We took the kids to Disneyland this past week. They’re lucky, because we live less than an hour from the park. I lived in New Hampshire as a kid, so a Disney trip for us meant packing up the ’84 Plymouth Voyager and driving a thousand miles to the massive Disney World/EPCOT Center in Florida. It was a week long adventure with countless hours in an overstuffed car. Not ideal. Plus, Florida. My kids will never quite understand how special a trip to Disneyland is for most of the world, because it’s just a short trip down the 5 Freeway for them. Lucky ducks.
Anyway, we always stop at the LEGO store whenver we visit Disneyland, because it’s within “Downtown Disney”, a strip of family friendly stores and shops on a path leading up to the gates of the world famous amusement park. LEGO toys are laced with nostalgia for me, as they are for so many people my age with young kids. I had thousands of LEGO bricks as a kid. We called anything that came out of a LEGO box a “lego” and used the plural “legos” to describe our thousands of bricks. I got legos for Christmas, birthdays, Easter or even the “be good and I’ll get you some legos” days. Generally, a new set would be assembled once, then haphazardly broken down to become part of the LEGO collective: a bin of all the legos that ever were that my brother and sister and I shared. From that bin of legos came a city of imagined buildings, multi-colored geometric cars, fragile robots and sharply angled spaceships – hundreds of different structures and non-sensical creations, a new story with each rebuild. I bring my kids to the LEGO store on the fumes of memories of hundreds of hours playing with them as a boy. My daughter has gone from Duplo Blocks and smaller sets of toddler legos to Barbie legos and her most recent choice, the Hogwarts Castle from the Harry Potter series. She’s on book two, and what once was an obsession with Princesses and dolls has given way to a deep interest in the Harry Potter universe and anything associated with it. I couldn’t be happier about that. Princesses suck.
So she went for the LEGO Hogwarts set and my son, who is four, still doesn’t quite care about legos. He tries, of course, since his sister is so excited about them, but he’d rather watch me put his legos together. That’s fine. That’s how I first dragged my daughter into it, too. He chose an Iron Man, a Hulk and a small Avengers set with Captain America on a flying motorcycle. Cool. And then I saw the Star Wars X-Wing Starfighter sitting there on the shelf. 560 pieces. Ages 8-14. Luke Skywalker and R2D2 included. Whoa. My favorite toy I ever had as a kid was an original Kenner X-Wing Fighter. It was the JEWEL of my plastic toy horde. Star Wars was the first movie I ever saw in the movie theater, and therefore it became a huge part of the landscape of my youth. If you’re young and can’t understand why so many of us born in the ’70s and ’80s still cling to our love of Star Wars, that’s why. It shaped us, in so many ways. Anyway, my Kenner X-Wing Fighter had a red light in the nose, wings that opened and an R2D2 installed behind Luke’s head. There was also a blue button behind R2 that turned on the light in front and made a buzzing laser sound! It was such a cool toy. In addition to being Luke’s Starfighter, as the instrument of destruction of the Death Star, it was pretty much the coolest toy you could choose back then. I wish I still had it. Years passed – I think I sold it at a yard sale in the ’90s before I understood how powerful nostalgia can be. I keep meaning to buy myself a “NIB!!! MUST SEE TO BELIEVE!!! VINTAGE!!!11!! ORIGINAL!” Kenner model on eBay just like the one I used to have. Maybe someday.
The one sitting on a shelf in front of me was not that 1977 Kenner version; it was the 2012 LEGO version, but it looked close enough. I grabbed the box (#9493) and looked at it. Wings that open. R2 behind the cabin. Luke Skywalker mini-figure. A smile snuck out, and I added it to my kids’ Hogwarts and Avengers stack already in my hands. My wife looked at me with a smirk. “Is that one for you?” she asked. “Yep,” I told her, trying to sound confident. Was it? I guess it was. I was buying some legos for myself, and I only felt slightly weird about that. My daughter asked me, “Daddy, who’s the Star Wars one for?” I looked at her and smiled. “Me,” I said. She looked confused. I felt confused. And excited? I mean, 560 pieces. Pretty intricate.
