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You’ve probably seen or heard the numbers by now. At halftime on Monday Night Football, over 16 million viewers tuned in to ESPN to watch the debut of the final trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The trailer had 30 million views on Youtube in two days. Facebook eclipsed one million views in the first 20 minutes alone. That’s pretty insane for a 38-year-old film series whose last installment came out 10 years ago.

So why did three minutes of footage from a film that does not come out for another two months strike down Internet servers in Darth Vader-like fashion? Why did I have butterflies in my stomach around 10:15 Monday night? Why was I as a chatterbox on social media that night? Why did I ask my wife to take my hand and watch the trailer with me?

As a 43-year-old man who grew up watching the first three episodes of this films series (or middle three films, whatever) the answer is simple-Star Wars was ingrained in my childhood. There is no other piece of popular culture that was more impactful. It’s a nostalgic overflow of so many wonderful memories, many based on friendships. I often associate each of the first three films released with a specific memory.

Star Wars (1977, age 5)-On my hands and knees in the living room of our home in Fayetteville, N.C., I’m staring down at the movie section of the newspaper. My 14 year old sister had agreed to take me to the movies, a quick walk to nearby Westwood Cinema. I’m not reading movie titles or looking at start times, but rather looking at the advertisements for the movies and creating plots for each movie based on the image. One really stuck out.

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Whoa, what’s going on here? Why is this guy holding up a flashlight in his pajamas? Why is that girl holding a gun, and more importantly, why is she wearing earmuffs? Do they know there is a giant Halloween mask behind them? Before I could formulate my own answers, my 14 year old sister walks in. “Richard, do you want to go see a movie called Star Wars? You want to ask your friend Todd Hurley?”

That’s how it all started. Not just a passion for a film series, but a galvanizing moment of a friendship with Todd Hurley that lasts until this day. From there it was arguing who was going to pretend to be Luke or Han, Christmas morning phone calls of  “What Star Wars stuff did you get?!?”, and endless speculation of the Star Wars universe and mythology.

Todd and I roomed together in college and he served as the best man in my wedding. We live in different cities now, busy with our families, careers and all the other grown up stuff. Yet the first text I receive Tuesday morning….

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The Empire Strikes Back (1980, age 8)- I’m sitting in my classroom at school and the school secretary gentle knocks on the frame of the open door.

“Mrs. McNamara-Richard’s parents are here, “ said the secretary to my 3rd grade teacher.

Mrs. McNamara nodded and looked at me.

“Have a good day, Richard, “ she said with a knowing smile.

Wait. What’s going on? Why were my parents here? In the middle of the afternoon? On a Wednesday? Was I in trouble? I quickly went through my mental checklist. Good Grades-Check. Nice to my sister-Check. Kept my room clean-Define “clean”, but check. Why in the blue blazes were my parents here?

A little backstory here-my parents were workaholics. They were schoolteachers by day and ran a professional driving school at night. During the school year, they were employees for the state of North Carolina during the day and teach at night for their own business. On weekends, they would do “roadwork” (practice driving a car) with the students. During the summer, they would do a shortened version of the driver’s ed class, where one would do class work during the day while the other did road work. So yeah, “Latchkey kid, table for one?”

They were also not the most affectionate couple. I gravitated to reruns of television shows like The Brady Bunch and Leave It To Beaver because the perception of marriage/family life was so foreign from what I witnessed on a daily basis. I never saw them kiss, hold hands or any show any signs of intimacy. My parent’s relationship was nothing more than a business partnership. While I’m appreciative of the love and support they gave raising me, a spade is still spade.

The secretary escorted me to the main office where I found my Mother and Father smiling.

“You ready, boy?” my Dad asked.

“What are y’all doing here? I thought you had a teacher work day and were going to work at the school all day. Somebody die?” I asked.

My mom rolled her eyes. “No son, were going to take you to see the new Star Wars movie. Your sister’s in the car. Come on,” my Dad said.

