Where Were You in ’82?
Everyone loves nostalgia, despite the fact that it’s a dubious use of one’s time (at best). Whether it’s your parents grousing about how kids have it easy these days or that they grew up in a kinder, gentler world, or just you, sitting on the couch in your jammies, watching reruns of I Love the 80s or having geek-gasms as you read Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all nestled into our inner Wayback Machines and enjoyed a leisurely excursion back to Yesterland.
Thus, in the interest of freely indulging in this very dubious pasttime, I’d like to jump back an even thirty years and examine what just might have been the coolest year ever to be a little geek: 19-freakin’-82.
In 1982, I was seven years old, finishing first grade, starting second. My brother was 12, and I liked hanging with him and his friends way more than I did kids my own age (Bryan didn’t really dig my lamprey-like close proximity, but he didn’t really have a choice, either; I stuck like glue). I was already well on my way to proud geekdom, having been conversant in Star Wars since I was old enough to walk and talk. In 1982, I—like every other kid I knew—was wondering just what the hell was going to happen when Revenge of the Jedi (the original title of Star Wars Episode VI) arrived in movie theaters in May of ’83, and I was still reeling from the awesomeness that was Raiders of the Lost Ark, released the previous summer.
But Star Wars and Raiders were just my foundations. Onto that imaginary bedrock, I piled a parade of comic book superheroes, fantasy and sci fi films and TV shows, obsessions with various monsters of the moment, and music to daydream by ranging from John Williams’ film scores to larger-than-life metal fare by Kiss, AC/DC, and Iron Maiden. Little did I know my fertile little imagination was about to hit a motherlode. 1982 would serve up a heaping helping of steaming geek-erocity that would leave a mark on me for life.
In March of ‘82, we were all torn to shreds by the arrival of Iron Maiden’s seminal metal masterpiece, Number of the Beast. Before summer was out, Ozzy Osborne would be assumed to be (so far as our parents were considered) the Devil Incarnate after biting the head off a bat during a concert in Des Moines, Iowa, then pissing on the Alamo while in San Antonio, Texas. Before the year was out, we’d all know the lyrics to “Eye of the Tiger” front to back (along with every line spoken by Mr. T in Rocky III), see the debut of some nutty Detroit dame named Madonna (a passing fad—we knew she’d never last), and get a little album by Michael Jackson called Thriller issued to us as standard household accoutrement, like a telephone or a vacuum cleaner. On the radio: seminal 80s singles like “I Love Rock n’ Roll” by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, “Don’t Stop Believin” by Journey and “I Ran (So Far Away)” by Flock of Seagulls.
A lot of us (including my family) still didn’t have cable TV, and counted ourselves lucky if we had a friend who did. Barring that handy little switch-box, your televised entertainment choices usually consisted of three networks, one local PBS station, and one local ‘independent’ (which is where I found, and devoured, Saturday afternoon showings of Planet of the Apes, as well as endless reruns of The Lone Ranger and Daniel Boone). If you were really lucky, you might have a second independent that broadcast even weirder stuff than the first independent. In 1982, we lost The Incredible Hulk, In Search Of…, and Mork & Mindy, but we got T. J. Hooker, Tales of the Gold Monkey, and Knight Rider in trade. Saturday morning cartoons—Thundarr the Barbarian, The Smurfs, Superfriends, Blackstar, The Lone Ranger/Zorro Adventure Hour—were still interspersed with School House Rock clips—and most tantalizingly, with commercials for a toy-and-comic resurgence of everybody’s favorite action figure: G. I. Joe.
That’s right, 1982 was the year of G. I. Joe: A Real American Hero. The high-octane, animated commercials were repeated ad infinitum during Saturday Morning cartoons and had roughly the same effect on little Reaganomic America boys that fresh crack flakes have on a coke fiend just out of the county clink. The comic (if you could lay hands on the damn thing—it flew off the spin-racks at the local 7-11) told manly-man tales of covert ops and counter terrorism, while the toys themselves not only provided you with bio cards for each of the characters, they also told you exactly what sort of weapon the action figure came with. Many a gun fetish in my generation was probably born of a big, bad collection of G. I. Joe figures and paraphernalia.
That was also the year that the Masters of the Universe toyline debuted. Before ever there was a vaguely-homoerotic animated incarnation of He-Man, his dopy sidekick Orko, and a very whiny, very accident-prone Skeletor, we had an action figure franchise full of otherworldly heroes and villains sporting more muscle definition than a Boris Vallejo painting and more straps, gauntlets, swords and axes than your average Ace Paperback cover by Frank Frazetta. Adding to He-Man’s mystique was the fact that—unlike G. I. Joe—the world that He-Man and company inhabited seemed far more mysterious, far less fleshed out (at least until that damn cartoon came along). Consequently, an imaginative kid left alone in his room with his Masters of the Universe figures could build just about any mythology he wanted around those muscular, mysterious mannequins.
Being a little geek-in-training, mythology was a major concern of mine at the time. Not just the toy-world mythologies of G. I. Joe comics or Masters of the Universe toys—but also historical mythologies like those of the ancient Greeks (inspired by Clash of the Titans) and Arthurian legend (inspired by Excalibur), and fictional mythologies such as those undergirding seminal fantasy like The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, or Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. This childhood fascination with mythology—remote worlds populated by heroes, gods, demigods and monsters—was further enriched (and enabled) by a little tabletop game known as Dungeons & Dragons—which, in 1982, was at the height of its popularity (and infamy).
