I started off, on Saturday, on a journey to an Iowa city where countless thousands have come from all over, over many years, to celebrate their favorite heroes, their favorite victories and their favorite colored uniforms.
Along the way, I saw cars decorated with the unmistakable insignias and icons, many people of all ages – along with animals, stuffed or alive – dressed in their favorite colors. Black. Gold. Crimson.
These love and enthusiasm these people share creates an instant bond that inspires them to tell strangers when they first watched, who their first heroes were, and where they bought their souvenirs. They compared paint jobs and license plates, and share memories of passing on their love to the next generation, or sharing it with the people in their new community.
And they took lots and lots of photos of their beloved squad, and their leader, Kirk, in the setting that has been a cultural icon for decades. They’ve even been immortalized in butter at the Iowa State Fair.
Approximately 70 people made the trek along Highway 218/27/380 to the big event on Saturday.
“Wait a minute,” you might say. “Don’t you mean 70,000? And when were the Hawkeyes carved in butter?”
Nope. I was there. I counted.
Thirteen miles south of where many of the 70,000 football fans turned east toward Kinnick stadium on Saturday afternoon, I turned west on Saturday morning. Along the way, I saw many vehicles with the familiar colors of Iowa and Iowa State. Two miles from the highway, I passed the empty spot where the model of the USS Enterprise usually welcomes visitors to Riverside. (And although the Ohio State Fair honored its Buckeyes in 2015 in butter, the Iowa State Fair has yet to do so for the Hawkeyes, Cyclones or any other of its collegiate mascots.)
Riverside has called itself “The Future Birthplace of Captain Kirk,” since 1985, when then-council member and Star Trek fan Steve Miller read in Gene Roddenberry’s book, “The Making of Star Trek,” that Kirk would be born in a small town in Iowa. The book, however didn’t name the town.
At the next council meeting (March 25, 1985) Miller proposed that Riverside declare itself the Future Birthplace of James T. Kirk. The motion passed unanimously; soon the city received Roddenberry’s permission to be the “official” future Kirk birthplace.
Now, several streets of this small town are lined with Star Trek banners on light posts. Much of its historical museum is devoted to Star Trek, and even includes a hand-made wooden replica of the deck of the Enterprise, complete with a view of space.
The Post Office was the site of Saturday’s event, the Iowa unveiling of four new Star Trek stamps. While the crowd about 1/1000th the size of the one that would gather in Iowa City later that day, it was an energetic group. About 20 of them wore some kind of Star Trek costume. The street was filled with tributes to the TV show and movies. A rotating cube included many photos from four Star Trek eras, including the original show – which only ran for three years.
Along with the USS Enterprise model – which appeared in a big lighted parade in Tennessee several years ago – there was a wooden transporter, as well as a captain’s chair, complete with buttons and Tribbles. Also, fans had re-created a porthole from one episode, and the “Horta,” a rock-like creature that attacked the crew in another of the original shows.
The line of uniformed Trekkies in front of a large mural of the stamps for a photo was another reminder that in this small town, Star Trek is a Very Big Deal.
Although I went as a curious spectator, not a journalist, my job and curiosity won out, and I had to ask some questions.
One couple told me they became involved in the Star Trek promotions when they moved to town. The man wore the red version of the original uniform; the woman wore Dr. Spock’s light blue colors, although as an accessory, she added: A black Iowa visor with the Tiger Hawk logo – something that 50 years ago might have been mistaken for something from Star Trek.
I saw a woman my age taking a photo of her adult daughter in the captain’s chair. The photo taker explained that her daughter’s love of Star Trek probably began as a baby, when her sleepless nights were spent watching “Next Generation.”
And the owner of the tiny Smart Car with the “ESC POD” license plates – a reference of course to the escape pod the crew used in the episode in which they time-traveled back to 2063 – told me about his organization, the Quad Cities Astronomical Society. Far more than a Trekkie support group, this Society also includes the study of actual astronomy, and owns its own observatory, with several telescopes.
During the short ceremony, Riverside Trekkie leaders recalled the 10 days William Shatner and others spent in Riverside on a project called “Invasion Iowa.” They seem to have forgiven Shatner for fooling them; he told them he was making a movie, but instead was creating a reality show.
“The show didn’t turn out as we hoped,” said one Trekkie. But those who spoke with Shatner during his visit still remember him fondly, and the city residents have raised a little more than 1/3 of the $30,000 they need to pay for a proposed life-size bronze statue of Captain Kirk.
Another leader told the crowd that people from all over the world – even someone who listed his address as “Antartica” – have visited Riverside. Last week, on the 50th anniversary of the premier of Star Trek on TV, a pair of Trekkies made the 16-hour drive from Canada just to be in the future birthplace of Captain Kirk on that milestone date.
I am not a Trekkie; not at all. I can count on one hand the number of Star Trek episodes or movies I have seen in their entirety. And no, I cannot even come close to accomplishing the iconic Dr. Spock hand gesture as he says “Live long and prosper.” They can in Riverside, however. Even the 6th grade Lego League Team pictured on the front page of the local newspaper dressed like Trekkies and held up their hands the way Spock did.
Some people – and I have been among them – have looked at Trekkies as oddballs.
But really, dressing like some guy in a 1960s space TV show is not any different, or more silly then dressing in black and gold (or crimson and gold) and putting a flag of a bird that doesn’t even exist on your car antenna. It’s no different than flipping the car radio between re-runs of “Car Talk” to the radio station that plays “oldie” songs by the Everly or Statler Brothers or Forrester Sisters from the same decades that Star Trek was making lifetime fans – as I did on the drive to and from the event. It’s no different, or silly, than singing “Cheer up sleepy Jean, oh, what can it mean to a daydream believer” to your wife while cooking bacon on a Sunday night.
For those Riverside residents, Star Trek does for them what Hawkeye football does for thousands of others, and old music does for me: It inspires. It reminds. It helps us find connections with those with similar souls. It offers Star Trek fans the same magic that baseball fans feel at The Field of Dreams or lovers Laura Ingalls Wilder books find when they visit the Vinton school that Mary Ingalls attended.
The most important observation I made on Saturday is that this Star Trek thing works in Riverside. It’s “put the town on the map,” as the old saying goes. It’s brought countless tourists – and a few Star Trek actors – to town. And – most importantly – it helps people there do what small towns throughout Iowa and beyond seem to do best: Find ways to turn strangers into friends.
And sometimes those little sayings and symbols have surprisingly deep meaning that most people miss. The Spock hand thing, for example. (Click HERE to read a thorough explanation of how this Star Trek icon is a reminder of a historic Jewish priestly prayer and blessing; Leonard Nimoy was the son of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine.)
Every small town should have something that effective – although in most cases, the residents will have to settle for something a little more terrestrial.
After all, not every town can be the future birthplace of the world’s most famous space captain.