"Go get the door, John..."
Assuming it was another party guest, some cousin or playmate with a present in tow, I was happy to oblige. But it wasn't just some kid at the door. It was DARTH VADER, Dark Lord of the Sith, and to my just-turned-five-years-old self it may as well have been the Devil himself looming like a black spectre of death in my grandparents' carport.
There's a picture of me, somewhere in my mother's things, with both legs off the ground, running to the nearest bedroom, away from Darth Vader. I'm about a foot off of the carpet, defying gravity, literally sprinting through the air as I left the entire fate of my partygoers at the cruel hands of the Empire. I was terrified.
Mom dug a couple of pictures out and posted them on Facebook recently, and I'm glad she did. It's one of my favorite moments from my childhood, and it makes me reflect on how kids' brains work in regards to separating fact from fiction. I knew it couldn't possibly be the real Darth Vader, because he wasn't a real person, and yet, there he was, at my fifth birthday party. As I hid in my grandmother's room, I knew in my heart that there was an everyday man in that costume, but there was still a big enough part of me that was incredibly cautious as well, because what if he did turn out to be the real Darth Vader? What then? Would my plastic lightsaber (with three changing colors!) be enough for a one-on-one duel? I needed to be prepared.
I was coaxed out with the promise that Vader had something for me, and that I needed to see it right away. I summoned up my courage and left the room, glued to the side of whatever adult was closest to me, should something terrible happen. Instead of something terrible, I got a large wrapped box, almost my size, and I tore away the wrapping until I could see that it was the Star Wars Millennium Falcon playset. Darth Vader couldn't be all bad.
Once I was out there with him, I stared at Vader, looking for clues of humanity within. He was completely silent. In a wise move on the part of my then-stepdad (who was beneath the helmet), he never uttered a word while in-costume, which really helped to sell the illusion. A small detail that made a big impression on me then was the light-up chest panel. My logic at the time was that if he was fake, his chest wouldn't light up. I don't know where I got that idea. At five, I had to make up my own science to explain the unexplainable. There was just a peek of human skin visible on the back of the neck, and it turned out to be enough of a glimpse to answer my own fears about whether or not this was the real deal. It was only a very good fake.
Seeing the back of his neck made it okay for me to then comically pretend I was afraid of him. So, when I was actually afraid of him, I wouldn't say a word or get close to him, but once I was okay with him hanging out at my party, I verbalized how scary he was and pretended that my grandparents' place was a Rebel base that Vader had somehow invaded. He became a sort of 6-foot tall action figure at that point, and I could play and not worry about what was under the mask. The older kids at the party would insult Lord Vader directly, and he would squeeze their arms to their sides and lift them off the ground, bringing them as close as he could to his face. Then, while he had one kid in the air, some other kid would goad him so that they could get picked up next.
I can't imagine modern kids being afraid of Darth Vader at all, thanks to Star Wars Episodes 1-3. Vader is just Anakin Skywalker to them--a sappy romantic with a hot temper, poor judgment, and a rat tail. My run-in with Darth Vader was mere months after The Empire Strikes Back. He was still mysterious, demanding, and scary. He could choke people to death just by looking at them. When he declared that he was Luke's father, I assumed it was all a manipulative lie. The question of Luke's paternity wouldn't get answered for another three long years, but I was wholly convinced that no one as good as Luke Skywalker could come from someone as bad as Darth Vader. I miss the old Darth Vader, and I'm glad I got to meet him while he was still completely 100% evil.