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Greetings from Tatooine, Arizona

While my father died in a galaxy far, far away, "Return of the Jedi" began filming a few miles from my house


Erin Keane
June 15, 2019 5:00PM (UTC)

When Luke Skywalker storms away from his aunt and uncle’s table after being told he has to stick around to work on their moisture farm for yet another year, he lopes upstairs and out onto the dusty flats, kicking rocks, silently cursing this sandbound life. Against a bruised sky, Luke drinks in the setting of the desert planet Tatooine’s twin suns—red at night, sailor’s delight—and sees nothing but wasteland: he doesn’t belong here and his blood knows it. He has too much of his father in him, the forlorn trumpet of John Williams’ score keens. An arid breeze ruffles the rippled dunes of his hair. So swells the strings in reply: That’s what I’m afraid of.

When my big brother John and I act out that scene, I always want to be Luke. It is November 1981 and John is obsessed with "Star Wars," so of course I am too. He leads me through the movie’s best parts, jumping from scene to scene, improvising new ones, with the action figures from our pockets, with our own bodies, at the airport gate. We are being flown to the desert after Mom packed a U-Haul trailer and drove her record collection and Nana’s china and her battered copy of "12 Poets" and her starched white nursing cap across the country, leaving our father, the apartment on Fairview Avenue, and all of Jersey City behind her. I am barely five. In months, our dad will be dead.

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Snow swirls around the Denver airport—a layover, a word we just learned, on Hoth we’ve decided, slicing invisible tauntaun bellies open to shelter us from the cold. "The Empire Strikes Back" toys are still the hottest thing to have. Our uncle is escorting us to our destination. What’s the cargo? Only passengers . . . and no questions asked. This must be some kind of diplomatic mission, or maybe reconnaissance, to be smuggled on board with only a distress call programmed inside me. Surely we’d be back on our home planet soon. I didn’t know then that Alderaan could really be blown to bits like that.

Grandmother and Grandfather had retired to a sleek ranch house in a town called Yuma in the Arizona part of the Sonora desert, on the Colorado River across from Southern California, where the warmth in late autumn feels dangerously foreign to our sweater-weather arms. Southwestern Arizona's landscape is alien to my East Coast city kid eyes: palm trees and cacti, dusty rock everywhere, the constant rainbowing whoosh of sprinklers on manicured lawns. Orange trees just grow in people’s yards, any time you want to grab one and eat it you can, they’re like acorns. The trees are painted white up to the point where the branches shade the trunk, to better deflect the damaging ultraviolet rays that also scorch my pale, delicate skin if I'm not careful and covered. In the desert even trees get sunburns. I am scolded for peeling flakes of white off the bark of the orange tree in the front yard. It’s so tempting, though, to worry my little fingernail under an exposed flap of latex, to see how long and uninterrupted a curl I can cultivate if I am patient and diligent and attract no attention. If I am very focused, I believe, I can skin this tree alive.

A letter from Daddy arrives right after we do. It’s long and chatty and upbeat, as if we are all just on separate vacations, as if the power he carries inside him to destroy an entire planet is just a rumor from a dark, distant part of the galaxy. He makes his first of several entreaties for us to do well in school, to help Mom out, for John to look after me, for us to make friends and to ask for help with spelling if we need to when writing him a letter. He wants to work, but there's no work. He closes with the wrong pop culture reference, because he’s older, though how much older we don’t yet understand: If you happen to see the Lone Ranger and Tonto, please ask him for his autograph.

Do we have friends yet? I don't remember any. But we only need two to play "Star Wars" if we double up on parts. I’m the girl so I’m supposed to play Leia, but I’m not a princess. Her wild-eyed defiance, her steely reserve, her quick thinking, even her regal white robes, I can’t make any of that fit me. John is the oldest so he gets his pick, can play the wise Obi-Wan or cocky Han Solo or even a chirping Jawa. He’s not born knowing how to out-draw a bounty hunter, but who is? In this new world of year-round short sleeves and cowboy boots, surrounded by strange music and stranger accents, we’re immediately marked. This playground might as well be the cantina, full of aliens eyeing us like we’re the droids they don’t serve around here. One day at the bus stop there's a boy, and he bites. He doesn’t like you. I don’t like you either! Grandfather drives by in his Airborne hat and slows his white Caddy land cruiser to a crawl. Instead of intervening, he barks a commanding officer’s order out of his window: Punch him in the nose, John! He drives away, chuckling. John curls his fingers into a fist, takes a swing, and blackens the kid’s eye instead, and a whole diplomatic mission must be deployed. And me? This little one’s not worth the effort.

