My friend JACK “TOWAWAY” EATON has just passed away. He was 59, and yes, that is TOO goddamn soon!
If you’re part of the fan film community, it’s likely you’ve never heard of Jack…although he did attend Farragut Fest back in 2012 is friendly with a number of the folks who have been involved with the TOS sets at what is now called NEUTRAL ZONE STUDIOS in Kingsland, GA.
And if you’re GEORGE “Sulu” TAKEI, you know him simply as “Towaway” because you gave him that nickname.
I met Jack back in the late 1980s when I was going to school at Cornell and was heavily involved in STARFLEET International‘s Region 7, which at the time included nearly all the Mid-Atlantic and New England states. I was XO on the U.S.S. Avenger chapter based in New York and New Jersey, and Jack was with the U.S.S. Christa McAuliffe, based in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, where he lived before moving south to the eastern central coast of Florida.
The McAuliffe crew never took themselves very seriously. They would show up at regional and international conferences all wearing bathrobes, slippers, and fedora hats…saying that was their official uniform. Their club meetings consisted of bowling drunk on Friday nights in Providence, RI. They were funny and fun-loving, totally open and inclusive, the kind of people you were just happy to know existed in Star Trek fandom.
And Jack was one of their ringleaders…and proudly so.
Like an assassin who knows 1,000 ways to kill a person, Jack knew 1,000 ways to make a person laugh…including the aforementioned assassin. He had a good and generous heart. And despite his natural ability to play hard and relax even harder, Jack could get things done and accomplished when they needed to be and was an effective leader for Starfleet’s Region 2 when he moved down there.
Jack broke any mold you could possibly imagine. He loved all sci-fi the way he loved a good cigar and a smooth bottle of scotch. And yeah, enjoying that kind of lifestyle doesn’t usually help in living a long life. I can still be sad about it, though.
Jack and I weren’t buddy-buddy close, but we were a few steps up from just casual Facebook friends and kept in touch semi-regularly over the years. It was just good to know that, somewhere on the surface of this planet, Jack Eaton was breathing air (or cigar smoke) and probably making someone laugh.
Now, neither of those things are happening anymore, and the world is lessened because of it.
The best way I can eulogize my friend, I think, is to tell you the following story that Jack once told me about how he received his nickname and what happened later on. And lest you doubt the authenticity of this story, I once raised my hand at a convention where George Takei was on stage and asked him, “Have you ever been ticketed for jogging?” And George laughed his laugh and said, “You must be a friend of Towaway!”
Then he proceeded to tell this same story that Jack once told me…
Jack used to help run the Boston Star Trek Association (BSTA), which organized conventions in the New England area. For one con back in 1986, Jack was assigned to pick up George Takei and David Gerrold at the Boston airport. Through a series of mishaps, Jack ended up parking in a red zone and, while escorting George and David back to his van, discovered that it was being towed! He dropped their suitcases and ran like a demon to block the tow truck with his body, eventually talking them into not taking the van away.
Later at the con, all of the BSTA volunteers were wearing badges with nicknames. Jack’s said “Crocodile” Eaton, as Crocodile Dundee had recently been released in theaters. George took one look at Jack’s badge and said, “Oh, no! Your name isn’t ‘Crocodile Eaton.’ Your name is ‘Towaway!'” And the name stuck for the entire convention weekend…and beyond.
Now, the story could have stopped there, but Jack wasn’t one to let George have the last laugh. So the next time George came to town, Jack presented him, on stage, with a gift-wrapped present. “Should I open it now?” George asked him. The audience howled for George to open it, and so he did…removing from the gift box the world’s smallest male thong with the words “DON’T CALL ME TINY” written on the front.
This triggered a series of back-and-forth practical jokes that the two men would play on each other, culminating a few years later at a convention in Bangor, Maine…coincidentally on the weekend of George Takei’s birthday. The practical joke relied on the help of a friend of Jack’s who worked for the Bangor Police Department. It also relied on the fact that George has always been a health nut.
Indeed, George used to appear at conventions and invite fans to go jogging with him on Sunday mornings (which I did once, although I had to ride my bike to keep up with him!). George did this to encourage fans to exercise, and he rewarded them by chatting with them during his runs…and, boy, does George know how to chat!
George had told fans attending the con on Saturday that they could meet him in the lobby of the hotel at 6:30 the following morning if they wanted to join him for a jog. But at 6:00 am, one of the BSTA volunteers knocked on George’s door, “Mr. Takei? Are you awake?”
“Yes,” he replied. “Is something wrong?”
“Oh, there are some fans downstairs in the lobby. They said you told them to meet you at 6:00 to go jogging.”
“Oh, my! I thought I told them 6:30. Tell them I’ll be right down.”
George got dressed at warp speed and ran down to the lobby, but it was empty. George noticed one of the volunteers standing around and asked where the fans were. “Oh, they thought you’d already left, so they decided to see if they could catch up. They headed off in that direction.”
George immediately ran out the door, trying to catch up with the fans that he thought were trying to catch up with him!
A couple of hours later, it was nearly 8:00am, and George was returning from his jog. He’d never caught up to the fans (mainly because there never were any fans…the prank required him to be jogging alone). But as he crossed the street next to the hotel lobby, a police cruiser pulled alongside and asked him to stop.
George complied, of course, and the officer stepped out of the car. “Sir,” he said, “were you just jogging on Cedar Street near Sanford?” (I have no idea if those were the actual streets he said; I just brought up a Google map of Bangor and picked something at random.)
George looked confused. “I’m not sure. Possibly. I have been jogging, but I don’t know the area. I’m from out of town. Why? Is there a problem, officer?”
“I’m afraid so, sir,” the officer replied. “You were jogging in a ‘no jogging’ zone, and we received a complaint.”
“We have a city ordinance, sir, outlawing jogging in certain high-traffic areas to avoid congestion and accidents. I’m going to need to write you a ticket.”
George was dumbfounded. “A TICKET??? FOR JOGGING??? That’s absurd!!!”
“I’m sorry, sir. But because we received a complaint, I have to write you up.”
George was furious. “But I didn’t know! I live in Los Angeles! You can’t expect someone from out of town to know about some stupid ‘no jogging’ ordinance!”
“There are signs posted, sir.”
“Well, I didn’t see any!”
“They’re posted, sir. It’s not my fault if you didn’t see them.”
George began ranting. “This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of, and I thought we had crazy laws in L.A.! You need to figure out a better way of letting visitors to your city know about this idiotic rule!”
Meanwhile, a crowd was gathering in front of the hotel. Was George Takei about to get arrested??? The officer asked for George’s name.
“Takei. T-A-K-E-I. George Takei.” And then George added, somewhat hopefully, “I play Sulu on Star Trek.”
The cop wasn’t impressed. “Date of birth, sir?”
“Today, actually. Today is my birthday…and I’m getting a ticket for jogging for heavens sakes!”
The cop finished writing out the ticket and pulled it out of his book. “Mr. Takei, I need you to verify that the information I’ve written on the front is correct. Then I need you to read the back and confirm that you understand what it says.”
George took the ticket in angry disgust. He looked over the front. “Yes, this is all correct.” Then he turned it over.
Handwritten on the back was the following message: “Happy birthday, George. GOTCHA! – Towaway.”
According to Jack, George started laughing so hard, he nearly fell over. In the war of practical jokes between George Takei and “Towaway” Eaton, “Towaway” had just scored a decisive victory.
Feel free to share this story with someone who might enjoy it. I think Jack would want to know he was still spreading smiles even after he was gone.