‘Return of the Jedi’: 39 years ago

The last installment in the original Star Wars trilogy, and the last really good film of the franchise, Return of the Jedi hit theaters 39 years ago today.

A lot has already been written about the original Star Wars trilogy, and how and why these three movies were better than the more recent ones. So I won’t add my two cents, because you’ve already either heard or read it.

One side note, however:

The Princess Leia gold bikini scene was supposed to have been an enduring fantasy for adolescent and teenage boys at the time. This even became a topic for an episode of Friends in 1996.

I was 15 in 1983, and I made note of the scene. Carrie Fisher certainly looked fetching in the gold bikini. But for me, at least, that aspect of the movie was secondary. 

Return of the Jedi was just an entertaining, swashbuckling science fiction film like they seldom make anymore: pure escapism, and lots of fun. With or without the gold bikini.

Appliances: they don’t make them like they used to

As the above meme suggests, home appliances aren’t as durable as they used to be. Not only refrigerators, but especially refrigerators.

I recently replaced a General Electric refrigerator that was only a few years old. The compressor (manufactured in a sweatshop in China, no doubt), had died.

On the other hand, the refrigerators of my youth seemed to go on forever. Throughout most of my childhood and early adult years, my grandparents owned a refrigerator that was older than I was. And not just by a few years. They had purchased it when JFK was in the White House. It was 1987 or 1988, and their refrigerator had rolled off the assembly line in 1961. 

Of course, those old refrigerators didn’t have any computer chips. But who really needs a computer chip in a refrigerator, I ask you.

Why I’m not a “car guy”

I will freely admit that I have never been much of a “car guy”. To me a car has always been little more than an appliance. Not all that much different from a washing machine or a refrigerator. I spend a lot more time oohing and aahing over the latest Apple technology than I do over the latest offerings from any of the automakers. 

Most men much under 55 are similar, I’ve found. (The exceptions are pickup truck guys, but they’re a different breed, entirely.)

This is definitely a generational thing. Almost all of the car guys I know are over the age of 60, which means that they started driving in the 1970s or earlier. 

I started driving in 1984. It was around this time that cars all started looking more or less the same, and not very exciting at all. 

For example, check out the “K Car”, a popular car of the 1980s. The K Car was basically a shoebox on wheels. Yet so many cars built during the 1980s followed this pattern.

Vehicles of the 1990s, 2000s, and beyond became even more uniform in shape and appearance. Can anyone really tell the difference between a Kia Sorento and a Toyota Highlander without looking at the grill emblem? I certainly can’t—and I drive the latter car. 

Now look at these cars that Chevrolet put out in 1972: the Camaro SS, the Malibu convertible, etc. And (of course) the venerable El Camino. 

Now these were cars worth getting excited about. 

No—I wasn’t driving in 1972. (I was four years old.) But many of these cars were on the road well through my early adolescent years. Trouble was, they already represented the last of the fading classic car era. 

Why are cars so similar today? We can blame Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, as well as changes in the marketplace. 

The era of the classic car is now over. And with it, I would argue, the era of the “car guy”.

1980s VCRs: a lot of money for a little technology

Today video-on-demand is everywhere, including on your phone. But 40 years ago, things were very different.

When I was in junior high (1980 – 1982), it was quite an event when one’s parents broke down and purchased a “programmable” VCR.

Of course, “programmable” is a relative term. Any of these VCRs would be…I don’t know…1/100,000th as powerful as an entry-level 2022 iPhone?

Nevertheless, these early Reagan-era gadgets were expensive for their time. The cheapest VCR in the ad below, priced at $989 in 1981 dollars, is the equivalent of $3,128.07 in 2022 dollars. And that VCR would be suitable for nothing but landfill today.

1980s Cold War films, and the 2022 ‘Top Gun’ sequel: ‘Top Gun: Maverick’

Given that 1980s nostalgia is a frequent topic here, some of you have asked me how I feel about the upcoming sequel to Top Gun, which has been titled, Top Gun: Maverick.

I should probably first say a bit about my experience of the first one. Top Gun was released to theaters in May of 1986, now 36 years ago. I was just getting out of high school then. 

