When I was in the third grade, two magnificent toys swept through my life and changed my playground social status forever.
First, I got a battery-operated X-Wing Fighter for Christmas.
Then, a couple months later for my birthday, I got a Dukes of Hazzard Matchbox car.
And suddenly, what began as a dark downward spiral in the elementary pecking order that fall spun on its head and transformed into a blissful winter and early spring.
To understand all this, though, you have to know a little about the little me.
Destination: Inside Recess
See, I was one of those kids.
Overweight, overprotected, always sick, and always afraid of getting sick … and always being told I was sick and should be afraid of getting sick.
This is no “whoa is me” moment, but it is a bit of explanation for the logical outcome — I wasn’t allowed to go outside for recess if it was raining, snowing, or less than 60 degrees.
This, by decree of my mother.
I suppose I could have disobeyed her, and plenty of my teachers practically begged me to, but I didn’t really think that was an option. Especially not when I’d have to answer to my dad if Mom ever found out.
So, while my classmates went outside to play kickball in the mud or throw snowballs at each other or lose their mittens and turn their hands blue … well, I stayed inside.
I was the King of Inside Recess.
All Hail the King
It was sort of sad, and I know it was a pain in the rump for my teachers, but Inside Recess had its advantages.
For one thing, I became a sort of trusty — after awhile, it became clear that teach could leave me alone in the classroom and nothing untoward would happen.
For another, I was usually allowed to designate one classmate to stay inside with me. It was a hard sell, and I still ended up alone plenty of times.
When I did convince someone to tag along with me in the classroom, it was generally the new kid, or the girl who smelled like rotten eggs because she left an egg sandwich in her backpack for a few weeks.
Every once in a great while, someone else would be sick enough, or in trouble enough, that they had to stay inside, too. Then we commiserated and passed germs back and forth.
For the most part, though, it was a pretty lonely deal.
But then came that glorious X-Wing fighter.
A Star Wars Christmas
Even in 1980 — maybe especially in 1980 — most kids were at least aware of Star Wars, and The Empire Strikes Back was, like, the greatest movie of all time.
And, though Luke Skywalker was a whiny little snot even to our young ears, we loved him.
So when I started lugging my X-Wing back and forth on the bus each day, more than a few of the other kids took notice.
Of course, we spent a goodly number of recesses in the gym that January because, well, it was January in Indiana, but there were at least a handful of ventures outdoors.
And when that happened … I had more choices in indoor buddies than ever before.
Now, not everyone was willing to give up a dodgeball-induced broken nose for a chance to play Empire v. Rebels, but some were.
One kid in particular — a popular kid — became my new default, because he had received a Tie Fighter for Christmas.
Of course, novelty wears off, and even an X-Wing doesn’t appeal to everyone (fools!).
So, as my February birthday rolled around, the whole indoor recess scene was starting to feel stale again. My pool of playmates was bigger than before, but they were losing their enthusiasm, and so was I.
And … not all of my classmates were yet in a place where they could be swayed by a simple toy.
I mean, this was rural Indiana in the very early 1980s. I don’t want to throw around terms like “red neck” lightly, but there were plenty of pocket knives in plenty of miniature camouflage pants pockets, driven to school in plenty of pickups with plenty of loaded gun racks.
Let’s just say that The Dukes of Hazzard was the consensus favorite show and, to be honest, it was probably mine, too.
So I was thrilled beyond thrilled when I ripped open the Matchbox/Hot Wheels-shaped package on my birthday to find a shiny new Dukes of Hazzard Matchbox car — the General Lee himself (herself? Neither sounds right).
That orange beauty instantly became the jewel of my growing die-cast collection, and I carried it with me everywhere.
Including to school.
And, suddenly, the floodgates opened.
“Can I stay inside with you today?” one deerslayer asked.
“Let’s play cars today after lunch,” another propositioned, rubbing the third-grade stubble on his unnaturally developed jaw.
And that extra attention reminded the Star Wars geeks they had some skin in the game, too.
“I thought we were going to storm the Death Star today,” one of them snorted through snot and the weight of thick glasses.
For once … maybe for the only time … I was able to sit back, and take my pick.
It was a glorious turn of events and a solid lesson in networking, and I took full advantage.
Sick, chunky, restricted — none of it mattered when I had an X-Wing and that die-cast General Lee on my side.