* * *

I am 40 before I finally think to ask my mother why she married a man 21 years older in the first place, a man with a shady past and uncertain prospects, when she was just a girl with nothing but open doors ahead of her who could have walked away from the early-‘70s grit of the Lower East Side and gone back to the life her parents had planned any time she wanted. She explains it to me like this: She felt older than her 15 years when they met; he, then 36 and not clean for long, had lost about a decade to heroin, so emotionally they basically met in the middle. Really, when you think about it, they were kind of the same age.

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Nothing she tells me about their marriage sounds like a match of equals to me. Like the time she overheard Daddy telling a family friend, between sips of Budweiser, that once Mom finished school they would be set, he’d never have to work again. How he controlled all of their money, even after she got her GED, graduated from nursing school, and started working. One time he gave her $20 to go to the store for groceries and she misplaced it, and he berated her about her stupidity and how she couldn’t be trusted for days, maybe even weeks. When she found the bill later, folded up small in her jeans pocket, tucked way down in the crease, she gave it back to him. When she told me that story I wished I could time travel back to that day and yank the bill out of her hand before she could offer it up to him as proof that she was not what he said she was.

Violence set all this—here, I’m waving my arms to indicate the death of our family as we originally knew it—in motion, though I won’t know that until much later, when I am old enough to learn that men aren’t fixed like mountains but packed only as tight as sand, susceptible to drifts or collapse without warning. My father hit my mother. Frightened men do that. She had taken a punch before. One day she stood up to him. If it happened again she would leave. She knew how to make herself disappear. He knew that about her, or should have by then. But it started again, after kids, after she went back to school and then went to work, was making something of herself, as people like to say, as if a self isn't something already. The girl he married might not need him in the same way anymore. Some men can’t see anyone else as the hero of the story.

I can’t travel back in time to understand where his anger came from, and who he was when he met her and how he became that way, but I also can’t leave it alone. A thing people like to say about the dead is that they're never gone as long as they're loved and remembered, but how much of the truth am I supposed to know, to remember? So much was kept quiet for so long, key facts have either disintegrated in the seams and corners they were hidden in or else transformed into slippery legend. So I try to construct a prequel. I make inquiries. I check facts, hoping they’ll illuminate the truth. I request his service record from the Marines. I scroll through hours of microfilm in New York City archives looking for what, I'm not sure. I make a blind request for federal criminal court records, guessing at a date range, that hits pay dirt: Now, in addition to the letters he sent to us in the time between the November we left for Arizona and his death the following April, I have pages and pages of Southern District of New York filings and transcripts for a federal counterfeiting case he caught in August 1962, four charges in which he pleaded guilty to trying to pass phony $20 bills, as intercepted by a federal agent.

When the state lottery jackpot swells to the hundreds of millions I play one of the counterfeit bill's serial numbers, mostly for the chance to tell a good story if it wins. I am my father’s daughter. Of course the number doesn’t hit.

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Daddy was 26, already with a few low-level drug-related arrests under his belt, at his sentencing hearing—the first of several he would have after breaching the terms of his probation again and again, promising to get clean, to rehabilitate himself, then failing to stick to the terms—when his public defender told the Hon. David N. Edelstein, in an attempt to gain whatever leniency in sentencing he could: “He is a fine looking young man. And he started using drugs.”

