Strange New England

A Compendium of History, Folklore, and Evidence of the Unexplained

Strange New England
Strange New England
The First Kid to See Star Wars...
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There are moments in your life that shine like stars in the darkness and light your path and as you remember your past.  Such memories are safely couched in the narrative of your youth and from time to time, they can send a message to you, from far, far away.

One such moment occurred in the year 1977 when I was  fifteen years old. On a late May afternoon, I was perhaps the first person to see the movie Star Wars in the continental United States. Well, maybe. It’s a big claim, I know, but since I have no way of determining the absolute place of the first viewing of Lucas’ masterpiece in the U.S., I believe it is at least possible that I was the one of the first, to witness the spectacle and the wonder that is Star Wars.

I had seen Lucas’ American Graffiti twice at the Caribou Theater in Caribou, Maine in 1973 when I was only eleven years old. A callow Richard Dreyfus was desperately seeking the blonde in the Thunderbird all night long, roaming the California streets to the growling rasp of disc jockey Wolfman Jack’s records spinning endlessly while hot rods roared and fevers rose. For two dollars and fifty cents, I was no longer a young teen in a dark theater in northern Maine. No. I was sitting alongside a young Harrison Ford as we raced down Petaluma Boulevard, racing against time. You see, what was true for me was also true for most of the people in my generation – movies showed me a world I had only seen in the dark recess of a theater. I wanted more.

I grew up in a trailer in the middle of an old potato field. It was a nice trailer and the potato field was well-mowed with Chinese elms lining the road, but it was essentially the truth of my life that I lived a long way from anywhere in a backwater that might as well have been on another another planet. You had to drive for three and half hours through nothing but trees to get to something that even approximated a city. We had three channels on the TV, one of which was an amalgam of CBS, NBC and ABC, the only one of its type in the country. The other two channels were an early PBS and CHSJ from Canada and it was grainy, at best. It was an era of sitcom Saturday nights when I met with my old friends Archie Bunker, Mary Tyler Moore, Alan Alda, Bob Newhart, and Carol Burnett. The glow of the Zenith television tube bathed our shag-rugged living room with the warmth of other cities and other lives and I was a country boy temporarily transported to these places. There were whole days when I wanted to do nothing more than watch television.

I spent a lot of time with my dad, who owned a mobile home business in downtown Caribou across the street from the LaVerdieres store on the Access Highway in Caribou, Maine. Dad let me tag along with him, which relieved the boredom of hanging out in the country all day. I wasn’t a hunter or a camper, so the prospect of hanging out downtown all day was kind of exciting. Dad had a mail  box in the post office and he would send me in with his key and I would return with a pile of envelopes and mountains of junk mail and oh, so delicious magazines which I poured over and devoured whenever I could get my hands on them.  sw_article_pg_1_and_2Dad subscribed to four: Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, Readers’ Digest and Time Magazine. It was an early summer day when I got the issue that portrayed a strange vehicle sitting in a desert scene and a young blonde man standing next to it, with a robot or two nearby. It was the issue that introduced Stars to the World, proclaiming it to be “The Year’s Best Movie.” Even now as I compose this, I am sitting in his cawindow down and a cold glass bottle of Coca Cola sitting between my legs, my mirrored sun-glasses, reminiscent of Erik Estrada’s from CHIPS resting nimbly on the edge of my nose and my face buried in the pages of an article that detailed a new thing called Star Wars.

I did nothing but talk about it for days and days. I re-read the article and burned the photos from the article into my brain. I had loved science fiction since the time when my father took us to 2001: A Space Odyssey four times in the Presque Isle Cinema fourteen miles away, once during a blizzard. Dad’s friend owned the theatre and while we watched the film, he sat in the man’s office and visited while my brother and I ventured into the future. I never understood the ending, or the beginning for that matter, but the middle part took me into space and I was there. No really, I was in the Odyssey spacecraft running alongside Dave Bowman as he exercised. But this new film promised me more than I could imagine. I needed to see it. I required it. It became my purpose.

I thought of little else for the rest of the summer. Of course, I had no real idea what lay in store for me and the millions of other fans of the series, but I had an inkling and that was enough. When I saw the ‘Coming Soon’ posters at the Caribou Cinemas just down the street from by father’s office, I marked it on my calendar, determined to be the first, or at least one of the first, to see Star Wars in my hometown.

My mother’s cousin, a man named Roger Paul, was the projectionist at the Caribou Cinemas. I knew him only slightly, but well enough to know that around the perimeter of his bedroom at my great Aunt Annie’s house were detailed models of every movie monster to grace the silver screen. There was the Wolfman, the Thing from Another World, Frankenstein and Dracula, and the Mummy, among others. His love of film was almost certainly as deep as my own and I developed a simple plan.

Putting on my best smile, even though I was a teenager and should have been over such fawning and begging, and I asked my mother to speak with her cousin and see if there was even the slightest possibility that I could have my very own private viewing, just the projectionist, Star Wars, and me. It was a long shot, I’ll admit, but my mother knew how much I loved science fiction and after all, I was her baby, even though I was all of fifteen . As a boy, one of my earliest memories was being huddled under the afghan ( we always called it the af-a-gan) watching Star Trek with my family in the middle of a northern Maine winter, except I was a member of the crew of the Enterprise and I was going boldly where no man had gone before…and I’m not talking about the Ladies Room.  I grew up wanting to be Captain James T. Kirk.   I had lofty goals.

