Did you hear about the quatloos of Triskelion?
Back in 1976, when I joined Coin World in the Collectors’ Clearinghouse department, issues of the newspaper were built by taking strips of special paper that contained the text of a story. A designer would wax the back of the strip of paper containing the story and then position it in place before rolling it down with a small roller. When the bottom of a column was reached, the designer would use a sharp knife or scissors and cut the paper strip, then move on to the next column to repeat the process until the entirety of the story had been placed on the page, which when completed would then be photographed on a large camera and the resulting negative used in making the printing plate for the press.
As you might expect, it was sometimes difficult to get a story to fill the entire length of the final column. While today I adjust an article’s final length to fit the assigned space by cutting or adding text as needed, and sometimes by using some reformatting tricks, a hole at the end of an article back then would be filled by a short block of type called, appropriately, a “filler.”
All staff members wrote “fillers” in their down time, each with a headline in tiny type, all containing a brief numismatic factoid. We kept a bank of these ready to use of varying lengths, from two or four or five lines long or thereabouts. There was no magic in writing these. The writer would slide a sheet of paper into the IBM Selectric typewriter, write a bunch of fillers, which once transferred to the paper used for laying out a page, was held in reserve until needed.
These fillers could be about anything. For example, on Page 24 of the Nov. 17, 1976, issue (the first one in which I was listed as a staff member), below a longer article about the forming of a new firm, was this filler, five lines long with the “Martha depicted” headline: “Martha Washington’s portrait appears on a $1 U.S. Silver Certificate issued from 1886 to 1891.” Short. Factual. Informative. Not fake news.
One of my first tasks on the staff was to assist in writing these fillers (my main focus at first, however, was helping to answer baskets filled with a couple of years of Collectors’ Clearinghouse correspondence from readers with questions about their coins and other numismatic collectibles). I don’t recall any of these early filler contributions except for one. Which brings us to my “fake news” contribution decades before that phrase became fashionable.
One day, I was sitting in the office I shared with a fellow staff member whose name I will not reveal, writing some fillers. He made a suggestion that I address the status of that monetary unit known as the “quatloo.” I immediately caught the reference, being from the episode of Star Trek called the “Gamesters of Triskelion.”
In this episode, the bridge crew of the USS Enterprise was captured by an alien race from the planet Triskelion and forced to participate in gladiator-style games while the audience bet on the outcome of each match in the planet’s unit of currency, the “quatloo.” Capt. James T. Kirk, for example, had to fight against a slave or “drill thrall” called Shahna, played by the actress Angelique Pettyjohn, who was dressed in the standard (and sexist) Star Trek style for a woman from an alien civilization (meaning as little clothing that the standards of the 1960s allowed on television). During the match, which was supposed to be to the death, wagers were called out in units of quatloos by the leaders of the planet. Kirk managed to defeat Shahna though he declined to kill her and helped in defeating the evil Providers, who ran the games.
The episode was not one of the series’ best but it was one of the few that had anything remotely like a money reference.
So, back to the fateful filler.
I forget the headline, but my filler read something like this: “The quatloo of Triskelion has been demonetized.” My co-worker assured me it would be all right, so it was turned in with the rest of my tiny contributions. It made it through the editing process (which meant the older, wiser, and more skilled news editor did not question the piece), and finally made it to a page and was published.
And then we got letters. Lots of letters.
Many readers asked the same question. What the heck was a “quatloo” and where was “Triskelion”? The correspondents had never heard of the place nor the currency unit. A smaller number of Trekkies among the readership caught the reference and wrote, essentially, “Hey, cool reference.”
Eventually the letters came to the attention of the news editor and of Margo Russell, our editor. Margo thought it cute, but the news editor mildly admonished me. Somewhere in my files I still have a clipping of my quatloo filler.
Today, being older and wiser and more experienced, I can only look back at that time and ask myself, “What was I thinking?”
Still, I am not going to take any credit for introducing the concept of “fake news.” That kind of thing happened long before I was born.Live long and prosper.