When he was a cop in Eaton, Eric Harding spent Halloween 1996 cruising around in his patrol car, pulling up in front of unsuspecting trick-or-treaters with lights flashing. He would then emerge from the vehicle, clad from the neck down in his police uniform and from the neck up in full Klingon regalia: a ridged prosthetic forehead, face paint and a frizzy black wig. "I'd say they were more than surprised," he says.
Harding, who is now training to join the Denver Police Department, considers himself to be a member of the belligerent, wrinkle-headed warrior race from the Star Trek series, and he's one of the founding members of Colorado's Klingon movement. A self-described "big guy," nearly six and a half feet tall with a blond buzz cut, he's had a lifelong interest in Star Trek, martial arts, the military and law enforcement.
"Boy, I sure fit the role," he says.
Boy, is he right.
Harding's fascination with Star Trek started when he was growing up in Northglenn: He and his brother once posed for school pictures wearing Captain Kirk and Scotty T-shirts. But his real heroes were from the sinister side. "Ever since I was a little kid, my favorite guys were the bad guys," he says. "And what little kid wouldn't think the bad guys were cool?"
He also had a boyhood dream of flying fighter planes, but he grew up -- and up; as an adult, he was simply too large to fit inside the kinds of aircraft he wanted to pilot. So instead of enlisting in the Air Force, he joined the Marines. Soon after he got out of the service in 1991, he went to his first Star Trek convention, without a costume and without knowing what to expect. The following year he convinced a friend to go with him, in costume this time. They went as Klingons, of course, and they won first place in the convention's costume contest. "We knew we had hit onto something right then," he says.
They got tired of waiting for conventions to come around, though, so the two decided to start a Klingon club in Colorado. House Veska, as it is called, now has about thirty members, and although Harding says he's largely withdrawn from the group to focus on his law-enforcement career, he'll always be a Klingon at heart.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, ten people gathered around a cluster of card tables in a dim room at the Bethel Lutheran Church in Aurora. "Hi, my name is Lionel," one said. "My Klingon name is Commander Ke'vheq sutai-Veska."
Lionel -- Lionel Smith, actually -- didn't look like a Klingon commander at that moment; nevertheless, this compact blond man with gentle blue eyes and a goatee is the leader of House Veska. "We joke that the purpose of the meeting is just to remind us what people look like out of costume," says Smith, who's been attending sci-fi conventions since 1979 and, in addition to his duties at House Veska, heads the branch of the Klingon Assault Group that encompasses Colorado, New Mexico, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. When he's not talking Trek, Smith, 34, works with computers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. "The reason we play Klingon is we figure if you're going to be a Star Trek geek, you might as well be one of the tough ones," he explains.
Unlike TV Klingons, though, most of this group's tough-person posturing takes place during feasts and other rituals and very rarely includes real fighting. "It always involves these issues of honor and duty, and that imbues the whole role play with this bravado that's irresistible," Smith says. "You're drinking blood-wine, you're making toasts to war. It's disgusting."
The Klingons meet at Bethel Lutheran because Andrea French, also known as Lady K'Tara, married her husband there eighteen years ago, all three of her kids were baptized there, and now she goes there to worship -- and to meet with her Klingon pals. Congregation members don't seem to mind the monthly Trekkie invasion. "They just tell us not to do anything weird or stupid," says French.
Among the items discussed at the last meeting:
1) Conventions, or "cons," and other Trekkie events. Both recent metro-area conventions, StarCon and Mile Hi Con, suffered from low attendance, but House Veska members say that didn't stop them from having fun.
2) Charity events. Maybe you wouldn't expect it from a bunch of Klingons, but House Veska raised more than $500 at the Light the Night Leukemia Walk in September, and the group is sponsoring a legal defense fund for Littleton artist James Cukr, whom Paramount Pictures is suing for unauthorized reproduction of Star Trek images.
3) Upcoming public spectacles. Organizers of Denver's Parade of Lights have discouraged the Klingons from marching as they have in years past -- they don't really fit in with the holiday theme -- but they're planning to stand on the sidelines in uniform, complete with Santa caps. And, in the KBCO Cardboard Downhill Derby in February, the Klingons will race down snowy slopes in a cardboard version of the Bird of Prey, the Klingon spaceship.
"Klingons are so misunderstood," says French, the captain of a Klingon ship called the Vendix Siren. Beneath their tough exterior, Klingons just wanna have fun. "Everybody knows we have the best parties," she says. "We're like the bikers of the universe." She acknowledges that some people might find her Klingon leaning a little odd, but she likens it to car collecting: "It's just your hobby, what your thing is."
One of the draws, members say, is the completeness of the Klingon culture. Klingons have their own history, government and traditions, and even a real language that was invented for use in the Star Trek shows and movies and is promoted by the Pennsylvania-based Klingon Language Institute. Most House Veska members speak at least a few words or phrases; some are more fluent, having learned Klingon in classes or from books and tapes. The Klingon tongue is harsh and guttural, but with an odd, lilting quality. Insults, such as "Your mother has a smooth forehead," are an essential component of Klingon verbiage.
Making and wearing Klingon gear is another draw for House Veska members. "I don't say this to brag or anything, but it's one of the coolest costumes you can put on," says 33-year-old Bruce Kesler, one of the club's founding members. (His Klingon name is Kav'Ij, or "The Thruster," because of his style of dancing. "I do a lot of hip thrusts," he explains.)
Perhaps the most important part of the Klingon getup is the ridged prosthetic forehead, usually made of molded latex. To aficionados, the headpiece is also known as a "turtle head," "speed bump" or "cheese grater." Then there's the black tunic, silver shoulder yoke, wrist guards, spine cover, spiked boots and fingerless, claw-studded gloves.
"I've gone through six, seven sewing machines since I've started," says Harding. "You're talkin' sewing through Naugahyde folded in half here." And the man knows his cosmetics, too. "You know the best makeup remover? It's the Mary Kay stuff that comes in a little blue bottle. That stuff is great."
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Most House Veska members say non-Klingons today treat them with curiosity, tolerance and occasional teasing. But Smith remembers a golden age when Trekkies were abundant and ran free. "When we were kids, being a Trekkie was cool," he says. "We let our freak flags fly."
Times have changed.
"At my school, Star Trek is sort of the uncool thing," says Bobby Martin, a fifteen-year-old Wheat Ridge High freshman. "If I told my friends just how much I'm into this, my reputation would go down the tubes." So he doesn't flaunt his Klingon connection at school and participates in other activities, like the pep club. But then, House Veska encourages outside interests. "We have a rule that reality always comes first," he says.
Smith agrees: "You've got to have a healthy real life to have a good fantasy life." But he acknowledges that for some group members, the boundary gets a little fuzzy. "It happens all the time," he says. "I've seen guys standing up talking about honor and glory, and I'm like, 'Man, you work at King Soopers for $3.75 an hour! Get a life!'"