I was 12 years old when the first Star Wars debuted in 1977. I was living with my parents and grandmother above a restaurant we owned in Hoopeston, Illinois (the self-aggrandizing "Corn Capitol of the World," and to its credit, the corn was really, really damned good).
THE HIDDEN SCI-FI FAMILY PAST
My father George was a hard-working man. Blue collar to the bone, he busted his ass at a paper plant, then came home and worked on cars, added on to our home, remodeled--all things I can only imagine. I never liked "helping out," because I had no interest in fixing, building or remodeling. I liked playing "Army" with my friends, playing baseball in a field near our house, sand sculpting in the enormous sandbox my father made me, and drawing pictures. Sure, I rolled on the under-the-car roller thing, handing him socket wrenches, and talked about how grandpa Arliss's Valiant would make an awesome stock car.
My dad worked odd shifts. He'd come home late at night, strip down to his shorts and t-shirt, shove a Twinkie, Ding-Dong, Suzy-Q, or other Hostess snack cake into a glass, drown it in milk, then eat it with a spoon. He called it "mush," and taught me the finer points of eating cake without dirtying your hands. Together, we'd watch the old Star Trek and Space: 1999, Twilight Zone and Outer Limits while snackin' on "mush" late at night. I had no idea my father was a nerd. I had no idea that "nerd" would grow to something more than what everyone called Potsie on Happy Days. I had no idea someone who could be so constructive with his hands could be interested in Sci-Fi. But here we were, in our underwear, on the couch, laughing about how the guy in the red shirt was about to have the salt sucked out of his body, and how Kirk and Bones were stupidly falling for the salt monster who pretended to be their girlfriends.
Late in 1976 my father's dream came true. He bought a restaurant in Hoopeston, Illinois. He was going to be a business owner, an entrepreneur, and since Hoopeston had one stoplight to its name, and only one other restaurant, he was destined for greatness. I remember--even at 11--reflecting on the genius of my father. He invited over the only other restaurant owner, a large man named Tiny, and said, "Tell you what... You do steak. People love your steak. I love your steak. I won't do steak. I'll do fish." And so, "The Red Lantern" seafood restaurant was born. Dad ran the whole operation, tended bar, built, cleaned, and busted his ass. Mom cooked and cleaned. Grandma cooked and cleaned in our apartment upstairs. And I struggled in school. Tiny ate at our place, and we ate at Tiny's. My dad and Tiny became friends instead of rivals. Life was awesome. I was never really sad about leaving everything I knew to start over. I was just 11. There was promise here. I made new friends, had my first serious crush. All our eyes sparkled from the light of dad's dreams.
Then... Two things happened that changed my life completely.
SOMETHING NEW COMES TO TOWN
I was in the dime store two doors down from our restaurant, dreaming about the toy M-16 rifle my mom had on lay-away for me. I perused the other cap-guns, checked out the Weird War comic books, and then was hit by a barrage of something I'd never heard of: Star Wars.
The town was mostly oblivious, but the dime store was a barrage of Star Wars stuff. I didn't know what it was. There were books, posters, toys (actually, the promise of toys. "action figure" was a new term to both myself and Kenner, apparently. Kenner sold a piece of cardboard that promised to be a backdrop for the first set of Star Wars action figures), but no one in town seemed to know or care about this thing. I thought the "Nazi guy" in the poster was cool looking. That would be Darth Vader, though I didn't know the name at the time. I only knew he wore a black German helmet and carried a glowing sword.
We had one theater that was still playing Gumball Rally. That same theater was where I had seen my first horror film. 1974's It's Alive debuted there in 1977, and my friends couldn't wait to go. I remembered listening to the soundtrack while studying the palms of my hands. I had nightmares for weeks. (Sidebar: Decades later, I caught It's Alive on TV and laughed my ass off. My imagination was far more sinister than blobby puppets, I guess).
IT'S A MOVIE!
Then, finally! It's a movie! The marquis of the theater changed to "STAR WARS," and we couldn't wait to see it! I remember telling my dad, and he said he wanted to see it too, but he was just too busy. It was rated PG, but nobody cared about such things in a one-horse town, so all my friends and I went together sans-parents. I remember there were a lot of kids there from the middle school and high school. The theater was literally two blocks from my home at the restaurant, and Johnny, Ron and I walked there from my place..
