We Conquered the Galaxy and All I Got Were These Feety Pajamas

The Heartache of a Fake Stormtrooper

By Matt Betts

“Can you get off work Friday?” Josh asked excitedly as I took the phone from my wife. Josh was one of her best friends from college.

“Maybe.” I was leery of what was to come; usually his ideas involved alcohol or loud music from bands I’d never heard of, or both. “Why?”

“Want to be a Stormtrooper?”

Let me make something clear up front. I am not what would be considered a full-fledged Star Wars geek. I did see the original movies many, many times when I was younger. I was six when they started coming out so they were a big part of my youth. I’ve seen the prequels and cheered the good and railed against the bad in them. I’ve never dressed up as a character from the films unless you count when I was Darth Vader one year for Halloween, but I was eight, so cut me some slack. Aside from a ‘May the Force Be with You’ t-shirt or two, that was the extent of how far my wardrobe went.

Until recently.

“What?” I asked him.

“Next year COSI’s having an exhibit of Star Wars stuff,” COSI is the Center of Science and Industry, a local attraction for schools and families that goes to great lengths to make science accessible and enjoyable. “They’re having a media preview thing Friday and my friend is looking for people to play Stormtroopers for it. I think she still needs people. Interested?”

Interested? I was, but one thing ran through my mind from the time he asked the question: I was thirty-four years old. Wasn’t I a little old for that sort of thing? Sure, in my college days it would have been great to cut a class or two and run around menacing reporters, but I had work on Friday.

“It sounds great,” I said. “I need to see if I can get the day off.” Getting off work wasn’t really a problem; I just had to decide if I wanted to use a sick day to play dress up for a few hours.

It came down to the whole nostalgia factor for me. It was something I could tell the childhood friends that I saw the original movies with when we got together again; I got to wear one of the actual suits, ya know? I was sure they’d be impressed. When would I, or anyone for that matter, get this chance again?

In the back of my head, a little voice repeated one phrase like a mantra: You’re thirty-four years old.

My answer for Josh was terribly unenthusiastic. “Okay, what do we do?” He emailed me an itinerary and we made plans to meet early Friday to ride together. My outlook brightened considerably when I looked at the schedule and found we’d only be in costume for an hour, tops. In fact, the day would be over for us by eleven-thirty in the morning. Plus, we got free pizza when we were done. I couldn’t see the down side.

The week went by fast and I managed to get in a positive mood about Friday. In fact, I rolled out a Star Wars video game the night before to get in the spirit of things.

Friday morning I chose my clothing carefully. I didn’t want to roast in the heavy plastic armor, so I put on some light workout shorts and a dark t-shirt. I debated on this point for some time because in the movies when a trooper took off his helmet he wore a dark turtleneck-type shirt under it, but then again, the armor was white and if I wore a white t-shirt, it wouldn’t show up if the armor didn’t quite fit correctly. I was afraid the dark shirt might be too hot, but decided to wear it anyway, in order to be true to the film.

Let me again pause here to emphasize that I’ve never been a Star Wars ‘fanatic’ of any sort. I merely chose a black t-shirt for the sake of authenticity.

When I picked Josh up very early Friday, he was dressed in a white t-shirt with a beer advertisement on the front and back along with cargo shorts.

Amateur. I thought.

The COSI building didn’t open to regular traffic until nine, so the lot was empty except for a cluster of vehicles near the main doors. We noticed that there were people milling around and gathering their things from trunks and back seats. Most of it was pieces of Stormtrooper armor. “Excellent. It looks like all the stuff made it here on time. Wow,” I said. “Look at that gun and those helmets.”

I’ll admit it. I was pretty excited. Any doubts I had or reservations about what I should and shouldn’t be doing at my age faded with the first glint of sunlight off of the Tie Fighter pilot’s dark helmet.

