I was one of those geeks who would have rather watched a space launch than Saturday morning comics. I couldn't draw worth a damn - but could easily freehand-sketch for you the differences between the Mercury and Gemini space-capsules. And I could spell nitrogen tetroxide and hydrazine (the fuel components of the Titan-II booster used by the Gemini program) long before I could successfully figure out how many S's were in Mississippi.
Yup - I was that kind of space geek.
My world changed on that Thursday night in September, 1966. What I saw that night was far beyond the adventure of Lost in Space, and more exciting than Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (which was saying a lot, living with a father who worked for the Electric Boat submarine shipyards in Groton, CT).
In a world where blacks were still trying to get the 1964 Civil Rights Act enforced, where Russians were still the enemy and space-faring aliens were to be shot on sight and cut apart in the interest of human science, a gleaming white starship and a multinational, multi-planetary crew gave voice to the hope that we would outgrow the elementary school air-raid drills, not destroy ourselves in nuclear fire, and would one day sail to the stars and beyond.
That is what Star Trek meant to my nine-year-old life.
It's been a long 40 years.
And, to be honest, it ain't all been pretty. It's sad that the series whose identity was bound up in Alexander Courage's dramatic orchestral theme could also witness Kirk, Spock and McCoy attempting to sing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" on the silver screen, or Leonard Nimoy's rendition of "If I Had A Hammer." Bones and Scotty have since "gone on home to glory," which meant that neither one of them had to hear their former Captain singing (in collaboration with Ben Folds).
That was something the world didn't need to hear.
(Of course, this might seem a little hypocritical coming from a man who sang "I Talk to the Trees" from Paint Your Wagon in the summer
But I still remember the undeniable magic on September 17, 1976 - 10 years and a week after the first Enterprise took to the heavens - as the hanger doors opened at the Rockwell Aerospace Air Force Plant 42 assembly facility in Palmdale, California. The amplified tell-tale opening of Alexander Courage's now-famous theme rolled across the concrete hangar apron, and Orbital Vehicle OV-101 - the space shuttle prototype Enterprise - rolled out to an enthusiastic public and some very special guests:
It hardly mattered that everyone knew that OV-101 would never see space - that she was built only for "launch, glide and land" testing. But a key bit of the Star Trek canon had been hammered home by fans (despite NASA bureaucrats, who wanted to name her Constitution)- that in every wave of space exploration, an Enterprise had been a part of the fleet.
And so it was.
And in 1987, even as parts of my old life were falling apart, I still remember a magical night watching the two-hour pilot of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I remember the ohhh, wow.... moment as I watched the "saucer section" of the newest Enterprise, NCC-1701-D, separate itself from the main-drive section for the first time. I couldn't want to see what could happen next...
Yes, there were moments when the special effects were horrible. Yes, there was rampant sexism and horrific acts of chauvinism in the original series and films. Yes, we've all figured out that "the newbie ensign in the red shirt is the one that's gonna die." Star Trek, like the humans who built it, was flawed and imperfect.
But despite the flaws and the campiness, there are still those of us who still believe that a TV show that gives us hope of a 24th century - and a less-inhumane version of humankind - may be doing more to advance faith than many so-called Christian churches in the 21st century...
I'm still a space geek. I'm guessing that my friend John was living one of my dreams yesterday, watching the shuttle Atlantis launch from their new home in Titusville, FL. And you'll just have to color me sour-apple green with envy. Hope there's an extra bed in that new place, John - because one day, I'm gonna come down and watch one with you...
And this coming weekend, I will continue my adventures in "the final frontier." You see, my sister Sue, her husband Jeff, and I all share the Star Trek gene. And this week, I found, ordered and sent their way a copy of the 25th-anniversary Star Trek TV special (which, if memory serves me right, contains all 19 occurences of Dr. McCoy saying variations of, "He's dead, Jim").
We will sit, and laugh, and sigh...because each of us knows that at some level, our hopes and dreams for the future are inextricably bound up with ladies of the stars named Enterprise. And, as Doctor McCoy told Data on The Next Generation pilot, "If you treat her like a lady, she'll always bring you home."