Star Wars: Remembering Another Opening Night 32 Years Ago

In honor of the release of The Force Awakens, I thought I’d re-share this post about my Return of the Jedi opening-night experience. My friends and I were 12 years old then. Now, more than 32 years later, I will be reuniting with one of those friends to see the new film in IMAX at the Franklin Institute in Philly…

A long time ago, in a movie theater somewhat far away . . .

The wait had seemed interminable. Three years to find out the fate of Han Solo, to learn if Darth Vader had been telling the truth about Luke’s father. Three years is forever to a child who had only been nine years old when The Empire Strikes Back ended with a major cliffhanger. But the day finally arrived: May 25th, 1983, opening day for Return of the Jedi.

I was heading to the theater in Deptford, NJ with my two best friends, Bruce and Kim. Kim’s dad drove us up to the theater early in the day so we could buy tickets ahead of time and walk around the mall until the movie started. This proved to be a brilliant move because by the time we returned to the theater the line outside was longer than anything I had ever seen in my life. We got in line and it continued to grow behind us, stretching back farther than we could see.

After a while, a theater employee started walking down the line and informing people that the shows were sold out for the entire night. If they didn’t already have tickets, they weren’t getting in. It was still early at this point, so a lot of people went home disappointed that day. I don’t recall how long we waited before finally getting into the theater, but we stood outside for a long time. You don’t really see lines like that anymore (except maybe in major cities) because movies now open in so many theaters. Back then, we didn’t have 20-plus-theater multiplexes. I think our theater had six screens, and only a couple of those were showing Jedi. Personally, I have never seen a theater line in the 30 years since that even came close to the one that day.

Watching the movie was surreal. The audience erupted in thunderous applause every time something good happened. I have gone to other movies where the audience cheered, but nothing like this. After waiting three years for a resolution to the most stunning cliffhanger in movie history, the audience was just ready to let loose. It was a communal experience.

Jedi frequently gets a bad rap, is thought of as the weak stepchild of the original trilogy. I think much of this is due to revisionist history, particularly where the Ewoks are concerned. Everyone my age liked the Ewoks when we were kids–if you claim differently now you are not being honest with yourself. But putting the Ewoks aside, the movie had spectacular sequences and set pieces: the rancor, the battle over the sarlacc pit where we got to see Luke kicking ass as a Jedi for the first time, the speeder bike chase, the battle over the second Death Star with more fast flying ships, lasers, and explosions than had ever been seen onscreen at one time. And the scenes between Luke, Vader, and the Emperor were some of the best of the entire saga (at least until Lucas retroactively ruined the climax by having Vader scream “No!” but that’s a story for another article.).

It may not have been quite to the level of its predecessors, but Return of the Jedi was still a thrilling and satisfying conclusion to the greatest movie trilogy of all time, and I will never forget that opening day. My friends and I still talk about it.

The Cat and I

I’m not a cat person, never have been, never will be. I prefer the warmth and emotion of a dog to the seemingly cold stare of a cat. My family have never been cat people; we always had dogs growing up. The last time I tried to pet a cat it dug its claws into my hand and wouldn’t let go, so I pretty much steer clear now. I don’t see a scenario where I would ever live with a cat, but a recent discussion brought me back to a brief time in my life when I did.

When I was a kid my grandparents lived on a farm in a small town called Meshoppen, nestled in the mountains of northern Pennsylvania, just off Route 6. On a side note: Route 6 is a beautifully scenic (occasionally scary) road that winds its way through the mountains, a highly recommended drive if you happen to be in the area (my wife and I detoured through there once on our way back from Niagara Falls, totally worth it).

During the summer our family would make the long drive from South Jersey for a visit. One year my parents dropped me off to stay by myself. They would return later in the summer to pick me up. I don’t recall how long I stayed, it likely was a shorter duration than I remember, but our fondest memories have a way of growing larger and grander as the years go by.

While I was there I had the time of my young life: wandering around the big farmhouse and exploring the grounds that featured a pond, wooded hills, and a barn where you could climb to the loft and swing down off a rope to land in the hay below. It was like one of those summers you read about in books.

One day my grandparents brought home a kitten and offered to let me name him. I called him Garfield, despite the fact that with his gray and white fur he looked nothing like the cartoon cat–I guess it was the only cat name I could think of. He took to me immediately and we were inseparable during my entire stay. He followed me all around and when I lay down he would climb on to my chest and sleep there, his body rising and falling in that funny, heavy way he had of breathing. Our friendship was the highlight of my summer.

