Building A Better Tunnel Rat
Three months ago, in the essay with which I launched my other blog, Autobotic Asphyxiation (You Do The Math: G.I. Joe Resolute Versus G.I. Joe Renegades), I celebrated actor Matthew Yang King, who provides the voice of Tunnel Rat in the nonsensically short-lived animated series, G.I. Joe Renegades. I also devoted a (perhaps disproportionate) share of my commentary to an unassuming line delivered by King: “My folks own a kosher Chinese restaurant. In Brooklyn. You do the math.”
Yesterday, meanwhile, I lay in bed flipping lazily through the January 5, 2009 issue of The New Yorker. (Our school library tossed out its old magazines a while back; I took it upon myself to rescue a couple-dozen issues). One of the clear highlights is Patricia Marx’s “Kosher Takeout”, to which I would happily provide a link in this post were it not for the fact that reading an article from The New Yorker online requires a subscription.
Instead, then, I shall randomly scatter excerpts from Marx’s delightful essay into this all-about-Tunnel-Rat post. The essay concerns a “kosher inspector” who scrutinizes the foodstuffs and conditions in Chinese factories on behalf of a “kosher-certifying agency”. Serendipity! Or, as Marge Simpson’s psychiatrist once said, “Yes, yes, it’s all a rich tapestry.”
This business of certification is a mostly twentieth-century phenomenon. In the old days, we did not need anyone to tell us if our chicken was kosher, because we slaughtered it ourselves. We made sure that, as Deuteronomy more or less instructs, our supper was done in by a knife that had no nicks,with a quick, deep stroke across the throat which severed the carotid arteries, jugular veins, vagus nerve, trachea, and esophagus, at a point no higher than the epiglottis and no lower than where the cilia begin on the trachea. After that, we made sure that all its blood was drained within seventy-two hours. Today, we would rather go to Food Emporium.
I like to think that Motorhead’s “The Chase Is Better Than The Catch” is about customizing action figures. (Sample lyric: “The silver-tongued devil / Demon lynch / I know just what I’m doing / I like a little innocent bitch”. Do I have to spell it out for you people?). I for one routinely abandon a custom figure within weeks or days or even hours of completing it. I delight in the brainstorming process and the window-shopping research (“Would so-and-so’s head look good on Figure X’s body?”), but once I gather all the necessary pieces and put them together, I feel no obligation to keep the puzzle intact.
When it comes to customizing my definitive Tunnel Rat figure, however, I have never abandoned the work. Instead, after several years, like Richard Dreyfuss in Mr. Holland’s Opus, I still “pick at it once in awhile”.
In 1981, there were three rabbis from the Orthodox Union assigned to China. Today, there are more than fifty mashgihim in the country.
When most G.I. Joe enthusiasts my age hear the name Tunnel Rat, they picture the first Tunnel Rat figure, from 1987. Or perhaps his 25th Anniversary counterpart.
However, the character never caught my fancy until the (also nonsensically short-lived) Sigma 6 action figure series, which presented a new look for Mr. Nicky Lee:
I was immediately enamored with this figure, despite the polite indifference with which I tend to regard the Anime aesthetic. My affection for Sigma 6 Tunnel Rat quickly escalated once I added some cloth pants and other accessories to his wee wiry frame.
Once my wife and I decided to teach overseas, I had to place my Sigma 6 collection in storage; each figure is eight inches tall and quite hefty, and so our meager shipping allowance could not accommodate them. As a consolation prize of sorts, I reluctantly started collecting Hasbro’s small-scale G.I. Joe figures from its 25th Anniversary, Rise of Cobra, Pursuit of Cobra and 30th Anniversary series. I didn’t care much for the tiny impostors at first, but I could cram a hundred of them into a suitcase with room left for toiletries and clothes, and so I figured, what the hell?
“And yet, even with all this growth, there are still misunderstandings,” Rabbi Grunberg told me. On occasion, he said, a factory supervisor, meeting him for the first time, will address him as “Rabbit.”
For the Rise of Cobra series, Hasbro produced but never released an arctic variant of Channing Tatum’s Duke. As soon as I saw the figure’s ski cap, I knew I had to buy him from one of those helpful eBay sellers overseas; I wanted to recreate my favorite Tunnel Rat figure in the small scale.
My first attempt was too literal-minded.
I am quick to criticize and even mock any fan who clings too fervently to the irrelevant surface details and forgettable minutiae of a given character or figure, and yet I was so excited at the prospect of recreating the gray pants of my Sigma 6 Tunnel Rat figure that I briefly overlooked the small-scale tribute’s limited leg articulation (the result of an early Hasbro sculpting decision widely derided by collectors as “diaper crotch”) and the fact that the skin tone of the head was such a poor match for the arms and neck that I had to obscure the unsightly clash with that bulky, awkward neck scarf. It took me something like six months to amass all the pieces to create that figure. He lasted a week or two.
Nobody knows how many Jews are now in the country, but reasonable estimates put the number at around three thousand, which is roughly the same number of Jews as live in my apartment building.
Next, I placed the Arctic Duke head on the elusive Rise of Cobra Wal-Mart two-pack Gung Ho figure.
He still looks rather sharp, not least ’cause that Jungle Duke webgear looks great on pretty much every figure. Alas, this improved draft still required the neck scarf, not because of a skin clash but because the neck peg was too small, resulting in an unfortunate (if mildly comical) Bobblehead effect.
For my third attempt, I used the Resolute seven-pack Zartan body. This necessitated a long-overdue abandonment of my tiresome commitment to the specific look of my Sigma 6 Tunnel Rat.
The various shades of brown look nice together, and if anything such earth tones are more fitting for a “tunnel rat”. I cannot remember why I did not stick with this combination. Looking at the photo above, it seems that perhaps the dreaded “giraffe effect” had come into play; some heads rest too high atop the neck peg.
Whatever the case, I finally decided on a cop-out of sorts; if that Jungle Duke webgear looks good on everyone, it’s also true that most any head looks amazing atop the Pursuit of Cobra Beachhead body.
I was reasonably content with this final go at a proper small-scale Tunnel Rat, despite the fact that he boasts the “wrong” ethnicity and sorta looks like… well, like Duke in black and brown clothes.
Moskowitz, a large man with a bushy red beard, is usually dressed in a heavy black polyester coat, pants cropped just below the knee, high socks (“like George Washington”), and a yarmulke underneath a tall beaver hat. The Chinese, he said, in a noticeable Yiddish accent, have variously mistaken him for Pavarotti, Santa Claus, a judge, and a magician.
In 2011, however, Hasbro unwittingly made a mockery of my years-long efforts at producing the definitive Tunnel Rat when they produced… well… the definitive Tunnel Rat. Based on the character’s design from Renegades, this latest Tunnel Rat figure is admittedly taller than he should be (which is inexplicable in light of other short figures Hasbro has produced in recent years, including the 25th Anniversary version of Tunnel Rat himself), but setting aside that one oversight, he is absolutely perfect.
What a kickass figure!
Meanwhile, I’d have happily watched all twenty-some episodes of Renegades on my own, but to my immense satisfaction and joy, my then-seven-year-old daughter opted to watch the series with me; I hadn’t bothered to invite her to join me, for the simple reason that the only ’80s cartoon I’d ever failed to persuade her to love was G.I. Joe A Real American Hero. Indeed, she’d made a point of gently mocking my Joe fandom for years. Nonetheless, Renegades captured her imagination; the kid’s got taste.