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Sergeant Stone: Hard to Forget
by Hathno Paige

 

I wait in the Burgerland parking lot wondering what he’ll pull up in, hoping for a classic like the yellow, six-wheel ATV and not some chichi rocket-bike.

The roar of a giant weed-eater fills my ears. I look up. A man dangles in the air overhead, his shining jack-booted feet just inches from my nose. It’s Sergeant Stone wearing his pack-copter, the one he rode to fame in, the one that I imitated in my backyard, running around flapping my arms and fluttering my lips.

He drops into the parking spot next to mine, smiling at me in his mirrored shades and camouflage fatigues while the rotor winds down.

"Wasn’t even sure I could still fly the damn thing." He struggles out of the shoulder harness and puts out a hand. "I’m Stone, you must be Hathno."

I take it, pretending not to notice the lack of fingers. I wonder if I’ll put this detail into the article.

We start toward the Burgerland entrance. The Sergeant moves slowly, wincing with each step. I feel shaky myself, still in disbelief that I’m in his presence. I’ve interviewed action figures for Hardman Magazine before, but it’s never been like this, never had the sheer power of the moment, the feeling of getting to the core, the root, that from which all others have sprung -- Sergeant Stone, the first "Real American Hero".

I reach the door first and pull it open, feeling the comforting wave of warm, beef-scented air wash over me. Stone goes to the gleaming steel counter and orders coffee and a country-style soy-burger from the boy behind the register. I don’t know which I’m more shocked by -- the soy-burger or the fact that the boy doesn’t seem to recognize him. I get a titan-beef combo, and follow the Sergeant to a booth by the windows overlooking the bay.

He smoothes the soy-burger’s paper wrapping into a neat sheet on his tray, weighting one wayward corner with the lid from his coffee cup. I ask him if he’s ready. He nods, and I take out my weapon -- a small, silver recorder -- and turn it on.

"To start, I just want to say thanks for agreeing to speak with us at Hardman, Sergeant. I know you normally don’t give interviews, and I consider this a great honor."

"My pleasure. And call me Stone."

"Let’s start by talking about the Sixties and Seventies, the golden years for you."

He half-smiles, and the beige scar on his cheek folds into a dimple. "Well, that was my, quote, heyday if there is one for figures like me. America was in a war it didn’t want, and it was my job to give the military a positive face, like it was an adventure or some other bullshit."

I sit bolt upright.

He takes a sip of coffee, swallows a bite of burger and continues. "You were just a kid then, so you probably don’t know this, but I never even went to Viet Nam, let alone fought."

"But-"

"I didn’t even have an official ‘enemy’ back then. I just spent my time skiing, scuba diving, flying, going into space, that kind of thing. All basically an excuse to play dress-ups in action gear."

"Sure, I understand that you weren’t a ‘real’ soldier, but it was still pretty rough for you, wasn’t it?"

He swirls his coffee with the plastic stirrer. I notice then that his left ear is missing, and that the left side of his head is somehow flatter than the right side, like it was ground against something.

"I’m from that era when men didn’t talk about their injuries, but what was done to me in the course of duty…" The corners of his mouth curl down and open the splits in his lips. "I’ve been shot by and out of every weapon known to man. I’ve had nails driven through me, explosives crammed into orifices I didn’t know I had. I’ve been chewed, mowed, frozen, and drowned. And I won’t even get into the experimental surgery."

This is better. This what I came for. "And how did you cope with all that pain? How did you stay hard?"

For a second he looks almost annoyed. Then he laughs and shakes his head.

"How did I stay hard? Oh lord. There was a time when–" He picks up his soy-burger. "Sorry son, this is my first interview in a long time. A real long time." He takes a bite, and chews it methodically before swallowing.

"How did I deal with the pain? I’ll tell ya’. I just took it. For a long time. All through the Seventies, whatever they threw at me, I just took it. I was America’s hero, right? I figured it came with the territory. But when the Eighties hit, when the things that were going on just didn’t make sense to me anymore, I started having trouble."

"What do you mean?"

"Well my life changed then. I was into about eighty different action roles, mostly to do with anti-terrorist ops. And the country was into Grenada, Panama, the drug war, that whole load of Reagan-era crap."

"Crap? But that must have been a great time for you. You even had a TV show going."

