For me, Christmas 1983 was a fairytale as imagined by a six-year old. It was the transition year where GI Joe had made its initial strikes on Star Wars, but the two still coexisted in my world. My sisters and I woke up as early as our parents would allow and headed under the tree to find our Santa gifts. Awaiting me? Kenner’s AT-AT, plus a few Star Wars and GI Joe figures in my stocking. Then, hours later, immensely grateful and absolutely in disbelief, I found the Skystriker in the last gift I unwrapped. My parents had nailed Christmas in a double-bill that would never be repeated.
I mean, I did get the Killer Whale and the Transformer Shockwave in a similar double-bill one year later. And the Transportable Tactical Battle Platform and Omega Supreme the year after that. But, in theory it would never be repeated.
I don’t think of my childhood as spoiled. Both vehicles were easily the largest toys I owned at the time, and pictures of me displaying my collection shows that I had only collected few Star Wars vehicles and the Darth Vader carrying case before the AT-AT came down the chimney, and only owned a few small Joe vehicles before unwrapping the Skystriker. Regardless, I was clearly blessed and not every kid had parents that were as generous.
The combination of those two vehicles arriving on the same day was also symbolic, as Star Wars would disappear from my consciousness over the following year and GI Joe would soon evolve into my favourite toyline in 1984, and in my life forevermore. But Star Wars was still important to me in 1983 and it was still an amazing sight to see that box, with Luke Skywalker in an X-Wing pilot uniform, dangling from the side door of the AT-AT.
Joe had the most amazing artwork to ever grace toy packaging, but Star Wars also had its own charm, showcasing the toys through staged action scenes on the boxes.
Interestingly, at that point in my life I still hadn’t seen the Empire Strikes Back. A New Hope? Yes. And Return of the Jedi? Yes. But Empire came out when we lived on Baffin Island, and I was only 3 years old. And movies at that time took years to come out on video after their theatre releases had closed. And I’m not sure we even had a VHS at that point. And I’m not sure Fort Smith had a video store at that time, either. I remember some movies for rent from the porch of someone’s house near my elementary school, then some videos available at the drugstore, and later there was a video store in a shack near the highway. Regardless, I had learned the storyline of Empire Strikes Back from a read-along record – including the big reveal! – and had not had the patience to wait before watching Jedi. Yet, somehow, years later, it’s Empire that is my favourite movie of the whole series…
Okay, so digression aside, the AT-AT was an amazing toy to receive at six years old. It was taller than any other toy I owned by half a foot. It was as big as a medium-sized dog. It crushed all figures in its path and kept advancing on the joint bases I’d set up for my Rebels and Joes. That Skystriker had the best chance of knocking it down, because my Snowspeeder was a piece of crap with a broken canopy, missing its harpoon, and my X-Wing was pretty beat up too and missing a few cannons. If I was only using my Star Wars figures in play that day, the Rebels big play was trying to commandeer the walker from my small Empire force: the AT-AT Driver, Commander, Darth Vader, an Imperial Commander, and two Snowtroopers. Of course, Luke, Leia, Han and Chewy, along with Lando in a skiff guard outfit and Obi-Wan, somehow revived, could usually find a way to win.
The clicking sound from bending the AT-AT’s legs is the kind of ingrained, sensory memory that I will always carry with me. It is unmistakeable and – truthfully – I want to hear it firsthand now, and would bend my AT-AT’s legs to hear it, if not for my fear that it might wake up my sleeping children.
The AT-AT toy had few flaws that a kid would have to imagine his way out of, such as moving figures in and out of the cockpit since the neck didn’t contain a tunnel, and how the hatch Luke uses to plant the charge does not exist. Quite often, my Luke would have to work his way even higher, to the side door to pop an imaginary grenade through the tiny window. But I could use the battery compartment to hold weapons or prisoners, or even to hide figures, similar to how Han and team smuggled themselves past the Empire when caught in the tractor beam. And, honestly, the AT-AT was the kind of toy that taught life lessons, because when your enemies have that kind of tactical advantage over you in firepower, size and armour, you need to be smarter than the average Ewok to help the rebels win the battle.
In that way, it wasn’t a toy. It was a puzzle.
The AT-AT was the first and last big Star Wars toy I ever received. It was the centre of my play for my final year as a Star Wars collector and occasionally made an appearance when I was playing with my Joes in the years that followed.
My Joe collection disappeared in junior high in Yellowknife, sold off to finance hockey cards that became infinitely less valuable with every passing day. My parents didn’t imagine Joe would ever be worth anything… But my mom was prescient in understanding the value of my Star Wars collection. My figures, in the Darth Vader carrying case, were kept safe until I came back to collecting as an adult. The Snowspeeder and X-Wing, in rough shape from intense play, were tossed and/or sold. But the AT-AT was extremely durable, so was kept for posterity’s sake. It was located on a shelf in my parents’ garage for years, welcoming us home everyday, like the family dog. I had long-since lost the chin guns and the whole thing was marked with a Sharpie, a ridiculous suggestion I had gleaned from a GI Joe newsletter.
It was that same AT-AT that I held onto for 36 years, until I sold it in late 2019. I had found a boxed model with ROTJ artwork at a toy show earlier that year, and wrestled with the idea of keeping my original and selling the new AT-AT, even though the newer purchase was in much better shape. In the end, I convinced myself that nostalgia for a more weathered version of the same toy that Kenner had produced millions of, was silly at best. I sold it to another adult collector who turned it over to his children to play with, and the passing thought maybe I should have kept it for my children went through my head. Instead, it’s the newer, shinier version that I will be sharing with my twin boys. They’ve already played with it, and they’ve already heard that clicking sound. The memories will follow and I hope they are even better than mine.