Thursday, June 26, 2014

F**K CANCER, Part 2 & 3

Part 2
So, I just realized that I never did follow up about Sonny and the Lexington Comic and Toy Convention. In an earlier post, I told you about inviting Sonny and Evan to their very own Star Wars Day at LexCon, but we were unsure if they would be able to make it. Well, they made it, and I think we surprised them nicely.

We made arrangements for Sonny and his family to come in through the back door, since the convention wouldn’t be open to the public for another couple of hours. Our media relations guru, Tyler, made his way back to meet them and lead them through the maze of booths to the front where we waited.

When they turned the corner to where we waited, the family was met by more than 20 COSTUMED characters standing in formation for them to walk through. A literal tunnel of Star Wars characters, all there to welcome them into our cosplay world. At the end of the aisle waited the Emperor and Lord Vader, accompanied by Felix Siva (who has played multiple iconic sci-fi roles, including Twiki from "Buck Rogers" and the hang gliding Ewok in "Return of the Jedi") and Tim Rose (Admiral Ackbar, also from "Return of the Jedi"). Lining both sides of the aisle were stormtroopers, clone troopers, bounty hunters, astromech droids, Imperial Officers…and even another TK who was shorter than the rest, and in a motorized chair.

Toby was there in full TK just like the rest of us. Exactly a year prior, Toby was the young man making his way through this very scene. He liked it, and us, so much that he started coming to troops just to be around. So the guys got together and put together a TK suit just his size. I’ll post later about the day he got it. Quite a special day; Star Wars Reads Day, a couple got engaged with a bunch of SW guys, and Toby’s armor. Awesome.)

So, here we are, a little more than halfway through Sonny’s full chemo regimine, and their family is being treated like rock stars. They get to go booth to booth before any of the crowd comes in. They got some unique swag, including meeting and hanging out with people who have actually been in the movies we all love. And they loved every minute of it. Sonny’s mom posted this on Facebook later that day:

“Last set of pics from Comic Con this morning. Kids had a blast and came away with some awesome Star Wars swag too! The 501st is an amazing group with ginormous, generous hearts. Thk you!!”

She also posted a picture of Evan about a week later to let me know that she was still sleeping in her Darth Vader gloves every night. I also made sure to let Sonny’s mom and dad know that we’d be there anytime Sonny needed a few friendly masks to stop by and cheer him up, or anything else that we could do.

Part 3
Fast forward to mid June. It’s time for Sonny’s FOURTEENTH and last chemo treatment, including a five day stay in the hospital. But finally the end of the road is coming up. And Sonny’s mom wants to make it special. She posts this on Facebook:

“On Tuesday we will be admitted for Sonny's final round of chemo, #14, a five day hospital stay. When he is discharged Saturday afternoon @5:15pm, I'd like to invite as many of you as can make it to line the halls on the way out of the KY Children's Hospital down to the pull thru driveway in front of the hospital to cheer Sonny on as he makes his exit. If you'd like, you can make signs, bring balloons, blow noisemakers or whistles, however you'd like to cheer him on. Feel free to PM me or call/text for more info. I think this would just blow him away!!”

My immediate reaction is to plan to be there, but after thinking about it for a few minutes, I feel like it’s a family and friends thing. While I know Sonny’s dad from years back, I didn’t want to intrude; Sonny wouldn’t know me from Adam, and I didn’t want anyone to have to explain who I really was. Let Darth Vader be just Darth Vader.

But then, Sonny’s dad messaged me directly:

“Sonny's last chemo should start tomorrow and end this saturday. we were going to try to get as many friends as we can to line the exit of the hospital as sonny leaves. Would love it if you could come. Darth Vader costume would be awesome, but i understand it would entail a lot of preparation for a simple 10 second "sonny walk-by." But even if you and any other 501st want to come by in your "street clothes," we'd be honored.”

