Master of the Universe

He-Man

“Whoa, that’s awesome.”

Mom watched me put together the final pieces of Snake Mountain, my big gift for Christmas, together in the corner of the living room. There was wrapping paper scattered everywhere. The other kids all had some of their new Christmas gifts off in some corner of the house, where they were playing. It was weird to hear her say the word ‘awesome’, a word I associated with kids, not parents. At least she didn’t say rad, or tubular. (When she was a kid, she probably would have felt the same way if she’d heard her mother say ‘keen’, ‘neat-o’, ‘swell’, or ‘groovy, baby.’)

“Yeah, I’m pretty excited about it.” I could set Snake Mountain against the wall in my room, opposite from Castle Grayskull, the craggy space where He-Man lived with his allies in EterniaSnake Mountain was for the villains, the ones working for Skeletor. I could already picture the epic adventures between the heroes and the villains that would take place. The two castles would line the different walls of my room, which I had divided into areas for the characters to play in. On the far wall were the tar pits and the mountains, in the center were thick forests. Outside the room, in different areas of the house, were other places for the characters to adventure. And outside each castle were some of the vehicles the heroes and villains used to fight each other, including a bizarre helicopter with a ghost face, and a huge spider with jagged red legs for the villains; the bad guys had the coolest looking vehicles anyway.

I toggled the different features of the new headquarters. There was a trapdoor that could be triggered, to send the heroes plunging downward. There was even a snake-headed microphone, battery-powered, that I could speak into as if I was Skeletor himself, one that would alter my voice to something deep and monstrous. I picked it up to practice.

“You’ll never get out alive, He-Man!” I tried the same phrase again, but this time in Skeletor’s high-pitched nasal sneer. “You’ll never get out alive, He-Man!”

My mother clapped her hands in enjoyment, hearing the cool sound effects. “You’re going to have so much fun with this!” She was right, I would.

I wouldn’t say it directly, but I knew there was no Santa Claus. After all, I was ten years old. So I knew she had personally sacrificed a lot to bring me such a nice gift for Christmas. After all, she had to buy gifts for seven children on a limited income. I would definitely make this castle a big part of my play. In fact, I already had an adventure lined up, when Skeletor could reveal to the heroes that he had constructed a massive headquarters to operate out of. They had been living in caves before this, and some of his henchmen were not happy.

Mom carried a list in her purse for whenever she took a trip or spent a day out shopping. I updated the list a few times a year, when they released new characters of the Masters of the Universe toy-line. On special days, maybe once a month or so, she would buy me one of the five dollar action figures, then cross the name off her list. I loved having new characters to add to my ongoing toy adventures. Each new face brought new rivalries, new alliances,  new points of drama to inject into the game. He-Man always won, of course, but it was the how he got there that made the game so much fun.

Lately, Evil-Lyn had been using magic to trick heroes to fighting each other in a giant arena, and forcing He-Man and Battle-Cat to watch in a cage, unable to help their allies. The villains lined the seats, watching and cheering. Fist-O, who had a giant metal fist, had just defeated Buzz-Off, the bee-man, and Moss-Man, the man made out of plant matter, had fallen to Man-At-Arms, the weapons expert. I already had it planned out, how He-Man’s most underestimated allies, Teela (a girl who was the captain of the guard, one who basically just reminded me of Princess Leia) and Orko (a clumsy magician that looked like a ghost and who always messed up his spells wit hilarious consequences) would end up saving the day by defeating Evil-Lyn, then the Sorceress, the magic woman who could turn into a screeching falcon, the one who lived in Castle Grayskull, could heal the heroes, who would then turn on the armies of Skeletor. I had been playing this storyline out for several days, keeping notes in a notebook, content to play it out and having a blast along the way. I could play before school, leave the characters laid out and pick up right where I left off when I got home.