At home, my son asked me to make his Iron Man and Hulk. They were simple snap together figures, each no more that 30 pieces. I knocked them out in about ten minutes. After that, my daughter occasionally asked for help with her Hogwarts model but quickly made it clear that she didn’t want actual help. Eight-year-olds know everything, remember. I’d try to help her build, but since she’s very much like me, she insisted on doing the work herself. Each time I’d get excited and try to snap pieces into place, she’d take over. I tried not to let it frustrate me. After all, it is her toy, 40-YEAR-OLD MAN. When she finished, she proudly showed off her work. Two castles and a working bridge that collapses when you turn the knob! I ooohed and ahhhed (and truthfully, I was very impressed) and asked her if she wanted to help me build my X-Wing Fighter. “Sure!” she said, “I can help you find the pieces.” I agreed, “Sounds great! Let’s do it.”
I opened the box, which contained several bags of assorted legos and a direction booklet. The direction booklet, a distant cousin to an IKEA catalog, is an illustrated booklet of step by step instructions. It tells you when to open which bags, and carefully shows you exactly how to build each piece of the model, in order. I started right away. My daughter, who was clearly burned out from assembling Hogwarts, only stuck around to help for a few minutes. Could be she got spooked by my sudden focus on playing with LEGO? No doubt it’s weird when your dad is super psyched about building a spaceship designed for 8-14-year-olds.
I started building. The directions are like a book of illustrated mini-puzzles that eventually add up to a completed model. I began quickly, convinced that I would rip through a LEGO set designed for young kids. I’m not some idiot, after all. I started snapping pieces into place, occasionally panicking when I couldn’t find the right shape or block. I had forgotten: LEGO products are never missing pieces. I imagine they place that high on their list of priorities in the business model. Nothing more frustrating than working two to three hours on a model and realizing that a LEGO error cost you the successful completion of their product. Forget a piece and you risk losing a customer forever. As the body of the X-Wing Starfighter began to take shape, I started getting excited. Holy crap, I missed building LEGO models! There is a satisfaction with each snap that’s hard to quantify.
I built the landing gear and the wing assembly. I snapped the hatch over the cabin. I dropped R2 into his slot behind Luke. Each piece was a thing of engineering beauty. The design, perfect. Not once did something not fit, not quite work, or not snap together exactly as illustrated. In fact, when something didn’t fit or work, it felt like a nudge from the LEGO design team telling me to take another look. You blew it somewhere, pal. Check your mistake. I made plenty of them. Easy to fix. Undo the work and go back to the pictures.
My internal monologue was an endless stream of LEGO consciousness: “Wait, how does this…? Ah, one row over. Wrong color brick. Oh THAT’S what that does. Are these little robots? Cool! Oh, wait no they secure the thrusters. What bag am I on? Hang on, why does it say attach two wings when I’ve only built one? Oh, I see. Repeat 2X. Be careful with the stickers. You only get one shot with stickers. Gotta be perfect. No legos left behind.” Snap. Snap. Snap.
It was a three hour exercise in concentration that I have sorely missed. My brain, recently rewired over the past several years to experience life in short bursts of noise and tweets; status updates and viral blasts, savored the opportunity to concentrate on something that took longer than a few minutes to pay off. It transported me to my youth, when building LEGO models was as important as anything else I did. As my X-Wing Starfighter came together, the feeling of nostalgia I planned on experiencing was actually eclipsed by the feeling of pure satisfaction as I snapped together the last thrusters, laser cannons and proton torpedos. I was thoroughly enjoying myself, and not ironically, not in a kitschy way and not because it’s something I did as a kid. I had simply forgotten: legos are awesome.
And then suddenly, it was done. My X-Wing Fighter was built. I tried the wings. Open, shut, open shut. Perfect. I locked the S-Foils in attack position. I flew it through space like a 5-year-old might. I made a gun sound, and then laughed like a kid. I am not joking. Thankfully, my family was in bed. In the morning, I showed my kids the finished model. “Wow, good job Daddy,” the 8-year-old said to me without a hint of sarcasm, as she ran out the door to school. The 4-year-old, still not quite sure exactly what the point of legos is, was also impressed. “Cool!” he said. “Do you think you might want to see Star Wars?” I asked him. “I would if it’s not scary,” he answered. “Is that spaceship in the movie?” he asked. “It is,” I said, and then continued, “It’s Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing Starfighter and he uses it to beat the bad guys.” His eyes lit up and he said, “Whoa, coool. Can I play with it?” My smile slipped briefly off of my face and for just a quick moment, I hesitated. But then, I took one last look at my long lost X-Wing, nodded with a smile and I handed it to my son.
“Sure, buddy. It’s all yours.”
And like that, the LEGO bricks began their journey back to various places around the house, to toyboxes and closets, to annoying spots on the floor and to some of my favorite childhood (and now adulthood) memories.