Captain Kirk and Me

When I was a child, I lived in a fantasy world to help me endure the trauma of the real one. My mom and dad did not get along. Because our family moved every few years, I experienced the torment of being the new kid in town. So, I created a world that was better than the one I lived in.

I played make-believe baseball games with cardboard bubblegum cards. I wrote plays about an imaginary secret agent. Sometimes, I imagined myself living in an alternative universe created for me through the glorious television series Star Trek (or as it is known today, Star Trek: The Original Series).

The most important person in this fantasy world was James T. Kirk, captain of the USS Enterprise. Captain Kirk was my most important ally as I fought off bullies in real life. He was a surrogate father. I didn’t know it at the time, but he would become a lifelong friend who taught me how to live with pain.

Captain Kirk versus the Gorn

My family always seem to be on the move. We packed up and found a new home every few years because of my dad’s job as an executive at an insurance company. Experiencing four moves by the time I was in junior high created a constant sense of dislocation. I was always the new kid in town. I suffered from loneliness on my best days and bullying on my worst.

On top of all that, my parents did not get along. My dad was a bon vivant who craved life on the road. My mom preferred to stay at home and read, especially the Bible. My dad’s solution to this conflict was to stay away from home, which was easy enough because most of the time his job demanded that he travel. My mom knew my dad didn’t really want to be home, and my parents fought constantly.

I loved my mom and dad. But I worshipped the ground my dad walked on.

Dad was everything I was not: outgoing and charismatic. He exuded charm and confidence. I did not. People gravitated to him. People only gravitated to me to pick on me. I was a quiet loner, especially in the early 1970s, when I was a grade schooler and our family lived in the small town of Battle Creek, Michigan. I craved my dad’s company, not only because he was usually absent but also because he represented something I wished I could be.

My dad and me

I wasn’t the only one. I had an older brother and two older sisters. They missed him, too. Dad missed us, and wanted to spend time with his kids, but on his terms. This meant that if you wanted to hang out with Dad, you needed to be willing to join him on some of his business trips or visit him at an apartment he kept in Chicago, where his company was based. When he was home, hanging with dad meant watching sports on TV. My two sisters were too old to travel with him, and no one particularly cared for watching sports but my brother Dan and me. Sometimes, Dan and I accompanied Dad together on his travels. Sometimes I accompanied Dad alone.

Dad was happiest away from our home. In hotels, airports, and all the other places that connect road life, I witnessed a puckish side of Dad that I seldom saw back in Battle Creek. He took delight in small acts of mischief, like the time he taught me the art of stealing hotel soap from the housekeeping cart. He could have just asked for the soap, but what was the fun in that?

I also saw him interact with people confidently. He treated everyone with respect, from high-ranking captains of industry to hotel bellhops. He just had that kind of easygoing way about him that made people want to be around him. I also noticed that he read people around him all the time. Putting people at ease gave him the advantage of learning more about them than they learned about him. Like a poker player, he kept his cards close to his vest (and he was indeed a superior poker player). We bonded on the road, but I also learned about how to handle people watching my dad.

Those skills would serve me well later in life, but I had to survive childhood first.

When my dad was home, the kids treated him like a king returning from the battlefield. This dynamic was unfair to my mom, who kept us fed and the house clean while dad was away. But children don’t always see things objectively. My mom, God bless her, didn’t allow the fact the kids took her home-making skills for granted to stop her from doing what she thought was best for us. One crucial way she enriched my life was to expose me at an early age to the joys and wonder of arts and entertainment. When I was seven years old, she took me to Patton, where I learned about the profane, pistol-wearing general as famously interpreted by George C. Scott.

And just as importantly, Mom didn’t monitor my TV viewing habits — which included a lot of Star Trek, a show I discovered with Dan.

By the early 1970s, the original Star Trek had concluded its three-year run and was enjoying a resurgence of popularity thanks to syndication. I was immersed in the world of the USS Enterprise. Captain Kirk. Mr. Spock. Dr. McCoy. Lieutenant Uhura. Second Officer Scotty. Ensigns Sulu and Chekov. They were dynamic and compelling, from Dr. McCoy, the emotional hot head and the conscience of the show, to Mr. Spock, an alien at war with himself who was fiercely loyal to his friends despite experiencing the dislocation of being The Other. And there was Kirk, a combination of the two. It was easy to fall in love with them and root for them. It was easy to fantasize about becoming part of their world.

My fantasy went like this: I would be cutting the lawn at home or reading a book or doing something else equally prosaic, and then my body would dissolve into particles and find its shape again on the Enterprise like the U.S. fighter pilot on the episode Tomorrow Is Yesterday.

