Road Trip Origins Year 2, Part 3 of 3: The Gateway Attraction
January 28, 2017 Leave a comment
Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: a flashback to our second annual road trip, attending St. Louis’ second and final Gateway Science Fiction Convention in the year 2000. Actors from Mystery Science Theater 3000 were met, autographs were treasured, panels were enjoyed, dozens of internet peers showed up to put faces with names. But we didn’t limit ourselves to the convention hotel’s property. None of us were from St. Louis; some of us were eager to explore and see what else the city had to offer. Our first try was a Saturday night group dinner that begged for comment cards.
Sunday morning after a great big fan-group breakfast, five of us decided to skip out on the con’s early hangover hours and see what other sights might be of interest to outsiders enjoying their first time in St. Louis. If only there were a conspicuous, gargantuan, possibly even famous architectural feat sticking out in the city’s skyline and having things named after it such as state nicknames and science fiction conventions.
Anne and I tagged along for the impromptu outing with Kathy and Jean, two fellow fans from that MST3K group who were two of the three nicest folks I met in my first year boarding the internet. With Alan signed on as our driver, we hit the road and escaped the labyrinthine clutches of the King Henry VIII Hotel for a few hours. None of us were from the area. Kathy was closest to our age, born in Iowa but living in California as of 2000. She and I frequently compared notes on the show and on the pros and cons of raising sons. Jean was a fiftysomething wife and mother of two adult daughters who presumably turned out awesome if their mom’s paintings and online wit and grace were any indication. I regret I never got to know Alan beyond the fact that he was willing to put up with us and do all the chauffeuring. Sometimes it’s those little acts of kindness that are more than enough for the space of a shared series of moments.
We stopped for lunch along the way at a mall whose identity and contents have vanished from memory. I do recall a discussion about whether or not being able to calculate a 15% tip in your head in two seconds or less counted as a remarkable talent, and I know we walked past a candy shop with gumball machines shaped like Tom Servo’s head, because that’s the kind of detail that sticks in a MSTie’s head.
Then our main attraction: St. Louis’ Gateway Arch.
Stats for number geeks: 630 feet tall and wide, more than twice the height of the Statue of Liberty; $13 million to build from the original design by architect Eero Sarrinen. 2000 was the 35th anniversary of its completion; 2017 will see the 50th anniversary of its opening to the public. In more recent times, a handful of comics fans may recognize the shape as a recurring symbol of foreboding in the Image series Manifest Destiny.
Stats for anyone who hates numbers or gratuitous comic plus: the Arch is real big and looks really cool and shiny.
The stairs led underground to the Museum of Westward Expansion, a value-added exhibit covering the history of American expansion beyond the Mississippi River into the West, along with some displays covering the Arch’s own origins.
At the very least, it gives kids something to look at while they’re waiting hours for a turn to ride the tram up to the top of the Arch.
Sadly due to long lines and lack of advance ticket purchases, we unanimously agreed a ride on the Arch tram wouldn’t work unless we sacrificed the rest of the con altogether. It was liberating to be free of the crowds for a while, but we weren’t ready to quit it. We took one last look at the Arch and headed back to the hotel. It wasn’t a comprehensive Arch experience, but it was a start.
Part I already covered what else we did Sunday before arriving at the depressing moment when we had to admit it was time to go home. For us that’s usually the worst part of every convention, but we do what we have to do. The world of adulting demands it.
Usenet is technically still around today, but accessible only through the long-forgotten Google Groups and a select number of arcane newsreader programs used by no one under age 50. The MST3K newsgroup celebrated the show’s impact with chats and jokes and cascade threads for a few more years after “Gatewaycon”, as some of us would remember it. Sometimes there were Christmas cards exchange; for others, there would be more get-togethers; at still other times, favors were granted above and beyond, such as the future author who let me borrow a comic-strip collection that took me too long to return. And there was the one time, after revealing in one discussion that I’d seen the second and third Jaws movies as a kid but never the original, Jean lent me her DVD copy by mail.
As with many online communities that thrived in the good ol’ days before smartphones, especially those devoted to fictional universes that were no longer in active production, standard attrition saw participation and traffic dwindle over time. The advent of Facebook, Twitter, and other proprietors of social connectivity all but rushed their stalwart few hangers-on into obscurity, but gave some of us a second chance to reconvene and take turns saying hi, high-fiving each other’s wisecracks, condoling in the face of heartaches, shaking our heads at memes, or whatever. MST3K remains a touchstone for all of us, and the show’s style of humor remains a major influence on what I do with my free time, including but not limited to occasionally live-tweeting TV shows like a silly, prattling robot puppet.
I regret I’ve lost track of a few good folks, and not always in excusable ways. In 2013 I was stunned to hear from MST3K Satellite News that Jean had passed away. If you follow the link, you can see samples of the paintings I mentioned earlier, spoofs of famous works with parts played by the MST3K cast. Naturally they rocked.
A few parts of the long weekend were harder teachable moments than I’ve imparted here. I still recall two bits of extreme awkwardness for which I sincerely believe I owe face-to-face apologies to the offended parties should fate ever reunite us so they can punch me in the stomach. It also took me too many minutes to accept that most of the group-at-large had known each other for years, so it was natural and logical for them to fraternize with each other much more closely than with us rookies. I’d be a heel to begrudge them the camaraderie that years of shared fandom had conferred upon them. Base envy had me sometimes feeling an inch tall and easily dismissible, and I cursed myself for not getting online years sooner so I could be at a happy place like that in my timeline as they were in theirs. Frankly, some of the memories that resurfaced during the making of this three-part series make me feel much, much dorkier in hindsight than I did at the time. But I remain eternally grateful for those friends who welcomed me regardless of social status. And I’m feeling much better now and less stupid than I sometimes was then.
Meanwhile behind the fans, the scenery fell apart. The King Henry VIII Hotel was razed the following year for the sale of Lambert Airport expansion, a project that would eventually necessitate the demolition of several schools and churches, plus 3000 residential homes in addition to the hotel where some of our weirdest memories were shaped and most indelible lessons about fandom were learned.
Beyond the wondrous weekend we had within those long-gone walls, Anne and I also had the Gateway Arch as a major takeaway. Thanks to our poor travel records (cf. our 1999 prologue), it was our first time stepping up to a genuine American landmark beyond the boundaries of our own modest Hoosier State, which isn’t exactly overrun with prestigious, skyscraper-sized Americana. We’d agree the con was fun, but this seemingly simple act of ordinary average tourism would prove to be the first in a long series of roadside stops and American travel destinations. Though our next two misadventures in 2001 and 2002 would likewise end up as forays for geekery’s sake, eventually our thoughts would turn us in a different direction.
And thus would annual road trips become the thing they are for us today, thanks in part to that very first sight that got us hooked on sightseeing. The Gateway Arch was our gateway attraction leading to so many more, from the Washington Monument to Niagara Falls to the Alamo to four Great Lakes to Kennedy Space Center to Mount Rushmore to the Statue of Liberty to the Empire State Building to Pike’s Peak and beyond.
We’re the Goldens. This is who we are and what we do.