Like a bullet ant, quinceañera or fermented goat’s milk, Star Trek has mystical initiation powers. My older brother, Geoff, and I shared a bunk bed until he graduated high school. As children, we were sent to bed together except on Saturday nights. Growing up, a rite of passage in my house was staying up late enough to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation with my parents. Shortly after 2nd grade, my brother was given permission to cross that threshold while I trundled off to beddy-bye. Star Trek was for “grown ups,” it was mature and complex and I wanted in.
It would still be a year before Data’s head, Jack London and my own initiation, but when I was 8, my father took Geoff and I to a Star Trek Convention at the Egan Center in Downtown Anchorage. My father was always a big Trekkie. Over the years, I’ve heard him talk about watching Star Trek with his family. As a preteen growing up in the Pax Americana suburbs outside Philadelphia, he described the show as a milestone for him. I remember him recounting his reaction to “Plato’s Stepchildren,” the episode in the final season when Kirk kisses Uhura. Americans just older than my father had Kerouac and Frank O’Hara, but Star Trek was his form of counter culture, his gateway to questioning the status quo. Star Trek not only opened his mind and imagination, but, with all its vessels and vehicles, Klingon Birds of Prey, Federation starships, etc., the show also provided a future. He loved the spaceships, built their models and eventually became an engineer (the career that took him to Alaska).
I think George Takei was the big name that day at the Convention. I have no idea, as I don’t remember anything Trekkie at all. This was 1991, so I probably rocked my florescent yellow Hammer pants with pride. I can imagine Geoff old enough to soak in all the nerd-dom, but I was just excited to go out with the men. The actual Star Trek ephemera sloughed off me, as I couldn’t tell Guinan from O’Brien, but I specifically remember heading to the 5th Avenue Mall afterwards. We stopped by Kaybee Toys and I bought a pack of Marvel cards.
Aside from the best food court in Anchorage, the 5th Avenue Mall was the place for geeky kids in early ‘90s Alaska. It had the aforementioned Kaybee Toys, Walden Books, and a comic book store. I assume my dad just wanted to placate his ansty kids with a burger and commerce after a long day, but his decision, accidental or not, was integral for a burgeoning nerd.
Somewhere in a dusty storage unit in Tucson is a collection of large white binders my father brought home from work for me to store my Marvel card collections. Among Beanie Babies, old yearbooks, prom dresses, and a 100 CD-changing stereo, those binders stand a testament to a child’s capacity for obsession, patience and focus. Throughout elementary school, I collected all of the Marvel cards series: 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5, before broadening my horizon into the multiple sets of Spider-Man and X-Men cards. Through all of this accumulating, from my initiation with Series 2 Fin Fang Foom through the gorgeous Mark Bagley Spider-Man set, these cards ignited my imagination.
Though I would soon become an obsessive Marvel card collector, at the time of the Star Trek convention Series 2 had just been released and I had, up until that point, only acquired cards by babysitting other kids’ collections during recess. Isaac Thornton would pay me the odd common for keeping his cards safe under the stucco awning and drumming up trades. I was a good little trade broker/bodyguard and Isaac was a responsible employer, if not a generous one. I remember Isaac with all this expendable wealth, too many commons than he knows what to do with, and a mad desire to climb the monkey bars or go sledding. So he had me watch his collection while he played at recess.
Between brokering deals for Isaac and trying to stay warm, I would flip through the collection awed at these characters I’d barely heard of. Sure, there was Spider-Man and the Hulk, everyone knows them, but Isaac had a rogue’s gallery of esoteric heroes: Gambit, Venom and the Super Skrull. Of all of the cards, I was especially in love with Fin Fang Foom. He was an ancient Chinese dragon and on his card, his stats (strength, endurance, etc.) were off the charts. Though Isaac had two copies, I knew he could leverage one of those Fin Fang Fooms into something juicy, maybe even a hologram, and I was never getting one unless I bought my own packs and got lucky.
I crossed the threshold walking into Kaybee Toys that day. My desire for Fin Fang Foom inspired me to buy my first pack of trading cards. It also steered me, not only into my first comic book obsession (The Dragon Seed Saga was running in Iron Man that fall and I got one of my first comic books, Iron Man #275, the conclusion of the Saga, for Christmas that year), but, more importantly, into a lifelong obsession with fantasy, imagination and nerdery, a nerdery chiefly defined by collecting cards.
It wasn’t just the varied activities of card collecting (buying, trading, the accomplishment of finalizing a set or the gamble of cracking a pack) that appealed to me. These cards were a gateway drug to their comics and thus a capacity for wonder. In my imagination, a goofy kid from a small town became Spider-Man grappling with the moral implications of stopping a serial killer, or Wolverine dealing with his loss of adamantium bones. Like Star Trek for my father before me, comic cards were talismans, portable totems of the wider world of adventure and heroism. Every time I leafed through my collection, my subconscious combusted with complex narratives and images.
During all of this collecting, I only briefly dabbled with non-comic cards. I briefly tried NBA and NFL cards at the advent of the hobby, but neither triggered my fancy like the spandex-clad characters of pulp soap operas. Comic cards owned my imagination, that is, until Magic: The Gathering.
My father’s undying love of Star Trek got him to accidentally establish The Next Generation as a rite of passage for his children. And his decision to take his two boys to a Star Trek convention, that intergenerational nerdery, was both baptism and confirmation. That day was the first day of the beginning of my adult identity. It was the first day I bought a small plastic-packaged, randomly grouped pack of cards. I was excited. Anything could be in that pack. I bit my tongue, tore the crinkling plastic and hoped for Fin Fang Foom.