Heart of Darthness

George Lucas didn't make me gay, but I think my mother blamed him when I came out to her nine years ago. One of the first things she said to me -- after telling me she still loved me -- was "I shouldn't have let you cut your hair so short as a child." I suspect she was also thinking, "I never should have taken you to see Star Wars."

I was 3 in 1978, when Mom took me to see the film we now know as Episode IV at a theater near our home in suburban Michigan. Pictures of me at that age prove that even then I was a tomboy. But after I saw Star Wars, I decided I wanted to be a boy -- specifically, the hero, Luke Skywalker.

This was not an uncommon experience among members of my generation. Lots of us -- both boys and girls -- identified with members of the movie's ensemble cast. In fact, on our first date, my first girlfriend admitted that she had once envisioned herself as Han Solo.

And let's face it. If I hadn't pretended to be Luke Skywalker all those years, I probably would have imagined myself as someone else -- Frodo Baggins, perhaps, or Huck Finn. But as it happened, I chose Luke, which is why this week I'll be seeing Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (the sixth and final installment in George Lucas' space saga). I don't expect it to be good -- Episodes I and II were truly terrible -- but low expectations are no match for the power of nostalgia.

Because I saw Star Wars at such a young age, I don't remember a time without it. I only vaguely recall the innocent, prelapsarian years before I learned that the evil Darth Vader was Luke's father. I'll never forget the moment I found out. I was at the table in my grandparents' house in North Carolina, talking with my older cousin, Jimmy. I must have been 5 or 6. Jimmy had already heard about Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.

"Hey, Cathy," he said. "Guess what I heard? There's a sequel to Star Wars, and Darth Vader is Luke's father."

This went against everything I knew about the nature of good and evil. It was like learning some sinister secret about our honorable president, Ronald Reagan. I couldn't believe it, and didn't, until I saw the movie myself. Still, it took me years to accept, and during that time I struggled with much pent-up hostility. I now believe that's why I told my younger sister Karen that there was no Santa Claus when she was only 3.

Karen liked Star Wars, too. While most girls our age were playing house, we played "Star Wars." We would get together with neighborhood kids and act out scenes from the movies (or just make things up). I was always Luke. Beth from across the street was always Princess Leia. Brad from down the block was Han.

Unfortunately, this didn't leave many characters for my sister. At first she played R2-D2, but she didn't like that, because he's a robot who doesn't actually speak. In 1982, we improvised a solution -- Karen would play Gertie, Elliot's little sister from E.T.

Karen remembers things a little differently. She says I made her be Gertie because I didn't want her to have anything to do with "Star Wars."

"Why do you think I had to be R2-D2?" she asked me over the phone the other day. "You wouldn't even let me be the other one, C-3PO. At least he talks. Even when Beth wasn't there, you wouldn't let me be Leia."

Perhaps, I suggest, this was because if she had been Leia, it would have put us a little too close to Luke and Leia's creepy, semi-incestuous kiss in Episode V (before they realized they were brother and sister). Karen doesn't buy this. "No," she says. "You were just mean."

Whatever -- the point is that my sister was Gertie. And she must have liked it at least a little, because we played "Star Wars" for years. In fact, we played for so long that I started to get self-conscious about it. When I was 10 or 11, I beckoned Karen and Beth behind the garage. "I think we should stop playing 'Star Wars,'" I told them. I didn't want any of my other friends to find out about my imaginary life. Beth went to a different Catholic school, but I didn't want to take any chances.

Still, I wasn't quite ready to abandon my life as Luke. Once again, I improvised. "I guess it's OK if we keep playing," I clarified. "Just as long as we call it 'SW.'" What was I so eager to protect? What were we actually doing when we "played 'SW?'"

"We used to dance to the cantina music a lot," remembers Karen. We had a record player in the basement, and we'd play that song from the Star Wars soundtrack over and over. I also remember using the small stand of trees in our back yard as a spaceship, or a secret base. I would climb 20 or 30 feet up and spot the mall in the distance. "It's the Death Star!" I'd report to my squad.

Mostly, though, I pretended to be wounded. The four of us would often embark on missions. Before we reached our "enemies," we would imitate explosions. I would drop to the ground, sometimes pretending to fall in slow motion. I would lie on the basement floor and call for help. Beth/Leia and Brad/Han would do this, too; Karen/Gertie somehow always emerged unscathed.

"Gertie," I would moan, as if I were drifting in and out of consciousness. "Go get ... General Rieekan. Tell him ... I've got a broken leg."

Not to be outdone, Beth/Leia would instruct Karen/Gertie to help her first. "I have a broken neck," she'd whine.

"Gertie! Gertie!" I'd call out, as if I had been jolted awake by blinding pain. "I've been shot." Then I'd slump over, allowing a trickle of spit to dribble down my chin as if it were blood.

Karen/Gertie would scurry around the basement, yelling for the general. Brad/Han would usually just lie there whimpering; he was clumsy, and often hurt himself when he fell to the ground.

When I ask my sister if she remembers us ever actually fighting anyone, she says no. "We didn't have enough people to play the bad guys," she points out. That changed when I was 12 -- Brad got a new stepbrother, and we made him Darth Vader. He was perfect for the part, but we stopped letting him play when he made a rope noose and suggested we hang my dog in it.

We were more or less done playing by then, anyway. I don't remember the last round, but Karen insists she had sworn off "SW" by the time she was in fifth grade (I would have been 12 or 13).

But, just as not going to Mass hasn't stopped me from collecting glow-in-the-dark rosaries, ceasing to pretend I'm Luke hasn't stopped me from buying a ticket to a first-day showing of Episode III. Despite its many faults -- hackneyed script, crass commercialism, Jar Jar Binks -- there's still something compelling about George Lucas' saga of
redemption.

Maybe that's because, deep down, we all just want to be saved. Or maybe he's just a damn good marketer.

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