The huge banner at the front door colorfully touted the exhibit we were announcing, Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination. It didn’t give much more info on the banner, but I supposed having Star Wars in gigantic letters was all that was necessary to draw a crowd. We followed everyone else to the atrium, which was to be our rallying point for the morning’s activities. One of the staff members pointed out that there were donuts, which drew a small but enthusiastic cheer from somewhere behind us. I grabbed a chocolate one and thought about saying something to them about the wisdom of putting all of the greasy glazed donuts next to a rack of white paper-like costumes, but thought better of it.

Yes, it registered, but only as a tiny blip on my radar. I enjoyed my donut and looked around, wondering why none of the cool costumes were in here yet. Josh grabbed a donut and noticed me looking around. “Yeah. Those on the end are ours. I tried one of the mediums on Monday but it barely came up to my chest. So, they made sure to reserve a couple of big ones for us.”

Off to one side, the guys who were coming in carrying the cool, authentic uniforms in were looking at the costumes on the rack and chucking. Through word of mouth I found out these people were part of the 501st, a club of some sort that makes authentic-looking Star Wars costumes and, well, I wasn’t clear what they did then, other than come to events like this. One of them said: “During the ceremony, we should come marching in and knock the fake troopers to the ground and start kicking them.”

I realized I was a fake.

Before I could act on my impulse to run away, someone read off names to make sure we were all there and then dragged us outside to put us in our spots for the ceremony. This included a run-through where we walked across the freshly watered grass and down to our marks behind a podium. There, an ersatz Queen Amidala ran through her lines quickly and introduced the Director and CEO of COSI, former astronaut Dr. Kathryn Sullivan. Dr. Sullivan wasn’t there for the dry run but a stand-in took her place, marching down with an escort to the podium. The techs ran through sound cues and microphone levels – blaring the familiar “Imperial March” across the front lawn and parking lots. In the run through, I was one of the only ones who got to move. I had to stand to one side when the queen came to the podium, and again when the CEO and her escort came down. Everyone else had to stand at attention. Lucky me, I got to draw attention to myself.

Back inside, we gathered at the atrium and the staff started handing out costumes. They went alphabetically and by size, which meant I was one of the first names called for an extra large. I stepped forward and they handed me one of the white costumes next to the donuts. I didn’t want to take it at first; surely there was some mistake. But as I turned the costume around, it was evident from its markings that it was supposed to look like Stormtrooper armor. “Make sure you grab a helmet,” the staff reminded me. I reached into the nearby box and pulled out a half-flattened hard plastic helmet and walked over to a bench with my head hung low. Josh walked over with his costume and I found it hard to look him in the eye.

Many of the other fake Stormtrooper outfits were going to children. The only older ones were staff members who seemed resigned to the fact they had been roped into doing it. While they drifted off to put on their costumes, Josh and I sat down where we were and slid the one-piece on over our clothes. Even though they were the largest size available, they were very… snug. They tended to ride up a little in areas that might overly emphasize things that might already be over exposed by, say, workout shorts. The legs of the costumes ended in elastic stirrups, meant to hold spat-like coverings over the wearer’s shoes. One of my stirrups broke immediately, causing the cover to turn inward and off of my shoe. I looked slightly pigeon-toed when I walked.

After Josh and I tied our costumes in the back for each other like hospital gowns, his friend who got us both into this came over and laughed. “I should never agree to anything when I’m drunk,” Josh said. Drunk? I didn’t get any alcohol.

“Have you guys tried on the helmets yet?” she asked. “They were all smashed completely flat. We had to go out and buy foam and plastic colanders and cut them up to make the helmets stay in some sort of wearable form.” I looked and, sure enough, there was the bottom part of a colander glued to the top of the helmet to give it shape. I tried the helmet on found it less than roomy. My face touched it on all sides and I couldn’t see. I pulled at it until I found the eyeholes, which were six or so pinpricks around where my eyes were supposed to be. Even worse, there weren’t any similar holes around the mouth. I could see poorly, and breathe just enough to make the mask a wet mess.

The costumes were even thinner than I thought. Josh’s beer t-shirt could be plainly seen through the chest area. I pointed this out and he laughed. “It’s like NASCAR,” he said. “This Stormtrooper sponsored by Miller Light!” Scanning the crowd, I found it was more common than I thought. Another trooper was apparently brought to you by a local pub.

