Thursday, July 10, 2008

It Takes a Major Turn Halfway Through

In 1999, geeks the world over were chomping at the bit over the impending release of Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace, a movie so loved and cherished by the populous at large today that we sometimes forget just how major a release it was.

All kidding aside, prior to the release of the film, geeks such as myself were literally shaking with excitement. Lucasfilm, in all of their wisdom, decided that 1999 would also be the year that they would throw their first sanctioned Star Wars event in 12 years, a convention in Denver, Colorado to be held from April 30-May 2, just a few days prior to the release of the film.

Being the type of guy that had Star Wars tattoos, it was pretty much a given that I'd be attending. I felt pretty badly for my coworkers, who were having to endure my endless enthusiasm for a movie that I'd ultimately rate with a "Meh", so I figured a few days surrounded by others just as excited as myself would help ease the pain of waiting.

Accompanying me on this trip were two friends, Teddy and Batman. Teddy wasn't so much a geek, he was just interested in seeing the kind of people that would fly halfway across the country to attend a convention. Batman is most definitely a geek. And a crime fighter.

We had planned these three days to be as fun-filled and excitement packed as we could possibly stomach. Life, as always, planned differently.

We boarded the plane early morning on Friday, the 30th. One thing that one must know about me; whenever a story begins with "We boarded the plane" you can rest assured that drugs were involved. There is nothing on this plane of existence that terrifies me more than the metallic coffin that is the modern day airplane. I would rather sleep in a tub full of vipers than ride on one of those abominations. Of course, this meant that I had to get up at 4 in the morning, meet up with Teddy and Batman and then take massive doses of over the counter medications in a vain and ultimately failed attempt to knock myself out in time to miss the experience of flying.

Batman had never flown anywhere before, so while I was as somber and morose as one could hope to be, he was giddy with excitement and recording EVERYTHING with a video camera. For the next three days I would never see his face, just the cold glass eye staring me down.

After the trip was over and I received a copy of the tape, I saw that he had text on the screen like "Leaving Mos Eisley Spaceport" and "Aboard the Falcon". Needless to say the first 10 minutes of the tape is me scowling and slipping in and out of consciousness. My drug addled conspicuity caught the attention of the TSA, whom hastily pulled me to the side for some extra searches, all the while threatening Batman to "turn the camera off".

I have no real recollection of the flight itself, as I managed to actually maintain unawareness for the few hours we were in transit. Thankfully, though, Batman managed to capture all the magic and his tape astounds the viewer with more than 20 minutes of footage of clouds passing by, as well as a nice view of the airline meal.

I staggered off the plane and we made our way towards ground transportation. We needed to rent a car and check into our hotel prior to hitting the convention proper. I couldn't help but notice the weather once we got outside. It was 40 and pouring.

Now, I had lived in the south for a few years at this point, and I had made the association that May = warm, which was completely accurate were it not for the fact that it was totally wrong.


Of course, if you were to open my luggage at that point you would see a handful of t-shirts and shorts and that's it. No jeans. No slacks. No coat. No long sleeved shirt. But I figured "what the hell, I'm originally from Michigan. I'll tough it out". Friggin' machismo.

We checked into the hotel and then made our way to the convention itself. From everything I had read, all indications pointed to a crowd of about 7,000 people converging on this airplane hangar for a few days of lightsabers, force powers and wookiees. Initial calculations proved to be off by a bit, though, and soon we were treated to a crowd of nearly 30,000 people all waiting to get into the same building and the same tent.

30,000 people in the pouring rain, sloshing about in a field, churning up mud so thick that you would sink past your ankle with every step. Within minutes of arriving my skin began turning purple and I found myself huddled under a B-52 rubbing my arms for warmth. Every once in awhile I would attempt to squeak out a "woo hoo!" and a thumbs up, but usually found my extremities to be uncooperative.

The oft repeated joke of the event was that Lucas spared no expense in bringing the swamp planet Dagobah to his fans. And boy, did we mean it. Everybody was covered in mud and frozen to the bone. We waited almost four hours that day just to get into the main exhibit, which turned out to be largely displays for all the products that people would be selling in a couple of weeks.

After another hour or two wait, we were able to make our way into the dealers' tent, where we were free to shovel wheelbarrow loads of cash over for vintage Star Wars goods. This managed to bring up a somewhat major mistake on the organizer's part. The official street date for ALL Episode 1 merchandise was May 3, which meant that all of the die-hard fans in attendance at this event would be in transit when everything actually went on sale. To cap this off there were strict orders that NO Episode 1 items were to be sold to the attendees.