The name Masters of the Universe for the He-Man cartoon and toys made me smile, from a sense of irony. I so often felt like everything in my life was out of my control, but I got to control the storylines here. In this one place, I felt like the master of my own universe. I couldn’t change much in the outside world, how my brother and sister picked on me a lot and were always arguing, how sometimes I remembered how I had been sexually abused a few years before, how my dad was constantly crying while laying on the floor or locked in his room, how mom always seemed so stretched thin trying to take care of a family with nine people in it, how I didn’t fit in with other kids at school, or how I was different than other boys and I knew it. I hated how awkward I felt around other boys. I couldn’t make a basket with the ball, hit a ball with coordination, or even ride a bike, and I got teased because I spent my time writing or drawing. I had a few friends, guys who also liked Saturday morning cartoons, but most of them weren’t Mormon (there weren’t many Mormons in the area of southwest Missouri), and I knew I was mostly only supposed to play with kids who shared my beliefs. But He-Man gave me a place to escape.

He-Man was cool, too. He didn’t fit in either. Well, at least not when he was Prince Adam. Adam was kind of girly, with thick blonde hair, and he acted scared of everything. He was royalty and always dressed fancy, even wearing a pink vest most of the time, but people were always confused by him and impatient. His only friend, well, his only true friend, seemed to be his cat, Cringor, a talking green tiger thing who was even more afraid than Adam. Cringe had a weak voice and he thought everything was either scary or inconvenient. Everyone saw both Adam and Cringer as helpless, silly, and incompetent, and grew frustrated with the fact that Adam was the heir to the throne. But Adam had a secret life. With just a flash of a sword and a few magic words, Adam transformed into the most powerful man in the universe, and Cringer into his mighty steed, Battle Cat. The pink vest came off and suddenly Adam was wearing a harness and a loin cloth with some fur-lined boots, and he had a sword that was bigger than any other man’s, the biggest sword in the universe. He was He-Man!

The plots in He-Man the cartoon often seemed a bit thin. How could Adam’s allies never recognize that he was He-Man… they had the same haircut! And exactly how many green-striped cats could there be in Eternia! But I always figured that maybe there was a magic spell that prevented people from figuring it out. A world full of magic. One where the guy who didn’t fit in could change into someone powerful and confident, with lots of friends and amazing adventures. One where the heroes were always sure to win, and where there was a happy ending after every conflict. Those were exactly the kinds of adventures that a kid like me needed.

The following year, in the fourth grade, I began bringing different He-Man characters to school, and my friends, mostly girls, would bring some of the toys from the line of He-Man’s twin sister, She-Ra. We would play together there. A few months after that, I switched my interest to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and my He-Man toys got placed in a box and later sold at a garage sale. The characters I had infused such love into for so long were suddenly gone.

When the first ideas for this blog sparked in my brain, I went back to research the old toys I used to place with, and it dawned on me how horribly stupid so many of these characters were. I mean, listen to these character names, each of them resulting in a toy being sold to the masses. Buzz-Off. Rio Blast. Slush Head. Clawful. Stonedar, who could turn from man into rock. Two-Bad. Man-E-Faces. Clamp Champ. Screeech, with three E’s, and Sssqueeze, with three S’s. Twistoid. Webstor. Rattlor. Grizzlor. Plundor. Spikor. (Oh my gosh, Autocorrect hates every one of these names so much).

And then I began to realize how gay so many of these toys were. Mek-A-Neck, whose neck grew longer when you twisted his waist. And then a character named Extendar, who had mastered the power of extension! Man-At-Arms, who had the best porn-stache ever. Evil-Lye, who simply had to be a drag queen in that costume. Whiplash. Tung Lasher. Snout Spout, an elephant man with a huge trunk who also used the name Hose Nose. Dragstor. Mantenna. Not just Hordak, but also the Creeping Horak. Mosquitor, whose long nose could suck the life right out of you. Stinkor, the Evil Master of Odors. Ram Man. Prince Adam in his pink vest, with his leather harness and giant sword! Skeletor with the gayest voice of all time! And Fist-O, you guys, Fist-O!

I thought I grew up lonely and isolated, but it turns out my mom was buying me maybe the gayest toys of all time.

 

 

 

 

Bloodkill and Bobcat Man

bobcat

“Dad. Dad! I saved your life!”