As it turned out, we were planning a 501st cookout at Casa de Vader that day, with most of our group coming to town. Once they heard that Sonny was getting out of the hospital, it was decided. We would be there, in full costume. Even for a ten second walk by…but it became more than that.

The initial plan was for us to be outside the hospital, waiting for Sonny as an unofficial Finish Line. Once we let her know we were there, she told the staff to let us up. She wanted us to walk Sonny from his room to the front door. No way we could refuse that. So….we get to the hospital, and get changed….in the middle of the parking garage.

From the garage to the hospital is a pedway that crosses over a rather busy street near the college campus. So, if you happened to be driving down Limestone on that Saturday afternoon, you may have looked up and seen Darth Vader and several imperial troops walking towards the hospital.

We made our way up to the room to see Sonny. He was finishing up a treatment, and then would be free to go. Lord Vader and a TK were able to see a couple more kids in their rooms, but we were called away shortly to escort Sonny out after his last chemo treatment.

Sonny and one of our own have a special bond, even though they didn’t know it before that day. TK-51200 of the Blue Sun Squad is a cancer survivor himself. His name is Brian, and Brian was in control of Sonny’s wheelchair. And Sonny’s mom was more than happy to let Brian be escort number one out of the hospital.

So, Sonny has finished up his chemo. He still has a cast due to a minor complication with the plate and bone graft. And in the coming week, he will undergo multiple tests to confirm that his is indeed cancer free. Hopefully, there will be a troop he can come to and be just another kid there. Him and his family have had a rough year; I look forward to the day when they can be just a face in the crowd. But until then, we’ll be there when we’re needed.

Bad guys doing good.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

College is where you figure out what to do with your life…..right?

I’ve been teasing this for a while, but it’s finally time. Here’s the story where I met my first contact with someone who was actually IN the 501st Legion. And it was a total accident.

As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up on Star Wars. 1977, I was seven years old. Been a full fledged fan every since, even through the Prequels. Yes, I liked them…not as much as the original trilogy. But I did enjoy the movies and the story. Mainly because that was all we were supposed to get for the rest of our lives. Nothing beyond Episode III, from what George had told us. He was going to fill in the gap up to the beginning we all knew and loved. That bright planet with a little starship flying by, being closely followed by an Imperial Star Destroyer.

Fill in the gap.

Close the book.

There’s the final page with those two damnable words on it.

So how does a person of forty-ish years of age prolong his love of some science fiction movies that pretty much shaped a life? That was a question I hadn’t found an answer to. I had several (or more than several) collectibles from all of the movies, and enjoyed just sitting in my room looking at them. But slowly the realization set in after Episode III. It was over. Time to move on.

And I tried. I even bought in to the phrase “Joss is my master now.” Buffy, I dug it. Angel, dug as well…but never did get caught up. Dollhouse, saw every episode. Firefly?

Firefly. There’s Han Solo. With a different first mate. And several new characters . Jayne. Zoe. Kaylee. Inara. Ok, I can get behind this. I can even tell my mind that these are characters who grew right out of the Star Wars movies I love. AND THERE’S A MOVIE, TOO! This will do.

Then came the year I was a forty year old freshman. Going to college. Finally. To do what I really wanted to do…web and graphic design. Plus all of the gen ed course, too. Algebra, English, all that good stuff. But with the stuff I really wanted to learn as well, including:

For various applications, of course. Including Web Design. One of my first professors was a gentleman named Tim Birch. He would be my introduction to the 501st Legion, and completely by accident.

By this time, I had already had my encounter with the short Darth Vader in Philly. And we’d had our family photo with Boba Fett and a TK (before I knew what a TK was). But I had no idea they were part of an organization that would change my life eventually.

Back to Professor Birch. The classes he was teaching, or that I was taking at least, were all online. Video presentations that each student watched at their own pace, then the student finished the required coursework, and submitted it to the professor. This particular class was (if memory serves) Photoshop for Web Design. During the video presentation, Mr. Birch had an issue with Photoshop, and it locked up on him. He had to close and restart the program, but it didn’t require him to stop the video capture software he was using. So, he crashed Photoshop, clicked the start button, and restarted it. But…

When he clicked the start button, I noticed the icon on his menu: a stormtrooper helmet.

