04 June 2024

The Force of Star Wars

James A. Hearn visits us again to discuss the inspiration behind one of his recently published stories.
—Michael Bracken 
The Force of Star Wars:
The Story behind “An Evening at the Opera House”
in Private Dicks and Disco Balls: Private Eyes in the Dyn-O-Mite Seventies

by James A. Hearn

Using the Force, Jedi Master Yoda lifts Luke Skywalker’s stranded X-wing fighter from the swamps of Dagobah and sets it gently on the shore. Luke, having failed to move the ship himself, stares at Yoda in wonder.

I don’t… I don’t believe it.

That is why you fail.
— The Empire Strikes Back, 1980

It’s May 13th again, and my phone is blowing up with texts, pictures, and videos of my older brother, Sidney. There he is dunking my sister Barb underwater in her hot tub, “baptizing” her for probably the thousandth time. He went to live with Barb’s family after our Dad passed away in 2007, as some of you may have read in a previous SleuthSayers post about my Dad. Someone sends a video of Sidney “doinking” whoever’s behind the camera, and I’m laughing along with him. (For Three Stooges fans, the doink is the gag where Moe asks Curly to pick two fingers, then uses those fingers to poke his fellow stooge in the eyes.) Sidney’s doinks—his made-up onomatopoeia for this joke—could travel across the room and even through telephones. “Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk!”

The Village Opera House in old Fort Worth.

The phone messages are flying in from across the country, as they do every May 13th, from our far-flung family members. It’s been five years since Sidney’s passing, and we’re remembering all the goofy, laugh-out-loud, crazy shit he used to say and do. (Apologies to Mom in Heaven, but shit is the best word here. Not dirty things by any means, just outrageous.)

Sidney-isms, we call them. He had his own unique language, and while strangers sometimes had a difficult time understanding him, we were native speakers. Out of all our family, I may have understood him best, for reasons I’ll explain.

Cooking hamburgers in
my backyard with Sidney.

As you can probably tell from the photos, Sidney had Down syndrome. This is a genetic condition caused by trisomy of the twenty-first chromosome, where the body’s cells have three separate copies of chromosome twenty-one instead of the usual two. Trisomy produces the telltale features common to all people with Down—such as small ears, almond-shaped eyes, and a wide range of health challenges of varying profundity–and occurs in about one in 700 live births.

Sidney couldn’t read, write, or count to ten. In his twenties, he needed a cane to walk because of a degenerative hip. In his thirties, the hip was replaced, and he graduated to a walker. And toward the end of his life, reaching the ripe age of fifty-nine, he needed a wheelchair. There was no way Sidney could ever hold a job or be self-sufficient, as some people with Down can. But my big brother had other, more important talents and abilities. His hugs drove away our troubles, and his jokes made us laugh so hard we cried. And he had the most gifted imagination I’ve ever encountered.

After graduating from Jo Kelly School (a facility in Fort Worth specially designed to educate students with disabilities), his “work” was looking at his comic books, playing his records (read-along storybooks and soundtracks composed by John Williams), and watching his favorite TV shows and movies.

Sidney as Yoda.

The Six-Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman were among his favorites. Others were Battlestar Galactica, The Incredible Hulk, Wonder Woman, Twilight Zone, Batman, and The Adventures of Superman to name a few. He watched hundreds of shows, and since we shared a bedroom, so did I. And not just shows with ray-guns and rocket ships, but Westerns and detective shows. The Lone Ranger, Gunsmoke, The Rockford Files, and Magnum, P.I. Throw in comedies like Looney Tunes, The Three Stooges, Sanford and Son, Happy Days, I Love Lucy, and Gilligan’s Island.

A million cultural references were filed away in his brain, to be used as the situation warranted. For example, whenever something exciting happened, he might clutch his heart like Redd Foxx and yell, “Elizabeth! Honey, I’m comin’ to join ya!” He was the original meme generator before the Internet was a glimmer in Al Gore’s eye.

The pantheon of Sidney’s Imaginarium—a sort of holy trinity—was Superman, Star Trek, and especially Star Wars. He watched and listened to these adventures over and over and over again. For Sidney, there was no such thing as too much of a good thing. He would often act out entire scenes, where he voiced all the characters, provided his own sound effects, and put himself in the starring role. He was Clark Kent, Captain Kirk, and Luke Skywalker all rolled into one.

