Sunday, November 21, 2010


Star Trek and Me

I am a Trekkie. There, I’ve said it. I’ve held my head up and said it. Not a Trekker, that supposedly more serious devotee of the Star Trek universe, but a TREKKIE. You know what, though, muchachos? It was easy to make that confession to y’all. I am not ashamed of my devotion to Trek. It helped me bumble through the scary days of early adolescence mostly—if not totally—emotionally unscathed. To put it more simply: Star Trek saved me.

It started the year after Jitter and Wayne Lee moved away. What began was a period of alienation, which Mama referred to as my “emotional growing pains.” I just didn’t seem to be able to make new friends as elementary school ended and the psychically tough years of junior high began.

Till seventh grade, I’d always been able depend on the next-door neighbor boy I’d played with for years, since we were both six for god’s sake. Then, suddenly, he had new friends on the other side of town, I wasn’t invited on their outings to slot-car tracks and movies, and I saw less and less of him. I met a few kindred spirits at school, mostly nerds like yours truly, but real friendship never seemed to quite blossom with any of them.

Let’s face it: little Rod was pretty Out There with his telescope, his comics collection, and his love for cheap science fiction movies. But some of the members of my tiny crowd at Azalea Road Junior High made me look like Joe Cool the Fratboy. As when I was discussing the coming Science Fair with one of my fellow outsiders, who had a sudden epiphany: “What if we could build a robot that could turn transparent? He’d be INVULNERABLE TO LASER BEAMS!” This at the top of his lungs, inspiring the kinds of looks and comments from the Popular Kids you’d imagine. Not that I much cared what they thought.

In retrospect, part of the fault was mine. I could have made at least a little effort to fit in and make friends, even if I really wasn’t interested in the cliques and the sock hops. I couldn’t, though. I suppose I just wasn’t ready to give up those simple and sweet days that culminated in the summer of sixth grade with my first telescope and the lazy afternoons and with my best friends. One thing is sure: I wasn’t prepared for the rigors of early adolescent kid society where, then and now, any slightly wounded little bird is in for one hell of a pecking.

Still, I endeavored to persevere despite the fact that I—like ten billion lonely little kids before me—had begun to feel that not only did I not have a friend in the world, but that nobody, not even Mama and Daddy, especially not Mama and Daddy, understood me.

Not that there weren’t good days and bright spots. Like one in the spring of ‘66 when I got my first real telescope, my Palomar Junior. And it wasn’t like I was completely cut-off. Occasionally, the boy next door and I would get together and play army or monsters like we were ten years old again. No, it wasn’t the same as having my “gang,” Jitter and Wayne Lee, at my side, but it was enough to allow me to avoid utter misery—though there were some miserable days. Plenty of them. Just when it looked like li’l Rod’s only option would be running away to Tibet and joining a monastery, salvation presented itself. Most amazingly, in the form of a TV show, a new TV show.

In these latter days new TV shows are a dime a dozen. They come and go mostly unnoticed on the hundreds of channels funneled down the cable. That was not the way it was in the halcyon days of the 60s, especially in the cultural backwater of Possum Swamp. We had three television stations representing the three big networks, NBC, CBS, and ABC. And when something new came on, it was most assuredly a big deal. Every year, in September, a new lineup of shows would debut, a new “season,” which would run almost without repeats (maybe a few at Thanksgiving and Christmas) until the following May. We kept track of what was what with a little magazine—now gone except on the Web, I believe—TV Guide.

I usually didn’t pay much attention to TV Guide. There usually wasn’t one around, anyway. Being on the poor side of the middle class, our household made do with the TV listings in the Mobile Register. One September afternoon, though, after another lousy day at junior high, I was standing in the checkout line of our Kwik Chek grocery store with Mama when the Guide caught my attention.

What initially attracted me was the cover pic of Joey Heatherton, who looked very cute in this shot in a 60s – Twiggy sort of androgynous way. Li’l Rod was quite smitten with her, and immediately plucked the mag off the rack. Miss Heatherton ogled at close range, I began idly thumbing through the issue as I waited for Mama’s turn at the checkout to come. I stopped on Thursday, since it was Thursday and, once my homework was done, it didn’t appear there was much else on my crowded social calendar.