There, I would be greeted by the entire crew. They would explain that somehow by accident I could not make it back. Welcome to my new life.

The most important person in this fantasy was James Tiberius Kirk. Although I identified with Mr. Spock’s Otherness, Kirk was a father figure who filled a void when Dad was not around. In fact, he was a lot like my dad: charismatic, charming, and confident. They even resembled each other physically, including the twinkle in their eyes when they smiled and the way they strode confidently into a room

Kirk was also a protector at a time when I was badly in need of one. It was easy to imagine him stepping in, stopping bullies, and comforting me when I was lonely.

My appreciation for him deepened episode by episode. At first, it was his physicality that stood out. How could it not? He was a commanding presence. It’s easy now to chuckle at the hypermasculinity of his fight scenes — the kicks, knee drops, Kirk rolls, and ripped shirts — but this is exactly what a frightened, lonely boy needed to see. Kirk fought. He suffered. But he prevailed — and he prevailed with his humanity intact. For example, in the episode “Arena,” he relies on agility and his wits to overcome a relentless creature, the Gorn. But when Kirk has the opportunity to kill the Gorn, he shows mercy.

Being a captain also meant tapping into a deep well of courage and leadership to resolve conflict. In the episode “The Omega Glory,” the Enterprise crew discovers a parallel Earth that has been devastated by biological warfare. The survivors, the Yangs and Kohms, are engaged in a bitter struggle. Kirk and Spock deduce that the Yangs are an analog for American “Yankees” because they worship American artifacts such as Old Glory. The Kohms are akin to Asian communists. Kirk helps resolve the war by convincing the Yangs that the American Constitution they venerate must apply to both the Yangs and Kohms. His speech, brimming with typical Kirkian brio, is one for the ages:

I could easily imagine my dad delivering this speech because I had seen him do something like that on the road. He didn’t put an end to corporate warfare, but he had a way of commanding a meeting the way Kirk did, with dignity and charisma.

But to know Kirk was to love his deep sense of empathy, which he drew upon time and again. In “The Savage Curtain,” a mysterious life force of unknown origin claims to be Abraham Lincoln and asks to be beamed aboard the Enterprise. The being sure seems like Abraham Lincoln as he communicates with the Enterprise. But the crew are perplexed. The real Abraham Lincoln died centuries ago. Who or what exactly are they beaming aboard? Captain Kirk isn’t sure. But he looks at the situation from the alien’s vantage point. Whatever it is, the being has shown zero hostility and has offered only friendship. How might the being perceive hostility in return? So, Kirk gives the illusory Lincoln the benefit of the doubt. He orders the crew to not only beam aboard the Abraham Lincoln, but also to give Lincoln full presidential honors. Kirk, again putting himself in the alien’s shoes, knows that President Lincoln would expect a presidential welcome. That’s what Kirk is going to give him, even acting with deference to him:

This, too, was my dad, reading people, putting himself in their shoes, and giving them the benefit of the doubt. My dad also drew upon empathy many times when he listened to me on the phone discuss my own loneliness and fears, or when he responded to the occasional letter I would write to him. He always had the right words and physical gestures, such as a hug or a hand on my shoulder. Kirk used physical gestures, too, as when he comforted Ensign Angela Martine, a mourning crew member whose fiancé has died during ship-to-ship combat in the episode “Balance of Terror.” Kirk waits for Ensign Martine to embrace him. He does not force the moment. He gives the ensign the space she needs to come to him for comfort, as you can see at the 4:15 mark of this excerpt:

I needed that embrace. My dad was not at home enough to give it to me. So, Kirk had to suffice.

The worlds of Captain Kirk and my dad crossed one day in real life. Dad was spending a rare weekend at home, watching television. I sat down beside him on the sofa. I asked him if he knew who Captain Kirk was. He smiled and nodded yes, his attention focused on the television. During a commercial break from whatever show my dad was watching, he turned to me.

“Space,” he said, “the final frontier . . . ”

He didn’t get all the words right — the famous words that Captain Kirk uttered at the beginning of the credits that opened every episode. And Dad stopped after a few seconds. But he smiled like Kirk often did.

The moment was over. But it lasted long enough to convince me that the fantasy Captain Kirk had somehow embodied the essence of my dad in a parallel world. Star Trek occasionally explored the possibility of parallel universes existing. Maybe Star Trek was real somewhere. Maybe Kirk was somehow a real counterpart to my dad, communicating to me to help me stay alive,

I internalized the fantasy. And I survived.