So, once I finished that weeks assignment and submitted it, I made sure to mention how much of a Star Wars fan I am, I grew up on the movies, blah blah woof woof…having no idea that he was a member of the 501st. When Professor Birch responded to me, he included the ultimate smart-ass answer.

“Star Wars? I think I’ve heard of it.”

With a hyperlink to a page: Click here.

It was his 501st online profile.

My immediate first thought was was “Oh, I’m passing this class for DAMN sure.”

As it turns out, I did. With an A. And now, I am all but finished with my coursework at that college. At any time, I can walk. And I currently have a 4.0 GPA, through many hours of hard work and the full support of my family. I have also had several classes with Mr. Birch, and now that my coursework is all but complete (I just have to file the paperwork, but there are classes outside the web/graphic design program I want to take), I am happy to call Tim Birch a good friend.

I am now a full fledged member of the 501st Legion, and Tim and I troop at least one event per month together. Our schedules don’t always mesh, but we do the same events as much as possible. Tim is a great guy, and encouraged me to get into this. It didn’t take much encouragement, especially after meeting short Lord Vader. I pestered him to find me a Vader suit, and he always referred to the legend of the Vader suit for sale in Tennessee. (Turns out, it wasn’t a legend. Tyler Phillips found the guy; that will be my next story.) Tim showed me the road to go down, and basically said he’d walk it with me. And here we are, several years later, bringing smiles to faces who are going through pain we can’t begin to imagine.

All because we dress up like Star Wars characters on the weekends.

Life is good. But you don’t know what it looks like until you’ve seen it through a helmet.

Friday, May 16, 2014

It's all happening!

May 16, 2014.

The beginning of Star Wars Weekends at Disney for this year, but it has a bit more significance this time around. This is the first Star Wars Weekend since THE ANNOUNCEMENT; the one where Disney wrote George Lucas a HUMONGOUS check, and immediately announced work was already underway for the words I’d waited a few decades to see in print.


Also today, a few other things happened, to me personally and to the Star Wars community as a whole. This morning, one simple tweet gave me the goosebumps I’d not felt in a very long time. "Officially begun, production has." That was followed later in the day by an official picture of Pinewood Studios, with a very simple sign hanging outside.

But personally, something really cool happened to me, as well. The one and only Dave Prowse posted a tweet that read something like “Send me your pics of you dressed as Darth Vader and I’ll retweet them.” So I dug up a picture from the Cincinnati Reds Star Wars Weekend of me, on the field, during the national anthem. I'm pretty sure this was an AP photo or some other national news media outlet. But I posted it, and sent a tweet to Mr. Prowse. Half an hour later, while I was at work, I went back to see if I made the cut. Well...

I got retweeted by DARTH VADER. As I was dressed in my 501st approved, Lucasfilm sanctioned Darth Vader costume.

That’s gotta be a 10.0 on my Cool Sh*t-O-Meter.

So, here we are. A year and a half until a new episode of the movie franchise that has helped shape a generation, and continues to influence the generations since. And I am sitting right in the middle of the renaissance as a member of the 501st Legion, playing the biggest, baddest bad guy who turns back to good guy EVER.

With a little luck, maybe the next email I get from someone with Lucasfilm will start out "We'd like you to audition for the role of Darth Vader in the upcoming Episode IV.5..." (How do you write a half number in roman numerals?) But even if they never call or write, doing what I'm doing is incredibly cool and fulfilling. And the group of guys and girls that we troop with regularly, are an incredible bunch. And TK-Tim is fully back in the fold with us.

Who is TK-Tim, you ask? Well, that's another story...and one I've owed you, dear reader, for some time. He's the guy who got me into all of this, and that story is up next.

I promise.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Pitch Seen Around A Galaxy Far, Far Away...