I have always had a liking for action movies, so of course I saw it. I enjoyed Top Gun, but (let’s be honest here), I also found it somewhat lightweight and forgettable. 

Top Gun was conceived, written, and produced at the height of the Reagan era, when triumphalist Cold War films were all the rage. This was also the era of Rambo, Red Dawn, and a Rocky film that sent Rocky Balboa to Moscow to face down a Soviet boxer. 

Don’t get me wrong, here: I would have voted for Ronald Reagan in 1984 had I been old enough. So if you’re looking for any whining about healthy patriotism or a strong defense policy, you’ve come to the wrong place. 

But that same schtick gets boring, film after film. Top Gun, for me, was never much more than a predictable date movie.  Another war movie of 1986, Platoon, struck me as far more thoughtful and serious…much as I came to disagree with Oliver Stone on other matters in later years. 

The first Top Gun seemed to have had the biggest impact on younger GenXers who were in grade school or junior high when it came out. One of my former work colleagues, who is eight years my junior, was ten years old in the summer of 1986. He has told me that Top Gun became a virtual obsession for him that year.

What about the sequel? Based on the trailers, I actually think that it might turn out to be better than the first one. I miss the 1980s, in many ways; but the 80s were not, on the whole, a great decade in film.

It has also been noted that Top Gun: Maverick includes at least one female fighter pilot role, that of Phoenix, played by Monica Barbaro. 

Speaking again of my high school years: at least two women from my class served in the US Armed Forces after graduation. I did not. So women fighter pilots in the Top Gun sequel are okay with me.

On the whole, I’m looking forward to seeing the new Top Gun movie, which will hit theaters on May 24. Should be a fun time. 

I can’t wait to see ‘The Black Phone’

The Black Phone stars Ethan Hawke, whom you’ve seen in many other films over the years. Based on the trailer and what I’ve read online, this seems to be a supernatural serial killer film set in 1978.

I was 10 years old in 1978. That was an age before cell phones and helicopter parenting. An era of suburban kids disappearing for hours at a time on their bikes. Much of the time, nobody knew exactly where you were. Your parents certainly couldn’t track your whereabouts on an “app”.

This wasn’t parental negligence. It was just the way things were then.

The 1970s was also the heyday of the serial killer. Growing up in that era, we were taught to be on the constant lookout for “stranger danger”. Especially male strangers driving vans. 

This movie seems to tap into a lot of generational fears for people of a certain age (my age).

If the movie is as good as the trailer, I expect it to be a big hit with horror fans over the age of 40…or anyone interested in the fears of that increasingly receding time, the late 1970s.

The Black Phone will hit the movie theaters in June. Count me in!

College textbook memories: 1986 “Introduction to Poetry” text

I’m a packrat by nature. You should therefore not be surprised to learn that although I graduated from college in 1990, I still have many of my college textbooks. 

I purchased the above text in 1986 for an English class (obviously).

The above textbook cost $25 when I bought it. If that sounds cheap to you, I’ll point out that this would be $65.58 in 2022 dollars. So perhaps college textbooks have always been overpriced. Also, minimum wage was $3.35 per hour in 1986, and $4 to $5 was considered a “typical” hourly wage for a student-level job.

I haven’t written or read much poetry since I took that class. 

Why? While I’m more than willing to tilt at windmills, even I have my limits. The market for poetry in the English-speaking has never been great…at least in modern times. The editor of the above text, X.J. Alexander, points this out in an essay near the end of the book. He describes a “poetry glut”. And keep in mind: the above textbook was published a decade before the Internet or Windows 95, back when people who wanted to write had to actually use typewriters or pens. Now we can write entire books on our cellphones.

Like most overly introspective teenagers through the ages, I wrote my share of bad poetry between the ages of 15 and 17, or 1983 and 1985. Teenage crushes, feelings of being misunderstood, and generalized adolescent angst all tend to produce bad poetry, like May weather produces dandelions.

No—you will never see any of those old poems of mine here. All of those old pages disappeared in the chaos of a move in 1988. This was no great loss, neither to me, nor to the American literary canon. 

Another nice thing about the pre-Internet era: the potentially embarrassing things we wrote, said, or did tended to disappear with the passage of time. As they should.