My eyes blinked away suddenly, and I quickly became aware of my surroundings, out of a sudden sleep. I was in my room, in my bed. It was dark still, cold with the window open, and I could hear birds outside, so I assumed it was early morning. My eyes flashed to the clock and I saw it was 5 am. I shifted my attention suddenly to my five year old, A, standing at my bedside.

“I saved your life, dad,” he repeated himself, waiting for me to acknowledge him.

“What do you mean you saved my life?” I asked. I was surprised he hadn’t awakened me. On nights when my sons are here, I’m hyper-aware of every sound. A squeak of the bed, a car horn, a scratching on the wall, the sound of their door opening… I usually shoot awake before they can get out of bed. But he had snuck into the room without me noticing. His brother must still be in the next room sleeping.

“Well, it’s simple.”  He raised his voice a little bit, full of a quiet morning energy. He had been burning to share this information with me, and I guessed it was all based on a dream he had had. “I heard some bad guys outside of the house, so I waked up and became a super hero to save your life. I growed a cape and a mask and I flied out the bathroom window and I fighted all the bad guys away with my fists!” He punched the air as he pressed his body down into a fighting crouch, springing up to uppercut an imaginary villain.

Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I sat up a bit in bed, turning to face him. I reached a hand out in the grey dark room and rubbed a finger against his cheek in an ‘i-love-you’ line. “Oh, you turned into a super hero, and then you saved my life? Thank you, son. What was your super hero name?”

He furrowed his brow and narrowed his eyes, giving his fiercest ‘tough guy’ look, and then lowered his voice to a harsh whisper, speaking like Batman does in the old animated series we watch together sometimes.

“Oh, that’s easy. My name was Bloodkill.” He emphasized the first part, then drew out the last syllable a bit, making it sound more dramatic. He shot away from my hand, doing some uncoordinated gymnastics, moving about the side of my bed with a few crouches, kicks, and punches to the air again. Oh to have that kind of energy at 5 am.

Wait, strike that. I don’t want that kind of energy at 5 am.

“Bloodkill?” I yawned, stifling a smile.

“Yes. And Bloodkill hunts!” He still had his Batman voice.

I turned on my side, laying down, my head propped up on my elbow now, and yawned again.

“Listen, buddy, thank you for saving my life. But it is way to be someone named Bloodkill. Can you think of a nicer super hero name for the early morning time?”

A stood now, flummoxed momentarily. “Well,” he negotiated, “I can be Bloodkill later, how about I can be the Killer Shark Man!”

I smiled. “Something a little nicer maybe.”

“Well, I can’t be a zombie or a vampire then. Maybe I can think of something.”

“How about a different animal man?” I asked. “You know, like Batman or Catwoman, but a different animal that hasn’t been used before.”

He put a finger against his lip, thinking briefly. “I’ll be Bobcat Man!”

I smiled. “Perfect. What is Bobcat Man’s powers?”

“Well,” now A was climbing up into the bed with me, finally looking for his morning cuddles. He spoke quickly as he climbed. “Bloodkill could fly from his cape and he had sharp claws on his gloves and some weapons on his belt. But Bobcat Man is kind of the same except different. He has his own claws and he is so fast in the air and on the ground, and he can turn little or big but not too big. And, well, he can still have a cape.”

He laid against me now, his little body fitting perfectly, his head on my chest, his arms around me, his legs stretched all the way down to my knees.

“That’s perfect,” I smiled. “Thanks again for saving my life. But how come you are up so early, buddy?”

“Well, I wanted to tell you all that, but maybe we can cuddle and go back to sleep now.”

Soon he was softly snoring against me. The room was still dark and the birds still chirping, and I was smiling silently about Bloodkill and Bobcat Man having adventures in his brain.

“Daddy, am I going to Hell?”

Hell

“Daddy, am I going to Hell?”

I looked up to the rearview mirror in shock, my eyes open wide. I looked at my four year old son, A, in the backseat, his hair tousled from a hard day of play at school, a jelly stain on his beloved shark shirt. His eyes are so blue.