Mirror, Mirror

In 1975, when I was starting middle school, my dad made a major concession to my mom by moving our family to the Chicago area. Ostensibly, we were all closer to my dad. At last Dad had a real home and family in the Chicago area, not an apartment. We were going to be a family again. But things didn’t turn out that way. My dad stayed on the road as often as he always had. Then he got a new job at an insurance company in New York, and we were right back where we started, with Dad living in an apartment far from home in order to be closer to where his company was headquartered.

My sisters, older than me, had moved on from the conflict of my parents’ world. My oldest sister Cathy was pursuing her own life apart from our home, and Karen, although living at home, had also moved on to a professional life with her own fully realized network of friends. But my brother began to deteriorate. He discovered drugs. And he retreated into a world of his own private suffering.

My fights with bullies intensified, but I found refuge in schoolwork, which I took seriously. Fortunately, academics gave me a focus. In high school, life actually improved for me even as my brother’s world darkened. My passion for school earned the respect of teachers, and I began to make friends, although I struggled with girls. Importantly, though, I came out of my shell. I still preferred withdrawing into my own world in my spare time, but I had found friends to socialize with. And the bullying finally stopped after I proved myself to be a worthy opponent in one particularly bloody fistfight that earned respect from other students.

I continued to spend time with my dad, and when we did, Dad introduced me to a more interesting, grown-up world. When I was about 15, he took me to Las Vegas. He hunkered down at a poker table and told me if I needed anything all weekend, just stop on by. So, I wandered the Strip, where I mingled with all of humanity, ranging from tourists to the Las Vegas underbelly. Dad was true to his word. He never left that poker table all weekend. Moments like that — and there were many more in other cities — gave me confidence to explore. To figure out how to read people. To be comfortable around anyone from any walk of life.

When Dad was home, his idea of settling down for the weekend was to visit a place called the Cicero Hunter’s Club, where he played poker and gin rummy all night. He hung out with old men with names like Pineapple who drank wine out of tiny juice glasses and shouted unspeakable obscenities at each other. This was a secret world you did not dare try to enter unless you knew someone. And my dad knew someone. Oftentimes, I would sit by his side. I would watch him run the table, never losing his focus, never joining in the macho banter. We’d leave the next morning and watch the sun rise over pancakes at a Denny’s somewhere. (“My old pal,” he’d sometimes say, while the two of us shared the moment.)

How, I wondered, could someone maintain such a calm, measured focus even when he was hundreds of dollars in the hole at 1:00 a.m. in the Cicero Hunter’s Club, only to emerge flush with cash by 5:00 a.m.?

All this time, I still watched Star Trek. During high school, watching Star Trek was a bit like visiting an old friend. But the show continued to speak to me personally through Captain Kirk. As I began to excel academically, I noticed that girls in particular seemed to stereotype me as a nerdy professor — a Mr. Spock among the student body — which basically killed my chances of dating for quite some time. I confided in my dad how awkward I felt. I remember one phone conversation in particular when Dad told me that I was a leader, and leaders were going to experience loneliness, as simple as that. He urged me to stay on my path and accept the downside of leading.

I accepted and internalized his words, and I remembered Kirk again. During this time when one could not simply watch entertainment on demand, I was fortunate to watch the Star Trek episode “Mirror, Mirror.” In “Mirror, Mirror,” a transporter malfunction on the Enterprise sends Kirk, Uhura, McCoy, and Mr. Scott to a parallel, evil universe where their counterparts survive on deceit and bloodshed. At one crucial point in the episode, the real Kirk tries to convince Mr. Spock’s parallel counterpart to reject evil and embrace good. It’s another great Kirk moment that, when I watch it today, always brings to mind my dad’s conversations with me — just as watching the episode then bucked me up with resolve:

Dad was still the center of my world. But not for long.

The City on the Edge of Forever

I graduated from high school in 1981 near the top of my class. I had learned how to own my largely introverted life by excelling academically and slowly embracing the joys of writing for the sake of writing. I’d even made a few lifelong friends, although I didn’t know it at the time. During my senior year, I got to know some German exchange students who were staying with mutual friends. One of them invited me and a friend to visit their home during the summer between my senior year of high school and my first year of college at Southern Methodist University. Leaving the United States for a summer and exploring another culture intrigued me. I had spent four years as a straight-A student at Wheaton Central High School. I cared a lot about getting good grades, but getting good grades could be tiresome. I was ready for a break before going to SMU and getting back on the academic treadmill.