Let’s see… Tammy Grimes. Didn’t much care for her or her show. My Three Sons? I had enjoyed that at one time, but now its tales of happy teenage hijinks did nothing but underline my teenage misery. Star Trek. What was that about? “Science fiction. ‘Mantrap.’” What the—?! Anything having to do with science fiction dang sure rang my chimes. Since Mama, the ruler of our single TV set, didn’t much like Three Sons, and, like me, didn’t care pea-turky about Miss Grimes either, maybe I could give this Star Trek a look-see.

If you’ve seen “The Man Trap,” you know it’s one of Trek’s most memorable episodes, if not necessarily one of its very best outings. It sure as hell started the series with one great, big bang. While it wasn’t the first episode filmed—it was actually the third—it will always be the First Trek to me. The story of the Salt Monster who impersonated Doctor McCoy’s lost love just resonated with me on many levels.

This was science fiction with a capital “SF,” more like what I was used to in books than what had been on TV in the past. It sure was a long way from Fireball XL5. It was, I decided, right up there with the best I’d seen at the movies, including Forbidden Planet. Star Trek’s characters bandied about real science-fictiony terms: warp drive, transporter, impulse engine, phaser, M-class planet, shuttlecraft, and on and on. The ship? What a breathtaking marvel. Gone were the days of stock Atlas booster footage and crews of five or six wise-cracking WWII movie extras. This Enterprise was a Navy Ship…well a Federation (of planets) Navy Ship anyhow, with over 400 men (and women) aboard.

Most of all, what struck me from the get-go was the sense of hope that Star Trek conveyed. There were wonders out there, wonders awaiting Enterprise—and me—in a beautiful future that lay just beyond junior high and the Cold War. These marvels, The Show said, would be enjoyed with friends, real friends, as in the unbreakable triumvirate of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy.

From that first episode my favorite among all Star Trek’s wonderful characters was, not surprisingly, Mr. Spock. He was, like me, an outsider sometimes derided by the “normal” people around him. But he had qualities and powers far beyond their puny ken. And despite the occasional jabs from some crewman who thought Spock looked too much like a Romulan, or the exasperated Doctor McCoy who just couldn’t GROK SPOCK, it was clear Mr. Spock, Lieutenant Commander Spock, was valued and even loved by his crewmates. This was a future where you would be valued for your insides. Spock, we came to see, was prototypal All American Boy Jim Kirk’s best friend.

Naturally, being a barely adolescent male, I also enjoyed identifying with Spock because he was the object of pretty Nurse Chapel’s occasional and restrained affections. This tragic, unrequited love spoke deeply to my own emotional gestalt. And how about the Captain’s quasi-girlfriend, Yeoman Janice Rand? It ain’t politically correct to admit it these days, but the female crewmembers’ duty uniforms had quite an effect on Li’l Rod as those hormones began to erupt ever more.

Yeah, there were some pretty girls on The Show, but that was not what kept me watching. What held me was the sense of incredible adventure, of who-knows-what being right around the next corner. And that who-knows-what would often turn out to be a friend, not a slavering Saturday matinee Bad Monster. As the series went on, we were introduced to the Vulcan (Mr. Spock’s home world) philosophy of “IDIC,” “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations,” a philosophy of acceptance and even friendship for alien lifeforms, no matter how strange and DIFFERENT they might appear. If only Azalea Road Junior High had taught Vulcan philosophy.

They didn’t, of course, but that was OK, because Star Trek, which immediately became a central feature in my life, threatening even to eclipse my beloved Marvel Comics, carried me through. On the darkest days, Kirk, McCoy, and, most of all, Spock kept me going. When things were tough I’d ask “How would Spock handle this?” That sounds ridiculous, and maybe it was, but it got me over the hump of Junior high and the early days of high school in one piece, so so what?

Certainly The Show offered plenty of diversion. It seemed as if by the Second Season, everything was Trek. I had Enterprise models (the story of those beautiful old AMT kits deserves a blog entry of its own), books like The Making of Star Trek, and, especially, the episode adaptations by science fiction master James Blish (Cities in Flight). It being the sixties, what there also was was posters, and it was one of these that finally helped relieve my long loneliness.

Back in that supposedly hallowed Day, our mall featured a Hallmark store, “Paul Brown’s Card and Party Shop.” As the groovy sixties began to make their cultural will felt even down in the Swamp, Paul’s inventory expanded beyond greeting cards and little-old-lady knickknacks to encompass stuff like incense burners, tarot cards, and posters.