Yup. That was me.

That was me all over the interwebs when you woke up on Saturday, May 3, 2014. Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith, apprentice to the Emporer, Darth Sideous (aka Senator then Chancellor Palpatine), taking the mound for the ceremonial third first pitch (more on that in a minute) during Star Wars Night with the Cincinnati Reds.

That was me, standing in front of 32,759 major league baseball fans, waiting on me to deliver a perfect force guided strike. Problem being, Lord Vader’s suit, armor, and helmet were meant to keep him alive and function as a living being. Mine was just meant to LOOK like his on screen. (Screen accurate, as a matter of fact. That’s what the 501st does.)

So there I am, right in front of that pitcher’s mound that a very well paid gentleman will be throwing from just a bit later in the evening. And I’m expected to deliver a perfect strike….to a mascot with an oversized 1,000 times baseball for a head. In the immortal words of Bob Uecker (who I SWEAR I saw in the bowels of Great American Ballpark earlier that night).

JUUUUUUUUST a bit outside.

Yup. I one hopped it to the mascot.

The result? Instant fame.

WORLDWIDE instant fame.

Here are some of the headlines:

Disturbance in the Force? Darth Vader tosses awful first pitch

Darth Vader Threw Out an Anemic First Pitch at a Reds Game

Watch: Darth Vader Sucks at Throwing Out First Pitches... Darth Vader throws just a terrible ceremonial first pitch

Darth Vader's lack of pitching skills is disturbing

Darth Vader" mostra falta de talento no beisebol em arremesso inaugural

I have NO IDEA what that last one said. No talent hack maybe? Anyway...

People were talking more about Darth Vader this past weekend than any time since Revenge of the Sith, at the very least. And these were mostly national media outlets, and ALL included the video. I have to say, my favorite description was “The Force was strong with Lord Vader’s pitch. That force was gravity.” Classic.

My one regret was that not one of those articles mentioned the 501st Legion ( I really wish one of the national media outlets had gone that extra step to actually get in touch to find out who we are, what we do, and why we do it.

Bad guys doing good!

But on the bright side, Lord Vader got their attention again. Star Wars Weekend was a huge success, from what I can see. Chewbacca threw a perfect strike on Sunday night. And a young man named Toby had a night he will cherish forever because he got to throw out the first pitch on Saturday night, dressed in his own TK armor. Toby is 10 years old, and has mitochondrial disease. He has been “adopted” by the ladies and gentlemen of Blue Sun Squad (a squad within the Midsouth Garrison of the 501st), and is one of us. The Reds were looking for “characters” to fill the remaining two slots for throwing out the first pitch for that weekend. I mentioned Toby to the promotions director, and he thought it was a great idea.

Toby has a memory he’ll not likely forget. And I’m happy that I was able to facilitate it. And yes, I would have gladly given up my spot for him to do it.

That kid rocks.

And then, once the weekend was over, we found a link making fun of Vader. And his Stormtrooper from Saturday night. Ok, hang on a second...

I'm a grown man. I grew up on Star Wars, and love it to this day. And I get to dress up as a character from that franchise and make kids (and their parents) very happy. And I threw a bad pitch that made national headlines, picking on me. AWESOME! BRING IT! Just spell the name right. I knew what I was in for, taking on that challenge. Ace it, nobody notices, and you got to do something you dreamed about since you started tee ball. One hop it, the world notices and Darth Vader is the talk of the town. A true can't lose, win-win situation. Obviously, the latter happened for me.

But of the national media talking heads decided to pick on Toby, too. Seriously? A kid with a disability who loves the Reds AND Star Wars, and got to combine the two.

Somebody is about to find out that Chewie ain’t the only one with claws.

That chapter is still being written. I’ll let you know, dear reader, how it ends.

To be continued...

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

This is a day that will be long remembered.

I was finished. Done. Over it. The end was reached, and it was time to move on.

