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Friday, December 07, 2012

Hail Mighty Raydeen!

Here's another cherished childhood toy ... Raydeen.

Shogun Warrior.



And a damn big one at that.

I first met Raydeen sometime in the winter of 1978.  He was placed, just like the picture above, in the widow of a small import / emporium shop located in the strip mall at the corner of Lincoln Road and South 28th Avenue in Hattiesburg, MS.  This was back when that intersection used to be a four way stop instead of an intersection controlled by traffic lights.

The import shop is long gone though the strip mall is still there.  I think the import shop is now a pet supply shop but I can't be sure since it has been a while since I've gone that way let alone paid any attention to the shopping opportunities there.  It's an old part of Hattiesburg, a part that I grew up in but like me, everything there that was at one time familiar has now moved on.  Decades have rolled by and nothing remains the same.

Memories and dust.

I met Raydeen sometime in late October of 1978 and fell in love with him.  I used to ride with my father up to the Shell station on Saturday and Sunday morning to get a newspaper and (for him) a cup of coffee.  We'd sometimes walk up and down the strip mall sidewalk, especially so I could look in the window of Hobby Depot, a plastic model and paint type hobby supply shop that lasted maybe two, maybe three years in that location before folding.  Hobby Depot had some really well built models, real pro stuff, in the windows and I marveled at how models could be painted to be so lifelike.  Someone had even reproduced the crashed Monogram B-17 bomber diorama that Sheppard Paine had made.  

And right next to Hobby Depot was an import shop, the name of which will probably always be lost to me now, and in that import shop's window was Raydeen.

I think that Star Wars had just entered my life but Star Wars toys were still non-existent in my area nor did they have the proliferation that the Kenner line would later enjoy.  As such, in late 1978 I was still playing with G.I. Joes, Legos, building models and playing with my Marx army men and military playsets.

Enter Raydeen.

Shogun Warrior.

Super bad ass robot that was tall like Godzilla and three times as bad (at least back then he was to me).  Shogun Warriors were a new thing for me, something interesting from the land of Japan.  My experience with Japanese toys was limited, same for their comics and cartoons.  I just didn't know very much about toys from the Far East and that intrigued me all the more.  Having just started to watch live action Japanese shows like "Ultra-Man", "Spectraman" and "Space Giants", I had a prepubescent hard-on for giant robots.  

Mattel to the rescue with their Shogun Warriors line of toys.

Mattel marketed and produced the Shogun Warriors but I'm sure, now, that they were just packaged or marketed by Mattel.  Those familiar with the "red Mattel sawblade" logo can see it clearly in the bottom lower left of the package pictured above.

Raydeen was awesome and my imagination worked overtime to add him to my toy collection.  Oh, the things that I would do with Raydeen ... assault the guns of Navarrone.  Use him as an Allied / American super weapon against the Nazis ... my fervent imagination had already taken possession of Raydeen.  I told my dad that I wanted Raydeen and he made the usual parental dodging that all parents do when their kid asks for a fairly expensive toy, especially when they ask for a fairly expensive toy when Jimmy Carter is in office and the economy is tanking all around you.

But then those are the concerns of adults and not of children faced with the dilemma of how to own one of the coolest damn toys they've ever seen.

Raydeen was huge ... easily the biggest toy that would ever be in my collection and he did so much ... I mean, just look at his play features; hawk-missile that shoots from his chest, a shield with a nasty spike on it, and a flying fist with dual ax blades on it that you can launch across the room.  That was a lot more than most of my toys did back then and I was impressed ... I was also 7 years old at the time so ... being impressed with a toy back then probably wasn't as hard to be as I thought it was at the time.

The weeks in November and December stretched by slowly, filled with thoughts of Raydeen.  I took my Legos and built a hangar for Raydeen, and since Raydeen was giant, I used some 1:72 scale ground crew that had come with one of my plastic plane models to prepare things for Raydeen's arrival.  Everything was prepared for Raydeen ... now all I had to do was wait.

Patiently.

And in case you didn't know or can't remember, when you're seven years old, patience, especially when it involves waiting for a toy you really want, is next to impossible.

Christmas day arrived, December 25, 1978, and with it came ... Raydeen.  Jimmy Carter and his bungling of the economy had not prevented Santa from bringing Raydeen to my house.  Raydeen was everything that I had imagined that he would be and I walked around the rest of the day with that giant colorful plastic robot tucked under my arm like a teddy bear.  Oh, the battles we fought that early morning ... the Marx Nazis never knew what hit them and the Americans easily conquered Navarrone Mountain.

Sometime in the spring of 1978 Marvel Comics introduced a "Shogun Warriors" based comic book that I immediately started collecting.  And who was proudly displayed front and center on that comic?

My Raydeen.



The comic ran for 20 issues but to my 7 and 8 year old mind the stories were epic.  I still have a copy of the entire comic series today in my collection but it has aged badly and rereading it did not bring the joy and wonder that it once had.  In fact, it kind of brought about the feeling that I was reading utter crap.

The Shogun Warriors comic starred Raydeen, Combattra and Dangard Ace, all piloted by kidnapped and impressed into service individuals from around the world.  Raydeen was piloted by a stuntman named Richard Carson who had a girlfriend named Deena.  I particularly liked the story arc where Richard Carson has to let Deena in on his secret ... he's Raydeen's pilot / operator.

Raydeen was my favorite but Combattra was a close second mainly because Combattra could break up into several different types of robot vehicles including a fighter made out of the head.  Dangard Ace was boring ... all he could do was launch his rocket fists, fire some missiles from his fingers (IIRC) and his chest panels opened to reveal two big cannons / launchers that shot out some kind of energy bolt / torpedo.  It reminded me a lot of those battery operated robots from years earlier, the ones with the swing open chest doors and the sparkling chest cannons ... Dangard Ace sucked.

Raydeen also changed in the comic ... my Raydeen had a fist with a pair of ax blades on them.  In the comic, Raydeen didn't have a fist like that ... he had the shield with the spike and ... he had a bow!  A giant bow that fired explosive tipped arrows that were loaded from a hatch in his arm / fist.  Of course, that kind of Bo & Luke Duke technology applied to a giant robot seems kind of silly in hindsight but back then it was nothing short of awesome.
 
Each month I would go with my parents to Cloverleaf Mall and I would visit the big metal turn-rack at K&B Drugstore to see if the latest issue of Marvel Comics' "Shogun Warriors" had come in or not.  Each month that issue would get dog eared from heavy reading as I savored the next chapter in the adventures of Raydeen, Combattra and ... that other stupid big robot.


One of the neatest things about Raydeen, that I learned about him in the comic, was the fact that Raydeen could not only fly with rockets in his feet but for real speed he could transform into a hybrid mode, a streamlined robot bird form that was capable of supersonic flight and this form was called the "Firehawk" making Raydeen easily the fastest of the Shogun Warriors able to respond to a crisis.  In fact, in several instances in the comic, Raydeen takes off, converts to the supersonic Firehawk and is the first to show up at a problem with the other two Shogun Warriors eventually showing up long after Raydeen had landed and started handing the bad guys their ass.


How the conversion from Shogun Warrior to supersonic Firehawk took place can only be referred to as "magic" ... or maybe it uses the same technology that the Michael Keaton Batmobile uses for its armor plating when he says "Shields" and all of that plating comes out of nowhere and just covers the Batmobile in armor.


The full size Raydeen was a stiff toy, limited in movement ... in fact, it had no real movement short of its arms swinging up and down or rotating back and forth in a complete circle.  No manipulation, no ability to be posed.  Wheels on the bottom of the feet allowed Raydeen to roll along on smooth surfaces but pretty much this was a toy of pure imagination.  

