Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Trek Jest

As I sat at the bar of Murphy’s Pub & Grill in Riverside, IA, and stared at the drops on condensation sliding down the exterior of my glass of beer, I felt strangely empty and unfulfilled. I couldn’t help but wonder why. What were my expectations for this town’s annual Trek Fest? What had I hoped to see, to experience?

In a word: geeks. I wanted Star Trek geeks, ravenously over-enthusiastic fanatics for this show, its characters, and the universe they combined to create. I expected to be surrounded by people in ill-fitting or perfectly tailored replica Starfleet uniforms. I wanted pointy, rubber Mr. Spock ears, worn by others and for sale at a souvenir stand. I yearned to be greeted with the v-shaped Vulcan gesture, the same gesture that took me weeks to perfect as a child. I hoped for someone to talk to me in the Klingon language, while I marveled at how this person would take the time to form seemingly full, coherent sentences out of an entirely fictional dialect.

The premise behind Trek Fest’s existence certainly held promise. According to the creators of this festival, Riverside, IA was apparently the future birthplace of James T. Kirk, probably the most popular character on the show. “299 years and counting,” read a commemorative t-shirt. Even Star Trek novices know him as the Captain of the Starship Enterprise. I never recalled Riverside being mentioned as the place where Kirk was born, but I am hardly a Star Trek aficionado. I was more than willing to accept the word of those much more versed in such matters.

But would I find such people here? Trek Fest seemed to be more of a county fair than a gathering of overzealous science fiction fanatics. Riverside was a town of small houses, big yards, roadside lawn chairs, and tractors. Rather than host an intrusion of geeks, these people seemed to make the occasion their own. They had a reason for a festival, and that’s all they needed to set up food tents, hold dances, and run tractor pulls. The smell of grilled food was in the air (thankfully masking the odor of manure and animal feed). Nature smiled on the event, giving Riverside a near-cloudless sky and 70 degree temperatures. This day didn’t belong to the geeks; it belonged to the friendly people of this quiet Iowa town who were happy to get a barbecue beef dinner with macaroni-and-cheese, baked beans, chips, and strawberry shortcake with whipped cream for only $6.50.

Yet I still held out hope as I watched the adult participants in the festival’s costume contest. Standing at the end of a barn, each of the contestants was asked to explain their costume and why they liked the character they chose to emulate. One man, dressed as a hooded villain I was unfamiliar with, captured the crowd’s enthusiasm with his threats of world domination. He was eventually named the winner. But it was another contender, dressed as the fictional inspiration for the festival, who most intrigued me. When asked why he chose to dress as Captain Kirk, this man expressed great admiration for the leadership qualities of his fictional role model. Faced with difficult life decisions, this man asked himself what his beloved Captain would do in a similar situation. Were it not for this man’s seeming earnestness, I would’ve dismissed his answers as sarcastic, and possibly smug. Instead, I jotted down a note for possible souvenir items at next year’s Trek Fest: t-shirts and wristbands emblazoned with the acronym “W.W.C.K.D?” What would Captain Kirk do? Perhaps we would all benefit by asking ourselves such a question.

This was the man I was looking for. I hoped to ask the Kirk doppelganger about his beliefs, but after the contest, he became lost in the crowd, surely swallowed up by admirers, beamed up to the Starship Adulation. Or maybe he was pushed into a car and dashed off to the next Star Trek-oriented gathering. Most likely, he changed clothes quickly once he looked out into the crowd and realized how few kindred spirits were watching him. I felt sad for the man, yet wondered if he took solace in his uncompromising (though based in fiction) principles. If he wasn’t sad, how could I be?

I sat under a tent at a wooden picnic table, munching on a pork burger, while watching young children play with balloon animals (that often pierced the serenity of the day by popping loudly) and teenagers duel with phallic-looking balloon swords. I looked again to the barnyard stage; where young girls in brightly colored leotards did backflips set to pop music, in hopes of winning the festival’s talent contest. People were enjoying a nice day in the sun while mingling with their neighbors. I felt petty for wanting more out of this occasion. I didn’t belong here, so I went to the bar instead.

At Murphy's Pub & Grill, I sipped my beer and looked at my watch, keeping track of how much time I had before meeting my classmates. Did I have the right to be so disappointed? I turned from the bar and noticed a man sitting in a booth alone, wearing a Star Trek uniform. He was the runner-up in the costume contest, now enjoying the spoils of his labor. We made eye contact and I raised my beer to him in salute. He lifted his mug of ale back at me and smiled. It was a good day for him.

© 2004 Ian Casselberry