Memories of Waldenbooks

Before there was Amazon, before there was Borders or Barnes & Noble, there was Waldenbooks.  The all-American mall bookstore. 

There was one of these in both of the malls near my house. As I’ve noted before, I’m a child of the 1970s and 1980s, and I grew up in the Golden Age of the American Mall.

I bought a lot of books at Waldenbooks in those days. (I was a lucky kid, and my mom bought me books when I was too young to buy them myself.) 

In those days, my favorite authors were John Jakes, James Clavell, and Stephen King. I also liked the nonfiction of Carl Sagan. (That was the heyday of Cosmos, too.)

The selection in the most well-stocked Waldenbooks was but a fraction of what is available on Amazon. And there were few discounts; most titles sold at full price. Because there was no online competition.

I’m not claiming that it was more economically efficient, or even better for reading. But those mall bookstores…they became sources of great memories for those of us who came of age at a certain time in the American suburbs.

Childhood memories, and writing about World War II

My grandfather in the Atlantic Ocean, 1943

World War II has been on my mind and in my fiction a lot of late. 

I’m presently finishing up the last book in The Cairo Deception, my WWII-era suspense/drama series. The most recent installment in The Rockland Horror, my historical horror series, takes place in 1945. The plot of The Rockland Horror 4 is intimately bound to the events of World War II.

To be clear about the title of this post: no, I do not have firsthand childhood memories of World War II. I was born in 1968, twenty-three years after the war ended. By the time I became aware of names like Pearl Harbor, Hitler, and Hirohito, the war was at least thirty years in the past.

My grandfather, however (pictured above) was a WWII combat veteran. He served in the Atlantic in the US Navy. His experiences were roughly similar to those depicted in the 2020 Tom Hanks movie, Greyhound.

From a very young age, I was captivated by history. And what better way to learn about history, than by listening to the stories of a relative who actually took part in it?

My grandfather regaled me with his accounts of Egypt, Russia, the United Kingdom, and Syria. He also told me stories about fighting the German U-boats and Messerschmidts. 

My grandfather was, in many ways, my first “action hero”. His experiences, though, were very common among men of that generation, who have been called (for good reason) the Greatest Generation.

I don’t remember a thing about World War II. But some of my fondest childhood memories involve listening, with rapt attention, while my grandfather told me about it. He has been gone for decades now, but I still miss him, and I miss his stories. He gave me an enduring interest in World War II, and it isn’t surprising that the war should show up in some of my stories. 

1980s Atari flashback

(The above video clip is courtesy of the Twitter account 80sThen80sNow. Check them out on Twitter if you’re into ’80s nostalgia!)

I was in junior high in the very early 1980s, just in time for the Golden Age of the Mall Arcade.

In those years, the mall arcade was the place to play video games. There were two large shopping malls in my part of Cincinnati, Ohio. Whenever I’d managed to save up some quarters, I would finagle a ride to the mall and play.

My favorite games were: Asteroids, Battlezone (see below), Space Invaders, Missile Command, and—of course–PacMan. 

By late 1980, though, Atari started selling reliable and affordable home game system consoles that hooked up to a standard color television set. My parents surprised me with one for Christmas, 1980. (Hey, I had an idyllic childhood and loving parents. I won’t deny it.)

After so many years, I can’t be certain of the exact model; but it was probably an Atari 2600, shown below.

My Atari phase lasted through the 8th grade. When I entered high school in the fall of 1982, I’d moved on to sports, rock music, and girls. (Well, I moved on to sports and rock music. I was still clueless and awkward around girls at that point; but they certainly captured my attention.)

Video games were never more than a youthful phase for me. Video gaming was different in the 1980s. There was no “gamer” culture as there is today. (Or at least there wasn’t in my environment.) And of course, the Internet as we know it was still more than a decade away.

I have never been a gamer in my adult life, either. I’ve looked at the various role-playing video games available nowadays. They’re incredible, compared to what we had in the early ’80s. But I’m happy to leave them to others. I have more than enough on my plate already.

That said, I had a lot of fun with video games for a few years in that window between childhood and early adulthood. Lots of good memories, too.

