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January 28, 2012

5 Life Lessons We Can Learn from The Centurions

Swine flu.  Economic recessions.  Global warming.  The impending zombie apocalypse.  That’s not something that anyone wants to wake up to in the morning, but it’s a cruel reality – the world doesn’t like humans (probably because humans are so keen on messing it up in the first place, but oh well).  Nobody likes having to deal with this stuff, either; some people try to work against it, some try to ignore it, some make it worse – the point is, it’s enough to make people edgy, fearful, depressed, you name it.  I suspect that there are still others who retreat to the safety of the days of youth, with nap time, plastic slides, schoolyard crushes…actually, that sounds pretty cool right now.  I’m going to go grab a time machine.

AFTER I make my peace, of course.  See, it’s the past that makes us who we are, and the past, for better or worse, has some ideas that we can take to heart.  And what better exemplar of this fact than my favorite cartoon (and merchandising vehicle) The Centurions?

For the uninitiated, The Centurions was a cartoon in the late 1980s  (and re-aired in the 90s) that explored the adventures of a trio of manly soldiers as they faced off against the evil cyborg leader Doc Terror and his army of machines.  The catch?  These three men had friends in high places: if trouble brewed, all they had to do was talk into their watches to contact the space station Sky Vault, which would provide them with weapons and armor to fight against the mechanical menace.  It’s a simple premise, really; evil machines show up, good guys become part machine, good guys fire round after round of bullets, missiles, and rockets until evil machines explode – fight fire with fire, if you will. 

And yet, underneath that simple premise lies the beauty, the absolute nirvana of the cartoon: happiness is always within our grasp, regardless of what’s going on in the world.  You can’t live your life in fear – and all it takes to realize that is a few animated explosions.

So what can The Centurions teach YOU, good sir?  How about…

Keep it Simple!

When I was in second grade, our teacher wanted each of us to come up with a “how-to” picture book – a little project telling someone how to make something, presumably someone with less than a second grade education…like first graders.  As a wide-eyed idealist, my first thought was, “Dude!  I’m gonna show everyone how to make the fastest, coolest, screaming metal death trap of a soap-box racer EVER!”

And I would have, if I knew how the hell to make a soap-box racer.

I found that out the hard way.  How do you make it turn?  What materials do you need (soap boxes?  How naïve)?  How do you make the wheels?  Are proper welding skills a necessity, or optional?  Being a rational, emotionally stable young chap, I bawled like crazy, then forced myself to start over – and ultimately, I wrote “How to make a Rubber Egg”.  It was a piece of cake; I wondered to myself what possessed me to take on such a complicated project.

Then I remembered that screaming metal death traps are awesome.  Don’t judge me, I was eight.

The Centurions faced the same problem nearly every day of their careers.  Imagine, if you will, the average man, minding his own business.  Now imagine that same man, equipped with the Centurion’s standard suit, the “Exo-Frame”: a ridiculously colored jumpsuit covered in holes.  These holes would, much like Legos, allow for the parts beamed down from Sky Vault to snap in place, thereby turning the suit into a receptor for the interchangeable parts.  It’s a little nerve-racking to think that military funding might one day go towards a project like this.

Once they were suited up with armor, the advertisements for the toy line – er, the brave men of the Sky Vault branch – would mobilize and generally lay waste to any and all villains in the area.  So time and time again, you’d see Ace McCloud, the aerial specialist, equipping “Sky Knight,” which was basically a winged jetpack with a few authority-demanding missiles attached for good measure.  For the longest time, this didn’t sit well with me as I watched the show with glee; out of all the armor sets that Ace could have worn, time and time again he’d say, “Beam down Sky Knight” and be on his way. 

Really.  He put on a little jetpack with missiles when he could have become some unstoppable hybrid of man and fighter jet.  Case in point: the “Orbital Interceptor” system, which could turn Ace into a literal space shuttle.

The transmissions probably went something like this:

“We’ve got enemy aircraft spotted!  Beam down Sky Knight!”

“Ace, they’re moving fairly quickly, and they’ve got heavy armaments.  I recommend using something with a bit more armo-”

“Nope, just beam down Sky Knight.”
“A-are you sure?  Because Sky Knight doesn’t have a lot of armor – and that Exo-Frame really isn’t –”

“Don’t really see where you’re goin’ with this.”

