1986 Tomahawk

At Christmas in 1986, the Tomahawk became my third consecutive Santa gift from the GI Joe toy line, following the Killer Whale and Transportable Tactical Battle Platform. It was also the fifth year in a row I received a GI Joe toy for Christmas, starting with the Flak in 1982 and the Skystriker in 1983. It has become an upper echelon toy for me, one of my all-time favourite Christmas gifts. And yet I wasn’t supposed to receive it that Christmas.

The Tomahawk was a last-minute substitution for another toy my mom had planned to get me.

The boys briefing before the mission.

On the day of December 24, 1986, a car pulled into our driveway while I was next door, playing road hockey with my neighbour’s little sister. I had done so once, months before, because she seemed lonely that day, and she had been asking me to play with her every day since then. In the car was a man I had seen around town before, but not someone who was even an acquaintance of my family’s. He got out carrying a large plastic bag, and walked to our front door to meet my mom. They had a brief conversation – I couldn’t make out anything – before he handed over the bag and left, as quickly as he had come.

The whole sequence was so out of the ordinary that I immediately flagged it in my memory and can still recall that moment, 34 years later.

Tomahawk Canadian Box, flattened.
Canadian box, reversed. Anyone need 5 flag-points?

I was nine, almost ten, an old pro at sniffing out my presents before Christmas, all of them except my Santa gift. And that Christmas might have been my first year staying up late, pretending to be asleep until after my parents had filled my stockings and put my Santa gift under the tree, planning to sneak into the living room and see what I had gotten before finally going to sleep.

Between my bedroom and the living room were a few spots where the floor would creak if stepped on. My parents’ bedroom was just down the hall from mine, and the slightest sound would have woken my dad. If he came out and found me, there would be hell to pay. My bedroom floor was solid, but the first creaky spot was just outside my door, one step out and in a direct line with my destination. So I stepped around that spot carefully, on my tiptoes, shifting my weight as I passed it. There was another spot a few feet further, where the black, rebar railing coming up from the landing met the railing at the top of the stairs. And there was another, just outside the dining room… So I was wading through a mine field just to get to the Christmas tree that night.

The tree was in the living room, positioned in the far-right corner, where my parents usually kept their stereo, though in some years it had been in front of the large picture window.

The Tomahawk, as you know, was the Santa gift waiting for me under the tree. It was much smaller than my last three Santa gifts. And when I saw it, I can remember joy, most of all. I didn’t feel disappointed that I hadn’t received the Cobra Terror Drome or USS Flagg, or even the Cobra Night Raven, not an ounce of sadness. But a moment later I left that beautiful box under the tree, undisturbed, to open it instead on Christmas morning.

I took my stocking and headed back to my room, again stepping carefully. Once safe, I pulled everything out piece-by-piece, cataloging every item’s location as I explored the stocking’s contents. And once I had seen everything – toothbrush, toothpaste, socks, underwear, chocolates, GI Joe comic books, wrestling magazines, Christmas ornament, small Space Lego set and GI Joe figure (Dr. Mindbender, IIRC) – I put every piece back in the exact same order I had withdrawn them, making sure the lumpy spots felt and looked identical to how my parents had left them. Then I snuck back into the living room to return my stocking, avoiding every one of those same land mines, risking my parents hearing me and waking up.

The reason I went to so much trouble? Because my sister, Melanie, loved Christmas so much that I wanted her to believe she was the first of us to find our Santa gifts under the tree.

It was a key moment in my development as a person, to realize that my sister’s enjoyment on Christmas morning was every bit as important as my own. In that, I got to see my gifts before I fell asleep, and she got to believe she was the first one up in the morning to see what was waiting for us, the most devoted sibling to the joy of Christmas. Win, win.

Looking a little tired Christmas morning, 1986, after staying up so late.

Of that Christmas, some memories have remained particularly firm:

  • I was excited to own all the Dreadnok figures, after receiving the Thunder Machine, Thrasher and Monkeywrench that year. They became the force my Joes most frequently fought against over the next year.
  • I loved building and playing with the Lego Cosmic Fleet Voyager, a gift from my parents. It had a detachable base station, removable equipment packs that plugged into the back of the ship, and a place to store its rover vehicle, so it was the ultimate pack-up-and-go spaceship. It also was the first Space Lego set I owned to feature the newly redesigned, more complex steering wheel.
  • I wasn’t as excited to get Quick Kick, who felt outdated, as a figure from the previous year. It demonstrated just how much the retail cycle had changed on toys, from loving getting the AT-AT, an ESB toy in 1983, to feeling meh about a GI Joe figure from 1985 at Christmas 1986.
  • I didn’t receive any prominent Transformers for the first time in years, and was growing less interested in transforming robots since seeing the movie in a theatre in Vancouver that past summer.
  • Lastly, I spent equal time between my new GI Joe, Lego and Rambo toys. Although Joe continued to be the most important toy line in my collection, others were taking chunks of my attention. For Lego, it was a resurgence of interest, whereas Rambo was just the newest, shiniest bunny.

