It was at this time that I was recovering from a horrible car accident which cost me my left leg. A whole year in a wheelchair and twenty operations later, I had lost some of the steam in my life. When I finally did return to work, my buddy and co-worker, Tom Crews, and I hit on the subject of Star Wars one day. Among our rememberings we thought of the stormtroopers from those movies. Ultimately cool, we thought - the stormtroopers were the original space commandoes, bad asses in gleaming white armor, soulless black eyes, and snarling grimaces on their faces. So after a while we wondered: how would one possibly obtain armor like that? Does it even exist? Could someone make it?
So Tom went to the internet (still in its infancy in the late 90's) and actually found an obscure reference to some stormtrooper armor in a usenet group. I was intrigued. I called the number, which connected me to some place in Moraga, California named DogStar Collectibles. I forget the guy's name, but he said he actually represented a guy named Mike Chewpitch out in Chicago who made the armor himself and he promised it looked authentic. Well, maybe my gut instinct served me well or maybe I was just a sucker. I plunked down a LOT of money and ordered a set. In two weeks the stuff arrived. With a lot of trouble, I managed to get it all together and whaddya know? Suddenly there was a stormtrooper walking around in the real world.
When the special edition re-releases finally arrived, I knew this was my chance to make a splash with my new toy. I remember marching into the shabby little movie theater where they were showing it. I was nervous as hell - you couldn't see anything in that helmet, and it was so uncomfortable. Would this thing even look real? Am I making an idiot out of myself? You would have thought Godzilla walked into the lobby from the reaction I got. Screams went up from the crowd as they freaked out over an actual stormtrooper stalking the room. Kids came up and began poking me, fan-boys fawned over me, and inevitably a drunk a@@hole would try to show off in front of his girlfriend by taunting me.
Solo at first...
Weeks passed and as the Return of the Jedi arrived, Tom had his own set of armor and joined me. The instant we stepped out together the difference was obvious. Same screams, same adoration. Only this time, people kept their distance. If we posted near a doorway, people walked by respectfully and waved. Stark contrast to the poking treatment I'd gotten before. No longer did they see me as a museum exhibit on display - we had the appearance of a unit of troopers placed there to guard something.
Something clicked in my head just then. If two troopers were seen like the real thing, how much cooler would it be to have five troopers around? Or ten? In fact, would there be any diminishing returns on more troopers, or would it just keep looking better the more we had?
Back to the internet now. This time I started a web page on geocities just to post the pictures of me and Tom. That's what geeks do, after all - show off our geek toys to other geeks on the internet. After a couple of events I thought it would be funny to narrate the pictures as if they were a field report of two stormtroopers on patrol. Borrowing from the movies, I gave myself a TK number and just used my birthday. Same for Tom. "Here we see TK210 and TK512 managing a crowd in their sector. No sign of rebel scum, over." It read like a news reel from WWII and was corny, but it told a story. Before long, I even gave the site a name to add atmosphere. I called it Detention Block 2551, as if ol' TK210 and TK512 were stationed there and just reporting their tours of duty.
After a few weeks of having the site up, I started getting emails from other people with stormtrooper armor. One guy was in Canada, who shot me a picture of himself in armor standing in front of a lake at sunset. He gleefully typed "TK814 enjoys shoreleave on the pleasure planet such-and-such". I thought that was funny and posted it, quoting him and acknowledging a third member to the cast. With that, other pictures came in with requests to post them on the roster, too. So I did, and before long we had probably a squad-sized group with handsome pictures and ID numbers.
Well, a good idea sometimes just presents itself. I thought, why not just give the group a name, make up a back-story, maybe even add a hook to tie it in with the actual movies? My father had served in WWII in the Army Air Corps, so growing up I remember looking through his old flight school graduation book. There were all these rows of pictures, young men with flight goggles on, cocky grins, and a gleem in their eye. Now that was a spectacle. I wondered if we could achieve something like that on my site, even if just for fun. We weren't pilots, so we couldn't be a squadron (which would have sounded so cool, but alas). But we were infantry technically and a small unit, so we could be a squad. The Empire is supposed to be big, so the name would probably be a generic number to start with. But I wanted a number that would sound cool and would lend itself well to an alliterative motto. I wanted something that would go well with 'The Fighting (whatever)'. So that left the four hundreds or five hundreds. I went with five hundred and even added a 'one' to the end to make it sound a little more authentic. Put together, the 'one' made it sound even more alliterative: the Fighting Five-Oh-First. Now that was a good military unit name if I ever heard one!
So the 501st Squad was born and I wasted no time coming up with a backstory. After all, the more detail the more excitement this would generate and people would feel some pride in being a part of the website. I got to thinking and realized something odd about the Star Wars trilogy. It seemed odd to me that everywhere Vader went, it seemed like he always had a couple of stormtroopers just hanging around ready for him to bark orders at them. They weren't exactly doing anything, they were just there. Like in the end of A New Hope. The deathstar is under attack and Vader turns and yells at two TIE pilots to follow him. Hello. Why were't they already in the hangar, ready to take off for the battle? They were already dressed! It made me wonder if Vader had some kind of hand-picked unit that he borrowed specialty troops from. And that's when the idea hit me he might have his own select guard that was at his beck and call. That would be cool, being Darth Vader's hand-selected stormtrooper! Who wouldn't like to be that? And why not another motto for the squad while we're at it? Nothing's more powerful than that image of Vader extending his clenched mitt at Luke in Cloud City - why not Vader's Fist?
Soon after Tom and I got our armor, Peter Mayhew was scheduled to appear at a convention in podunk Columbia, SC (and how I don't know - there's never been a con here since). Well, the nice comic shop guy in town had his limo stop off at his shop (without telling Peter). Needless to say, Peter was pretty put-out after a long plane trip to find he had an improvised gig at a comic shop. But Tom and I showed up, entertained the fans waiting, and tried to give Peter some support. To his credit, the man was warm and friendly to every fan he met. Quite the gentleman (even if he threatened to crush me and Tom!). :)
Just as we got our idea off the ground, Tom pointed out something awesome that was going on at the very same time out on the west coast. Kevin Rubio and friends put out a fan film called Troops and it swept the fan world as a hilarious and beautifully-done proof-of-concept that Stormtroopers were BACK and the Star Wars universe could be revisited by the fans. It still remains to this day as one of the best fan films ever, and it inspired us to keep going. Years later it was my honor to meet Kevin Rubio and induct him as an Honorary Member of the 501st Legion. The circle was complete.
Also in 1997: Fan sites like Studio Creations Definitive How To and Jedi-Academy, the Parts of Star Wars, and monkeyinadryer.com inspire and help fans track down and build their own armor.