Daddy was a fine looking young man once. He was also, it seems, a bullshit artist, a barstool poet, you know the type. But my growing files tell me what he also did was lie. There's a weird lie he told Mom that she inadvertently passed down to us, that he had been quarantined for months as a child with the last case of smallpox on the East coast. I look for studies to discern whether this might have changed him as a child, made him more susceptible somehow to addiction. I find out that he had been hospitalized for a particularly bad case of chickenpox instead, and not for as long as he claimed, corroborated by the description of his scars in his Marine Corps intake medical inspection form. There were stupid lies too, like telling her of course he didn’t flip off that cop while walking home from the train after post-work beers in the wee hours of the morning with a gun in his waistband which his record did not allow him to carry, as she bailed him out. (I have no hard proof refuting that one, but flipping off a cop after too many beers is something I would have tried to fib my way out of once upon a time. Don’t bullshit a bullshitter’s daughter.)

One big lie of omission concerns how he really spent most of the ‘60s: in and out of court-ordered stays at the United States Narcotic Farm—part prison for drug offenders, part rehab—in far-away Lexington, Kentucky, trying to get clean in the wake of his counterfeiting plea as a condition of his probation. He’d convince a judge he wanted to kick heroin for good this time, and he’d be remanded to the Narco Farm, as they called it—a government-run farm and notoriously ineffective medical facility where hardly anyone, it seems, actually got and stayed clean. Then he would vanish, only to resurface at an airport or a hospital or this one corner downtown where he could reliably be picked up by the cops. “I am out of contact with my family,” he tells the Hon. Edward Weinfeld of the Southern District at his final hearing for probation violation on October 2, 1964, in which Daddy requested to be sent back to Lexington one more time, “and I feel this is beneficial to me, because there is a pull between myself and my family.” Whatever his parents want him to do, he told the judge, he just wanted to do the opposite. Most of us feel that way as teenagers; most of us grow out of it. Judge Weinfeld won’t hear his excuses, and sends him to prison in Danbury, Connecticut. He told her none of this, and I'll never know why.

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* * *

I study the artifacts of who he was before she met him for traces of the man she would leave: unemployed, angry, resentful, violent, drinking though his body can't bear it, and won't for much longer. In his letters to her and us after we move away, he sounds more paternal to her than partner, which is both absurd and entirely understandable. I can detect hints of the dark side of their marriage in the patronizing way he encourages her attempts to break away and build a new life.

Certainly he sounds as fatherly when addressing her as he does to us, and though he is a good writer, he's barely able to articulate how he loves us, not really knowing what to say to us beyond a very simple message of be good, which is one way of saying be safe, be a footnote in this story. His pride in her independence is double-edged; he also tries to use it to shame her into compliance, into giving up and coming home, as if she has moved herself and her children as far across the country as possible just to prove she can and now that she's done it, everything can go back to normal. He has no idea who he’s talking to. I can see this now.

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In one letter, after he warms up by giving her career advice—irony being the one thing you can’t kill in our family—he starts waxing philosophical:

Blame it all on Adam & Eve — this world we live in isn’t perfect, and never will be, for you, me, or anyone else. We try to "cope,” and know you are equipped to "cope” as well as most people. Perhaps it seems that our problems are just too much for us, and we’re sure that what’s happening to us is unjust and unfair and we resent others who seem to be untouched by life’s disasters. We just can’t sell ourselves so short. I dragged myself from one of the worst gutters a person can lay in. Well, I didn’t become perfect — nowhere near — but so very far above where I was. You have proven — to yourself and the world you live in — that you are competent, self-sufficient, independent, and have earned the esteem of everyone that knows you.  

Nothing is irrevocable except death. That is the only true finality. Everything else can be rectified. No doors are closed if you ever want to knock on them. Those who love you, really love you, are not banks of love that keep track of withdrawals against deposits and can be overdrawn.

“Blame it all on Adam & Eve,” he writes. Well, better them than him. "Alone is lousy," is how he signs off. Nothing is irrevocable except death, which is coming, though he doesn’t know that yet.