“Ace, think about this.  Those guns will tear your skin to shre-”

“This is time that could’ve been spent just beaming down Sky Knight you know.”

Of course, as a boy I wasn’t able to grasp the Aristotelian complexities of an American-conceived, Japanese labor-produced cartoon.  It occurs to me now, as a marginally wiser man, that Orbital Interceptor really shouldn’t have been used that much – only for the most extreme of missions.  Why, you ask? 

G-force.  Orbital Interceptor is armor capable of, and best suited for, going into space.  The sheer act of Ace accelerating fast enough to escape Earth’s gravity, break through the atmosphere, survive with limited oxygen reserves, re-enter Earth by passing through that atmosphere at superheated temperatures, and somehow decelerate enough to make it back on his feet is something only possible in a cartoon.  Not to mention that in his billion-dollar Halloween costume, Ace would rocket past anything he set his sights on, liquefying his organs in the process.  Repairing both the pilot and every last sheet of metal on the system –and that’s excluding refueling – would be an astronomical cost.

Oh, and the weapon of choice?  The “Multiparticle Missile”.  Yeah, that’s probably going to be overkill.

Moral of the story?  Keep it simple, or you’ll turn your guts to gravy.

Moderation is a virtue!

Have you ever tried one of those sausages wrapped in bread?  Some call them pigs in a blanket, others call them kolaches (even though, according to Wikipedia, they’re two completely different foods); the point is, they’re pretty good.  And my brother should know: one fateful Saturday afternoon, he woke up to find more than a dozen of the pigs in the oven, just itching to be devoured.    And devour he did.  Before the day was done, he had consumed eighteen of the meat logs; the next day, he was throwing up like crazy.

Ignoring the fact that he could have enjoyed those pigs for days if he’d decided against inhaling them, there’s a lot to be had from moderation.  Greek philosophers knew it well, and valued the virtue above the rest – and of course, The Centurions is there to help us remember (lest we seek a trip to the doctor to have our stomachs pumped).

The villain of the Centuriverse is Doc Terror, a particularly nightmarish, half-human, half-Lego block cyborg with a face that not even a mother could love (same goes for his bald sidekick, Hacker).  As expected – nay, required, of an 80’s cartoon super villain, Terror’s goal is to take over the world and thereby inherit virtually every country’s problems…including, I assume, the ones he directly caused.

Lack of foresight aside, Doc Terror is a pretty convincing villain.  He’s given up his humanity, and would like nothing more than to be rid of those pesky Centurions; he commands a robot army, and I bet is willing to swear of the human race; he’s part-machine himself, so he’d need a half-woman, half-machine if he ever got lonely.

Now do me a favor, and count how many times I referenced “machines” or “cyborgs” in that last part.  If it’s anything more than one, you win a cookie. 

Let’s break down the premise: men who don machine costumes fight men who ARE machine costumes.  There’s a tiny, yet ever-important divide that separates the two – men who keep themselves separate from mechanical control against men who have been consumed by a need to remove their fleshy parts.  Even a child could see the difference (unless he spent all his time screaming “BEAM DOWN ORBITAL INTERCEPTOR!”) and come to the conclusion that humans are human for a reason: we shouldn’t be robots, but accept ourselves the way we are.  More to the point, we shouldn’t let our desire for pneumatic man-parts make us think that it’s a good idea to go overboard with the cybernetics. 

Even fancy-pants scientists are well aware of the risks.  Ever heard of Ray Kurzweil?  He’s one of the experts in the field when it comes to cybernetics, and the (near-inevitable) integration of man and machine.  In his words, “We are beginning to see intimations of this in the implantation of computer devices into the human body.”  Fair enough; my only hope, and undoubtedly the hope of countless others, is that we don’t turn into heartless machines that all want to conquer the world – just imagine the mess that would cause!  Everyone wanting to be the boss, everybody looking out for number one, everybody building robot armies…there’s not enough metal in the world for that!

Well, unless you count Metallica, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Anthrax, Pantera, Slayer, Venom, Testament, Gamma Ray...hey, maybe we do have enough metal after all. 

