No one experiences this crowd like Jamie Sanders does.
Across the street from the Hyatt Regency Crown Center, on a Friday morning in August, his helmet muffles nearby parents' warnings to their children about running across the busy street. It also distorts jokes made by middle-aged men with snake tattoos. The helmet ensures that when Sanders does speak, his own voice echoes back to him, but no one else can hear.
Vision is also a problem. The visor lets him look out while hiding his face behind a mirror, but the plastic sheath makes everything darker and fogs up from his breath. And the full-body uniform of the Cobra soldier makes the morning's heat even worse. When he finally does remove the helmet, Sanders' hair is slick with sweat and clings to his scalp in unruly tangles.
He loves moments like these. Some of the parents bring their kids over to take pictures with him. Sanders dutifully stands with each one, sometimes posing with a fake grenade in one hand, the other hand on the pin.
Finally, the staffers who are working this year's International G.I. Joe Convention begin moving people away from the base of the Hyatt hotel. A countdown begins, and as the screaming crescendos at number one, someone throws a dark object from the roof more than 40 floors above.
At first, the object is hard to see in the sunlight reflecting off the glass building. But the floating thing becomes clearer against the cloudless blue sky as its parachute catches a gust of wind. In less than a minute, it reaches the ground. Children and grown men swarm over it, and a pair of adult hands raises it: a gray capsule holding a small plastic man in a yellow jumpsuit.
"Get back, please!" one of the staffers yells. "People, we need you to get back!"
Everyone steps back, and another countdown begins. Those at the front of the crowd look as if they're poised at starting blocks, their muscles tense, their grimaces determined.
The screaming starts again when the first specks are visible in the sky. For the next few minutes, someone atop the Hyatt will launch 300 12-inch dolls above the ravenous masses.
"Children first!" staffers yell, but no one can hear them. Kids trip over their own feet and each other and fall to the pavement crying. Men in their 40s jump to grab toys before they land and then run from the crowd.
Television news crews are interviewing bystanders. One G.I. Joe fan removes his shirt to expose tattooed snake heads — the insignia of the fictional Cobra terrorist organization — across the chubby plane of his torso.
To Sanders' left, a man wearing a JoeCon access badge snags a doll from the air while, beneath his arm, a small boy jumps and misses. The man hands over the toy, and the boy runs off.
Other kids have a harder time.
"Sir! Sir! Sir! Sir!" shouts a heavy woman dragging a crying child by one arm behind her. She's chasing a doughy man with a white handlebar mustache and a convention tag around his neck. "Sir! It's kids first! It's kids first!"
The man does not turn around. Instead, he walks with a quick, purposeful stride away from the mother chasing him and calling "Sir! Sir! Sir!" with the same inflection with which someone would say Asshole! Asshole! Asshole!
A woman from the JoeCon staff moves in between them. The angry mother is shouting now, pointing to a cluster of children standing empty-handed across the street.
"If you don't give him the G.I. Joe, I will take away your convention pass," the staffer tells the man with the handlebar mustache. Then she plucks the paratrooper from his hands, bends over and hands it to the sniffling boy.
"Thank you," the mother says and walks away, still pulling the child.
The man stands there for a moment, mouth open, watching his lost prize disappear. The staffer moves on to make sure other adults give the toys to children.
"I'm a collector!" the man bleats suddenly, before walking away in stunned confusion.
The crowd begins to thin, but the G.I. Joe frenzy isn't over.
Two dolls have landed in the branches of a tree, about 8 feet higher than any of the remaining men can reach.
At first they throw shoes, hoping to dislodge the toys, but that doesn't work. The average G.I. Joe fan here is not in any shape to climb a tree, so after the sneakers stop flying, they just stand around staring at the tiny plastic people. Eventually, a pair of brave, lean men attempt a rescue mission. They're about halfway up the branches when a police officer arrives.
"Get down right now," the officer says in a voice quieter and deeper than the angry mother's but with the same tone.
G.I. Joe fans respect the authority of law. The two men in the tree jump down. "If the cops are here, it's time to go," one says to the other.
Sanders, who has been watching from below the tree, leaves with nothing in hand.
The Joes in the tree will not be stranded for long. By lunchtime, someone has rescued them.
Now 29, Sanders remembers himself as a playful kid who liked to ride bicycles. He stayed home most of the time. Though he had friends, he was often lonely. His parents divorced when he was 2. His mother moved to New York, and he stayed with his father and grandparents in the older couple's South Carolina house, built on a stretch of wilderness that abutted the local Little League baseball fields. His father was usually out of town on work. Every Friday, the family would go to a Southern, home-style restaurant run by a sweet woman named Angie.
On quiet afternoons, he watched G.I. Joe. The cartoon, based on the toy line and comic books, followed the ongoing struggle between G.I. Joe Team, America's elite fighting unit, and Cobra Command, the terrorist organization bent on world domination. Since 1984, it seems that the toymaker Hasbro has adapted every type of man, fictional or otherwise, into a Real American Hero with a kung fu grip. There are Joes based on characters from action movies that failed to ignite their own franchises (like Jean-Claude Van Damme's 1994 Street Fighter) and Joes who are men crossed with animals (manimals with standard toy-soldier bodies and lions' heads). There's a Joe based on Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf as well as a Barack Obama Joe.