This week in the 1980s: A Nightmare on Elm Street 3

Thirty-five years ago yesterday, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors hit the theaters.

Five Nightmare on Elm Street movies were made in the 1980s, with two more in the 1990s.  Oh…and one more (Freddy vs. Jason) in the early 21st century.

The first movie in the franchise, released in 1984, was brilliant. As far as the subsequent ones go….Well, this may have been yet another case of Hollywood trying to ride out a profitable concept for a bit too long. 

Kind of like The Walking Dead in more recent times…which is now in its 11th season. The Walking Dead stopped being really good about seven seasons ago, IMHO. 

My last Halloween (the true story)

How egg-throwing teenage boys ruined my last trick-or-treat

My novel 12 HOURS OF HALLOWEEN is a supernatural coming-of-age tale about three young friends who endure the trials of a 12-hour curse on Halloween night, 1980. To survive the night, they must battle vampires, animated trees, and the horrific creature known as the “head collector”.

12 HOURS OF HALLOWEEN is one of the most autobiographical novels I’ve ever written. Like the characters in the novel, I was 12 years old in October 1980. The suburban Cincinnati, Ohio setting is very similar to the one in which I spent my formative years.

That said, the main character of the story, Jeff Schaeffer, doesn’t have much in common with me, or with the boy I was more than 40 years ago. And while I had a group of friends, neither Leah nor Bobby is an exact representation of anyone I knew back then.

Oh, and I never did battle with any of the supernatural creatures that appear in the book.

Here is another point of fabrication: I went on my last trick-or-treat in 1979, not in 1980.

I set 12 HOURS OF HALLOWEEN in 1980 because some of the themes I wanted to explore required an adolescent perspective; and I was twelve in 1980, not in 1979.

But like the characters in the novel, I was somewhat torn (as were the adults around me) about the appropriate age for giving up the trick-or-treat ritual.

In the culture of those times, you were generally okay for trick-or-treating up to age ten or eleven. But once you reached junior high, well, people would give you funny looks if you showed up at their door on October 31st, asking for candy. And once you reached high school, you were definitely too old.

***

In 1979, therefore, my friend Ken and I decided to go out for “one last Halloween”, kind of like the characters in the novel. (Ken, being a year older than me, actually did turn twelve that year.)

I wore a prefabbed costume from Kmart. I don’t even remember what it was. (I seem to recall a green skeleton, but I can’t be sure.) Ken, however, had one of the coolest Halloween costumes I’ve ever seen—before or since.

This was the early Star Wars era, and every kid was a fan. Ken was no exception. His mother made for him a very elaborate imperial stormtrooper costume. This was not something store-bought. She made the whole thing from scratch. It was amazing.

Halloween 1979 in the Cincinnati area provided a clear, pleasantly cool autumn night. We set out a little after 6 p.m., and everything went fine…at first. Then we crossed paths with a group of teenage boys, a hot rod, and some eggs.

***

One thing I’ve noticed about the 21st-century: suburban teenagers are less mischievous than they used to be.

This could be because of helicopter parenting. How much trouble can you get into when your parents are tracking your movements on a smart phone app? Kids today are also very absorbed in virtual worlds of different kinds.

In the late 1970s, however, adolescent entertainment consisted of whatever was on network television (cable TV didn’t become common until about 1982), books, and other young people.

And since there were no parental tracking apps, your parents typically had only a vague sense of your whereabouts at any given moment.

In this atmosphere of fewer ready-made distractions and much less supervision, there were more motives and opportunities for getting into trouble. And plenty of teenage boys jumped at the chance.

***

This particular group of teenage boys, riding around on Halloween night 1979, had decided that it would be fun to throw eggs at the kids who were still young enough to go trick-or-treating.

They were obviously selecting their victims at random. I will retroactively blame Ken for our being singled out. His solid white stormtrooper outfit really did make him a target.

The car—it must have been a Dodge Charger or a Trans Am—slowed down as it approached. Ken and I had no time to assess the situation, let alone take evasive action. Then someone in the passenger seat threw some white objects at us via their rolled-down window.

The car roared away before we realized what had happened: they had pelted us with eggs.

