Aiming High in the Air Force: 2003, Part Two: Nerdvana

Me & Quan (aka “Coin,” aka Jerad Formby)

After returning to Nellis Air Force Base from my brief deployment in the Middle East, I was granted leave time. I drove out to visit my dad and his side of the family in California. While my relationship with my father hadn’t been the best since my parents divorced when I was young, the events of the past year had begun to force me to reconsider everything I thought that I knew.

Chris’ Eagle Court of Honor

When I called to let everyone know I was coming, my dad asked me to bring my Boy Scout uniform. The older of my two step-brothers, Chris, would be receiving his Eagle Scout while I was visiting, and he wanted me, the first Eagle Scout in my family, to deliver the Eagle’s Charge. After I arrived, Chris told me that, to avoid confusion over my changed name, he had listed me on the event program as Jeffrey Rodgers, rather than Jeffrey Harlan. Even a year earlier, I likely would have been upset about the situation, but ten months in the military had changed me, and brought into focus what really mattered. Years earlier, when I sent a letter telling my father that I wanted to change my name, he sent a reply that may have been one of the longest letters I ever received from him. In the intervening years, the letter has long since been lost, but the substance of it still remngs in my memory. Paraphrasing Romeo and Juliet, that a rose “by any other name” would smell as sweet, my father told me that, no matter what, and regardless of my name, I would always be his son. It was perhaps one of the most eloquent, heartfelt things he had ever told me, but those words fell on deaf ears (or, rather, eyes) for many years.

Me & Stitch

Chris’ Eagle Scout Court of Honor was held at the March Field Air Museum, where my dad’s museum was co-located. Chris introduced me, and announced that I had returned from Iraq. Everyone applauded me as a war hero, but I didn’t feel like one. It was embarrassing, to be cheered on like I’d personally taken Baghdad, when I spent more time digging holes to lay concrete for a sidewalk so the generals didn’t have to get their boots dusty. Besides, this was Chris’ big day, and I felt like I was stealing his thunder. I struggled to read the script, but the setting sun was in my eyes. After I finished, I stepped down from the podium, and took my seat. Before leaving California, I visited Disneyland again for the first time in four years. I spent the day there, riding roller coasters and posing for photos with Disney characters. I quickly settled into a routine after returning to work at Nellis.

Star Trek: The Experience

In my off hours, I discovered Star Trek: The Experience at the Las Vegas Hilton, which was a ten minute drive from the base. As a Trekkie, this was my Mecca. Indeed, the first time I visited, it was almost a religious experience: a place by and for geeks like me, allowing total immersion in the Star Trek Universe. Suspended above the main entrance, above the sign proudly proclaiming Star Trek: The Experience, was a model of the U.S.S. Enterprise-A, which had to be a good fifteen feet long, and was immaculately detailed. Looking through the archway–which reminded me of nothing short of an Iconian Gateway–two paths lay ahead: to the right, a payment kiosk for entry into the Museum of the Future and the attraction’s sole ride at the time, which would later be dubbed “Klingon Encounter” when the “Borg Invasion 4D” ride was added in 2004; to the left, stairs led down to a re-creation of the Deep Space Nine Promenade, complete with storefronts… and Quark’s Bar and Restaurant. On guard at the bottom of the steps was a fierce-looking, life-sized statue of the Gorn captain who famously battled Captain Kirk in 2266–er, I mean the first season of the original Star Trek television series.

Beware the Gorn

Because I was so excited to see the ride and museum (and no, not because I was intimidated by a statue), I immediately went up the ramp to the right. After dropping my latinum in the toll box–er, paying the admission fee to the attendant, I made my way inside. To my left, guiding my path, was a literal timeline of Star Trek history. To my right, glass display cases held props and costumes from every incarnation of Star Trek: a primitive computer used by Scotty while visiting 1986, Captain Kirk’s uniform from the Khitomer Conference in 2291, Captain Janeway‘s uniform, phasers, a photon torpedo casing, and more…

Captain Kirk’s Uniform

At the end of the line lay lay the Klingon Encounter ride. It started off normally enough, with your standard pre-ride spiel that you’d find in pretty much any theme park attraction. Then the lights went out, interrupting the attendant. Air rushed around us, lights began to sparkle, and the familiar, high-pitched whine of a transporter beam hit our ears. As the lights came back up, the room had changed entirely, and we were all now standing on the transporter pad aboard the Enterprise-D. It looked just like the television show.

