January 25, 2005

Chattacon Trip Report

Melissa and I dropped Matthew at the Folks' place so she and I could go out and, well, act like children ourselves pretty much. We just returned from Chattanooga, TN, where we attended a small fan convention with our friends in Arms of Middle Earth [AoME], a Lord of the Rings fan group.

[Editor's note: Wait for it...wait for it... Scroll down. Shoot, why does it always do this?]

Miho arrived Tuesday night, Dustin flew in from Chicago Wednesday, Tonight, David (Sam) drove down from NC and Maddy & Gayle (The Balrog) drove up from Savannah. We all tagged along to Melissa's TaeKwonDo practice, which let out late, so Moe's was closed by the time we got there. We arrived at Cracker Barrel, a party of seven, half an hour before they closed. Yeah. They were REAL happy to see us.

Later that night, after watching some Anime (Spiral and Fruits Basket) we tried to turn in. The guys were sleeping in the living room, and the girls in the Master Bedroom. Being guys, we turned out the lights and tried to sleep. The girls had other plans. Something about putting women together in pajamas somehow divides their age by two. I was banging on my own wall for them to keep it down.
"This is Douchebag McDouchington with your Eye in the Sky Traffic..."
>Friday, 9:00 AM
We packed up my Taurus and Sam/s Alero with all of our gear, which was a feat in itself, since our baggage took up most of the living room floor. I credit this victory to my many years of playing Tetris. We met Anya, Liz, Rebecca, Shannon & Darla (from Tampa), "The Gorns" and Merry at the Cracker Barrel in Calhoun, GA.
3:00 PM
We've checked in. The hotel is screwing us all over with these rules. (1) No more than five people in a room at any time, (2) An unannounced $100 deposit on each room, (3) Guests are kicked out of the hotel if 2 noise complaints are filed.

After registration, we check out the ConSuite, where the refreshments are. It's done up in a festive "Lilo and Stitch" luau theme. Then I find out that in addition to free snacks and drinks, they have free BEER. Shiner Bock even. This will be the greatest Convention EVER!!!
4:20 PM
The Masquerade isn't until tomorrow night, but Dustin couldn't wait to put on his Aragorn costume. The rest tried to resist the peer pressure, but it was too much. They got dressed up into "light" versions of their hobbit and elf costumes (meaning without cloaks and hairy feet). Hanging out in the room for a bit, David tried to explain what was going on in the Yu-Gi-Oh cartoon. He Tried.
6:10 PM
The Gorns' room is full of hobbits. The hotel movie channel is showing the Return of the King Extended Edition DVD, but the guy running the player turned on the subtitles. David says "It takes all the coolness out of speaking the lines when all the subtitles are on."
7:20 PM
"Underhill, Party of 23" heads out for supper at the City Diner Cafe. (If there's a more ambiguous name for a restaurant, I've yet to hear it.) Clyde from Emerald Rose shows up with his wife, to the chaos of all. Amras put a dollar in the jukebox to play some REM. Dustin's Aragorn sits in the corner. Somehow, the "brooding Ranger" bit just doesn't have the same feel to it in the neon-lit cafe.
9:10 PM
The ConSuite was full, so the group claims one of the empty conference rooms for LotR boardgames. I join the game of LotR Monopoly after a quick stop for some Free Beer. Merry and Dustin reappear dressed as Duo (from Gundam Wing) and Solid Snake (from Metal Gear).