While I had not yet tuned into the Dead and the Airplane, I invariably browsed these posters on those occasions when I could get Mama to drop me off at the Mall or, more often, when I could tag along on one of her expeditions to Hammel’s (our local department store) dress department.

I was usually hunting a new picture of the Beatles—I had absolutely doted on them since Meet the Beatles. Nope, nothing new, and Mama would probably not be too happy about me continuing to cover every square inch of my room’s wall surface with posters of the Four Moptops, anyway. I was just about to head for Bookland’s SF paperback racks when I found the poster shown at the top of this entry. Hell, not only was it a great shot of my hero, he was holding the ultimate Enterprise model. The one they used for the series’ special effects I reckoned. Whoo-hoo! I snatched it up and headed for the checkout.

Luckily, there was a line four or five shoppers deep. Why luckily? Because as I stood waiting an attractive looking young woman about my own age, I thought, walked up, took a look at my find, and remarked, “Oh, you like The Show too?”

This pretty girl and I chattered happily about phaser banks and how fast warp 8 really was until it was my turn to pay. And after as we sat on a bench in front of the store. Turned out her name was Janet—not that far from “Janice,” I mused—and that while she did not go to the same high school as me, she lived within walking distance of Mama and Daddy’s house (I now eschewed my bike as being too childish) across Highway 90. Almost unbelievably, Janet, who I automatically assumed was way out of my league girlfriend-wise was inviting me to give her a call Thursday afternoon so we could watch The Episode together.

Ours was not a romance for the books. Maybe there could have been more to it than what little there was, but before much could happen, Janet’s parents moved away. You can imagine how I felt about that: “I MUST BE CURSED!” But, while saying goodbye to my friend and almost girlfriend hurt, it didn’t hurt as badly as it might have. Janet and a silly, wonderful TV show had helped me find my feet and suddenly, as senior year began and college beckoned, I felt as if a whole beautiful universe awaited me just as it always had for Spock and his friends. There would be plenty of bumps still ahead, but WWSD ("What Would Spock Do?") was one of the things that sustained me through them.

What would this blog be without some observing-related material? I was browsing one of the zillions (seems like it) of amateur astronomy websites when I ran across mention of a Star Trek observing list. A fellow Trekkie, a fellow amateur astronomy Trekkie, Clara Scattolin, has gone through the Trek series, all of them, and made a list of all the astronomical destinations visited by or mentioned by our various crews.

Which seemed just the perfect thing for one recent semi-cloudy night at the dark site. We’d be hosting a group of lay folks, the local Coast Guard Auxiliary, and I wanted to show ‘em some easy and pretty stuff. It would also give me a chance to check-out my 12.5-inch Dobsonian, Old Betsy, in preparation for the coming Deep South Regional Star Gaze. Good thing I did, too, as right off the bat I discovered a problem with Bets’ Sky Commander digital setting circles. That didn’t stop me from running the ST list, though, since most of the objects are bright stars and easy to locate with a Telrad even under poor conditions.

I’d put Clara’s list in SkyTools format, so I had access to plenty of charts should I need ‘em. Oh, and I discarded those objects not in the original series (TOS) or the animated series (TAS). Not only are the original characters closest to my heart, it didn’t look like the weather would cooperate for long.

The sky stayed OK just long enough for me to run through Trek’s most prominent stars. I’d been a little worried that the visitors might not find my list very exciting, but I needn’t have worried. Our guests seemed to love “just” looking at bright stars, and you know what? I did too; after spending most of the last year visiting dim, dim Herschels, gazing long at lovely Vega was a treat.

Altair: “Amok Time”

An incredible sapphire in the eyepiece. Seeing was not that hot, but this big, bright mag .77 A7 dwarf star actually looks even better when its diffraction spikes are dancing around. Altair is the 12th brightest star in the sky and is one of the three members of Sir Patrick Moore’s famous Summer Triangle. Like many of the Star Trek stars, it’s fairly close, 16.8 light-years away.

Spock has been behaving erratically, and goes so far as to divert the Enterprise from its destination, Altair 6, putting it on a course for Vulcan. It seems Spock is in the grip of Pon Farr madness, a madness that can only be alleviated by his participation in this ancient Vulcan mating ritual.

