And in April of 2014, we finally met at the Hyatt bar in Dallas, Texas. Pockets of Joe fans were everywhere, the bar expanding hundreds of feet upwards, atrium style. But you couldn’t miss Gary, in his loud, Betabrand silver hoodie, bald head, and silver goggles. There were six or seven of us, sitting around a small table in low chairs, chatting about G.I. Joe, fandom, the fan club, and convention-exclusive toys. But I suppose just two of us were doing most of the talking. Andrew later described it as Gary and I holding court. I didn’t know the weirdo with the headgear, but Gary and I had an easy rapport, and there was much to discuss. He asked a few questions that I might know from my book research. And when I asked questions back, I was impressed with his knowledge base. I immediately liked him and trusted him.
The next day I asked if he would be interested in reading my book. Specifically, if I could fly to Chicago (where he lived) and hang out with him for a weekend. Only three people had read the whole thing: editor Nick, editor Dad, and book designer-Liz. Gary said yes. This guy I had known for 36 hours.
A few months later, my father died. I can remember sitting on a couch in Maryland, my family working out the details of what came next. Funeral or memorial service? Immediately or later? Two Saturdays popped up. I’ve already scheduled my trip to Chicago to see Gary, I thought. I really don’t want to reschedule that. No scheduling conflict arose, and so, one week before I was to eulogize my father in Maryland, I flew to Chicago to let some guy read my book. I brought hard copy text-and-layouts or the complete-text-only for chapters 1 through 11-and-a-half, the whole book so far. In the planning, I had asked specifically if I could monopolize Gary for the whole weekend. I didn’t want him to leave for a few hours, or need to get groceries, or pick up his kids. I knew it would take all day Saturday and all day Sunday, minus meals, to get through this. (And it did.)
This was a risky endeavor. We might get impatient with each other, cooped up in a room. Gary might flake out, and leave early, or not pay attention to what was in front of him. He might forget to bring his collection, which I was going to inspect in case I wanted to make an offer on something or ask to photograph it fancy-like later. I mean, this wasn’t a paid gig.
Gary was gracious about the whole thing. He understood the seriousness with which I took this, and managed to completely unlink himself from family duties for the whole weekend. We met at the hotel Saturday around noon, and checked into our rooms.
I knew this would work. And since it was at least two G.I. Joe fans meeting in a hotel to discuss G.I. Joe and look at toys (Gary’s very small but very impressive collection of pre-production toy materials), I declared it a kind of G.I. Joe convention, and hung a sign.
My original name for the con was longer, a convoluted joke that referred to Transformers and their Mini-cons, because a mini Joe con sounds like a Transformers Mini-con, sort of, and because I’ve been to about 15 Transformers conventions.
One of the surprises of adulthood is that you can make friends as quickly as you did in childhood. The first day of school or camp, to a kid, can feel like an eternity. By that afternoon, you’ve spent so little actual time together, but it feels likes weeks or months. As adults, friendships are instantly more complex, and bonds tend to take much longer. But I knew Gary as a kind, funny, and loyal person from that first evening in Texas, and was pleased with how easy the weekend in Chicago went. We each offered each other space, as well. Several times Gary said “If you need to take a break or get outside, don’t feel like you have to stay here.”
It seemed like Gary or I could just wander off, walking forever, if either of us wanted to cancel the weekend in as dramatic a fashion as possible, as this was a hundred feet from the hotel.
And a tiring weekend it was. My Holiday Inn room wasn’t very big — only two chairs, a small desk, and a bed. I didn’t trust Gary taking the book to his room down the hall — it doesn’t ever leave my sight — so Gary sat at the desk and read, while I sat in the other chair and waited. We’d interrupt each other, a question about my research, an observation about G.I. Joe collectors, a joke, a need for a meal break.
The hotel shuttle bears a conspicuous ad.
The hotel was near the airport, part of me keeping simple this weekend trip. And except for two other hotels, a small office park, and train tracks, there wasn’t anything else nearby, a flat, mostly desolate stretch at the intersection of two highways. So we took most of our meals at the Harry Caray’s Italian Steakhouse’s, nextdoor/part of the hotel — Gary kept getting steak, of course. Did I mention he had a strange propensity to photograph, up-close, whatever meal he was eating, and post that photo to Facebook? With no caption or explanation, these disgusting photos would become blobs of color and texture, edible abstractions of cheese and grease. Gary didn’t shoot anything while we ate, though. I think he forgot because it was such a strange, packed weekend.
