In 1978, the second-graders at Maplewood Heights Elementary School had a complex system for determining one’s place in the social hierarchy, an algorithm that took into account height, athletic prowess, popularity, sense of humor, intelligence, affluence, and a myriad of additional variables.
A year later, though, all of that had changed. By the time we entered third grade, social standing was solely determined by one factor: the level of one’s devotion to Star Wars.
There were a number of ways you could advertise your Star Wars Fandom Quotient. The most common was to mention, frequently, how many times you had seen the movie. Everybody had a number, and everybody’s number was inflated. For example, I was an eight; but even accounting for the birthday parties I attended that year—and, that year, every birthday party involved a screening of Star Wars—I probably saw the film four times, maybe five, tops. No way did I see it eight times. Not a chance.
But that was the thing with your number: It couldn’t be disproved. There was a kid in my class who said that he’d seen Star Wars 40 times, and no one could confirm otherwise.
So to get any sort of concrete verification of a kid’s Star Wars Fandom Quotient, you had to go to the next level: merchandise acquired. Which action figures did he have? Which playsets did he own? Which lunchboxes did he use to cart his fruit leather to school each morning?
And it wasn’t about quantity, about who had the most stuff—it was about who cared enough to get the really rare items. Like the Bantha Tracks newsletter that was only sent to Official Star Wars Fan Club members, or the Boba Fett action figure that could only be obtained by collecting four General Mills proofs of purchase. That’s why the Star Wars trading cards were so popular: They were a physical manifestation of a person’s Star Wars Fandom Quotient. Having a complete set, or acquiring one of those extremely rare cards—that took real dedication. I remember there was one impossible-to-find card with a misprint on it, so it looked like C3PO had an enormous erection. Man, that card was almost legendary. If you had that card, you were the prince of the playground.
And I did OK for myself. I had the Star Wars bedsheets and the Millennium Falcon spaceship and the Escape From the Death Star boardgame and the Han Solo blaster that made authentic Beeew! Beeew! noises. But none of that elevated me above the crowd, nothing served as conclusive proof of my boundless enthusiasm for everything Star Wars.
And like many others, I had a copy of The Star Wars Storybook. My parents had given it to me as a gift, and on the title page had written, “To Matthew—Merry Christmas in 1978. From Mother and Daddy with lots of love.” A very nice gesture, to be sure, but let’s be honest: The fact that my own parents had autographed the book added nothing to its social cache.
Then one day, as I was reading the comics in our local newspaper, an advertisement caught my eye. It said that Darth Vader—the Darth Vader!—would be making an appearance at a nearby department store. I immediately cooked up a plan. I would take my copy of The Star Wars Storybook to the mall, and Darth Vader would sign it, and I would take it to school, and then … and then I would be a hero.
Somehow I managed to talk my mother into my plan. The following Saturday we woke up early and drove to the store.
Darth Vader was on the second or third floor—I don’t remember which, but I do recall riding up an escalator, and having this idea that the whole affair would be very intimate, just Darth Vader and me and maybe a couple of other kids, sitting around and chatting amicably about our favorite droids. Alas, that fantasy was quickly dispelled. When we arrived at the floor I could see Darth Vader in the distance, on the opposite side of the room, with a long, snaking line of boys between us.
My mother and I queued up. All the kids in line were wearing their Jawa T-shirts, whacking each other with their plastic light sabers, and boasting about their Star Wars Fandom Quotients. But here, of course, there were absolutely no checks or balances. These kids were from all over town, and we knew we’d never see each other again, so we were free to say whatever we wanted to. “Oh yeah? I’ve seen the movie 77 times. And the C3PO boner card? Sure, I got that—don’t you?”
After about 45 minutes of waiting, I was close enough to the front of the line to see how this operation was being run. The usher (Darth Vader has an usher—who knew?) would allow kids to approach Vader, alone or in the company of a parent; they would approach and exchange a few words, or ask for autographs, or simply stand there, awe-struck. The whole setup was very reminiscent of visiting Santa Claus, except that instead of being a jolly old elf, the guest of honor was a guy who could choke you to death with his mind. And, you know, nobody sits on Darth Vader’s lap.
By the time it was my turn, my excitement had reached a fever pitch. The usher gestured to me and I rushed forward, Star Wars Storybook in one hand, Magic Marker in the other.
But then, as I came face-to-chest-panel with Darth Vader, I was abruptly cowed. He was huge! And he had exactly the sort of dominating presence you’d expect of a guy comfortable turning planets into cobble. I was struck dumb, like a mouse that had just spotted an owl.
I don’t really remember what happened next. Maybe I managed to squeak out my request, maybe I held the book out, maybe Darth Vader just realized that, if he didn’t do something, this kid was going to remained paralyzed in front of him for the remainder of the day. In any case, he took the Storybook, wrote something inside, and handed it back. A moment later the usher appeared and herded me off to the side.
My mother was obviously ready to get out of there, so she took my hand and half-led, half-dragged me toward the exit, while I shambled along like I’d just survived a plane wreck. But I snapped out of my daze as we reached the escalator. “Wait wait wait wait WAIT!” I cried, jerking my hand out of hers. “I wanna, I gotta—I gotta see what he wrote!”
I opened The Star Wars Storybook to the title page, and there, in exactly the big, formidable, looping scrawl you’d expect, was the autograph: “Darth Vader.” I began gloating immediately. My friends at school were going to be sick—physically sick!—with envy. I was going to be the biggest man on our tiny campus, of that there could be no doubt.
But then, as I was closing the book, I noticed something else.
As I said, my parents had personalized the book, writing, “From Mother and Daddy with lots of love,” on the title page. But while signing my book, Darth Vader had altered the inscription. He had taken the Magic Marker and scratched out the word “love” before signing his name below. In fact, the page now read “From Mother and Daddy with lots of… Darth Vader.”
I don’t know if it was because I was tired, or because I was crashing from the excitement and terror, or because I was just surprised to learn that Darth Vader was a really mean guy. But for whatever reason, I burst into tears when I saw what he’d done.
My poor mother stood by my side, dutifully trying to comfort me, patting me on the back and saying, “Well now, Honey. He is the Imperial Dark Lord…” But I was inconsolable.
Eventually my mother took my hand again and gently led me forward. And as I walked to the escalator, continuing to bawl, I could see the kids in line looking back at me, curious why I was crying, and then slowly turning to face Darth Vader with fear in their eyes.