Growing up in the seventies, I shared a room with Sidney. If he watched Star Trek late nights on channel 39, so did I. (Woe to the person who touched his TV!) If he was “reading” his comic books, I read mine. Together, we consumed thousands of hours of cop shows, comedies, science fiction, and fantasy.


Please don’t think this time was wasted or spent idly, by either of us. These stories enabled Sidney to live out his dreams, to take his mind places where his body could never go. And by experiencing these things with him, I was able to understand what he was saying when others couldn’t. To borrow a concept from Star Trek, I was his universal translator in years to come.

By osmosis, I absorbed his world and became a part of it. I played Jimmy Olsen to his Superman, Spock to his Kirk, Darth Vader to his Luke. We acted out our favorite scenes and played at being heroes. We routinely leaped tall buildings in a single bound, performed the Vulcan mind-meld on each other, and blew up the Death Star. In Sidney’s productions, the Good Guys and Gals always won.

Sidney was my best friend, and I owe him a debt of gratitude not just for being a great brother, but for giving me a desire to create my own stories. I never would’ve been a writer without him, and life would’ve been a dreary, shadowy reflection of itself without Sidney to brighten things up.

When I heard about Michael Bracken’s seventies-themed private eye anthology, I knew I had to write a story about someone like Sidney, for Sidney. “An Evening at the Opera House” was born. The Opera House was a real-life theater in our hometown of Fort Worth where we saw Star Wars together for the first time. A New Hope was born in each of us that day, long before George Lucas gave his most famous movie that title.

Like my characters with Down, Sidney was fine just as he was. Perfectly imperfect, and thus as fully human as anyone. And like my private detective Harvey Lisch—a pretentious, arrogant, and slightly neurotic version of myself—whenever I feel the malaise of life tugging at my heels, I stop and think about a very special brother whose unparalleled imagination shaped my life.

This story’s for you, Sidney. In Heaven, are you flying through the clouds like Superman? Visiting strange new worlds as Captain Kirk? Wielding a lightsaber in a duel with a dark lord? I think you are, and you’re doing it with gusto.

Sidney’s headstone is right between our parents,
as they wished. The “S” stands for a
Super Brother.

After Sidney passed, I sometimes wondered what he would’ve been like if he’d been born without Down. What if he could’ve unleashed that powerful creativity and shared it not just with the family, but with the world? Would he have become a novelist? An actor? A composer like his beloved John Williams, whose records were the soundtrack to his life?

I don’t ask that question anymore. To do so implies there was something wrong with Sidney. That he was somehow, well, lesser than someone born without Down. But there was nothing wrong with him. He was loving, kind, funny, and fun-loving. He was unabashedly, unapologetically himself, and that’s a lesson we all should take to heart.

Thank you, Sidney. Like Yoda to Luke, you gave me the power to imagine a better world. You gave me the power of belief. May the Force be with you, Brother.

James A. Hearn

An Edgar Award nominee for Best Short Story, James A. Hearn (www.jamesahearn.com) writes in a variety of genres, including mystery, crime, science fiction, fantasy, and horror. He and his wife reside in Georgetown, Texas, with a boisterous Labrador retriever who keeps life interesting.


  1. Sidney sounds like a person I would have been privileged to have known. Congratulations on your wise choice of having him for an older brother. You were the lucky one.

    1. Jerry, thanks for your kind words. We were indeed blessed to have him for as long as we did.

  2. A fine piece. We should all be so kindly and joyfully remembered.

    1. Janice, thank you. I'm glad I got to share a little bit of what he meant to us.

  3. What a wonderful tribute to Sidney, and the joy he brought you and your family. Thank you.

    1. Eve, thank you for your comment. Sidney certainly spread joy wherever he went and I'm glad you mentioned that.

  4. I'm with Sidney on Battlestar Galactica as well as Star Trek (TOS) and Star Wars. Your story of Sidney is a beautiful one. Thank you for sharing it with us.

    1. Ed, Sidney would agree with your choices. Star Trek (TOS) was number one for him, but Next Generation was a close second!

  5. The love shines through. Thanks for sharing.

  6. R.T., thank you. That means a lot to me.


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