Lost in space

In May 1981, I was already a huge nerd for movies. Specifically movies from George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Lucas had come to my attention due to his writing and directing a little popcorn flick called “Star Wars” (which, not so coincidentally, opened 31 years ago today), and had followed it up by writing and producing the much-darker and almost universally acknowledged superior “Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back”.

“Star Wars” was for me, like many men of my generation, a turning point. But I didn’t get to see the movie until late in the summer, as I recall. It opened while I was still in school, sixth grade at North Oak Grove Elementary School. The following fall, I would be going to Oak Grove Junior High, so there was already a sense of change in the air for me; new school, new routine. But my friends all got to see this movie long before me. After Memorial Day weekend, they returned to the classroom and playground with tales of Jedi, and Sith Lords, and Millennium Falcons, and TIE Fighters, and Artoo and Threepio. I couldn’t make heads or tails of what they were talking about, but it all sounded like the most fascinating thing in the world – even more fascinating to me than Julie Phillips, the brunette muse that had attracted my shy attention but whom I never actually spoke to.

When I would ask about going to see this movie, my dad would refuse outright. The movie was so popular that there were lines at the theaters. Lines! Can you imagine! “No way in hell am I going to stand in line for a fucking movie!” my dad declared. This nearly broke my heart. However, through my Science Fiction Book Club membership, I sent away for a copy of the novelization for the movie, and devoured it in a single sitting. I would tell my parents and sister all about how this was just one chapter in the Adventures of Luke Skywalker, and explain that the Old Republic was legendary, but how it had fallen to the predation of Palpatine, who declared himself Emperor. It was as much, if not more, nonsense to them as my friends’ explanations had be to me. OK, maybe far more. Now I knew the story but I still ached to see the actual movie.

Then, after school had let out for summer, came word that “Star Wars” was playing at a tiny little theater in tiny little Estacada, about 25 miles south east along the Clackamas River. There were no lines there. There was also no Dolby Sound and no 70mm film print in all its widescreen glory, but I was 12. I had few options unless I was willing to compromise. Mom, Dad, my sister, myself, and my Grandma Hayner all drove out one summer afternoon, and for the first and last time in my life I sat in that theater and watched what had only been words on a page become real. Even on the smaller screen, even with “normal” sound, even surrounded by the dank smell of summer sweat and popcorn… “Star Wars” took me away. All other viewings of that movie don’t compare to that one instance. And believe me, I have seen that movie many many times since then.

Spielberg had directed “Jaws” in 1975, which I have never seen to this day in its entirety but was a source of conversation to my grade-school buddies, and in 1977, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. It was a much gentler alien invasion flick. The first time I saw CE3K, I and my nephew had to convince my dad to drive clear across town to the Eastgate theater, which he did, grumbling all the way, and taking back streets to avoid the horrible traffic of SE 82nd Ave. We arrived late, after the movie had already started, a huge source of annoyance to me at the time. I wouldn’t argue with my dad, though; well, maybe a sarcastic remark in passing. Kevin and I had to sit near the back, and right in front of a speaker tower for the then-new Dolby sound system. If you remember the climactic chase at the end of the movie, that particular speaker was solely responsible for the sounds of the helicopters which chased Roy around Devil’s Tower. Helicopters are loud.

So much so was I captured by the vision of Lucas’ galaxy far, far away that it became the central obsession in my life, neatly supplanting Star Trek. So much so that when the sequel, “The Empire Strikes Back” came out in 1980, that I and my friends read the novelization, read the comic books, bought (and stole – I’m not proud of that now but I’m sure the statute of limitations is long since up by now) the action figures, listened to the soundtrack and “The Story of” LPs… everything. Everything. I was a sophomore at Milwaukie High School now. My mom drove me and Kevin out to the Westgate theater for opening night. And, yes, we stood in line. We were almost turned away, but when the theater employees came out to say there were three seats left, but not all together, we were ushered inside. I had to sit in the very front row, waaaaay off to one side, but it didn’t matter. I knew that this would be one viewing out of many. And for the rest of the summer, when Terry and I had nothing else to do, we would take the long bus ride from Milwaukie to Beaverton to see “Empire”.

Spielberg was also the director of the amusing but under-rated “1941”, which made me and my high school budies, Terry, Andy, and Rodney, laugh at the time, but which I no longer remember many details of. I remember John Belushi in a WWII Airman’s uniform, and a ferris wheel breaking free and rolling into the Pacific after being attacked by Japanese Zeroes. And that’s about it. We liked it because it was from Spielberg.

So in the summer of 1981, I was now a junior in high school. I had more interest in girls but still lacked any sort of courage. I remember most of high school as hanging out with my buddies, playing Dungeons and Dragons, talking about “Star Wars”, and an unending series of crushes on cute girls. I was smart enough that my classes posed no challenge to me – well, except for the obstacle of actually doing my classwork. I was distracted and often late in my work. Didn’t they understand? There was a galaxy at war, people! Far more important matters were at hand. I fantasized about the Millennium Falcon landing on the high school football field and taking me away, and Han Solo reluctantly allowing me to pilot the ship, and being amazed at how well I flew for a kid.

And as summer approached that year, so did news of the first-ever collaboration between Lucas and Spielberg. It starred Han Solo – I mean, Harrison Ford. I had been burned before by learning early that Darth Vader was Luke’s father, so this time around I avoided reading much about the movie. I knew it was a throwback to the pulp stories of the 1930s… and that’s about it.

The movie opened on 12 June 1981, which I remember being the last Friday of the school year. I went by myself to the Southgate theater, a theater that has been not just closed, but completely eradicated from existence since those days. The building was a cinder-block warehouse, with two large theaters and two smaller ones. “Raiders” was playing in the largest theater, and for some reason I remember the crowd for that showing being rather small. There were empty seats. And as I watched and enjoyed the movie, I kept getting distracted by a couple sitting ahead of me.

It was Karen Hatton and her boyfriend, Trey.

Karen was my then-current crush. Snarky before snarky was a word, funny, imaginative, blonde-ish, thin. She was just as much into “Star Wars” as I was, which made her that much cooler. Oh, and she had gone out with my best friend, Terry Mantia, waaaaaay back in junior high, and they remained friends, so Karen was a part of my circle of friends. And so was Amy Dinkler, Karen’s best friend. The four of us shared a few classes, including Drama class, and we would talk about all the important things in the world, like whether Princess Leia would choose Luke or Han (little did we know), and whether the Emperor could afford decent marksmanship training for stormtroopers, and if there was anything a lightsaber could not cut.

I crushed hard on Karen. I didn’t notice Amy until senior year, when I discovered that she had been crushing on me for a year or more.

Sitting in the Southgate theater, my attention was split between the fantastic adventure on the screen and the practical drama in front of me. Trey and Karen were making out in the dark. After the movie, my head filled with images of giant rolling boulders and melting faces, my sights were filled with Karen and Trey holding hands and walking out into the parking lot and into his car. Trey, you see, was a senior. An older man.

The following week, we still had a few days of school left, but mentally everyone had checked out. The only reason we came back, I think, was to pick up our yearbooks and get them signed. As I wandered around the hallways with Terry, his gray fedora perched on his head, I alternated between telling him about “Raiders” and complaining about Karen. His advice was to stay away from Karen. “She’s got issues.”

Don’t we all?