That summer, for my birthday, I got another Raydeen ... this one was smaller, much smaller and it was made out of metal but it was poseable.  Not only did the face shields open and close but the legs bent and it could transform into the supersonic Firehawk mode.  



This version of Raydeen came with the bow and the spiked shield but it didn't come with any chest missiles.  Both fists, however, were spring loaded and launched.  The only problem was ... that version of Raydeen really had no good play value since I owned no other Shogun Warrior toys.  How I used that smaller Raydeen was much like Jet Jaguar from Godzilla, he was the real size able to interact with my green army men but when the need arose, he could change into the giant sized Raydeen to kick giant sized ass.

Worked for me.

The Shogun Warrior craze never really caught fire with me or my friends.  Together we had a handful of the toys ... I remember a giant Dragun, another had a giant Godzilla and Gaiking and another had a Mazinga (the early version with the removable spaceship in the head).  Together we had three or five of the small Shogun Warriors, there was my mid-size Raydeen and I had the Sky Arrow jet.

One interesting thing to note is that in the diecast toy offering there was the Liabe ... a spaceship which was featured in the Toho sci-fi epic "Message from Space" and a spaceship which has come to be known as the "Millennium Falcon of the Far East".  How it became part of the Shogun Warrior collection is probably an interesting story.

The Shogun Warriors were hot stuff for a while before finally fading away to nothing in 1980.  The toy line didn't have the staying power required to survive in the post-Star Wars era that 1977 to 1980 quickly became.  Toys were quickly changing in the late years of the 1970's.   Electronics were coming and computers were here.  Interactive toys like Milton Bradley's Starbird and Big Trak did amazing things, had flashing lights and sounds that simple toys like the Shogun Warriors simply didn't.   Also, like many other toys of the time, the Shogun Warriors line of toys were plagued with outrageous concerns for child safety based on children acting like total effing retards and shooting the shooty parts into their eyes, into the eyes of other children or shooting the shooty parts down their own throats and subsequently choking to death on the shooty parts (probably while the parents were in the other room playing Bridge or some other socially popular game at the time).  Normally, we would just chalk that up to a good case of Darwin and a bad case of parenting but the outcry was enough from lazy parents that manufacturers had to remove the fun parts of the toys because a few total retards had ruined it for the rest of us kids.  It was just more of the whole retarded liberal mindset that would continue to plague America in the years and decades to come ... the mindset where the needs of the few always outweigh the needs of the many.

If you want to know more about these toys, follow this link.

I no longer have Raydeen but I have some really good memories of that toy.  Even though I don't remember it, I'm sure that Raydeen was eventually decommissioned and sold to a private firm after which I have no idea what happened to him.  And by being decommissioned I mean that he had a dollar fifty price tag stuck to him one Saturday morning at my parents' annual garage sale and Raydeen went home with another child ... hopefully he had a few more adventures in him.  I hope to God he still had some adventures left in him and that he didn't wind up as a frequent, dress wearing guest at some little girl's tea party before he ultimately met the sad fate that most toys of childhood eventually face but for a while Raydeen was mine and while he was mine he was nothing short of awesome!

Friday, November 23, 2012

3rd generation Pontiac Firebird logo found on cheap toy gun set

Now, looking through the toy section of a local "Big Lots" the other day I found this toy gun set and the revolver intrigued me as a cheap find to kitbash a "Slammer" together (the combination revolver / semi-automatic weapon found in Geoff Darrow and Frank Miller's cyberpunk Where's Waldo epic "Hardboiled") ...  When I picked up the toy gun set to look at the revolver I discovered that not only was it way too small for the scale that I was interested in modeling ... but I noticed that it had a third gen Firebird emblem stamped into the plastic near the hammer and cylinder.


You can see the third gen Firebird symbol stamped into the revolver between the trigger and the cylinder release button.  Here's a closeup of the image.


And here's the actual 3rd Generation Firebird logo for comparison ... you be the judge.



My guess is that the toy was made in China or some other country by some cheap manufacturer who wanted to include a "Ruger Redhawk" or "Ruger Blackhawk" revolver in the playset but didn't want to get sued by the Ruger company so they had one of their employees look on the Internet for a bird outline and found this instead.  It's the only reason why I can think that the third generation Firebird logo ever managed to wind up stamped into the side of a cheap toy gun.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Ghosts of the past: bones from long ago.

I spent Thanksgiving with my wife's parents and family and after dinner I went walking in the woods with my soon to be 10 year old daughter.  It wasn't too long, following the cut paths behind my inlaws' house that we found ourselves at the old dairy barn that's more of a ruin than a barn these days.  It's where we used to (and still do, I guess) store large items like trailers, tractor attachments, tractors, building supplies, etc.  

The dirt beneath the tin roof is so fine that it's almost like gray colored powdered sugar, almost like lunar dust ... each step makes a small dust cloud and leaves an imprint that won't be disturbed until something else comes along to disturb it.  Wild animal tracks litter the dust as do the occasional curving track of a king snake or other type of no-shoulder.  Amid rusty chains, bits of tin roof wadded up in the mega-storms of the past decade and old farm equipment like broken shovels, rusting plows, etc. I found a small area that held some personal items from a time that now seems like it was centuries ago but in reality wasn't more than a little over a decade and a half gone by.  Personal items that were just huddled together in a pile ... discarded, broken, but never really thrown away because there's a difference between something that's been discarded and something that has been thrown away; one still lingers ...

These items were kept for one reason or the other, that reason now lost to memory and time, and these items were eventually deposited here because it was felt by those who moved them here that I would maybe one day have a need for them again.  Somewhere in all those years these items went from being trash to being nostalgic. 

The people who put these items here were mistaken in their value and the only value that these items have now is in the memories that they bring racing back upon seeing them once again.



At the very top, the round piece of ribbed plastic is part of the air cleaner from my '88 Toyota Turbo Supra.  Moving down we have the right side cowl panel from my '95 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-6R (bought new) after it was replaced when I put the bike down on its side to avoid being T-boned by a driver that wasn't paying any attention to the task of driving.  The round piece to the right of that is the crankshaft cover from the same bike, punctured when it hit a sharp piece of metal embedded in the city street (and from which the hot oil from my engine soon drained).  The ribbed hose tube is the air intake from my '88 Toyota Turbo Supra ... I think. It may be from one of my other high performance toys.  The big white and green piece to the left of that is the front cowling of my '95 Kawi ZX-6R ... the name of the bike still visible over the left side turn signal housing and the headlight cavity as well as the twin snouts of the ram air system.

The front cowling could almost be the skull of the old ZX-6R ... it would be bleached of color were it not for the top cover afforded by the rusty tin roof of the building.  A skull ... of a high performance machine long ago reduced to spare parts and salvage.

Memories.

I purchased the '95 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-6R brand new in June of 1995 ... 9 months after a drunk driver totaled my '93 Honda VFR750F (and almost killed myself and my girlfriend / fiance ... Cindy).  I had just quit Ideal Software and gone back to Magnolia Federal Bank, I was a month away from getting married and I'd been staring at the pictures of the '95 Ninja ZX-6R in a cycle mag for months now.  I finally bought it, as a gift to myself before I got married.  I had a lot of memories on that bike ... especially with Cindy tucked in behind me ... the high revving engine, her chest pressed into my back, her helmet against mine ... chasing sunsets and dreams every time we could.  The Ninja ZX-6R wasn't just a super sport bike, it was an escape pod, built for two.

