Back in 1971, while awaiting the fate of his first feature film - the dystopian science fiction parable THX-1138 - and before being inspired to begin work on what eventually became Star Wars, writer-director George Lucas was challenged by his friend and mentor, Francis Ford Coppola, to write a script that would appeal to the larger, mainstream moviegoing public.

Though reluctant at first, Lucas eventually embraced the idea (no doubt in part an “I’ll show him” response to Coppola) and got to work on the first draft of a film that would go on to win widespread acclaim, become the most profitable picture in the history of Universal Studios to that point, and launch the pop culture nostalgia boom that later begat Happy Days. The film was American Graffiti, that funny and bittersweet coming-of-age tale that is equal parts teen comedy and sociological treatise.

“Hey, wait a minute,” I hear somebody back there in the back row murmur. “How the heck can a teen comedy be a sociological treatise?”

I can answer that. In devising his story, Lucas used his own teenage experience as inspiration - in particular the teen ritual known as “cruising,” in which young drivers celebrate the freedom that comes with having a driver’s license by driving around aimlessly, either back and forth along a certain street or around the block in a certain part of town, for hours on end on a Friday or Saturday night. 

“I felt compelled to document the whole experience and what my generation used as a way of meeting girls," Lucas once explained in an interview. To say he succeeded would be something of an understatement. The low budget comedy had cost only $1.27 million to produce and market yielded a worldwide box office gross of more than $55 million - making American Graffiti one of the most profitable films ever and Lucas a millionaire at the age of 29. 

Now I have written on several occasions in the past of my admiration for George Lucas as a filmmaker, a storyteller and what one of my college professors likely would have termed a “cinematic anthropologist.” And it goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that American Graffiti is one of my favorite films of all time. 

But I have to be honest with you - as much as I admire Lucas, as much as I love Graffiti, I still don’t quite understand the fascination with cruising.

Lucas’ teen memories of driving back and forth along the main drag in his boyhood home of Modesto, Calif., had its equivalents throughout the country during that era. I’ve heard many a tale of the “good ol’ days” cruising on Main Street here in Tishomingo from aging Baby Boomers who cherish those memories. A buddy of mine in the Air Force used to reminisce about cruising the streets of his hometown as if it was the most important activity during his teen years. A college chum used to get tears in his eyes whenever he started sharing stories of his cruising days.

We had our version of cruising back in Kankakee when I was a teenager in the late 1970s and early ’80s. There it was known as “Cruising the Square,” the Friday and Saturday night ritual that so many of my high school classmates participated in on a regular basis. 

The pastime is so fondly remembered by those who were regular participants that, in recent years, there have been festivals dedicated to letting those aging cruisers relive their youth. With some minor changes, of course; the streets that made up “The Square” aren’t there anymore - the result, apparently, of some urban redevelopment that has taken place since I moved away back in 1991 - so event organizers reportedly have had to find new places for all that reminiscing.

To me that’s a little like reliving the excitement of a day at the old Springlake Amusement Park in Oklahoma City by going to Six Flags Over Texas, but I guess that’s a discussion for another time… 

A lot of my friends cruised the Square every Friday and Saturday night. Half the night was spent driving around in circles and the other half hanging out in the big parking lot that served as the Square’s hub, trying (mostly without success) to hook up with members of the opposite sex and getting drunk. Gee, what fun...

I remember many a Monday study hall at school listening to classmates brag about how they got so drunk at the Square that they spent most of the night on their hands and knees throwing up in that parking lot.  And I remember sitting there thinking to myself, “Well, no wonder they couldn’t get a date!”

It was one of those teenage rituals that some of them did not seem to outgrow even after leaving high school; I remember trying to look up one of my old buddies not long after I came home from the Air Force, only to be told by his mother that he was downtown cruising the Square. And then I spent the next 15 minutes listening to his mother carry on about how her 24-year-old son was apparently suffering from arrested development.

I was certainly sympathetic to her point of view. Even when I was a teenager in high school, I never understood the attraction. When I turned 16 and got my driver's license, I was all about hitting the road and actually going places. On Friday nights when so many of my pals were driving around the same block for hours on end, I was jumping in my '72 Volkswagen and getting on Interstate 57 - headed north to Matteson and the Chicago area, or south to Rantoul and Champaign, or occasionally heading east instead and going across the state line into Merrillville, Ind., the home of Al’s Diner and the best darned hamburgers in a 100-mile radius. 

Going places, doing things… sometimes with the girlfriend who would eventually become my wife; sometimes with some of my buddies like Dave Mills, Rick El-Talabani or Robert Dexter; or sometimes even all by my lonesome. Either way it made a heck of a lot more sense to me - then and now - than simply driving around the block for hours, looking at the same people driving in the other direction and wasting gas that would have been better used driving to the B. Dalton Bookseller at Lincoln Mall.

I went "cruising the square" in Kankakee just one time, during my senior year in high school - in part because one of my buddies felt obligated to browbeat me into tagging along because he was trying to get lucky with one certain girl who was there every weekend, and for some odd reason thought I might somehow be useful in that endeavor, and in part because I looked at it as a sort of "social experiment." I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

I woke up the next morning STILL not knowing what all the fuss was about. We'd spent four hours that night driving around the block - stopping once or twice to try and talk to some of the "cool kids" we wouldn't be caught within 10 feet of at school - and trying in vain to get my buddy's hoped-for paramour to notice him. She never did... or, if she did, she made a pretty good show of acting like she hadn't. We eventually gave up, stopped off at the local Denny's for a quick bite to eat and a Coke, and then he drove me home. That was supposed to be "fun." 

I guess some people define "fun" differently than I do.

And to be perfectly honest, 41 years later I still don't get it....

(Column copyright © 2021 by John A. Small)