Star Wars--it’s incredible now to think of how meaningless those two words were when I first heard them.

In 1977 I was fifteen years old, and not much of a science fiction fan. Most sci-fi movies and TV shows were just too boring--it was all either sterile psychodramas like Space: 1999, 2001, and Silent Running, or back-lot space operas like Star Trek and Lost in Space. I was a huge reader of science-fiction novels, because they were full of action, but onscreen sci-fi was nothing but talk. I preferred monster movies, disaster epics, James Bond. Jaws was a major event, but that had been way back in ‘75, and nothing had yet taken its place as my favorite movie.

The first time I saw the words Star Wars was when my best friend showed me the paperback novelization. He had just seen the movie on opening night, and was trying to get me to understand that it would change my life.

“You have to see it,” he said. “Just look.”

I flipped through the section of color stills from the film. There was a picture of a gold robot standing next to what appeared to be a dome-topped garbage can. “That’s Artoo-Detoo,” my friend explained unhelpfully. Another picture showed a sleek spaceship being chased by what appeared to be a cement-mixer with spindly wagon wheels. “That’s a TIE fighter.” Then there were two people in medieval clothing swinging across a metal chasm, as in an old-time action serial. I didn’t get it.

“It’s gonna be your favorite movie,” he said firmly.


“You’ll see. We’ll go tomorrow. Just wait and see.”

The next day, my friend’s mom drove us to Mann’s Chinese Theater. There was a line, but nothing extraordinary. Few people had seen the movie yet, so there were no sense of collective anticipation--just a bunch of folks going to a matinee. Only my friend knew what we were in for.

There were no previews. As the lights went down, the only preamble was the 20th Century Fox logo and the nonsensical phrase, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”

Suddenly we were hit by that blare of trumpets and that immense star field, with the words STAR WARS receding into space. That was pretty damn cool, but the three paragraphs of text that followed were impossible to digest. It didn’t matter; it looked good. Then the music let up, and the camera panned down past two little moons to an awesome orange planet--the most realistic planet effect I had ever seen, with a thin band of blue atmosphere over a hot-looking desert. It was great, I was already wowed, but then the unthinkable happened:

A small, multi-engine spaceship burst into view, spewing red laser-bolts, and before I could even process this a second ship swooped in, trading laser fire with the first.

That second ship was the most amazing thing I had ever seen.

It loomed overhead like an inverted planet, engulfing the entire top half of the wide-screen 70mm frame and yet still coming, longer and longer, until the front end of it was unimaginably far in the distance. There was a collective gasp from the audience, then cheering and applause. For me, the awesome scale and realism of that scene permanently blew my mind, changing forever my perception of what a movie could be.

And the incredible thing was, the best was yet to come:

Scary white-armored Stormtroopers and freaky black-helmeted Darth Vader; the densely-realized world of Tattooine; all the wonderful characters, human and otherwise; the light-saber duel and the astounding final battle over the Death Star. Every frame of film was packed with things I’d never seen before…and would have to see again. And again and again.

By the end of that summer, my friend and I had seen the movie at least thirty times and memorized every line of dialogue, including the various alien and robotic languages (“Oota-toota, Solo?”). There wasn’t much in the way of merchandising at the time, but we bought everything we could find, and attended what was probably the first-ever Star Wars convention at the Los Angeles Marriott. It all seemed like innocent, harmless fun…until we got arrested.

Oh yes, there was a dark side.

We got greedy. It was the action figures that did it. We were spending so much money going to the movie that we had nothing left for toys--it wasn’t fair! So one day at the Westminster Mall, we just started stealing them. Ripping them out of their packages and pocketing them. When our pockets were full, we stuffed them down our pants and in our socks. There were two employees chatting nearby, oblivious, and we played it cool as we walked out of the store and onto the escalator. A second later, two men came running up the escalator behind us. Damn, I thought. But they weren’t looking our way, and for a second I had the sweet, silly hope that they would run right on by.

Of course they didn’t.

As the men brushed past us, we simultaneously felt their claw-like grips on our upper arms, and one of them said, “Did you boys take something you shouldn’t have?”

“Yes,” we said sheepishly, and allowed ourselves to be handcuffed and led through the crowded mall to an office in the basement, where we were shackled to metal chairs. Other than giving our names and addresses, we didn’t speak, and no one spoke to us. Nor did they call our parents. They relieved us of our stolen goods and sealed them in a plastic bag as evidence. One of the security men said to the other, “Little shits should get a beating just for tearing open the packages.”

After a while, an officer from the county sheriff’s department showed up and took custody of us, loading us into the back of his cruiser and driving us down to the sheriff’s office. Looking at us through his rearview mirror, he said, “You know, anything over fifty dollars is a felony.”

Though outwardly calm, I was terrified, numb with shock, but still able to appreciate the novelty of riding in a police car. The squawking radio, the shotgun--it was all very interesting, very real. And uncomfortable as I was sitting on my cuffed wrists, the pain only added to the vivid intensity of the experience, the sense that anything could happen. I was a criminal!

We were taken and booked in, left to stand as a deputy filled out the paperwork. There was a pair of cute girls there as well, teenage runaways in tight corduroys and Farrah Fawcett waves.

“Hey,” they said.

“Hey,” we said.

The girls were obviously interested in us, another first, so we tried to look tough, a couple of real bad boys, but the deputy said, “Know what these guys are in for? Stealing a bunch of dolls!”

Finally my friend and I were given a phone and told to call our parents. We were both sons of single mothers, and my friend’s mom was the only one with a car. Unfortunately she wasn’t home, so I called my mother.

“Hi, Mom?”

“Oh, Walter, is something wrong?”

“Uh, well, it looks like me and Greg did something really dumb. We kind of got arrested for shoplifting.”

“Oh no!”

“Yeah. We’re at the Westminster Sheriff’s Department. Can you get someone to pick us up?”

“Oh my God…I guess I could ask Johnny to drive me.” Johnny was the elderly brother of my mom’s friend Rita.

“Sorry, Mom. It was for some stupid Star Wars toys.”

“Don’t worry about that--I just thank God you’re all right. I’ll come as fast as I can.”

“Thanks, Mom. Sorry.”

We were taken to the drunk tank to wait. We had the place to ourselves. Since there was nowhere to sit except the toilet or the dirty floor, we paced around or leaned against the graffiti-scrawled yellow walls--our very own Death Star. Where was Luke Skywalker when we needed him?

I said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if--”

“Just shut up,” Greg said.