Three years later, in August of '98, I was sport touring with my riding partner, Julian, and coming out of a bad turn at the Lawrence county / Marion county line, heading to Monticello, I hit a deer at 70mph.  The Ninja went 300 feet in the oncoming lane of traffic (two lane back road) and I went 150 feet in my lane of traffic, destroying my helmet, my gloves, my Ray Bans, my Hein Gerrick "Ninja" leather jacket and taking about a foot of flesh off of my leg.  Oh, and I dislocated my shoulder in the process.  

Fun times.

No, seriously ... fun times.  I look back today and laugh, just like I did when I managed to pick myself up off the pavement just in time to see my Ninja do its last roll and slide to a stop, rear wheel still spinning.  The first thing I asked Julian when he stopped his bike, dismounted and ran over to see if I was okay?

"Was that cool?"

I took six years, shy two months, from that accident to get back around to throwing my legs over a motorcycle and that was when I bought my 2004 Honda CBR600RR for my birthday that June.  Ironically, Kawasaki had designed the ZX-6R to fight Honda's anticipated CBR600RR way back in '95 but when Honda failed to introduce the 600RR, Kawasaki was left with perhaps the best 600cc bike in the world at that time ... and no competition to duke it out with.  The irony comes from the fact that six years later I would buy the very bike that my ZX-6R had been designed to combat but that had been a no show way back then.

The fuel injected Honda CBR600RR is lightyears better than the '95 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-6R but I still hold a special place in my heart for that snarling Ninja and its fast revving 600cc carb fed liquid cooled inline four.  Eight years later, I still have the Honda in my garage.  It doesn't get ridden as much as it used to but like the Ninja it replaced the Honda is still an escape pod and every now and then I get to throw my legs over the saddle and pull the loud handle to get away from it all.

I stare back at the front cowl of the '95 ZX-6R.  Just a part now, a physical shard of a memory of a part of my life.  It's moments like that which really make life worth living for.

Flotsam and jetsam.

To some people these pieces of flotsam and jetsam from my life are just that ... flotsam and jetsam ... but to me, seeing these forgotten pieces again after all of these years ... still collecting dust and never again to be used ... seeing this pile of discarded items brought back memories.

The good kind of memories.  

The kind of memories that are unexpected and come back to you in a rush.

I think I'll leave this pile of parts here, kind of a shrine, relics from before, ghosts of the past and bones from long ago.  Every now and then I'll revisit them, having forgotten them, until one day I find myself here and the bones are gone ... finally discarded by someone and all that will remain will be the memories.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Gone but not forgotten ...




 "Acclaimed as one of the most visually stunning cars ever built, the Trans Am's styling will no doubt remain timeless.  ... If you think '57 Chevys still look good, you'll love the Trans Am - even 20 years from now."

                                                                                 - John Baechtel, "Different Strokes" comparison test
                                                                                                              HOT ROD MAGAZINE, August 1986



 Trans Am

     The other cars out there are nothing more than mundane transportation devices, a collection of anonymous and dreary shapes lurching homeward with their anonymous and dreary occupants tired after a long day behind an unappreciative desk in a thankless, meaningless job.

     But yours is not just a mundane transportation device.  It is not anonymous and dreary.  From the wide aluminum spinning wheels that plant fat, sticky rubber to the hot asphalt to the enormous rear spoiler, to the vibrating high output port fuel injected small block V8 under the hood that actually makes the ebony bird seem to come alive with each pulsation ... this is an orgy of image and power, a visceral assault on the senses of all who behold it. 

     It is Trans Am and its thick padded steering wheel feels oh so right under your leather driving gloved hand as you maneuver in and out of traffic like a great bird of prey riding the air currents through a target-rich environment.  It is moments like these that truly make life worth living and the 6 to 5 regime a small daily price to pay to own such a rare machine.


  
 
Well, she's back.

She who has taken my money, my time and my heart for so very long.  Ever since I first saw her in that magazine spread all those years ago, way back in 1985 I knew that one day I would have her.  I would track her down and make her mine.




It took me 21 years to find her and after 6 long years of ownership (most of that time being either kept in a rental storage unit or taking up space in my garage and in one stage or another of disassembly) I finally got off my ass, pushed some money around and restored the 1986 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am that I've owned since 2006.  You can find the link to the good stuff over there on the right ... it's the link labeled "Project Car".

I can't believe how well this TA turned out ...  After six years I can't believe that I have in my garage one of my dream cars.  When I was a teenager, I saw the one page advertisement for this car and fell in love with it.   Patience is the most important thing you can have in life.  Patience is the most important thing that you can teach a child in life because patience will get you through bad times like nothing else will.  Six years is a long time, especially for a project car to just sit up and go unused but patience has a way of making six years seem like six days, at least in hindsight.  In hindsight, it seems like just last week that I bought the TA off of Ebay, flew to Greenville, North Carolina, picked her up and drove her back home.

And now she's restored.  26 years of use and abuse have been cosmetically erased and she's been returned to her glory days, to a time when she first rolled off the Norwood, Ohio assembly line way back in late 1985 as the flagship of the Pontiac performance line and as a clear example of the "We build excitement" creed that Pontiac had adopted.  I got the TA back last Tuesday and I've been having a blast driving her.  She's the car now that I wanted her to be 6 years ago.  Her exhaust growls as she prowls the city streets.  Her 5.0 liter Tuned Port Injected small block V8 engine screams through its powerband.  Her four speed automatic bangs through each gear with authority and she'll break rubber loose from first to second gear with an authoritative bark of the tires.  The thick leather wrapped steering wheel feels good in my gloved hand, allowing me to translate the TA into any maneuver that I need to, any maneuver that I want to, with the flick of a wrist and the response of a quick ratio power steering unit which has two and a half turns lock to lock.  The WS6 optioned suspension setup makes for a ride like a Sherman tank, I feel every irregularity, telegraphing the condition of the road to me and giving me a control over my TA that few other cars can lay claim to.  When darkness comes, her driving lights snap on and her headlights flip up with the whir of now ancient electric motors.  Her dash and interior are illuminated in a soft reddish orange glow inspired by fighter aircraft and still she prowls ... and I love every single minute of it.

Patience. 

Patience pays, maybe not now but later on, oh, it pays.  Make your plans, stick to them, and just be patient.  It's all on the wheel because it all comes around eventually.

Looking back now I told you 6 years ago in this very blog that life was too short to drive mediocre cars and I stand by that statement.  The automobile industry has become homogenized these days ... Mind numbingly homogenized.  Cars and trucks have given up muscle, individuality, character and performance for stereotypical styling, bland design, improved fuel economy and all with a nod towards being environmental friendly.  Cars and trucks today have no charisma, no personality ... they're just transportation and they're built around social engineering, that is, forcing you to behave a certain way by putting up restrictions and obstacles to behaving any other way.  Factors like economy, emissions, comfort and design are forced on you limiting your choices through artificial means.  I'm not advocating acting like a hooligan with a car or using it to ruin the environment but cars and trucks today tend to emulate, even broadcast, the emerging social trends and the social trends I see in the cars and trucks built and sold today are boring. ... we're so serious about the environment that we've forgotten how to have fun.  Junk pseudo-religion based scientific nonsense like Global Warming has robbed us of our ability to have fun.  If you want to know where this insanity has taken us, just look at decible limits at race tracks ... you can get booted off the track if your car is too loud ... at a race track!  The 1960's were full of high performance, something that died a slow, painful death in the 1970's and only began to come back around in the 1980's.  This TA is an example of that rebirth ... when suspension and handling was superior to the 1960's offerings and where the power of computer controlled, high tech fuel injected engines could nearly match the performance of their big cube predecessors.

