Our car rolled into the parking lot at Tulsa’s Southroads Mall Cinema in the early afternoon of May 21, 1980. It was the opening day of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.

With school out, the summer had no bigger priority for 8-year-old me than seeing that movie. As my dad pulled up to the theater, my friend Marcus and I craned our necks over the backseat to see how many people were there. 

In those days, you just had to show up and hope the force would be with you. The line wrapped around the building. My heart sank. Months before, my mom had taken me to see the Black Stallion, and it had been sold out. This seemed like a replay. As my dad eased the car to the curb, we bolted before it came to a stop. 

After more than an hour in line, we got our tickets, saw the movie, and were predictably blown away. The battle for Hoth thrilled, Yoda amazed, and Han Solo’s carbonite nap infuriated us to the point of tears.  

Three years later, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi premiered, and again I saw it on opening day. Even as adolescence crept closer, the thrill endured. I counted down the minutes until school let out. My friend Rob’s mom picked us up and drove us directly to the theater. 

Star Wars as an adult

When the much-bemoaned prequels rolled out, I was there for each opening day, even though 20 years later I’m still not sure if I like any of them. Jar Jar, overdone CGI and Hayden Christensen’s wooden acting aren’t easy to overcome.

The excitement of the Phantom Menace’s title crawl dissolved into annoyance as the anticipated return of Star Wars opened with a deep dive into a not-so-thrilling trade dispute between the Republic and the Trade Federation. Not exactly TIE fighters and X-Wings speeding through the Death Star’s trenches. It seemed more fitting for a galactic version of CNBC.

When the sequel trilogy made its debut in 2015, I got sucked in again. Sure, it was mildly traumatic to see my childhood god-hero Han Solo fall victim to patricide, but adult me knows Harrison Ford isn’t a huge fan of the character, only agreed to come back if they paid him a pile of money and then and only then, if they killed him off once and for all. But on the whole, despite some flaws, The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi have been fun.

Which brings us to the last of the nine-film Skywalker saga: The Rise of Skywalker, which came out this week. This movie picks up almost immediately after the events of The Last Jedi that saw the death of Luke Skywalker amid the Resistance’s struggle for survival against the First Order. It features the return of Emperor Palpatine and, if director J.J. Abrams sticks the landing, provides answers to Rey and Kylo Ren’s story lines.  

I have mixed feelings about the end of something that’s captivated me since I saw the first film at age 5. One of my most random, yet enduring childhood memories is opening up a C-3PO action figure on my 7th birthday. 

I remember how the gold finish reflected the sun and how the plastic smelled. Four decades later, I still have it, though the gold has faded a bit and the joints are so loose it can barely stand on its own. But it’s priceless. As are my vintage one-owner Chewie, Boba Fett and Tusken Raider action figures. A small collection of trinkets from a time gone by. 

For a bunch of people in my generation who were kids as the original trilogy unfolded, Star Wars and its characters — Han, Luke, Leia and so many others — epitomized the magic of childhood. The stories were a shared experience. They were our heroes, and in a sense, our lifelong friends. 

In trailers for The Rise of Skywalker (embedded above), C-3PO is asked what he’s doing by another character. He responds: “Taking one last look, sir, at my friends.”

Turns out, he won’t be alone.