M31: “By Any Other Name”

The Great Andromeda Galaxy, M31, was super in my 35mm Panoptic eyepiece despite being close to the dadgummed Possum Swamp light dome. M31’s little satellite companion galaxies, M32 and M110 , were both in the big field of the Pan, and with a little averted imagination the bright sky gave up hints of one of the dark lanes.

While going about its business, the Enterprise encounters the Kelvans, a group of visitors from the Andromeda Galaxy, which, they say, is threatened by some kind of “radiation.” The Kelvans take over the Enterprise in an effort to use it to penetrate the energy barrier at the galaxy’s edge, to make a pathway for their fellows back home in M31 to evacuate to the Milky Way. And conquer the Federation.

Deneb: “Where No Man Has Gone Before”

The 19th brightest star in the sky, this magnitude 1.25 A2 supergiant is a glinting diamond in the tail of the Swan. The rich star field around it makes it all the more lovely. At a distance of 1500 light-years, it’s considerably farther away than most of the suns visited or referred to in Trek.

The Enterprise encounters the energy barrier at the Milky Way’s edge, which results in damage to the warp engines and the transformation of Commander Gary Mitchell into a malevolent god-like being.

Sigma Draconis: “Spock’s Brain”

Sigma D. is a dwarf, a K0 dwarf. Other than its association with Trek, the most notable thing about this magnitude 4.67 star is its dramatic red color, which really impressed our Coast Guard guests. 18.8 light-years out, it is blessed with the mellifluous name “Alsafi.”

Strange alien women kidnap Spock, transporting him to their underground civilization on a planet orbiting Sigma Draconis. Oh, and they remove his brain (!) to use as a super computer to run this civilization, which is composed entirely of  women (the men have been left to brave the ice-age conditions on the world’s surface).

Vega: “Mirror, Mirror”

Magnitude .03 A0V Vega is another stunner; it is just as bright and blue as can be imagined. A good mercury vapor light that drowns out the bad mercury vapor lights. The fifth brightest star, Alpha Lyrae is only 25 light-years distant.

While Kirk and company are beaming up from a Vegan planet, the Enterprise is struck by an ion storm, and the landing party is transported to an alternate universe in which the Enterprise and her crew are part of a violent and decadent version of the Federation.

Beta Lyrae: “The Slaver Weapon” (TAS)

An especially beautiful B7V/A8V double star. A striking blue and yellow, magnitude 3.52. Dramatic to the point of almost being overwhelming in a medium scope at medium power. This is one of the more distant Trek destinations, being 882 light-years away.

In this excellent animated series episode (written by Larry Niven), an Enterprise landing party encounters a race of violent, technologically advanced, spacefaring cats, the Kzinti.

Delta Trianguli: “The Time Trap” (TAS)

A pretty enough star, a double with a magnitude 4.87 primary that’s a G0 with just a little more mass than our Sun. It’s close, too, a bit over 35 light-years out. It’s a binary, but a spectroscopic one, with the companion (maybe an orange star) close enough that it completes an orbit in just over ten days. No planets have been detected in this system yet, and according to Trek, all that’s there is a graveyard of unfortunate starships.

While exploring the area around Delta, the Enterprise encounters a strange singularity, the Klingon ship Klothos, and a frighteningly advanced alien race.

Capella: “Friday’s Child”

This great star, the Nanny Goat, is actually a spectroscopic binary consisting of as many as four companions. “Capella,” though, is mostly two giant G8III and K0III evolved stars dancing close. Alpha Aurigae is the sixth brightest star in the sky and is also relatively close, 42.2 light-years out.

On beaming down to Capella IV in quest of mining rights for some stuff called “topaline,” the Enterprise landing party finds the Klingons have got there first, and, naturally, want all the topaline for themselves.

Menkab (Alpha Ceti): “The Space Seed”

Associated with two of the original cast’s most famous outings, “The Space Seed” and The Wrath of Khan, this star is an old, tired red giant pretty far along the path to planetary nebula-hood. At magnitude 2.54, it’s quite prominent as the dim stars of the sky’s ocean-area go.

