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Klingons, Ferengis take over American Legion
On one level, it was a typical night at American Legion Hampton Roads Post 31. Families - moms, dads, kids - were floating from table to table, munching on corn chips and sipping soft drinks.
Clusters of adults played cards - poker, blackjack. A few other groups were hunched over board games. People were laughing, talking, having fun.
But, what's that tall Klingon dude doing over at the craps table?
"I've just conquered the universe and I can't do a damn thing with my hair," cracked Kai, captain of the alien spaceship IKV Bat'leth, after a particularly unsatisfying roll of the dice. Even with his severe Klingon features - huge bushy eyebrows, giant ridges across his forehead,
rust-colored skin - a scowl was noticeable on his face. But with another roll, he seemed to brighten up a bit.
"Boxcars!" the man running the craps table shouted before starting to pay the winners with brightly colored play money. "You guys are killing me."
Kai - better known as Tracy Phelps of Hampton - was part of Quark's Casino Royale, a fund-raising function sponsored by three separate Star Trek fan clubs in the area. As the commanding officer of the Klingon space cruiser Bat'leth, he wasn't merely a participant, he was one of the night's hosts.
Phelps and his fellow sci-fi enthusiasts turned out for a night of pretend gambling to raise money for the Animal Aid Society and other charities.
"This is our major fund-raiser of the year," said Starfleet officer Joe Kancel of the USS Maat, based in Virginia Beach. "And helping charities is the whole purpose of these groups."
Well, that and glorifying the fictional world that gave the world transporter beams, science officer Spock, Lt. Commander Data, the Borg and furry little animals called tribbles.
Hampton Roads' love of Star Trek continues to thrive. The science fiction television series that originally aired 1966-69 on NBC has given birth to an active, compassionate and multi-faceted community in this part of Virginia.
This is something more elaborate than your garden-variety cult following. Clubs - named for imaginary starships that serve the fictional Starfleet Command - meet regularly in Virginia Beach, Chesapeake and Hampton. They hold fund-raising events, blood drives, parties and camping weekends.
It's all done with the blessing of a national group - Starfleet: The International Star Trek Fan Association - that allows Star Trek devotees to step comfortably into an imaginary universe where danger lurks behind yonder asteroid belt and precious dilithium crystals help spaceships to travel beyond the speed of light.
Back on Virginia soil, local Trek lovers try to make Earth a better place.
"These are the voyages of the Starship Jamestown," reads a message on the Hampton-based club's Web site. "Her on-going mission: To strive to be recognized in our community as a reflection of the ideals expressed in Star Trek.
"When other human beings are unable to help themselves, when the environment of our planet is endangered and needs assistance to replenish itself ... the crew of the Jamestown will be the ones to say 'Let Me Help.' "
John Winsley, the USS Jamestown's president for five years, described his group as part of an extraordinary local network or extended family.
"The Hampton Roads area probably has more Star Trek or sci-fi clubs than any other metropolis I know of," said Winsley, who works at Northrop Grumman Newport News shipyard. "We have 15 different clubs in the area - there's the Klingon group, one for 'Babylon 5,' three Starfleet chapters. Why so many here? I don't know. I really don't."
Tammy Willcox of Virginia Beach - who serves as chief financial officer for the national Starfleet organization as well as an officer on board the USS Maat - has a few theories on that subject. "There's a large technology base here," Willcox said. "Technical people tend to like science fiction, they like to see where their thoughts are going in the future. They tend to gravitate toward that kind of thing."
Star Trek activities allow families to have fun together, she said, which explains part of the local appeal. "I have three kids. They're all in it. It's a good family activity."
The large military presence in Hampton Roads is another part of the equation. "The groups have had a fair number of military members throughout the years," Willcox said. Hobbies such as Star Trek help sailors and soldiers pass time during lonely assignments far from home.
"If you go to sea for long periods of time, you're dealing with what's available to you," she said.
Fans have invested a staggering number of hours into molding their galaxy-spanning imaginary world. Trekkers have mapped out an alternate cosmos that's astonishingly rich in detail.
For example, consider Jason Schreck. In real life, he's a 24-year-old college student and Hampton resident. In the Star Trek universe, he's a colonel in the Starfleet Marine Corps. More specifically, he's a colonel in a Marine mobile medical hospital unit that's attached to the USS Jamestown.
