast food containers when I spotted what appeared to be an abandoned Flying Aces jet. Granted, five year olds are prone to seeing a lot of shit that may or may not actually be there, especially coveted prizes magically manifested from thin air.

I ran over to the place where I thought I saw it and found nothing but more wind-herded garbage. After a few minutes (which equals “six hours” in five year old perceived time) of walking in circles and digging around, I was ready to believe my eyes (and greed) and played tricks on me.

And then I found it — an almost new Flying Aces jet plane, whose coffee-colored fuselage and orange-yellow markings provided natural camouflage among Carter Era consumer detritus. I scooped it and ran back to show it to my father.

“Some kid must have lost it,” he said, inspiring a brief pang a guilt until he followed with “but it’s yours now.”

The jet became my special prize, proof that the cosmic lottery had shown me some small favor. The strangeness of its color scheme and markings added to the mystique. My other Flying Aces planes were either WW2 American fighters or contemporary NATO jets. This was neither and sported a color palette which exemplified the era. To this day, the first thing that comes to mind is a mental image of the plane resting on the back of the orange-plaid family sofa beneath the beige macrame netting of my mother’s hanging spider plant.

I’d never run across a similar Flying Aces model during my various searches, until a couple of weeks ago. Some estate sale firm in Florida had put up a near-complete flight deck set for a relatively low asking price. That along was enough to get me to check the listing, but closer look sealed the deal. In addition to the two planes that had originally come with the set, the lot included an additional jet with original backing card — the coffee-hued mystery plane of the Wilmington brownfield.

After a quick consultation with Maura, whose response was “just go buy it before someone scoops it up,” I dropped the dough and had the thing in hand by the end of the week.

Most of these types of purchases are followed by a profound sense of disappointment. The real deal either fails to meet inflated expectations or inadequately salves whatever ancient wound I hoped it would. I’m full aware of this going in, yet it rarely stops me because that’s my particular psychological damage to bear. This one, though, was different.

The jet (a Chinese MiG, as it turns out) had existed in an such an ambiguous state of memory for so long that handling the genuine article gives my the chills. It’s smaller and less detailed than I remember, but it’s decidedly real and with enough heft to sustain the psychic weight I’d placed upon it — memories of a lucky break and happy times and a world cast in warm earth tones.

All Hallows Eve has arrived, and with it comes the end of this year’s spooky season festivities.

This is normally the part where I’d indulge in an apologetic post-mortem, but I think this year’s countdown did well enough considering the personal distractions which accompanied it.

A big thanks to all you fiends and friends who tagged along for the ride. May the Great Pumpkin watch over and shower you with treats.

I guess all that’s left is to draw the curtains, dim the lights, and cue up eine kleine Nachtmusik

Recommended listening:

When I embarked on AT’s first Halloween Countdown, I used to this day to commemorate Maura’s and my second wedding anniversary. This post commemorates our fourteenth.

Time goes by so rapidly, but the love is eternal.

Recommended listening:

Because I am old and jaded and the old bag of tricks doesn’t cut it for me anymore, I have to find my horrific thrills from fresher venues — like running a search for “Halloween” on the Bradford Exchange’s online portal.

Let’s face it, no existential terror Lovecraft ever dreamed up could possibly compete with a two-hundred buck mechanical pumpkin sculpture inspired by Thomas Kinkade’s paintings.

Or, should you feel like blowing the cash equivalent of Bolivia’s GDP on some mass market “collectibles,” there are these interchangeable (save the franchise dressing) dust traps.

Model railroad enthusiasts will be happy — or more likely horrified — to know the Exchange has continued to offer its series of toy trains on an extortionate “on approval” plan. In keeping with the mercenary spirit of the season, they’ve put this H-O scale nightmare up for sale…

…which is a pretty lazy move on their part, considering it’s just a watered-down reissue of the truly terrifying original model…

Recommended listening:

Wish a most happy birthday to the Queen of Animals, who is not only a spooky season enthusiast but has also been putting up with my nonsense since I was a surly teenager.