Ken had been walking closest to the road, and he was a mess. The stormtrooper outfit his mother had so painstakingly crafted was now smeared with dripping yellow egg yolk.

Some of the eggs had splattered on me, too…though not very much.

After that, we decided to call it an early night. Neither one of us wanted to walk around dressed like an omelette.

At least the boys didn’t throw rotten eggs at us, I would think later.

***

My guess is that the egg-throwing foray was a spur-of-the-moment thing for the boys.

Speaking of the teenage boys: I never learned their identities. Whoever they were, though, they would all be pushing sixty in 2021.

***

So that was how my last Halloween went, in 1979 and not in 1980. By Halloween 1980, I decided for myself that I had had enough of Halloween and trick-or-treat. It was time to let that childhood ritual go.

Halloween, nevertheless, retains a strong grip on my imagination. 12 HOURS OF HALLOWEEN was therefore a very fun book to write as an adult.

***View 12 HOURS OF HALLOWEEN on Amazon***

The first ‘Star Wars’ generation

I remember sitting in a cinema one day in the early summer of 1977. I was just shy of nine years old, so I was there with my dad.

My dad wanted to see this new movie called Star Wars.

I didn’t really know what to expect, but my dad (then barely in his thirties) was excited about it. So I went along, too. My mom had no interest the movie. (My mom liked very few movies that didn’t involve horses.)

I remember watching the opening scenes. The big spaceships on the big screen. Oh, man, I was immediately hooked.

I know: this essay has already veered into cliché. By this point, everyone has seen those scenes in the original Star Wars movie. The CGI effects in 21st-century movies like Avatar, moreover, have since surpassed our collective ability to be visually amazed.

But keep in mind: in 1977, the average feature film was a Burt Reynolds movie that relied on conventional car chases. (In fact, one such movie—Smokey and the Bandit—was released within a few weeks of Star Wars.)

Most of the available science fiction in 1977 was campy and already a decade old. There was Star Trek, of course. But Star Trek was made in the 1960s, and it showed in the production values.

There was also Lost in Space, which had its original prime-time run between 1965 and 1968. (Oh, and the first season of Lost in Space was in black and white.)

I won’t tell you about Star Wars and how it was different because well…you already know. But you might not know what it was like to be part of the first Star Wars generation.

To truly get that, you have to have been there.

America in the 1970s was an unsettled place. The country was on a hangover from Vietnam, the counterculture, the 1960s, Watergate.

Many of the Baby Boomers, then at the peak of their childbearing years, were trying to reconcile parenthood with all the Me Generation stuff.

I should note that my parents were the exception in this regard. I had wonderful parents and—on the whole—an idyllic childhood. But my childhood was the exception. This was an era of small families, divorce, and adults working in parenthood as an afterthought. The 1970s was not a child-focused decade, on the whole.

This showed up in the marketplace. Corporate America didn’t put out much entertainment for children, because the demand wasn’t there, like it was from the mid-1980s onward. For most children, circa 1976, Saturday morning cartoons (mostly reruns from the 1960s) were the highlight of the week.

But then there was Star Wars. If you were a kid in that era, Star Wars was not just a movie, but a way of life…or a way of play, anyway.

Star Wars trading card, 1977

Publishers cranked out Star Wars trading cards and comics. Toy manufacturers rushed light sabers and action figures to market. There was always something new to buy…or to beg your parents to buy.

Burger Chef, a now defunct fast food chain, issued a set of Star Wars posters in 1977. Each one was given away with the purchase of a double hamburger meal, or something like that. I talked my parents into acquiring all of them.

My bedroom became a shrine to Star Wars. My room contained not just the posters, but all the paraphernalia I could acquire.

Burger Chef Star Wars poster 1977

I’ve watched the more recent Star Wars movies. I know that the last few have been controversial among longtime fans. I’m not interested in wading into that debate. For me, the first three movies—Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983) are the only three “canonical” ones, anyway.

These three films traced the end of my childhood, effectively. I was nine when the first one came out. When Return of the Jedi hit the local cinema, I had completed a year of high school.