I remember the 1970's ... I remember the OPEC Oil Embargo.  I remember lines of cars at the gas stations.  I remember the crappy cars that GM, Ford and Mopar pedaled off on the consumer ... crap like the biodegradable ever rustworthy Chevy Vega and the highly explosive Ford Pinto where economy and corporate profit was considered forefront to driver and occupant safety.  I remember speedometers that only went to 85 miles per hour by federal government mandate.  I remember choking emissions equipment, seatbelts that prevented cars from starting unless they were fastened, the forced phase-in of unleaded gas, the phasing out of leaded gas and the dreaded catayltic converter.  The 1970's were the dark ages of high performance and only one car company kept the light of high performance not only burning but burning bright, like a beacon in the darkness, all alone in the night (cue epic Babylon 5 music).

Pontiac.

The 1980's were a Renaissance in high performance.  Computer controlled fuel injection, emissions that weren't restrictive, four speed automatic transmissions with overdrive, five speed manual transmissions with overdrive, deep rear gears, sixteen inch factory wheels with V rated tires that were stickier than anything seen in the previous two decades, and compact turbocharged and intercooled engines.  Hell, even the Japanese jumped on board and began deploying Far Eastern sport coupes to our shores.  Seeing the turbocharged four cylinder engines from Mopar and the tremendous work that Buick did on their SFI turbocharged and intercooled 3.8 liter V6 was nothing short of inspirational.  When a Dodge Omni GLH-S (which looked like crap) beat the snot out of a Shelby GT350 Mustang from the 1960's, enthusiasts were outraged ... and amazed.  The  use of technology to go faster wasn't something to be ignored.  The 1980's saw an ever increasing climb in performance, a climb out of the mire and muck that had been the 1970's.  As computers took more and more charge of what was going on under the hood, more and more power could be squeezed out of smaller and smaller engines all the while maintaining both emissions and economy.  The fact that although emissions and economy standards got tighter almost every year yet horsepower and performance also increased each year was a testement to the march of high technology through the decade.

The muscle cars of the 1960's could still out power a 1980's sports car on the straight away, especially in the first part of the decade, but the 1980's machinery was far superior in handling and economy not to mention comfort and ease of ownership.  The 1980's held so much promise ... it was the Woodstock of high performance and it lasted all decade long, coming on strong in the first to mid part of the 1980's and then starting to peter out towards the end of the decade but while it lasted it was glorious to live through, especially for a red blooded American teenager like myself.  I got my driver's license in 1984 ... just two years after the third generation F-bodies debuted and I got to see these cars grow from their start to their finish in 1992.  At the time they were considered some of the best handling and best performing cars in America if not the world as attributed in magazine article after magazine article and road test or comparison after road test and comparison.  The Trans Am was compared to imports like the Porsche 911 and the Mazda RX-7, both highly competitive cars and both well respected.  In fact, short of the Chevy Corvette, the WS6 equipped Pontiac Trans Am may have been the best handler of GM's offerings.

So much has changed since the 1980's ...

Cars and trucks are not tough today, no, they're cute and apologetic ... neutered and spayed direct from the factory and that's the problem.  Somewhere along the line we forgot how much fun it is to drive, to really drive, to drive hard, to drive fast, to experience the thrill of acceleration, the ecstacy of winning a race, how it feels for your body to be strapped tight into a form fitting seat as you dance on pedals and row through the gears, making the car bend to your will.  We've forgotten what it's like for the wind to be in our face and the engine to be howling under the hood as the needles on the dash spin in their crazy arcs.  Look at how many cars are offered with manual transmissions today ... only a small percentage.  Automatics are the norm on most cars.  Where once transmissions were built for overkill and you could mod an engine to throw any kind of power at a Muncie four speed or a TurboHydraMatic 400 three speed automatic today when you mod cars, that is, if you can mod them, it's usually the transmission which is the first thing to give up the ghost.  I learned that while playing with my 1999 Pontiac Grand Prix GTP.  The L69 supercharged 3.8 liter V6 was a capable engine and could be modded fairly easily but the transmission behind that motor was a piece of crap and couldn't take much more than what the L69 was putting out stock.  Any major mods to the L69 in the GTP and you had better be planning on replacing the stock transmission with an aftermarket pro-built unit.  Today, cars are designed to do so much and not a lot more ... I guess this makes them more easily disposable and ultimately, much more forgettable.

Driving fast.

Driving hard.

Of course, some people never got to experience these feelings, these emotions, these raw, visceral examples of what it is like to be alive.  No, their experience with cars was limited to some lackluster example of one breed or another, a gutless econobox designed to get from Point A to Point B or where ever else you wanted to go.  Their experience was based on some wannabe car whose only claim to high performance was some fake hood scoop, a bolt on spoiler and a stripe and decal package to make it look sporty without ever actually having anything to back that image up.  I don't understand why the government wants to use tax money to pay for birth control for women ... they already do that with what rolls out of Detroit.  One look at the new cars on the dealer lot today and sex is the last thing that crosses your mind.  In fact, just about any vehicle made in America after 2002 can be considered a rolling form of birth control ... and a general IQ decreaser.

Oh, there was a time when cars were art, art forms, forms of art and rolling works of art.  Cars were sculpted, hand built and they were built with pride.  Today they're built by robots while over paid union members sit around earning a paycheck for doing nothing and whining about not being paid enough.  Have you seen what is rolling out of Detroit these days?  The unions should be paying US, the American consumer, to drive their crap ... not the other way around.

I guess I'm different.

I guess I've always been different.

I love cars ... I love sports cars.

I love performance.

I love high performance.

I love high performance American sports cars.

I think that flowing body lines are sexy ... that aerodynamics are poetry in motion and that the sound of a high performance engine screaming through its power band is an orchestra if not an aphrodisiac in and of itself.  Cars have never been something that I considered mundane or utilitarian in nature.  Cars were members of the family rather than property.


"... the TA's handling is about as close as most people would want to get to an honest-to-God racing platform.  ... The TA's chassis is extremely stiff, and its front and rear roll characteristics are well balanced and tuned to each other.  With near-neutral handling characteristics at the limit of adhesion, and just a trace of understeer that easily transfers into controllable oversteer, the TA ... is a blast to hustle through corners.  It makes good drivers better drivers, and instantly transfers a feeling of confidence to the novice.  It is a car whose handling and acceleration are guaranteed to transform a bored rush-hour commuter into a wide-eyed and grinning enthusiast.  This is a fun car."

                                                                                                     - John Hanson, Motor Trend, April 1986.

Yes, this is a fun car to drive.

No.

Forget that.

The 1986 Pontiac Trans Am is one hell of a fun car to drive because it reminds you that at one time, a time not that very long ago, there was a car company called "Pontiac" and Pontiac built excitement.  Raw, unmitigated, unapologetic, brazen excitement that was accompanied with the rumble of powerful V8s that could plant you firmly back in your seat and easily do twice the maximum legal posted US speed limit (and then some).  It was a time when performance wasn't something that made you feel bad about yourself and performance didn't require you to apologize to anyone for having it let alone enjoying it.


Take the T-tops off, turn the key in the ignition, let the rumble of the 5.0 liter port fuel injected V8 under the hood offer up a continual thump the likes of which the jacked sky-high, stupid ass paint scheme colored Chevy Impala next to you can't hope to match and you've got a certified time machine.  I remember a time when cars thumped because of what they had under the hood, not because of what they had in the trunk.  One of my T-shirts I used to sell had a simple slogan on it: "There's a big difference between being fast and powerful or just being loud and annoying."  That opinion applies even more so today than it ever did before.  When your car has more watts than horsepower, when your speakers are wider than your tires, when the color of your paint is the wildest thing about your car, when ugly design is used as a substitute  ...

