There are two times in my life when I had the honor and privilege to be compared to heroic, cinematic characters played by Harrison Ford.
The first time was when I was dancing under the moonlight with a family of Turks at a party of belly dancers on a veranda overlooking the Black Sea outside the city of Samsun, Turkey. The second was when I went to see Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens in a Central Minnesota multiplex theater.
In the winter of 2015, piles of dirty, month-old snow littered the parking lot outside St. Michael Cinema. I had a miniature toy lightsaber in hand and my date was making fun of how thrilled I was to see The Force Awakens as we entered the building and passed through the lobby containing a replica of the windmill from Moulin Rouge.
We entered the theater, and my seat was next to a boy who looked about five years old. He reminded me of myself when I saw my first Star Wars movie 37 years before.
I was giddy with anticipation and looked over at the small boy whose feet dangled in mid-air because he wasn’t tall enough to put his feet on the floor. I asked him, “Are you excited to see the movie?”
He glanced at his father to get approval to talk to this strange man asking him a question, and then he replied with stars in his eyes, “Yeah. It’s gonna be really cool.”
I grinned and continued questioning, “Have you ever seen a Star Wars movie before?”
He gleefully answered, “Oh, yeah. All of them.”
“Me, too,” I said. “And I’m also really excited to see it.”
We sat in silence for a while, both of us impatiently eating popcorn, then he turned to me and said, “You look like Han Solo.”
Immediately, my head swelled with bashful pride. Me? Han Solo? Space scoundrel?
I hid my exuberance and whispered, “That’s pretty cool. Thanks.” Then I asked, “Do I look like young Han Solo or old Han Solo?
“Oh,” he thought dryly for a moment and then said, “Like old Han Solo. The one that’s in this movie.”
I smiled at him. As the lights began to fade and the curtains parted revealing the screen, I thought back to the first time I was compared to a younger hero played by Harrison Ford.
It was the summer of 1995, and I escaped the heat, humidity, and noise of Prague where I’d been living, and flew to Istanbul. I slept on rooftops and cliffsides for a month playing among the ghosts of ancient Greek gods and hearing the daily calls to prayer emanating from Turkish mosques.
I splashed in the thermal pools of Pammukle and wandered through the crumbling statues that honored Artemis as the sun rose in Ephesus. I searched for mermaids in an Aegean sea cave and thought I found a trace of them. Outside Fethiye, while wearing absolutely nothing but boots, I accidentally started a fire on a desert mountainside, and, thankfully, the boots saved the coastline and me.
After returning to Istanbul to meet Lisa, my redheaded and milky-skinned girlfriend from Seattle, we began an excursion along the Black Sea. Our first stop after an eleven-hour bus ride filled with clouds of cigarette smoke was the city of Samsun. On the bus, we befriended Ceyda, a young Turkish woman on holiday from Holland, who said she had family in a nearby seaside village. Ceyda said we could sleep on the beach in front of her nephew’s cafe.
I had been living on a meager amount of Turkish lira and stretching the money as far as I could, so this was a welcome proposition. Lisa hadn’t arrived in Turkey with much money herself, so we needed to conserve. I knew the dangers of sleeping outside because I’d been doing it for weeks. Lisa was apprehensive but we both decided that Ceyda was trustworthy, and we climbed in her car.
We arrived at the village and the Black Sea stretched out in front of us in a thousand different colors of blue. The water glimmered in the sunshine all the way to the horizon. Beyond that, far off in the imaginary distance was Ukraine to one side and Georgia to the other, but we only saw water from where we were.
It was July and the heat of the sun was scorching, so I took a plunge in the water. Quickly, I discovered the strong riptides of the Black Sea as I was sucked swiftly out into a smack of jellyfish. Swimming sideways out of the rip, I struggled to get in and arrived breathless on the beach with a few minor jellyfish stings.
By the time I got back, Ceyda and Lisa had been joined by a couple of teenage girls: Aysun and Esin. They were Ceyda’s cousins. Aysun spoke some English and was a Metallica fan, and Esin spoke almost no English but was bubbly and curious about us, the American beach hobos. Ceyda translated and we were plied with a number of questions about where we were from.
The questions eventually landed on, “Where are you staying?”
I replied, “We plan to sleep here on the beach.”
That received some puzzled looks and then Lisa and I were invited to have lunch with the family. We gathered our packs and made out way down the beach, climbing the stairs to a second-floor apartment in a cement building. At the top was a wide veranda that looked out over the shining sea.
Lisa, Ceyda, Aysun, Esin, and I were joined by Aysun and Esin’s youngest sister, Oya, an innocent-faced girl of about eleven. Then a gorgeous, strong, 40-ish woman appeared from another room named Aisha, Ceyda’s aunt and mother to the other young women.
They seated Lisa and me at a large table and brought out a sumptuous lunch. Eggplant, soups, melons, homemade jams, yogurt, cheese, and black teas were sent sailing around the table. I was surrounded by a gaggle of beautiful, smiling, laughing women as Turkish and English words flew.
Aisha took a sip of tea and then asked a question I would be asked many times while in the country, “Do you think Turkey is beautiful?”
“Yes. Very beautiful,” I said.
After I answered, I learned how to say ‘Turkey is beautiful’ in Turkish.