As for the Tomahawk, I built it at the foot of my bunkbed, in the small space between my bed and the closet, where my toy box – a deep, wooden chest with a dark, smooth finish, a flip-top lid and a bumper sticker about Christmas – had recently been moved. I dug inside to find all the 1986 figures I owned, the ones I had been amassing for seven months, starting with Hawk, Beach Head, Leatherneck, Wet-Suit and Lifeline. With Lift-Ticket at the stick and Quick Kick riding shotgun, all seven seats on the helicopter were immediately occupied.

“Its alright, Snakes. Timber will be fine on his own.”

There are significant differences between the Tomahawk and its predecessor, the Dragonfly. Some are based on the evolution of the line from 1983 to 1986, and some are related to the purpose the two helicopters were serving. The Dragonfly is more of an attack helicopter, whereas the Tomahawk is more of a transport helicopter. The Dragonfly was more streamlined, whereas the Tomahawk was more of a presence, large and bulbous, and had more utility. The comparison between the two is analogous to how much the figures themselves had changed over the past three years (see: Doc vs. Lifeline, Torpedo vs. Wet-Suit, or Wild Bill vs. Lift-Ticket).

The Tomahawk was longer, fatter, had more rotors, more missiles and bombs, a bigger hook system, a more imposing chin gun, and carried more figures. It even had three more engine covers than the Dragonfly. That’s not to say the Dragonfly was a shitty toy, or even flawed in anyway, just that the Tomahawk was just a more fully realized playset.

Of the Tomahawk’s many features, my favourites were the rear ramp door and the removable seats.

I would have used the ramp to enact scenarios where the Tomahawk had to taxi to a clear spot for lift-off, with one or more of the Joes racing to get onboard through the ramp door, as if Arnold was telling them, “Get to the chopper!”

The seats provided a bevy of play scenarios, including removing some to reconfigure the helicopter for cargo, removing them all to crowd the helicopter with 10-12 Joes, the seats then becoming an unnecessary extravagance, or removing them to make the helicopter lighter when running low on fuel, a scenario I had played out on every aircraft I owned since GI Joe #15.

The logical cargo choice would have been the Ammo Dump Unit, which was a large crate, though I didn’t own that playset. I would have also tried – unsuccessfully – to fit the Armadillo and Devilfish inside the back of the Tomahawk, but might have had more luck doing so with the Silver Mirage and Weapon Transport Vehicle. I sometimes borrowed the Night Landing for my Joes, and transporting it using the Tomahawk would have been intriguing, but it wouldn’t have quite fit within the hold with the Tomahawk’s machine guns still attached, so instead it would have been hooked to the bottom for dropping behind enemy lines.

Fully loaded and ready for take-off.

My main dislike of the Tomahawk – and there were very few – was the hook, not in what it was intended to do, but in never staying firmly in place. I was always sliding it back into place, and that was an unnecessary, little annoyance, so I glued it where it was supposed to be, eventually.

Now, I wish Hasbro had included removable walls for the passenger/cargo area. It would have been such an easy way to increase the Tomahawk’s epic playability even further.

For kids whose play mimicked the comic book, the Tomahawk aligned with some of the Vietnam-era Snake Eyes stories, as it was reminiscent of the chopper that Tommy was desperate to reach, carrying “Classified” on his back. Unfortunately, I didn’t have Stalker, Snake Eyes or Storm Shadow and none of those figures were released in comparable attire, not until a comic 3-pack in 2006, 22 years too late for me.

That cockeyed grin.

Much like Heavy Metal, I don’t remember Lift Ticket’s microphone. How much collector frenzy would have been avoided had Hasbro simply glued their microphones in place? Of course, we would instead be talking about trying to find a Heavy Metal or Lift Ticket whose microphone hadn’t been broken off…

Lift Ticket was one of the last great driver figures. His head shape and cock-eyed grin are a little off, his face paint seems pasty, and he could have benefitted from stealing Lifeline’s pistol. But he fit in well with his vehicle, and was colour coordinated with the Joes of that era. His base colours fit with the many shades of green the 1986 figures wore, the splashes of beige on Dial-Tone and Leatherneck, and the varying amounts of red on Iceberg, Low-Light, Mainframe, Roadblock and Lifeline.

He also saw a decent amount of action in the comic book, Larry Hama’s writing the strongest indicator for me on whether I should take certain characters seriously. His predecessor, Wild Bill, was so well developed that he was never phased out completely, even despite the long space between new figures, but Lift Ticket cracked into the Joe stories in the ARAH comic and Special Missions.

Retroactively, I’ve downgraded Cross-Country’s importance to my childhood – though I spent many hours playing with the Havoc – and didn’t own Slipstream or Sgt. Slaughter as a kid, so Lift-Ticket is the 1986 driver that really sticks out as integral to my Joe team.

If I was to choose an ideal crew for a Tomahawk mission, it would include Lift-Ticket as the pilot, Flint as the field commander/co-pilot, Dial-Tone doing communications, Roadblock and Tunnel Rat operating the machine guns, and Low-Light and Beach Head doing the dirty work.

From left: Roadblock, Flint, Tunnel Rat, Lift-Ticket, Beach Head, Low-Light, Dial-Tone.

