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Sergeant Stone: Hard to Forget
by Hathno Paige
I wait in the Burgerland parking lot wondering what hell 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. Its 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.
"Wasnt even sure I could still fly the damn thing." He struggles out of the shoulder harness and puts out a hand. "Im Stone, you must be Hathno."
I take it, pretending not to notice the lack of fingers. I wonder if Ill 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 Im in his presence. Ive interviewed action figures for Hardman Magazine before, but its 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 dont know which Im more shocked by -- the soy-burger or the fact that the boy doesnt 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-burgers paper wrapping into a neat sheet on his tray, weighting one wayward corner with the lid from his coffee cup. I ask him if hes 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 dont give interviews, and I consider this a great honor."
"My pleasure. And call me Stone."
"Lets 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 didnt 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 dont know this, but I never even went to Viet Nam, let alone fought."
"I didnt 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 werent a real soldier, but it was still pretty rough for you, wasnt 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.
"Im from that era when men didnt 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. "Ive been shot by and out of every weapon known to man. Ive had nails driven through me, explosives crammed into orifices I didnt know I had. Ive been chewed, mowed, frozen, and drowned. And I wont 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? Ill 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 Americas hero, right? I figured it came with the territory. But when the Eighties hit, when the things that were going on just didnt 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 dont want to know this.
"Scary thing was that they initially diagnosed me as schizophrenic. But then they figured out that it wasnt me who was fractured, just my life."
I dont want to know this at all. "Maybe this isnt the best-" I reach for the recorder to shut it off.
He blocks my hand. "Its okay."
Hes smiling now. Its not a crazy grin, but more of a knowing grandfatherly look. I remind myself of who Im with, and settle back in my seat. Maybe its just time for a different tack. "But what about the good times? Ive 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+Rd together."
"Where did you have the parties?"
"Usually at my headquarters. We used Action Maxtons 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?"
"One time were all out on the jungle-houses front porch sucking down Big Jacks pina coladas when Motorcycle Mike pulls up. Now Mikes hot off his latest world-record jump over -- I dont 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 cant ride that thing up into my house. Well, Mike hes got this short-man thing going, and theres no way hes 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. Im 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 theres this big square hole in the floor. And Maxton, Maxtons down on the floor laughing. Im trying to figure out whats going when Big Jack hits me in the arm and says, That little bastard. He activated the secret fall-away floor!"
Stones laughing so hard that he stops talking, and I can barely keep myself upright in the tiny Burgerland seat.
"Oh I shouldnt 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 were 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. Its just something were 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 dont 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-"
"Its 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 were the same height. But it didnt last long."
"But people talk about seeing your Jeep outside the Every Girls Dream Condo on many an occasion."
"Yea, they made a big fuss about that. But it wasnt that many times. Actually, I hated that place. Elevator never worked and there was no privacy."
"And what about Dr. William? Didnt he get angry? Or was he just afraid to take on the Sergeant?"
"Billy? Billy could give a rats -- well, he and Emerald were really just a PR thing from the get go. Their makers, right, theyre 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 Billys queerer than a three-dollar bill. But they figured they could fool the public -- which they could -- but they couldnt 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, Billys dancing on a table wearing nothing but leather chaps with his ass and his unit hanging out. Then theyre all off to Big Jacks 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? Whatd you think they did in their free time? And whats 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 havent 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 Ill always love the guy for that. But he had such low self-esteem that hed 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 wasnt enough."
He looks out over the bay again. "Big Jack died in 1988. Ive 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 lets 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, thats not--"
"Lets get one thing clear. You think shes an all-bust, no-brain airhead, right? Well shes not. Shes a shark, and she chewed what she wanted out of me and shes gone now. Sorry, dont quote me on that. Were still friends. We talk now and then, but shes still in the game and Im not." He shrugs. "I dont know where she gets the energy, but shes the queen of reinvention. Me and the other guys, were one-trick ponies. And when our time is up, its up."
"But doesnt America -- doesnt 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 thats not what heroes do."
"And why the hell not? Thats 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 wasnt real and it wasnt 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, Im an action figure, its what I do. And Id 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, whats next for you?"
He rubs his shoulder. Its hanging from the socket, like its 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 Im 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?"
Im not sure what Ive got, but I nod anyway. He stands and offers me the fingerless hand again. I stare at it, then catch myself and take it.
"Youre probably wondering why I dont get myself fixed."
"Its 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 theres a part of me thats frowning, agreeing with my editor, thinking that this interview is just another chisel point chipping away at the beautiful American dream.
But theres another part of me thats 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
Artwork copyright 2001 by Romeo Esparrago email@example.com
Thanks to James Patrick Kelly for the title. http://www.jimkelly.net/
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