24 July 2019

Into the Light

In a previous post, I mentioned what AFOLs call the Dark Ages.  It’s that time they set LEGO aside, or perhaps drifted away from it, because life filled up with other things that seemed more important. 

For many AFOLs, the Dark Ages end when they discover one particular LEGO set.  They call it the Conversion Set (because they apparently like drama).  Building that set, we remember everything we love about LEGO and more.  And sometimes, we realize that LEGO has grown up too, while still always being a kid inside.

My Dark Ages were more of a Dim Age.  I never lost the desire to build with LEGO, just the time.  I never completely stopped paying attention to what The LEGO Group was doing.  In 1999, I was pretty busy with my engineering education.  Before spring semester finals were over, I had an internship lined up with a mathematics software company called Wolfram Research.  Before it started, I took a road trip vacation with my brothers and sister.  The scheduling meant that I missed a fantastic introduction to my new employer.  As a release party for the new version of Wolfram's Mathematica software, they booked a private opening-night screening of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.  Instead, I toured national parks of the southwest, indulged in the alien-themed tourist traps of Roswell, New Mexico, chased and photographed a few passing trains, and backpacked in the Gila Wilderness.  After a week of that, we all went to see Episode I at a theater in Phoenix.

Also in 1999, I noticed that the LEGO Group first started selling licensed Star Wars sets.  I digressed about the southwest adventure not just to tell a little about who I am, but also as context.  I was aware of this development, but was just a nudge along my journey to being an AFOL.  Then, in 2007, my brother and his wife were kind enough to provide me with a nephew and godson, and I immediately had the desire to buy him LEGO.  Rather than wait until he reached the recommended minimum age for LEGO Duplo blocks, I went to eBay to purchase a set of recently-discontinued Lego Quatro blocks (for ages 1-3).

I found my Conversion Set at the Barnes & Noble Bookstore in MacArthur Mall of Norfolk, Virginia.  The 7051 Alien Conquest Tripod Invader was irresistible.  There had always been LEGO Town or LEGO City sets, and I fondly remembered the original LEGO Space theme, but now they were together at last.  Aliens were here, and in flying saucers, but with detachable tripod legs in a clever homage to War of the Worlds.  The set included an Alien Clinger which could wrap itself around the head of a hapless minifigure, somehow reminiscent of the Alien movie franchise while still also being adorable.  And it included an unfortunate bespectacled businessman with an expression on either side of his yellow head (one mild mannered, one distressed).  Prior to that moment, I didn’t know that LEGO did that.

Here and there, other Lego purchases nudged me towards the light.  I learned about Lego retail stores and Pick-A-Brick walls.  One Christmas, I scheduled an Amtrak trip from Virginia to visit family around Chicago partly as an excuse to stop at the Watertower Place Lego Store.  I bought a brick separator and the 4837 Mini Trains set.  The brick separator tool was a joyous discovery, as I recalled the frustration and eroded fingernails that resulted from trying to pull two stacked, equally-sized plate pieces apart again. 

My 4837 Mini Trains purchase recognized and placated that long-repressed desire for a LEGO train from my childhood.  It was a from the Creator 3-in-1 theme, which gives you full instructions to rebuild the parts into different models, and it came in a handy plastic storage box.

I kept buying Lego for my nephew, moving from Quatro to Duplo once he was 1-1/2 years old.  I started buying LEGO Friends sets for my niece, and I picked up a 7965 Millennium Falcon for myself.

I work as a nuclear engineer, and small LEGO sets began to populate my desk.  At some point, I learned about LEGO’s series of Collectible Minifigures, and someone told me there had been one of a radiation worker.  I tracked down the one LEGO called the HazMat Guy, with a torso and protective hood emblazoned with the trefoil symbol for radiation, and added him to the collection.  I swapped heads with the hapless abductee from the 7051 Alien Conquest set.

It took a few years to realize it, but one of my workplace aquaintances had the same HazMat Guy minifigure at her desk.  We started spending time together outside of work, dated, and got engaged.  We got married a few months later, joining our lives, hearts, and still relatively-modest LEGO collections.

We bought LEGO together, for ourselves, and for each other.  I entered a local LEGO shipbuilding contest  that co-workers told me about.  We learned about LEGO User Groups (LUGs) and LEGO fan conventions.  And in 2016, we went to our first LEGO convention together, BrickFair Virginia.  I realized that my Dark or maybe Dim Ages had ended, and we realized that we had become AFOLs.

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