I saw Ghostbusters for the first time during the summer of 1984. The film had just been released in theatres, and my brother and I were treated to this film as an apology of sorts for a misunderstanding from a stranger.
We had just moved to Champaign. My parents were separated, but not yet divorced. In the fall, I would be starting third grade. My brother would begin afternoon Kindergarten. My sister would be starting high school. My mother was working a ton of hours between day shifts as a nurse at The Champaign County Children’s Home, a home for developmentally-disabled children and night shifts as a waitress at Lincoln Lodge, a restaurant that I later worked at while doing summer stock theatre.
We were renting a house in a residential neighborhood on Columbia Avenue in west Champaign. It was a nice neighborhood. There was very little traffic. And there were a lot of other children in the area, ideal for two kids such as Kipton and I, who hated being confined in the house for too long. There was a set of train tracks that passed behind our house, and many hours were wasted searching for pennies that we had left to be flattened. Kipton, in particular, had a fondness for trains.
Our neighbors to the immediate west were an elderly couple named Ted and Evelyn Jude. There weren’t dotteringly old, though, probably in their sixties. A very nice couple, the type of people who brought lemonade out to the kids who were running through their yard. They had a dog, an annoyingly yippy dog named Spaniel. Ted owned a 1965 Chevy Malibu that to this day I would swear is the coolest car I’ve ever ridden in.
That summer was a scary summer for me: it was a transition between one town where we knew everybody and another town where we knew no one. I was anxious about school starting (where I came from, being the “new kid” had a stigma attached to it). There was a lot of yelling and screaming around the house since Mom and Dad were severing the last cords of their marriage, since Dad wasn’t around anymore to interfere in the almost-constant arguing between my sister and mother, and since no one was around to keep me from bullying my younger brother. Kipton was six and didn’t quite understand what all this “divorce nonsense” was all about, this confusion only being compounded by Dad moving back in occasionally and making us all pretend that he and Mom were still married whenever my extremely-religious grandparents came to visit. I spent a lot of time away from the house, to say the least.
Ted and Evelyn had a daughter whose name I can’t recall. She was married and lived in Rhode Island and had three sons all around my age. That summer, they were visiting for four weeks and so Evelyn’s house became an escape. At my house, there was deception and noise. At Evelyn’s house, there were other kids and frivolity. I spent a lot of time there over those three weeks. But I didn’t at first…
I can’t remember the names of the boys (Christopher is ringing a bell for the oldest one), but on the day they arrived from Rhode Island, Kipton and I were in the front yard, using sticks and rocks to build shelters for our Star Wars action figures. Well, my action figures. Kipton wasn’t allowed to touch them unless I was there to supervise. Anyway, we were building shelters, planning a big battle between factions (my men and his) that in our heads had special effects that rivaled everything we had ever seen on TV. These three kids came over and introduced themselves, asked if they could play, too. We accepted them wholeheartedly and they joined in the game. But the game changed: now it was our action figures defending the house from gigantic evil robots that could turn into vehicles.
Yes, these kids had Transformers. Lots of them. Transformers were the big thing that summer, and Kipton and I both thought they were pretty cool. Our family, however, could not afford them. We watched the cartoon religiously and even owned some Go-Bots, but those were a cheap knock-off and broke easily. These kids, to our eyes, were the coolest. Kids. Ever!
The battle we enacted in my front yard was monolithic. It lasted hours. It was great fun. But then the three kids (what were their names? Jesus. . .) had to go visit other family across town so they packed their Transformers into the car and headed away. Self-inflicted boredom settled in. Nothing Kipton or I could think of to do could possibly compete with the fun we had just had. I think we threw sticks at birds, I don’t recall.
An hour or so later, the neighbor kids returned. As soon as they were out of the car, they were bounding into our yard for more adventures. I’m not sure how we got to the next stage of our game: It was decided that we were going to stretch fishing line from an upstairs window down to a tree near the curb in our yard. We were then going to connect the Transformers to the fishing line and then drop them down the line. In theory, the Transformers should glide down the fishing line to the tree, where he had crafted a little Ewok village with blocks and cardboard. It would appear, to our rather cinematic imaginations, that the Transformer had flown in from the heavens and destroyed the village. This would be so cool!