“You mean…you’re taking the day off…and pulling me out of school…to see The Empire Strikes Back?” I asked, looking around for the hidden camera.

“Uh-huh” my mother replied.

We walked outside to the car where I found my sister in an equally aghast state. We both stayed silent, like when teammates of baseball pitcher throwing a no-hitter, fearing we would jinx this moment. Is this life?

As we all walked hand and hand to the box office at the Bordeaux theatre, the sun was shining as it gently kissed the movie title on the theatre marquee. Anxiously waiting in line, my parents both looked down at me and smiled.

I believe in heaven and hell, but I believe the former isn’t a bunch of angels playing harps, streets of gold, crystal clear rivers or any of that stuff. It’s a reliving of these moments; snapshots of happiness from a lifetime.

Return Of The Jedi (1983, age 11)- I was pissed. My family had just moved us from Fayetteville to Red Springs, N.C. No offense to Red Springs. I lived there until I came to Raleigh. I had some of my fondest memories as a youth in Red Springs and developed some life-long relationships. When I refer to “back home”, I am referring to Red Springs.

But look at from my perspective at the time-in Fayetteville our house was at the end of cul-de-sac in suburbia. We had a swimming pool. A few pedals of my bike and I was at my best friend Todd’s house. Cut through the woods in our back yard, and I’m at the The Short Stop convenience store where I got my weekly stash of comics and giant Icee. As an 11 year old, being uprooted away from this Shangri-La was borderline traumatic.

The new Star Wars movie Return of the Jedi had been released. Toddy Hurley and Fayetteville seemed like a galaxy far, far away. I was borderline resentful to my parents. They probably envisioned me ten years from then armed with a rifle atop a bell tower.

My mother was particularly sensitive to my unhappiness and was particularly excited to share some news with me one day.

“Richard, there’s a family from Florida that just moved up the road. They have a son named close to your age named Eddie. Eddie Cook. I hear he LOVES Star Wars,” she announced.

I walked over to Eddie Cook’s house that day, more or less to appease my Mother. I knock on the door and Eddie’s mother appeared.

“Well come in! Your mother’s told me all about you!” she said in a sing-songy voice. I became a little suspicious.

Mrs. Cook took me to Eddie’s room, where I found Eddie quietly sitting on his bed, shoulders hung with despair. I was looking at a mirror of myself. What I later realized that Eddie and I were in the same boat. Plucked from the places we grew up and to a place we were unfamiliar and alone.

There was some small talk. Not that much common ground to be found. Until something in his closet that caught the corner of my eye.

Screen Shot 2015-10-23 at 9.53.51 AM“Hey, is that an Imperial Troop Transporter?” I asked, staring intently at the Star Wars toy. Todd and I hade seen this toy in advertisements but it never graced the shelves of Service Merchandise, Best, Roses or any of our other hunting grounds. It was as mythical as Bigfoot.

“Uh, yeah” Eddie replied, head perking up. “You like Star Wars? “

Eddie not only was into Star Wars, he collected Star Wars. He was that kid (or the kid) who stored the toys in the boxes then came in when not playing with them. He had everything, complete and in stellar collection. The value of the collectible’s in today’s dollar could put my children through college…and their children.

Another friendship forged, courtesy of George Lucas. Later that day, his mom asked us if we would like to go see Return of the Jedi in nearby Lumberton. As Eddie and I sat in the theatre, waiting for the lights to dim, I thought to myself “You know what? Red Springs is going to be alright.”

I could not really get in to the last three films released. They all came out during a time in my life when I was focused on other things. Also, they were not that great, in my opinion. They failed to capture my imagination like the previous three.

So why am I giddy as schoolboy about the next film? Is it because this latest installment has brought back characters from original trilogy? Is it because I have children and I want to see their reaction for the first time? Is it because I have developed Star Wars-based friendships via social media with my buddies Sherrell, Nick, and Andrew whom I can share excitement?

Actually, it’s all of the above. It is a “force”. A force of nostalgia. A force of joy. A force of friendships.

And it has awakened.

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