Where did it all go wrong?

Cars today have no guts ... which is why people take a $500 piece of crap car, put $6000 worth of jacked up wheels on it, put a $6000 paint job on it copied from some corporate logo scheme or product and fill it with $10,000 worth of stereo equipment ... and they still have a gutless, neutered $500 piece of crap car ... it's got $22,000 worth of bling on it, but it's still a $500 piece of crap car underneath.  It's all part of the "Look at me!  Look at me!" crowd, you know, the mediocre people who drive mediocre cars that you wouldn't look twice at (car or driver) if they didn't jack slap your personal enjoyment with their thump-thump-thump and vulgar lyrics blasted out of speakers that seem to be aimed directly at your car in traffic.  They ride around on 26" inch or larger rims that make their mediocre cars look like misplaced farm equipment.  These mediocre people want you to look at them, to notice them, and usually when they see you looking at them their first words to you are "What are you looking at?!"

Nothing.

The truth is ... nothing. 

You're looking at nothing. 

Absolutely nothing. 

You know it and they know it which is why they drive a mediocre car.  Bling Bling is just God's way of saying He's sorry your car doesn't have any balls or personality to it whatsoever, that He's sorry that you had to spend $22,000 on a piece of crap car just to get people to notice you but it's not you that they're noticing, it's your piece of crap car with all the ridiculous bling bling on it.  If they notice you at all they're not thinking that you're rich or lucky ... they're thinking that you've got to be the biggest idiot in the world for driving something like that.

And what happened to all of the cool car names? 

I mean, how seriously do you think someone is going to take you if you tell them that you drive a Plymouth Neon Expresso?  If you drive a Plymouth Neon Expresso, chances are that you're not a Marine Corps Drill Instructor or a hard rock guitarist ... you're either an interior decorator or a florist.

Remember when cars had cool names?  Barracuda.  The Judge.  Stingray.

Today we have cars with names like Expresso, Backpack, and Aveo.

Cute, meaningless names.

I'm still waiting on the Dodge Tampon, the Chevy Enema and the Ford Little Douche Coupe to appear in dealer showrooms.  I mean, are we really running out of imagination and originality that much that we have to introduce a car named after a type of coffee or something that we use to carry our stuff when we go hiking?  I guess so.  I blame car names on the very problem that we've been talking about ... cars have no guts.  Do you think that Ferrari would ever produce a model called the "Expresso"?

I doubt it.

We've lost something along the way ... in the years since we've lost the edge that cars once had ... the edge that separated cars from being just ... cars ... just transportation.  That's what so much of what is on the road today is ... just ... basic transportation.  Gutless, soul sucking, mind numbing transportation.  It's comfortable, reliable, economical transportation with no guts but a great stereo and some wild paint color guaranteed to be right out of a twelve year old girl's locker ... or diary. 

When you pull up in something real, in something with some guts, it's nothing short of amazing.  It's like being a great white shark swimming with a bunch of guppies.  When you drive something like this TA other lesser cars part away in front of you.  Hemp adorned Environmental Whackos in their beat up, oil burning turbo Volvo station wagon rubber neck as you go by and the Obama supporters in their Prius just loathe and stare.  Kids on the school bus press their faces against the bus windows as you slowly pass them on the side.  Old guys at parts stores and gas stations come out to look at your car and talk shop, happy for the diversion.  People your age reminisce openly telling you how they or their friend or their brother had a Trans Am, sometimes one just like this one and they brag on performance figures you know are false and untrue but you nod your head and smile anyway.




And that's why I don't drive mediocre cars.

Life is too short to drive mediocre cars. 

Life is too short to drive something mundane and boring, something that you see five times going to work and eight times coming home from work because not only can anyone buy a car just like yours but everyone has a car just like yours.  Life is too short to drive what everyone else is driving.  If you want to be different, you've got to drive something different and that isn't always an easy thing to do.

Individuality doesn't come easy.  I guess that's why I've always loved Pontiacs because Pontiacs were the rebels of GM.  In the 1960's they led the muscle car charge with the Pontiac GTO, a midsize offering with a big engine that went head to head against the Ford Mustang for GM's share of the rapidly emerging youth market.  Later, in 1967 the Firbird appeared and then the Trans Am did as well in 1969.  During the 1970's when everyone in Detroit was running away from high performance like it was the Black Plaque, Pontiac was building cars like it was the late 1960's all over again.  Through the darkest times in Detroit it was Pontiac and Pontiac alone which kept the performance fires burning at GM.  When every other make and model of high performance muscle car had become extinct, when only the Corvette was left and even that was in diminshed form, when the Z28 had been killed off and then resurrected as a mostly decal and spoiler copy of the Pontiac Trans Am, Pontiac was still throwing 455 and 400 cubic inch V8 engines under the hoods of its Firebirds right up until the end of the 1970's.

Maybe it was dedication to a cause or maybe it was just that, out of all of the divisions at General Motors and out of all the other manufacturers, Pontiac just got it.  Pontiac understood performance, probably more than any other GM division, probably more than any other automaker in the world because with Pontiac high performance became more than a cause ... it became a passion and maybe even an obsession.

This Trans Am is more than just a high performance American artifact from a long gone age, it's a symbol of what cars once were when performance wasn't something to be ashamed of and when having a fuel guzzling V8 wasn't considered heresey to the pseudo-religious beliefs of the whack jobs on the political Left.  The death of the Firebird was long prophesied throughout the late 1970's and 1980's and it eventually came true only much later than anyone else would have thought.  That in and of itself is both worthy of note and amazing.  The Firebird and the Trans Am were survivors who went through the worst and best of American automotive times ... their deaths were ultimately handed out not by competition or dwindling fossil fuels but by useless bean counters who put short term corporate profit over priceless, non-purchasable things like heritage, legacy and legend.  Things that had to be earned over time, not bought with capital outlays.


 "Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling, by the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore." - Edgar Allen Poe, "The Raven"





Standing here, now, next to this beguiling bird I have to say that I still find fault, real fault, with GM for killing the F-body.  Pontiac understood, moreso with the Trans Am than with any other model, that you don't kill off a legacy vehicle full of heritage and history just because it starts to become somewhat inconvenient to produce.

Pontiac understood this.

It was business.

It was passion.

They got it.

GM didn't and in truth, probably never will understand what Pontiac stood for or what it meant to so many which is why a lot of us who own classic Pontiacs now also own Fords and Hondas and Toyotas and won't be buying any more General Motors products for a very, very long time ... if ever again.  GM betrayed our loyalty for their own greed.  


Never again.

RIP Pontiac (1926 to 2009).

Gone but not forgotten.




 








 








Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Mattel "Heroes In Action"


Command 'em!  Collect 'em!

Sometime in 1974 I was introduced to Mattel's "Heroes in Action" line of (somewhat) poseable toy soldiers and toys.  I was 5 years old at the time and Military toys, as one might expect, were kind of on the down side at that time since the (unpopular) Vietnam War was still going on.  Even Hasbro's "G. I. Joe" had started to show some pacifism by dropping his mean green attitude and adopting the motif of "Adventure Team" whereas Joe took up adventuring and tomb raiding rather than mercenary employment and clandestine wetwork.  I'd been playing with Marx toy soldiers and any of a half-dozen types and brands of "green army men" when I saw these toys for sale and it was love at first sight ... that big action display showing the figures, the demonstrator figure on its stand where you could move the tab on the base and here the "click-click-click" which, with a little bit of imagination sounded just like small arms fire.

