A few years ago, my wife and I were listening to the radio while driving back from visiting my in-laws at Christmas. The topic of discussion on CBC was the best Christmas present ever received. Despite the Skystriker being my favourite toy, and despite having received it at Christmas, the gift that jumped to mind was the GI Joe hovercraft.
The Killer Whale was the biggest GI Joe toy in 1984. And in all my years collecting Joe, receiving that Whale in 1984 represented the only time I received the biggest Joe toy available. (I did receive the Mobat, 1982’s biggest Joe toy, but not until two years later and by then the Skystriker and Headquarters Command Centre eclipsed its size.) I didn’t own the original Joe Headquarters, USS Flagg, Terror Drome, Defiant or Rolling Thunder as a kid. So owning the Killer Whale in 1984 was the pinnacle of my Joe collecting childhood.
My favourite time of year is Christmas. It always has been. I was in my 30s before I could sleep through the night on Christmas Eve. So much of my excitement is the memories I associate with my sister, Melanie, who was only a few years older than me, the two of us hyping each other to a frenzy as December 25th approached. We were so invested in Christmas that we worked together to uncover our presents in 1983, were busted for snooping by my dad, and forfeited some of our presents as punishment.
In 1984, Mel and I worked independently, both worrying that the other might be the liability we couldn’t afford. Apart from the Killer Whale, I received Transformers, Shockwave from my parents and Mirage from my grandmother, and the Cobra Water Moccasin from my best friend, Corey. But I would have known some of what would be under the tree that day.
My parents’ closet was where my Christmas presents were stowed leading up to the 25th.
I always took pride in my ability to find out what I was receiving for Christmas. And I think it broke my mom’s heart that not everything under the tree was a surprise to me. I can understand her feelings now, as a parent, because I want Christmas to be so special for my boys. But I also feel the build-up and excitement of Christmas can be overwhelming for some children, and I believe that was the case with me when I was young. I still have a difficult time with uncertainty, and Christmas morning could have been an unhealthy combination of sensory overload and too much suspense. Seeking out my Christmas presents before my mom even had a chance to wrap them was a self-preservation instinct.
(This may be an apologist’s way of explaining away my snooping but, honestly, I see my children overwhelmed in similar situations and I know there is some truth in my retrospective assessment.)
I should say, though, that I never once found my Santa gift beforehand. And that was what created the perfect, manageable amount of suspense on Christmas morning.
Although Melanie and I didn’t work closely together to discover what would be waiting for us under the tree in 1984, it was the biggest year for the two of us playing off each other’s excitement. In later years, I resisted sleep until my parents had gone to bed, until I had a chance to sneak into the living room to see what Santa had left under the tree, but in 1984 I did not have the stamina to stay up late enough. So, the next morning, Melanie woke me on her way to the living room and the two of us found out what Santa brought us together.
My sisters’ bedrooms were downstairs, whereas I was upstairs, near the living room, where the Christmas tree was. It would have been 6 am or 6:30 when Mel came into my room. My other sister, Lindsay, was a teenager and less invested in Christmas than she was in good sleep.
“Are you ready to look?” Mel asked me, her excitement palpable.
My parents’ rule was that we could get up – quietly – whenever we woke up in the morning, but we weren’t allowed to wake them until at least 8 am. And even once we woke them, we couldn’t unwrap any gifts until after breakfast. But our stockings and unwrapped Santa presents were fair game once we were awake.
So Mel and I walked into the living room together and discovered our biggest gifts posed in front of the other, wrapped presents, with our stockings beside the boxes.
Thinking about why I love Christmas so much, it is the memory of Melanie’s excitement that I carry with me today. And that year was the Christmas that was most exciting for us together.
Under the tree from Santa? The Killer Whale for me and a My Little Pony stable for Mel. We must have woken our parents because there’s no way our reactions to those toys could have been stifled.
My 40-something brain doesn’t have the capability of recalling or even piecing together what it would have felt like to find that large GI Joe box, with the Killer Whale’s picture painted in painstaking detail by Hector Garrido. Trying to access that memory would cause my brain to malfunction.
For 30 years, that would have been the happiest moment in my life, until the day I got married, or the day my twins were born.
The Killer Whale was Hasbro at its finest. The toy itself had an unbelievable amount of play features, but also impressive was Hasbro’s exemplary use of the marketing machine to drive buzz, as the Killer Whale was one of the main characters in a half-dozen GI Joe comics. The most memorable for me was when Roadblock and Duke were repairing it and came under fire from Destro and Firefly. That was GI Joe #29, featuring a beautiful cover by Michael Golden.
The big GI Joe toy I received at Christmas became integral to my Joe play for the next year. It was true of the Skystriker, it was true of the Tactical Battle Platform, it was true of the Tomahawk, and it was especially true of the Killer Whale.
The third and fourth series of GI Joe toys featured so many important, water-based vehicles and playsets, including the Killer Whale, Water Mocassin and Sharc in 1984, and the Moray, Tactical Battle Platform and USS Flagg in 1985. And so many of the battles that were staged in my house over the next while took place with shag carpet substituting for water.
The Killer Whale drove my GI Joe play for the next year, and teamed up well with the Tactical Battle Platform for a year after that. And the Whale is so closely associated with my love of Christmas, the reimagined feeling of walking into the living room with my sister that morning. So, as much as the Skystriker by itself is my favourite toy, the Killer Whale is my favourite Christmas present, and probably has bigger emotional resonance in my life.
