It was Christmas morning 1967. Mom and Dad and my kid sister Tami were still asleep as I tiptoed to the living room to scout presents under the tree. We’d only been in the Lower East Side projects apartment a short time, and money was scarce, but my Mom always made Christmas special, and the few presents we’d get would be terrific. I found a large wrapped box with my name on the tag. “Go ahead,” she said, startling me, her arms folded near the hallway. “Open it.”
I tore into it and gasped: it was the Monster. The one I saw in the tiny toy store on Avenue D. The one that breathed fire, like Godzilla. When you turned it on, its eyes lit up and it made a weird screeching sound. He rolled across the floor, bumping into furniture, changing directions. It was the Greatest Thing Ever.
The Monster and I were inseparable. Together we battled armies of toy soldiers, giant alligators and turtles, a friend’s discarded one-armed G.I. Joe. We’d go outside and stalk the patch of grass near the benches in front of the building, making a run for it when the older tough kids came around. Alone in the bedroom I shared with Tami, I played with the Monster with the blankets as a mountain range in the background, my eyes just inches from his face, moving him slowly, making him as alive as I believed he was.
There were worries, of course. I noticed that the paint was chipping on the Monster’s nails. (I’d taken to calling him Godzilla, but I knew he wasn’t Godzilla, because he didn’t have the big fins on his back and his teeth were too snaggly. His box was long gone, and I’d forgotten what he was called on it, so I gave him his “real” name, Rover.) I also noticed that the mechanism under his body had loosened, so he had to be handled more carefully.
Then there was the day some months later that I walked into the bedroom, only to see 2 year-old Tami on the floor, Rover’s hapless body in one hand, and the entire battery casing and armature—naked light bulb and all—in the other. She’d murdered my Monster!
Sadly, it was a crime, a transgression I could never forgive. They say we are meanest to those we’re closest to, and this was no exception. I was awful to her, but I was four-and-a-half—I felt I had justice on my side.
The damage was irreparable. For I while I just let Rover’s vinyl body “rest” on the skeleton and watched as it lurched and bobbled around. Not the same. Eventually, the innards would be cast away, and I came to accept the fact that Rover was somehow still alive and well. If I wanted his eyes to light up, I’d shine a flashlight up his butt and go in for another close-up. He would stay close to me for the rest of my life, fighting thousands of battles, leading the Justice Monsters League of the World, getting a cameo in my directorial debut Red Light August in 1999, and eventually keeping silent watch over my daughter Evangelia from a shelf in her bedroom.
As the years passed, every so often my thoughts would turn to Rover. I’d never seen the toy in stores again. I checked out antique stores, vintage shops, garage sales and flea markets. Nothing. Comic shops in the ‘80s and ‘90s, toy magazines, eBay—zip. It was as if the toy company had only made one of them. From time to time I dreamt I found him in a store or at someone’s house, new and pristine, or that I saw him in action, taller and lankier somehow, breathing fire in all his glory. It was all so real, I’d wake up with a touch of melancholy.
So now it’s 2010, and I’m walking the floor of New York Comic Con with Evangelia. She is dressed as Dr. Who, the Matt Smith eleventh incarnation. To my surprise and delight, she is totally in love with the show, with its bizarre alien monsters and spirit of adventure and endless possibilities. We are mobbed by people taking pictures, and have to stop constantly, so I can whip her Sonic Screwdriver out of my pocket and set her up for eager fans.
A part of me is a bit disgruntled: at this rate we’re never going to cover the entire show floor and I wanted to shop. Sure enough, the lights dim and we’re told to beat it. I grab her hand and we make a beeline to the north side of the hall, where they sell videos of old TV shows and Asian fare. With security breathing down my neck I catch sight of a DVD set I hadn’t seen before: Space Giants.
Though the name wasn’t familiar, I remember the characters on the cover from a show I’d watched at five and six in Puerto Rico. My parents had divorced, and Tami and I would spend our summers with Dad in Bayamon. She took to it like a fish to water. I was less…comfortable, at least until I found Monstruos del Espacio. Giant robots, rockets, huge monsters wrecking cities, kids wearing crazy helmets—what’s not to love? It was like having a little Godzilla movie every day of the week! It turns out this was the Spanish language version of Space Giants.
So this past weekend I’m watching scratchy Space Giants, episode #1 on the flat screen. (Man, those trippy Japanese!) The villain has tossed our hero’s family into a dimensional portal, and they land in a jungle inhabited by dinosaurs and giant monsters. One of them is a lanky, snaggle-toothed beast that looks vaguely like Godzilla. The creature is largely shot in close-up, the camera moving about to make him seem as alive as possible. His orange throat even inflates a bit to make him seem as if he’s breathing! I’d seen this before, when I was a child in Puerto Rico, but now it all made sense. Eyes wide, I make a sound that’s probably not all that different from the one I made on Christmas morning 1967. It’s Rover!
I had to know for sure. I stop the video and hit the laptop. In seconds I find the Powerslam Collectibles Space Giants fan site, last updated March 2008. On it I find a full page devoted to a toy called The Monster Aron.
“Aron,” I whisper to myself. Rover’s real name is Aron.”
The page features a series of photos of Aron, intact, eyes glowing, mechanism in place, even a pair of strange “training wheels” that I only remembered after I see them in the pics. The box is indeed the one from my dreams, where the lankier version of my Monster shot flames at a golden jet fighter.
The site indicates that the toy was released in the USA before Space Giants was syndicated, so there’s no evidence on the box that the toy was from a TV show. That’s what made it so hard to find. The photos are from a guy named Todd Thomas, whose account is so similar to my own. Todd has a Rover, too. His Monster Aron is intact. I can see the mechanism under the figure, where mine is an empty maw.
A touch overwhelmed, I realize one thing more: my baby sister did not break Rover.
From Todd’s pic I can see that the metal base under the toy is quite thick and was linked to the vinyl with tiny folded teeth. They’d come loose, as I’d mentioned, and it would have been literally child’s play for Tami to pull the armature right out of Rover’s body. To a 4 year-old’s eyes, this was apocalypse, but to me today, it would have been a pretty easy fix. What had been a cold hard fact to me for over 40 years instantly vaporized into myth.
Oh, Tami! I’m so sorry! Please forgive me! Seriously!
I guess this is one of those threads that we all have in life that is so weirdly personal, so seemingly unimportant to others, almost no one else knows or cares about it. I’m reminded, though, that just because we’re little doesn’t mean that what we felt or experienced was small or insignificant. Our feelings were every bit as intense and affecting as they are today, perhaps more so, because they were brand new. They can impact our attitude about people, places, things for the rest of our lives.
So when I watch my daughter as she watches Doctor Who, I have to remember that she is being exposed to wonderful and scary new concepts with each episode, and a sensibility that has the potential to work its strange narrative tendrils into the fabric of her being. Well…at least this time, she’ll have someone along for the ride, just warped enough to help make sense of the feelings, and the dreams…