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At the time he wrote this letter, it's early days yet in their separation, and he’s still trying to convince her to come back to him. It’s tucked between his claim that he is one of the few who really loves her and an insistence that the kids not be more disrupted than we already are. He doesn’t know that a wildlife specialist brought lizards to our new school, where I saw a Gila monster up close, sluggish but full of deadly venom, and where I learned the horned lizard, if provoked, could shoot blood out of its eyes. He doesn’t know that after, I stalked a slinky silver-green lizard up against the fence near the swimming pool, and caught it in my hand. Would its bite kill me fast or would I waste away slow? Would its bloody venom blind me? It jackknifes its sleek body and leaps out of my hand, scurrying off into the landscaping. Between my thumb and forefinger I’m pinching a twitching tail that ends abruptly in mid-air. I drop it like a lit match.

* * *

About 20 miles outside of Yuma, across the Colorado River in California in the Buttercup Valley, are these epic sand dunes that ripple and fold like the leathery skin of a sleeping monster. In the spring of 1982—as my father, writing to us from a VA hospital in New Jersey with hopes of seeing us over Easter vacation, begins to die—a Lucasfilm crew starts building a 30,000-square-foot sand barge for Jabba the Hutt, and the Great Pit of Carkoon, home of the terrifying sarlacc monster, its maw ringed with ragged razor teeth. It’s to be the largest location set built in movie history, and the area is riddled with snakes. A million dollars alone is spent clearing all of the vegetation from the surrounding area to make a thriving desert ecosystem look like wasteland, which drives the four different kinds of rattlers that live in the area to find means other than plants for shade, meaning the various production shelters and outbuildings that cropped up around the set. George Lucas arrives on April 9, and the mixed American and British crew take over the Stardust Motel in Yuma. They are here to recreate Tatooine—shot originally for "Star Wars" in Tunisia—for what for a long time was the final Star Wars movie, "Return of the Jedi," due out the following year.

"Return of the Jedi" is the film where Luke shows up as a man. On Tatooine is where Princess Leia, as Jabba’s prisoner, will be collared in her metal bikini and impeccable lipgloss. Every time she pulls away from him, he yanks her back by her chain. Carrie Fisher was photographed sunbathing between shots, clad in her slave outfit, next to her stand-in who is wearing a matching metal bikini. If Mom had been shorter she could have been the local girl chosen as Fisher's second. She had the look: big searching eyes, long dark hair braided every which way, those cheekbones. Tatooine is where Han is dragged to at the end of "The Empire Strikes Back" by Boba Fett the bounty hunter. Luke has to return to Tatooine to rescue Han and Leia and the droids from Jabba, while processing the loss of his hand to the evil Lord Vader, who has revealed a dark secret: that he’s the father Luke idolized, the one whose spirit he followed off this desert planet in the first place.

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In Arizona there are species of plants that don’t even grow on the California side of the river, but on film it’s easy enough to let the upper Sonoran melt into the Tunisia of your memory. It’s all a galaxy far, far away—George Lucas knows that. We don’t know this but while the set designers are building a barge in the desert, and wardrobe is forging a pliable metal bikini for Leia, and who knows how many stuntmen are leaping one by one into the sarlacc pit, each confident they will be the one to walk out, each landing in a twist at the bottom, hobbling in casts and slings to the motel poolside to heal, the phone is ringing and Mom is being told he’s worse, I think you should come home.

Our grandparents don't wait for Mom to come back from New Jersey to tell us he’s dead. The sooner we know the sooner we can adjust to life cut in half. It was out of the question to take us all the way back East to attend the funeral. We might as well have been in Tunisia. We might as well have been on one of Tatooine’s three moons.

* * *

Mom does find a job. We move out of Grandmother and Grandfather’s into a tiny rental house of our own. Mom sleeps in the living room and John and I share the bedroom. In Jersey City Mom had called the room John and I shared in our modest two-bedroom apartment “the nursery,” like the Darling children had in "Peter Pan," but in Yuma that fantasy doesn’t work. Here the small concrete slab of a front porch swarms with poisonous black widow spiders. Staying alive in the desert is a full-time job itself.

