On one level, it was a typical night at American Legion Hampton Roads Post 31. Families - moms, dads, kids - were floating from table to table, munching on corn chips and sipping soft drinks.
Clusters of adults played cards - poker, blackjack. A few other groups were hunched over board games. People were laughing, talking, having fun.
"I've just conquered the universe and I can't do a damn thing with my hair," cracked Kai, captain of the alien spaceship IKV Bat'leth, after a particularly unsatisfying roll of the dice. Even with his severe Klingon features - huge bushy eyebrows, giant ridges across his forehead,
rust-colored skin - a scowl was noticeable on his face. But with another roll, he seemed to brighten up a bit.
"Boxcars!" the man running the craps table shouted before starting to pay the winners with brightly colored play money. "You guys are killing me."
Kai - better known as Tracy Phelps of Hampton - was part of Quark's Casino Royale, a fund-raising function sponsored by three separate Star Trek fan clubs in the area. As the commanding officer of the Klingon space cruiser Bat'leth, he wasn't merely a participant, he was one of the night's hosts.
Phelps and his fellow sci-fi enthusiasts turned out for a night of pretend gambling to raise money for the Animal Aid Society and other charities.
"This is our major fund-raiser of the year," said Starfleet officer Joe Kancel of the USS Maat, based in Virginia Beach. "And helping charities is the whole purpose of these groups."
Well, that and glorifying the fictional world that gave the world transporter beams, science officer Spock, Lt. Commander Data, the Borg and furry little animals called tribbles.
Hampton Roads' love of Star Trek continues to thrive. The science fiction television series that originally aired 1966-69 on NBC has given birth to an active, compassionate and multi-faceted community in this part of Virginia.
This is something more elaborate than your garden-variety cult following. Clubs - named for imaginary starships that serve the fictional Starfleet Command - meet regularly in Virginia Beach, Chesapeake and Hampton. They hold fund-raising events, blood drives, parties and camping weekends.
It's all done with the blessing of a national group - Starfleet: The International Star Trek Fan Association - that allows Star Trek devotees to step comfortably into an imaginary universe where danger lurks behind yonder asteroid belt and precious dilithium crystals help spaceships to travel beyond the speed of light.
Back on Virginia soil, local Trek lovers try to make Earth a better place.
"These are the voyages of the Starship Jamestown," reads a message on the Hampton-based club's Web site. "Her on-going mission: To strive to be recognized in our community as a reflection of the ideals expressed in Star Trek.
"When other human beings are unable to help themselves, when the environment of our planet is endangered and needs assistance to replenish itself ... the crew of the Jamestown will be the ones to say 'Let Me Help.' "
John Winsley, the USS Jamestown's president for five years, described his group as part of an extraordinary local network or extended family.
"The Hampton Roads area probably has more Star Trek or sci-fi clubs than any other metropolis I know of," said Winsley, who works at Northrop Grumman Newport News shipyard. "We have 15 different clubs in the area - there's the Klingon group, one for 'Babylon 5,' three Starfleet chapters. Why so many here? I don't know. I really don't."
Tammy Willcox of Virginia Beach - who serves as chief financial officer for the national Starfleet organization as well as an officer on board the USS Maat - has a few theories on that subject. "There's a large technology base here," Willcox said. "Technical people tend to like science fiction, they like to see where their thoughts are going in the future. They tend to gravitate toward that kind of thing."
The world of Star Trek