Aside from being the most physically powerful man that I know of, my maternal grandfather was also the first nerd of color I ever met. He was enamored of all things weird, off-center, having to do with outer space, other worlds, or the possibility that a monster just might rise out of the sea. He was my gateway drug to sci-fi. My grandfather is directly responsible for getting me hooked. It started with television. It started with Star Trek.
The earliest — actually, the most coherent — memory that I have of my grandfather is of us, in my grandparents’ basement, watching the “Arena” episode of the original Star Trek series. I’m not sure what triggered it, but he had some serious issues with the Gorn.
“De Gworn dem? Dey mek da devil look handsome,” he said with his thick Jamaican accent. “Born fi’ hell!” I distinctly recall not being able to fully follow the action as my grandfather continued to heap insult upon insult on the “frog fuckers.” I hadn’t been saying anything, but he put his hand over my mouth and ordered me to “shhhh” when Captain James Tiberius Kirk confronted the Gorn for the climatic battle.
“Dat mon dere? Captain Kirk? Him de only white mon worth your eyes.”
When Kirk defeated the Gorn and the Metron transported Kirk back to The Enterprise, all of his wounds healed, my grandfather let out a little yip of joy. He patted my back and told me that Trek was “how the future should be.”
Years later, when Star Trek The Motion Picture was released, he refused to take me. I begged him for days, but he was steadfast in his ‘no.’ When he said “no,” it was like any starship captain saying, “shields up!” Unless your weaponry was better, nothing was getting through. I went to see the movie with a friend and his family, and told my grandfather all about it. He shook his head the entire time and when I finished, he sat me down and hit me with the following: “When ya’ mek space the size of space you cheat it. But when ya’ put space in someplace small, like da TV dere, it meks it more meaningful.”
I had no idea what the hell he meant — still don’t — but he was pretty adamant that science fiction should only be on television.
Through the years, he and I shared many a sci-fi rerun: Star Trek, The Outer Limits, The Avengers (the British spy-fi show), The Twilight Zone, Thunderbirds, The Wild Wild West — his pure glee when he watched these shows was infectious. I became a fiend. We’d process each episode and he’d break down their larger social-political meanings. He was my first critical thinking instructor, and he used science fiction television to sharpen my mind and observational skills. He was a wise old man. When I reflect on just how much he has influenced all aspects of my nerdom — not to mention my journey from project kid to Magna Cum Laude graduate to earning a Master’s degree — it is astonishing that he never completed the equivalent of the third grade in the U.S, and was functionally illiterate. He was my number one motivator to obtain “as many degrees ya cyan! You’re a smart on, so you fi’ have to use it. Maybe you’ll get so smyart, ya’ will have ya’ own Enterprise.”
My involvement in school placed a non-hostile wedge between us. I (frankly) got smarter and started to explore things my grandfather had no context for. We both felt this, and I decided to fix this by teaching my grandfather how to read. We started with H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. We read this book so many times that I will never read it again. I still have the copy we practiced with, but I cannot read it — too many tears from my grandfather when he couldn’t immediately grasp reading fundamentals. But he persevered, eventually turning into a reading freak. He was never without an E.E. “Doc” Smith book in the front pocket of his ever-present coveralls.
Then he discovered the Trek novels.
It was over. His addiction increased to the point the he stopped attending church with my grandmother so that he could have an extra couple of hours to read “da Trek book, dem.” He’d devour the books and toss them down to me. I’d read them so that we could talk about them, but was not as into them as I was Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) that was airing at the time. TNG rekindled my Trek love affair — well, beginning with season three. The first two seasons were…we’ll just leave it at that. For all of his reading, my grandfather did not see one episode of TNG.
“If it’s not Kirk, me not care.”
Then, in 1993, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9) aired. My grandfather went bananas. I remember receiving a telephone call from him that ignored the now three-hour time difference between us.
“Bwoy! Dat new Stah Trek? Spenser’s man is the captain! Da Man Called Hawk is da captain.” His excitement down-registered when I informed him that Benjamin Sisko was not a captain. “Why da black mon not a captain?” Good question.
My grandfather passed away before the conclusion of DS9, but watched the first five seasons. He was out-of-his-skin when Sisko was made captain. It was as if one of his daughters got married to the perfect man — like he personally won some type of jackpot. Right before he died, our last conversation (naturally) included Trek.
“Bwoy. Me know you fadda not around, and ya more me son than grandson. I’m proud of all da tings you accomplished. You’re da captain of you own Enterprise and da future is what you will mek it. If you can be a mix-up between Sisko and Kirk, you will mek our world a better place.”
I’m trying, old man, I’m trying.