A long time ago, we were just stargazing kids, worshiping our letterbox collection of George Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy. Years later, the Force is strong with us once again as we do the Imperial March towards Ron Howard’s Solo: A Star Wars Story. To celebrate, we’re spending the next week talking about Nothing but Star Wars! with a rogue squadron of features, essays, and stories. Today, Sarah Kurchak recounts how the most annoying character in franchise history came to find a pair of unlikely fans.
The Phantom Menace was the last film my grandfather saw in a theater before he got sick. If I were a more passionate Star Wars fan, I’d probably be tempted to blame George Lucas for Da’s fatal condition, but I was never that emotionally invested in the franchise.
My own fandom, if it can be called that, was one of amiable indifference at the time. I had some Star Wars toys that I’d amassed as the result of being a child in the ‘80s and thought they were cool enough, but I always preferred my Dune coloring book. I’d seen and, as far as I can recall, enjoyed the original trilogy multiple times, but my own taste in film had long since veered toward the Canadian and visceral or the Swedish and depressing. I never begrudged Star Wars fans their rapturous obsessions, nor did I mock them for it; I just couldn’t share them. I did end up going to see Episode I on opening night, but that was for a reason far more improbable than anything I had ever witnessed in a space soap opera: a boy asked me.
The screening and the date were almost equally disastrous. I came away from the experience troubled by the plot, the movie’s seemingly unending fondness for barely disguised ethnic stereotypes, and the fact that I was clearly more attracted to Darth Maul than my would-be suitor. So when various members of my family arranged an outing to see it a week later, I politely declined.
I have no idea why my grandfather joined the rest of the gang. I’m not sure he had ever seen or even considered a Star Wars film before that moment. His interest in pop culture was passionate but far from extensive. He loved jazz music and Peanuts cartoons. He scheduled his lunch hours around All My Children for a large chunk of his career. He once took my grandmother to see the dark sexual awakening drama Looking for Mr. Goodbar because he thought it was the romantic comedy The Goodbye Girl. That was about it, or at least it was before he saw The Phantom Menace.
Da slept through large portions of the movie, his Vader-on-steroids snoring threatening to drown out the dialogue in the theater. He insisted that his inability to stay conscious was not a testament to the quality of what he had seen, though. Whenever anyone asked him about it, he told them that he’d enjoyed himself.
And that was when he started talking about “the camel.”
“I really liked the camel,” he’d say. Or “How about that camel?”
No one knew what this meant. Was he talking about the Walkers? They hadn’t appeared in Episode I, but they could, with a bit of creativity, look vaguely dromedary in nature. Maybe he had dreamt of them during one of his thunderous naps. Beyond that, we were stumped.
Eventually, someone asked him what on earth or a galaxy far, far away he was talking about.
“The talking camel,” he explained, clearly exasperated with his witless descendants. “Ho Ho Ding Ding.”
I had not anticipated this answer. The embarrassing bastard child of minstrelsy and CGI known as Jar Jar Binks was already notorious at that point. Even if the ill-conceived Gungan had resembled a camel in any way, it never would have occurred to me that he could be the highlight of anyone’s viewing experience, let alone that of my otherwise intelligent and right-thinking grandfather.
“Are you talking about Jar Jar Binks?” I asked. “He’s not a camel.”
“I think his name is Ho Ho Ding Ding,” Da said. “He has cloven hooves.”
Whether for our amusement, his own, or both, Da refused to admit defeat. He doubled down on his Ding Ding hallucinations, concocting elaborate arguments about the character’s camel-ness, competence, and charm. It was really quite remarkable to witness. While Star Wars fans across the world were forced to face the crushing reality that The Phantom Menace was far from the epic experience they’d so desperately desired, my grandfather had taken a semi-somnambulistic joyride through the whole thing and somehow emerged a genuine – if somewhat misguided – fan.
A year later, Da started to exhibit symptoms of what would eventually be diagnosed as Multiple system atrophy, a rare degenerative neurological disorder that gradually shuts down all of your body’s involuntary functions and leaves your mind unmercifully intact until you die. It’s a brutal illness with no cure and very little in the way of treatment. In the four years my family spent caring for his physical ailments and existential terror, I think the closest that any of us came to finding an effective way to ease his suffering was indulging him in escapism. For a while, his favorite drug was Passions, the absurd supernatural soap that aired in the slot after his beloved All My Children. Then he rediscovered his favorite sci-fi character.
I first noticed the return of the talking space camel while reading the local paper one morning and finding Da’s awkward prescription pad scribbling under a photo of a camel on the front page. He’d drawn a helpful arrow to the creature in question and then labeled it, in all caps, as “HO HO DING DING.” I cut it out and saved it, knowing that this moment of stubborn whimsy was one of the things I’d want with me when he was gone.
Ho Ho appeared in random places at random intervals for the rest of Da’s life. He never showed any interest in seeing the character in action ever again – the last thing the poor man needed was another dose of depressing reality, after all – but he was always happy to discuss his hooves and apparent water-bearing abilities. And I was happy to listen and encourage him, because my grandfather’s half-formed Ho Ho Ding Ding fanfiction had long since become my favorite thing about the entire Star Wars universe. I even gave him a Ho Ho action figure at some point. It remained on his night stand until he died.
I realize that grief can distort reality with twice the fervor of a borderline narcoleptic with visions of space camels dancing through his head and that few of us can resist the urge to attribute all sorts of superfluous qualities and influences to our dead loved ones, but I’m pretty sure this much is true: Before Da discovered his own personal Star Wars, I held a dim and rigid view of fandom. I believed, quite anally, that a creator’s intent was all that mattered and anyone who dared to question that – or play with it – was a spoiled baby. After Ho Ho Ding Ding came into my life, I became a little more open to the idea that the act of being a fan could be more than just existing as a receptacle for someone else’s vision, and I began to appreciate the theories, fanfic writing, discussions, and play that could exist in tandem with the appreciation (or hatred) of a work of art or entertainment.
I also came to understand the depth and diversity of roles that a film can play in someone’s life: it could be a mere amusement or a guiding force, your best friend or your nemesis, your muse or your medicine. Even the most maligned movie can distract a person from contemplating the void as they face certain and fast-approaching death, or it can try to fill the hole that’s left when that person’s gone.
Or maybe this is just how I try to justify and intellectualize the fact that, over a decade later, I can’t shake the deep sentimental attachment I feel for one of the most loathed characters in cinematic history. I wasn’t a fan of Jar Jar before any of this happened, and I still understand – and agree with – almost every single anti-Binks argument that exists. But I can’t bring myself to hate that stupid camel. Sometimes, when I look at the clearly defined toes on his wretched feet, I can even see the hooves.