The Enterprise stumbles upon an ancient Earth ship, the U.S.S. Botany Bay, on which they find Khan Noonien Singh and his crew. They unwisely proceed to revive them from their state of suspended animation. “Unwisely” because Khan is (in many respects) a madman, a leader in Earth’s Eugenics Wars. He sought to build a superior race to the detriment of normal humans, and, as you might expect, he and his Homo Superiors soon take over the Enterprise.

Mira (Omicron Ceti): “This Side of Paradise”

Mira, a fairly distant—as Star Trek Stars go—red giant is about 400 light-years out from the UFP…er… “Earth.” This is a pulsating variable star and derives its name “the wonderful,” from the fact that it ranges from magnitude 2.1 down to magnitude 10, making it the brightest variable that actually disappears to the naked eye. When it’s bright in the eyepiece, as it was on this night, it appears as a sparkling yellow beryl.

Kirk, Spock, and crew make for Omicron Ceti III to rescue the colonists there who are being afflicted by something called “Bertold Rays.” Surprisingly, when they arrive they find the colonists are fine, just fine. Seems as they have been infected with alien spores that keep them healthy and happy. Before long, the landing party also gets a taste of this “paradise.”

Gamma Trianguli: “The Apple”

This is a fairly unassuming A1V dwarf star 118 light-years out in Boldly Go territory. White in the eyepiece and fairly bold in the 12-inch at magnitude 4.0.

At Gamma Trianguli, our heroes encounter a planet that would be paradise—if not for the depredations of a “god,” Vaal, who, it turns out, is actually an ancient power generator, not the Big Juju he thinks he is.

I would have kept going to more TOS destinations or maybe even on to the TNG (The Next Generation) ones but for increasing haze and humidity and eventually clouds. I was happy, though; happier than I thought the sight of a handful of “common” stars could have made me. Through the list I’d become reacquainted with my old friends Kirk, Spock, and McCoy who’d offered me a place on their wondrous ship of dreams when I sorely needed it.

There’s much more I can and want to tell you about my years with Star Trek, and maybe I will some time. All else I’ll say today, though, is that it seemed natural and normal when, on our first date, Miss Dorothy admitted she was a Trekkie, having recently attended a Star Trek convention (!). My reply was to pull out my car keys and show her my key ring, a Starfleet Command Insignia.

Next Time: Be Prepared!

I am a Star Trek fan also. I didn't see it until they were in reruns in the afternoon. My Mother would have thrown a conniption fit if she had known we were watching SciFi. She worked and we were Latchkey kids. She had divorced a few years earlier and was attempting to raise us by her self. I came out alright with the help of Chess and Star Trek.
Thanks Unc, that takes me back with a smile. Except for the part about meeting your high school girlfriend, my experience with life and Star Trek was pretty much exactly the same. Like you I was already a SF hound when Star Trek came on TV and it swept me away - I remember thinking that I'd been born 300 years too early and really should be warping through the galaxy. Spock was my role model and I even practiced raising one eyebrow to express skepticism. Got pretty good at too.

My Dad enjoyed a episode or two with me but I was totally taken with the series and wrote a letter to the network (was it CBS? I forget) when they threatened to cancel the Show. That's still the only time I've done that.

Which reminds me. Why not bring it back to TV with the original characters? So what if the actors are different, as long as they're good - look how good the latest movie turned out. The re-imagined Battlestar Galactica series was pretty awesome, why not a re-imagined Star Trek?
I remember attending the 1st ever Star Trek convention at Cobo Hall in Detroit as if it were yesterday. Thanks for the memories, Rod.
A Star Trek observing list, I must try that sometime. I am a pretty big fan of original Trek after seeing all the episodes with my parents on DVD. :D

Oh, and you totally mentioned James Blish's Cities in Flight- love that series, the idea of the Spindizzy is still one of my favorite SF hand-wavy space drives. This was heady stuff in my youth... magnetic moments and mysterious fields... bridges on Jupiter and spaceships that moved faster than light... and Blish actually gave us an equation, it all seemed so possible!!

I was especially fascinated with the idea that life might be everywhere, not just in Earth's shirtsleeve environment- from Jovian jellyfish gently floating in Jupiter's lower atmosphere and fossils on the Galilean moons, to the strange possibility of plasma beings dancing in the coronas of stars. The speculations of Carl Sagan and Freeman Dyson served to feed my interest by rooting such romantic notions in SCIENCE!!!! XD
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