THE long line snaked around the patio furniture display and disappeared behind several refrigerators in the appliance section. We'd arrived at the department store in plenty of time to secure a good spot (third and fourth in line, no less), but as more and more star seekers arrived, it began to dawn on me that our five-year-old son, Jonathan, was the only child in the crowd. We'd seen an ad in our local newspaper the day before, inviting all ``Trekkies'' to ``beam down'' to meet ``Scotty'' - Montgomery Scott, chief engineer of the starship Enterprise. It was an offer we could hardly believe.
As it happens, we've recently begun to eat, play, and sleep in Star Trek mode at our house, thanks to nightly reruns of the popular '60s show on a local television station. Ever since the program debuted several months ago, Jonathan has taken to talking in Trekese and cruising around the living room at only slightly less than warp speed.
Each morning when he gets up, he tucks his ``communicator'' (a small, flat rock) into his belt and announces that he's planning to ``boldly go where no man has gone before'' (kitchen), ask for his ``coordinates'' (location), and flip on the ``energizer'' (light switch). Whenever a glitch appears in our ``beamers,'' the oatmeal simply has to wait while we make the necessary technical adjustments.
It's difficult to recall precisely when Jonathan's interest in outer space began to gather momentum. All I know is that it was a well-established phenomenon by the time he and his nursery school classmates took an educational trip to the moon last month. They'd spent a couple of weeks in school transforming a wooden jungle gym into a space shuttle, painting control panels on cardboard boxes, and taping grocery bags into uniforms and helmets. The day of the scheduled liftoff, I wangled a way into the classroom as unofficial photographer and arrived in time to hear some important last-minute advice from mission control: ``Don't forget to lock the doors!'' Nathan Ritsko shouted as the would-be astronauts leaped skyward.
For the New Nursery School Class of '88, planning a trip to the moon appeared to be a pretty routine, if not everyday, occurrence. And why not? These are kids who've grown up playing with galactic spaceships, who've been to the moon and back with Neil Armstrong videos. They're tuned into space talk and hear it wherever they go, from the nightly news to radio disc jockeys reminiscing about golden oldies by Jefferson Starship.
Like most of his peers, Jonathan can tell you which planet in our solar system has 16 moons, which is the farthest from the sun, which has visible gas rings. He has some notion of the law of gravity and an imaginative version of what happens during an eclipse. When he gets stumped on a question, he usually knows which of his many space books will have the answer.
Thankfully, Jonathan's grasp of the inevitability of space exploration doesn't lack for little-boy enthusiasm: He matter-of-factly accepts it, but he's also enthralled by the wonder and excitement of it all. Especially as it's portrayed in his favorite ``Star Trek'' shows.
So, come 7 o'clock each night, dish-washing and picking-up chores come to a halt while we all head for the TV room to watch Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, Scotty, Sulu, and Uhura do battle with unseen forces and treacherous multi-hued creatures. On Saturday nights we get a double feature with the 8 o'clock showing of ``Star Trek: The Next Generation,'' the most recent investment in the continuing voyage.
Although Jonathan recently asked his barber if he could have his hair cut like Lt. Comdr. Data, the starry-eyed android on the ``Next Generation,'' his devotion to the original Enterprise crew is firmly entrenched. Small wonder, then, that he'd wanted to get to the department store way ahead of Scotty's scheduled beam-down time. The fact that Dad had taken an extra-long lunch hour to join us only added to the anticipation.
We'd been waiting in line for about an hour when James Doohan, the actor who portrays Scotty in the original TV show and in the four follow-up movies, finally arrived and sat down beside a long table piled high with Star Trek videos and memorabilia. We'd tried to explain to Jonathan that ``Scotty'' probably wouldn't have much time to visit, and told him that he should try to ask his TV hero just one question. But we were unprepared for the question that came.
``Do you think there really are aliens?'' Jonathan wanted to know.
Mr. Doohan put down his autographing pen and reached out to take Jonathan's hand and pull him close for a whispered conversation. While the adults waited patiently in line, the series' ever-resourceful chief engineer spent several minutes telling our young Trekkie why he thought there must be other beings out there somewhere - and why they undoubtedly would be good, not bad or scary.
Bless you, Scotty. And beam us up, too.