Safe Travels, James Doohan

(Posted by Eric Magnuson)

On a day when London’s all a twitter once again (or maybe just the media is trying to make it appear so in their coverage of another handful of bombing threats), I expect that few people are taking the time to mourn Star Trek’s Montgomery Scott. James Doohan passed away yesterday at the relatively ripe age of 85. I’m far from a Trekkie, even though this is now my second posting with a reference to that area of entertainment geek-dom. But I do have a James Doohan story to pass along, in hopes of making us all see the man behind the man behind the machines.

I went to college in Minneapolis at the University of Minnesota. One Saturday after an intramural co-ed football game my sophomore year, our team headed to Big 10 Subs on Washington Avenue to get some grub and hopefully score a few pitchers even though we were all officially underage. While waiting in line for a table, two Trekkies came up behind us – I recall one half-assed Spock and a pretty saucy Asian Uhura. What does one say to Trekkies in the real world? Probably some derivation of what we said – “is there a convention nearby?” There was – across the street at the Radisson – and we then inquired whether anyone of note was there. With glee they told us that Scotty was there, signing autographs and chatting with his fans. What would you do? I couldn’t have crossed the street faster if I’d had a few dilithium crystals horked up my butt.

Two of my female teammates with not only well-developed irreverent streaks agreed to join me in checking out the scene. To say that they were both attractive would be unfair. We were a teamful of ringers (I played ball in High School, as did the other guys). But the women were all way out of my league, so to speak. When we went to the concierge’s desk to ask where Scotty was, he never even bothered to look at me. “Upstairs,” we were told with a helpful, drooly response. “And you’ll want some paper, ’cause they’re charging for it up there,” he said while handing over a few sheets to Holly. Surprisingly, he gave us enough hotel stationary for Holly, Shelly AND me. We bounded up the stairs and saw that only handful of people were in line ahead of us. Everyone’s attention was directed at Mr. Doohan, who was seated at a long banquet table with an array of pens and glasses surrounding him. As we moved closer to Scotty, I soon realized that he was what you might call tipsy if you were being respectful. Flunkies seemed to appear with alarming regularity with new drinks for him. But he was entirely in jolly-mode, not the least bit surly or overtly Canadian (sorry, bad joke – he was from British Columbia, after all, not Scotland). When we reached him, I tried my best to offer something witty or at least not irritating. But I could have been speaking Klingon for all the attention he paid to me. Instead, as most men did, he focused his attention on Holly and Shelly. The line I remember was, “would you like to sit on Scotty’s lap?” There were others. But here’s the point of my recap, offered with the utmost respect to him and his family – he was utterly charming. In a funny, slightly-bawdy, very much there for his fans way. My friends didn’t sit on his lap, but if he’d asked twice they most surely would have. And from what I read in his NYTimes obit, he continued to do conventions until last year. I assume charming all manner of fans – real or feigned – along the way.

The end of the Times obit mentions how his family has arranged for his ashes to be shot into space. Damn straight – he earned that burial. Anyone else had a brush with a member of the Enterprise crew? I’d love to hear about it if so. Moonrock on.

7 Comments on “Safe Travels, James Doohan”

  1. No experiences — but i thought i’d point out that he had nine children, the youngest born in 2000. when he was 80.

    i’m sure his offer to your friends would have been repeated.. if he’d remembered.

  2. Ah, my brush with greatness. Don’t worry. I’ll be brief.

    Back in ’82, Doohan appeared at UNC-Charlotte, bringing along his stories and the blooper reel. I was working for a small game company that just launched a Star Trek game (the real thing, complete with staggeringly large royalty payments), so I attended and wormed my way backstage, where Doohan agreed to an interview that we used for the newsletter.

    Then he stayed and signed autographs. Free. From nine o’clock until after midnight. Anyone who wanted to talk, take pictures, sign things, he was there, and he was unfailingly polite.

    No great big story, except to note he was gracious when no one (or at least very few) were looking, and who went the extra mile when he didn’t really have to. That’s character, and I always respected him for that.

  3. OK, I might as well admit it here – I thought he was already dead.

    Nonetheless, I guess (and this is the closest I’ll come to trekkie-dom) the best one could say about him was that he lived long & prospered…

  4. Nonetheless, I guess…the best one could say about him was that he lived long & prospered

    No, I think this is the best thing you could say about him:


    “At 19, James escaped the turmoil at home by joining the Canadian army, becoming a lieutenant in artillery. He was among the Canadian forces that landed on Juno Beach on D-Day. “The sea was rough,” he recalled. “We were more afraid of drowning than the Germans.”

    The Canadians crossed a minefield laid for tanks; the soldiers weren’t heavy enough to detonate the bombs. At 11:30 that night, he was machine-gunned, taking six hits: one that took off his middle right finger (he managed to hide the missing finger on screen), four in his leg and one in the chest. Fortunately the chest bullet was stopped by his silver cigarette case.”

    I’ve read in other places that he also served in the RCAF during the war, but I haven’t found a source for that. Oh, wait, just did:

    So after landing on D-Day and being shot, Doohan then flew as a ‘pilot-observer’, which probably means as an artillery spotter in a slow, unarmed aircraft.

    Quite a guy. Being on Star Trek was the least of his accomplishments.

  5. I spent some time working science fiction conventions while in college. Generally I was behind a table hawking wares so I didn’t get to see too many honored guests but I did have two run ins of note at GenCon. One was Mark Hammill, who was surrounded by an entourage and couldn’t have been more of a prick considering the fan base present. He was there to promote a wing commander game and because of that would not sign or even acknowledge anything star wars. The other was James Doohan who happened to have a room a few doors down from me one year. I met him standing in the hallway leaning on the balcony rail overlooking the center of the hotel. No entourage, nothing. As I passed him I decided to not invade his personal space and just planned on keeping to myself. Much to my surprise he acknowledged me and I thought “holy crap, scotty just said hello”. So I stopped and we chatted about the con for a few minutes. I came away from that chance encounter with an immense respect for the man especially in light of how other stars treated their fans.

  6. Perhaps his experience on D-Day and WWII in general gave him a better perspective on life. His graciousness might have come from knowing that if not for a silver cigarette case he probably would have been just a historical statistic…

  7. Had to respond… both because I also had a Scotty encounter, and also am a University of Mineesota Alum and you just gave we the worst craving for a Big 10 sandwich from Big 10 Subs…

    My own encounter was at a smaller convention in Madison, Wisconsin… it was my first convention, I was in junior highschool… I think my Dad took me oddly enough, and though I was a huge Trek fan, I went mainly because Scotty was there. He signed autographs, chatted with each person in line… drank vodka the whole time and was genuinely charming. I remember as I was getting my picture signed, I said something inane that I don;t remember… but I remember him asking me, “So, are you going to be an engineer?” I replied, “Yes, I want to be an aerospace engineer.” He smiled, and let me get my picture taken with him… Well, I am an aerospace engineer… and I still have that picture.

    Warp speed, Mr. Scott. Let’s see what’s out there.

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