If you’re happy, don’t be afraid to show it!
No doubt you’ve heard the song “I’m So Excited” by the Pointer Sisters – particularly if you’re a fan of the movie Hot Shots Part Deux.  You know the lyrics:

I'm so excited and I just can't hide it
I'm about to lose control and I think I like it
I'm so excited and I just can't hide it
And I know I know I know I know I know I want you
Er…okay, so I guess that means…uh…the Centurions want someone?  Come to think of it, there WAS a woman at the helm of Sky Vault
Actually, this life lesson is a product of the show’s creators, not necessarily the brave men who walk around in brightly-colored long johns in public.  See, whenever trouble arose, the Centurions would have to call upon Sky Vault for help; the weapons systems would be beamed down not long after.  However, what ensued in the seconds after that was what animation prodigies call “stock footage”.
Ah, stock footage.  What a brilliant invention: rather than re-animate the same sequence a thousand times, the animation studio creates the scene once – typically at a higher quality than the rest of the show – and uses that one scene for the duration of the series.  Granted, thanks to the different types of weapon loadouts in the show, there was a bit of variation.  But once you saw Sky Knight beamed down once, you could go to the kitchen, grab a snack, and be back in time to resume the plot.
So why so much focus on this cheap shortcut?  Well for starters, it was only about thirty seconds long, and well worth it to grab a tasty, tasty snack.  And, more importantly, it was the most stimulating thirty seconds a child (read: me) could ever hope for.
For the uninitiated, I – through largely unscrupulous means, barely-legal infiltration of NASA databases, and a few all-nighters pulled with the assistance of my home-brewed Elixir of Life – have acquired rare footage.

Notice how the Centurions scream “Power EXTREME!” before they put their armor on.  It goes beyond mere training to brainwash children into buying Centurion toys; it shows that the Centurions (in-universe) are happy to receive their armor – so they can go forth, and blow the hell out of some evil robots!  And did you hear the music?  They’re so ready for it, too, you can tell by the way it went Ba-ZAM!  And the colors, they were all like, WHOOSH!  And then that guy with the mustache, he was sayin’, “Time to blow up some robots…with these TORPEDOES grafted to my arms!”
The word of the day is officially “Power EXTREME!”  Proclaim it to your friends, and they’ll know you’re happy – that you’re ready to seize the day…by the throat.  Proclaiming your joy to your friends brings misery to your enemies; you’re at the top of your game, ready for anything, and no force on Earth can stop you.  Not to mention you’ll be taken a lot more seriously – in this day and age, if you get called emo (a stigma for particularly…depressing people), you might as well hide your face under a paper bag.  And it’s just too damn cathartic to NOT shout “Power EXTREME!” (Yes, you must always use capital letters when you say or write EXTREME).  I have scientific proof that shouting such a glorious phrase will boost your esteem to Roaring Twenties-era highs.
Do it.  Shout “Power EXTREME!” right now.  Go ahead, I don’t mind; I can wait; I’ve got all the time in the world.  Here, I’ll even give you some ellipses.
Did you do it? 
Ha ha!  So gullible...

It’s okay to be different!
Quick!  Name the other Centurions, or that creepy clown guy from the Saw movies is going to fill the room with poison gas!  Hurry, hurry, time’s running out!
Okay, so there’s Ace McCloud…and, uh…Sky Vault lady…um…
Unfortunately, the clown guy has already caught you in his trap – so much so that he can reach into my brain and tell my fingers to type exactly what you’re thinking.  And now you’re dead – you just don’t know it yet, because that gas was super-invisible and you didn’t even know you were breathing it in.  That’s just how far he plans ahead.
In all fairness to The Centurions, they certainly know how to cover their bases.  In addition to Ace McCloud, who is touted as the team’s “daring air operations expert” and clad in a blue and white Exo-Frame, there are two more members of the regular team.  Among them is my personal favorite, Max Ray, the “brilliant sea operations commander” in the green and black suit (and sporting a sweet ‘stache), and Jake Rockwell, the “rugged land operations specialist”. 
Wait.  Ace McCloud?  Jake Rockwell?  Max Ray?  Oh, that finally makes sense to me now!  Because one of them covers the air, one of them is on land, and one of them is in the ocean!  It’s all coming together!
Despite its drug-fueled premise, there’s a lot to be learned from The Centurions’ example.  After all, in the real world we have things like specialization and division of labor – people should develop their skills, stick to what they do best, and contribute those skills to the greater good.  The economy is just one of many examples; that’s why oranges come from Florida, cows come from Texas, and offensive stereotypes come from New York.  The Centurions is just a natural extension of that; imagine how effective Ace would be if he suddenly had to dive into an ocean with hundreds of pounds of pressure crushing his puny little jetpack into a cube.  Time to call in Max for a job that big!
Although, one can’t help but wonder just how much action Max got.  Sure, he’s in business if there’s a giant squid wreaking havoc on a submarine, or if some robotic hooligans are dumping chemicals into a river, but you can’t help but wonder how effective he’d be if he had to take on some bad robots downtown.  On the other hand, one of his assault systems turned him into a hovercraft (with fully-functional weapons, at that), so water or not you don’t want to face him and his awesome mustache in the streets.  Chances are, you’re gonna get blown up.
So at their worst, the Centurions – by way of specialization of powers – are like Aquaman with a machine gun: not his forte, but he’ll still take names.  At best…well, now would be a good time to mention that the rugged Jake Rockwell has suits that turn him into a tank, the huge walking robots from Star Wars, and a motorcycle, all of which are equipped with some sort of rocket, machine gun, massive missiles, chest-mounted Gatling gun, or some combination of those.
God bless America.