There was a crowd, but there wasn't a huge line. Someone in the group had already seen it at the theater in Danville and was talking about Star Wars 2, and how there had to be one because Darth Vader got away. Someone else began to argue that Darth Vader was a robot because, well, obviously. I gazed at the poster, let the conversations drone in one ear and out the other, then we were in. I was about 12 rows back, left side. The place was packed.
My friend Johnny got popcorn. I had Sno-Caps. The theater went dark.
I remember jumping at that first blast of John Williams music, and was awed by the scope of the opening crawl (which did not have an episode number, nor a subtitle. It was 1977. There was just Star Wars, and as far as we knew, there would be nothing more after this.
My jaw dropped as the whole theater rumbled. The enormous star destroyer flew over us, gliding by like a massive city. There were "Oohs and Aahs," and some nervous giggles from my friends. Inside the rebel blockade runner, we were introduced to C-3P0 and R2-D2, and the very first thing I noticed: The droids looked old, beat-up, used. The tall gold one even had a different color leg, as if it had been replaced at some point. This story didn't just start. This story was a whole universe of stories. Everything had a detail about it that was amazing. Things looked used. The blasters didn't look like ray guns, they looked like... well, guns! The bad guys wore white! Their armor was scuffed, had seen other battles. What am I seeing!?
And then... Darth Vader. My jaw dropped and stayed dropped for the next two hours. Vader thrilled and scared me, Han Solo was the coolest dude ever, and I wanted to BE Luke Skywalker. Hell, in many ways, I already was. When Luke peered out over the dunes at the setting suns, I recognized the far-away look in his eyes. I was only 11, but I had dreams too; dreams of an amazing future. I had no idea how amazing (and terrible) it would be.
Among my friends, the only thing we could say after the film, was "We have to see it again!" "Yes! Again!" "Let's go tomorrow!" "Yeah!" And my first thought was of my father, of watching late-night Sci-Fi and eating mush. And I realized one very true and sparkling fact: My dad... would LOVE this!
I think I managed to see it one more time while we still lived in Hoopeston. I went with my mom, who was smiling, but didn't "get it." She too agreed dad would love it, and promised, "Some day."
It was maybe a month or two later that my father died of a massive heart attack. He never saw Star Wars.
"I AM YOUR FATHER"
I was numbed by my father's passing. In fact, even at 12, I didn't shed a tear. The only time I cried over my father's loss was during moments of my own personal history: graduation, my first car, my first job, awards, girlfriends, marriage... the moments in my life I wanted my dad to be there.
It seemed Star Wars filled a void for me. It was a thing I could turn to for escape.
My teenage years were tough. I didn't have a father to strengthen me. I was a dorky fat kid with greasy hair who was teased and bullied for wearing Star Wars shirts, and collecting the toys (Kenner finally came through on their 'action figure' promise). Sure, I met a number of fellow Star Wars geeks. One of them, a friend from art class, would recite the entire confrontation between Han Solo and Greedo. He ended up inadvertently teaching me Huttese, Greedo's language.
Star Wars continued to fill the void my father left because it was always there. It kept me company during my trying high school years with The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.
THE EMPIRE MOMENT
There were no "spoilers" in the 1980s. We were the MTV generation. The only way a movie could be spoiled was if someone saw it before you and blabbed about what happened--and that couldn't happen with me and Star Wars. I was there first. My friends and I were in a line at the River Oaks Theater One, a line that had to be policed because it wrapped around the building twice, and it was two easy for those second- and third-wrappers to squeeze into OUR loop.
The theater was huge, packed, frigidly air conditioned, and my eyes instantly misted at that first familiar blare of John William's score. Again... I wished my father was there.
I came away from Empire with two "Oh, my God" moments: Darth Vader was Luke's father... and this was... EPISODE FIVE!? Interviews with George Lucas spoke of keeping people entertained through at least NINE Star Wars movies! After 4, 5, 6 would come 7, 8, 9, and then the prequels that would show the scenes I only dreamed about: the first confrontation between Vader and Obi-Wan in 1, 2, and 3!
Oh, dad, I wish you were here to see this.
THE JEDI MOMENT
I couldn't wait for Return of the Jedi. And then I got my first ever self-made spoiler. I was in a Waldenbooks (that was a book store. There used to be places where you could buy books made of paper, believe it or not). There, on a shelf, was the novelization of the movie that was just about to come out: Return of the Jedi.
I never do this kind of thing, and I don't know why I chose THAT book on THAT day, but I opened it and started reading the first page... then I read the last line of the last page:
"The Empire is dead. Long live the Republic."
