May 18, 2005

Iowa’s greatest hero offers hope from our imaginations

This month Iowans celebrate the birthday of our greatest native son - Captain James T. Kirk.

Although yet to be born, Kirk is the first earth commander to successfully reach the edge of the galaxy and return (he did it twice), and the first earth commander to reach the galaxy's center. He successfully repulsed V'Ger, Nomad, the whale probe and the doomsday machine before they reached earth, prevented various potential wars with Romulans, Gorns, Klingons and a variety of other alien races, is the youngest starship captain in history, and is the only cadet to ever beat the "no-win" Kobayashi Maru test (he reprogrammed the test software). He also was involved in 17 different temporal violations, but they all were for the better.

Wait a minute, you say, Captain Kirk was born in March - it says so right on the memorial marker in downtown Riverside!

Well, not so fast. Accord-ing to an archive kept at the University of Manitoba, Andrew Main's detailed analysis of stardates, "Stardates in Star Trek FAQ," argues that Kirk was born May 7 - not March 22 as the Riverside marker records.

And Main should be taken seriously. He's developed software that will help you calculate stardates for any day (

• • •

I'd sometimes gaze up at the night sky and wonder as a child at the myriad of stars stretching around me. Just what was out there?

Watching Walter Cronkite each night on television tell of war, murder, corruption and disease, I confidently believed there had to be something better. Or at least something different.

And if those worlds were-n't as well off, perhaps we could do for them what we weren't doing here on earth: Helping others improve their lives.

There once was a "Star Trek" episode in which a child sat against a tree watching the night sky, dreaming of starships and adventures as a falling star flashes past. I once was that kid.

Somehow I think Jim Kirk was, too.

• • •

That James T. Kirk should be born in Riverside is fitting. The University of Iowa long ago constructed an observatory near the small village.

Kirk also is an intriguing mixture of this area's political philosophies. He possesses Iowa City's liberal views regarding tolerance, diversity and the Prime Directive (Don't interfere with those cultures less developed than you.). Yet, he frequently acted like the conservatives who make up Iowa's farm country: He had no problem violating the Prime Directive if it meant bringing freedom to op-pressed sentient beings or to prevent a perceived threat to the Federation.

But Kirk's Riverside connection goes deeper than that. There is the isolation of rural life, of being too far away from anyone to talk to. All day long, there is nothing upon the horizon but empty fields and open sky. At night, there is only the solitary light of a distant farmhouse.

But in the starry sky, the lights are many.

• • •

None of the filmed "Star Trek" shows or movies ever indicated Captain Kirk was born in Riverside.

The writer's guide for the original series did say he was from Iowa. And in Star Trek IV (the whale movie, for non-fans), he admitted "I'm from Iowa. I just work in outer space."

Riverside decided to snatch this claim to fame in the 1980s, and now several Star Trek books and the series' official Web site, www., lists Riverside as Kirk's birthplace. The village offers a gate marking his birthplace, and there's a stone monument beyond that.

But nowhere in the series is Captain Kirk's birthdate ever given as March 22. That's actually the birthdate of William Shatner, the actor who played Kirk. But alas - the University of Manitoba archive aside - March 22 has been listed as well on the official Web site as Kirk's birthdate.

• • •

Captain Kirk is by far more a man of our century rather than the 23rd. His personality traits are a humanist version of the cowboy. Kirk is self-disciplined and possesses immense willpower. A man of duty, he won't be intimidated or bullied. He has a sense of right and wrong, is chivalrous and of deep conviction. He is courageous, brave and fearless in the face of imminent danger, a man of honor and of great dignity (indeed, he never sulks or whines about unfair situations). Decisive, he thinks on his feet and is loyal to his friends.

Yet while riding through the stars, he is tolerant, compassionate and merciful. He thinks of others before himself.

And he possesses a wry sense of humor. You'd have to, growing up amid the cornfields and then wandering the stars in the craft that could blow a planet to smithereens.

• • •

So what does Kirk's life tell us of eastern Iowa's future?

It says there still are farms in Iowa even in the 23rd century. When Kirk ad-mits he's from Iowa, he's teasingly called "farm boy." His face turns red. Like many Iowans, he's silently ashamed of his unsophisticated, agricultural heritage.

If Kirk is small town, that means Iowa City's urban sprawl has not yet reached Riverside in 2233. County officials no doubt still are developing the North Cor-ridor 220 years from now.

When 17, Kirk leaves for Starfleet Academy in San Francisco, maintains an apartment there, then retires to the Rockies. His brother, Sam, moves to the planet Deneva. Yes, Iowa still suffers a brain drain problem in the 23rd century.

Kirk also is able to quote everyone from Shakespeare to D.H. Lawrence with eloquence. So Iowa still has a darn good education system, too.

• • •

Near the end of Army basic training, I found myself running out of energy at the 40th pushup of our 2-minute P.T. test. To pass, there were an improbable four pushups to go in about 20 seconds.

The drill sergeant leaned into my face. "Not going to make it are you, Bignell?" he said. A sly grin eased across his swarthy face.

My arms strained not to collapse as I thought of the embarrassment I'd be to my fellow soldiers. I imagined my father and brother and uncles shamefully glancing away as I returned home, kicked out of bootcamp. I heard the laughter of every girl who'd turned me down for a date, of every bully who'd mocked me.

Then I thought of Captain Kirk. I knocked out 10 more push-ups before the P.T. sergeant shouted "Time!" through his megaphone.

• • •

May 7 or March 22, what does it matter? As a history professor once proclaimed during a lecture to my freshman class, "The dates mean less than the impact a man has on the world."

Or in this case, is it "will have"?

SIDEBAR: James Kirk Facts

• Name: James T. Kirk

• Serial Number: SC937-0176 CEC

• Date of birth: March 22 (or May 7), 2233

• Place of birth: Riverside, Iowa, Earth

• Heroes: Abraham Lincoln, Captain Garth

(originally published May 18, 2003)

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