Dr. Fred Eichelman: A Need to Restore a Sense of Wonder
If we can believe the news there is more of a hopelessness among young people today than ever before based upon the high suicide and crime rates among teenagers. It is not how I remember the nineteen forties to seventies at all. I remember at a young age hopes and dreams I had I feared might never be realized. So true of so many of us who were science fiction fans and often labeled as ‘Sci-Fi Nuts’. And yet science fiction gave us a sense of wonder.
I was fortunate that my parents were fans themselves, raised on the tales by Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.G. Wells. They were not turned off by paper backs I brought home with garish covers showing giant robots carrying off nubile maidens as this was how publishers made money. The covers seldom reflected what was in the stories which were often quite good. Some even predicting the divided world we live in today like Brave New World, 1984 and Fahrenheit 451
I had enough faith in the future that as a preteen I prayed to God that we would get to the moon by the year 2000 as in some science fiction stories. We did better than that, we made it by 1969. My own interest never diminished and it came back to hit me in the face in 1976.
I was a high school teacher in the Roanoke Valley of Virginia and one day three sophomores came to me with a proposal. To sponsor a science fiction club. They selected me because I used a number of commercial films in my teaching history and government among them being a couple Star Trek episodes. I reluctantly agreed as I knew that such a club, despite meeting in the school one night a week, would not have the financial backing of a school supported club.
To my surprise once the announcement was out we had a room full of attendees to our first gathering, of not just kids but people of all ages. We science fiction fans were far from alone. It was not long after the first meeting that I was hit with the next idea from the kids. A science fiction convention. I had read about them and they were getting to be very popular with Star Trek fans but none of us had ever been to one. So we began with a trial one day event, one we were permitted to run in our school titled RoVaCon for Roanoke Valley fan Convention. We knew we needed 200 to break even expense wise and were shocked and surprised that 350 people attended. We assumed this would be a one time only thing, a first for Virginia, but that was not to be. Nearly forty related events were destined to follow.
When the project began we assumed our guests were strictly to be authors, but that was changed by the second one. There was an author of science fiction we enjoyed who also published a science fiction magazine, Planet Stories, Leigh Brackett. Leigh’s husband had recently died and did not want to stay in a hotel room. She wondered if one of us would have her as a house guest. Wow, an opportunity to have a name author in our home. And then we learned something surprising. Leigh was a noted script writer for films in Hollywood and was a favorite of John Wayne’s who used her many times. What great stories she had about The Duke who loved to play chess with her on the set.
Our favorite was how one day Wayne called her to run a story idea before her. Leigh listened patiently and the said, “Duke, I wrote that very one you used in Rio Bravos.” He replied, “Well it worked before, it’ll work again.” And that was to become the equally popular and acclaimed El Dorado. Leigh while she was with us also proposed a scholarship program for aspiring writers in high school which we would sponsor and she helped finance. It must be added that Leigh went on to do the story and script for the Star Wars Classic, The Empire Strikes back.
Leigh Brackett would be just the first of many film related guests we would have over the years and the form of our conventions changed as well. This partially came about through an actress in the original Star Trek TV series and later in two Star Trek films. Grace Lee Whitney who played Yeoman Rand. She was our first Star Trek guest and we learned more than we ever expected.
Grace Lee admits that in her early years in Hollywood being an alcoholic and in the film Some Like It Hot her roommate Marilyn Monroe got her into drugs. She was an atheist and on the verge of suicide when she discovered Jesus Christ. She also discovered something else. Hollywood has no use for Christianity and she was discriminated against in many ways. Even as Media conventions she was told she could not mention God, or Jesus or have prayer groups.
Her story and that of other film stars like Rhonda Fleming and Deanna Lund caused the creation of a Christian media organization which was designed to have media conventions where stars were encouraged to talk about their Christian beliefs.
Over the years of helping coordinate conventions in Virginia there has been the creation of one where the chief emphasis is on faith and family productions and encouraging the development of more across the nation. The convention is the Happy Trails Film & Television Festival and is doing that very thing.