For those of you not in the know, Dungeons & Dragons was (and remains) a role-playing game wherein players act out the roles of fictional characters in the context of a quest or adventure (known as ‘campaigns’ in gamer-speak). It’s essentially make-believe, with rules; or, put another way, a kind of cooperative storytelling, where one person plays the role of narrator—the all-powerful, game-guiding Dungeon Master—while the other players adopt character roles and make important decisions at crucial moments in the narrative. If (for instance) your adventuring party comes across the gaping, ruined entrance to an underground crypt, do you delve in, or do you carry on through the forest above? If you go in, who goes first? And if the person who goes first springs a trap or finds themselves face to face with a monster, what do they do? Thus, a meandering tale unfolds, in which the Dungeon Master imparts the lay of the land, the players tell the Dungeon Master what their characters choose to do, and dice-rolls and percentile tables decide whether the actions taken are stunning successes or crushing (maybe even fatal) failures. Some people played out their adventures life-size, in real time, wearing costumes and cavorting about in various surroundings, from empty woods to unused school gymnasiums. This underground LARPing (live action role playing—a modern term but applicable here) and D&D’s alleged reality-shattering, Satan-worship-inspiring hold on America’s children and teens inspired a 1982 made-for-TV movie called Mazes & Monsters, starring the still-marginal Tom Hanks. Parental hysteria aside, most players kept things a little more grounded, eschewing the LARPing route in favor of reeling out their campaigns around kitchen or dining room tables, ingesting copious amounts of two-for-one pizza, Grape soda, and Chee-tos.
The dining room table in our house is where my big brother, Bryan, and his two best friends, Donald and Mike, did their campaigning (taking breaks between D&D for rounds of Risk, Stratego or Dark Tower). Usually, I circled the table like a buzzard in search of roadkill, annoying the shit out of them until they let me create a character and play with them. Remember that scene in E.T. where Elliot keeps bugging Mike and his friends as they play a game at the kitchen table? Yeah, that was me. That scene could’ve easily been shot in our dining room. If they relented and let me in the game, they would usually kill me quickly (I was, conveniently, often the first into strange chambers or dark crypts). With my character speared by a Bugbear or dissolved by a Black Dragon’s acid breath, I would proceed to cry like a little girl and accuse them of doing it on purpose. Sure, they probably did, and I should’ve learned to just leave them alone… but come on! What precocious, annoying little brother wouldn’t rather play D&D with big brother and his buddies instead of crashing Matchbox cars with the dopey kid down the street who smelled like beef vegetable soup? Despite my brother’s best attempts at chasing me away, though, I kept coming back, because D&D was magical. It opened the door on all the stuff I might be doing alone in my room—creating characters, sending them on adventures, telling myself stories—but the collaborative group dynamic coupled with the logic matrix provided by the percentile tables and the rolling dice seemed to elevate simple make believe to something far more concrete… for more realistic and believable. I probably learned one of the great lessons of my life as a writer (especially a writer of the fantastic) at that dining room table: for the fantastical to be believed, there must be rules, and those rules must be adhered to.
But running through my memories of 1982, binding all the other disparate elements together like cable round a furled sail, were the movies. I didn’t realize it at the time, but 1982 was an absolutely insane year for geek cinema, chock full of films that made an impact on me at the time, or later, when I was finally old enough for my mom to let me watch them (gimme a break—we didn’t have cable or a VCR).
Although released stateside in December 1981, The Road Warrior effectively kicked off 1982, a bugnuts post-apocalyptic western where tricked-out S&M hot rods replaced horses and Mel Gibson killed freakin’ everything, including crossbow-wielding dudes with mohawks and assless chaps. Along with The Road Warrior came 48 Hours (the first buddy cop movie and Eddie Murphy’s screen debut), Blade Runner (a flop upon release, now recognized as a classic), Cat People (Kinsky, Kink, and David Bowie!), Conan the Barbarian (still one of my all-time favorites, and the only grown up fantasy film until the Lord of the Rings trilogy came along), Conan’s agreeable but retarded cousins, The Beastmaster and The Sword and the Sorcerer, Stephen King’s and George Romero’s awesome horror comic anthology Creepshow, Jim Henson’s decidely un-Muppety trip-fest The Dark Crystal, the seminal Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Firefox, First Blood (which introduced us to an ass-kicking PTSD-afflicted Vietnam vet named John Rambo), Friday the 13th Part III (in 3-D!), Halloween III: Season of the Witch (which had nothing to do with Halloween I and II but made up for it with exploding heads), Megaforce (flying freakin’ motorcycles!), Poltergeist (because even sunny suburbs can have haunted houses), Rocky III (Eye of the tiger, Rock!), The Secret of NIMH, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khaaaaaaan, Swamp Thing, Tron (if only we knew how much CGI we’d have to put up with just a couple decades hence…), John Carpenter’s completely awesome remake of The Thing, and a little movie that came and went not with a bang, but a whimper: E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?
Yeah. Seriously. That was 1982 at the movies. I defy you to name another year when so many glorious, memorable, seminal, and just plain entertaining genre films graced multiplexes in this country. I loved every one of the movies listed above when I was a kid; I love at least a dozen of them still. Conan the Barbarian and The Thing remain two of my all-time favorites.
And this year, the movies listed above… the height of Dungeons & Dragons’ fame and infamy… the music… the toys… they’re all thirty goddamn years old. All these pieces of me, that I remember with such clarity and fondness, that seem like they were just yesterday… they’re nowhere near yesterday. They all came and went a really, really long time ago. And that just makes me feel old.
At least until I play Basil Poledouris’s brassy Conan score again. Then, I remember what is best in life… (which, if you didn’t know, is crushing your enemies, seeing them driven before you, and hearing the lamentation of their women. I can’t believe I had to tell you that…)
So, that’s where I was thirty years ago. That’s what 1982 meant to me. You’ve been gracious and frightfully indulgent as I took my gleeful wallow in memory’s slop trough, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Now it’s your turn.
Where were you in ’82?