I don’t like bugs.
Let me make that as clear as possible; no matter what the shape, no matter what the size, no matter how lethal, or how much pain they could cause, or whether they crawl along the ground or fly in my face, I don’t like bugs.  The sight of one from a distance is enough to make me cringe; the buzz, enough to make me leap three feet to my right.  The touch…well, we’re looking at a complete nuclear meltdown.  It probably has something to do with my brother – innocent little angel that he is – shooting me in the face with a Nerf gun dart covered with ants when I was six.  Though my recollection of that day is a little hazy (for obvious reasons), I do remember him tasting the swift, palm-based justice of an indignant grandmother.
I slept like a baby that night.  At least, when I wasn’t dreaming of ants.
I imagine that it takes an iron will (among other hardened body parts) to get over one’s fears.  To that end, it’s easy to see why people admire courageous men and women like police officers, firemen, paramedics, and of course soldiers.  They’re heroes, plain and simple; whether or not they know fear, they suck it up and save the day – because it’s all in a day’s work.
Now – say it with me now! – let’s apply that to the Centuriverse (a universe so nerdy, it needs a suffix just to prevent it from swallowing all life into its gaping, abyssal maw).  Think about it for a minute: men who put on armor, arguably half-ton engines of death, who then proceed to face off with an army of cold, unfeeling murder machines (and the occasional zombie).  It gets worse when you consider each Centurion’s mode of transport; Ace, the flyboy, hurtles through the air at hundreds of miles per hour in what typically equates to metal pajamas, slapping against birds, lacking any form of seatbelt or airbags, and squaring off with evil jet robots.  Max – hereafter known as Aquastache – dives into the ocean.  Ignoring the crushing pressure and the hellish darkness, there are things under the sea that no man was meant to see: angler fish, eels, squid, and the perennial favorite of our loving God, the Portuguese man o’ war…which is just a fancy way of saying “huge ass jellyfish made of smaller jellyfish”.  And Jake?  Well, remember the motorcycle armor?  Try doing that while your face, by some poor engineering choices, is just centimeters away from pavement moving at sixty miles an hour.  Although, to be fair, he did have a faceplate.
They knew all the risks.  They knew the dangers, the threats, the stakes of their tireless battle.  They knew that they would be engaging in life-or-death encounters, precariously grafted to gun barrels as long as tree trunks, in which the slightest malfunction in their loadouts could leave them as sitting ducks in harsh conditions and under harsher fire.  But, day in and day out, episode by episode, they put up the best damn fight they could.  For peace.  For justice.  For the sake of putting smiles on the faces of children everywhere who were too lame to ride bikes without training wheels.
America, we have our new heroes – our new role models, philosophers, men above men, from which we can learn many great and wondrous things.  We can learn to accept ourselves, to roar triumphantly at the heavens, to learn from our mistakes and be better for it!  We can make the push to make Centurion technology a reality, so that we can ALL have jetpacks beamed down from space stations!  We can make our dreams a reality!  And all you need is a little courage.
And of course, the magic words: Power…EXTREME!
Wow, how inspiring.  I feel like I can take on my own arch nemesis: the wasp that keeps buzzing around my patio.  He’ll get his as soon as I get some wrist-mounted rockets.

My face when I realized the wasp had reinforcements.  I had to make a "tactical retreat."


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