When it was time to go back home, I was sad to leave Garfield behind but took comfort in knowing that I would see him again. However, not long after returning home I received the devastating news that Garfield had died. It turned out that his heavy breathing was a symptom of a medical problem, something that had afflicted him since birth. I can’t help but wonder if my disposition toward cats would be different now if I had spent more time with him, had watched him grow from a kitten to a cat, but it was not meant to be. Looking back, I am glad I was able to give him affection and companionship during his short life. He gave me so much more in return.

I’m not a cat person, but for one summer of my youth, I had a cat that I loved. I’ll never forget Garfield. He will always hold a special place in my heart.

Photographs and Memories


This is one of my most personal poems, dedicated to my grandfather.  Like the previous poems posted here, this was published in the literary magazine of Rowan University in the 1990’s.

Photographs and Memories
              (for Pop Pop)

I remember finding the tattered snapshots
in a dresser in the guest room of Mom Mom’s house,
old, black and white pictures,
delicate, flimsy, warped photographs
of you as a World War II soldier
posing with various men in your squadron,
along with photographs depicting battle-torn fields
blanketed by blizzards of debris
where cities had once stood,
and one vivid picture of a building
in which the second floor had replaced the first.
Your handwritten descriptions
in decaying blue ink,
addressed to Mom Mom with love,
occupied the backs of the photographs.

I remember how well you looked in these photographs,
young, thin, handsome, vibrant, happy,
in sharp contrast to my childhood memories
of a heavy, gentle, gray-haired man
whose brain suddenly exploded
like a carefully hidden land mine.

I remember visiting you in the hospital.
Sometimes you saw me as a baby and
sometimes you saw me as a young man.
Sometimes you saw me and asked me who I was.
Sometimes you were calm and
sometimes you were volatile.
Sometimes you laughed and
sometimes you cried.
Your emotions were at war with your memories.

I remember Dad taking long walks,
head down,
staring at dead, brown autumn leaves
blowing in the whining wind
above sparse, hollow, dying grass,
as Mom dragged me the other way.

I remember the front yard of your red brick house,
playing ball with Nicky
on a hot summer day when
the garage roof snatched our ball
and our parents would not help us,
but you immediately fetched a ladder
to retrieve the ball.
A seemingly insignificant memory
it is among my most cherished,
my only concrete memory of you before the aneurysm.

I remember eighth grade English class
when Aunt Sherry pulled me out
to tell me that
you had finally lost your long battle
with Death,
you were at peace.

I remember crying at the funeral.
I don’t know if I cried more for you or for Dad.
Despite his best efforts
he could not hide his suffering,
nor could Mom Mom or Uncle Nick
or any of those whose lives you touched.
They were not ready to tell you goodbye.

I remember photographs
of all your grandchildren being buried with you.

I remember placing a rose
on your closed casket
that merged with the other roses
to form a blood-red blanket
that covered your shiny black coffin.

I remember the American Flag.

I remember traveling with my family
to the cemetery every Christmas,
standing in the biting cold
and warming your grave
with a blanket of flowers.
Recently, Mom Mom had a picture of you
in your World War II uniform
reprinted and framed
as a Christmas gift to Dad.
Your picture still stands proudly at attention
on Dad’s dresser
an otherwise dark room.
Sometimes I venture into his room
and stare at your picture through watery eyes,
wishing I could remember you better,
but thanking God I remember you at all.

Pop Pop

The Vintage Reel Award

I would like to thank Alli from The Vintage Postcard for honoring me with a Vintage Reel Award, which she created as a way of recognizing fellow bloggers in the blogging community.  It’s always nice to get a shout-out from one of my peers, and the award is a great way to encourage interaction among bloggers who share common interests.

The Vintage Reel Award is designed for bloggers to look back and recall old, valuable memories, perhaps ones that shaped who they are today and in particular, their passion for travel. Steps upon accepting the Vintage Reel Award:

1. Upload an old photo of yourself and describe a story behind it
2. Answer the 4 questions
3. Nominate 10 other nominees

1. My Old Photo

This picture of me posing with my balalaika was taken circa 1979. I chose this one because it foreshadows both my love for music and my passion for travel, and also because it ties in to my third response below.

My Uncle Kipp brought this back from one of his many trips to Russia.  I loved it and played it all the time–until, being the klutzy kid that I was, I broke it.  If I recall, the neck snapped in half, but I don’t even remember how it happened.  It would not be my last mishap with a gift from my uncle.  One year he gave me an authentic Swiss army knife, which my parents promptly confiscated after I sliced my thumb open. But I still have that knife and frequently make use of it (it came in handy during my hike of the Inca Trail last year).