One of the great things about these Cons is the random strangers you meet. A few come across our group and join in. However, the guy joining the Trivial Pursuit game appears to be narcoleptic, and falls asleep between each turn. After the games were over, he was still out, so we turned off the lights and quietly made our escape. "Shh!" I told Anya, "The Connie is sleeping!"
"Don't sit on a couch in a house that's a trailer, and there's a bug zapper light INSIDE."
10:12 PM
I returned to the ConSuite for Free Beer, and at down next to a guy who was sitting alone. Usually, geeks sitting by themselves give off a subtle warning sign to stay away, but it's a different situation when you're at a geek-centric convention like this. We shot the breeze for a good twenty minutes and I found out he was part of a group called "H.A.M.S.T.E.R.", which, according to him, stands for "Huntsville... Area..Something something somethin'." The guy confessed that he'd been there drinking since he arrived at 5 PM
11:06 PM
We've found a loophole in the hotel's policy against room parties: It does not say anything about hallways. So six of us are holding court outside our room. Clyde from Emerald Rose, his wife Ashley, Jo and Anya join us, and talk about experiences at ORC - "The One Ring Convention" that just wrapped up in Pasadena. Ashley describes it: "Imagine, if you will... Waiting in long, long lines. And paying a lot of money to do that most of the day."

Before parting ways for the night, Jo's daughter Anna presents me with a pencil sketch she drew of "Bill the Pony" (my nickname on the boards), as a gift. Quite a good likeness, actually, save for the hooves and the tail.
A Bit of History:
David: "So Chris, how did you get the name 'Bill the Pony', if you don't mind me asking?"
Chris: "Last year, at Dragon*Con, Melissa was all dressed up like Frodo, you were Sam, and we met up with all the 'Arms of Middle Earth' people. Everyone was costumed like Lord of the Rings characters, and Mel suggested that I dress up as well. I'm not really into that. I like seeing others dressed up at the Cons, I like meeting the people and I like taking the pictures, but I don't like dressing up."
David: "Do you like the Lord of the Rings movies?"
Chris: "Sure, I love them. I just don't like CosPlaying. So I tell Melissa this, and she asks me if there isn't a character that I really identify with. I say, 'At the moment, the only one I identify with is Bill the Pony, Sam's pack horse.'
David: "Why is that?"
Chris: "Because everyone was in their costumes running around, and I had a big satchel, so everyone was giving me sh*t."
David: "Why were they giving you sh*t? I thought they were all nice to you?"
Chris: "No, No. They were giving me THEIR sh*t...to carry. So I was the designated pack horse for the Con, and the name just stuck."
>Saturday, 2:00 AM
Melissa's phone RINGS. (Caps because the theme from "Gundam Wing" at 420 decibels would wake the dead.) I shoot out of bed and answer it, but they hang up.
"Don't worry. You're dizzy...and you're coughing your face apart..."
10:00 AM
We meet Dustin downstairs in the Starbucks. Last night, he was walking around in half of his Solid Snake costume (looking more like a longshoreman at this point), when a hotel employee asked him how he got the gig working security. Without missing a beat, Dustin said "Well, you know, they call me at home, my dad and I have this family-run security thing..."

Eventually, the group huddles around the lone computer in the place, as if it were a fire on a cold evening, to make a cryptic status post to the message boards.
10:23 AM

The Narcoleptic lives! He just stumbled into view and is sitting, dazed as ever, at a table outside. He still isn't moving much. He slept sitting up for ten minutes before coming inside, passing us by, and sleeping behind a newspaper on the couch.
11:20 AM
In the Dealers Room, Miho met up with a guy who speaks Japanese. He was a missionary to Japan, and Miho was very excited to have someone to talk to.
The girls head off to the room to deposit the swag we bought, as I head off to the ConSuite for Free Beer. And where there's beer, there's usually hobbits. (The Elves drank Coke.)
12:30 PM
I gather the rest of the gang together back at our room, and we all head down to the ConSuite for snacks. You know that Toby Keith country song "Beer for my Horses"? Yeah, just one more. The stereo is blaring "You and Me and The Bottle Makes Three" by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, which is very appropriate. On the way back through the lobby, I see this guy. He has been sitting in the lobby, illuminated by his laptop for the past two days, every time I've come through here. Maybe he's related to the Narcoleptic.
2:30 PM
The AoME meeting runs a bit long, but we got a lot of business conducted, including sponsoring two kids from the Make-a-Wish Foundation that want to come with us to Dragon*Con. On the way back, an unsteady-looking girl in a pirate costume stopped us, saying "I see hobbits! And Elves!" Then, turning to me, "..and one Mundane." Yes, with all the others in costume, and me in plain clothes, carrying around this bag, I felt like an entrenched reporter covering some foreign news story.
4:00 PM
The token Tolkien panel "Was Tolkien Good for SF?", was not well planned. Reportedly, the panel didn't stand a chance, while there was hot dogs in the ConSuite. The group headed out to an early dinner with ElfHelm, while I looked after Miho, who wasn't feeling well. I caught most of "The Day After Tomorrow" while she slept, which was enough. Man, those subtitles are annoying as hell.
6:00 PM
Everyone's getting dressed up a bit early for the costume Masquerade, because the group met up with a reporter for the Chattanooga Times. They're being interviewed and photographed down in Gayle's room.