I lived in Neumarkt, Germany, a little town nestled in the Bavarian hills. The German kids I got to know wore psychedelic pants and talked of politics. They drank a lot, and so did I. It was the kind of summer where you spent the days riding around aimlessly on a scooter and your nights talking politics and art at parties. I joined a group of students for a road trip to Paris, where I stumbled upon the 10th anniversary of Jim Morrison’s death.

Liberated from the strictures of home, I wore my hair long, grew a beard, and got one of my ears pierced. For the first time in my life, I wrote creatively — not to get good grades, but for me. The streets of Paris and the places I visited in Germany formed the settings for short stories and poems, some of them about an alter ego named Eddie Black whom I created in Paris. My time in Germany and indeed my life assumed a new context. Every new place was like a muse.

Eventually the summer abroad came to an end. No more poker games in run-down youth hostels. No more friends with long hair. No more German teens and political talk.

I returned home in August. With little time for any transition, I headed off for SMU. I had no idea what I was in for.

In 1981, a beard, long hair, and earrings did not go over very well at SMU in Dallas. From Day One, I suddenly found myself a freak and outcast. The preppie kids didn’t know what to make of me, and I didn’t know what to make of them, either. They sneered at me and taunted me with homophobic slurs.

I reacted the only way I knew how: I retreated to my dorm room and studied.

I was alone in my dorm room one day in October when the phone rang. The voice at the other end was a police officer. He explained that he had my parents in the police station with him, and both of them wanted to talk with me. My mom had decided that enough was enough. She had flown out to New Jersey to his home away from home to confront him about the choices he was making to live apart from our family, and the toll his choices were incurring. The confrontation had not gone well. In fact, it had turned physical and loud. Someone had called the police to intervene.

Before the officer turned the phone over to my dad, he said, “I’m really sorry about this. It’s always the kids who get stuck in the middle.”

I never met him. But I never forgot his attempt at showing compassion.

I listened to my parents explain to me what had happened, as if I had some kind of role of emotional mediator. And then I hung up. This incident was not the first time my parents had experienced conflict. But this was a seriously bad breach. There was no way Dad was ever going to return home. Up until now, at least I had a sense of home, however fractured it was. Now that illusion was shattered. My parents had reached a point of no return in their war. Now I felt like a freak and an outcast with no moorings.

My dad invited me to spend the holidays with him, and I accepted. But I was no longer a hero-worshipping boy. Although I loved my dad deeply, I could see him as a more fully realized human being. And I did not like what I saw. In building a life apart from his family, he had made some choices I thought were wrong for him and for my mom. He looked perpetually stressed out, and he had become seriously overweight. So, I confronted him. I told him that I didn’t expect him to get back together with my mom, but I also told him I could not accept the lifestyle he was leading. He needed to take better care of himself and his loved ones.

The confrontation did not go well. After the holiday visit, we engaged in long, bigger arguments on the phone. And then we stopped talking to each other. We would not talk again for years, and we would not see each other for 20 years — mostly due to my choice.

Over the next few years, my parents’ war escalated. My dad wanted a divorce. My mom did not. As parents often do, their war resulted in casualties, including an unacceptable financial cost. I witnessed the war from afar while trying to survive. At SMU, the verbal abuse turned physical. One night, a group of kids in our dorm picked me up, carried me outside, and attempted to throw me into a fountain. They did not succeed. I writhed wildly until they dropped me on the sidewalk. I threw punches. They backed off, taunting me for being a party pooper.

There were glimmers of hope, though. I got to know one of the residents of my dorm, Jimmy Gardner, who was studious and affable. And Jimmy was a Star Trek fan. Fortunately for both of us, a local station aired episodes every night. We decided we’d reward ourselves for our studies by catching as many Star Trek episodes as we could.

Jimmy watched Star Trek for fun. I watched Star Trek for solace. Visiting Captain Kirk’s world reminded me of something I had lost. My dad and I were no longer talking. But at least I could be with an idealized version of my dad each night. Being accidentally beamed aboard the Enterprise felt like a hope, not a fantasy.

One episode in particular, The City on the Edge of Forever, stands out. In The City on the Edge of Forever, Dr. McCoy accidentally travels through a time portal and ends up in the United States during the Great Depression, where he unwittingly alters the course of history. Captain Kirk and Spock must also go back in time, find McCoy, and then figure out how to undo whatever McCoy did to alter the timeline. As it turns out, the only way to set things right is for Kirk to allow a woman named Edith Keeler to die in an accident — a woman he and McCoy have fallen in love with. In the climactic scene, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, reunited, watch in horror as Edith Keeler accidentally steps in front of an oncoming truck. Kirk realizes she must be allowed to die, but McCoy does not. Kirk stops McCoy from trying to save her in one of the most iconic moments in Star Trek history:

That scene stayed with me in college and throughout my life because of one significant detail: Kirk stops McCoy by falling into his arms and embracing him, as if to simultaneously block him and find physical solace. It’s a peak Star Trek moment that captures the humanity and beauty of the show. But as I watched that episode in Jimmy’s dorm room, I saw myself embracing something I’d lost.