Overall, what this photo represents to me is how, from a young age, my uncle made me aware of a world beyond the one outside my front door.  It wouldn’t be until my 36th year on this planet that I would finally make my first trip overseas, but the seeds were planted way back then.

2. My responses

What is your favourite childhood memory?

I had a wonderful childhood so it’s tough to pick just one memory, though standouts include road trips with my family and summers spent camping. However, in keeping with the theme of travel and adventure, I’d like to recount one summer afternoon from my childhood in Clayton, NJ when my friends and I decided to explore the forest across the street from my house.  We had ventured into those woods before, but never far.  This time we were determined to keep going all the way to the end, wherever that may be.

There was no path to follow so we just chose a general direction and off we went, forging our way into the unknown.  We met every challenge that crossed our path, including a wide stream that we traversed by climbing a tree that was bent over the stream. Imagining ourselves as cool survivalists, we even drank from a running stream that one of us claimed was clean because the water was running over rocks–lord knows what pathogens I picked up that day!

Eventually, after an all-day adventure, the end of the forest was in sight.  We had triumphed, just like all of those famous explorers who had discovered new worlds and ancient civilizations. Our own great discovery awaited to be added to the annals of history. And so we emerged–onto Clayton Avenue, a road that was about a 15-minute walk from my house. Our daylong trek had not exactly resulted in the discovery of Machu Picchu, but that wasn’t the point. I realized for the first time that the journey is often greater than the destination. I look back on that day now with a kind of Stand By Me fondness, and I’m reminded of the final line of that film, which rings largely true: “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”

Describe how you were as a child and how you are now. Are you pretty much the same in terms of what excites you and interests you?

As I approach my 42nd birthday I’m every bit the kid at heart I was at 12–and my wife might even say I’m still at the same level of maturity. 🙂  Most of what moved me then still moves me now: Star Wars, dinosaurs, outer space, history, music, sports, nature, the wonders of the world, a good book, film, or TV show that takes me to another world . . . did I mention Star Wars?

Who is that person in your life that you couldn’t live without?

Everyone in my life is extremely important to me.  From my immediate family to my aunts, uncles, and cousins, they all enrich my life in unique ways and I could never imagine living without them.  But in keeping with the travel theme of this post, I want to give special recognition to the two people who are most responsible for making my travel dreams a reality:

My wife Jen makes everything possible. Not only has she always been there for me, but she is fully supportive of my desire to see the world even though she doesn’t like to fly or travel herself. I’m very lucky to have a spouse who is okay with me going on these trips by myself, including my epic 2011 trip to Europe in which I was gone for a month! And she didn’t bat an eye when I made plans for my 2009 European trip while still looking for a job–she’s a keeper 😉

I also have to give a shout-out to my Uncle Kipp, a pro traveler if ever there was one, who introduced me to traveling and gave me the confidence to travel alone in foreign countries, culminating in my first ever solo overseas flight to Peru last year.  He has been my travel buddy for all four of my overseas trips.

Without these two people in my life, the closest I would ever have gotten to the wonders of Europe and South America would have been via my television set.

What are your major barriers to travel that you overcome in order to continue traveling? (Money, time, work, etc)

I think time is always the biggest issue given how few vacation days the average full-time employee gets here in the States in comparison to our counterparts in many other countries. An epic trip like I took to Peru last year uses up the majority of my paid time off, and the month-long trip I took to Europe in 2011 would not even be possible now (I had been a contract worker during that time, so I was able to take over a month off without pay).

The other barrier is my disdain for air travel. I’m not afraid of flying but I hate the hassle of it, so I have to psyche myself up for that portion of any trip. When I travel domestically, I will almost always choose driving over flying, even if my destination is a thousand miles away. I’ve driven from my home in New Jersey to Orlando (twice), Niagara Falls in Canada, Bar Harbor all the way near the top of Maine, and to the Outer Banks and Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. At some point in my life I would like to do a drive across the entire country, and even the multiple days it would take to accomplish that would be less of a hassle than flying.

3. My Nominees

This will have to remain a work in progress as I am still fairly new to interacting with my peers in the travel blogging community and thus have not yet built up a large base of regularly visited sites. But I fully intend to visit the blogs of everyone who has visited mine. I’ve been very impressed with the blogs I’ve visited thus far in terms of their passion for travel and the quality of the writing and photography. I can’t wait to see what the rest have in store for me.  In the meantime, I’d like to point all of you back to The Vintage Postcard, an inspiring blog that should be a regular destination for all lovers of travel.