Darth Vader does battle in Oak Ridge

by Brian Clarey

Darth Vader and Boba Fett stand nervously, anxious in front of the doorway. For support, the genetically engineered bounty hunter and the Dark Lord of the Sith are holding hands. Together they push through the entrance of the Oak Ridge Bookshop and Café.

Inside stand two soldiers in the Imperial Guard: Biker Scout TB-3346 and an infantry-level stormtrooper, TK-1267. They’re right over there, by the cookie jars.

“Boba, Lord Vader,” the TK says in an electronic monotone, “good to see you.”

And even though Lord Vader, as the Imperial commander-in-chief, holds high rank over these infantrymen, he can barely look them in the eyes. Luckily he’s wearing his helmet and breathing apparatus, so they can’t see the apprehension in his face. And as always he has his trusted lightsaber by his side. But the when he presses the button on his breastplate that triggers that heavy breathing sound, nothing happens. The batteries are dead.

“What about the TIE fighter pilots?” Vader asks me. “Where are they?”

I must explain that TIE fighter pilots wear charcoal gray armor; that they do most of their work in space, blasting X-wings or killing time on Imperial star destroyers; and, I remind my sons, it’s important to remember that TIE fighters are not actually real.

But he and his brother are lost in the fantasy that is the Star Wars Universe, and I suppose it’s mostly my fault.

I practically forced them to watch the movies. I played the Lego video games with them and filled them with all the lore I knew. One Saturday afternoon I spent $50 on lightsabers. And it was I who heard about this stormtrooper appearance at this Oak Ridge bookstore and brought my young sons, encouraging them to wear their Halloween costumes.

And frankly, I’m a little disappointed. From an event billed as an “enactment” and promising “stormtroopers in action,” I was expecting… you know… a little action – a clashing of lightsabers, perhaps, or a storming of the Blockbuster movie store next door, or even a couple drawn blasters and guys making the “pyoom” sound with their mouths.

No such luck. What we get is a couple guys in stormtrooper armor, and like me they are far too old and out of shape to do the Imperial Army much good.

The suits, though, are pretty cool.

“All of our costumes are fan-made,” the biker scout, AKA Alex Wilson of Oak Ridge, says. “They’re only available on the black market.”

“The gray market,” says TK-1267, Jack Richmond.

There are entire websites dedicated to the construction of these shiny white suits of plastic armor, hundreds of costuming clubs throughout the world and dozens of opportunities each year for appearances and get-togethers among Imperial Army hopefuls. These guys belong to the Carolina Garrison of the Fighting 501st, Vader’s Fist, the world’s largest Star Wars costume group, according to Guinness.

“In the 501st Legion,” Richmond says, “you have to have a movie-quality costume from the Imperial side.”

“These are actually higher quality suits than the ones they used in the movie,” Wilson says. “The fans make ’em from scratch, but at one time they were cast from an original [suit]. All the molds have been destroyed.”

Still, Richmond says, “there are still guys out there making suits with original molds.”

Boba Fett and Vader – my Vader, there is another pint-sized one in the room, as well as a tiny, helmeted incarnation of Jango Fett – hesitantly approach the warriors with something like awe. In the car on the way over they asked me if Boba Fett had a mommy. My considered response was, “No.”

“Boba Fett was cloned from Jango Fett on the mysterious planet of Kamino. The whole clone army was,” I said. “Jango Fett was kind of his daddy, but he didn’t have a mommy.”

Now, here in the store, they want to know: If the whole army was made of clones, does that mean the stormtroopers, which the army was called in parts IV-VI, are all clones?

TK-1267 knows the answer to this one.

“By that point, twenty years later, the clones were getting old,” he says. “They were still doing training missions and stuff, but at this point the Imperial Army was conscripting troops from other planets.

“That’s why,” he continues, “when Obi [-Wan Kenobi] turned off the tractor beam in the Death Star, the two stormtroopers were two different heights and had two different voices.”

Makes sense to me.

I can tell by their fidgeting that Vader and Fett have lost interest in this little corner of the Empire, so I corral them and their little sister, who was originally planning on wearing a pink kitty-cat costume to the event but balked when she realized that it entailed putting something on her head, and move them out the door.

As we leave I hear another dad, this one in a Vader “I Want You” T-shirt, quizzing the loyal members of the 501st about their organization, their uniforms, their events. It looks like the Imperial Army has another warm recruit on its hands.

“You guys ever make any fan films?” I hear him ask as the door whispers shut.

For questions or comments email Brian Clarey at