Okay, maybe it didn't.  

Maybe it sounded like some cheap Halloween noise maker but moving that lever made the figure move, if only his torso and the figure would swing his torso from left to right and back again, spraying the enemy (whoever that was) with machinegun fire.

To say that, at the time, these guys were cooler than penguin nuts is an understatement and I eventually had a bucket full of them.  They were my first introduction to small action figures that not only could be posed but which also came with accessories and weapons that could be swapped between figures.  The Mattel "Heroes in Action" henceforth abbreviated simply as "HIA" in this post, were my first introduction my love affair of what would later evolve with the Kenner "Star Wars" action figures.  Mattel's "HIA" were so cool that they didn't even need an enemy ... you could just fight ... whatever ... with them and they would kick so much ass that no trace of the enemy remained.

The bases were always my favorite parts of the toy since they were so detailed ... we're talking Geoff Darrow detailed ... splintered wood, rubble, debris, strewn ammunition belts, broken open wood boxes with handgrenades spilling out ... detail.

The "HIA" were an interesting lot ... there were basically four upper torsos and three lower sets of legs (standing, squatting and sitting).  By rearranging the torsos with the legs, Mattel presented us with 12 different initial variations of figures including an officer with a soft cover ("cap" to you non-jarheads).  At first the "HIA" seemed to be intended for World War II but one quick look at the weapons showed that these were Vietnam era combatants.  Weapons included grenades (which slid onto the figure's hand), M60s, M3 "Grease Gun" SMGs, .45 Colt automatic pistols, bazookas, and flame throwers (complete with backpack fuel tanks!).  One of the weirder offerings was a soldier with a removable gas mask (that was hella cool!) who had a M60 with a rifle grenade on the end of it.  

Huh?

Even at that early age I understood that you couldn't shoot a rifle grenade off the end of a M60 machinegun!


 

The figures were sold individually, each variation came in a simple carded blister pack with accessories like a single weapon.  The officer came with a .45 Colt automatic pistol and a walkie-talkie.  The grenade guy came with a grenade and a M3 "Grease Gun".  Most of the expressions of the figures were their "war face" ... either that or they were terribly constipated from the K-rations.  There were mostly white guys (or really tanned guys) and a few black guys.

Larger offerings included three playsets - each with two figures included on a much larger, dual clicker base with accessories.  These were represented by the heavy machine gun crew (one guy sitting and firing a tripod mounted .50 HMG while the other threw grenades and gave covering fire with his M3 "Grease Gun" or M60), the Mortar Team (again two guys manning a crew served weapon) and the Anti-Tank Gun Team (two HIA with a Recoilless Rifle).  I had all three of those playsets and one other ... the "missile artillery" which was a trailer mounted missile (replete with classic 1970's white and black checkered stripe color scheme) that you could launch about five to eight feet across the room.  There was also a Jeep that I never had, a howitzer that I never had and a really heavily gunned helicopter gunship that I remember buying at Wilson's in Jackson, MS (Wilson's would later become Service Merchandise).  The helicopter had a number of unique features ... spinning main and counter rotor, a place for a figure to stand in the back and be a door gunner, wing mounted air to ground missiles, a rocket pod, two .50 heavy machine guns, a gatling gun and a weird laser cannon with antenna ... because I distinctly remember US Air Cav gunships, namely the Hueys, having laser cannons during the Vietnam War.  I think there was a winch as well but I can't be sure as time has made that memory fuzzy.  I played the hell out of that copter with my "HIA" figures ... I had a sandbox and I crashed that copter and half buried it and had my "HIA" figures do rescue attempts and recovery operations.  I played with it until the decals started to peel off and the parts vanished one by one.




Mattel's "HIA" became "SWAT" - Special Weapons And Tactics - and green became blue while obviously trying to pick up on the TV show of the same name's (then) wild pop-culture popularity

Sometime in 1976 ... Mattel took the olive drab "HIA" and colored their uniforms an urban semi-police blue and reissued the "HIA" as "SWAT" ... possibly because at that time there was a police / crime drama show on TV named "SWAT" that was really, really popular and had that catchy theme song that was a number one hit for the group "Rhythm Heritage" and was playing about every fifth song on the radio back then ...  Unfortunately the "SWAT" version of the "HIA" didn't really hit it off and the toy line folded shortly thereafter, especially in the blistering arrival of "Star Wars" on the big screen.

For what it was worth and while it lasted it was a grand time to be a kid and Mattel made it wonderful.


Shortly after Mattel's "HIA" entered my life another small line of action figures entered my playtime as well ... Fisher Price's "Adventure People."  The scale was close enough to warrant interaction between the two toy lines but like I began this post with ... talking about the Fisher Price "Adventure People" is going to have to wait for another time.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Mystery toy guns of my youth ...

I'm once again asking for help.  Does anyone remember a pair of toy guns from the early to mid 1970's?  The last time I saw them for sale was sometime in the mid 1970's, say 1975, and I want to say that Mattel produced them.  

They were very well built toys, on the high end in price.  

The first toy gun I remember was a pistol gripped full size carbine that fired plastic stripper caps fed single file into a removable magazine in the pistol grip.  The stock was pseudo-wood, more like dense pressed fake-wood that they used on car dashes on old Chevy Impalas.  It was a big gun, full size, adult and a childhood friend had one but the stock kept coming off (mainly because it was held on with one long screw which had become lost ...).  It looked almost Olympic in its design, it was metal and plastic and fake-wood and it weighed and cost almost as much as a decent Daisy BB gun at that time.  I've searched for years on Ebay just to see this toy again and maybe find one cheap enough to own but alas ...

The other toy gun was called "The Black Widow" and I think that Mattel made it as well.  It was a unique looking, wicked black revolver, more waspish than widow.  It had a long barrel, a metal cylinder and it took those 8 shot plastic ring caps that were easier to load than the paper caps but which were such a total step bitch to pry off once you had fired the entire bunch and the cap blasts had melted or distorted the cheap plastic.

I miss the smell of a good, lengthy cap gun fight ... the smoke, the odor wafting on the wind.  Precious childhood memories, filtered through the rays of light of a fast fading year in the cool fall.

Both toy guns were sold and packaged as being the equipment used by urban spec-ops / SWAT teams.  I'm pretty sure these guns came out the same time that Mattel painted their "Heroes In Action"  figures blue and reissued them as "SWAT".  Heroes In Action ... that's another post in the old neural queue soon to come your way.

Well, if else anyone remembers these two toy guns or you have more info on them, drop me a line.




Update - January 28, 2014 - Mystery solved ... I found the carbine in an old J.C. Penny Christmas catalog from 1976.  This item is listed as a "Crackfire Carbine" in one place and as a "Police Task Unit Carbine" under the picture.


The description (4) reads "Crackfire Carbine.  like the ones used by police task units.  Pistol grip holds full load of strip-shot caps (caps not included).  Release safety and fire - the caps eject automatically.  Black and woodgrain finished diecast metal and plastic.  34 1/2 inches long.  3.20 lbs. $9.99".

I'd be lying to you if I told you that, as a 6 year old and a first grader, way back in 1976, I didn't daydream about getting that army play uniform and military gun playset though I didn't like the camo scheme on the Tommy Gun.

Even a year later, as a 7 year old second grader, even being big for my age, this gun was hard to hold and play "guns" with.  It was heavy, too ... big, long and heavy so it wasn't a favorite.  I remember the dark colored packaging of the rifle and I want to say that my falliable childhood memory put this as being marketed as part of the Mattel "Heroes in Action" SWAT offerings.

