It’s 37 degrees and raining.
“They’re not going to cancel just because of the rain,” Ryan says.
“I didn’t say they would.”
“I know, I’m just telling you because…well, don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m tougher than you.” I glare at my husband. I’m already reluctant, insults are not helping his cause. I agreed to dress in Ryan’s stormtrooper armor for the Walk With Angels, a fundraiser to support caregivers of disabled children. The garrison was asked to be there at 8:30, dressed by 9, mingling with attendees until the walk begins at 10. Ryan is beside himself with excitement that I am dressing up today. I am less excited. The alarm went off at 7:15 this Saturday morning. I only set the alarm on the weekend for darn good reasons, like my wedding, or auditioning for “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.” This does not feel like a good enough reason.
Driving to Lehi under an unfurled black tarp of a sky, I know I’m going to be miserable. I hate being cold. I hate feeling stupid. I’m going to voluntarily dress up like a life-size action figure and stand in the rain so that strangers can stare at me? I don’t know what I was thinking when I agreed to this.
The park is nearly abandoned when we get there at 8:45. A few people are huddled under pavilions, filling helium balloons and organizing t-shirts for the registered walkers. Giant bounce houses are inflating and man-sized speakers are playing upbeat music, “Kokomo” by the Beach Boys. Ironic.
“I feel so stupid. Why am I doing this? I’m going to look like an idiot!” We slowly cruise by Darth Vader on the sidewalk. I groan. “I have to stand next to that guy. I am going look like a moron!”
From the backseat, nine year old Noah says, “Mom, stop saying that.”
“Because I like you.” I shut up. The internal monologue doesn’t stop, though, and now it includes I’m such a horrible mother. What am I teaching my children?
We find a parking spot and pile out of the van. Ryan opens his enormous Rubbermaid tote, the size you’d buy to stuff a body into, not that I’ve considered it or anything. The armor parts are neatly stacked inside and he locates the thigh pieces. It’s time.
I unbutton my jeans. A black bodysuit is on underneath, but I look around quickly anyway to make sure no one is looking. I feel like a creep, taking off my pants in a suburban neighborhood. I pop those thigh pieces on with lightning speed – now if anyone looks out the window, they’d see a half-dressed stormtrooper, and not a half-undressed woman. (Which, frankly, few people would complain about. Trade me for my husband and someone might call the cops.)
The armor goes on quickly and I’m grateful for last night’s trial run. I’ve pulled my hair into a low ponytail and secured my bangs with five clips. Ryan helps me across the street before he puts the helmet on my head. The transformation is complete, and I’m feeling sick. “Wait, Ryan, I need to scratch my nose!”
“Too late for that. There’s no way to get your hand in there.”
He’s keen to my stalling tactics and he steers me past the parked cars and over to the grassy area where Darth Vader waits along with a TIE Pilot, Boba Fett, a Jawa, and two Imperial Officers. The Imperial Officers are Vader’s daughters, proving that nepotism in the Empire is alive and well.
Two girls standing on the sidewalk are pointing and giggling. “Ryan, they’re laughing at me!” I say, panicked. I knew it!
Ryan turns on the optimism. “No, they’re smiling at how good you look!” I give him an incredulous, how-can-you-be-so-blind look, but he can’t see me through the helmet. I wave to the gigglers and they wave back. At least they didn’t trip me, I thought. This is worse than walking through middle school with a “Nerd” sign taped to your back – this is a giant, flashing neon “Nerd” sign, with spotlights pointed at my head. Blending into the background is not possible when wearing armor. I miss being a wallflower.
We catch up with the rest of the garrison. To Vader, Ryan says, “This is my wife, Emily.” I wave. Vader waves back. “Emily, this is-“ he cuts off when a little boy walks up. “… Darth Vader,” he finishes lamely. In front of other people, we are to call each other by our characters’ names. We also can’t take our helmets off – we don’t want to ruin the illusion. I never do find out Vader’s real name.
Ryan turns to me. “Stay by Darth Vader. If anyone wants to take his picture, you jump in there, too. Don’t put your blaster down or you may never see it again. I’ll come back and check on you in a little while.” I nod, but my helmet smacks into the chestplate. I wave instead. “You look great,” he says and smiles.
I stand there. I don’t know what to do. The only kids there are the children of the volunteers and they are staying under the pavilion. My vision is limited to anything above my nose – below that, I’m blind. I can’t see little kids unless I bend forward at the waist. I shuffle in a slow circle to get a good look at my surroundings. Vader’s gone. I see him striding across the grass, already forty feet away from me. Crap! I could run (okay, shuffle) after him, but instead I decide to stay with the rest of the group, milling around by the registration booth.