Star Wars (later also known as Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope) erupted onto the movie scene in 1977. I was not quite seven years old when it debuted, and I remember seeing the sign in front of Lexington Mall. A giant, ugly sign of brown with a yellow logo, and large yellow space with text on it announcing the latest movies playing at the two screen theater there.


The summer of 1977. I’m not sure how many times I saw it then, or how many times I’ve seen it since. More than a few, to say the least. Empire and Jedi both played all summer long when they were released, and it became a tradition to see each just before school started in August. Regardless, I’ve seen the original trilogy many times, in every incarnation possible. The originals. The Special Editions. The re-imagining by George Lucas. (Anakin as a ghost at the end of Jedi should be Sebastian Shaw. But I do like the touch of Temurra Morrison voicing ALL of the stormtroopers in those.)

Then came the break. Years went by, then the announcement came. Star Wars; Episode One was on the way. The trailer was to debut online (a first at that time) before worldwide release with that weekends movies. But it was also to play in very few select cities with certain movies. My choices were The Waterboy or Meet Joe Black.

I drove an hour and a half to watch the first taste of NEW Star Wars footage that came out to just over two minutes. And sat through The Waterboy to see it a second time. (I despised Adam Sandler then, and had no liking of football, either.)

Episodes 1, 2 and 3? Midnight shows and multiple viewings in the first weekends of release. And then, my great realization.

Star Wars was over. Episode Three completed the story arc, and Lucas had already said that was the end. Three completed the story as I knew it, and there was nothing left to tell. Sure, there were comics to come, and rumors of an animated series. But the Star Wars I grew up with had reached its conclusion.

It was time to put it away. Put the toys in the attic, dispose of the shrine to Lucas I had accumulated, piece by piece, and get on with being a “grown up” member of society. So, that’s what I did. I’d also heard of a costuming group called the 501st Legion. That looked like it would have been fun a few years back, but Star Wars was done and gone.

And then, October 30, 2012 struck.

"Disney buying Lucasfilm, will release new 'Star Wars' movie in 2015"

It’s like I was a teenager all over again, but with the financial income to REALLY jump in. Star Wars was back with a vengeance. A new episode to continue the original story. SEVEN was in the works. Later, JJ Abrams was tagged to direct. And today, the announcement of the cast: all the originals are back, and young blood is being brought in. I honestly have no idea who they are today, but I’m sure that will change soon.

Which all leads me back to being in the 501st. October 30 brought me back into the fold, and the decision was made right around then. The 501st needed a Vader who was as imposing as the character in the movie. That short Vader in Philly just wouldn’t do, if I had anything to say about it.

Today, the cast was announced. Exactly a week ago, I got the email that said Lucasfilm says my costume is one of the best.

"Hi Clint,
Congratulations, you have been selected to play the role of Vader for the Star Wars nights games for the Cincinnati Reds."

I’m all in, barreling towards Star Wars, Episode VII. And playing the biggest, baddest Vader seen since Return of the Jedi.

And I still owe you, dear reader, a story on how I found the 501st in little ole Lexington, Kentucky. Stay tuned. That one is on deck...

Sunday, February 16, 2014


February 3, 2014. I finally get the email I’d been hoping for.

Welcome SL 68888 to the MidSouth Garrison & 501st Legion!

It only took twelve days from my official enlistment date to attend a troop for someone I know directly. His name is Sonny, he’s seven years old, and has been diagnosed with Ewing Sarcoma (bone cancer).

The relatively short version is this: in the fall of 2013, Sonny hurt his leg. Nothing major at the time, doing something kids get to do for fun. If memory serves, horseback riding? (Honestly not sure at the moment.) The slight injury happened over the weekend, but on Monday it was still bothering him to the point that his parents took him to the doctor. The medical staff did their exams and x-rays and all the usual stuff. What they found was a fracture in his shin, which seemed odd for such a minor bump that he had taken. Further investigation revealed a tumor in his leg, which allowed the bone to break so easily. Devastating news for any parent.

