In 1977 I learned I could hold my breath for over a minute. I was proud of myself and thought maybe I had a special talent. But then my sister held her breath for three minutes. Are you kidding me?! So drepressing… and suspicious. I started thinking my parents had adopted her from circus people.
I did a pretty good impression of President Jimmy Carter back then. My mom pushed me out in front of people at family reunions. I’d stand straight and hold my hands together and recite the President's campaign promises.
“My name is Jimmy Carter and I’m so happy to be here. I like peanuts. Do you like peanuts? If so, then vote for me. Let’s bring peace to the Middle East.”
The real secret was to smile while I was talking and rock my head side to side.
Our hillbilly relatives never got it though. “What you reckon dat youngin be doin?”
“Gonins ons bout somewheres called the Midda East.”
“Reckon that’s down yonder where those Seuter boys carry on throwin beer cans at poor folk.”
“Oh we oughta stop that kind-o be-hayver fer sir-tan.”
So in 1977 things were normal.
But then my grandmother passed away from a bad heart. We were all sad but she was old and been sick for a long time. It wasn’t unexpected.
However at the wake, after the funeral, my Aunt Thelma stood up and made an announcement. “I just want you all to know I’m going to die next.”
“What are you talking about?" Cousin Viki said. "Are you sick?”
“No. I just got a feeling. I’m passing soon.”
Uncle Bob, who had seven kids and lived in a camper, stood up. “Now Thelma. As you know I’m Minister at the Mayberry Church of Christ and Roadside Barbeque. I can speak with authority about this and I say you are not going to die and god has other plans for you. Amen. Halleluha.”
Aunt Thelma shook her head. ““No hallelulah amen brother Bob. I feel it in my heart. I’m going to die - probably before football season.”
That got everyone’s attention. Everyone talked at once.
“Now wait a gosh, darn second,” my mom stood up. “I have junior-college medical training. You’re going through emotional stress. Let me feel your wrist. Yes. There it is. Your pulse is fast and possibly erratic. You need to sit down, have a hot toddie and you’ll foget saying anything of the sort.”
But Aunt Thelma refused a hot toodie and pushed away everyone else who tried to console her. “I won’t be around for much longer,” she said. “I just want you all to know so you won’t be shocked when it happens. Okay. That’s all I want to say. Let’s get into that food before it gets cold.”
She didn't have to tell me twice. I made like a monster for the KFC mash potatoes and chicken. I found a seat on some stairs above and behind my cousin Johnny who was a giant and had a habit of sneaking up, grabbing me by the ankles and holding me upside down until I cried.
The more I chewed, the more I thought about what Aunt Thelma had said. I’d read books on the subject of supernatural abilities. The only people who could see the future were wizards, Voodoo preists and witches. But then there were no such things. Those were stories. Only god could see the future, if there was one, or a computer that somehow knew everything.
Aunt Thelma was just emotionally affected by everything as mom had said. Aunt Thelma was the leader of our family. She was tough and smart and wasn’t afraid of a fight. She could milk all the cows on her farm and lift a bale of hay over her head and cut the heads of chickens no problem.
But then a few weeks later she was killed in a car accident by a drunk driver at an intersection I knew. It was on the way to Granpa’s house and was lined by long hedges and seemed mysterious and dangerous.
At the funeral home, Uncle Jim, who had been in the accident with her, limped around on a stick. He held his bandaged head and stared at the floor. His face was cut and brurised, and his spirit was obviously broken.
He was an Indian, the great grandson of Appachee chiefs and the toughest guy I knew. I could not imagine something so terrible as to do that to him. I got a vision of him trapped in the car with his wife, my aunt, as she died over the course of the night before they were found in the morning. I felt overwelhemed with sadness and crushing despair. I found a corner and sat on the floor and hugged myself but I couldn’t help shaking all over.
The next day I was playing in Kevin Sanford’s sandbox next door to our house. I was mindlessly filling cups with sand and water, and handing them to Kevin who planted them as sand castles in a chain across the yard.
Kevin didn’t talk much or smile or laugh or show any emotion unless he fell down and hit his head. Then he would scream like a tea kettle on boil. I suspected he not a real kid but a space alien replicant. I’d like a more responsive friend but there really weren’t any other boys my age in the neighborhood.
Once we had a long chain of sand castles we would ride our bikes over them, crushing the imaginary kinghts and ladies living inside. At least that’s what I planned. I had no idea what Kevin thought.
But then my dad walked over from our house and stood over me. This was weird. Dad never came into the Sanford’s yard. He didn’t see eye to eye with Mister Sanford after the Great Lawn Clipping Incident.
I wondered what he wanted. Why wasn’t he saying anything? Maybe he’d lost his mind with everybody dying and would now wander the neighborhood standing over people. Mom had convinced him to get a perm to look like her favorite singer Tom Jones and his hair blew in the wind looked like a mole living on his head.
Then I thought maybe someone else had died and he was thinking up the right words to tell me. Maybe my lot in life was hearing bad news and going to look at dead people and eating KFC.
“Want to see a movie?” he said.
I threw down the castle I was making right there next to his shoe. These were magic words every kid longed to hear. Of course I wanted to see a movie. “What movie Dad?”
“It’s called Star Wars,” he said.
I never heard of this movie. My first thought was that was a dumb name for a movie. I might have just been a kid, but even I knew it was impossible for stars to make war on each other.
But even dumb movies were good movies. Just seeing things on screen and sitting in nice seats and eating popcorn was glorious.
I yelled over to Kevin who was now placing sandcastles on top his dog’s head. “I’m going to see a movie with my dad!”
He didn’t even look up.
“Okay. See you later then!” I yelled.
We arrived at the theater in the middle of the day. There was no wait. We bought our tickets and sat in seats in the middle. Dad loaded me up with popcorn, licorice and Mountain Dew. This was very nutritious for a growing boy.
The lights dimmed and the movie rolled. Spaceships flew across the screen, guys in vests fought a battle with guys in white spacesuits, they shot laser guns at each other, a guy in a black cape and mask lifted a guy off the ground with one hand, robots talked, old guys handed out light swords, spaceships jumped to light speed, a pretty princess told jokes.
My jaw hung open. I was pinned to my seat. Afterwards, my head was bursting with questions. How does the force work? Are C3PO and R2D2 real robots? Did other kids know about this?
I wanted to be Han Solo and be a rogue and have a constant friend who could rip arms out of people’s sockets.
We walked out of the theater. I could barely breath. I pulled on my dad’s sleave. “Dad, dad, dad…”
“I don’t think life will ever be the same.” I wanted to devote myself to the ways of The Force.
He looked down at me and kinda smiled. “No. It probably won’t.”
I went back to see Star Wars a couple days later with a school friend. The line was around the block.