When I exclaimed, “Türkiye çok güzel!” Aisha got up, came over to me, grabbed my cheeks, and kissed my forehead. The pride the women had for their country emanated from them. From then on, I would respond to the question in Turkish with gusto, always tossing my right hand in the air with fingers together and upturned as an emphatic gesture.
By the end of the lunch, we were asked to stay at their home and sleep on the veranda. Aisha insisted and would not think of letting us sleep on the beach. Her graciousness and hospitality were overflowing and I felt a warm sense of home at their place.
Over the next week, we slept outside on the veranda each night looking at the moon as it gradually waxed over the Black Sea. In the mornings, Lisa and I were fed a giant breakfast and then we’d head to Samsun by bus. We found the city a maze of winding streets filled with children playing and cafes full of burly-mustached men seated at small tables, smoking unfiltered cigarettes, drinking apple tea, and playing backgammon.
Samsun is where I learned to play Turkish-rules backgammon. A fast-paced game where the dice were rolled rapidly and picked up quickly so that opponents could — and would — cheat. After losing a few games, I learned to speedily pick up the dice and was soon banging the table with my fist and yelling right along with the other men, accusing each other of lying about dice rolls and overcounted checkers. Though I learned to play Turkish style, I always walked away with less lira in my wallet.
We’d return to our beachside village at the end of the day, and as the sun set, we’d be fed more delicious food for dinner. During meals, we’d learn about the Turks’ pride in their country, history, and way of life.
Turkey had only been a country for 80 years, established by Mustafa Atatürk, whose photo hung on the wall of nearly every Turkish home or business. Atatürk looked remarkably like Bela Lugosi, and as I learned about the history of the country I would imagine the famous cinema version of Dracula played by Lugosi changing the face of the once Ottoman Empire.
It was explained that Atatürk had established the Turkish Republic, made it a uniquely secular Middle East nation, and then created the Turkish alphabet and language. He also gave women the right to vote about ten years later.
Arabic was still spoken and Islam widely practiced, but our new Black Sea friends referred to themselves as ‘modern Turks’. They didn’t cover their heads and they drank alcohol. Aisha enjoyed a few glasses of wine or Raki in the evening and I received even more forehead kisses from her after she drank a few.
A week passed and it was our last night before we’d head further east to Trabzon and the Georgian border. On our final night, Aisha’s husband, Mehmet, and his brother, Uncle Hakan, arrived from Sinop. They had been working all week and were coming for the weekend.
Mehmet and Uncle Hakan greeted Lisa and me with hugs and kisses on both cheeks as if we were family. Word of the vagabonds sleeping on the family veranda had obviously reached them.
That night was a full moon and an elaborate feast was planned outside. The sung sank, plates upon plates of food were set on long tables, and bottles of scotch whiskey, red wine, and Raki sat among the plates of food. Light danced across the Black Sea as we ate, drank, toasted, and laughed.
After the plates were cleared, Mehmet brought out a boombox. He played Turkish music and deftly drummed along to it with a doumbek while Oya played tambourine. Then all of the Turkish women got up and began belly dancing around me, shaking and sliding their hips, some using finger cymbals to keep time with the music.
Uncle Hakan got Lisa up on her feet and he started prancing and dancing around her like a proud bird, arms extended and snapping his fingers. Lisa giggled when the women began to swivel her hips with their hands, teaching her to belly dance.
I still sat gazing up at everyone, glowing inside, but I didn’t want to budge from my chair. I felt embarrassed to dance. But that ended abruptly when Uncle Hakan grabbed me by my shoulders, pulled me up onto my feet, kissed me drunkenly on both cheeks, and looked me square in both eyes with a look of inebriated fire.
He bellowed out the only English I had heard him speak, “You! Indiana Jones! Indiana Jones!”
Then he let go of me and I began to dance like a proud Turkish man, peacocking and stamping my feet while I held my arms extended and snapping my fingers. The music rose into a mad crescendo of drums, cymbals, and voices while the moonlight shone down on us like a spotlight steered by the Gods.
The next morning, we were asked if we wanted to go to the chicken fights or fishing. We opted for a day of fishing and spent most of the day swatting mosquitoes and feeding watermelon to stray cows.
Then, it was time to say goodbye to our friends, with many kisses given to both our cheeks by the family, and we boarded a night bus to Trabzon.
20 years later, in a galaxy far, far away from the Black Sea, I found myself in a movie theater sitting next to a five-year-old with adventure in his eyes.
A lot of time had passed since I was called Indiana Jones on a spectacular night along the Black Sea. During those years, in a similar way to Indiana, I had found and lost a number of symbolic arks, escaped my own version of Nazis, and had a handful of heroines like Marion Ravenwood fall into my arms.
In those 20 years, I had learned how to be a scoundrel, had done my best to help rebels defeat empires, and even felt like I’d been frozen in carbonite for a while, but I had gotten free just like Han solo.
Maybe that’s why my young Star Wars-watching friend saw something familiar in my face that night in the St. Michael Cinema. I like to think that I share a few, tiny qualities with Indiana and Han. Because I believe we can all become like our heroes.
This story is dedicated to the incredible people of Turkey and Syria who have survived, grieved, persevered, and begun to rebuild after the tragic earthquake that struck near Nurdağı on February 6, 2023. You are all heroes as magnificent as Han Solo and Indiana Jones combined.