Of special note is item number (8) - the Rango Rapid-Fire Rifle which would later be repackaged with an Ape mask as part of their Planet of the Apes offerings.  Doubt it?  See here?  Oh, those lazy toy manufacturers.  Mattel also repackaged their old Tommy Gun with an Ape mask as part of the same series though neither a lever action rifle or a Tommy gun was ever used by an Ape in the POTA series.  I'd be willing to go so far as to bet that the Western revolver offered as part of the POTA series toys was also a repackaged older toy.



And a few minutes after I found the mystery carbine I also lucked up on the Black Widow pistol ... it was offered by Mattel, part of the "Crackfire" series and listed as a SWAT offering.



Thank you, Internet, for helping me find the mystery toys of my youth though sometimes my memories are a bit fuzzy ... like the fact that I remembered this revolver had a larger frame / longer barrel but it seems remarkably like a lot of other similar cap revolvers of the time.  Strange ...

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Marx Toys - M240 Machine Pistol


I had several of these when I was a kid ... back when "guns" were cool and a cool game to play.  Liberals cringe at the idea but my friends and I used to run around pretending to be gung-ho soldiers, using plastic toy guns to "shoot" each other and we'd die screaming, laying on the grassy lawn, under a blue Summer sky with all of that UV radiation just cooking our DNA.  When we got hot, we'd go drink out of outside water faucets or garden hoses and you know what ... we grew up normal.  Not one of my friends who ever spent the afternoon playing "guns" has ever shot another human being for any reason but especially spite.

Liberalism.  It's a neural disease, it really is, akin to severe mental retardation.

Anyway I digress ...

Here she is ... the Marx Toys M-240 Machine Pistol based on a design that never existed but would have been hellacool if it ever had.  Look at that oversized magazine with integral handgrip.  Feast your eyes on that elongated barrel with integral flash suppressor, that undersized grip, oversized trigger guard (which made it easy on cold Winter days to play "guns" because your gloved finger could get into that trigger guard) and the fake 1x power see-through optical scope on top.  The M-240 Machine Pistol was sold under many incarnations but mine usually came packaged in a simple cardboard box ... I want to say that the tag / logo was "Johnny Combat" but I can't be sure about something that was over 40 years ago for me, personally.

Pulling the trigger of the M-240 activated a simple sound system which made a sound like a stuttering horny yak that had fallen down a well.  I can't say it was what a real machine pistol would sound like but it did make a fairly decent "rat-a-tat-tat" sound and on cold Winter afternoons, pulling on that trigger was nothing short of glorious because you didn't have to scream out machinegun like sounds with your own lungs and that kept you warmer longer ... and your lungs from burning from the cold Winter air.

The main problem with the Marx M-240 Machine Pistol was that the area where the barrel attaches to the main body was prone to weakness, cracking and breaking.  If you took a pretty realistic death roll, you had better protect your M-240 Machine Pistol from hitting the ground too hard or ... crack ... you suddenly had a snub-nosed machine pistol and back in those days we didn't have stuff like epoxy or Superglue so it was back to the Quartermaster (parents) who disposed of the damaged / destroyed M-240 Machine Pistol (in the garbage) and went to the local Woolco, Kmart, Roses or Zaires to purchase / assign you a new one from the ordinance locker (their wallet or purse).  These things retailed (way back then) for about $3 but you have to realize that $3 in 1973 was about $10 to $15 today so while they were cheap they were not cheap and the Quartermaster (parents) would not be pleased if you repeatedly twatted up your issued weapon of choice.

It was years, nay, decades before I remembered the cherished Marx Toys M-240 Machine Pistol and about ten years ago I lucked up on one on Ebay and bought it pretty cheap (like $20).  It works wonderfully and is almost brand new.  Right now it is in storage but I have a dream of turning one section of one wall in my study / man cave into an arsenal displaying all of the cherished (toy) firearms of my youth ... the M-240 Machine Pistol, a plastic "rapid fire" M-16, the Marx M-16 with pull back bolt and reciprocating red tip, the Marx submachinegun with same reciprocating tip, and a host of others.  I'm getting there, slowly but surely and each new purchase is an adventure in and of itself.

To the kids growing up today who are being socially programmed to hate guns and to think of guns as evil objects all I can say is that my childhood was better than yours ... it was so much better than yours because I didn't spend my childhood getting indoctrinated on how to be a whiny, thin-skinned sissy who complained about getting grass stains on their clothes when they played or worried about getting hit by the dodge ball when it came my turn to be the target.

That's one of the problems with this once great country ... we don't educate our children any more, we indoctrinate them in pre-planned social behavior.  We teach them that wrong is right and right is wrong.  We breed out of them any kind of aggressiveness and assertiveness and in the name of being gentle and fair we've raised entire generations of useless human beings who can't fend for their selves and can't think for their selves.

Pity that.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

That's good to know!


Apparently my local NAPA automotive parts store now carries "Pubes and Hoses".  That's good to know should I ever, like, need some extra pubes.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Columbia

Columbia - City of Charm on the River Pearl ...

... at least that's what my police department patch says.  

Lord knows I blew through Columbia many a time in my youth ... It was little more than a couple of redlights set up on highway 98, a place I had to slow down for no real damn reason at all.  I started coming to Columbia when I was 15.  That was 1984.  I had a driver's license (back when you could get a DL at 15), I had a '78 Chevy Rally Sport Camaro and I had no good intentions at all.  Back then, Highway 98 was a two-lane affair rife with blind spots and its own "Bloody 98" reputation for having so many people killed on that stretch of road.

Later, in the late '80's, the MS DOT began to widen the major two-lane highways into four lanes and getting to Columbia from Hattiesburg and back wasn't that much of an adventure anymore.

Columbia never crossed my mind as a place to settle.  I never thought I'd stop here for long let alone marry into this place and live here one day but life is funny strange like that, especially my life.  I guess I should have known that if I passed through a place often enough I'd eventually grow to like it, maybe even enough to live there one day. 

I passed through Columbia many times in high school, on my way to play basketball games at other schools and riding our big school bus with the rest of the team.  Years later, I used to haul medical supplies and specimens for a long defunct medical lab and Marion General Hospital was one of my stops.  I never thought I'd be working there one day let alone working there for twelve years in a row now.

I've been in Columbia for over 15 years now, that's nearly a third of my life.  I look back at where I wanted to be ... somewhere else.  I always thought that I would be the one who would move off ... way off like to Colorado or Texas or Alaska.  Instead I settled thirty miles west of where I grew up.

Big leap there.

I've realized something along the way ... I've realized something over the years ... people leave the area where they grew up not because something is holding them back but rather because there's nothing really holding them back.  I know a lot of people I went to school with who grew up in this area and now they're in other states, scattered across this once great country and I used to be a little jealous of that fact.  I used to sometimes wonder why I hadn't left for somewhere else ... and then I realized that I didn't need to.  Everything that I needed, everything that I wanted in life was right here, just 30 miles west of where I'd grown up and gone to school.

People leave and go far away because they're looking for what they don't have here and often they're not only mistaken but they're dead wrong as well.  It's sad to know that someone you thought was pretty grounded is now on the other side of the country having the exact kind of life that they had here only somehow it's so much better way out there ... or so they tell me.  It's funny that I don't really hear the joy in their words.