But this is about more than mere nostalgia. In recent years, the culture wars have invaded science fiction, superhero comics, and whatnot. There was little appetite for that in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Why? That era was already full of gloomy, abstruse movies that were overloaded with “message” and “issues”. And in the 1970s, the issue du jour was the Vietnam War, which was still very much in recent memory.

And so we got turgid, barely watchable films like The Deer Hunter (1978), Taxi Driver (1976), and Apocalypse Now (1979). In 1978, I remember hearing a news story about a Vietnam vet shooting himself at a screening of The Deer Hunter. That movie is incredibly gloomy and depressing to watch, as are the other two. (And the Jodie Foster scenes in Taxi Driver, in which she plays a child prostitute, are downright bizarre by today’s standards.)

Star Wars offered a break from all that. Star Wars was a movie about a war in space that didn’t ask you to think about Vietnam. Nor did it ask you to think about the nuclear arms race—another big “issue” of that time.

The original Star Wars trilogy had a relatively diverse cast. It wasn’t all white males in the spotlight. Who can imagine Star Wars without Carrie Fisher, after all? And the third movie of the original trilogy made a major star of Billy Dee Williams.

And yet, Star Wars didn’t ask audiences to engage in endless navel-gazing about race and gender. (These matters now greatly preoccupy the fandom of science fiction publishing, but that’s another “issue” for another time.)

The original three Star Wars movies were simply fun. They weren’t controversial. They didn’t try to change your worldview or your politics. Practically everyone liked them. (Even my mother relented and saw the second and third Star Wars movies, despite their lack of horses.)

And if you were a kid in the late 1970s, Star Wars was larger than life.

I’ll close with a blunt assertion: I think it’s high time for the film and comics industries to retire the franchise. To put this in perspective: I was not quite nine when the first movie came out. I’ll soon be fifty-three, and they’re still riding the Star Wars wagon, trying to squeeze a few more million out of the original story concept.

But who cares what I think? Maybe I’ll see the next Star Wars movie, and maybe I won’t. It’s not like I’m boycotting them. But like I said: for me, the first three are the only ones that really count.

In the dog days of summer, “think January”

Today I mowed both my lawn and my dad’s lawn in 90-degree, near 100% humidity weather.

I sweated about two gallons. That was five hours ago, and I’m still trying to rehydrate myself. More water, please!

(Note: The only truly pleasant season in Southern Ohio is late autumn, from about mid-October through Thanksgiving. The rest of the year, the weather here swings between various disagreeable extremes. So…don’t move to Southern Ohio unless you have to. The weather here sucks.)

Today’s sweltering heat brings back a particular memory: In late August of 1982, I began my freshman year of high school. My high school had no air conditioning.

I recall taking an afternoon English class on the second floor of the school. It was hot, really hot. The entire class was sweating.

And let me be clear: this was 1982. It wasn’t as if air conditioning hadn’t been invented yet. So why wasn’t the school air-conditioned? I wondered.

Our teacher, in a wry acknowledgement of our suffering, wrote the following on the blackboard one afternoon before beginning the day’s lecture:

THINK JANUARY

That brought a laugh—or at least a chuckle—from every 14-year-old in the room. And for whatever reason, I’ve never forgotten it. Today, almost 40 years later, I shall be “thinking January” with the above photo.

(I actually took the photo on February 10th of this year; but that’s close enough.)

Wherever you are, dear reader, I hope the weather is more pleasant today in your part of the world. I repeat: don’t move to Southern Ohio unless absolutely necessary. The weather here sucks.

Two songs for Father’s Day

Today is Father’s Day, at least in the United States.

If you were fortunate enough to have a relationship with your father, and if your father is still alive, take a few minutes today to show him your appreciation.

I was blessed in this regard. I had a good relationship with my father (who is still with me) and my grandfather (who passed in 1998).

There are many memories of them both that I could relate. Perhaps I’ll get to that later in the day. For now, though, I’m going to leave you with two songs about fathers and fatherhood.

The first of these is Dan Fogelberg’s “The Leader of the Band” (1981), which explores the father-child relationship from the child’s perspective. The second is Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” (1975), which looks at fatherhood from the father’s perspective.

Both are worth listening to and reflecting upon as you begin Father’s Day, 2021.