Three hoodie-wearing ten-year-olds come up to us. They look a little nervous and hang back a bit, so I wave. One boy waves back and they turn to each other and laugh. A second boy stands in front of the group and, arms outstretched, he yells, “Shoot me, Stormtrooper!” I take careful aim with my blaster, and pull the trigger. Electronic shooting sounds send the boy gleefully crashing to the ground. Aww, I think, they’re playing with me! How fun. The boys huddle up, then one pulls out a ladybug-shaped umbrella. He points it at me and starts opening and closing it, circling around me and yelling, “Bang! Bang! I’m shooting you!” I shoot back, turning to follow him with my scope. I feel something touch my back, and I realize I can’t see the other two boys. The umbrella-wielder was distracting me so that the other two could sneak up behind me and touch me. The boys ran away, laughing. I wish my blaster shot real bullets.
Two women in their forties see me standing on the grass and come over. They are excited to see me. “Can we get a picture with you?” I nod. They hand their camera off and stand on either side of me. The TIE pilot and Vader come from behind and get in the shot. A dad brings his daughters over. He’s clearly more excited than they are. We take pictures with them and the dad is delighted. Watching someone else be this happy about Star Wars characters makes me smile.
The TIE pilot points to the sun, finally emerging out of the clouds. Addressing Vader, he says, “Look, sir, the sun!” Ugh, cheesy. I remember dressing up to go to Renaissance Faires in high school. My friends and I were involved in theater, so being dramatic in public was standard operating procedure. Tim, my most eccentric friend, once spent an entire week speaking in a British accent. He’d be the one at the Faire calling everyone My Lord or My Lady, pulling out every Shakespearean phrase he could. He clapped coconut shells together as simulated horse hooves, a la Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I went along with the crowd, but I was never able to lose myself in my character and stop feeling cheesy. The armor provides a level of anonymity, at least – no one knows it’s me in there. The TIE pilot’s point is accurate – the sun had come out, and it was finally warming up a bit.
Over the next hour, things got fun. Families streamed into the park and I learned to enjoy people pointing at me. A toddler spent five minutes staring. I waved at him and slowly he crept toward me. I was waving at some other kids when I heard more than felt my thigh pieces cracking into each other. The toddler had reached me and wrapped my legs in a big hug. I couldn’t see him but I rubbed my hand on his head. He let go and ran back to his grandma, the huge grin on his face a mirror to my own.
The United Angels Foundation provides support and relief for burdened caregivers and developmental aid for the individual “angels.” Many of the families that attended the walk had disabled children with them. One little girl was wearing a red sequinned jacket – she was part of a dance group performing at the fundraiser. She was seven or eight and had Down’s Syndrome. I waved and walked closer to her, she waved back and smiled at me. Her mom was nearby but didn’t approach with a camera, so the little girl and I stood and looked at each other. I held out my blaster. As she took it, her eyes behind her glasses lit up. Her smile was so wide that her tongue hung out. She turned to show her mom the blaster then turned back to me. She fingered the trigger, pushed some fake buttons, then reluctantly handed it back.
Later, I was standing near Darth Vader when a man with Down’s approached. He was probably in his early twenties. He stood in front of Vader, pointed at him, and loudly announced, “You are freaking awesome.” Then he turned to me and said, “So are you.” Emotion overwhelmed me. Love for this man who could express himself with such clarity. Gratitude that I have four perfect, healthy children. Guilt that I don’t appreciate it every single day of their lives. Compassion for the mothers that weren’t so lucky, and respect that they have learned more about a mother’s love than I probably ever will. I started crying. My helmet hid my face, but my shaking shoulders were clearly visible. I pulled myself together.
The one incontrovertible truth that I can take away from this experience is this: after one cries, one must blow one’s nose. A helmet without nose access prohibits this. The results can be unpleasant. Needless to say, as soon as Ryan came to check on me, I made him take me to the car.
Once the nose situation was under control, I went back out into the fray. The organizers requested a picture of the costumed characters in front of their official banner. The garrison members were there in addition to the mascots of every local sports team – I ended up standing next to Barney and Baby Bop. It takes something like this to keep me humble – a reminder that in the eyes of the people in charge, I am just another head in a helmet. I could just as easily be Barney.
A man in his thirties, who looked exactly like the actor Billy Zane, and an older man, probably his father, stood on the other side of the field staring at me. The staring was so blatant that it would have made me uncomfortable if I didn’t know that they were staring at the armor and not the person in it. I wonder if they would have stared if they had known it was a woman wearing the costume.
I stood near the sidewalk and waved to the walkers as they finally left for their circuit around the block. It was like a reverse parade; I was the one standing still and the crowd moved past me. I waved and people waved back. I have to say I felt a little like a celebrity, so many fans and cameras and people pointing at me. Ryan feels a little let down when he takes his armor off and no one is looking at him anymore. I didn’t realize we had that attention-seeking streak in us, but it’s there.
I have no illusions that anything I did today changed anyone’s life. As far as charity work goes, this is feel-good charity, not practical, teach-a-man-to-fish charity. But feeling good has a value. Watching your favorite Star Wars characters walk off the movie screen and shake your hand, that’s pretty cool to a lot of people. Beyond that, though, was the chance to interact with people, with complete strangers, with the community. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in my own life and limit my interactions to my immediate family and 174 of my closest Facebook friends. I was at the park not only for myself, but for everyone else – and as a result, we all left a little happier. I call that a win-win.