“A, of course you aren’t going to Hell! Why would you ask that?”

My eyes flashed over to J, my 7 year old, on the other side of the backseat, strapped into his booster seat. He looked over at his little brother, ever the supporter. “Yeah, A, y would you ask that?” He must have noticed the touch of concern in my voice.

A shrugged, not disturbed, just curious. “Well, Heavenly Father created Heaven for good people and Hell for bad people.”

I grimaced internally but didn’t show it on my face. Now more of an atheist, I was raised an active Mormon, and remembered growing up with the vision of sunlight and clouds for the angels, and torture and fire and brimstone with the evil laughing devil over them for the bad guys. I try hard to instill in my children a wide world view of living happy lives and understanding all religions. They attend the Unitarian Church with their mother now, but they still visit their grandparents regularly, their grandparents being active Mormons who pray and still teach them about Heavenly Father and Jesus and Heaven and Hell. And they naturally have questions.

“A, you are definitely a good person. You are a great kid.”

J chipped in, still concerned. “Yeah, A. And you have a good family who loves you.”

A was looking out the window. “Well, I know why there is a devil.”

“Yeah? Why is that, A?”

“Well, cause Heavenly Father created one. And he lives in Hell. He’s a really really mean bad guy. He’s more mean than the Joker or Loki or Green Goblin. But he’s kind of like the Joker.”

“How is he like the Joker?”

“He likes to joke! And they are mean jokes!”

I made eye contact with him in the mirror and suppressed a laugh. A has the most serious little look on his face when he’s being dramatic like this, talking about sharks or super villains.

“Yeah, he is definitely a mean guy.” J interjected, looking up at me to back him up.

Before I could respond, A switched topics. “How come there aren’t dinosaurs anymore?”

I smiled, keeping my eyes on the road. “Well, dinosaurs lived a long, long time ago and they all died.”

A talked right over me. “They were born even before Grandma. And Heavenly Father created them, too. But I wish they were still alive. Then I could fight a T-Rex. I’m faster and they have tiny little arms.”

The boys chattered on for a minute, hilarious and random as they usually are, as I thought silently. When there was a lull in conversation, I went back to the concerning topic.

“A, how come you asked if you are going to Hell?”

He looked at me this time, in the mirror. “I was just wondering.”

I gave him my intense dad look, conveying seriousness and pride and silliness all at once, my eyebrows knit down and my eyes on his. “Well listen up, little man. There is no way you are going to Hell. And even if you did, you know what I would do?”

“What?” He asked in wonder.

“I would get all of my friends and everyone who loves you and I would lead them down there and we would rescue you. We would fight the devil and everyone and I would win. Then I would put you on my back, piggy-back, and I would carry you back to Earth.”

He had an expression of adventure on his face. “You could fight dragons! And–and dinosaurs!”

“Yes! I’ll fight them all because I love you! And J would help me! He would use all of his super powers and his super brain and we would rescue you!”

A sat up taller. “Yeah, and after you get me out of my Hell cage I could fight with you, too! I’ll punch the devil right in the face cause I’m so strong!”

J joined in now, sitting up taller as well. “Yeah, and I will dance and run all over and so fast! We will save you, A!”

A few hours later, after a pancake with peanut butter dinner and pretending we are sharks in a swimming pool and bath time and pajamas, I cuddled my boys, one on each arm, and made up stories to tell them about giant frogs and fairy princesses and sabretooth tigers. I sang them their favorite lullabies and tucked them in to sleep. I walked in a while later and looked at them sleeping. J lay in the shorts and tank top he had chosen to sleep in, underneath the three blankets he had pulled around his frame. A lay in thick wool pajamas he had chosen, with no blankets, flipped upside down with his feet on the pillow. I listened to their breathing and wondered about their dreams. But I hoped that if they dreamed of monsters or villains or devils, that perhaps I appeared in some form as their ally, as their dad, as their rescuer.

Because they have certainly rescued me.

Storytime

father-son-holding-hands.jpg

“You guys wanna play storytime?”