He looks out the window. Is that a tear welling in the eye not covered by a patch?

"Great, huh? Fact is, I cracked. Wound up in an institution feeling three inches tall."

I don’t want to know this.

"Scary thing was that they initially diagnosed me as schizophrenic. But then they figured out that it wasn’t me who was fractured, just my life."

I don’t want to know this at all. "Maybe this isn’t the best-" I reach for the recorder to shut it off.

He blocks my hand. "It’s okay."

He’s smiling now. It’s not a crazy grin, but more of a knowing grandfatherly look. I remind myself of who I’m with, and settle back in my seat. Maybe it’s just time for a different tack. "But what about the good times? I’ve heard you threw some wild parties in the Seventies."

He pulls off his jungle hat, revealing a hairless, dented skull.

"There were some good times. My best friends back then were Big Jack and Action Maxton. But all the action figures, even the freaks like Motorcycle Mike, we all R+R’d together."

"Where did you have the parties?"

"Usually at my headquarters. We used Action Maxton’s jungle-house once in a while, but the ceilings were real low and it had all these weird booby traps. Speaking of which, you want to hear a funny story?"

I nod.

"One time we’re all out on the jungle-house’s front porch sucking down Big Jack’s pina coladas when Motorcycle Mike pulls up. Now Mike’s hot off his latest world-record jump over -- I don’t know -- fifty fish bowls of piranhas or something, and Maxton -- whose own popularity is fizzling -- leans over the railing and shouts, ‘Hey Mr. Hot-shit trick rider. Bet you can’t ride that thing up into my house.’ Well, Mike he’s got this short-man thing going, and there’s no way he’s gonna turn down a dare like that. So he gets back on the bike and cranks up the motor."

Stone pauses for a sip of coffee. I’m on the edge of my seat. The action-parties are the stuff of legends, but all anyone has ever heard before are unconfirmed rumors.

"So Mike takes off and makes it right up the steps, no problem. And as we all turn to look for him inside, we hear this huge crash followed by Mike swearing a blue streak! So we rush in, and there’s this big square hole in the floor. And Maxton, Maxton’s down on the floor laughing. I’m trying to figure out what’s going when Big Jack hits me in the arm and says, ‘That little bastard. He activated the secret fall-away floor!’"

Stone’s laughing so hard that he stops talking, and I can barely keep myself upright in the tiny Burgerland seat.

"Oh I shouldn’t laugh too much. Poor old Mike was lying down in there with a broken leg. Took us about an hour to get him out, then I had to chopper him to the hospital, but-"

Stone erupts again with laughter. He seems in good spirits, and since we’re on the parties, I decide to go for it.

"And it was also one of these parties where you met Emerald, right?"

He makes an exaggerated look at the big black dive watch on his wrist. "Wow, I think we made it a whole ten minutes before getting on her."

"Sorry. It’s just something we’re all interested in."

He tilts his head back and the skin of his neck pulls into tight creases stretching away from the scar that encircles his throat. "Hell, I guess I don’t mind anymore. Emerald. You know she was Nurse Emerald when she started? Not even really an ‘action’ figure. Now she does everything from beauty queen to Navy SEAL, but back then, she was just ‘nurse’ and the only gear she had was a big needle."

"And you two-"

"It’s true, she was an important part of my life for a time. There was always this intense public pressure on us to get together, mostly I think because we’re the same height. But it didn’t last long."

"But people talk about seeing your Jeep outside the Every Girl’s Dream Condo on many an occasion."

"Yea, they made a big fuss about that. But it wasn’t that many times. Actually, I hated that place. Elevator never worked and there was no privacy."

"And what about Dr. William? Didn’t he get angry? Or was he just afraid to take on the Sergeant?"

"Billy? Billy could give a rat’s -- well, he and Emerald were really just a PR thing from the get go. Their makers, right, they’re having a drink and they say, ‘Hey, Dr. William plus Nurse Emerald, match made in heaven, we can even do the whole wedding-gear thing.’ Of course everyone knows Billy’s queerer than a three-dollar bill. But they figured they could fool the public -- which they could -- but they couldn’t fool Billy."

"What do you mean?"