The first Christmas that Sanders can remember, he was 4 years old. His family was in the toy aisle at Kmart. There, on the shelf in a clear-plastic package, was Barbecue, the firefighter Joe. All of the 3-3/4-inch Joes launched in conjunction with the cartoon had a gimmick, and unlike the original, 12-inch counterparts that first hit the market in 1964, these smaller figures' extremities had 360-degree rotating joints.
Hasbro gave the soldiers personalities and histories, so that kids could identify with characters from their hometowns. At least five — Barricade, Flint, Cutter, Lightfoot and Crankcase — were from Kansas. Barbecue was from Boston. He didn't wear camouflage; instead, he had an orange, flame-retardant suit, a helmet with a mirrored slit to see through, a gas mask and an ax in one hand.
That Christmas, Sanders saw a man dressed as Santa walking down the aisles, playing with children. Sanders was terrified that Santa would see the toy and decide that Sanders didn't need anything for Christmas, so he begged his grandfather, William, to hold Barbecue. When Santa passed them, William claimed ownership of the toy. And St. Nick came through on Christmas morning.
"I must've somehow been good enough because they bought it for me," Sanders says of his gift-earning behavior that year. Sanders' father, Darrel, bought him a Knight Rider car that year. Sanders' mother didn't send a gift; it was a precedent that would continue for the rest of his childhood. "I was the sixth of seven kids, and most were from different fathers," he says. "I never really had a relationship with her."
He had company, at least. Most of his school friends lived too far away to come over to his grandparents' house. But two half brothers, both by different fathers, lived close enough to visit. One was three years older, the other five.
"I got that scar playing baseball," Sanders says, tapping his temple. "I was the baseball. We made do with what we had."
When they weren't beating him with a Louisville Slugger, Sanders' brothers liked to play G.I. Joe. They didn't have the aircraft carrier base, so they used the trees for forts.
"We didn't do Joes against Cobras. It was just whoever you had — that was your side," Sanders says. "It was just all of us against the other."
Sanders isn't sure why his father and grandfather encouraged him to watch G.I. Joe over all the other '80s cartoons. He assumes that their military backgrounds had something to do with it: His father served in Vietnam, and his grandfather fought in World War II. When he was a teenager, he found in his grandfather's closet an old Walther pistol engraved with swastikas. Next to it were a similarly adorned belt, scabbard and sword.
"Where'd you get this?" he asked.
"One of the officers didn't need it anymore," William said.
"What do you mean, didn't need it anymore?"
"He was dead."
Most Christmases, Sanders could count on a new armored artillery vehicle or set of figurines. As he grew older, the Joes were less likely to come out of the toy chest, but the influence stayed with him. In his early 20s, he volunteered as a firefighter. "Barbecue probably had something to do with that," he admits.
One time, he responded to a house fire that was ignited by an exploding oxygen tank. It was a week or so after the September 11, 2001, attacks, and the neighbors were convinced that this fire was the work of al-Qaida. Sanders calmly tried to reason with them for as long as he could stand to.
"I finally got to the point where I said, 'Yes, it was terrorists. Osama bin Laden sent a remote-controlled plane full of G.I. Joes, and it crashed into the house.' One person actually believed me."
While volunteering at the fire department, he worked full time on the night shift as a guard at the Perry Correctional Institution. "That was 99 percent boredom and 1 percent pure terror," he remembers.
One night, as Sanders was starting his rounds, he was called to an emergency in a cell. An inmate had hung himself with an extension cord tied to the top bunk. The next day, he read in the paper that the inmate was the son of the woman named Angie, who owned the restaurant where his family had eaten dinner on Friday nights.
"She'd been killed in a hunting accident, and it messed him up pretty bad," Sanders says. "He was in [prison] because he killed one woman and held another hostage in an apartment complex."
Years later, when Sanders put together his Cobra costume, he would use the gloves and boots from his prison uniform. He also uses the belt, but with a cobra-head buckle.
He moved to Kansas City six years ago, after the end of a bad relationship.
"I still have some of the toys from when I was a kid, but a lot of them are packed in South Carolina," he says. "I still have Barbecue."
The International G.I. Joe Convention has been going for close to 20 years; this is the second time it's been in Kansas City. For four days, August 13-16, an estimated 4,000 fans pack the downtown Hyatt. Most of the attendees are male, large, and loyal to either the 12-inch original toys or the 3-3/4-inch figurines based on the cartoon characters. A slight edge goes to the cartoon fans, who tend to be younger and single, with more disposable income.
The parachute drop is the big, free, public event. Anyone who wants inside the Hyatt has to pay a daily admission fee of $12 (full-access weekend passes are more expensive) for panels on the comics, films and toy creation; for sales of hard-to-find toys at vendor booths; for meet-and-greets with actors; for fan videos; and for a screening of the recently released live-action G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, which gives this year's convention a timely feel and brings in a new generation of kids who hadn't heard of G.I. Joe until a few months ago.
