California AIDS Ride
I got up at 3:30 am on the morning of June 2 to see one of my favorite Trek stars, Robert Duncan McNeill, take off on his AIDSride journey. I had arranged press credentials for the event representing the Star Trek Communicator. I got to Fort Mason along the San Francisco waterfront just before 5:00 am with the sun coming up to start the day. Many volunteers and some riders were already there as I went to get my press badge. The main staging areas for the event were two large buildings, one with the bikes and the other for the opening ceremonies. The previous day, all riders had checked in tagging their bikes with their entry numbers and lined them up in rows on racks.
My only worry was finding Robbie as a sea of people began showing up. I had Robbie's number, so all I had to do was find his bike and wait. Of course, the bikes were not arranged in any order so I began going row by row until I found the bike with tag number 1975 on it. I guess the "Prophets" were with me as I found it quickly and took a couple pictures of his "TREK" brand bike. Shortly after that around 5:30 am, Robbie came up the aisle and started to pause walking slowly looking down the rows. I smiled knowing he had forgotten which row it was in, and stood back to see how long it was going to take him. He did find it quickly keeping my faith in the man that drove Voyager. I walked up to him and he smiled shaking my hand, said good morning and thanks for coming.
He was in full "landing party" gear ready for his "mission," looking very impressive and somewhat rugged due to his unshaven face. He began checking his "Delta Flyer" TREK bike and realized the tires needed a little more air. We walked over to an area with windows so he could take care of the air and get his equipment on the bike. Out the window was a view of Alcatraz and a very calm bay as the sun was finally lighting up the day. Robbie and I began talking about everything from his trip to the event itself and where he stayed the previous evening. For the Communicator I had a few questions, and began asking them recording his answers for my write up later.
He attached his mileage meter and pulse rate monitor to the handlebars as we did the question and answers, then I began taking some pictures. This wasn't an interview, only a piece for the news section of The Communicator so the questions were related to the ride and just a quick career update.
I asked how he trained for the event and if he has any other charity events coming up. He has been into the bike riding thing for a while now, getting up very early to go riding so he really didn't have to do major preparation for this. On the charity question, he doesn't have anything lined up now and isn't planning on hosting his own as this time.
After that, we mostly just talked about normal things such as family, work, some Star Trek "politics" having to do with Enterprise, etc. It was one of those rare occasions I get to be in a non Trek environment, and just talk to a person and not a Trek star. Robbie is just the guy next door, a genuinely warm human being that's unassuming and defiantly not "Hollywood." This is one of the main reasons I have supported his events, and enjoy contributing to his club and web site.
It was then time to go to the other building for the opening ceremonies and pre-ride warm up. I took a few more pictures of him with the stage in the background, along with taking some pics for him with his camera. Warm up excersises began and he invited me to join him. I really needed it as I only had 3 hours sleep the 2 previous nights! It was a lot of fun and did wake me up, but I felt a little bit silly I must admit. A few times I stopped to take more pictures, then rejoined Robbie for more stretching. Opening speeches came next, getting everyone excited about the upcoming adventure. Robbie told me that attendance was way down from the previous year, but the hall was still very full. I could sense a bit of disappointment in his voice as he told me this, but I told him that in this post 9/11 time every event has suffered. I tried to change his thought process on this by saying it may be more meaningful and intimate for both those reasons. He agreed with that point of view and it seemed to help lighten his mood.
The next part of the opening ceremony was a somber moment as we were all asked to join hands. It was a symbolic moment as they wheeled a riderless bike down the middle of the crowd, representing all the missing people lost due to the AIDS virus. It was a powerful moment lasting about four minutes with many people shedding tears and hugging in groups. I have to say this and please understand I AM NOT making light of the moment, but I have to admit my warped sense of humor took hold for a brief second as I first joined hands with Robbie. First thing, you must understand that I have always wanted to hold the hand of several Star Trek stars. While Robbie is an attractive person and I know a few thousand female fans would have killed for those four minutes, I have to admit my fantasy come true would have been holding the hand of Jeri, or Jolene or Terry or….you get the idea. The second thing I though later while driving home was, can you imagine if someone had taken a photo of us? I can see the headlines in a few dozen fanzines! "Voyager star Robert Duncan McNeil and Communicator columnist Charlie Wall in a tender moment while in San Francisco for the California AIDSRide." My mother was in stitches when I told her that one! But really, it was a very emotional moment for everyone, and I felt so sorry for all the people in the room that had lost a loved one or were dealing with this terrible disease. Events like this make you count your own blessings and I was very moved at what Robbie and all those people had done and were about to do.
Robbie told me he had raised between $8,000 and $9,000 from friends, family and donations from his web site. I told him I had been laid off from my "real job" last October, but still donated $10 through the site. I wish it could have been more, but things are bad in the Bay Area with all the dot.com fallout!
After a final inspirational speech, it was time for the riders to get on their bikes for the long journey ahead. The small sea of people went back to the other building as the energy and excited mood began take hold. Everyone was told to stand by their bikes as people would be released row by row. Robbie talked to several people he had met the day before, shaking hands and reintroducing themselves. At that point they stayed together as everyone began exiting the building, slowly at first. I walked with Robbie taking a few more pictures, then we shook hands a few seconds before boarding his trusty "TREK" bike for the first days ride. That first day consisted of 90 miles through the "Streets Of San Francisco" ending in Santa Cruz later in the day. As Robbie rode off, I tried to get as many shots as possible running ahead until the group finally just got too much speed for me.
I watched as the line of riders winded out onto a main street with the SFPD holding traffic. The whole experience was a wonderful one, not only for me personally but for all involved. I was very impressed with the organization and how smooth everything had gone. I'm sure with such dedicated people, riders and volunteers, that the event will be successful. Robbie's dedication and love for his fellow human beings continues to inspire. I will continue following his career as well as doing all I can to help with anything he is involved in. Everyone can support these efforts in their own ways, and I know you will continue supporting Robbie!
photo at top © Charlie Wall
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