History of the 501st Legion: Dragon Con, Part 1

Albin Johnson | September 19, 2013

It was Labor Day weekend in 1998 and I was off to my very first convention as a Stormtrooper. The Detention Block 2551 site had been up for a year. Over a hundred other Stormtroopers had joined the newly-anointed 501st Squad. We had an insignia and a backstory. All that was left now was to form up as a club in person. I e-mailed everyone from the website and boldly announced the Fighting 501st was going to take the con by storm!

That was all tough talk. I was terrified. I’d never been to Dragon Con in my life and from what I heard it was huge. I was barely able to get around an air conditioned movie theater in my armor, so how would I get around downtown Atlanta in armor that barely fit me? (We didn’t cut our armor down back then; we didn’t know we could!) On top of that, I was still getting used to being an amputee. And who were these people coming to meet up with me? I barely knew them. Would they rally to a banner I’d raised on the Internet? Or would they just bail on everything and go party?

First on the ground and ready to troop (or party?)

First on the ground and ready to troop (or party?)

As a kid, conventions were always a bit of a letdown for me. On one hand it was a rare opportunity to be around all the cool things a fanboy loves: comics, action figures, costumes, celebrities. In the real world you rarely got to be around so much magic and creativity. But on the other hand, it never felt like the homecoming I always thought it should be. I mean, in spite of being around so many like-minded people it was a pretty solitary experience. No one really talked or socialized. Maybe there were clubs, I don’t know. I never looked into it. Geeks at the time didn’t heed to a pack mentality. We were solitary creatures.

Well I’ve always been longer on optimism than I’ve been on good sense. If this was going to be a club, then it would have to work as people hanging out with other people. I went onto the mailing list and gave the best inspirational speech I could think of, quoting Vader and promising Imperial conquest. I went downtown and had a sign-maker whip up a 24″ x 24” foam board with our new logo. I printed out brochures for the 501st Squad, hot with the tag line “Are you loyal? Hard working? Fully expendable?” I really thought this would catch like wildfire.

Big ideas. Itty bitty budget.

Big ideas. Itty bitty budget.

The weekend came and Tom was out. He had no interest in traveling all the way to Atlanta to troop. So I recruited three of my best friends to join me, dressed one of them in Tom’s armor, and dressed another in a Boba Fett costume I’d hand-made in the past year from construction supplies and plumbing fixtures. Sure, it might look funny today but at the time it was a pretty sweet-looking rig and all hand-made.

The garage became Fett Project HQ.

The garage became Fett Project HQ.

After a long drive I eagerly showed up in the Hyatt lobby with my sign, nervous as hell. In came a group that traveled from Florida: Steve Hamedl, Shannon Wendlick, and Steve’s cousin, Gina. With them was another Florida guy, Mike Glover. Soon we were joined by Sean Burgess and Mike Van Zweiten. And all the way from Oregon was Matt Gauthier, who was an armor-maker with the handle “Trooper Expert.” No one seemed terribly impressed. Right away the energy was much different than online. The core group sized the place up, talked about their plans to hit all the cool sites, and then it was off to the rooms.

Me, I wanted to hold a meeting. Yep, that’s how cool I am. Tens of thousands of exciting people in one amazing place and I was worried about setting down some order. If you’ve ever been to Dragon Con (or any large con for that matter) you know how well that went over. I can’t blame them. The air at a con is electric, there’s so much to do and see. But you also couldn’t blame me for wanting to build some teamwork I guess.

Before I could even open my mouth, Shannon smiled at me and said in a mocking lisp, “Gosh! Is this the F-f-f-ighting F-f-five-oh-f-f-first?”

Okay, now what?

Okay, now what?

Everyone laughed. Mood killed. It was clear this was a bigger deal to me than anyone else.

The next three days weren’t going to be any more promising.

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