On a moisture farm on Tatooine, Luke Skywalker looked at the horizon and saw himself as part of something bigger. On an almond farm outside of Ceres, Erich Gemperle looked at a water tank and saw a TIE fighter.
Gemperle is chairman of the Knights of Columbus committee for the Turlock Downtown Christmas Parade and likes to "go big" with the Catholic fraternal organization's entries. After creating for the 2014 parade a 14-foot-high leg lamp as seen in "A Christmas Story," the Turlock resident was pondering what to tackle for a future year.
One day, his eyes settled on a steel water ball tank that sits outside a barn on his sister Christine's property. "I thought, I can make a TIE fighter out of that. The more I thought about it, and how would I construct it — because I had a year, year and a half to think about it — it just came together and I realized I could do it."
Fast forward through a year of working on it and the spacecraft made its debut in the 2017 parade. It was out in public again for Star Wars Day in Modesto on May 4.
The 4,600-pound fighter — also 14 feet high because that's the max height for a Turlock parade float — was a huge hit on Star Wars Day. When Gemperle opened the capsule hatch and placed a ladder to let people climb in, the line grew exponentially, he said. Costumed fans struck "Star Wars" poses in front of it, while others flashed beaming smiles from within the cockpit.
The creation even has the Galactic Empire's seal of approval. "It is amazing! The size and detail put into it is just incredible," said Darth Vader, aka Steven Gwin. The 6-foot-4 Turlock resident, who portrays the Sith lord as a member of the 501st Legion's Central California Garrison costuming group, said, "I had the pleasure of being filmed for a spot in a nonprofit documentary that features it. I was actually able to sit inside it while in my Vader costume."
People probably think he's a hard-core "Star Wars" fan, Gemperle said, but he doesn't really have much in the way of memorabilia. "I just really love the movies," he said, "and I like to make fun things that people can enjoy."
The almond grower learned to weld in his senior year of high school, then attended Cal-Trade Welding School in Modesto. When he realized the steel water tank was just a tad smaller than what an actual TIE fighter capsule would be, he set to work.
His wife, Brandy, bought him a large TIE fighter toy upon which he largely based his design. He worked from it and from detailed photos of ships from the "Star Wars" movies and said the final craft is a hybrid of the TIE fighters in "The Force Awakens" and those seen in the original trilogy. "Its color is from the newer version, and some of the shape is more old school."
It took a full year to build the fighter, Gemperle said. He recorded the actual hours he worked but hasn't tallied them yet. The great majority of the fabrication and assembly, he did alone. "I had to use some local businesses to have things cut precisely with lasers instead of me cutting them with a torch."
The wing panels are made of a material — plastic sandwiched between thin layers of aluminum — used to make signs, he said. "It came delivered very shiny, so I had to dull the whole surface with sandpaper," Gemperle said, striving to get the "weird shine" of those seen in "The Force Awakens."
As he worked on the fighter, occasionally giving himself a mental smack for undertaking the massive project, "I said at the same time, 'Just keep going,' and kept pushing myself."
Some friends and family knew what he was working on. Most didn't. "I like the whole idea of the element of surprise when it comes to the parade, so I tried to keep it hush-hush."
His and Brandy's three children — Lukas, 10, Mara, 8, and Zaiden, 6 — "love going in there," he said of the fighter cockpit, which has a seat and is illuminated by red rope lights. "They think it's the coolest thing." Asked if his eldest child's name is a nod to Modesto native and "Star Wars" creator George Lucas, Gemperle said with a laugh, "I tried to get Lukas Skywalker Gemperle, but it didn't work."
What's ahead for the TIE fighter? Mostly, it will sit on the almond farm like other pieces of equipment or "lawn art," he joked.
It would be hard to dismantle, and transporting it is "pretty stressful," he said. He uses jack stands to lift it onto a trailer, he said, and got a transportation permit to take it on the highway for the trip to Modesto's Star Wars Day. "I definitely had some people pulling out their phones," he said.
If they'll have him, he said he's up for more Star Wars Day appearances. And though joining the 501st Legion isn't on his to-do list, "I wouldn't mind getting the black TIE fighter pilot suit. That would be cool."
And what if Modesto someday has a George Lucas museum? Might he donate the fighter for display inside or out? Probably, he said. "Part of me would be saddened to see it go, but at least it would be in a good spot."
Meantime, the gears in his mind are spinning on his next big parade project. "I have a couple of ideas," he said. "I'm not really that creative, I can't come up with great original ideas, but i can duplicate them, that's for sure."
He offered no hints, though, saying he's keeping his thoughts "under wrap."
Here's hoping for a full-size Death Star.