After a half hour of standing in the atrium, we were told it was time. We followed our leader to the stairs that led up to the back door. The 501st had to take the elevator, while the rest of navigated the steps in our tight costumes, trying not to tear them. Once out the back door, we lined up in order. After only a couple of minutes the full effect of the heat hit us. It was probably only in the mid-eighties, but even though the costumes were light and flimsy, they were still warm. None of us were looking forward to putting the helmets on. “I don’t envy those guys so much anymore.” I said, nodding at the members of the 501st. I still did, but the heat made a convenient excuse. One of the fakes behind me who had hair that hung down to the center of his back pointed to one of them and said, “See the backpack that one? He’s got a fan built into it to cool him off. I stood right next to it and couldn’t even hear it.” My only good reason for not being jealous was gone. In addition, I had a new misery; Pony-tail Guy. “Kenny Baker had air conditioning in his costume when he played R2D2.” he said. He was full of facts and energy and I was fairly sure he was one of only two people that were older than I was. It wasn’t a comfort.

When we started moving again, we were informed there was a slight change in plans. Since the grass was so damp from the morning’s watering, we would take the sidewalk to our positions. This would save us from getting our costumes and shoes wet.

We were led around to the side of the building to wait for our cue. The sidewalk bordered one of the busiest streets into downtown Columbus. Cars, trucks and busses rolled by us honking their horns, waving and yelling. Our handler told us we could leave our helmets off as long as we were out of sight of the media. Hate to ruin the mystique. Music started in the distance and we all put our helmets on and started forward. The first time I tried on the helmet I hadn’t really experience the full effect of how limiting the eye holes were. I had to really choose which eye I would look out of; somehow I couldn’t use both. This played havoc with my depth perception and I was constantly afraid I was going to run into the young lady in front of me. She wore high heels under her costume and her long red hair stuck out of her helmet. I hung back further than I probably needed to in order to prevent a disastrous collision with her.

Our new route was nicer than walking through the grass, but they didn’t mention the fact that we had to go up a few stairs to get to our marks. Luckily, they were shorter steps than the ones inside and most of us had no trouble getting past them. It did cause a few muffled obscenities to issue out of some helmets, though.

Things went pretty much as planned from there. Members of the media and a large number of families waited patiently on the lawn in front of us while Amadala gave her speech and introduced the CEO. Dr. Sullivan was escorted to the podium by a very authentic-looking Darth Vader, while the speakers blared only the sound of his breathing. At the podium, Dr. Sullivan said, “Thanks, Dad,” before beginning her portion of the program, which I thought was a cute touch. She was amazingly brief and for that, even more than the fact that she was an astronaut, I loved her dearly. Soon, the Jedi broke into their routine, and on cue, paused with the music. The doctor thanked everyone and said that the people in uniform would be available for interviews and pictures afterwards. The music started again and the Jedi continued, but instead of waiting around for it to end, many of the fakes started heading back to the building. Why not? I thought. Let the 501st clean this mess up. I broke ranks and followed the others. The man with the pony tail sticking out of the back of his helmet held his ground, though.

As I hastily made my way toward the front entrance, I saw many of my fellow fakes taking off their helmets and shaking the sweat off their faces. I left mine on, not to preserve the illusion of the moment, but to keep my identity hidden. There were a number of families and news people drifting about at the front of the entrance and I was deathly afraid someone would recognize me. I pushed open the first door and something caught my attention through my miniscule eyeholes; a woman was pushing a stroller and had young boy clinging to her side. He was holding on tightly to her and smiling at me. I gave him a quick wave and held the door behind me for them. I grabbed the next door and the woman said thanks and patted the little boy on the shoulder. Through my limited line of sight, it appeared that he giggled some and squeezed his mom even more.

I waited until I was out of the boy’s sight before removing the helmet. With sweat dripping down my face, I realized that I made part of my vision for the day come true. Someone believed I was an authentic Imperial Stormtrooper, albeit a polite, pigeon-toed, door-holding one in his mid-thirties.

But I was a Stormtrooper nonetheless.