The doctor’s immediately laid out a plan of attack. Chemo to shrink the tumor, other tests and exams to determine of the cancer had spread, and a bone graft to fix the bad part of the bone. To date, there isn’t any other cancer in his body, and the tumor had been shrunk. Somewhere in that time frame, I got in touch with Sonny’s father, who I used to work with.

Sonny is a bit of a Star Wars fan, and when I got in touch with his dad, I let him know that I have an incredible group of guys and gals here with the 501st, and that we’d love to come see him in costume, if it would be beneficial to Sonny. His dad thought it might be a good thing, and basically put us on retainer.

Over the Christmas break, we had tentative plans on several occasions to come see Sonny, including Christmas Morning at his house if his parents thought it would help. The best news to come from those tentative visits was that Sonny was doing so well at the time, a cheering up wasn’t really necessary. I’d happily cancel any and every troop in the future if that could be the reason. Sadly, I know that won’t be the case…but that’s why we do what we do.

So, a couple of weeks ago, Sonny’s BIG surgery was scheduled. The tumor had shrunk to the point the doctors needed to remove that bad part of his shinbone. To do that, Sonny would need both bone and skin grafts on his leg, which also meant an extended hospital stay, partially in ICU right after surgery. We had tentative plans to see Sonny on a Thursday, but those fell through. So we rescheduled for the following Saturday to troop for Sonny. On February 15, the Troop for Sonny finally happened.

For a short while, I thought the troop would be just me, Lord Vader. Scheduling conflicts arose with most of the other members, and weather threatened to keep others away. But my guys came through. The troop ended up with Vader, two TK’s, and a female Imperial officer. Not too shabby for basically 24 hours notice. True, we’d been “planning” this for a while, but when we finally got the go ahead from Sonny’s dad that he needed a Star Wars day, that’s really all the time we had.

Sonny loved every second of it, and his little sister dug it as well. With any luck at all, they will be special guests of the 501st and Midsouth Garrison at the Lexington Comic and Toy Convention. They have both been officially invited, but Sonny’s treatment schedule going forward will dictate whether he can make it. (There are tentative plans in place to march from the Con to Sonny’s hospital to see him, if he happens to be in the hospital for treatment that Sunday morning.)

I heard from Sonny’s dad after we left that Sonny was literally dancing in his bed after we left; he LOVED the visit. And I also heard that the first words from his little sister on Sunday morning were “We met the REAL DARTH VADER yesterday!”

We were not supposed to visit other kids while on our troop for Sonny, but if any parents or kids wanted us to stop in or take pictures, we were allowed. Somehow, we lost our way back to our changing room (that was 25 feet away), and got stopped by some more patients who needed some Star Wars cheering up. We were more than happy to oblige, and brought more than a few smiles to the Children’s wing.

Months of planning. An hour or so invested in driving, meeting, dressing. All for a half hour visit to cheer the kids up.

Worth. Every. Second.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The call/text I was hoping for...and Jeni got it first.

One of the few pics of me, sans helmet.
January 19, 2014.

We have a nice core group of 501st members, and 501st members in waiting in central Kentucky. Enough members, in fact, that we’re considering applying for Squad status within our Midsouth Garrison. We have already voted in a name for the group: Blue Sun Squad. And at this point, we’ve decided we need a logo. I’ve volunteered to get the ball rolling, and that’s what I’m working on this afternoon while waiting on the Broncos vs. Patriots to play for a Super Bowl berth.

As I’m plugging away on logo designs and ideas, I hear Jennifer literally bounding up the step. As she gets to my office, she asks if I sent her a text message in the last couple minutes. I tell her no, to which she says “Good. I got it first.” Long story condensed to very short status, she’s currently using my old phone number, and a text came in.

It was Dave Hester, the GML for the 501st Legion’s Midsouth Garrison.

I’m approved, and now an official member of the 501st. Yet another step into this larger world.

SL-68888 reporting for duty.