At the end we went to my stepbrother’s restaurant (a geographical coincidence of the trip) for dinner and got the royal treatment. Huge servings — I ordered seafood, Gary ingested beef. My stepbrother was dismayed neither Gary nor I were drinking, but he brought one of every dessert, and the check was covered. While we ate, Gary told me about his time as a DJ, and how hard he worked to get the music that he liked out there, and how he developed a following on the radio. I had assumed Gary had been that guy who partied in his twenties. Maybe we had something in common — I had decidedly not partied in high school or college, and attempted to make up for it later. As a DJ, Gary had kept odd hours — the graveyard shift, I recall. I wondered if living a late-night life, Gary could take risks, party, and not worry. He was frowning. Gary was talking about now. Now he had a family. He had nightmares about his kids in distress. I thought of my father, who once told me that from our second floor window, he saw me, age five, run across the street without looking for cars. And that he held his breath. I had known the rules, but kids forget at times. Gary was still talking about the present: “I never used to be that guy.” He had never been that guy who worried, and he didn’t need to worry about himself, but now he couldn’t not worry about his kids. “And I hate it,” he finished. Then we ate three huge slices of cake and Gary saw Billy Corgan over my shoulder, certainly the non-G.I. Joe highlight of the weekend, after all the delicious food.
Sunday night Gary left to return to his family, his normal life. MiniJoeCon was over. I would fly out Monday morning, and I remember feeling sad as he passed my room on was way out, his contribution to my weekend fulfilled. We had created a strange space together, where two obsessed fans could continuously talk and listen and read and absorb. Where new friends wouldn’t get on each others’ nerves. Where my book was open to expert critique, and yet was safe from harm. To my relief, Gary had very few comments. He liked what he read, was entertained, and yes, this fellow G.I. Joe researcher and scholar and archeologist, was surprised by a few of my facts. And he was one tough cookie. Strong opinions on toys, and music, and comics, and movies. The takeaway, that Gary was a thoughtful snob, lingered on.
A month earlier I had planned on seeing Transformers: Age of Extinction, resigned like it was some masochistic duty. A paragraph into reading Gary’s thoughtful film review, I realized that three of those films was enough, that seeing a fourth would only upset me — really upset me — and that it was a terrible, terrible movie I should and could skip. So I did. That might not seem like a big deal — lots of people read reviews and then skip a bad movie, but this was different. I’ve pretty much consumed Transformers entertainment since it started, and seeing Transformers 4 was a real kind of obligation. Being liberated from it was a relief, and I have Gary’s funny, venomous, honest, and thoughtful film review to thank for that.
(But he also didn’t read G.I. Joe comics, so nuts to him.)
(But I encouraged him to keep reading the crazy Transformers Vs. G.I. Joe comics that Joe fans don’t like, but that he was intrigued by, so I’ll take back those nuts.)
A surprising aspect to Gary’s personality was how quickly he had gotten back into G.I. Joe, and how quickly he would get out. We nostalgia fans often have some story of growing out of something like G.I. Joe at age 10 or 15, and then rediscovering it and really needing it at age 15 or 20 or 25. Gary was a little different. He had gotten back into Joe later than most of us crazy fans, and in just a few years had become one of the most well-known, well-connected, and by many people, well-respected fans in all of Joe fandom. He helped run Joe Declassified (that wonderful group that keeps scooping me), and spoke with everyone online, and with everyone at the conventions. And he owned or helped other fans buy a treasure trove of rare or one-of-a-kind G.I. Joe toy objects and art. I mean, he hid toys around the hotel at G.I. Joe conventions and posted online that he had done so, waiting for someone — anyone — a fan, a kid, a random “civilian,” to find them. And yet, he told me to my surprise at my step-brother’s restaurant, that it was fleeting, and that just as he had abruptly one day walked away from music, to the shock of his music friends, and into G.I. Joe, he would one day walk away from G.I. Joe. I’ve thought about this too. Is the decade-and-a-half process of researching my book the cathartic experience that burns off and burns out my need for G.I. Joe? I mean, certainly I won’t have to keep hunting for G.I. Joe information and art after the book is done, right?
It was a little chilling, actually, to hear him say this, and to see a possible reflection of myself in it. (But don’t worry, I’m still a big Joe fan, and the book will get finished.)
To my great relief, Gary loved my book. He loved it while he was reading it, he loved it when we e-mailed a few days later, and he loved it when I posted a big year-in-review blog article a weeks back, wherein I mentioned our weekend together and thanked Gary once again for his time and generosity.
Writing this book is a bit lonely and scary. It could all come together at the end and then come undone, you know? So votes of confidence here on the blog and at Facebook mean a lot.
I’m sad that Gary won’t get to see the final version of the book. Whatever the cover price, he was eager to buy it, but of course I was going to give him a copy, and draw something for him on the first page. Maybe a Gyre-Viper, whatever that was.
G.I. Joe Con won’t be the same this year, or ever again, without Gary. I do look forward to sitting around with fellow collectors and toasting our departed friend. And my book won’t be the same without Gary. I had asked dozens of questions — who has this, where can I find so-and-so, what’s a good way to approach this long-lost person? — and any new questions are now harder to find answers to.
Chris Murray, myself, Gary, and two ruthless terrorists pose for a photo that doesn’t exist.
But Gary met so many people in his few years as a mega G.I. Joe fan, that his fingerprints are everywhere, and the echo of his voice is audible. So in a way, he feels very present.
Gary Goggles Head is my friend.