The actors playing the part of the transporter technicians informed us that we were now in 2371… and Commander Riker‘s voice came over the intercom speaker. We were ushered into the corridor. It, too, looked straight out of the TV show. The level of immersion was stunning, marred only by legally-mandated “Exit” signs and an oversized turbolift (to accommodate more than two dozen ride participants). That turbolift took us to the bridge; the bridge that I knew intimately, from years of watching Star Trek: The Next Generation–now long since in reruns and on DVD–as well as years of reading and meticulously re-reading the Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual. 

On the Bridge (2005)

Riker appeared on the enormous viewscreen at the fore of the bridge, telling us that we’d been plucked from the future by a group of rogue Klingons who were now in pursuit of the Enterprise, seeking retaliation for intercepting the transporter beam that had grabbed us. The Klingon captain, Korath, appeared on the viewscreen, too. I looked at the display screens at the aft bridge stations, behind me. The attention to detail continued to astound, as a complete biography on Korath scrolled across their screens. Soon, we were ushered off the bridge, onto another turbolift on the opposite side of the aft bridge stations. It shuddered and lurched as we were “hit” by Klingon weapons fire. We arrived at our destination: Shuttlebay 2. After receiving a “safety briefing” from Lt. Commander La Forge, we boarded our shuttle… which then turned the whole experience into a motion simulator ride. A massive projection screen immersed us, once again, and as we “flew” past a full-scale projection of the Enterprise-D, the sheer enormity of the ship truly sunk in. We dodged weapons fire from the Klingons. We slipped past a school of massive cosmozoans, and we dove through a massive machine and the temporal rift it had generated.

Suddenly, we were flying through the streets of Las Vegas, back in the present. Weapons fire struck: the Klingons had followed us back in time. Then, they exploded in the sky over Las Vegas, and there was the Enterprise, rushing past us to return through the rift to its own time. We crashed through the roof of the Hilton, coming to rest among Star Trek: The Experience‘s motion simulator rides. The shuttle door opened. A “custodian” popped his head in, asking why we were in an obviously broken ride. He escorted us to a nearby elevator, and on a TV mounted in the hallway, a “news” broadcast was playing. I quickly recognized Star Trek alum Tucker Smallwood as an Air Force colonel from Nellis, telling reporters that the “disturbance” witnessed in the skies over Las Vegas was, actually, “a weather balloon.” Sadly, this amusing endnote to the ride would be excised a year later, when the Borg Invasion attraction was added. The elevator took us down to the Promenade, and just as I’d noticed from the entry at the opposite end, it was a nearly perfect recreation of part of Deep Space Nine. I browsed the shops’ wares, then went into Quark’s for dinner. The food was excellent, and even the menu had its own unique Star Trek flair.

Darren Benjamin, hard at work at Quark’s

I quickly became a regular. Although I couldn’t afford to go on the ride every time, I made a point to dine at Quark’s at least once or twice each month. Soon after my initial visit, however, my inner geek got an even bigger event to be excited about: the annual Las Vegas Star Trek Convention, held, naturally, at the Hilton. I met the celebrities of the Star Trek world. Some, I only got to take photos of; others, I got to speak with, if briefly; and one… well, that in itself was an experience. Vaughn Armstrong was a veteran of several incarnations of Star Trek, and had appeared as more than a dozen different characters on the shows. He was perhaps best known as Admiral Maxwell Forrest, a recurring character on Star Trek: Enterprise. 

Me & Vaughn Armstrong

I met Vaughn in Quark’s. Like many of the convention-goers, he had retired to the bar for some drinks. He was friendly and open to casual conversation with anyone who approached him, and he told me that we, the fans, were the reason he had remained employed for more than a decade, and he felt the least he could do was to be sociable. As we talked, I learned that he was a Vietnam-era veteran. He told me that he was from Southern California, and had been drawing his reserve paychecks from March Air Force Base at about the same time that I was born there. We talked and drank for several hours, and then, quite inebriated, decided to go on the ride upstairs. Vaughn, it should be noted, played Korath, so when we got on the bridge, and the video of Vaughn in Klingon makeup appeared on the viewscreen, he announced, “That’s not me! I’m Admiral Forrest!” His sense of levity that evening was appreciated by everyone.

The year ended with further reconciliation between my dad and myself. I visited again for Thanksgiving, and took my stepbrothers with me to the Knott’s Berry Farm amusement park. I returned again for Christmas, and spent the holidays with my extended family. Because of the years of both geographic and emotional separation, it was one of the first times I had truly begun to connect with that side of my family.

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