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A long time ago...

The Star Wars Trilogy:
What? You mean there's movies too?

Matt - 6.03.01

Maybe the movies have as little to do with my lifelong Star Wars obsessions than I thought. I mean sure, I've watched and breathed those damn flicks for as long as I can remember, having seen each of 'em so many times that I can speak along to even the alien dialect parts of the script. I've read the books, bought the figures, seen all the shows...but still, in the end, I don't think it's the worlds and characters Lucas created that've made it such a perpetual staple in my life for two decades plus now. No, I think it has more to do with what those worlds and characters ultimately created for me: memories.

In short, when I'm talking to someone about Star Wars, or when I'm writing about it here and I gush, it's not because I think Dez Webb brought some real heavy emotion to his portrayal of the Wampa. It's not because Boba Fett had a cool helmet, or because I wanted to fly an X-Wing. Instead, it's the memories, a series of Star Wars-inspired hooplah that certainly helped shape who I am. Am I alone in this? Nuh uh. I wasn't the only one who got teary eyed when the big ol' yellow 'Star Wars' logo came on the movie screen at the beginning of The Phantom Menace, and believe me, it wasn't because we knew we were in for a real treat of a movie. It was that we were being given something that sounds impossible: the chance to relive one of the more defining moments in our lives. You've read this site, I think it should be pretty clear that if I was to get a Monkey's Paw, my first wish would to be four years old again. On that night, I was four again. And I loved every minute of it.

By the way, my second wish on the ape paw would be for Chinese restaurants to understand that 'combination platters' isn't an open invitation to put bad, soiled food and assorted black hairs in the fried rice. Eating lunch while writing is a two-tier challenge.

I come from a pretty big immediate family - last of seven kids. The numbers aren't the important part, it's more that the rest of my siblings are significantly older than me, and thus from totally different generations and schools of thought. All are married, most with kids, and unlike me, who still would label himself as a son/brother in the family hierarchy, they would all name themselves husbands/wives, fathers/mothers. We all get along great, but that's quite a gap. It'd be a rare occurrence for me to bullshit with any of them over which of my friends ended up puking on the streets last night, much like they'd likely not talk to me about their annoying husband's sleeping habits or their wives' liberal use of the family credit card. Don't get me wrong - we get along famously and see each other for some family function pretty much every other week. As for common ground though, there ain't much there besides the bloodline. And Star Wars.

With that, our story begins back in '84, maybe '85. I was hot off two failed attempts to see Return of the Jedi with my parents in the theaters, and was just starting with an obsession that'd outlast every other nuance and vice I've stumbled into. The first time they took me, I was so afraid of Jabba and his alien cronies that I watched the entire flick, from beginning to end, through the reflection on the movie projector. You wouldn't believe how much less of an impact that speeder bike sequence has when you're watching it through a backwards 3" projection. The second time, my father had brought me to a now-defunct theater here, thinking that, since I had the toys, surely I'd be able to stomach the bad guys. Unfortunately, we arrived around 20 minutes late, and walked in just as Jabba was giving the crowd his first trademark 'Ohhhh HO HO HO.' Six minutes later, I was screaming bloody murder in the car, crying my eyes out, and begging my father not to buy popcorn because I thought that once you did, legally, you'd have to go into the theater.

Kids are really stupid like that. It was great not having the life experience and common sense to know what's true and what isn't. It let us believe in things no matter how preposterous they sounded. And I'm not talking about religion or Santa Claus. I used to believe that the world before I was born was in black and white because of all the old photo albums laying around the house. I had concocted this whole story in my head about how color just fell out of the sky one day and everyone just made the proper adjustments. It sucked to find out that the whole shibang was just a result of advanced photography.

Remember the huge anti-drunk driving campaign that went on in the mid-80s? Whereas nowadays, kids have evolved and have much brighter detriments like cigarettes and heroin, back then the two major points were not to drink and drive, and to never listen to really loud music. (anyone else remember the commercial where the kid went deaf from listening to music too loud for four seconds?) One of the alcohol spots featured kids getting into a car with beer bottles, and immediately 'poofing', turning into skeletons. It was a way to get the point across that you could die if you drank and drove. At least, that's how most people saw it. To me, as a kid who didn't know better, I thought this meant your skin would hop off your body the second you got into a car with any beverage. For weeks my parents bit their tongues over having to leave soda from whatever take-out restaurant we ordered from on the street outside our car door. Hey, I wasn't about to let myself turn into a skeleton. Especially not for a cherry Coke.

