I was at a social gathering yesterday, one wherein I was expected to interact with a large group of people I did not know. It was semi-professional in nature … a very dear lady for whom I’d done some work last year was retiring, and she and I had been through the wars on some deeply contentious things that were very important to her personally. We became close, and it was important to her that I be there for her retirement party. I would know a couple of others there on an “acquaintance” level, but not well. It didn’t matter. She wanted me there, so I went.
I got to talking to a guy there who was somewhat close to my age. We chatted as strangers do, about the party, the food, the weather. How do you know the hostess? What do you do? He seemed fairly nonthreatening, so when I explained the [true] story of how I’d been hired via one of my friends in my charity Star Wars costuming group, he looked at me uncomprehendingly for a minute. Then I said, “We dress up like the bad guys from Star Wars. For charity.” He took a moment, then smiled knowingly.
"Oh. You’re THAT kind of freak."
I thought about it as I drove home… about what kind of freak I am.
I’m a longtime member of the 501st Legion.
Before I was a member, I was just a run-of-the-mill geek. Mom, lawyer. Employable. I liked comics and cars and video games and sci-fi, and when I was little, my brother and I played hours upon hours upon hours of Star Wars figures in, under, and around my dining room table. I left John’s Lobot figure inside the chandelier, and the back of his bald head melted to the flame-shaped light bulb inside. It was a mortal wound, but we always had someone to take the blaster bolts for the team from there on out.
I am too tall, gawky, graceless, and, occasionally, socially awkward. I am a recently-divorced mom trying to make a life for my kids that will give them the platform to reach high and strive.
I am a member of the 501st Legion.
Yes, we dress up as the bad guys. Yes, we do it in public. Yes, we face a degree of ridicule from people who observe us doing it. To outsiders, it’s a matter of being so obsessed with a character or a movie that we have to be that character or person.
It’s not that.
Joining the Legion is a matter of being dropped into this group of people who share your passion for the movies and the greater Star Wars universe. People spend hours and hours and hours researching what kind of costume what speaks to their hearts most, down inside, as people. What suits each body style. What they’ll be comfortable wearing for long periods of time, both indoors and out—stomping around conventions, or strolling around hospitals. Dozens, if not hundreds, of meticulous hours go into the research before one even makes a sketch or contacts a vendor. You have to decide on things like armor, what type of adhesive to use, fabrics, shoes.
Collect all the pieces.
Hope nothing breaks or tears or has to be rebuilt.
Fit it to yourself.
Once the armor fits, get the extra accessories.
The whole process can take a year. You must do it right. The acceptance standards are high.
Once you’re a member, you are part of an extended family that you will come to love and for whom you will go to the ends of the earth. Well, some of them. Some of them will not jibe with you, and that’s okay too. Regardless, we all work together.
These people take these costumes they’ve worked so hard on, drive somewhere, and for no personal compensation, run around for hours in their gear, just to put a smile on some faces. Sometimes we get water provided, sometimes we get a room to stash our street clothes and wallets and things, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes the adults control the kids and force them to treat us with respect and courtesy. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the people who asked us to come are not the people who actually have us there, and the ones who are there treat us like an imposition.
But we go. We gear up and talk to the kids and take as many pictures as they want, stay until the last kid (large or small) who wants a picture goes home with one. We get up before dawn to drive to some town we’ve never heard of because there’s a sick child whose wish is to see Darth Vader and some Stormtroopers. Then we drive home well after dark, exhausted, to our own families. We keep spending endless money in gas and travel and food, not to mention the costumes and the upkeep, and the constant striving to have the best costumes and the highest-possible-quality gear. The peer pressure raises it to a moral imperative.
We raised $6 million for charities last year.
So as “that kind of freak”, I’ve done the following:
1. Made a whole new set of friends (in the middle of my life) in the state to which I moved after moving from my home state.
2. Found people who were willing to go way out of their way to help people less fortunate—even to the point of wearing white plastic in public. Good, kind people.
3. Gotten up before dawn, driven through the night … thousands upon thousands of miles to troop. Flew many more. To troop.
3. Learned leadership skills, public relations skills, management skills,massive multistate event planning skills, political skills, armor building and prop weapon building skills, corporate interaction skills, corporate licensing and trademark oversight skills, and personal skills at overcoming adversity.
4. I’ve talked to sick and dying children and their parents and watched their pain struggle with the relief of having something else to think about. I’ve watched the pure joy of a new toy wipe everything else from the face of a desperately ill child.
5. I’ve been in situations with happy, healthy children who were just thrilled to see me. I uniformly tell them to be good to their moms and dads, study hard and do well in school, and grow up to be good, loyal Imperial citizen. They smile, and say they will.
I have been blessed.
The Legion was a touchstone into me spreading my wings, out into the greater Internet, seeing what there was to find, and who. I have made so many friends. There is as much kindness and compassion and genuine love out there as there are people who are hateful and stupid and worthless. The Legion has given me costumer friends, which led me to other costumer friends in other genres, which led me to geeks of other forms … comics, Star Trek, BSG, “geek girls”, whatever. There’s a network. We check in with each other. We care for each other. We inspire each other and keep each other going. We have the Bloggess. We inform and educate each other.
I got to help start a group of women who dress up like Sci-Fi pinup girls. They’re now in the Star Wars universe.
So circling back around to the beginning … and the idea at hand.
“You’re THAT kind of freak?”
Yes, as it turns out.
I am THAT kind of freak.