“Jim!”

I eventually left SMU and transferred to the University of Illinois. It was one of the best decisions I’d ever make. At the University of Illinois, there was plenty of room for everyone, even a guy who wore an earring. I stopped feeling like a freak and actually started to enjoy college. I graduated with a journalism degree, embarked on a career, married, and, in 2001, became a father. I also learned to live with the conflict in my family. It was never going to really go away. I needed to learn how to move on.

I saw my dad sporadically — once, when he attended my college graduation, and another time, when he was in Chicago to divorce my mom, who had finally relented. Both times, you might have thought there was nothing wrong with our relationship. Even amid the low points, we enjoyed a natural camaraderie.

Finally, in the early 2000s, I realized that if I was waiting for an apology, it was never going to happen. My sister Karen urged me to reconnect with him. He isn’t getting any younger and he’s had a few heart attacks, she told me. Someone needs to make the first move.

And so, after seeking the gentle counsel of my wife and the pastor of our church, I visited him in his home near Boston, where he’d remarried and settled down to start a new family. There were no speeches delivered. No dramatic hugs exchanged. We just hung out and joked like old times at the Cicero Hunter’s Club. I also got to know his second family — now a part of my family. The closest he came to acknowledging our rift happened when we shared some ice cream and coffee one night.

“We can’t change the past,” he said, out of the blue. “But we can focus on a better future.”

It was just like something Captain Kirk would say. And it was all my dad said about the matter. But, I realized, it was all he needed to say.

Over the next few years, we saw each other more often, and eventually he would meet my own family. Something else happened: my son discovered Star Trek. We began to watch the episodes together at home, which was a joy I’d never had with my dad. I took pleasure in watching Apollo Marion react to the characters I’d come to know as a boy. Of course, part of the reward was watching him form an identity with the characters on his own terms. The Otherness of Mr. Spock, which I’d appreciated as a boy, became far more important to me as I viewed Star Trek through Apollo Marion’s eyes.

Watching Star Trek together became an important ritual for us. I re-watched all the episodes that reminded me of my dad, but I could see them in a different light now — as a way to bond with my own son.

Even still, my dad was always present in the back of my mind.

The episode “Amok Time” was, and remains, a favorite of ours. In it, Mr. Spock must battle Captain Kirk to the death as part of a Vulcan mating ritual. Spock grieves the death of his good friend on the soil of the planet Vulcan. It’s a moving episode in which we see a more vulnerable and pensive side of Mr. Spock. In the climactic scene, Spock discovers, to his obvious joy, that Captain Kirk is alive after all. In a moment of uncharacteristic emotion, the Vulcan shouts, “Jim!”

It’s a transcendent scene of unbridled joy that embarrasses the otherwise unflappable Mr. Spock. Apollo Marion and I took delight in it then, and we still do today. “Jim!” symbolizes unfettered, pure joy, unbound by convention. The “Jim!” moment endures for me in another way: it symbolizes my reconciliation with my own dad. I cannot watch “Amok Time” now without thinking of Spock’s delight paralleling my own when I found my dad again. I could now watch Star Trek without feeling like I was reaching for something in my past to find the dad I once knew. He was here with me again.

My dad passed away in 2020 of pancreatic cancer. Even with a pandemic raging, I was able to be with him before he died. Apollo Marion moved on to college and has built a rich life of his own as an artist, a student, and a member of the LGBQT+ community. He has also introduced me to queer Star Trek, or queer representations in the series that exist outside the official Star Trek canon. This includes a romantic reading of the relationship between Kirk and Spock, known as Spirk.

When I first heard of queer Star Trek, I was surprised. This was not my lens growing up. But it’s an important part of how I view and celebrate Star Trek now. And this is what art is all about: not only claiming someone’s art as your own — through your life, your experiences, and your frame of reference — but also rediscovering that art through someone else’s eyes. Captain Kirk helped me on my journey to where I am today. My own son is now taking me where I’ve never gone before.

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Writer and pop culture lover.

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David Deal

David Deal

Writer and pop culture lover.

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