Before the pandemic changed so much of our shopping habits, I was in Cherry Bomb Toys and was asked by Aaron, B’s second in command, “Who is your favourite Joe?”
There are standard, expected answers for just such a question: Snake Eyes. Storm Shadow. Firefly. Maybe Flint, Roadblock or Destro. My answer was Airborne.
Aaron looked at me dumbfounded. I was one of their top customers for GI Joes, someone who had been known to live and breathe ARAH. And in his mind, the light shined on me just a little differently at that moment.
I’m not sure when Airborne became my favourite. As I’ve stated one million times, the 1983 class was special to me. Apart from thumb and crotch breakage, the straight-arm figures in 1982 were better than Star Wars figures. But GI Joe didn’t have the push of a cultural phenomenon behind him. And the 82s were somewhat bland, a lot of repetitive parts in different shades of green. But the 83s were less prone to breakage, better designed and more unique in their specializations, vast improvements on original figures that were already better than Kenner’s.
The 83s rocketed me away from my devotion to the Rebels, and instead began preparing me to enlist in the military.
(Something that never happened, but that’s beyond the point!)
I can still remember the initial chills of seeing Airborne, Destro and Gung-Ho on the store shelves at the Bay in Fort Smith, NWT.
The journals I wrote for school around that time were littered with drawings of Uzis, M-16s and AK-47s. Toys were all I thought about, and the GI Joe army had become kings in my toy box. My journals pointed to the Skystriker pilot as my favourite figure; I even referred to myself as “Ace”. But owning both the Skystriker and the Dragonfly, something happened. Airborne was the co-pilot of both vehicles, and became involved in all ground missions, accompanying Gung-Ho deep into jungles and Snow Job into the dead of winter.
Airborne was my favourite all-purpose fighter.
As a figure, Airborne is underrated in collecting circles. His card art is amazing, and he owned some of the best accessories yet released. The bayonet on the rifle was a useful feature that wasn’t repeated until Crimson Guard, two years later. His backpack was moulded with a shovel and parachute, which meant that I could pretend Airborne had access to those tools while playing. And even his helmet was a step-up from the 1982 helmets, with moulded goggles and a textured feel.
His colours, overall, fit within a military aesthetic without going green. The beige was somewhat drab, but he had a brown harness, elbow pads and knee pads, green shoulder straps and a light blue vest. The colour of the vest seems soft now but never concerned me as a child. He also has prominent chevrons on his left shoulder, a nice touch, given he was a Sergeant. And being an indigenous character, Airborne’s skin tone is darker than his Caucasian contemporaries, meaning he stands out.
Apart from a solid backstory on his filecard, great accessories and a specialty that aligned with two of the most prominent vehicles released in 1983, Airborne also stands out in the figure’s detailing. He has a pistol, grenade and knife moulded onto his body. The knife always draws your eyes, being prominent and smartly located for cutting his chute when he landed. His vest has pockets and a collar – exceptional, simple touches. The long sleeve shirt he wears has a ribbed collar and ribbed cuffs. His knee pads and elbow pads also have ribs, and the harness around his waist is excruciatingly detailed. Even his back pocket is a testament to how much time the designer spent crafting this figure.
I can imagine the boss telling him to wrap up.
“Get working on Torpedo and the HISS Driver, already!”
I called myself “Ace” in my journal entries for a long time, feeling a continued obligation to call the driver of my favourite vehicle my favourite figure. But Airborne was easily the Joe I played with the most.
My appreciation of the figure became so ingrained and enduring that his Python Patrol doppelganger from Brazil, Gatilho, is my favourite foreign figure. A beat-up version is one of two prisoners in my Joe Headquarters, along with Cobra De Aco, guarded by swivel arm versions of Stalker and Grunt. And version 1A of Steel Brigade, which reuses Airborne’s chest with trademark knife, was a holy grail item for me for years.
I got back into GI Joe when I was 17, finding two carded figures in a collectible shop in Yellowknife, some late run, 90s Joes on the pegs at Wal-Mart, and ordering classic figures and vehicles through Hasbro Canada. I looked for GI Joe everywhere and didn’t find much, apart from some old VHS tapes in a discount bin at the video store, Headquarters magazine at Sutherland’s Drugs and a few figures through my friends’ little brothers.
What became apparent – something that wasn’t apparent when I was a kid playing with Joes – was that Airborne was my favourite figure. There were other contenders (Snow Job, Beach Head and Firefly, namely), but the seemingly unassuming design of Airborne was the figure I felt most nostalgic about, the figure I was happiest to find in a small box of vehicle parts that had survived an earlier purge.
I stayed a collector on and off into my early 20s, before dropping GI Joe completely. I came back for short bursts along the way, but when I returned for good at the end of 2013, I immediately started searching for an Airborne MOC. It seemed like the market for MOCs was drying up so one of the most difficult choices I made was buying an AFA-graded, US Airborne through eBay. I agonized over that for a long time, wondering whether I would be stuck holding the bag if prices decreased, wondering whether I would ever even see another MOC Airborne again…
I pulled the trigger because patience is my least enduring quality.
For two years, that AFA Airborne was the jewel in my GI Joe display. But I was still hoping to find a Canadian version MOC. Then, by chance, I saw one on Craigslist in Vancouver. I made contact with this guy and worked out a package deal for Airborne and Tripwire.
The actual transaction was awkward, with the seller sending me pictures of the open package with the two MOCs inside and the sealed box at the post office. I immediately transferred the money, despite no proof there was anything in the box when he sealed and mailed it. Then the seller had a minor heart attack, waiting at the post office for a transfer that didn’t go through. So he messaged me repeatedly and I tried to reassure him, even as I contacted the bank in a similar panic, wondering why it wasn’t being processed, worried that he was trying to shake me down for a second transfer. The bank held the transfer for 30 minutes for security reasons, but once the money was there and the seller was happy, I spent the next 24 hours praying that Airborne and Tripwire would be in the box that arrived in Victoria.
All was well in the end, but what a potential disaster.
A short time later, I sold the US version and recouped my cost.
It was a huge relief. For two years, AFA Airborne had been the most expensive Joe I owned, staring at me from a shelf on my bookcase while I considered whether I was spending too much money on toys.
The Canadian carded version isn’t my most valuable MOC, but he’s easily the most important in my collection, because my affection for Airborne grows stronger every day, staring into his steely eyes and remembering what it felt like to find the 20-backs at the Bay in Fort Smith, almost 40 years ago.
It’s hard to picture myself in retirement, hanging around in a room full of toys. So I once crafted an exit strategy and listed everything in my collection, categorizing them all as “sell now”, “sell sooner” or “sell later”.
No matter the process, I’ve always known that Airborne will be the last MOC and the last loose figure I ever own.