The Tomahawk always reminds me of the stupid, impetuousness of youth, the willingness to reinforce a bad decision by repeating it.

I’ve mentioned a few times how I would pull loose parts off vehicles to demonstrate taking damage during battle. In one scenario, where I pretended the Tomahawk had crashed and was destroyed, I started pulling parts off and spewing debris everywhere across my floor. There are many removable pieces, including the engine covers, missiles, wings, winch, seats, windshield, etc. But my 9-year old self took it to the next level by pulling out one of the rotor blades. And I immediately realized my mistake, because the loop that hooked the blade into the spinning mechanism broke clean off and could not be fixed.

[If you aren’t rolling your eyes now, you should be.]

In my mind, it looked lopsided with one missing rotor. It was a huge bare spot, and my undeveloped brain thought the front spinner might look better as a Y than a K. So I pulled out another rotor blade, two over from the first.

And that, in a nutshell, was why I couldn’t have nice things.

The rotor blade.

I said at the beginning of this post that I almost didn’t receive the Tomahawk that Christmas. Days later, when I was playing with my Joes in the living room, my mom approached me to apologize because I was supposed to get the Cobra Terror Drome for Christmas. She had ordered it through Sears, had gotten notification that it was sold out, and started scrambling, trying to find a replacement, afraid she wouldn’t find anything else to put under the tree.

It was too late to order any other toys from Sears, and the Bay and Wally’s Drugs – the only stores in Fort Smith that carried toys – had been picked clean. She had contacted a random acquaintance on a rumour he was going to Hay River – three hours away, and just slightly bigger than Fort Smith – and asked him to pick up whatever he could find in the stores there. The result was that this gentleman’s arrival was imprinted in my memory, carrying a bag with the Tomahawk that became my Santa gift, on the day before Christmas.

The Tomahawk was a significant step-down in size and price from the Terror Drome, the largest toy in the 1986 GI Joe lineup. And my mom must have felt some pressure to deliver a big gift after what had happened in 1985, with me asking for the USS Flagg relentlessly for months, unsuccessfully, while two of her closest friends had given that playset to their sons.

I’ve repeatedly said that I loved the Transportable Tactical Battle Platform, and that I was alright receiving it instead of the Flagg, but I’m not sure whether I immediately felt that way. Getting the Terror Drome would have been a once-in-a-lifetime Christmas score, capitalizing off my mom’s guilt from the previous Christmas. But this all might have led to me receiving a Yukon 800, top-of-the-line sleeping bag, a few years later. It was the most expensive Christmas present I ever received, the most practical considering how many times I took it camping, and every bit as exciting as receiving toys when I was younger.

Regardless of how I’ve rewritten the history about not receiving the Flagg in 1985, I believe I was completely okay with receiving the Tomahawk instead of the Cobra Terror Drome in 1986. It was another important grow point in my development.

At least that’s what I tell myself.

Regardless, the Tomahawk endures as one of my all-time favourite Christmas presents and favourite toys, up there with the Skystriker, Killer Whale and Transportable Tactical Battle Platform. And I can’t imagine what my childhood would have been like had I not received it.

Where the Tomahawk normally parks, on the top of a bookcase, next to the Mauler and APC.

As an adult collector, the Tomahawk was near the top of my list of vehicles I needed to own. I bought my first within three months of starting to rebuild my GI Joe collection in 2014. And somehow, at one point, I owned five of them. As great a vehicle as it is, it has an extraordinary footprint with the rotors installed, being taller, wider and longer than most Joe vehicles, so you can imagine how much space those Tomahawks took up.

The first one I bought had no decals, and I immediately started chasing a better Tomahawk with less flaws and more stickers.

The rotor blades sag over time from gravity, and I bought at least one to get straighter rotor blades. The first one I owned had upward bent blades.

I kept my eyes open for an unused sticker sheet at a decent price, and found it along with a Canadian Tomahawk box, after three years of searching. But although the stickers were exactly what I wanted, I couldn’t bring myself to apply them. So I kept looking and found a Tomahawk that was near perfect and had all of its Canadian stickers. I sold my original, blank-slate version and the sticker sheet to a local collector, Tony. And he turned around immediately and applied the stickers to it.

30+ years old and looking like it had just been opened and assembled on Christmas morning. And my friend said to me, “You know I couldn’t help myself.”

I was jealous.

The first Tomahawk I bought as an adult collector, without stickers and with upward-bent rotor blades. Picture from 2018.
Canadian sticker sheet.

I also have a Tomahawk in a US box that has been opened, but never removed from the packaging. I love mint-in-box (MIB), unassembled vehicles because they’re a time capsule, less expensive than sealed boxes and easier to appreciate and experience. But once I bought the Canadian box, the US MIB Tomahawk became expendable.

I’m undecided on whether I should build it to recreate the experience of that Christmas morning, selling it for a loss afterwards, or just put the damn thing on eBay and sell it for full value.

It sucks having to weigh nostalgia and practicality.

Things were so much simpler back in 1986.

Mint-in-Box, US Tomahawk with sealed contents.
The packages laid out on my coffee table.
Sealed US paperwork.

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