Every once in a while I get the invite to conduct an “inspection” of one of the Legion’s Garrisons. That’s just fancy talk for a social visit, but Garrisons take so much pride in making sure everything looks spiffy, I wonder if I should bring white gloves. I’ve thought about carrying around a big 501st flag, but where would I pack it?
There are three things to keep in mind for a Legion inspection. One) every Garrison is different: from their culture to their choice of costumes and props to their own quirky rituals, each Garrison has its own distinct way of hoisting the Imperial banner. Two) every Garrison is pretty much the same: you’d be amazed at how much Star Wars fans have in common. The love is there no matter where you go and it’s a beautiful thing to see. Three) things are never, ever dull.
In 2007 I got the call to tour the German Garrison. Fresh off the Pasadena Rose Parade with George Lucas himself, the Legion was flush with pride and the Germans were excited to show their accomplishments. The GG is one of the biggest Garrisons we have in the world. At over 200 members it’s probably big enough to staff an Imperial Star Destroyer. The Germans met us at the train station with an honor guard in full armor, then whisked my wife Kathy and me off in a van labeled as the German Garrison Tour express. We hit Cologne, Aachen, Stutgart, Munich, and Bavaria where every regional group had the chance to show off their squad and their local flavor. I even got knighted at one of the castles. After a whirlwind of castles, biergartens, and lederhosen it was off to Star Wars Celebration Europe on a bus ride for the history books.
The following February it was off to Paris. The French, like the Germans, were one of the first to form a Garrison in the 501st. Their commander, Bernard Cocchi, had a family man’s touch. He invited my daughter Allie to come along (which is a good thing — what teenage girl doesn’t die for the chance to see Paris?). At the airport he presented her with a bouquet of flowers, then took her on a sight-seeing tour of Paris leading up to the Migennes Toy Festival. There, the family man touch was evident: the contingent of French Imperials was as much a family as any I’d seen, and Bernard was their proud papa. Droids, costumes, and props were shown off by artisans proud of their work. Warm hugs and kisses came with every grateful member who confessed over and over just how happy they were to live the Star Wars dream and being part of the Empire. A small school in a small town was converted to fan-utopia as troopers and Jedi, young and old, came together in sublime harmony.
No sooner was I back in the states than the Japanese Garrison called. Stuart Wilkshire, my longtime friend from Australia, was living in the land of the rising sun and with Celebration Japan coming up, the JG was determined to have an Imperial inspection. I don’t think my brain was ready for the culture shock: the loud and glamorous pageantry of Tokyo mixed with the ancient traditions. The JG itself was no different, full of colorful characters smiling gleefully at the spectacles of Star Wars but at the same time so reverent and full of respect for its characters.
Makuhari-Messe Convention Center near Tokyo was like a cathedral, thousands of fans in costume (most of them women, dressing as female and male characters alike), lightsabers in every hand, and the JG members seemed to hang on every word out of the mouths of Steve Sansweet and Mary Franklin. Truly, the magic of Star Wars was alive in this place, and the same round of hugs and bows from the Garrison members told me it was every bit as much a family as I’d seen elsewhere.
From the far east it was time to head north. The balmy heat would give way to snow and cooler climes. The Badlands Garrison had their Calgary Expo coming up in 2008 and the troopers there were ready for their inspection. To be honest, I didn’t expect such a big turnout with the snow they were getting. But as soon as I landed I was treated to the biggest and warmest bunch you’d ever find. There was no ceremony here, the BG Imperials were a nutty bunch and always in casual mode. That wasn’t to say Angela Mash’s people weren’t ready with the armor. Sharp and precise costumes poured through the convention and Ray Park was treated to a hero’s welcome. Scot Campbell plopped a cowboy hat on me and made me a part of the pack. The love for the unit and its people was everywhere and the Badlanders were eager for me to see it.
I got the call from the Canadian Garrison to visit on Labor Day. After 10 years of being invited by their perennial CO Roy Mitchel and his XO Chris Brown, it was time to see Toronto and see how one of the oldest Garrisons on the books was doing their thing. Over 100,00 fans marched past the CN tower and took in the coolest maze of props and sets I’ve ever seen a unit put together. The event featured tons of attractions including a Blast-a-Trooper range; a detailed Death Star control room with interactive screens, with info on all the 501st, Rebel Legion, and the R2 Builders; and a photo booth that drew a steady stream of fans donating to Make-A-Wish, taking photos with C-3P0, Leia, and Garrick Hagon (Biggs from A New Hope). What impressed me most was the busy whirlwind of volunteers from all three clubs, working together to man all these activities at once. By the end they had raised over $14,000 for Make-A-Wish. And every day a long row of stormtroopers marched through the entire center to support the Lucasfilm booth where Mary Franklin was screening the new Star Wars Rebels series. The effect was, to quote Vader, most impressive.
I’ve seen some crazy, kooky things on these inspection tours. I’ve seen the simple act of donning armor and wearing the colors of a unit make people want to work hard to create something beautiful and accomplish something good. I’ve been embraced by fans who speak with tears in their eyes about what Star Wars has allowed them to do and the bonds they’ve forged. While most fans get more than their fair share of good vibes from enjoying the films and books and toys, I’ve seen the magic hit critical mass when people come together over it. It’s a humbling thing.
I don’t know where my next Legion inspection will take me. But I can tell you this: it’s a big world out there, and there are plenty of Rebels, Imperials, and droids walking the beat and making it fun. I can’t wait to hit hyperspace and go see them again. And this time, maybe I will bring a flag.