In 1977, when I was six, I sat in the Coronet theater on Geary Street in San Francisco. (The Coronet, a wonderful theater, was torn town some years ago to build retirement housing.) I remember the lights falling in the theater and the hubbub of the packed in crowd. We were up in the big expensive loge seats, and I remember my father's hulking body to one side of me and my mom's hand warm on my arm.
(Wow. This memory brings tears because it's so vivid.)
I remember being a little confused, but not scared. It was late at night for me, nearly past my normal bed time. We'd stood in the long long line outside the theater for a bit, and I hadn't at the time any idea what was going on. But now, sitting in the theater, I knew it was going to be something big. Really big.
Then all at once that thunderous crash of the symphony as the opening notes played at what seemed a deafening volume and the huge words 'STAR WARS' appeared on the screen. I could read okay for a 6-year-old at the time, and I could read the title. I had no real idea what it meant. My father then read to me all of the other words scrolling up the screen, many of the words having absolutely no meaning for me and adding to my confusion.
All quiet for a moment as the blackness turned to space. I knew space. I was something of a Trekkie by then and I liked space.
Then BAM! the rebel blockade runner crashes over the screen, firing and getting fired on by some as yet unseen force. And the enormous imperial star destroyer following it, guns blazing.
I didn't have the words to explain what I was feeling. It was awesome - more than my 6-year-old brain could handle. The sounds, the sight, the idea of something like that was unlike anything I'd ever imagined.
And all at once there were men with guns. They looked worried. I liked the guns, but I recognized the worry. Something bad was going to happen. I worried for them.
Then more blasting, weird scary guys in white with no faces were firing and climbing in to the ship, on to the screen, in to the theater, and guns were firing, people were shooting, the noise was deafening, and people were falling down injured, maybe dead. The fight seemed to go on for a long time (time seems oddly infirm when we're young).
And then the quiet.
A large black cloaked figure made his way on to the screen. The crowd immediately booed and hissed. I booed and hissed right along with them, and then asked my father who the figure was. He leaned down and told me it was the 'bad guy', he not yet knowing Vader's name. I booed and hissed louder.
The rest of the premier was a blur of excitement. It helped that I share a name with one of the main characters. Creatures, space ships, death star, fighting... I remember at the end nearly wetting myself and jumping up from my seat when the Death Star exploded. I think others did the same. It was an insane moment full of far more emotion than a 6-year-old can comprehend. I could not imagine what I was actually seeing.
After the movie I could talk of nothing else for months. I didn't see any part of the movie again for years, but it was permanently etched in to my brain. I had all the replay I needed right in my head. My friends and I fantasized about space travel and adventure a la Star Wars and it all seemed so wonderful. Until the Empire struck back.
These days I keep telling myself it's just a movie. It's just a thing I saw. It's just a story. And telling myself that never ever works.
My 6-year-old son recently watched Star Wars in the comfort of his own home on our big TV. The viewing size ratio is close to that of a theater. I turned down the lights and cranked up the volume (much to the annoyance of his mother). And I watched him twitch in anticipation for a moment.
Then BANG! that crash of symphony filled the room, and I watched my own 6-year-old jump in glee as he began his own adventure with what is certainly not just a story. And this time I got to lean over to him and explain who that black cloaked figure is. And now we talk for long moments about Star Wars and the following two movies (I spread out the adventure over a month or so) and he asks me to re-tell parts of the story every day. And I do. And we laugh and we speculate about the nature of the Star Wars world.
And it's not just a story.
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