How long do you think it's been since George Lucas cruised downtown Modesto? I'm going with decades; somewhere in the four-decade range, unless he snuck into town sometime from the 1970s to '90s to sow some old, wild, car-loving oats.
But that will change tonight when the Modesto native and renowned filmmaker cruises 10th Street again in honor of his seminal film "American Graffiti" and the monthlong celebration it has spawned here in his hometown.
Lucas is grand marshall of the 15th annual Graffiti Parade, the crowning jewel in this year's homage to all things cars and nostalgia, and the kick off to a weekend festival at Modesto Junior College. The year also marks the 40th anniversary of the Academy Award-nominated film that Lucas wrote and directed based on his teenage years cruising the streets of downtown Modesto.
Cruising was a way of teen life in the 1960s and '70s, but the youthful innocence of driving back and forth, yelling out of car windows and hanging in parking lots gave way to rowdier, often unsafe activities in the '80s. It finally was banned by the city in the 1990s.
I'm old enough to have taken part in cruising, but that was long after "the cruise" had motored from its origins of circling 10th and 11th streets to the long stretch of businesses and drive-thrus along McHenry Avenue.
Honestly, the charms of cruising McHenry were pretty much lost on me and my friends. It felt like a giant waste of gas, roaming back and forth, up and down McHenry, hour after hour for no real reason. That's not to say we didn't do it, but we were by no means regulars to that nightlife scene.
In fact, the one night I can recall us going all out for cruising managed to be a pretty trying one. Remember that scene in American Graffiti" when Mackenzie Phillips' character is dumped off by her friends into the hot rod driven by John Milner, the too-cool-for-school racer played by Paul Le Mat.
Yeah. Me, too. Except it reminds me of a not-so cinematic evening on a warm summer Saturday night.
There we were, four teenage girls in a car, trying to figure out what all the cruising fuss was about when a big shiny black truck pulled next to us and the guys inside started chatting us up. Suddenly, one of my girlfriends was jumping out of our car and into the truck and speeding off into the night.
I don't recall if I was for or against the idea as it happened. My friend, short, blonde and sweet as sugar, was not usually such a cavalier kind of gal. And we didn't know the guys from John Milner.
Still, we figured we'd see them along McHenry and she'd jump back into our car after a short time. Except we didn't.
Not up one side of McHenry. Not back down the other. Not in any of the parking lots where kids gathered. We never saw the big shiny black truck again.
Of course, we didn't have cell phones back then. There was no texting to find out where she was.
The longer we looked, the crazier my mind spun. Had she been scurried off to one of the orchards, which at that time were still nearby? Was she being mercilessly tortured? Would we ever see her again?
And as we made our way off the cruise and headed for her house just a short couple of blocks away, my head was filled with two equally horrifying thoughts:
1) How are we going to tell her parents that we'd lost their daughter?
2) Are the final words I'll ever speak to the dearest, sweetest, most innocent person on planet really going to be "keep your pants on!"?
Of course she was fine. We pulled up to her house and she came galloping out, all giggles and long blonde hair flying behind her. The guys simply had dropped her off there when she'd asked them to.
I didn't know whether to hug her or make her bleed.
I don't remember ever cruising McHenry again after that scarring evening. But I do remember where I was the night that Modesto officially took the cruise back to 10th Street in 1979 for what would be a short-lived shot at a sanctioned Graffiti Night event.
A girlfriend's dad had an old convertible Corvair that was restored to perfection. He rarely let it out of the garage, but somehow she'd talked him into letting us take it out that night. We were feeling too cool as we cruised 10th with the top down in our classic ride.
Yeah, that's how we rolled.
The actual cruise is left to the memories of folks mostly 40 and older these days and to the glorious celluloid that Lucas created; the film that would not only launch what has been nothing short of an amazing career in Hollywood for the Downey High grad, but also the festivities that take over this region every year for the entire month of June.
Having Lucas come home to be part of this year's celebration is kind of lovely. It'll be a hot time for sure in Modesto tonight temperature-wise, crowd-wise and memory-wise.
And George Lucas will cruise 10th again.