Here we were, 1400 miles from home, at an event absolutely dedicated to enticing us to buy merchandise and they were refusing to sell any of it to us. More than a few of the 30,000 people in attendance pissed a collective bitch over that one.

After spending some money and freezing some more, we made our way back to the hotel to crash out for the night. Back at the room we decided to go check out Denver the next day and then return to the convention on Sunday. Much to the amusement of Teddy and myself, we found a pair of tights under Teddy's bed, which we continuously hid in Batman's luggage. We figured he had brought them with every intention of sneaking out after we fell asleep to fight crime. Ahh...superheroes.

And now it's time for me to throw the curveball to the story, the bit that brings the fun level down a few notches. Remember how I mentioned that this convention took place in Denver, Colorado from April 30-May 2?

On April 20, 1999, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, two seniors at Columbine High School arrived at school with a plan for both mass violence and suicide. In the space of a few hours Klebold and Harris left 12 students and a teacher dead and more than 23 others wounded before taking their own lives. Their actions stunned our nation and devastated the small Denver suburb where it took place.

To say that Denver was reeling from the shock and pain of the horrific atrocities that had been committed would be an understatement of biblical proportions. Columbine was the word on everybody's mind, but the one word above all others that must not be spoken.

Being the curious types, we decided to head out towards the school just to see with our own eyes where such malice had been born. Finding the school proved to be a difficult task as we really did not want to stop and ask for fear of looking like ghouls.

While making our way towards the school we ended up ensnarled in a traffic jam in the downtown area, brought on by the arrival of Charlton Heston and the NRA. Protestors lined the streets and we found ourselves stuck in the area for quite some time. After finally detangling ourselves from the mess wrought by that fiasco, we decided to stop and ask for directions.

I ended up in the gas station inquiring where the school was. I did my best to not appear exploitive, but the pain and anger that was felt by the community at large was easily visible in the clerk's eyes as he gave me the directions.

We really didn't know what we expected to see there, we just felt that we needed to experience it for ourselves.

Once we found the school we found ourselves stripped of our ability to speak. The weight of the situation hung oppressively thick in the air. The weight of the world had converged on this little slice of America, driven so beyond its ability to cope with the grief that the very sky seemed to be crying for its residents.

The campus was enormous and every square inch of it was covered with cards, signs, stuffed animals, flowers, you name it. There wasn't one square inch of that campus untouched by the collective outpouring of grief and confusion that such an act left in its wake. Signs from schools across the nation, personal letters, photographs, well wishings, prayers, hopes and outpourings of heartfelt emotion. The pain was centered on these few acres, but it was obvious that it was felt across the nation.

And crowds of people. Hundreds of people gathered, many openly weeping, there to help shoulder the burden of pain that was too much for the community to bear. I was approached by the father of one of the slain children, who wore a pin with his child's face on it. He placed a pamphlet in my hand which implored all of mankind to find inner peace, to find whatever it is that makes us happy and able to cope.

Amongst the throngs of people, the media was to be found, scurrilous vermin primping their hair, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and above all laughing. LAUGHING. There was no joy to be found in these environs, no jocularity to be shared between those in attendance, no elbows to the ribs. But these bastards stood around in their black trench coats telling jokes while their camera operators tried to find those "perfect shots" to drive home the impact at the end of the piece. I watched one fidgeting with a rose he had stolen from one of the copious bouquets, struggling to make it stick in a wooden fence just right so he could get that perfect shot with the rose in the foreground and the memorial crosses in the background.

We stood in the thickening gloom for an hour, waiting for our turn to visit the memorial crosses which had been erected at the top of a hill. (Two of those crosses, Klebold's and Harris' would be cut down later that night by an angry parent.) We paid our silent respects and then headed back to the car. It was nearly an hour before any of us spoke again.

We finished out our third day with another six hour line, this time waiting to get into the official store so that we could buy t-shirts and posters. If nothing else can be said, the weather had improved and the sun even peeked out of the clouds to warm us just a little.

We saw our exhibits, bought our goods and then made our way home. We had gone there expecting to learn about an upcoming film, instead we learned a little about humanity. It was an experience that none of us would ever forget.

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