In The Toys That Made Us, Mark Bellomo implied that the Killer Whale was the best GI Joe toy ever released. Hard to disagree with anyone for that opinion. It wasn’t as large and showy as the USS Flagg, but it had a presence and features that made playtime so enjoyable for any kid that owned it.
The Whale was laced with firepower, from cannons to machine guns to missiles to depth charges, and had room for at least eight figures. The hatch was a great place to stow accessories, and the turrets – which needed to be manned – brought two more Joes directly into the battle than most comparable toys. The Skystriker, by contrast, only had room for two figures, the pilot and co-pilot.
With the Whale, there was so much going on that it was difficult to use every feature. For me, the motorcycle was the least important, being small and dinky and awkward for Joes to ride. The sled was a little better, and allowed for me to play scenarios where Zartan sabotaged the Whale and one of the Joes had a decent vehicle to pursue him and the Chameleon.
Cutter was a decent enough figure, too, with good colours and a distinct look. He had the prototypical driver personality – bossy and no nonsense – albeit with a Red Sox hat and a New England accent on the cartoon.
For me, his most frequent crew members were Torpedo, Gung-Ho, Tripwire, Roadblock and Recondo.
In my house, the Whale teamed up with the Sharc to battle the Water Moccasin and Chameleon, and often came under attack from the Rattler.
Regardless of being close to perfect, it’s hard to ignore some faults with the Whale. The front compartment door, the vertical vanes on the back of the propellers and the missile launcher arms are all prone to breakage. In that way, it is similar to the Moray, a larger vehicle that’s hard to find in mint, loose and complete (MLC) condition. I went through multiple whales to build a perfect model for myself. Then, once my perfect Whale was attained, I dropped it off at a friend’s house during our basement renovation. The arms that held the missile launchers got broken along the way. I’ve since decided not to bother replacing these. The price of the Whale makes upgrades expensive, and the pieces themselves are so fragile – like the Firebat’s chin guns – that there is no point investing much in something that might break again if I look at it the wrong way. Despite being extremely careful with my Killer Whale, I know that some of its pieces are destined to break.
Another issue is with the propellers, whose shafts are a few millimetres too short. They spin regardless but it would be nice if they fit more snug in the gear box.
I also have a small beef with the beautiful box art, if only because it implies that Grunt, who was an integral member of my early Joe team, was simply one of many similar, replaceable greenshirt troopers.
I’ve never fully realized a way to display my adult Joe collection. When I think about displaying my boxes, I think back to the first time I saw the Killer Whale, months before it arrived under my tree that Christmas morning.
In Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, during the 1980s, there were only two places you could buy Joes: the Bay and Wally’s Drugstore. Our town had just 2500 residents, and the lone drugstore was an important place.
Wally’s had an assorted selection of non-pharmaceutical items and a general store vibe. It was there that I bought my first GI Joe and Transformers comics, and later found Wolverine #1 and Uncanny X-Men #237, gateway drugs for me and the X-Men. Wally’s was also a place to rent videos at one point, and had the best selection of magazines in town. It was where I bought wrestling, ATV and remote control magazines during stages where each of those was my greatest passion. Wally’s was the place where I bought my first ever lighter, a Zippo, when returning to Fort Smith as a teenager. Most importantly for this story, though, it was an amazing retailer for toys.
There was one main aisle with toys and it was jam packed. The store seemed to get one of everything that was cool, and displayed them diagonally on the shelves, with a corner of each box, a small portion of the box front, visible to patrons. I can remember pulling the Whale’s box out to see the rest of the painted artwork, staring at it for minutes, then flipping it over to see the actual toy on the back. For large boxes, like the Whale, the photograph that was usually displayed on the backside was replaced by a scaled drawing.
The larger vehicles came in boxes made from rigid cardboard with limited colour capacity. The front of the box – the painting – was displayed on a sheet of paper that had been glued to the box. Without a full-size picture, I might have had to imagine what the toy looked like from its bare bones drawing, like imagining a dinosaur from seeing its skeleton. But there was a smaller picture on the side, where the paper had been extended, so no imagination necessary. I’d seen the Whale before, though, through the 1984 GI Joe Catalog and the 1984 Sears Wishbook. But finding the box at retail and holding it for the first time? That was magic.
One day soon, when I put the boxes that hold my bigger toys on display, it is the bottom shelf from Wally’s toy aisle that I plan to emulate.
Seeing that Killer Whale box, I was blown away by its enormity. But I was still punch-drunk from having received the Skystriker and AT-AT the previous year, and couldn’t fathom I would get anything near as big for Christmas that year. Santa came through big-time.
There is one other memory of the Whale that I’d like to convey, of a sleepover party when I turned nine. One of my friends wasn’t a GI Joe collector. He had three older brothers who were big into sports, so it might not have been surprising that he outgrew toys before the rest of us. He was one of the cool kids, one of the best hockey players. And his big contribution on my birthday was opening my eyes to new possibilities. While playing with my Joes, Brent modified the GI Joe hovercraft.
My Whale, which had seen so many battles, was separated into the two main pieces, the green deck piece and the inflatable black raft, in my toy box. Brent didn’t connect the two pieces, but instead taped spare parts from other discarded toys to the bottom shell. I had never considered that type of modification, like a kid who could only see Lego pieces through their instruction manuals. And although his Franken-Whale/battle raft had no propulsion and no shelter from open fire, it was the catalyst for my desire to build other Franken-Joe vehicles. And it did extend the Whale’s practical use, at a time when hard play over three years had stripped away so much of its original lustre.