Growing up, selecting a group of friends to invite to a birthday sleepover was always a juggling act.
When I turned ten in 1987, I decided to only invite three friends, starting with my best friend, Donny. I also invited Carlos, who had been a friend for as long as I could remember. He was one of the smaller guys in our class, funny, social and generally just fun to be around. And I invited the coolest kid in our grade.
Brent was the youngest of four brothers, the best hockey player our age, had a babyface, and could cut people apart with jokes about their mom. But it wasn’t a big stretch for me to invite him. We were in the same grade three class, the year before, and sat together, becoming good friends. We still hung out at recess frequently, and I had been to his house. I remember he had access to a weight bench in his basement, and we talked about how much we could bench press. You know, just like all nine year olds do.
For my birthday, I planned what we were going to do: eating pizza, watching movies and playing with GI Joes. We went to the store and picked out three flicks: Grunt, Terminator, and something called Annihilators. But after pizza, cake and a few minutes of our first movie, my agenda was thrown out the window. I was not great with spontaneity but I learned to roll with the punches that night.
Our GI Joe battle was interrupted for extended periods while we watched Hockey Night in Canada and Saturday Night’s Main Event, and we only finished one movie (Terminator) before pulling out our sleeping bags.
My friendship with Brent ebbed and flowed over the following years. We were only in the same class twice, and that had an impact. We also never played on the same hockey team. We hung out together at a few parties with girls in grade six, but those parties always seemed to evolve into the boys picking on someone for laughs, and the mean-spiritedness was sometimes grating.
By the time my family moved out of town, in grade seven, we weren’t particularly close anymore. He was nice enough to me, but I never got the impression us being friends mattered much to him, and there was always going to be a shelf-life on our friendship, with my family moving to Yellowknife in 1990, and his family leaving the territory a few years after that.
Regardless of changes in plans, my sleepover party was fun. Brent seemed more mature than us, though, the impact of having three older brothers, I’m sure, but at times that night we were just kids scrounging through a toy trunk full of GI Joes and trading the vehicles and guys between ourselves.
He and I were a team, setting up our bases, watchtowers and snipers in the hallway outside my bedroom. And Donny and Carlos were the opposition, with the TV room in the basement as their team’s home base.
I’m not sure Brent still played with toys, or ever had before, because he didn’t know anyone’s names or what guns went with which figures. But he contributed something more valuable to the mythology of my GI Joe-centric childhood. Before that day, my creativity was mostly limited to drawing pictures, creative writing in class, playing with Legos and coming up with play scenarios for my Joes.
As Brent and I were setting up our defenses, he asked me if we had any masking tape.
He used the tape to attach unrelated parts and weapons to the Killer Whale, which was just a junker by then, the black float with the top part detached. The other vehicle he modified was the Armadillo mini-tank. He popped out the turret and used the tape to reattach it an inch or so higher, resting above the main vehicle. It no longer had access to rotating cannons, but the tank was small and nimble, and simply rotated whenever it needed to fire on a target. And it created better cover for the figures we placed on the pegs, behind the driver.
It was arguable that his creation was any better than the original tank, and after he left I may have removed the tape and slotted the turret back down in its original location. But it opened the door for future modifications, such as putting a hatch over the driver, and various kitbashes of other vehicles from broken and spare parts. Even just playing with toys, he was a trendsetter.
Although he was a friend for years, opening my brain to more creative inspirations for my Joes was one of his biggest contribution to my world.
The Armadillo was almost famous from its first comic appearance, hanging from the Dragonfly as Flint sprung onto a roller coaster to battle Xamot in GI Joe #37.
GI Joe’s mini-tank arrived in my collection on Christmas morning, 1985, part of an embarrassingly epic Christmas haul that year, along with the Transportable Tactical Battle Platform and Silver Mirage, and the giant Autobot, Omega Supreme. The Armadillo became a staple of every land-based mission – part of the armada that usually included the Mobat, Toss ‘n Cross, Mauler and Havoc. But it also fit into sea battles, through a position on the TTBP, and it flew across enemy lines underneath the Dragonfly or Tomahawk.
The most frequent drivers were Footloose, Bazooka and Lady Jaye, but it was also a great vehicle for sneaking inconveniently dressed Joes like Quick Kick and Blowtorch onto the battlefield. And it found a revitalization in my collection after my 10th birthday party, when it was already one-and-a-half years old.
As a toy, the Armadillo is fun, just like the Ram, Polar Battle Bear, Sky Hawk and Devilfish. It has a sportiness to it that not all tanks demonstrate, being open-air (like a convertible). It’s four cannons provide solid firepower in cramped spaces and it can carry more figures than some of the bigger vehicles, like the Mobat, through its footpegs.
The front moulding is the highlight, and the level of detail is something that was destined to disappear from similarly sized vehicles in future years. There are some issues about practicality and realism, but the muted military colours helped suspend my disbelief.
Looking back, it’s almost a shame that it didn’t make more waves in repaints, apart from the modified, Slaughter’s Marauders version. It would have looked great in Tiger Force colours. But everything looks great in Tiger Force colours, and they couldn’t repaint the whole toyline for one subset…
The unmoving tracks on the side, and the motion provided by wheels on the bottom, reminds me of the Wolverine. And I have no objection to cutting those kinds of corners on some of the smaller vehicles. GI Joe was a giantly ambitious toyline, and there had to be some lower priced toys with high play-value.
The Armadillo was always one of my favourite vehicles, from the time it entered my collection on Christmas morning in 1985, until the day it left my collection, when I sold off the bulk of my Joes for hockey card money in 1991. It had been played with hard during that time, but it hadn’t aged a day, apart from some remnants of masking tape around the turrets. And it was also one of my first purchases when I started collecting again, 20 or so years later.
It’s just been here, in my office, on one of my display shelves ever since. And I think of one of my childhood friends whenever I see it.