Anyway, it's 1984. We weren't in as bad a place as Orwell had suggested, but my world was about to crumble if I didn't get a new Star Wars figure. So, we head over to Toys R'Us, which still is basically like going to church for me, and lo and behold, who was that working behind the register? One of my brothers. Family issues go right over your head when you're a kid, and I had absolutely no idea that my bro got in with the toy gods and landed what I then considered to be the most esteemed, high-up job on the planet: a toy store cashier. This was way back when, before TRU made the switch to a more blue motif, so they had the poor guy dolled up in a striped orange smock and a bow tie. Nonetheless, this was like finding out you were related to Jesus Christ himself for me. My brother...working at Toys R'Us! Quickly, I ran to the Star Wars aisle, which back in '84 was more like a Star Wars mini-store within the place. I labored on the decision of picking up another plastic toy lightsaber, but that was quickly dismissed when I recalled how I lost the one I had before: my parents threw it out after I chased the dog with it for 15 minutes before slamming my head against the side of the kitchen table. Besides, these impulse TRU trips I could convince my parents to take me on didn't come without a price: I wasn't getting no big lightsaber toy, Millennium Falcon, or Rancor Monster. Just one figure. Nothing more, nothing less.

I went up to the register to meet my now godlike brother with my choice figure: the Emperor's Royal Guard. If you'll recall, those are the guys in the big red capes who hung around the Emperor with long sticks. I loved them. Problem was, I loved them so much that I had accumulated at least a dozen of the beasts, and buying another one was pretty redundant. I didn't care though, I didn't even know what redundant meant. My brother, sensing another pointless toy purchase, suggested another figure: Admiral Ackbar. You know, the squid/rebel admiral with the dilated eyes and the phallic head? That guy. My brother tried to teach me that there was more to these figures than their weapons and cool capes, and that Ackbar was one of the best characters in the movie. Skeptical but agreeable, I went home with an Ackbar figure.

About a half hour later I was crying because I came home with this stupid squid figure who only came with a slanted black plastic stick and looked like a total dweeb. I looked longingly at the back of the package, wishing all to hell that I had just bought #63, the Royal Guard. Finally, my brother comes home from work. I put on my game face, but it was completely unnecessary, since he brought me back the Royal Guard figure. A two for one special. Years and years later, I don't have any of my original Royal Guard figures. But the very same Admiral Ackbar sits right on top of the television, next to a collection of Alf cards and quarters. Despite the Royal Guard's sexy red robes, ominous helmet and killer weapon, I think, deep down, I knew which figure meant more to me. And it had little to do with plastic toys, cool weapons, or Star Wars.

Going back a bit to the Christmas before that now. My mother has always had this innate sixth sense that told her exactly why I did everything I did, even if I hadn't told her anything about it or blatantly lied to cover stuff up. Sometimes that worked against me, but it's nice to know that there's at least one person out there who really understands why you're the way you are without the need of you explaining it, even if that means getting yelled at and breaking out the eternal threats of the 'wooden spoon.' The wooden spoon in our house I think was of a result of some lost Italian lore...whenever one of us did something particularly bad or were being steadfast in our decision to deny satisfaction, the woman would morph into this demonic creature straight out of Critters III, run to the kitchen, grab this wooden spoon and start chasing us around the house at speeds that'd make a wild cheetah feel inadequate. She'd never actually use the spoon: instead, she'd pull this weird thing where she gets you in a corner, huffs up, and starts biting the spoon as if to say, 'this could be your arm.' I'm not sure if it was the fright or the fact that this display of insanity was so impressive, but every time she pulled this shit, I'd be a model child for weeks.

Anyway, back to Christmas. My mother and I had struck an agreement, based on an understanding that my overbearing and universally accepted-as-annoying cousin would be part of our Christmas Eve festivities. If I could get through the day without causing a big scene, screaming at her, getting her parents involved, or some other form of mass hysteria, she'd let me open one of my presents before the alloted midnight ceremony. The Jabba the Hutt action playset was my mother's offering - and lemme tell you, I can't think of a thing on this planet that would've kept me at bay with my cousin more than this thing. For a while, it was easily my favorite toy. On Christmas Eve though? As a means to avoid contact with my devil of a cousin? Godsend.

But what was it about this toy that kept me so enamored? Was it the tail-swinging action that Jabba made whenever you turned his head? How bout the plastic hookah pipe, my first experience with illegal drugs? Then there's the slave chain, which let you substitute a half-naked Princess Leia with a Princess Leia wearing a metallic brown bounty hunter costume to serve as Jabba's private dancer, dancin' for money. Maybe it was the dungeon underneath Jabba, which let you hide up to six action figures captive? Let's not forget Salacious Crumb - that little annoying rat thing that ate 3P0's eyes and gave the big slug a reason to laugh. Nah, amazingly, I don't think it was any of that. The thing that made this gift so special was that someone out there knew that this, a disgusting orange slug with a pipe, was the thing I wanted the most. And that someone wasn't Santa. Santa doesn't bite wooden spoons.

Then there was the time another one of my brothers took me to another Toys R'Us store, this one over in Jersey. Some of you should remember the astute marketing plot TRU had back in those days -- on certain weekends, they'd have characters from everyone's favorite video games and toylines right in the store. Full costume! This type of thing usually wouldn't have held my interest, but it was a special occasion, as Darth Vader himself was slated for an appearance.

