By the end of 1997 our adventures as Stormtroopers in a little one-tauntaun-town felt like they’d hit their high-water mark. The theatrical re-releases were done and gone, Star Wars merchandising was fading from store shelves, and events where a grown man in armor made sense were getting scarce. Like a watering hole in the desert, any sustaining power of the saga that kept Tom and me armoring up was drying up and leaving us feeling alone and awkwardly out of place.
So the armor went into storage. The helmet got put on display. The black unitard I put into hiding: I didn’t want to be accused of a secret love for interpretive dance.
But the photos remained. Lots of photos, all stored in a shoe box next to my Mac. I’d been an amateur photographer since middle school, so I had a nagging compulsion to catch everything on film. Composing the perfect shot isn’t easy to do when you’re in full armor. And at the time digital cameras were still too primitive to be practical, so all I could hope for was to ask bystanders to snap away and hope the 36 frames in my Pentax would come out.
Seeing the gleam of the armor in photos was a kick, and some shots actually turned out pretty good. With the right lighting we were dead ringers for the characters I’d grown up admiring. It was surreal. On one hand, there was Ralph McQuarrie’s space soldier concept, wandering around the mundane real world like it was nothing for him to be there. On the other, it was like I was seeing screenshots of fresh footage of the Stormtroopers , only they weren’t doing the same thing I’d watched a hundred times. It was Star Wars: the new adventures!
A creative urge made me want to do something with the pictures, but I was darned if I knew what. Fortunately, there was a silver lining to spending a year wheelchair-bound trying to save my injured leg. The leg couldn’t be saved, but I did spend a lot of time picking up tricks on the Mac and learning about the all-new “World Wide Web.” The first time I learned to code a web page and saw one my pictures appear on the screen, it was like bottling lightning. Something cool could be mined from that, I just knew it. Before long I was painstakingly scanning all my photos and slapping them up on a page.
Soon after, Detention Block 2551 was born. My first ever web page, it chronicled the exploits of two hapless Stormtroopers stuck on guard duty on the Death Star. Journal entries gave you a sense of just how trapped and burned-out the poor guys were: “Day 472: Hosed down the Wookiee cell today, putting in for transfer,” and “Day 927: Pulled Princess guard duty this week… she’s a bit testy in the mornings.” The narrative gradually gave way to captions for our photos, which were harder to pull off. I mean, how does a Stormtrooper blog about hanging around a comic shop? Most captions read like “Deployed to Sector 97, crowd control.”
It was a lot of fun. The troopers took on lives of their own. Eventually I realized the two mooks needed names. My first thought went back to the trilogy and that unlucky trooper on the Death Star who got conked on the head by Han and Luke. The line from his superior was the perfect guide: “TK421, why aren’t you at your post?”
Made sense. Stormtroopers were unfeeling, robot-like soldiers who got a number instead of a name, so we’d need numbers too. I never understood what “TK” stood for, but I wasn’t about to argue with canon. Best I could do was fashion snazzy numbers. So I just used my birthday and Tom’s to come up with our Stormtooper names: TK210 and TK512.
TK210 and TK512 went on to have a lot of adventures. Stories ran like something from Forrest Gump: they managed to be in all the wrong places at just the right time. TK210 could be seen bumping his head on a low-hanging blast door in A New Hope, just hours before drawing garbage-scow duty on the doomed space station. TK512 did his best to hide a freaked-out expression watching Vader choke some poor Rebel aboard the Tantive IV. Two well-meaning, average Joes in armor, just trying to survive a stint in the Empire.
But where there are two, there are more…
Albin Johnson was a lowly Stormtrooper on Detention Block 2551 before Lord Vader lost a bet and allowed him to found the 501st Legion, “Vader’s Fist.” He’s also man-servant to R2-KT, “the pink Imperial droid with the heart of gold.” You can learn more at 501st.com and r2kt.com or follow Albin’s off-duty antics at albinjohnson.com.