Several people that I knew left for the big cities ... New York, San Francisco, Atlanta, Chicago, Washington, Miami ... and most of them are doing about the same as if they had stayed here, some worse, some better.  You couldn't get me to live in a place like New York city ... you don't go to a big city to find yourself, you go there to lose yourself ... to be absorbed because when you live in a city ... a city ... that has five times more people in it than the entire population of the state where you came from then you have to ask yourself one simple question:

"If I couldn't stand out in a place one fifth this size, how am I going to stand out in a place that is five times larger than where I came from?"

I'm 43 years old at the time of this writing and I've had a really good life ... no, scratch that.  I've had one hell of a great life.  I sit back and read about other people on Facebook and I have to smile.  Some are as old as I am and still chasing their dreams ... and truth be known they will probably still be chasing their dreams when the Reaper comes for them, all the while refusing to give up and admit that a dream was all that they were chasing.

John Cougar Mellencamp once sang about the charm or small towns and while I never liked that song when it was new the truth is that the song has grown on me over the years.

So, I live in Columbia.  It wasn't really a choice on my part, no, I married into Columbia way back in 1995.  Two years later I settled here so that my wife could be close to her family and have a job that she wanted.  I didn't mind commuting the 35 miles one way to Hattiesburg each day; I like driving.  A lot of time I turn the radio off and just listen to the hum of the engine, the song of the road and the cool breeze of the climate control system.  There are days when the road is covered in a light haze or a slowly wafting fog.  There are days when God draws up the curtain, slowly, on some of the most magnificent sun rises and slowly lowers the curtain on some of the most beautiful sunsets.  Bad weather tends to break north and south of Columbia though the clouds do get impressive more often than not.

Sometime in 1997 I started working part-time at Autozone ... in addition to my job at the DOT.  I just wanted some extra folding money for the weekend and for my sports cars and sportbikes.  I didn't have kids so ... Sometime in '99 I started looking at a MP position in the Army Reserve and was one step from being sworn in but Y2K was coming up and even though MDOT had to let me go they weren't happy about it since I was the only computer guy in the entire district.  About that time my manager at Autozone talked me into joining the Columbia PD as a reserve officer ... six months of training and all the powers and responsibilities of a regular police officer only I didn't get paid for my time.

I'm glad that I never signed on as the MP ... another guy I went to school with got that position instead and things were good ... until 9/11 when his unit got activated and he was one of the first to get shipped overseas where he stayed for a long time.  If I had chosen the MP position, that would have been my fate as well ... I may not have had children or had them when I did and I certainly wouldn't have been there for them growing up like I was.

Columbia isn't a really exciting place to live ... it's an even more boring place to die.

People have asked me what it's like to live in Columbia.

I have only one answer; Columbia is like Mayberry ... if Quintin Tarantino had directed "The Andy Griffith Show".  In fact, Columbia is one part Mayberry, one part Picket Fences, one part Twin Peaks and one part Twilight Zone.  Columbia is like a frontier town in the Old West ... it's not much to look at, it has its own special charm, it has everything that you need and it gets a bit rowdy sometimes.

For a little while in the 19th century, Columbia was the capital of Mississippi but the capital was later moved to Jackson.  There is a famous large and very beautiful house, very old, that is to this day still referred to as "The Governor's Mansion."  Our courthouse has four giant clocks on it and reminds me of the courthouse and clock in "Back to the Future."

I told you what Columbia is like ... well, it's also part "Eureka."  There have been UFO sightings in and around Columbia and even a few Bigfoot sightings.  Hell, we even have a toxic waste dump that's kind of like Love Canal where I hear that there is a huge pond that has a chemical sheen across the top of it, mutated, tumor sporting fish swimming in it and tiny silver bubbles which burble to the top of the water and burst into puffs of smoke once they reach the surface.  I've never seen any of that but I've heard it often enough to think there might be just a bit of truth in it.   Anyway, it's interesting barber shop or coffee shop talk that seems to come up more often than not.

To give you a taste of what it's like to live in Columbia, I went out for a ride the other day and found myself sitting in the local McDonald's, eating my lunch which has gotten cold since over the last fifteen minutes I've had to talk to and converse with about six different people who know me or recognize me.  Looking out at the highway I see a dust devil swirl by, wind and loose dirt from a construction project nearby.  It might as well be a tumbleweed and the effect would have been the same.

A pair of people wearing western wear and cowboy hats are riding horses at a slow clop through the Super Walmart parking lot.  A woman in a long dress, white gloves and a bonnet is riding a rusty old bicycle through the parking lot trying to sell homemade peanut brittle.  A rusted out Papa Smurf blue Geo Metro with an unlit Domino's Pizza sign on the roof buzzes by sounding like a giant constipated beetle.  

Down the road is the old Walmart which has been gutted and retrofitted to a variety of smaller stores that share space in the strip mall that also has an aging Winn Dixie and the three trio of fast food; KFC, Hardees and Taco Bell.  Next to the Taco Bell, in the same parking lot, is a long ago closed Burger King ... the sign out front reads "CB Whop er Me L" and gives a price that is six years ago. 

Down the road and across the highway from that is the old Jitney Jungle which is now a Tractor Supply store, the old K-Mart which is now a flea market and a host of other small stores including a rent to own, a check cashing place and a liquor store ... the liquor store has been there longer than any other store ... vice is always necessary, it may even be something that Maslow needs to rethink the priority of, even adding it to his hierarchy of needs.

There's other ghosts and free market corpses as well ... the abandoned and half overgrown Sonic on Lumberton.  The steak house that is now a gym.  The two old western wear stores ... the Autozone that I used to work at that's now a consignment shop and had once been a bowling alley long before it was a parts store.  The empty slab where the old A-frame house used to sit across from Autozone ... a house of drunks and poor white trash ... the house where I personally saw two trashy women leave drunk one night ... only to French kiss a tree later that night and both perish in the twisted wreckage of their car.

There's auto parts shops, tanning places, family restaurants that change names and ownership more than they change menus, antique shops, a Walgreen's, gas stations, bait and tackle shops, hunting supply stores ... a Radio Shack ... and a Ward's (fast food).  Ward's is such a tradition in Mississippi that I don't think that you're even allowed to put a city dot on the map unless it actually does have a Ward's.

I finish my cold meal and ride my Honda through my neighborhood, passing a deep creek.  Looking down into the bottom of the creek I notice it is almost dry.  There, on a sandbar in the middle of the creek, with a trickle of water running around each side, is a large gray television set ... just sitting there on the sandbar with the power cord trailing off into the water and I think "there's nothing good on TV."  Two days later a collection of storms moves through the area, heavy downpour and when I ride by the creek  a few days later the TV is gone ... swept away by the raging waters of the swollen creek.

I ride around ... relaxing ... and look for the "Yard of the Month" sign or who got "Student of the Week" this time.  I'm often surprised by what the houses look like where I find those signs in the yard.  I head downtown on my Honda, passing over exposed bricks dating back to the 19th century when roads still weren't paved with asphalt.  I pass down Beef Alley, past buildings that are older than my parents, over railroad tracks that have been almost covered up completely and past loading doors in the sides and rear of buildings big enough to hustle cattle out of train cars and into the buildings. 

I turn and ride past the police station, heading for one of my favorite spots to relax and just be alone.  I ride past Pioneer Aerospace ... the company that makes parachutes for the US government, the company that used to make parachutes for the space shuttle and I remember tales of the employees taking the chutes out to the water park and folding them there.


I ride on to the scenic bend in the river.  I park my Honda, take off my jacket, my helmet and my gloves and sit on the bank watching the water flow by and occasionally a fishing boat or even the local tourist air boat go by.

Columbia: City of Charm on the River Pearl.

I guess that's not too far from the truth and I guess Columbia's not too bad a place to live ... if you like Mayberry and Quintin Tarantino.