My mother made the call and Roger Paul, that wonderful man, agreed to give me one of the greatest gifts of my youth. I would watch Star Wars several hours before anyone else in the city.  I would have the honor of knowing that I was one of the first initiates into the World of the Jedi.

I hardly slept the night before and I read and reread the Time Magazine article until the pages were dog-eared and thin. Even Christmas held no greater anticipation for me.

I arrived at the empty theatre a little after three o’clock in the afternoon and knocked on the door, putting my hand over my eyes as I tried to peer into the dark void of the lobby. In a moment, Roger Paul unlocked the door and let me in, looking both ways to ensure that no one saw him let me in.

“I’m not supposed to do this,” he explained. “Don’t tell anyone. I might get fired.”

“Geez, thanks, Roger Paul,” I replied. I never knew if I was supposed to call him Roger, Roger Paul, or maybe just ‘Rog.

“That’s okay,” he said, giving me a considered look. “You love the movies, don’t you?”

“Yes. Almost as much as you,” I answered knowlingly.

Roger Paul was a lot older than me and he was a wildly flamboyant man, better suited to the big city night life than the quiet little place we called home. He was as out of place as I would find myself to be. Even though many years separated us, we were blood and we had a shared interest…no, a shared passion, for the stories told on film in the dark, as we allowed our minds to suspend disbelief and journey to far places we could never really go. The movies were that far shore whose sands we could never actually touch. But we could dream, we could reach, we could pretend, for roughly two hours at a time, in Panavision.

“You want to watch it with me, up in the projection booth?”

“Really? Yeah, sure!” I answered, barely able to curb my enthusiasm.

I had never been in a projection booth before. Many times I had glanced back while sitting in the glorious dark at the little square of glass and the light diffracting as it forged its way through, throwing dreams on a white screen to urge us onward and make us forget our own daily drudgeries. I had no idea what to expect.

It was a long, narrow room high atop a set of stairs, almost completely occupied by two massive projectors. He had already threaded the first two reels on each projector. As one film reached its end, he watched for the two little dots to show up on the edge of the screen and that was his cue to start the second projector and turn the first one off. He looked at me excitedly and asked, “Ready?”

“Ready,” I replied.

He flicked the switch and I stood next to the little window and watched as the words appeared over a star field and then the yellow rolling lines of test came into view and when they were lost in the distance, the largest space ship that I had ever seen began to roll its underside over me and I was lost.

I can’t remember much except that for the next two hours, the real world outside ceased to exist and I was lost in an alternate reality. I had never seen anything like this film, had never comprehended that such a simple story could have so much power and that so few characters could epitomize the meaning of heroism for me. Soon I would need to become the hero of my own narrative and my rite of passage was on the horizon only two years away. I can’t recall just how time stood still and caught me off-guard, ready to fall into a maelstrom of Tie fighters, X-wings, banthas, droids, wookies and Jedi Knights from the Old Republic.

I do remember taking a moment and looking over at my second cousin, Roger Paul. He was looking through the other little window, as enthused and enraptured as I was, and though he was older, he was lost, too. For a brief two hours, we shared a singular event. A simple thing, to watch a film together, to cheat and see it first before most of the viewing public had a chance, but that small act of kindness and that little bit of rule-breaking gave us something special. We were both longing for another world, a chance to prove ourselves away from the old hometown, just like Luke Skywalker. We did not know what lay in store but we were willing to take a leap of faith, if not in the Force, than in something greater than ourselves.

We may not have been the first people in North America, other than the film-makers, to see Star Wars. Movies came weeks later to our town, long after they were released in the big cities, even though once in a while, we got the big movies first.  We were definitely the first to see it in my neck of the woods and this is something that I will always treasure. There’s no way to quantify or prove it, but I knew in my heart that I was among the first to experience something wonderful, something beyond my own imagining, something new in the world of the imagination.

Roger Paul asked me how I liked it when it was all over. I had no words. I think I said something like, “Great. Thanks!” But whatever I said, it paled in comparison to what I felt. I left the theatre, the bright sun of the late afternoon burning my eyes like the twin suns of Tatooine.

Roger Paul left for some southern city soon afterward, never to return,  and I had to find my own way. My father wanted me to go into business with him, but I had other ideas. The Universe was too large a place for me to stay in this farm country for long. There would be long distances to travel, but one day, we would leave this place and find the princess and ally ourselves with a wise teacher and a wise-cracking friend and if we drove a Pinto instead of the Millenium Falcon, well, that was just because we lived in the real world, even though our hearts were in a galaxy, far, far, away.

Tom Burby

Thomas Burby is the owner of strangenewengland.com and the author of THE LAST BOY ON EARTH and THE SEVEN O'CLOCK MAN, both available on Amazon.com. Mr. Burby has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Maine and an MSEd in the Science of Education from the University of New England. He loves a good scary story...

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