Sunday, April 12, 2015

Halfling Thieves of the Pacific Northwest, or, the Summer of D&D

Author's Note: This is LONG---apology in advance, as brevity is the thing for this blog! If you are bored, please skip down and check out my creepy pics instead....!

It was the cusp of summer, circa 1984.

I was thirteen years old and a bit unruly, to put it mildly. 

 Behavior trouble was beginning to become more frequent for me at school and around our neighborhood in Oklahoma City, and this state of affairs, coupled with the volatile chemistry between my step father and I, led my mother to decide that a sojourn with my grandparents in Klammath Falls, Oregon might be a positive change that would help me make a fresh start of a new school year.

 Old time discipline, Grandma's very special love and rural living , it was hoped, would sow seeds for a new pattern.

And, in fact, this year would prove to be one of the most memorable and exciting of my life.

My grandparents have passed on many years ago, but scarcely a day passes but that I think of them and recall the lessons and life experiences that I learned from them  that year.  Often I let my mind wander the trails and streams of those beautiful woods and meadows.

 And among the many memories I made there, one I remember with particular fondness is being introduced to Dungeons and Dragons.

Grandma and Grandpa lived on a two acre spread with a gravel driveway, a garage and preserves pantry my grandfather had built, a double wide mobile home with a wood stove, and a half acre garden that supplied these hardy folks with perhaps a quarter or more of their vegetables, herbs, berries, and fruit.

During our infrequent trips into the city, groceries were sparingly selected from the most no-nonsense budget one has ever seen and supplemented with extensive fishing, crawdad trawling and  Grandpa's hunting. They  also cut their own wood as well- this when they were in their early seventies. In fact, timber was the one concrete skill I actually learned there in Oregon.

If I had a chainsaw and truck today and I needed firewood, thanks to my grandparents I could select and safely fall the trees to feed a wood stove.

 I wish I had learned everything they wanted to teach me but being a boy I wanted to roam the woods and live in the realms of imagination that had always given me refuge from the sometimes painful environs of real life.

  My abiding love for the fantastic only elicited from my Grandfather a bemusement that bordered on scorn--no mind could have been as far removed from fantasy or science fiction concepts as that of this gruff, grizzled WW2 and law enforcement veteran who had been reared in the most hardscrabble of conditions and who had raised a family of six children in rural Arkansas. The myriad comic book realms which constituted the borders of my mythical kingdom were complete foolishness to him.

 My unabashed re-enactments of all that I read in those comics as as I played in the front yard or at the edge of the woods would have him shaking his head with sardonic smile.

 But that was simply who he was. The decade of the seventies into which I had been born was, for kids like me, a totally different world than that of his boyhood. And I, of course, was a weird kid even without a generation gap, and my grandfather had never had much patience with children.

Grandma seemed to understand, though, and always encouraged my cartooning, my reading of strange books, and my somewhat fervid flights of imagination. She felt it her mission to provide me with her own individualistic and unconventional spiritual insights and a great deal of time was spent being made to listen to short readings from the Bible, making prayers, and going on walks in the woods, wherein she would talk of God and the importance of right living at length...she was her own sort of Christian, one who had no time for church but who seemed to live daily in an unseen Presence whose communion filled her with an organic joy that fairly lit her face.

 I frankly confess that the religious duties which she tried to enjoin upon me seemd tedious and a great imposition upon time better spent at play or reading comics, but this was more than made up for by the fact that she sewed me a ninja costume, bought me a wooden katana, and packed me lunches of homemeade bread and the best cheeses and jugs of sweet tea or lemonade to carry into the woods, where I pretended to be  questing upon epic journeys.

 She was also forever showering hugs and kisses on me and treating to me to the best cooking one has ever tasted or can hope to taste in the afterlife. Not even a week ago, I realized with a pang of sadness that I would never taste biscuits and gravy like hers again, and that in all of the years since that I have ordered that dish in various cafes or diners in the hopes I might find the sort she made I have been on a futile quest.

But getting to D& wasn't long after I had arrived and explored the edges of the rural and widely separated mobile home community they lived in that I was walking down a road and met the first friend I was to have in Oregon, and who also was the person who would introduce me to an influence which remains a part of my head and heart even to this day.

Richard was short, frail, and somewhat unkempt with shaggy, thin dark hair that fell over heavy rimmed black glasses held together with a band of tape on the nose bridge and fraying collared and buttoned shirt, ragged jeans, and old sneakers. His Klammath Indian heritage was very evident (he was in fact half blooded from that tribe) and his eyes shone with the proverbial glint of obvious intelligence. He held up a hand in greeting as we drew near eachother and grinned at me good naturedly. Having seldom met a stranger, even to this day, I returned his salute, intrigued and thrilled that another boy my age lived in the area.