Spoken emojis like "WTF" and "OMG" didn't exist in the 80s, so I just said the words. But what about 7, 8, and 9!? George, don't stop now! I need you! The stories must continue!
I went to college to become a filmmaker (though I ended up a journalist). Lucas, Spielberg, Kubrick and Allen were my heroes, and more so because George Lucas pulled back the curtain. For every gap in Star Wars storytelling, there was something "behind the scenes" to fill it. Lucas was the first producer/director to release movie-making secrets. Filmmaking wasn't just about the director anymore. It was about the model maker, the craftsperson, the composer, the writer, and the digital effects technician.
WHAT Star Wars represented lived on in other movies. Stephen Spielberg, Joe Dante, and others, thrilled us through the 80s and 90s even as George faded away for awhile. But if only Star Wars would continue.
CONTINUE IT DID, FOR BETTER ...OR WORSE
I didn't read the novels and "extended universe" stories beyond Alan Dean Foster's Splinter of the Mind's Eye, which in 1978 I thought would be "Star Wars 2" (though I was bothered by there being a Star Wars that didn't include Han and Chewie). To my mind, if the books weren't written by George Lucas or Lawrence Kasdan, they weren't Star Wars.
I still never let go. Thanks to the eventual release of the films on VHS, and then Laser Disk, I could re-live and enjoy the stories of Luke, Han, Leia and Vader for years to come. "Special Editions" promised bonus features, additional computer generated effects, and--
GREEDO FIRED A SHOT!? AT ALL? I MEAN... "HAN SHOT FIRST" IS A RIDICULOUS ARGUMENT BECAUSE... IN THE ORIGINAL... GREEDO DIDN'T FIRE AT ALL! But I digress.
And then--FINALLY!--the prequel movies came. If there wasn't going to be a 7, 8, and 9, at least I could see the story of how Anakin Skywalker fell to the Dark Side and become the most vile villain ever.
And, again, I wished my father were around to see it with me.
I'm sure my dad would have thought the pod races were cool. If he were alive, we would probably reflect on the times he took me to see the Indy 500 when I was a boy, rekindle those moments as we speculated about how "pod races" would actually be cool to see in Indianapolis.
Through Attack of the Clones, my father and I would probably agree that it was cool to finally see groups Jedi in combat, and in Revenge of the Sith, we'd probably go on and on about Anakin's fall into Darth Vader (and I'm sure we'd both agree that as "dark" as Empire Strikes Back was, no one would deny that slaughtering "younglings" was the darkest moment ever in Star Wars history).
I thought about my dad a lot throughout my life because Star Wars was always there reminding me of what I'd lost with him, and what could have been. With the exception of those late nights with "mush" and cheesy sci-fi on TV, I really wasn't as close as I could have been with my father. I know Star Wars would have changed that, and that's what makes it emotional for me.
THE TABLE READING
More decades passed, and Star Wars continued to live because George Lucas liked to re-make it every time there was an advancement in CGI. Computers and the Internet made life immediate. It made the world smaller, experiences larger, and simplified everything from shopping to reading to spoilers. "Nerdy" things that got me picked on in high school were now "all the rage." Videogames became "interactive movies," books became digital, and special effects started to blend into the practical.
I grew up. I grew old. I got married, had children--and a grandchild.
And then Lucas sold Star Wars to Disney, and my heart twirled. I was sad for him. I remember seeing an interview with Lucas (and it may actually have been part of the sale announcement piece) where he essentially said you can only get picked on and criticized for so long before you just give up. I only hope he knew there were people out there who appreciated his creation and creative process. It felt like The End.
And then Kathleen Kennedy spoke about Disney's promise... There would be more.
I remembered my eyes welling (no, I'll admit it, streaming) with tears when I saw that now famous image of the Star Wars Episode 7 table reading. It had been decades since my first "original moment" in Hoopeston, IL, back to the time just before my father's death. So much life had gone on since 1977. Things changed, moved on, grew, vanished, changed again. And then they came flooding back.
That black and white image hit me with so much promise, and so many memories. It reminded me of who I used to be, who I grew up to be, and what made me me. It reminded me of what I lost, what I regret, and what I'll always remember. It reminded me about being a kid again, about innocence, about playing sand lot baseball with friends, coming home when the street lights came on. It reminded me of holidays filled with family. It reminded me of so much.
It reminded me of my dad. ...And that's why Star Wars.