The Star Wars toy that made me a geek

Commentary: One Star Wars toy shaped CNET's Bonnie Burton as a geek. Bonnie fondly recalls stumbling upon a discarded action figure that changed her life forever.

Bonnie Burton
Journalist Bonnie Burton writes about movies, TV shows, comics, science and robots. She is the author of the books Live or Die: Survival Hacks, Wizarding World: Movie Magic Amazing Artifacts, The Star Wars Craft Book, Girls Against Girls, Draw Star Wars, Planets in Peril and more! E-mail Bonnie.
Bonnie Burton
4 min read

My crooked little smile appeared every time I thought of my favorite Star Wars toy.

Bonnie Burton/CNET

In 1977, I was a 4-year-old who lived on a farm, kind of like our hero Luke Skywalker. I longed to spend time with toys that ignited my imagination, but all I had were hand-me-down dolls, Lincoln Logs, pick-up sticks, View-Masters and a few creepy puppets.

Then I spotted a dirty action figure carelessly discarded outside my preschool that looked like a cross between Big Foot and a skinny bear. And I realized I might have found a new plastic soulmate.

With the mega-marketing push that is Force Friday focusing so much attention on Star Wars toys this week, I can't help but think back to that moment. I can't remember most details from my childhood, but there was something about that odd-looking toy that stole my heart. 

I put the figure in my pocket and never let him out of my sight. I called him Harry until I knew better, and I made up adventures for him, usually consisting of foiling evil plans by Saturday morning cartoon monsters.

And then that magical moment happened -- I finally saw Star Wars. My mother took me to see this weird sci-fi movie about a farm kid who finds his destiny, meeting with strange people along the way. 

I have a feeling someone sold my mom on the idea of "Star Wars" as a cross between a Muppet movie and The Wizard of Oz.

When you talk to us elder geeks who were lucky enough to see the original Star Wars movies in the theater, we get a far-off look in our eyes. 

It's a special kind of glimmer that makes us smile at the excitement we had witnessing the Star Destroyer slowly move across the screen, shaking in fear at the sight of Darth Vader and leaving the movie waving our arms around wielding invisible lightsabers as we all made that signature "whoosh" sound.

But the thing that made me squeal with delight was seeing my old friend Harry up on the big screen, growling, howling and laughing it up with his buddy Han Solo. Of course, they called my furry buddy Chewbacca, but he was still Harry to me, and I loved him.

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These days Chewbacca likes to hang out in my houseplants.

Bonnie Burton/CNET

Before I discovered Harry had another life as a famous Wookiee who helps to save the galaxy, to me he was just a beat-up toy, forgotten in the dirt by his old master.

But as soon as I discovered Harry, aka Chewbacca, in his natural habitat that was Star Wars, I spent all my time trying to perfect a Wookiee howl, which probably made me sound like a whiny dog to my confused parents.

From then on I learned quickly that the best way to size up other kids wasn't by their appearance or personality, but by their "Star Wars" knowledge. I wore my hair in Princess Leia buns for school yearbook photo day.

I practiced my own style of Star Wars battle choreography by leaping off of jungle gyms while waving around makeshift lightsabers constructed with gift-wrapping cardboard rolls and duct tape.

I kept Harry the Wookiee with me even when all my other toys fell by the wayside to make room for Merlin and Simon electronic games, Lite Brite, Spirograph and this new thing called a Pong video game.

Even when I grew up from a nerdy kid into a surly teen, Harry was always hanging out inside my desk drawer or on a bookshelf. I even took the little Wookiee to college with me as a good-luck charm.

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I wasn't always fully out as a proud Star Wars fan. During my moody Goth years, I'd be more apt to admit I liked Dracula action figures over Darth Vader. I decorated my dorm room with Twin Peaks and X-Files posters, not Star Wars art. I played Myst over Star Wars: Rebel Assault. But I always harbored a soft spot for my tiny Wookiee companion.

It wasn't until I started my 10-year career as a writer, editor and social-media strategist at Lucasfilm in 2003 that I brought Harry to work with me. I leaned him up against my computer monitor and he watched as I typed day after day about his home planet, his friends and his real adventures in a galaxy far, far away.

Even though I've moved on from Lucasfilm, I still have Harry nearby in my apartment, gazing at me from a bookshelf full of Star Wars books, including one of my own,  The Star Wars Craft Book.

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I like to imagine that Harry is proud of the geek I've become. I write Star Wars books and articles. I make "Star Wars" crafts for a living. I teach other young fans the ways of the Force and why Wookiees make great friends for life.

Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like if Harry hadn't caught my eye. What if I picked up a Strawberry Shortcake doll instead? What if I was drawn more to Hot Wheels cars or Smurfs? Would I still be the geek I am today, or would I go through life without talking backwards like Yoda or pretending I have Force powers when I walk through automatic sliding doors?

Who knows what kind of person I would have been. I'm just grateful I found Harry the Wookiee outside my preschool those many years ago and that he guided me toward a destiny to be proud of.

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