Recommended listening:

..and now it’s an epidemic of national proportions.

(from “The Loathsome Loner” by Carl Wessler and Ricardo Villamonte in The Witching Hour #65, August-September 1976)

Recommended listening:

Though I got a late start on it, I’ve finally embarked on my October playthrough of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.

This will be the twenty-first year I’ve observed this annual tradition, which is a bit scary in and of itself. Akumajō Dracula X: Gekka no Yasōkyoku was one of the first games I imported (alongside Bushido Blade) after acquiring a non-region locked Playstation in the spring of 1997. I dropped the seventy bucks on it because the fansites (anyone else remember Anime Playstation?) hyped the game to the nines and there was talk it wouldn’t get a localized release because of Sony’s desire to move away from sprite-based graphics.

I wasn’t much of a Castlevania fan prior to that. As interesting as it had been to watch my junior high buddy Damian whip and axe his way through the original NES cart, I didn’t have the patience for action-platforming offerings with steep difficulty curves and limited player lives. Kenseiden, the Master System’s answer to Castlevania, at least offered permanent power-ups and branching pathways to mitigate the ordeal and featured superior graphics, to boot.

I did, however, adore the Metroid games and their emphasis on exploration and discovery over twitchy gameplay and iffy collision detection. The franchise was heavily referenced in fansite reviews which stated Akumajō Dracula X owed more of a debt to that franchise than to its own predecessors. Throw in mentions of RPG-style leveling, loot, and inventory systems, and it became a package too tempting for my cash-strapped self to pass up.

It was clear that the money was well spent within my first thirty minutes of the game — a sprawling dungeon full of all manner of strange beasts, plentiful loot, and hidden secrets, rendered in gorgeous sprite-based graphics that still hold up well into the present day. Everything from the orchestral rock soundtrack to the character controls was absolutely perfect, and sunk hundred of hours into deciphering its mysteries and getting past the language barrier. (There were a few times I got stuck because I couldn’t read the description of certain progress-necessary artifacts like the amulet that opens magical doors or the double jump thingamabob.)

The game is jammed to the rafters with content, much of which is superfluous towards completing it — interactive animation triggers, oddball inventory items, and other Easter eggs that exist more as colorful flourishes than anything else. It’s entirely possible to “beat” the game while only experiencing a quarter of what it has to offer. Decide to dig a little deeper, and you’ll be rewarded with an overwhelmingly rich vein of material to explore.

This opt-in expansiveness is why Symphony of the Night has remained on my all-time favorites list for over two decades. Every playthrough reveals something new — mostly minor, but occasionally gamechanging (such as the time I leveled up the sword familiar and it vanished from the screen only to turn up in my inventory as a powerful wield-able weapon that could be further improved by leveling up its familiar form some more). Even if I’m operating on muscle memory when it comes to the combat and platforming sequences, the game is still capable of tossing in an odd surprise or three.

Symphony of the Night was game that inspired the “Metroidvania” genre tag, but it also spoiled my exceptions about what the term entails. For me, it’s more that just power-up enabled backtracking and exploration. I expect that absurd (and entirely unnecessary) level of depth and “what the hell is this now?” which keep me coming back to the real deal.

Recommended listening:

“What could be that scary?” you ask as you hazard a stamp and a buck forty-nine on the tantalizing offering.

Four to six weeks later it arrives. The box is small, but surprisingly heavy.

You grab a knife from the counter and slice open the packing tape, carefully pulling open the flaps and removing the packing peanuts.

There, at the bottom of the box is A SMARTPHONE WITH THE INTERNET BROWSER TABBED TO THE COMMENTS SECTION OF AN ARTICLE ABOUT A NON-WHITE, NON-CISHET CHARACTER BEING ADDED TO THE CAST OF POPULAR GEEK ENTERTAINMENT PRODUCT!

After burning down your house to prevent the evil from spreading, you retreat to the wilderness to spend your remaining days foraging for berries and living in a cave.

The nightmares, however, will never stop.

Recommended listening:

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