Warning! This is going to be one of my recollections, prone to sidetracks and tangents. Please use the facilities, or get something to drink, or just make sure you’re settled in comfortably. (Hums a few bars of the “Star Trek” theme.) Okay, ready? Let’s go!
First, though, a bit of background. I am a second-tier Trekkie, falling in love with the show when it was in reruns in the 1970s. This also coincided with my beginning to notice that girls were really kinda neat, and one of the REALLY neat ones was Yeoman Janice Rand on Trek, played by a lady named Grace Lee Whitney. Little did I know what lay in my future, more than a decade later….
The time: September 1987. I was at that joyous time when I had far more money than sense (as opposed to now, when I have neither), and I had booked myself on a cruise. But not just any cruise – this was Trek Cruise, a 3+ day cruise from Long Beach to Ensenada (Mexico) and back on a boat loaded with various Star Trek celebrities and a bunch of rabid, slathering Trekkies. I had just stepped on board, waiting to check in to get my cabin key and convention registration, when a lady I knew came running up to me. She was an organiser of sci-fi cons including the cruise, and when she started in about needing a favour, I began to worry that my trip was about to go down the tubes. But then came the magic request. “John, I really need your help. One of our guest escorts hasn’t shown up. Would you be willing to escort Grace Lee Whitney around during the cruise?”
Is a bear Catholic? Does the Pope poop in the woods? HELL YEAH!!!!!!
So there I was, the go-to guy for a lady I already had a crush on. A lot of the weekend is a blur these days, thanks to the various drugs pumped into me to try curing my migraines, but I have a number of scenes I’ll never forget. Sitting in the ship’s music hall, as Grace sang to me while checking audio levels with the sound man. (The room was rather cool, and by coincidence, I had bought a crew jacket from the third movie in the dealer’s room earlier. I loaned it to her, and have exclusive photos of her singing wearing that jacket. It hangs in a plastic bag in my upstairs closet, untouched since that day.) Standing next to her while lesser mortals came up begging autographs, and escorting her away through throngs of fans when the autograph time was closed. Sitting on the ship’s fantail with her over lunch, chatting about a thousand different things. To be honest, I can’t remember my cabin, nor the cabin mate I was randomly matched with. But one event stands out in particular.
There was a seaside bazaar in Ensenada, strung out along a gentle slope up to a scenic outlook point. which Grace wanted to browse through. So off we went, accompanied by James Doohan’s wife (Doohan was Scotty the engineer). One of the vendors carried a variety of wicker furniture creations, including one odd, hemisperical lump about 2.5 feet long, with a circular hole cut in the front. Both Jimmy’s wife and I were confused as to what it was, when Grace proclaimed “Oh, it’s a cathouse!”. Jimmy’s wife, bless her soul, had a mind that went right to the naughty meaning of the word, just as mine did – cathouse being old-time slang for a brothel – and we both busted out laughing. Poor Grace looked so confused, until she realised just what she said, whereupon she turned the most lovely shade of crimson with embarrassment! She tried to apologise, which didn’t work so well, because firstly, neither Jimmy’s wife nor I had taken any offence at her language, and secondly, because we now had her laughing just as hard as we were!
That was, as the old phrase goes, the start of a beautiful friendship. I followed Grace around the country, meeting up with her at conventions in Georgia, Florida, and Texas. Matter of fact, Grace was the reason I was in Texas when I met my wife-to-be, Tamy, so I owe Grace for that. I also learned of the personal Hell Grace went through with alcohol addiction, and how she worked her way back to health and sobriety with help from Leonard Nimoy, another wonderful soul from the Trek universe who has left us recently, and far too soon.
But I still have a little reminder of my lovely lady, besides the jacket. We bought a parts car for me to take apart and use the pieces to make my beloved 1987 Cavalier run again. The car came to us, sight unseen, from North Carolina, on the flatbed of a truck we had hired from one of the local furniture haulers for the Amish. The driver was going to push it by hand down the ramps, with my help and with Tamy steering, when Tamy suggested we try to start the car. She got the keys, climbed in, and started the car on the first try. That struck me as amazing, and since my best memories of Gracie picture her in a lovely white outfit, the same shade as the parts car, for the first time I named a car I owned. To this very day, over 10 years after we got her, Grace is still our prime running vehicle. Amazing Grace, indeed.
Thank you for allowing me to share this little bit of my past. For more than two decades, Grace Lee Whitney was a major force in my life. From adolescent crush, to admired celebrity, to companion and friend and even, indirectly, to matchmaker, when I look back in my past, I always see what wonderful effect she had on me. She was truly one of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met, strong of spirit, always positive in outlook, friendly and comforting – it’s no wonder that non-Trekkies will struggle to picture “the gruff old doctor” or “the Russian navigator”, but always, Always, remember “the gorgeous blonde in the beehive hairdo”. We’ve lost another great spirit from that little TV show that was cancelled after only 3 seasons, but went on to be seen round the world. And the world has lost a truly amazing lady. Godspeed and God bless, Grace. We’re all much richer having known you, and for my part, eternally grateful to have spent those few special moments with you. You truly were, and will always remain, my amazing Grace.