I tore the house apart trying to find the reserves of fishing line or twine while Kipton helped the neighbor’s build the village. By the time I found it, I was beginning to realize that the Transformers were probably way too heavy to be supported by the fishing line, but that didn’t faze me. We could, after all, do a few test runs closer to the ground. We could experiment with different Transformers until we found one that was just the right weight to glide without breaking the string. I brought the fishing line outside (aloft, shrieking, “Got it!”) just as Evelyn’s daughter was calling her children in for dinner.
Ah, man! Plan foiled!
“Don’t worry,” the kid (Chris? Matt? Charlie?) said. “We’ll be back after dinner.”
“I’ll go ahead and get the line set up from the window. It’ll be ready to go when you get back,” I said.
“Excellent!” one of the other boys said.
Before the kids were gone completely, I asked if I could see some of the Transformers so that we could test the strength of the line. The oldest one said, “Sure. Go right ahead. They’re in the car.”
With Kipton’s help, I fastened one end of the fishing line to the upstairs window. I then stretched the line across the yard down to the tree. I was a Cub Scout, so I knew plenty about knots. I was able to wrap the other end of the line around the tree, pulling it all taut enough that the line wasn’t bowed at all. It was a straight diagonal line from window to curb. You could pluck it like a guitar. If it had been dark and you had been running across the yard, not knowing the line was there, it damn well might have decapitated you had you run into it. I was proud of myself. These neighbor kids were certainly going to think that I was the bee’s knees.
Now, all I needed was a few Transformers to test a few things out.
I walked over to the Jude driveway. Through the window of the car, I could see five or six Transformers sunning themselves on the upholstery. I opened the door. I reached into the car. I grabbed a few of the toys, being extra careful to not choose one that was clearly going to be too heavy. I got out of the car, toys in hand. I was reaching for the door, ready to close it, when, from inside the house, one of the most horrifyingly angry voices I have ever heard, screamed, “You, bastard kid! Get the hell away from my god damn car!”
I dropped those toys and took off. I don’t believe I had ever run so fast. I’m sure I haven’t run that fast since. I question if I was actually running so much as flying. I might have even just closed my eyes and psychically willed myself far, far away from that car because it was only a matter of seconds before I was in the house, hiding. I didn’t come outside for the rest of the night.
The neighbor kids, of course, told their father what had happened. I wasn’t trying to rob the car. I was only getting the toys out because they had told me that I could. Their father felt pretty bad about this (as he should have, frankly, he scared me to death) and he wanted to do something to make up for it. He came over and spoke to my mother and asked her permission to take us to a movie. His family was planning to go see Ghostbusters that afternoon and he wanted to take us along, to make up for it. My mother, thinking that all of this was pretty funny, agreed.
Kipton and I were ecstatic. With my mother, we went to movies all the time, but we always went to The Urbana Cinema, where they showed second run films for a dollar. We never got to see new movies. On the day they opened. And we were certainly never allowed to get over-priced popcorn and candy. This was going to be fun.
We took advantage of being out of the house without our mother and sat in the theatre where we had always wanted to but had never been allowed, right in the front row. The actors and special effects in this film were larger than life. And we were the first ones in the auditorium to capture the images as they rolled off the screen. By the time they had made their way back to the projectionist’s cabinet, to the people sitting in the back row, they had already been viewed by us. They were no longer new. They were second-hand, already experienced by two overly-excited kids who had never sat with their necks craned uncomfortably in the front row before.
Incidentally, we moved a few rows back later, because the dog paws coming out of the chair and attacking Sigourney Weaver scared my little brother half out of his mind. As soon as that scene began, he moved, much as I did yesterday when I ran away from the car, to another row like he had been ejected and propelled. I went to join him, to take care of him, unable to admit that I was a little frightened myself.
I think I’ve seen Ghostbusters two hundred times. It’s still just as fresh and funny as it was the first time every time I see it. It truly is one of my favorite comedies. It’s an eighties film that doesn’t feel like an eighties film. It has stood the test of time. But I cannot watch it without thinking about those Transformers. I think about how scared I was, how unfair it was that the whole world would now think I was a thief. And I think about the glee that accompanies being allowed to see a movie “alone” for the very first time.
By the way, the Transformer sliding down the fishing line? It didn’t work.