We arrive at the museum and I meet a few of Nick’s fellow Legionnaires in the parking lot. They’re all in their late 30s or early 40s and are, to my surprise, very normal looking humans. Aside from Nick, no one wears even the hint of a costume, most of them in jeans and hoodies not unlike my own ensemble. I assume this is to maintain the illusion of character continuity — nothing will kill a kid’s fantasy about Darth Vader like seeing him get out of a Prius — but I come to find out later that’s not the case.
I help Nick through security with his gear, which includes a makeup kit that would be a cosmetology student’s wet dream, a small fan to cool down if necessary, and of course, his double-edged light saber, which is dismantled and rolled into a satchel the way a billiards pro would transport his prized pool cue. We draw some amused looks and sideways comments at the security checkpoint, where the museum guards stop each Legionnaire to inspect the contents of their kits. The guards are real-deal Jarheads, complete with brush cuts and camo BDUs and sidearms, and they cast a sort of menacing feel about the whole check-in process. They’re the type of guys you’d see at a bar and buy them a shot just to make sure if shit went down that they’d be on your side. I feel the urge to notify them I’m just a combat correspondent and in no way associated with whatever playtime fantasies are about to occur during Semper Force, but I resist.
The Jarhead manning the X-ray scanner is having a hell of a time with all these gear boxes, squinting at the screen and trying to discern fantasy from real. “Holy shit,” he mutters as Nick’s 7-foot light saber runs down the conveyor belt.
We’re ushered into the Hall of Valor, an unfinished exhibit with bare concrete floors and a single light mounted over an emergency exit that will serve as our locker room. Nick warns me the dressing accommodations are unisex and hopes that doesn’t make me uncomfortable, which it doesn’t until a girl portraying an unfamiliar villain (Nick tells me she’s a “Mando,” which I’ll have to take his word on) asks me to snake a microphone cord through the back of her extremely tight shirt and into a speaker hanging on her belt.
“I’m Sam,” I say. “Nice to meet you, now that I have my hand inside your shirt.”
“Eh, don’t worry about it,” the Mando says. “It’s normal.”
I find out later this particular young woman has dated three different players present at the convention today — including the Mando counterpart dressing next to her — which leads me to believe that, given my lack of fiberglass Imperial armor, her casual request to put my hands on her back was in no way meant to be a flirtatious advance.
Nick introduces me around to his friends, including Charles, a man wearing white Jedi robes whom I could only describe as a nice old nerd. An accountant by day, Charles is most well-known for his frequent portrayal of Chewbacca. I know this because he spends about 10 minutes showing me pictures of himself dressed as the hairy Wookie in various convention settings. His gray eyes remain locked on my face as I swipe through them, anxious for a reaction. I’m not sure exactly what he’s looking for, so I do my best to feign excitement. “So awesome,” I say, handing Charles his phone, which he slips into a pocket hidden in the folds of his tunic and giggles.
There’s a lot of small talk as the characters dress. Nick, whom is already in kit, ambles around the room and shoots the shit with everyone like the old man in the gym locker room. Most of the conversations are inside baseball and go way over my head. Have you been working on the online Jedi trials at all? Occasionally, Nick will turn and try to include me, giving me a snippet of background intended to help contextualize things. But given my ignorance of the Star Wars Universe, most efforts are in vain. I tried keeping track of what they were actually saying in my notebook, but quickly gave up. Thus, I can only reproduce samples of these conversations using made up words.
Nick: Martin plays a Vishiminatar. Their costumes are cool because they carry felchfazers and have an awesome rocket-powered rotary girder.
Me: <blank stare> Oh, yeah, that’s amazing.
Nick: Are you familiar with the Vishiminatars? From planet Kumoniwannalayya?
In the interest of not embarrassing Nick for bringing along a dude whose idea of an obscure character is Jabba the Hut, I try to play along for a bit. I say things like “oh right, I remember, totally,” but it’s clear by their facial expressions they know I’m operating in an entirely different star system. My most uttered phrase after admitting defeat becomes “Sorry, I have no idea what that is,” which the crew accepts with a shrug.
I definitely don’t want to paint the Legion members as being cliquey or condescending; as a matter of fact, they all seem genuinely interested in not only patiently explaining how cosplay works, but also to recruit me. When Nick introduces me to Brad, the hulking 6’10” Garrison leader who looks like he could grind my bones to make his bread, he launches several probing questions about my interest.
“What’s your deal?” he says while adjusting the shoulder pads of his XXXL Snow Trooper costume. “You thinking about joining up or what?”
“Just taking it all in,” I say with a nervous chuckle. Brad fires more questions at me like a salesmen (what’s it going to take to get you into a Rebel jumpsuit today?) and I realize the only way this conversation will end is if I come to the cosplay Dark Side.
I’m saved when Charles slinks up behind me and puts a hand on my shoulder.
Help me, nerdy accountant. You’re my only hope.
“Want to see something?” he says.
“Ab-so-friggin-lutely,” I say, and he leads me to another corner of the room.
He picks up a piece of brown fabric draped over a chair and offers it up to me. “Here,” he says, “try it on.”
“What is it?” I ask, turning the bolt of wool in my hands.
“Why, it’s a Jedi cloak. It gives you powers.”
I look sideways for Nick, who’s engaged in conversation across the room with an Imperial Officer who looks strikingly like Willem Dafoe in a Nazi uniform. It’s clear by Charles’s urging expression there’s no way I can politely decline, so I slip the cloak on over my hoodie and jeans and hold out my arms to show him.
Charles makes adjustments to the sleeves and pulls the hood over my head so it almost covers my eyes. I feel like a young Trappist monk trying on Daddy’s robes.
“Don’t you feel powerful?” Charles asks. He waves his hand at me and flexes his fingers like a magician casting a spell.
“Oh, totally,” I say. “A powerful Jedi.”
“The force is strong in this one,” he giggles as Nick approaches. We take photos and I try not to look miserable.
This is not the only photo op I am forced into throughout the day. Charles also has me pose with a light saber, which he must show me how to hold “like a proper Jedi” because I’m gripping it like a third basemen taking a 2-2 pitch.
Charles’s really the only one I observe being totally wrapped up in the cheesiness of the Star Wars culture. The other members talk about things in excruciating detail, yes, but it’s Charles who makes all the Star Wars puns. He drops little bits of movie dialogue into his sentences and feigns Jedi mind tricks. When we go into the bathroom to help Nick touch up his makeup, a guy wearing a Marine Corps hat and sweatshirt comes in and stands at the urinal. Charles, his eyes sparkling, waggles his fingers at the man’s back. “The Force,” he whispers, and we hear the man’s urine tinkle against the porcelain.