Imagine a science fiction version of television's "MASH" unit and you've got the idea.
While Starfleet isn't a military organization per se, it does arm its ships with weapons and soldiers just in case brute force becomes necessary in the course of exploring new worlds and seeking out new civilizations.
Schreck's imaginary alter ego would call the shots for a medical team landing on a beach or moon of some distant planet. Schreck says his fellow Starfleet Marines have developed sketches for medical instruments that would be used by space medics. There are also concepts for vehicles and - of course - uniforms. The variations and subtleties are just as detailed as those for any real-life battalion.
"There is all kinds of stuff that gets created," Schreck said. "And most of it is by fans. Starfleet Marine Corps makes manuals that can be downloaded from the Internet. A lot of it has already been taken care of. At least on paper they are designed."
Such obsessive imagining may strike some as a bit excessive. It's the sort of absorption in a futuristic fantasyland that has made Star Trek followers the target of jokes everywhere from TV's "Saturday Night Live" to the satiric newspaper The Onion, which once published a story with the headline "Klingon Speakers Now Outnumber Navajo Speakers."
John Winsley, the USS Jamestown president, said some of his fellow Star Trek lovers are shell-shocked by the unflattering portrayals. "There are a lot of people who sometimes feel embarrassed to talk about it," Winsley said. "But I'm not sure if we're any crazier than people who go to football games and don't wear a shirt and paint themselves blue and white. The sports people collect a lot of memorabilia. We collect a lot of Star Trek memorabilia. It's just a different point of view on it."
And yet for some Trekkers, the time eventually comes to leave the hobby behind.
At a yard sale in Virginia Beach a few weeks ago, Jeffrey Overman, 41, of Norfolk, was selling a huge collection of Star Trek gear. He sat behind a table, his fleet of spaceships and legion of miniature space travelers arrayed in front of him in boxes. His 12-year-old son, Joey, sat beside him.
Overman said he bought most of the stuff for his son.
Joey apparently had a pretty impressive bedroom at one time.
The ceiling was painted midnight blue. Spacecraft models were suspended from the ceiling in various positions as if they were traveling toward the sun - presumably the room's light fixture. Action figures adorned the walls.
"Parents give the kids the room they wanted when they were growing up," Overman explained. "That's the room I wanted ... but he got it.
"Now it's time for somebody else to enjoy it," Overman said.
He started collecting in 1990, about the time Joey was born. Overman figures he's spent $4,000 on Star Trek gear.
Their most valuable item? A set of 13 metal figures from "Star Trek: The Next Generation." Overman figured it was worth $300. He sold it at the yard sale for $100.
"All this is 12 or 13 years of collecting," Overman said. "It was exciting at the time. But now I'm looking at retiring. It didn't turn out to be the investment I thought it would be."
At 12, Joey is interested in different things. Asked what he gets excited about these days, he opened his jacket to reveal a Dragon Ball Z T-shirt, as well as a silk dress shirt emblazoned with more Dragon Ball art.
Looking back, he appreciates the effort and expense his dad employed in creating his Star Trek bedroom.
"It was cool," Joey said. "I just didn't realize it."
What is it about Star Trek that continues to fascinate facets of the American public? How did a short-lived television series from almost 40 years ago lay the foundation for a subculture? There seems to be more at work than mere nostalgia.
Kurt Lancaster, assistant professor of English at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., has written several books examining fantasy and science fiction fan communities including "Interacting with Babylon 5: Fan Performances in a Media Universe."
He said the original Star Trek series struck a nerve because it was good quality science fiction, something not seen often on television.
"At its best, science fiction can tell us who we are as a people and where we are going," Lancaster said. "Originally, the show was very political. It reflected society through the stories."
In many ways, the original series as well as the various spin-off shows and movies present a hopeful look ahead.
"In general, I think it's the way Star Trek portrays the future as a more idealistic place," Jason Schreck said. "In the future seen in Star Trek, humans have worked out differences and live in virtual paradise on Earth.
Now, they're free to explore the universe. With the space program today, one of the arguments against it is, 'Why are they spending all that money on space when we have so many problems here? But in their future, there's no need to spend money to solve problems on Earth, because, essentially, there aren't any.
"It's very different from other sci-fi, where the future is portrayed as some kind of post-apocalyptic horror. I think that's what attracts people."
Sam McDonald can be reached at 247-4732 or by e-mail at email@example.com.