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Send in the Joes

The American GIs, average Joes but he-men all, were embedded 11 stories high in treacherous terrain, part concrete fortress, part jungle. At precisely 10:41 a.m., the hazardous mission began, as 500 of them _ compactly built, tightly muscled, buoyed by willpower and testosterone _ hurtled from the top of the Hyatt Regency atrium. There were casualties: Dozens were tragically lost when their silver parachutes snagged in the potted palms.

But most of the troops prevailed, as is their genetic birthright, smartly executing the battle plan for the seventh annual Hasbro International GI Joe Collectors Club convention that began outside San Francisco last weekend.

At a moment when real American troops are in Iraq and Afghanistan and support for the military is high, the cultural mythology of GI Joe, the iconic, buff, "fully posable man of action," as he was billed when he was introduced in 1964, is in the air.

Sales of the robust action figure (never call him a doll) were up 46 percent last year, according to Hasbro, pumped up by post-9/11 patriotism, the military buildup and the growing phenomenon of middle-age fathers collecting vintage Joes and passing their boyhood obsession on to their children.

To the hundreds of men at the convention who still shop the "green aisle," as opposed to the "pink aisle" where Barbie and her wussy friend Ken reside, GI Joe represents a reclaiming of childhood and perhaps a lost ideal.

Although GI Joe's popularity has waxed and waned, and he was even retired briefly after the Vietnam War because soaring oil prices sent the cost of making him soaring, too, he has endured, despite antiwar sentiment, as a symbol of "the greatest generation." Richard Slotkin, a professor of American studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., said that GI Joe merges two streams of popular culture, the "superhero" tradition and the "platoon movie myth."

"Kids today don't understand terrorism, but they understand that there is good and bad in the world," said Brian Savage, the collectors club director who organized the convention, which is part toy promotion, part love-in. "They want to keep the bad away. He is the defender, the protector of the homeland. Ultimately, GI Joe always wins."

Named after the movie The Story of GI Joe, starring Robert Mitchum and Burgess Meredith, GI Joe was the first doll for boys _ a revolutionary notion _ and the first action figure with fully movable arms and legs.

Compared with today's models, with their washboard abs, the original GI Joe, who will celebrate the big 4-0 next year, looks as if he could use more trips to the gym. His olive fatigues have a Shakerlike simplicity. He has a stoic, detached expression. His right cheek bears his famous battle scar, now fainter, a totem of rugged masculinity and a legal ploy by Hasbro to protect the products' trademark.

His identity has morphed over time: In 1969, during the Vietnam War, he was repackaged as a swashbuckling civilian adventurer, with big fuzzy hair and a folksinger's beard. Later, he adopted a kung fu grip, a la Bruce Lee, then bionic limbs and even an eerily lighted bionic eye.

Embattled by Vietnam and Star Wars, not to mention antiwar mothers, he became a tomb raider, abominable-snowman hunter and pygmy gorilla capturer, less Apocalypse Now and more National Geographic. Rather than hunting wild tigers, as he did in the early 1970s, today's Joe rescues them and returns them to the wild. Flat sales and the oil embargo prompted his "retirement" from 1978 to 1981.

Full of grit, he rebounded in 1982 as the Real American Hero, a team of strong, fully developed 3.75-inch elite soldiers who came together in a package.

In 1996, Hasbro reintroduced the "Classic Collection" Joe, standing at 12 inches. The collection drew on historical military battles and divisions and was heavily influenced by aging fans with suggestible children.

Today's Joes include two black figures, two Hispanics, a Navajo Codetalker (a talking Joe who speaks Navajo), a new Asian-American Joe and Colin L. Powell, who was the top GI Joe in 1998 before he became secretary of state.

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