Mel just handed me her shoes. She's taking that final step into obsessive detail for her costume: Hairifying her feet.
7:05 PM
After the reporter leaves, and the Balrog tested out her pneumatic wings, the group is off to the lobby for Photo-Ops. On the way up the stairs, a little girl became petrified with fear at the Balrog. Gayle eventually coaxed her into touching the fake claws and rubber mask, to see that it wasn't real. After that, the girl was visibly relieved.

Then the Balrog ate her.
7:27 PM
A little boy in a knight costume goes wide-eyed in wonder at Gayle's costume. His mother eventually prods him over to see the Rog. "You look just like the dragon on my shield!" he exclaims.

The Balrog smiled, then ate him as well.
7:50 PM
While the Hobbits attempt to get the Starbucks computer to work, Merry chugs a root beer and a DoubleShot espresso. Because honestly, she's just not peppy enough as it is.
8:10 PM
Since Miho and I didn't eat with the others, we need a bite. Since some people who ate at City Cafe Diner got sick, we braved the cold and ran five blocks to a little hole-in-the-wall bar called The Pickle Barrel. The place is built at the point of a triangular intersection. It has bare wood walls and tables, complete with years of carved initials and symbols. At what point does a joint like this cross over from being "a dive" to being "rustic" or have "personality"?
9:10 PM

The Fellowship goes off to pre-judging. The Gorns, dressed as Prof. Lockhart, Prof. Trelawney, and a Gryffindor girl, are not competing. One hotel guest, not knowing that there was a Convention going on (?) asked MommaGorn if she really told fortunes. "No, but I do," exclaimed PoppaGorn, grabbing the crystal ball. "I predict that... it will rain...somewhere. And in four more years, we'll have another president!"

We bought Miho a costume, so she could join in the fun. Since Maddy was officially playing another hobbit, she loaned her cloak to Miho and made her "Rosie Cotton."
10:10 PM
The Masquerade starts, and the announcer sets a bottle of Wild Turkey on the podium in front of him. "For each mistake I make, I'll take a drink," he promises. He proceeds to make two mistakes at each round. The fellowship is cued and they run across the stage, pursued by the Balrog. Unfortunately, since no flash pictures are allowed, All I get on camera are some hobbit- and Balrog-shaped blurs.
11:05 PM
While the judges are conferring, they left us in the hands of a young magician. He's all right, but it's been 40 minutes and half of the crowd has left. The remainder are talking so loudly amongst themselves that we can't hear the magician anymore. Poor guy. It's a tough enough crowd to begin with, and it's a no-brainer decision between him and Free Beer two rooms away. (For once, I didn't indulge in said Free Beer, out of respect for the guy.)
Eventually, the awards are announced: The Fellowship won Audience Favorite, And Anya and Quimbie won for their respective categories.
"I've always been the girl to fall for that whole 'Hey, wanna see my van?' line. And of course, I was a gymnast at the time..."
>Sunday, 1:00 AM
Most of the AoME group is in our room, along with the brothers that sell prosthetic ears to the hobbits. We've watched some Anime and devoured the three pizzas we ordered. What the heck is this "Super Milk Chan" show? It annoyed the bejesus out of me after 10 seconds of the commercial.
"What is this 'Filking' that I'm hearing about?"
"It's Singing. Fans singing sort of folk songs."
"Oh, I'd imagined something much dirtier than that."
1:20 AM
I've had food, so... "Hey Mel, why is this the best con ever?"
"Free Beer?"
"Free Beer. Bye."
Down in the Con Suite, the Karaoke was in full swing. One drunk did such a horrible rendition of "Our House" by Madness, that a bouncer took him out the back door in a fireman's carry. The crowd cheered. Later, the Masquerade host (who looked like he finished that bottle of Wild Turkey), upstaged the Elvis impersonator waiting behind him by performing a moving rendition of "I Can't Help Falling In Love With You." In between stanzas, he drank some bluish liquor that looked like Windex from a clear plastic flask:

