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John Colson: Hit and Run

John Colson
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado

The USS Enterprise has set sail on its final voyage, if not to the final frontier, then to its final resting place – probably the scrap heap in some out-of-the-way shipyard, but perhaps it will be turned into a museum.

Not much of a major story for most of us, I have to admit, but when I read it I felt a pang of nostalgia.

I suppose I should declare, here and now, that I never served on the Enterprise. Hell, I’ve never served in any branch of the U.S. military, having come of age in the 1960s when our nation’s military was deeply entrenched in an immoral, wasteful and stupid war in Vietnam.

My nostalgia, rather, was for the namesake of the original, the ship that carried Capt. James T. Kirk and his intrepid crew to the far reaches of our corner of the Milky Way on a remarkably bad but deeply intriguing television series called “Star Trek.”

Created by the late, lamented Gene Roddenberry, the show was fancifully dubbed by its creator himself as a kind of “‘Wagon Train’ to the stars,” a reference to another television show from the 1950s.

Roddenberry was a television writer in the early days of the medium and wrote a lot of screenplays for Westerns. He clearly loved the genre and unabashedly created a series that had all the hallmarks of a western saga but was set in space. Roddenberry, a well-read fellow to say the least, also used more classical source material for his Western in space, including C.S. Forrester’s Horatio Hornblower stories. Kirk, lamely acted by William Shatner, adopted Hornblower’s panache, his bravery and his tendency to ignore rules that didn’t fit into the captain’s plans of the moment as well as a self-righteous sense of noble purpose. Great stuff, this, to teenage boys all across the land. I, for one, was a youthful devotee of the Hornblower books, and consequently I took to “Star Trek” like the proverbial duck to a reedy pond.

Incredible as it may seem to those who remember those halcyon days of televised pablum and hokey heroism, “Star Trek” was initially rejected by the CBS network, which chose to hang its space helmet on a farcical series by Irwin Allen called “Lost in Space.”

Can’t help but wonder who the brainiac was who made that decision and whether he held on to his job for very long afterward.

Anyway, the “Star Trek” series, and the movies and offshoots it spawned, all were based on a premise that humanity would find its way out of the illogical (nod to Mr. Spock) and self-destructive mess of the 21st century and become the wise, compassionate and visionary race we all think we should be. Wishful thinking? Only time will tell. Interestingly, according to legend, the original, actual Enterprise was a British sloop captured by Benedict Arnold in 1775 in a bid to gain control of the vital Lake Champlain. It was Arnold who named the ship, according to this story, before the 70-ton sloop was reoutfitted and put to use by the infant U.S. Navy.

Various sailing warships carried the name Enterprise through the 1800s and early 1900s until 1916, when a steel-hulled motor patrol boat got the name. The first aircraft carrier to carry the name hit the water in 1936, and the legend was truly born. The Enterprise was not in Pearl Harbor in 1941, when the Japanese bombed the harbor, but it headed there immediately to provide support. It turned out to be one of three carriers that, having been commissioned prior to World War II, survived that conflict intact.

The eighth Enterprise, a nuclear-powered ship, was the key vessel in the Cuban blockade in 1962. It was in the North Arabian Sea and dumped a reported 800,000 pounds of bombs on the country as part of the plan to destroy the Taliban and al-Qaida.

The ship also became a part of popular culture, both as a character in the “Star Trek” series, as the 1994 host of a “Star Trek” convention and as the home ship for Tom Cruise in the movie “Top Gun.”

Yes, regardless of how you feel about war and weaponry, you can’t deny that the various incarnations of the Enterprise have been busy and important ships in reality and otherwise. It remains to be seen whether we’ll have another one.

jcolson@aspentimes.com


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