Now remember, I was young. I didn't realize that these were just disgruntled guys pissed about having to work on Saturday morning in a really hot costume. To me, I was about to meet the real Darth Vader. So believe me, I wasn't going into this without a little fear. God knows, if Vader'll slice off his own son's hand, there's no telling what he'd do to me. On the plus side, I'd probably score his action figure from the ordeal, and that was enough incentive for us to head in.

So, we waltz in, and the characters start taking the stage, coming out of the stock room. I'm sure this all looked very silly, but back then, I felt like I was part of some grand gala that for some reason only 13 kids and a few scattered adults knew about. I couldn't tell you who else appeared, I was only interested in Vader. I do know that Geoffrey, the TRU mascot giraffe, waddled all his six and a half feet out of the stock room to a chorus of general disinterest from us kids who were there for the Dark Lord. I felt so bad for this poor giraffe, thinking his life was crushed because nobody wanted his autograph. In truth, he was the luckiest one of all the costumed freaks to turn up on that faithful day. He's the only one who didn't get headbutted in the crotch 45 times.

Finally, Vader comes out. And this wasn't a shitty Vader either - they dolled him up to the nines, they even nailed the light-up chestplate buttons. For all intents and purposes, especially to a kid, this was Darth Vader. And what does Darth Vader do when thrust into the back aisle of Toys R'Us unexpectedly on a Saturday morning? Why, he points to my brother with such malicious intent that I was absolutely, 100% positive that I was about to be one sibling short on the way home. Why did Vader hate my brother so much? Was the brown leather jacket a crushing reminder of Han Solo? Did he overhear my amazement over my brother being taller than him? Either way, the Lord of the Sith let us off with just a warning, thankfully. I'm pretty sure I went home with a Darth Vader figure too, assuming that I was able to be talked out of getting another Royal Guard.

The last memory I want to bring up to the surface like some repressed horrific experience involving Chevy Chase and late night talkshows is probably my favorite. It's about the arcade, and winning the respect of the masses with a little help from a crusty old Jedi named Obi-Wan.

As far as the people responsible for new business enterprises here are concerned, arcades have become a lost art. We used to have one in every shopping plaza, and now there's not a single one left. But what's now a closeout store about 10 miles from me used to be Fantasia, arcade supreme. I only got to go in the place once as a child, but boy, did I ever make my mark.

I don't remember the occasion, but one night, my father brought me inside. My mother was probably shopping at one of the nearby linens stores, and although me and my dad never had much in common outside a shared love of making fun of the neighbors, we both agreed that the arcade beat a linens store. I don't remember all the games available for play...all I knew was that the teenagers were scaring the fuck out of me, and there was a surprisingly short line for the Star Wars arcade game. By today's standards? A simple game. But back then this thing was positively from the future. I had played it before with awful results, but tonight was my night.

I popped in my quarter, or I should say, my father cursed for twenty minutes because the place didn't have a dollars-to-quarters dispenser before someone finally took pity and gave me one, and began playing. I don't know how the stars were aligned that night, or what sort of superhero serum I had accidentally drank, but for whatever reason, I was unstoppable. With the help of a few well-placed Obi Wan soundbytes, I navigated my way through that historic Death Star trench and blew the bitch up with ease. That wasn't the cool part. Finally, the gods realized they were smiling on me a little too long, moved on to someone else, and I was out of luck. When I turned around, the entire friggin' place was cheering me on like I had just killed 42,000 Stormtroopers with my bare hands. I don't know how many times I've made my father proud throughout my lifetime, but this is the only time I think I've ever gotten a 'that's my boy!' out of him. All it took was one well-aimed photon torpedo.

So, where are we now? 2001, decades later, with all those memories staying just that: memories. But you know, I really wonder how I would've turned out differently if I didn't spend my early teens on the phone with toy dealers trying to get the Hoth playset, or had I spent the art class portion of kindergarten drawing monkeys instead of Bib Fortuna. I'm really not sure, but I don't think I'd want it any other way.

One of my sister's kids, who's around 5, absolutely loves Star Wars. So of course, we bond, if by bonding you mean he asks as nicely as he can if he can take home one of my toys. Whenever I babysit him, the first thing we do after he makes me let him win Super Smash Bros. is throw on the ol' Return of the Jedi videocassette. Special edition, of course. These poor kids'll never get to see Sy Snootles strut her stuff the way she did the first time. But it amazes brothers found their common link with me through that galaxy far, far away...and now, a generation later, I'm doing the same thing.

I don't thank George Lucas for putting together the greatest movies of all time. I don't thank him for changing Hollywood, upgrading media technology, or any other grandiose feat people have debated for years and years. I just thank him for the memories. Now he's in the midst of continuing on his legacy with a new Star Wars saga. And when I really think about it...I'm continuing a little Star Wars saga of my own, piece by piece. And...I love every minute of it.

- Matt
Stile Project.
AIM: xecharchar

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