"You know how Emerald and I met? Her and Billy showed up at one of my parties in her Corvette wearing these cowboy outfits. Anyhow, I start talking to Em, and Billy starts slamming tequila with Big Jack and some green army men. Next thing I know, Billy’s dancing on a table wearing nothing but leather chaps with his ass and his unit hanging out. Then they’re all off to Big Jack’s van to do their thing."

"No. No! I mean everyone thought maybe Dr. William, but Big Jack was gay? And the green army men? No."

"You ever see any green army women? What’d you think they did in their free time? And what’s the big deal? Half the action figures are queens. Look at the life, look at the outfits."



"So what ever happened to Big Jack? I haven’t heard about him in years."

"Jack was my best friend. He was the only one who was there for me when I fell apart, and I’ll always love the guy for that. But he had such low self-esteem that he’d give himself to anyone that showed him attention."

I notice a pale, half-moon scar decorating the top of his forehead.

"I think it was not having any kind of purpose. I mean he had some gear, he had the muscles, he even had that steel armband trick, but it wasn’t enough."

He looks out over the bay again. "Big Jack died in 1988. I’ve still got his van. Sometimes I take out the portable campfire sit by it thinking about him."

Another topic I do not want to linger on. "Okay, but let’s get back to Emerald. Any hope for a future?"

"Emerald, Emerald, Emerald. I should have realized the real reason you wanted to interview me was to get dirt on her."

"No, that’s not--"

"Let’s get one thing clear. You think she’s an all-bust, no-brain airhead, right? Well she’s not. She’s a shark, and she chewed what she wanted out of me and she’s gone now. Sorry, don’t quote me on that. We’re still friends. We talk now and then, but she’s still in the game and I’m not." He shrugs. "I don’t know where she gets the energy, but she’s the queen of reinvention. Me and the other guys, we’re one-trick ponies. And when our time is up, it’s up."

"But doesn’t America -- doesn’t the world -- still need heroes?"

He laughs, hard this time, and it sounds like broken metal is rattling in his chest. "What for? Pretty gear and washboard abs gonna feed the poor and stop global warming?"

"But that’s not what heroes do."

"And why the hell not? That’s a lot more important than grab-ass games with big, stiff guns."

He scratches the vacant ear space on his head. "When I was in that hospital I did a lot of thinking. And I realized that most of my life was bullshit. The whole image I had, it just wasn’t real and it wasn’t helping the world at all. It made me anti-everything about me for a while. I shut the headquarters, mothballed the gear, even stopped wearing the fatigues."

"But after a while I realized, ‘Hey, I’m an action figure, it’s what I do.’ And I’d like to think that in my own way I helped some people, maybe through a little escapist fantasy, or maybe by letting them vent frustration on me. Maybe I even saved some other people from being hurt that way."

I fumble through my list of questions trying to find some way to end the interview on a positive note. "So, what’s next for you?"

He rubs his shoulder. It’s hanging from the socket, like it’s held in place with a loose piece of string.

"There are a lot of action figures out there in the same boat I was, and most of them -- especially the robots and human-animal hybrids -- lack the emotional capacity to deal with it. So I’m trying to be there for them. To listen, give advice. Sometimes I tell the groups that the Sergeant is fighting a new battle, but shooting words instead of bullets."

He leans back in the booth and finishes off his coffee. "You got enough?"

I’m not sure what I’ve got, but I nod anyway. He stands and offers me the fingerless hand again. I stare at it, then catch myself and take it.

"You’re probably wondering why I don’t get myself fixed."

I nod.

"It’s too damn easy to forget things in this country."

He turns and limps away.

* * *

 


I shut off the recorder and look out over the bay. My editor will like the new dirt on Dr. William, but I can forget publishing anything else from the interview in Hardman Magazine.

And there’s a part of me that’s frowning, agreeing with my editor, thinking that this interview is just another chisel point chipping away at the beautiful American dream.

But there’s another part of me that’s smiling, remembering the lonely, friendless afternoon when my twelve-year old self coped with his pain by soaking Sergeant Stone in gasoline and setting him alight.

And that part of me is sorry that he just missed his chance to say, "Thank you, Sergeant."



Story copyright 2001 by Hathno Paige hathno@hotmail.com

Artwork copyright 2001 by Romeo Esparrago public@romedome.com

Thanks to James Patrick Kelly for the title. http://www.jimkelly.net/



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