Friday, August 18, 2006

"Away Mission III: Klingonisch"—part 2

Blog #20 by Jeff Greenwald
Author of Future Perfect:
How Star Trek Conquered Planet Earth

Taken from the chapter
" Away Mission III: Klingonisch "
The Josef Haydn rolls south from Köln, hangs a right at Koblenz and swoops down the Mosel Valley, clinging to the river. The hillsides lie emerald green, candy-striped with grapevines. This is true rustic Germany: steeples everywhere, the houses severe as Mennonite barns.

A turn and a tunnel carry the train away from the Mosel, and we race among fields. Horses graze between white fences. The sun, intense but uncertain, shimmers behind a cirrostratus veil. Every kilometer brings us nearer to the Luxembourg border, another of Europe’s odd corners. Once a Roman stronghold, Trier marked the last of the Empire’s conquests on the continent.

The perfect location, I reflect, pulling my bags off at Trier, for a Klingon Qet’lop....

My instructions, delivered via e-mail from a Munich Internet jockey named Ralf Gebhart, are simple: Take a local bus to the edge of town, and walk toward the forest. Follow the signs to the Qet’lop.

The bus ride continues for nearly an hour, much of it spent grinding up streets so twisted and narrow there are mirrors on the corners. Past the homes and streets and hidden drives, the land bursts open into wet rolling countryside, fragrant with pine. A feral cat streaks across the road. There are other passengers on the bus.

The driver pulls over. There is a hydraulic hiss, and he thrusts his thumb toward the open door. He speaks no English; I, no German. I step off, hauling my bags, and he drives away. There isn’t a car in sight. A sign along the road says Auf wiedersehen, though I’ve had no sense of being anywhere for a good half hour.

I start walking.

Rain falls. I get wet. Voices filter down from the hills, but I see no humans. There are signs I can’t read. The road changes to gravel, then dirt; the wheels of my flight bag are sucked into the muck. Weak with irony, I recall Gene Roddenberry’s initial Star Trek sales pitch: a “Wagon Train to the stars.” It is difficult to convey how stupid I feel at this moment, wet hair hanging limply across my face, pants soaked, dragging 40 kilos of carry-on down a bad road toward a dubious encounter with a bunch of Worf wannabees....

I’m not an obsessive enough fan to know how many times the term Qet’lop has been mentioned on Star Trek. Part lodge meeting, part bacchanal, a Qet’lop is a sporadic festival at which the might of the Klingon fleet is celebrated. The European events are held twice yearly, in Spring and Fall, when cold weather makes the heavy Klingon costumes sensible. I first heard about this Qet’lop via the Internet, and spent many anxious e-sessions lobbying for permission to attend (hard-core Klingons are reluctant to allow journalists into their private functions). Last-minute clearance had arrived while I was in London, approved by one Admiral Qor-Zantai Haqtaj (don’t ask me how to pronounce it) and delivered by Ralf Gebhart.

An hour later, and still no sign of the event. I’ve given up hope of ever finding the party when I hear an extended crunching sound, and an American-made Jeep pulls up beside me. A freckled, earthy-looking blonde sits behind the wheel; there are saddles in the back. Christine—she introduces herself—understands English, and I convey my dilemma. She listens to my half-crazed description of an alien warrior picnic and seems to wrestle with her better judgment before motioning me in.

We follow the road another few miles. It turns toward a canyon, meets the anchorage of a collapsed bridge, and disintegrates into the tangled concrete of a construction site. I shudder, imagining my fate if I’d reached this place alone. But Christine shoots off along a spur, directly into the woods, and we spend the next ten minutes bouncing over rocks and logs.

We emerge, miraculously, at the entrance to what is apparently a regional park. A hand-lettered sign, drawn on a paper plate, points us toward the Qet’lop.

“Yes,” Christine observes, perplexed, “but how do we know when we....” Then she slows the jeep to a crawl, her jaw slack, as we approach an open area filled with tents. Banners with sinister lettering flap in the wind; the low sun glints off bat’telh swords.

Here, within a circle of trees, among picnic tables and barbecue pits, are the Klingons.
* * *
Jag mobogh puuuu’...! Jag mobogh puuuu’....!

The strangely familiar musical refrain pounds through the grove, blasting from an industrial-sized boom-box suspended between two trees. In a campsite at the foot of Germany’s Mosel Valley, eighty snarling warriors raise goblets of crimson “blood wine”—shots of colored vodka, each containing a writhing worm—and toast the glorious Klingon Empire. For the moment, all is laughter and fun; later, they will engage in contests of brute strength and eat broiled wienerschnitzel with their bare hands.

This is the third Qet’lop held in Germany thus far, drawing warriors from as far as Switzerland and Scotland. It’s a highly deconstructionist event: walking up the crude wooden steps leading to the picnic area, I pass a table loaded with make-up, glue and sewing kits. A man sits quietly on a bench, stitching a wig onto the latex headpiece that will transform him from an Austrian accountant into a warlord from Qo’noS, the Klingon home world.