I take a seat on the couch as my sons sit on the ground in front of me, eager. It’s nearly nap time and they have full tummies. J, age 6, starts first grade

in a few weeks and is growing more mature and creative every day. A, just barely four, looks up with bright blue eyes, his imagination already spinning tales.

I look down at them, my eyes growing wide to convey excitement, and begin.

“Once upon a time, there were, well, three grasshoppers that lived in a beautiful patch of grass, where they ate leaves. They–”

“What were their names?” J interrupted.

“Well, Ernst, Ferdinand, and Gilgal. And one day a really nice old lady who lived in a house nearby was working in her garden and she saw the three grasshoppers, who were brothers. The woman, whose name was Clementine, thought they were the most beautiful grasshoppers she had ever seen so she asked if she could take them home and they agreed. She put them in a little jar and carried them home, and she made them a nice big home in an aquarium where they could hop up and down all around the aquarium as they grew older. She decorated it with plants, grass, leaves, and sticks, and they were so happy. She fed them every day two times.”

“And then what happened?” A asked, intent.

“Well, one day Clementine got sick and she had to go to the hospital and she couldn’t be there to feed them.”

“Use their names!” J reminded.

“She couldn’t be there to feed Ernst, Ferdinand, and Gilgal. They were so hungry, they were too tired to hop. But the next day, she came home and said ‘I’m home and I’m okay!’ and she fed them some delicious eucalyptus leaves as a special treat and they were so happy, they lived happily ever after.”

Both boys seemed to want more, looking at me expectantly.

“Well, what did you guys think? What were your favorite parts?”

J thought for a moment. “Well, I liked when they ate the leaf.”

A made no effort to hide his disgust. “I didn’t have a favorite part. There wasn’t any bad guys this time.” He’s particularly fond of toothy creatures.

“Okay, J, your turn.”

J and I traded places, he taking his seat on the couch and me moving to the floor next to A.

“Okay, this is a good one,” J started, and he looked up, pressing his lips together tightly like he does when he’s thinking hard.

“Once upon a time there were two sisters named Elsa and Aana, but not the ones from Frozen, some different sisters. They lived with their mom and dad who were gone. And when the sisters were playing one time, a giant giant attacked and the sisters runned into their rooms and were hiding until their mom and dad came home and they had turned bigger than the giant and the house and everything and they stopped the giant who ran away and the sisters were okay. The end.”

I clapped my hands. “Great story! My favorite part was when the sisters were smart and hid in their room.”

A stood up, knowing it’s his turn next. “I liked when the giant mom and dad came in and punched the giant right in the nose and killed him dead!” He punched a little fist into the air.

J, looking proud of himself, climbed down. “Okay, A, your turn!”

A took more effort to climb up onto the couch, pulling himself by his arms and bringing his knees up, pulling his body up, then twisting himself around. I smiled at him as J took a seat by me. A is so big for being so little.

“Okay, here we go. Once upon a time, there was two boys named J and A and a mom and a dad. They lived in a big house. One day, a big big big big big mean mean mean shark came over. Oh, I forgot to tell you that the mom was a mermaid and the dad was at work and the brothers was twins who lived in their mom’s belly. Then the big shark came in and he had a lot of teeth and he was mean and he tried to bite them a whole bunch but the kids popped out of the mom’s tummy and the dad came home and punched the shark til he was dead a lot and then they winned. The end.”

I clapped my hands for him again and J looked up at him proudly.

“Great job! My favorite part was when the dad saved the day!”

“Good job, A! My favorite part was when the brothers came out of her tummy.”

The boys, knowing the routine, climbed up onto my lap for some snuggles, one on each arm, winding down for naps. J, my compassionate and intuitive son, patted my shoulder.

“Aw, you’re a good daddy. You make us breakfast, snuggle us, tuck us in, and play with us. Thanks for everything.”

And soon they are sleeping, and I’m watching their little prone faces breathe peacefully, soft music in the background, and I’m thinking once again how this part of my life is the best thing in the world.