I shared this story once a lonnnng time ago on my old Official Star Wars Blog, but as all that content was given the superlaser treatment ages agone, I figured I’d rewrite it here for May The Fourth, International Star Wars Day.
It was probably my fourth or fifth birthday, as I remember it. My buddy Dave was over for the occasion an we were playing my room, probably either GI Joe or Star Wars figures, when my mom came in and said;
“Hey kiddo. Somebody’s here to see you for your birthday.”
I figured it was some relative or something bearing gifts, but when I idly asked “who?”
She answered, “It’s a surprise.”
So I knew it wasn’t.
That got my disengaged from my toys and present company, and Dave and I skedaddled out into the kitchen to the door that led to the front hallway.
The door opened just as I got there, and I ran smack into the stomach of whoever was coming in.
When I looked up, I think I felt all the blood drain out of my head.
Darth Vader was towering over me.
Now these were the 70’s, the days before widespread costuming and fan culture so far as I know. When a ‘character’ came to your birthday it was probably gonna be a magician or a clown…maybe a guy in a Superman outfit. To have a character from a popular franchise appear in your house was unheard of.
Reality collapsed in that terrible instant. Even then, though I was a pretty imaginative kid, I mostly understood the concrete difference between fact and fiction and watched things with a hopeful disconnect; hopeful for the things in movies and books that were wonderful, and securely disconnected from the things that were dark.
So here I was looking up at Darth Vader, the Dark Lord Of The Sith (according to his byline in my well-worn Star Wars Storybook). The guy who killed Ben Kenobi and Luke’s parents, and could choke you out without even laying a finger on you. I’m pretty sure he was even doing the breathing, possibly with a tape recorder disguised as his life support regulator on his chest. The top of that shining black helmet brushed the top of the door frame so he had to duck to come in, and with those blinking chest lights and that voluminous black cape, it looked like he was stepping right out space itself.
Somewhere 8mm film of this encounter exists, though I don’t even remember my Aunt Barb being there with her camera.
I guess my family thought I’d be thrilled.
If it had been Han Solo, or Luke, or Chewbacca, I probably would have been. Jesus, even Hammerhead (yes yes, Momaw Nadon) would have been a treat.
But Darth Vader, he was evil.
I have never since that day screamed in fear, but I know it’s possible, because that’s what I did. I just lost it, and started shrieking and crying all at once, totally uncontrolled, just heaving, vomiting abject horror. I turned tail and ran out of that kitchen in less than twelve parsecs (yes, I know it’s a unit of measurement), and literally dove like a baseball player sliding into home plate under my bed and I stayed there for the rest of the party.
Nobody could coax me out, not even my grandfather, who once brought me home from the neighbors after I ran into their house and took similar cover in the face of my father’s terrible rage the day he came outside from lunch to find me painting the side of his 1931 Model A stark white with paint from the can that had been left next to the drying garage door.
My buddy Dave was a braver soul than I. He went out there and orbited Vader for a while (they gave him a chair in the living room) grinning sheepishly, till the Dark Lord reached out to him and tried to pick him up. I know this happened because I saw the film later.
He started whimpering in Vader’s grip, and when he was released, he scurried off and joined me under the bed.
I’m not really sure what happened next, but apparently Darth Vader went outside and walked around the block a bit (I guess just taking in the sights). I think he passed by Hegewisch Records, because when I looked out my window, I saw him returning with an army of kids of every age following him. Even teenagers.
After a bit, my mom came into my room and asked Dave and I if I wanted to come out, as Darth Vader had taken off his mask.
NO! I think I shrieked. Of course not! Was she crazy? God only knew what horrors dwelt behind those fathomless black lenses. In my mind, he looked like The Orb from Ghost Rider, that evil motorcyclist who had ditched his bike and went skidding along the pavement on his face and was no horribly disfigured behind his big eyeball helmet (see HERE).
But Dave, again, the braver of our dynamic duo, slipped out and left.
A few minutes later he came back and said;
“It’s OK, Ed. He’s just a regular guy.”
“Really?” I said.
“Yeah. He’s answering questions about Star Wars.”
So I went out there, and found all these kids sitting on the sofa and on the floor and leaning against the wall of our front room (even teenagers!). It looked surreal in there. In my mind’s eye I can see this guy with dark curly hair (my blurry memory has retroactively cast him as Eric Begosian) sitting in a folding chair, totally Darth Vader from the waist down. He was passing his helmet around to the curious kids and talking, like a strange Sermon On The Mount being related to the scruffy, long haired and bell-bottomed cast of The Bad News Bears.
The kids were asking him Star Wars questions, like what was going to happen in the next movie (there’s a next movie? How’d they know that??), what was it like on Chewbacca’s planet (I’m sure he got his answers from the Holiday Special, which I clearly remember watching, even though for years nobody believed me when I swore it existed), etc. My buddy Dave asked him how they made the Millenium Falcon fly.
To us, this guy was the first ambassador of Star Wars. He might’ve been the actor from the movie as far as we knew, and we all treated him like a visiting dignitary. He graciously answered every question, and if we ever stumped the guy, I don’t remember it. He sure sounded to me like he knew what he was talking about.
Later that week, I can remember my mother showing me an article in the local newspaper about the guy who had played Darth Vader at my party, how he went around to other kid’s parties, and movie openings, etc. I wish I still had the clipping, but I’m pretty sure it’s long gone. I sometimes wonder whatever happened to that worthy fan. He was my earliest encounter with the extended Star Wars community, something my writing has brought me into contact with more in the last few years.
From one guy doing the rounds of kids’ birthdays, Star Wars costuming has branched out immensely, perhaps culminating in the illustrious 501st Legion, an organization which itself has evolved from a simple themed costuming club to a worldwide organization that uses its public appearances, and diverse volunteer and fundraising resources to contribute to a number of worthy charity events (check ’em out HERE).
I’ve seen them in action around the various Cons and parades. They’re level of quality is unparalleled (and they’re not nearly as terrifying as my first experience).
May The Fourth Be With You
A little update. A friend who grew up in the same area as me (Calumet City, Illinois was where my house was) read this post and sent me this …..
Ed, loved your story about Darth coming to your party. I remember wanting Darth Vader to come to my party when I was a kid, but I got the magician instead. Anyway… when I was living in Homewood before I moved to NY, I was at the local target right around Halloween and I was checking out the DVDs. I am a member of the 501st and had a midwest garrison patch with a stormtrooper on it on my jacket. This guy who had to be in his 50s or 60s was checking out the DVDs as well and he kept looking at my patch. Finally, he asked me about it and I told him what the 501st was. He said that he was a huuuuge Star Wars fan and that right after the film came out, he made this pretty close-to screen accurate Darth Vader costume. He said he’d wear it and go to birthday parties and local events. He was a really cool guy and we just stood there talking about Star Wars and Halloween for a good while. Finally we parted ways and left it with a “nice to meet ya. “I’m sure I’ll see ya around.” I wonder if that was the same guy. Hahah! I can’t imagine there were too many guys from the southwest suburbs doing that kind of thing back then. hahah!
Awesome. Whether it really was the same guy or not, in my mind, that was him.