Thank You, Julius
I didn’t have many friends growing up. Introversion was the name of the game. I found that I preferred keeping to myself, creating vast worlds within my brain wherein I could enact my fantasies, saving the world while getting the girl (though it was years before I figured out what that was all about). The other kids in the project would watch me, curious gazes on their faces as I ran around the brown and green patch of lawn bordering the street, in my mind piloting some grand spaceship through the blurring starscape to some multi-hued planet inhabited by shaggy beasts and elegant aliens. I only caught these other kids on my periphery, paying them little heed while filling the day with these adventures. I imagine it all looked very strange from the outside.
Even now, I find it difficult to pinpoint why that was. My Dad left when I was two – other than a single letter and twenty bucks around the time I graduated high school, I’ve never had any contact with him – and Mom raised me best she could, working two jobs, doing sewing for the neighbors on the side, and drinking to keep things “in balance.” I know this has something to do with it, but absent some intense therapy sessions, I expect my ignorance will keep me content. And still today, I find myself wrestling with my inability to relate to others, wishing I could string together the words that would unlock that door but unable to put this desire into action. Instead, my tongue wraps around on itself, and invariably I wander off for the corner of the bar, forced to watch “society” from a distance as I ponder my shortcomings.
There was one boy though – Julius White. I met him at the fence that separated our two housing complexes (something that still puzzles me today). It was summer, and I was just getting ready to enter kindergarten:
The sun was peeking over the slate roof, its rays glancing off the hard shingles as I sat in front of the chain link fence. Waking after Mom had left for her job at the deli, I’d gotten myself a bowl of Cheerios (light on milk, heavy with the sugar) and a glass of Coke before heading outside to play. Most of the other kids were still inside watching cartoons or something, and it was quiet in the yard. Just the way I liked it.
Wearing only the shorts and t-shirt I’d had on the previous day, I let my feet wade through the dewy grass, random blades sticking between my toes as I moved to the fence. Sitting down, I pulled out the large serving spoon I’d taken from the dish drain and set to work, digging into the hard-packed earth in the middle of one of the fence’s long sections. Today was a prison break. I needed to dig my way out before the guards caught me, and then I would need to worry about Eliot Ness and his Untouchables.
I dug for what seemed like hours when this kid from the other side of the fence came out onto his front stoop. The screen door squeaked and then slammed shut, pulling my attention away for just a second. I recognized the kid standing there, but I didn’t know his name. He didn’t seem to notice me so I returned to my work.
A few minutes later, I could feel the boy’s eyes bearing down on me. I shaved another layer of earth from the hole, scattering it over my shoulder, and then looked up.
“Hey,” I said.
“Hey,” he replied.
I went back to digging, working hard to slide the round edge beneath the hard clay that I had revealed.
“My name’s Julius, what’s yours?” the kid asked.
“David.” I didn’t look up when I said this, but continued to dig.
“Whatcha doin’?” he asked.
“Digging,” I told him.
“Oh.” There was a pause. I hoped he was considering leaving me be, but I was mistaken.
“Wanna play Star Wars?” he asked, his voice getting louder as it ran through the words.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“You don’t know what Star Wars is?” His eyes got wide as he said this, and I just shook my head no.
“Oh man, it’s awesome! It’s this movie with laser guns and lightswords and spaceships and there’s this bad guy named Darth Vader and he can hurt you by just looking at you through his mask and there’s Luke Skywalker and Han Solo (he’s really cool) and they have to fight the Empire and blow up the Death Star which is this huge spaceship with a cannon that can blow up a planet and they gotta fight the Tie Fighters and man they almost can’t do it when the Millennium Falcon comes shooting through the sun and blows Darth Vader away and then Luke shoots it all up and they get away before the whole Death Star blows up it’s the best you gotta see it!
“Here, look,” said Julius as he passed a small plastic figure through a diamond in the fence. It was brown with small fangs and fit in my hand pretty well. I turned it over, moving the arms up and around as I looked it all over. I remember telling Julius, “It looks like Bigfoot.”
“No. That’s Chewbacca. He’s best friends with Han Solo. Hold on,” said Julius as he ran back to his place, jumping onto the stoop and throwing open the front door as he rushed inside. Moments later, he was back with a handful of cards.
“These are pictures from the movie. See? Here’s Chewbacca with Han Solo, and these are the Stormtroopers (they’re the bad guys), and this is Darth Vader, and these are Jawas, and these –”
That day began a relationship that it seems, in retrospect, we both needed at the time. I’d never really paid attention to Julius or any of the other kids before, but in him I recognized the isolation that I also felt, though I couldn’t articulate that at age five. We bonded and became inseparable. I made Julius tell me about the movie every day for weeks, and then we would go off and create our own adventures. A picnic table in the back was our Millennium Falcon, a large tree on his side of the fence the Death Star, and my mom’s mixing bowls served as X-Wing Fighter pilot helmets for the two of us as we careened down the street in pursuit of phantom Tie Fighters. The rest of that summer was sheer joy, and when we both entered kindergarten together, we continued to hang out.
After school, we would play until our mothers returned home, watching the sky turn from a deep blue to smoky gray and then to black on those few good days left until fall turned to winter. Our babysitters didn’t care – and eventually our mothers realized they could save money by having the same girl watch the two of us – and used the time for talking on the phone. It felt perfect.
A year later, Julius and his mother moved out of the spot on the other side of the fence. He didn’t tell me he was going away – probably didn’t know what to say. But I remember thinking something was wrong when he came out one night before heading to bed and passed me his Chewbacca figure through the fence. I wasn’t sure what he was doing – all he told me was that he wanted me to hold on to Chewie for him – and the next day when I came out to the fence with the action figure, I spent most of the day waiting for Julius to join me and take it back. But he didn’t come out onto his stoop that day, or ever again.
The rest of my days in school were spent walled off from others, taunts and ridicule something I just needed to get used to.
Almost twenty-five years later, I walk the floor of the Rosemont Convention Center just outside Chicago. This is my first major pop culture convention – Wizard World 2001 – and I haven’t thought of Julius for too many years. It’s hard to fathom how much that early friendship helped mold who I am now. I’m here on Dark Horse’s dime, one of the new artists working on their line of Star Wars comics. And yet, it didn’t click with me how, without Julius’s friendship, I probably would not be here. Not until I finally got this chance to wander the floor late in the first full day.
Winding around the far corner of the hall past a table heaped with cheap “celebrity sex” tapes surrounded by the stereotypes that still permeate these events, I come across a vendor selling vintage Star Wars figures. And right in the middle of his display is the classic Chewbacca figure. It doesn’t have its bowcaster and the paint is faded, but I need to have it. The guy wants twenty bucks for it. I buy it anyway.
Holding the tiny prize in my hand, I continue my walk, searching the faces of those kids that were dragged here by their parents. Coming to a long line for Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness (they finally made Superman cool again), I find what I’m searching for. The kid is staring over his father’s shoulder – he doesn’t look more than three or four – mouth wide in reaction to the gaudy display surrounding him and his dad. His eyes look just like Julius’s, at least the way I remember them. I walk up and hold out the figure to the boy. His lips pull back into a smile as he takes the Chewbacca figure in his hand. I put my finger to my mouth, telling the kid this is just our own little secret, and his eyes twinkle as he waves to me. I wave back as I retreat into the crowd, my vision blurring as tears overcome me.
Thank you, Julius.