chapter 70: the beginning

from the very beginning, all i ever wanted to be was an artist.  art comes in many forms, and my earliest conscious focus was visual; but my imagination, and my instinctive need to create, ran the gamut.  i was inspired by the world around me, and captivated by the world which could exist, versus the world which did.  i suppose, in that regard, i was an idealist.  but really, take out the “L.”  i had a passion for original ideas, be it mine or someone else’s.  whether it was a cartoon on a page, a movie i was watching, a dream i had, or a fantasy which took place in my mind, with monsters or wizards, superpowers or spaceships; i was keenly aware of what the mind could do, and if the body could follow suit, that was even better.  but either way, bringing into existence what did not previously exist–which is what all art is–was really the only thing i cared about.  anything imaginative, be it physical manifestations or even mere ideas, including new information–knowledge which changed my world or gave me a new perspective regarding it–compelled and mesmerized me.

one of my earliest memories takes me to a dark movie theater at 4 years old, watching Star Wars on the big screen.  It was the scene where everything came together in a perfect culmination of sci-fi fantasy heaven.  han, luke, leia and chewie end up in the garbage compactor, faced with the imminent closing of the walls, which spell certain doom.  C-3PO and R2-D2 frantically attempt an override of the system, as luke shouts commands via his super cool, space-age walkie talkie.  add to the mix laser guns, the princess’s brash wit, and han solo’s cocky give-and-take with her, then top it off with chewbacca’s growls and wookieness and–GASP–a mysterious and dangerous monster swimming in the water, and you’ve got enough dramatic tension, excitement, comedy, exhilaration, and other-worldliness to make a mark that 34 years can’t erase.  that scene, as well as the rest of the movie, stayed with me.  Star Wars became my obsession, as did the characters, the gadgets, and the prospect of unprecedented adventure.

after seeing Star Wars, i could hardly think of anything else.  i wanted to live in that universe.  i wanted to be in that adventure, fighting, running, flying, saving, winning…i wanted to know Leia, Han, Chewbacca…and Luke.  but moreso, i wanted to BE Luke.  in retrospect, Han was perhaps a more entertaining character.  but Han was a foreigner to my childhood frame of reference; he was a man–an experienced, confident smuggler.  a rich character, to be sure, but it wasn’t possible for a kid to be that, well, solo.  and therein lay the brilliance of Luke’s disposition.  he was an outsider to the struggle of the galaxy.  he was an innocent.  he was a nobody.  and compared to the conflict between the Rebellion and the Empire, and all of its politics, history, intricacies and involvement, he was a kid.  and so was i.  i could relate to him.  my existence was mundane, compared to space battles and epic ramifications of multiplanetary attempts at independence from an evil galactic stronghold.  i WAS luke.  in my mind.  not a jedi.  not a Rebel.  just a kid.  and then, in a moment of destined greatness, i was turned into a key figure in the journey to peace, a hero in the making, a future master of a lightsaber and the all-powerful FORCE.

because of my desire to be in and around the incredible space opera i’d witnessed on the silver screen, i quickly latched onto the Star Wars merchandise mania.  i wanted it ALL.  the action figures allowed me to tell my own story, to live through the characters as they convened and colluded, plotted and ployed.  and most of all, FOUGHT.  the romantic element of Star Wars made perfect sense to my young mind– there was good and evil; there was a clear distinction of who should win.  and so, in my hands, the good guys did just that, over and over and over.  but perhaps even more important than the action figures, were the toys.  plastic replicas of the real things allowed my imagination to put me in the places and situations which only great star warriors know.  i was Luke.  AND Han.  and sometimes, i was MYSELF, a character in my own right, a hero aiding heroes.  gripping my black blaster, i shot at storm troopers.  wielding my flashlighted saber, i fought Darth Vader.  i ran around our house in rural Eastern Valley, claiming victories for the Rebel Alliance.

Eastern Valley was a galaxy all its own.  rows of streets and rows of houses meant legions of kids.  it was a paradise for a young Rebel.  i’d moved there early on, having lived previously just a mile or so from our newly built brick house with blue shutters.  a house, thankfully, that kept me close to another warrior.  as a collector of everything Star Wars, i had as much as my parents and Santa Claus had allowed, but i needed more.  equipment; weapons; atmosphere.  and a teammate– reinforcement in the fight.  fortunately, i wasn’t alone.  my Star Wars curtains and toys weren’t the only ones in the neighborhood; there were others, in other bedrooms, in other houses, all over the movie-going universe.  and most luckily for me, some of those were less than 30 yards away, in the bedroom of my very best friend, my nextdoor neighbor, Jason Handley.  my family had moved beside Jason’s in Eastern Valley when i was only 2 years old.  before that, we’d lived in a small area known as Jonesboro.  Bessemer, Alabama wasn’t a very big place; it was where i’d been born, shortly after my parents moved back from Oahu, Hawaii.  my father had gotten out of the military, and after being employed at U. S. Steel, he’d managed to purchase a lot and build a house, at 1003 Ferro Avenue.  this was the place i would forever think of as home.  it was where my imagination would develop, where i would be a child forever in my memory.  and living so close to another kid my age, i would join forces with a partner in every kind of adventure; in addition to Star Wars characters, we were superheroes; the A Team; rappers; and every other thing we could possibly think of.  we wore capes made of towels in the summers; we set traps in the woods and claimed an opening in the middle of the miniature forest as our clubhouse.  we pretended to be witches, stirring a magical brew in the rain-filled tree that held the tire swing in Jason’s backyard.  we were best friends, from the time we were old enough to play in the floor with cars and his mini city playset, complete with a gas station that went “ding.”

my family’s first meeting with Jason’s occurred abruptly:  while my parents were working on their newly acquired empty lot, my mother met with a swarm of bees.  she ran frantically to escape the stings of an angry, flying mob; and with nowhere else to go, she ran…right to the Handleys’ front door.  and let herself in immediately.  right into their living room.  unannounced.  uninvited.  unknown.  they were watching television in their living room, and all of a sudden, a 20-year old girl opened their sliding glass door and jumped in.  that wasn’t the last time someone from my family would open that door; Jason and i became the best of friends, and our front doors were forever revolving.  we spent the night with each other, played outside and in my basement, and when Star Wars came out, we plunged headfirst into a galaxy far, far away.  i had han solo’s gun.  Jason had a Star Wars projector.  we would go into his bathroom and shut the door, and in the dark watch a miracle–a Star Wars movie, all our own, before the days of big screen televisions or home theaters; before the era of the VCR.  we had our own movie theater, with the movie screen placed somewhere above the toilet.

my friendship with Jason influenced my life in more ways than i will ever know.  having someone there, just nextdoor, meant that i was never alone.  i had a partner, in any activity that interested me; and so did he.  my sister wasn’t so lucky.

when i was 4 years old, in january of 1977, i was staying temporarily at my grandmother’s house in the community of Raimund, just a few doors down from our church, Raimund Heights Baptist.  i can still remember being downstairs with my mother, who’d just arrived, as she held the new bundle in her arms.  that bundle was my first and only sibling.  my mother tells me that, when i saw Dana, i ran and hid.  i guess i didn’t want to play second fiddle.  but those feelings went away, and i accepted my plight as the older brother.  there were no kids Dana’s age within the cluster of houses around ours, and so all she had was me and Jason.  i wonder who and where she would be right now, had the Handleys had a daughter her age.  i was extremely fortunate to have Jason, but i lucked out in other ways, too.  and one of my life’s most important strokes of luck occured when i was 5 years old.

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