On Michael Garibaldi, Babylon 5, Humor, and Trauma

Michael Garibaldi was one of my constellation of pop cultural big brothers. Northern Exposure‘s Chris Stevens taught me that finding joy in knowledge wasn’t just allowed, it was essential. Midnight Caller‘s Jack Killian taught me that emotional honesty was a vital survival tool, and he and Chris both taught me talking about stuff on the radio was a very cool job I might one day want. Henry Rollins taught me the acknowledgement of weakness is a strength in and of itself and that almost no trauma is unsurvivable. Egon Spengler taught me it’s ALWAYS the quiet ones. And Michael Garibaldi? The Chief taught me how to be me.

My 17th year was not a good one. I was on the verge of the most important exams of my life, I was about to move off the tiny island I’d been born on, I was about to leave everything I knew behind and the universe had seen fit to punish my decision to voluntarily grow a mullet (In my defense, I was 17) with early male pattern baldness. This was all the icing on the cake of horror that year was because we’d lost one of my closest friends to a third bout of leukaemia earlier in the year. There are few definitions of genetic cruelty more fitting than a 17-year-old losing his life to his third bout of leukaemia, and that loss defined everyone who knew him for a very long time.

For my part, I was walking wounded. I was angry and couldn’t see it, overwhelmed by grief and anger and horror and the sheer bone-numbing fatigue and resentment that comes from, somehow, still standing after going through something you feel should break you.

I was still moving. I was still functional. I was disgusted at myself for that.

So I did what I always did. I dived headlong into escapism and looked for the tools in fiction that would help take back control of my reality. This was how I passed the time on the Isle of Man anyway; I’d completely watched out the local video store and was a regular at the movies to the extent that the ushers and I used to chat about what was good. Other kids drank, or took drugs, or did the stuff most teenagers do. Me? I went full geek.

That’s where I found Chris, Jack, Henry, Egon and Michael. I taught myself popular culture the way you learn a language, mapping my likes and dislikes as I stepped out into the infinite unknown territory of modern fiction. I was already a fan of Babylon 5, but that year, going through what I went through, it had a special resonance for me. I—along with my entire class that year at school, in fact—were embattled. We’d been pushed to limits no kid should ever have to go through and were out in this weird no man’s land between adolescence and adulthood, experience and discovery. No one really knew how to deal with us, no one knew what to say because in that situation there is nothing TO say. You just have to keep going until the part of you that’s hollow is filled back up with something else.

Enter, stage left, Security Chief Michael Alfredo Garibaldi. Probably swearing at something.

The first reason I locked onto Garibaldi was that he was a smartarse, the sort who could, on occasion, get that laugh out of people that’s so surprising even they don’t see it coming. I was a stage magician at the time (I mentioned my adolescence was ODD, right?) and that laugh became my questing beast. I got it a few times, too and to this day that kind of laconic, good-natured humour hits me right where I live. Daffy’s furthest flung disciple may have been long-suffering but he always gave the impression of secretly rather enjoying that role. It was a good lesson; humour as coping mechanism, frustration vented through comedy. Still helps, even today.

Then there was the fact he was a big guy. I was 6’0 by the time I was 13. I’d been drafted into my school’s rugby team (despite having vision that stops pretty much when my face does) and had, hilariously, briefly played at a national level in my age group. People looked at me and saw BIG. No one looked at me and saw CLEVER. The fact that I was, and am, was something I took fierce pride in. Garibaldi taught me that.

His hair or rather…lack thereof helped, too. The widow’s peak is a mountain no teenager wants to climb but there I was, halfway up it with one piton left and a voice in the back of my newly shaved head going “God does not play dice. But she really hates mullets.” Seeing someone else with my build, my sense of humour, and my hairline was like throwing a drowning man a life preserver. And then maybe suggesting he keep his hair short from now on.

And then there was the trauma. Garibaldi basically stumbles into Babylon 5 sideways and on fire and never quite gets over that. He was a mostly recovering alcoholic, a man whose serial inability to not trust people who weren’t even a little trustworthy almost got him killed, and whose PTSD was quieter but no less raging than Commander Sinclair’s. He’d taken, and inflicted, a lot of damage. He was trying to do better.

He didn’t always manage it.

That didn’t stop him.

That helped save me.

It also, for a while, caused some problems. Garibaldi’s cheerfully fatalistic belief that other people mattered more than he did resonated with the nascent survivor’s guilt I’d picked up that year and wrapped itself around self-esteem and confidence issues I still struggle with today. When they’re under control, on the good days, I’m able to be helpful and positive to those around me and keep doing what I need to do for me. On the bad days I spend my working life looking for grenades to throw myself on, whether it’s warranted or not.

There are far, far more good days than bad days now. I survived. After a while, I lived. And not long after that I realised that I was allowed to. The Chief taught me that too. That there are things beyond the trauma. That you don’t just come out the other side and carry on, but that you’re allowed to. You have to. If nothing else, sometimes, just to see the look on their faces when you do.

Michael Garibaldi, Jerry Doyle, and the writers who created the character helped me save my own life. They showed a frightened, wounded, enraged teenager that he wouldn’t be any of those things forever and while what was coming was bad, what was following it would be so much better than he dared hope. I will forever be indebted to them for that, and offer my deepest condolences to Mr Doyle’s family and friends.

Michael Garibaldi is one of my constellation of big brothers, some fictional, none related to me, all instrumental in helping me shape and save my life. Thanks, Chief. May your new position as the right hand of the Egyptian God of Frustration be just annoying enough to be interesting…

Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape PodPseudopodPodcastleCast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.

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