He is the rule rather than the exception. Out of costume, few of the men or women attending this celebration would merit a second glance at an outdoor cafe. It’s amazing how the ridged brows and black lipstick, the spiked boots and fangs, lend these bankers, students and computer nerds a savage panache. Ralf Gebhart himself, a grunge beanpole in street clothes, spends nearly an hour squirming into a costume of leather and latex that transforms him completely. What was geeky becomes diabolical; his whole personality rises to the role. Ralf is dead and buried, and I find myself facing Q’Eltor, a Klingon lieutenant capable of eating live spiders.

The change is even more amazing in Astrid, Ralf’s American-born lover. Astrid is the first to admit her own plain appearance, and it’s tough to argue with her. But in full Klingon gear, with her small breasts pushed up in a tight leather teddy and her gnomic head expanded by a black wig and cartilaginous brow, she is a consort worthy of a warrior.

“What do I call you now?,” I ask.

“I’m taj’IH.”

“Can you spell that for me?”

She takes my notepad, supports it on my back and scrawls the odd hybrid of capped and lower-case letters. “In the Klingon language it means ‘beautiful knife.’”

I scan her hips for weapons. “Are knives a big part of this event?”

“No.” taj’IH shakes her head emphatically. “One of our strictest rules is, no live steel.”

“What’s ‘live’ mean?”

“Sharp enough to cut your throat.”

Astrid is an M.D., currently working as the director of an on-line medical service. Her family moved to Europe from New Jersey 22 years ago, when she was twelve. As taj’IH, she is Captain of a Munich-based “Bird of Prey” named quv’a’ (literally, “Honor”). The ship is part of the Khemorex Klinzhai: the European “Dark Vengeance Fleet” to which all these warriors belong. Its 400-plus members hail from England, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Scotland. Taj’IH herself joined in 1994.

Taj’IH first met Q’Eltor in March of 1996. Ralf—a longtime fan just coming out as a Klingon—had been surfing the Web in search of kindred spirits, and found the Khemorex Klinzhai’s home page. A picture of Astrid, resplendent as the warrior Taj’IH, pulsed on the screen. Ralf spent the next two weeks tracking her down. The first few times they first went out, both wore full Klingon costume. Astrid barely recognized Ralf when she finally saw him as “his real self.”

She leans toward me, lowering her voice. “Wanna hear a Klingon joke?”


“Okay. Why are Klingons born with ridged foreheads?”

I shake my head.

“Because Klingon pussies are so tight!”

We yuk it up. I inquire—with the barest hint of lechery—how her relationship with Q’Eltor gets on.

“In a normal way,” she replies testily. “We know who we are. Listen, I keep a healthy gulf between my civilian life and my Klingon existence. Though a great deal of my time is devoted to my ship....”

I ask taj’IH if she can shed some light on why the Klingon mystique is so appealing here in Germany.

“Absolutely,” she laughs. “Germans have a very anal, regimented existence. They’re stiff, they’re quiet, and they drink hard. This is a chance to break away. To enjoy a little anarchy. To...” A command, barked in fluent Klingon from the picnic table, draws her attention. She responds in kind, and turns back to me. “Gotta go,” she announces. “It’s time to stuff the Romulan.”

The dummy, an effigy of an alien race despised by all Klingons, figures prominently in the afternoon’s Decathlon. Befanged contestants chafe and stomp, waiting for the privilege of hurling the mannequin to the ends of the earth—a feat performed to the accompaniment of blood-curdling battle cries. That competition is followed by an “obs-tribble” course, in which merciless warriors walk a crooked line while balancing furry “Tribbles” on spoons. Next comes balloon slashing, accomplished with crescent-shaped bat’telh swords.

It’s a lot to absorb. I approach the bartender—by now a fond acquaintance—and order another bloodwine, straight up. Nem’Roc grins, reaching for the tweezers, but I grab his wrist: “Hold the worm.”

Just then the music starts again: Jag mobogh puuuu’...! , at volume ten. It’s so familiar, and yet.... “What is that song?” I demand.

“You don’t know?” Nem’Roc throws back his head and laughs. “It’s Born to Be Wild, translated into Klingon!”

Pork steaks broil above a barbecue pit; prune juice flows like wine. Along a groaning board loaded with Klingon and Terran delicacies, fourscore warriors heap their plates with stuffed to’baj legs, qagh, and mixed bean salad.

RaH’el Qvl’n cha’, the Klingon Defense Force Weapons Officer, stands beside me in line. She’s lithe, dark and savagely beautiful. Her jet-black hair ripples like Nefertiti’s. The look fits; by day she’s an Egyptologist, employed by the University of Bonn.

“Your nameplate isn’t bilingual,” I notice. “Only Klingon.”

She shrugs. “I forget the German names anyway.”

“Are you fluent in Klingon?”

“I love the language. There are so many similarities between Klingon and Egyptian. For example....” She spoons what looks like fresh placenta onto her plate. “This—‘Rokeg blood pie’—is a famous Klingon dish. In Egyptian, rokeg is also a kind of pie, made with meat and vegetables.”

“Sounds like you’re leading two parallel lives.”

“I try to.” She smiles, her teeth a gleaming ripsaw blade. “The name RaH’el, for example, means, ‘to be violent’—and I am.” She grabs my arm and yanks me a few steps away from the feeding masses. “I’m addicted to weapons.” She lifts her leather tunic, displaying the Klingon d’k tahg against her skin. The ritual dagger is a beautiful piece of work: well-balanced, razor sharp, and unquestionably lethal. So much for ‘no live steel....’


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