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How G.I. Joe Helped Me Rediscover My Childhood Best Friend

We were on opposite ends of the political spectrum, but a toy brought us back together

GI Joe figurine with American flag

People will surely wonder why an adult man would still be collecting action figures in the twilight of his 40s. Well, in the case of G.I. Joe, it’s because these toys brought together two old friends after years of bitter and personal political division. 

It all began four decades ago. My parents had moved us to a new town, and I entered the sixth grade as the new kid. At the time, I was already four years deep into my obsession with G.I. Joe — which was reintroduced to Gen X kids 40 years ago under the tagline "A Real American Hero.” The cartoon, which ran from ’83 to ’86, pit a ragtag American Special Missions force against Cobra, which the show's theme song defined as "a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world."

It was because of G.I. Joe that I met my first real friend. His name is Butch, and he shared my obsessions with the G.I. Joe universe. We came from totally different backgrounds. He grew up in the sticks, fly-fishing and deer hunting, and a good half-hour drive from the nearest department store. I came from Long Island, with a Toys “R” Us just a short drive away, so I entered sixth grade already prepacked with a formidable collection of figures and vehicles.

When Butch and I discovered our mutual devotion to all things G.I. Joe, it didn’t matter that we had almost nothing else in common. We talked and traded action figures at the lunch table. We used every inch of our backyards as potential battlefields. In the school cafeteria, we would gather around the lunch table to talk about which new figures or vehicles we scored that weekend, whether via allowance money or generous grandparents.

Somewhere between eighth grade and leaving home for college, I abandoned my G.I. Joes in a dark corner of my parents’ garage. I liked to think my younger brothers took them over and kept the magic going for a few more years. Whatever happened to them, they disappeared.

I forgot all about G.I. Joe until I reached middle age, and then I was suddenly consumed with recreating my toy collection, albeit on a far smaller scale. 

I also rediscovered some old friendships, thanks to social media. And I learned that sometimes the kids you considered your best friends in middle school grow up to become jerks with political ideas that you find vile and disgusting. Butch and I, we soon discovered, have very different opinions on the subject of firearms regulation. We argued about it, first civilly and eventually devolving into obscenity-laced attacks.

Our political divide soon became the entire basis of our friendship. One of us would post something political and the other would reply in the comments, essentially calling the other person an uninformed fascist. It wasn’t healthy for anybody, and caused undue stress on our families and each other.

Then one day, out of the blue, he sent me a link with news about anniversary reissues of our most cherished G.I. Joe accessories and figures. Before long, we were trading links to auction sites or complaining to each other about the lack of a “swivel arm battle grip” on the reissue figures.

Every time I heard from him, I worried that politics might come up again. But they never did. Which is kinda odd, given that firearms, one of the biggest sticking points in our political rift, are pretty much the entire genre of G.I. Joe. Between both of our collections, we’d amassed an arsenal of Uzis, bazookas, pistols, machine guns, military rifles and even swords that would likely land both of us on the FBI watch list. But these deadly weapons were made of plastic and about an inch long or smaller. And I didn't mind discussing guns and gun culture when it was strictly in the context of my toy arsenal. 

We were now both happily ignorant to the other's political posts on social media. Our only interaction was to check in and talk about these new figures, and how they compare and contrast to the Hasbro originals. Our most controversial debates these days are whether Cobra Commander or Serpentor made for a stronger threat to the Joes. 

I see a similar thread with my son and his friends with how they interact around Fortnite. Viewing it through the prism of my Joe days, I can even appreciate how he and his little buddies collect the different skins like they were digital action figures, getting lost in the minutiae of their outfits and arsenal just like we once pored over Joe’s military stockpile.

If these kids are lucky, they’ll be revisiting those moments as adult friends as well. And if there ever comes a time when those friendships are tested, I'll remind my son how I almost lost one of my oldest friends — but then we rediscovered each other, reconnecting over the things that can’t be sullied by a 24-hour news cycle, with the middle-aged middle ground of little plastic men.