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The Great Experiement: Of Jedis and lightsabers

  • Frank Catalano, right, a UMass freshman, started a Jedi Academy on Sunday nights where he practices lightsaber skills and duels with friends and willing participants. Here he prepares for a sparring session with Alex Qi, a senior at UMass, on a recent Sunday evening on the Amherst campus. SABATO VISCONTI/fOR THE GAZETTE

  • Alex Qi, a UMass senior, shows his lightsaber twirls during a Jedi Academy session on a recent Sunday night on the Amherst campus. SABATO VISCONTI/fOR THE GAZETTE

  • UMass freshman Frank Catalano waits for a challenger during his weekly Jedi Academy sessions. SABATO VISCONTI/fOR THE GAZETTE

  • UMass student Frank Catalano waits for a challenger during his Jedi Academy sessions on the Amherst campus. SABATO VISCONTI/fOR THE GAZETTE

  • UMass students Alex Qi and Frank Catalano spar with their lightsabers during a Sunday Jedi Academy session in on the UMass campus. SABATO VISCONTI/fOR THE GAZETTE

  • UMass students Alex Qi and Frank Catalano spar with their lightsabers on the campus steps during a Sunday Jedi Academy session in Amherst. SABATO VISCONTI/fOR THE GAZETTE

  • UMass student Frank Catalano and his father, Anthony, duel a recent Sunday night Jedi Academy session on the Amherst campus. SABATO VISCONTI/fOR THE GAZETTE

  • UMass student Frank Catalano squares off against his father, Anthony Catalano, during a Sunday night Jedi Academy sessions at the UMass campus in Amherst. SABATO VISCONTI/fOR THE GAZETTE



Monday, May 03, 2021

Editor’s note: The story is part of a special series called “The Great Experiment Continues.” The series is produced by Professor Kathy Roberts Forde’s “Longform Narrative” class in the Journalism Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The series is a sequel to “The Great Experiment” series her class reported for the Gazette last spring when the pandemic was new.

Now one year into the pandemic, Professor Forde’s students document how UMass and its students, faculty and staff have tried to build social connections during a time that demands social distance, exploring what has been lost and gained along the way.

By ETHAN SMITH
and TALYA TORRES

Frank Catalano rides his bike up the path, four lightsabers strapped to the frame. The first-year animal science major waves as he stops and adjusts his white robe, which covers a brown robe and matching pants. A phone clip is attached to his brown belt. The words “If you are reading this, you are too f***ing close” appear in small text on his face mask.

It is a bright, sunny Sunday afternoon, one of the first warm days of spring. The campus is almost silent, with the faint sound of birds chirping and cars passing on the street. Two more students, senior economics major Alex Qi and junior natural resources conservation major Rebekah Panaro, walk up the grassy hill by the Student Union and toward the campus pond. Rebekah holds another lightsaber.

Frank introduces them to us as a Padawan and a soon-to-be Jedi.

We sit on the grass, masked and 6 feet apart, as Frank, Rebekah and Alex explain the origins of the Drag Lagos Jedi Academy, a name Rebekah got from a fantasy name generator set to Alderaan mode (Alderaan is a planet from “Star Wars”).

Frank, who radiates energy, is the center of attention, pitching ideas for the new Jedi Academy and coming lightsaber battles.

Spring 2021 was Frank’s second semester on campus, and during move-in week, he developed a routine of walking around campus with his sabers and asking students he didn’t know if they wanted to have a lightsaber battle.

Delighted and charmed, students captured Frank’s battles on video they posted on their Snapchat stories. The university’s Facebook page for “Wellbeing Wednesday” featured Frank on Feb. 25, which is how Alex learned about him.

Heading back to her dorm one evening, Rebekah was passing the new Worcester Commons in her car on North Pleasant Street when she saw Frank’s illuminated sabers in the twilight.

“I’d seen you on some people’s Snapchat stories,” Rebekah tells Frank. “But I thought it was kind of weird if I just pulled over and I was like, ‘Hey, who are you?’”

Rebekah says she thought about putting up signs to search for Frank but instead made a Discord, the group messaging application that UMass residence directors use to keep students in different residential communities connected during the pandemic. She instructed group members to add Frank to the Discord channel if they knew him. Frank soon joined.

“It’s a nice little community that we’ve made for ourselves,” Rebekah says. While the group meets on Saturdays and Sundays, they also chat regularly on Discord. “It’s not just ‘Star Wars.’ It’s really just like a community,” she says.

The Jedi Academy plans to establish a government to make decisions about events that will resemble the Galactic Senate in the “Star Wars” prequels. Frank currently holds the role of chancellor, but elections are in the works.

Frank is the most experienced fighter, with a deep reservoir of battle tactics and stances. He grew up battling his sister with little toy sabers but started watching “form videos” this winter in anticipation of upgrading to high-quality LED lightsabers for campus duels. Even when fighting two people at once, Frank takes deliberate and controlled steps that sink as he slashes and jabs.

Of course, not even Jedi are immune to the coronavirus. The Drag Lagos Jedi Academy pays attention to COVID-19 rules that govern campus life. When members come to meetings or duels, Frank says, “They have to have their green check marks out and open” on their phones, referring to the way UMass communicates testing status through its Campus Health Hub. “So we do the same thing the dining halls do.”

“We’re also in an open air area,” Rebekah adds. “We try to stay as far apart as we can. When we’re dueling, I mean. You’re trying not to get hit anyway.”

The Jedi Academy members also wear masks for meetings, whether indoors or outdoors.

One cold rainy evening not long after we met Frank, he and Alex duel outside the Integrative Learning Center. “For not seeing any ‘Star Wars’ movies, you get Dookued,” Frank says as he approaches Alex well after the fighting has ceased.

Frank crosses his sabers in an X on Alex’s throat. This is one of Frank’s go-to moves that mimics the death of the traitorous Count Dooku, who is beheaded in one of the two “Star Wars” movies Alex has actually seen, “Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.” Alex has time to advocate for himself, but Frank executes the move anyway.

We have all suffered this ignominious fate in duels with Frank, even us reporters, who couldn’t resist the temptation of fighting a lightsaber battle. Frank wins a lot and tends to sneak-attack his fellow Jedis-in-training. Alex says he doesn’t mind, though: “It’s all fun and games.”