|Original G.I. Joe lineup.|
The many Joes I collected allowed me to create a variety of scenarios, such as battle scenes and MASH units, where the crippled Joes were the star attractions. They had nicknames based on their afflictions—Lefty, Peg-Leg, Spike, Napoleon Blownapart*—and they accepted their roles with nary a complaint.
I didn’t limit my action-packed scenarios to my Joes. I recruited Barbies belonging to my friends’ sisters to serve as nurses and girlfriends, and the Barbies would kick poor Ken—4F and unable to articulate any of his critical body parts—to the curb whenever the Joes were on leave.
I had been exposed to storytelling from birth. My mother read to me and, because we did not own a television until I was in third grade, we listened to radio dramas rebroadcast from earlier decades.
But playing with G.I. Joes may be where I first developed my storytelling chops. I created characters with backstories and had them interact with other characters who had their own backstories. I developed inciting incidents or had them forced upon me—the Germans have broken through the line! Lefty’s been captured! The poodle of doom has run off with Peg-Leg!—and my characters and I faced hard choices: whether to stand our ground or retreat in the face of overwhelming odds, rescue Lefty or let him fend for himself, chase the neighbor’s poodle or risk the loss of Peg-Leg’s remaining leg.
During inclement weather, my Joes and I could spend an entire day indoors, fighting battles that raged from my bedroom across the hall into my mother’s or down the hall to the living room and kitchen. An early morning inciting incident would lead to rising action, setbacks, false climaxes, more rising action, a climax, falling action, and resolution. And all before bedtime.
In those heady times, before the reality of adulthood taught me that some fairy tales end with unhappily ever after and I learned to appreciate noir, all of my G.I. Joe stories ended with the heroes vanquishing the villains.
I don’t remember when my Joes and I fought our last battle, but they were no longer part of my life by fifth grade. Having grown too old to play with dolls (no matter how they were labeled), I had moved on to other things. Even so, the storytelling skills I first toyed with back then became the foundation of my writing career.
And if I ever get stuck writing a story and need an unexpected twist, the poodle of doom is always lurking in the shadows.
*You really thought I was this clever in third grade?
Mid-Century Murder (Darkhouse Books, edited by Andrew MacRae) contains “Where’s Sara Jane?” a story I co-authored with Sandra Murphy.
The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods, which I edited and Down & Out Books published, has been selected for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories 2020.