An Old Friendship, Transformed

Giant robots and a summer blockbuster inspire a reconnection.

“Hello? Who is this?!”

He’s somewhere in New York, in the middle of a crowd of friends on a Saturday night. He’s had a few drinks, and he’s not expecting a call to his cell phone from some area code he’s never even heard of.

Is this Tom Breihan? I ask.

“Yeah. Who’s this?!”

It’s Mike Duck, I explain. Remember? Mike Duck from high school? With the school newspaper?

He stops. He can’t believe it — he’d been wondering what the hell happened to me. Within seconds, he’s invited me to come hang out with him in the city.

I laugh and tell him that, first, I need to ask him about our favorite giant shape-shifting robots. Because Transformers are what made me pick up the phone and call him in the first place.

Long before I started editing this site, years before I became a professional reporter, I was a school newspaper geek. And Tom was right there with me. During most months, I saw more of him than I did my girlfriend.

We worked together on a humor magazine called Vanguard, named by other kids who had graduated years before us. There were usually about six issues per school year, each packed with columns, reviews, original comics and loads of goofy essays. It looks a little amateurish to me now, but we were damn proud of it back then.

I was Vanguard‘s editor during my junior year, and Tom was my assistant. As a senior I moved on to Vanguard’s sister publication, the school newspaper, and helped get Tom the Vanguard editor job — which was probably the best management decision I’ve ever made or will ever make. Tom, and the magazine, thrived.

An awful photo of Mike and TomHere’s an awful photo that somebody took of us for the magazine. We’re in Tom’s basement, pretending to yell at a television set; I think it appeared with some sort of TV review. I’m on the left, and Tom’s on the right. I have no idea why we appear to be in a silent movie.

The first thing anybody noticed about Tom was his height. I always remember him towering at least a foot over me, and I was just a few inches shy of six feet. But once I got to know him, what stood out more than his gigantic frame and his gangly limbs was his deliciously off-kilter sensibility. I remember him wearing a tie shaped like a dead trout during our first week of freshman geometry.

More often, he sported T-shirts of bands I’d never heard of (Misfits? Black Flag? Who the heck were they?). He and his closest friends hung around in the dark alleyways of cutting-edge pop culture, mainlining ska and punk music and laughing at the much less hip “In”-crowd.

And, God bless him, he let me play along too, even though I was about as dorky as they come. (True story: My very first “popular” music purchase was a Weird Al CD.) I knew next to nothing about his music, but I was quite familiar with one of his other loves: television cartoons.

Tom was the biggest Transformers fan I had ever known. When we weren’t slaving over word processors and desktop publishing software, we were hashing out plot points from the galaxy-spanning beat-downs between a transforming tractor-trailer and a mutating, megalomaniacal handgun.

My folks were always pretty stingy about my TV viewing habits when I was in elementary school, so back then I learned about Transformers only by playing with my friends’ toys. Still, what’s not to love? Trucks, cars, fighter jets, and even dinosaurs transforming into robots, all of them locked in battle over the fate of the universe. It’s like Shakespeare, but with gears and blasters and stuff.

Back then I knew about a few of the main characters in the line of toys, but I never appreciated the story’s epic scope until my uncle got me “Transformers: The Movie” for Christmas one year. I’m sure he had no idea he was giving me one of the most shockingly violent movies I’d ever seen in my 10 years of life.

The animated movie’s main plot follows the efforts of the heroic Autobots to halt Unicron, an enormous mechanical orb that roams around in space destroying whole planets. (Sound familiar?) But ask any fan of the movie what makes it stand out, and invariably they will say: The Death of Optimus Prime. Yes, the leader of the Autobots — the one who becomes a tractor-trailer, perhaps the most beloved and consistent character in the whole franchise — is shot point-blank in the chest by his archnemesis Megatron (the mutant handgun) and dies just minutes into the movie.

This was earth-shattering. It would be like killing Indiana Jones during the opening credits of “The Last Crusade”; like decapitating Papa Smurf in the middle of the second season. After witnessing the death, I spent many nights lying awake in bed, contemplating how Optimus might have been saved if only this character had moved a few steps to the left, or if only that one had tossed him a blaster in time …

I had forgotten most of that trauma by my senior year of high school. By then, I had more control over my TV-watching habits and had started following a cheesy-but-entertaining Transformers sequel series called “Beast Wars.” I hadn’t watched my old Transformers movie in years.

So that December, when the emphatically irreligious Tom decided he needed his own gift-giving occasion (“Tomulkkah”), I gave him my old VHS copy of the movie. I told him I knew he’d appreciate it much more than I ever had.

He was shocked — though I don’t know if he was more surprised by my generosity or by the fact that I was taking his joke holiday seriously.

To date, that videocassette was the only Tomulkkah present ever given in the history of the world.

Fast forward a decade. As a new Transformers movie lumbered into movie theaters last week, I started wondering about my old videotape of the first movie — and about my old friend Tom.

He laughs when I remind him about Tomulkkah. “I completely forgot about that,” he says.

Does he still have the movie?

“No, but I should,” he says. He has no idea what happened to the videocassette — it got lost in the shuffle sometime in the past ten years.

He tells me he landed a job with legendary alt-weekly The Village Voice about two years ago. He’s now the author of its music blog, which perfectly combines his skills and his interests. He’s getting married soon and had been thinking about me, wondering what ever became of that geeky kid who never left the school newspaper office.

He’s flabbergasted to learn I’m married with two kids, and a professional newspaper reporter besides.

So, has he checked out the new Transformers movie?

“I haven’t seen it yet, but I really want to,” he told me.

And that’s how we left it — both of us pledging to keep in touch, and me with his standing invitation to let him show me around New York. If a certain movie is still in theaters when I finally visit him, I think I know what we’ll end up doing.

Article © 2007 by Michael Duck