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We move again, into a three-bedroom ranch rental of our own in a less fancy subdivision than Grandfather’s—no pool, but also no spiders. Our new after-school babysitter has a VCR, and someone’s dad made a bootleg copy of "Star Wars," so all of us kids gather in the den to watch it every single afternoon. When we’re not watching "Star Wars" we’re acting it out in full, and we can do that because now we’ve memorized every scene, every word. I still feel like a fraud if I try to play Leia. She’s too good, too clever, too brave, too fast with the comeback. I never know the right thing to say at the right time. After we are shown a fire safety PSA at school, in which Dick Van Dyke, the chimney sweep from "Mary Poppins," tells us what to do if our clothes catch on fire—a thing you didn’t know could happen until Dick Van Dyke tells you so and then you absolutely can’t stop thinking about it after he promises, “The fire won’t just burn your clothes, it’ll burn you!”— one of the older boys exposes himself in a lewd parody of the PSA: Stop, drop, and roll, dick, roll! I tell nobody. I don’t have the words, and besides it was a joke, which I know because he was laughing. Instead I watch "Star Wars" for the hundredth time, the trumpets heralding the opening crawl: It is a period of civil war. I mouth along to Leia telling Vader, I’d recognize your foul stench anywhere, reveling in secondhand courage. Some days it was a relief to play Chewbacca, with his wordless, half-wild growls. I could tilt my head back; I could roar and roar and roar.

While poking around in Mom’s desk the following January, I find the packaging for the new Star Wars figures we got in our Christmas stockings, and now Santa Claus is a myth too, one more certainty that turns out to be made of theater and special effects. There’s a pit of Carkoon growing inside me and I don’t even know it, a sarlacc monster taking root, growing fat on everything I push down into its fanged mouth. I’m turning into Luke on the moisture farm, whining about what I don’t have, yearning for a father I can’t know, destined to grow up living for scraps of proof that he was once alive and loved me, but finding only a dotted line I can’t quite fill in with the stories people are willing to tell. Do I have too much of him in me? Is that what they're afraid of?

* * *

Another letter survived him. Daddy wrote this one to his in-laws, to plead his case like they were judges who might grant leniency in his sentence. He may not have not mailed it, because it ended up in a box in a closet in New Jersey for decades. I don’t know if he realized he had written things he shouldn’t send, or if he just forgot he wrote down this litany of resentments and half-truths attempting to burnish his faults to a shine.

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“In all candor,” he writes to my mother’s parents, “I have to tell you (in confidence) that I’d NEVER have agreed to being separated from the children under any other circumstances.” He bemoans being depressed, unemployed and “emasculated at home” but “at least the children’s lives were stable.” He catalogues how Mom’s burgeoning career often left him in the caretaker role of us, seething with resentment over the pride she took in her work, how she was recognized for it, first in school and then at the hospital. “It was apparent that the children and especially unemployed me were the only obstacles,” he wrote, between mom and "her goals," as if she was out partying instead of working in a hospital and raising two little kids.

“I know her conscience would not allow her to leave without the children,” he allowed. Then, the confession: "We argue. We bicker. We wound with words. I hate me. She hates she. We say worse things to each other. She says something — I can’t answer — I smack / slap — I quit. No defense now. Ultimate wrong. I’m beat."

Episode VI couldn't be called "Revenge of the Jedi" as planned; it would have violated the spirit of George Lucas' story. Luke had to know who his father truly was and forgive him so he didn't become him. (Leia didn't need that lesson: Vader was a villain, and they’re a dime a dozen in any universe. That's how we know these are Luke's chapters, not hers.) It would not square theologically for Darth Vader's death to be a natural outcome of and an end to his crimes. The Jedi returning has to be Anakin coming back to a state of grace in death, purified not only by his sacrifice but by his child's love and mature acceptance of the father's weaknesses. That's how movies work.

In real life, the timeline's forever a mess, the dark knowledge and spiritual confrontations happening decades too late for tidy denouement, that fought-for enlightenment just out of reach. It's too easy to stay haunted by the ruined promise of a broken man. But what that does to you—the longing you can't quite shake for the simple tales of him you believed once upon a time in the desert, the ambient shame of it—that lingers. Maybe it did for Luke too. I recognize a fellow heart cracked open this way when I see one, baked a little too long in the heat of those Tatooine suns.

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Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's deputy editor in chief.

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