"I'm just here to pick up a few helmets and things for the kids," says 36-year-old Patrick Carr of Independence, who's trolling the Saturday-morning merchandise tables with his daughter, Anah, age 7. Anah is dressed as a parrot, with a green construction-paper beak and mask to complement her father's imitation of Shipwreck, a sailor-style Joe. "My wife doesn't understand the collecting," Carr says, "but she supports it."
The weekend's hot zone is the trade-show floor, where fans can get autographs signed by comic-book artists. This is also the place where toy collectors find obscure and rare men.
Steve Allen has been selling action figures to collectors for the last six years through his company, Timewalker Toys & Collectibles in Bonner Springs, Kansas. This is his first G.I. Joe convention.
"It's definitely a different kind of market," he says of this crowd. His customers are more often professional collectors who are interested in historical accuracy, and his products are more expensive than the average G.I. Joe item. "Our product — one-sixth scale military items and figures — takes a lot of time and care to produce," he says, "whereas the G.I. Joe product line is geared toward nostalgia collectors, people who were into the toy as kids. So the crowd is going to be largely geared toward sci-fi and fantasy and nostalgia. But, uh ... it's a fun crowd. One thing G.I. Joe can do is turn out a crowd."
Other salesmen working the floor are vacationing from their day jobs.
Ace Allgood got engaged at a G.I. Joe Convention nine years ago. The following year, the convention was held in Kansas City, and he and his new wife honeymooned in the metro for two weeks. He says he has a successful career, but once a year he takes time off to follow the convention and trade some rare toys. (He collects only the 12-inch figures.) His wife is with him today, dressed in a black body suit as the evil Baroness.
"As a collector, I love the movie. I want as many people into G.I. Joe as possible — and what's wrong with that? Of course, nowadays it's all the kids who got into it in the '80s, so 12-inch guys like me are losing some ground. But that's cool," he says. "Personally, I was 16 when the cartoon started, so I didn't give a shit." If the figures based on the cartoon characters had been 12 inches, he says, he would have been into them. But he was ho-hum about the 3-3/4-inch toys. "The 12-inch, they had accessories, they had all these different outfits, but you had to make up the story yourself. The cartoon guys had their shit fixed; it was all done for you. You couldn't be a creative person," he says.
"Look, man, my parents got divorced," he says, lowering his voice. "So when my mom was dragging me around to flea markets, I could look at Joes. That was my thing. And it helped me out."
Sanders' devotion has done more than give him something to do in his spare time. He got his current job, as a night maintenance man at the Cinemark theater on the Plaza, through his connections in a local Star Wars fan club.
"It gets lonely there at night," he says of the Cinemark at 5 a.m. "Unearthly quiet. Quieter than you'd ever think."
He has been networking at the convention. Through Internet fan sites, he has met Ian Daniels of Arkansas City, Kansas. On Saturday night, the two sit down with a few other new friends for the weekend buffet. One couple from Florida mentions that there's a room in their house filled with nothing but G.I. Joes.
"Last year, I spent $7,000 at the convention in the first three hours," the husband brags. "I have seven kids, and they all know not to go into that room. They know to respect it."
He doesn't seem worried that his kids might be troubled by their lack of access to a roomful of toys. "We're remodeling the house," he says, "so the kids don't all have to share a bedroom, and the Joes will still have their own room."
Daniels and Sanders laugh.
This is Daniels' first JoeCon. "I went through a divorce and some other bad things, and it's like, I'm doing this," he says. "It was something I could never let go of. If it's on television, I'm watching it. My kids — one's 6, and the other's 12 — they got Pokeman and Power Rangers. I look at that and think, What happened to all the good cartoons that meant something?"
Daniels and Sanders have both come dressed as Cobras. The festivities may be named after a hero, but everyone wants to emulate the bad guys. Even the shopping bags are marked with red snake heads.
Daniels and Sanders have spent $200 to $300 on their costumes. For that kind of money, they could dress up as evil leaders, but both prefer to be grunts. Cobra high commanders order around an army of anonymous characters dressed in red and blue — cartoon cannon fodder. The fantasies of men like Daniels and Sanders are fixed on the low end of the Cobra power structure. In fact, most of the people wearing costumes at tonight's dinner are dressed as these anonymous foot soldiers, who never got lines in the cartoons, whose main narrative function was to retreat en masse.
"I don't need to be Destro," Daniels says of the Cobra's bald, metal-plated second-in-command. "I'm Destro 365 days a year in middle management." Daniels, 30, works at Pizza Hut.
"It's the inner bad boy in me who wants to be Cobra," he explains. "But you have your right side and your wrong side, and you either know what you're doing and doing the right thing or you're not. I had some friends I associated with that didn't have Joe. And I think it had a lot to do with them going down the wrong path and me going down the right one. They got busted for petty burglary, theft. As corny as it sounds, it was those stupid public-service announcements at the end of each [G.I. Joe] episode. You see 90 of those things telling you to do the right thing — it sticks with you. I can spend my money on drugs, get stoned and break into a house, or it's three o'clock and I'm going home to watch G.I. Joe. Forget that it's marketed to 10-year-olds. Take a look at it and see if you can catch what's really going on."
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