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.

 

 

 

 

Storytime

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“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.