"Wiiiise meeeeen saaaaayyy..(gulp) only fooooools ruuuu-shinnnnnn (gulp)..."
2:25 AM
Back at the room, Neume mentioned that she had a bottle of mead in her trunk, but she needed someone to help her find the car.
"Bill the Pony will help you" offered Mel.
"Hmm? Raggy? Wha?" I said.
Alcohol was involved, so I was happy to help, as was the Ear Dealer that she was sitting with. After returning with the bottle, I took my "Finder's Fee" in a plastic cup.

We threw everybody out at 3:30.
"What took you so long in the bathroom?"
"Sorry, This dress... I swear, Arwen must have had a Pee Maiden."
10:43 AM
The group meets in the Con Suite for brunch. It's stocked with Little Debbie snack cakes, donuts, Juice, pastries and sugar cereals. All the stuff that we told our parents we'd eat for breakfast when we grew up. Quite appropriate for a bunch of adults who never did.

But what is Chris' favorite part of the Con? Free Beer for Breakfast!!
12:30 PM
Checkout Time. Bags, hugs and a few tears in the motor lobby as we say our farewells. This was all done quickly because it was 20 degrees outside and the door was stuck open.
"I just can't watch much football. What it stands for just goes against my beliefs."
"What, physical activity?"
2:20 PM
Driving back in David's car, we put in a mix CD he burned. Foo Fighters' "Next Year" came on:
I'm in the sky tonight / There I can keep by your side

Watching the whole world wind, Around and round
I'll be coming home next year.
"This was my farewell song from Dragon*Con last fall," said David. "Home for me is at the 'Con, when the group is all together."

I know many of us feel the same way. Home is traditionally where your family lives. But in today's society, where families are spread across the states, the circle of friends has become a surrogate family. Friends provide support and comfort, even food and shelter when needed, and generally look out for us and our well-being. So by that new definition, wherever your friends are becomes your home.

I myself cannot wait until we are HOME with the group again.


The caravan arrived back in Flowery Branch around 4 PM. Maddy and Gayle had to pack up the Mini and continue on to Savannah, and Dustin had a flight to catch back to Chicago. Matthew, our little guy who turns three next month, arrived soon afterwards. He recognized Maddy and David, hugging their legs and saying hello. "And who is this?" Melissa asked him, pointing to Gayle. His face lit up and he shouted "Rrrraaaaaaaaarrr! Is 'Rog!!"

Eventually, I had to take Dustin to the airport. I told Matthew "Say Goodbye to Dustin," and he refused. He'd become quite attached to Dustin in the few days prior to the Convention. "No," said Matthew, pulling Dustin away from the door, "No leave yet."

That just pushed me over the edge. He'd never said that before. Matthew is behind in his speaking because of frequent ear infections, so spontaneously stringing together a three-word sentence is an amazing feat for him. Matthew has known Dustin for three days, and the others not much longer, and he would not let any of them leave. All of us lost it, hearing what we all felt expressed in those three little words.

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