"Haven't seen you before," Richard said.

"I'm not from here," I replied. "I'm from Oklahoma."

"Oklahoma? What are you doing so far away from home?"

"Just staying with my grandparents, you know," I said, pointing back up the road from whence I came.

"Oh, you mean Mr. and Mrs. Jones," he said. "I know them. My folks know them. Mrs. Jones is the nicest woman I know."

"Yeah. I'll be going to school here this year."

"Good," he said. "I can show you around. I grew up here."

"Yeah? Not much to do, is there."

"There's a ton of stuff to do," Richard said. " We have horses. And atv's. We go fishing and camping in the woods and build forts. Me and my two brother is away at college. There's one other boy who lives in the area, that's Carl. With you here, that'd give us one more person to play Dungeons and Dragons with."

"You play Dungeons and Dragons?" I asked.

The name was familiar to me only because I had come across a strange book at a mall once which was entitled Monster Manual. I had convinced my mother to buy it for me because I had been spellbound by the engaging illustrations and descriptions of multitudes of mythical beasts. I had realized it was a component to a very elaborate game called D&D but had not the slightest conception as to what that meant. The one time I met some D&D players a year before at my school, I had asked them to let me play when I saw their obvious delight at recess as they shared the books, but they had turned me down, though one of them did pay me five dollars for a pencil reproduction of a ki-rin I had drawn at home from the MM.

"Oh yeah," he said. "Sometimes everyday after school. Long time on Saturdays and Sundays too. My brother taught me to play. He left all his books here when he went to school and as long as I take care of them, I can use them whenever I want."

"How do you play?' I asked. "I never understood it."

"It's a game of imagination," he explained. "You make up fantasy characters, like wizards or warriors, and send them on fantastic quests in a make believe world. You play the part of your character. When you fight things, like monsters, you roll dice to see who wins."

"Really?" I said, fascinated. " like, talk like you're the character? How do you make up the world?"

"Like from books and stuff," he said. "Lord of the Rings and the Wheel of Time and stuff like that. And yeah, you talk like your character. You have to stay alive. The Dungeon Master controls the game and tells you what you see and what all you can do, but you can make things up."

"Wow," I said. "That sounds cool."

My only other notion of D&D was that many grownups, especially religious ones, did not like it and that it was supposed to be of Satan. That Satan would choose the route of a game to damn the souls of hapless kids had seemed a somewhat dubious concept to me, but D&D did carried a whiff of the occult ...there were, after all, scads of demons and devils in the MM. I mentioned this to Richard and he waved it aside.

"Those people have never even played the game," he said. "Actually, you usually end up fighting evil in the game, killing evil monsters and such."

"Sounds fun," I ventured.

"Yeah. C'mon, we'll go get Carl. He and I are supposed to play today. We'll create a character for you and you can join us."

In short order, we had gone by Carl's, made our introductions, walked to Richard's house and after filling glasses of Kool-Aid and grabbing some snacks, we were cloistered in Richard's bedroom with the door closed, and paper and pencil and funny looking dice set out on the table. A stack of books were brought out...mysterious, glossy covered tomes with forbidding looking monsters and mighty heroes adorning their faces. 1st Edition Advanced D&D hardcover rule books, a complete set for that era, all in immaculate condition. Richard handled them as if they were archeological relics.

"These are my brother's books," Richard said. "He said  if anything happens to them I am to be skinned alive. The only book you're allowed to look in is the Player's Handbook anyway, but don't get anything on it."

"Geez," I said, opening the book and seeing neatly piled columns of tiny black font filling every page from top to bottom except where separated by striking black and white fantastic illustrations. "These are the rules? Looks complicated..."

"Nah, it's easy," Richard said.

And we then proceeded to roll up my character...a halfling thief with the highly original name Shadow. When he was done, he, Ricahrd's fighter/magic user Mension Leif, and Carl's Dwarf fighter, Snipper, set out upon a forest road in search of adventure. Richard sat and described the spooky forest, the feeling of foreboding we felt as we wandered the path, and then the surprise of seeing cloaked and hooded travelers upon the road coming toward us.

"What do you do...?" he asked, smiling.

"We approach them in greeting," said Carl. "But Snipper has his hand ready upon his magic axe."

"What about you?" Richard said to me.

"I will talk to one of them," I said, curious and excited.

Richard smiled.

"As you begin to speak to the mysterious travelers," he said, "they pull back their hoods to reveal their faces--they are skeletons! And with clicking noises they draw ancient long knives and attack you!"

Living skeletons!! A world of danger and magic!  I was hooked. We battled the skeletons and after being wounded vanquished them. Among their treasures was a ring which when Shadow placed it upon his finger he became invisible! Thrilled, I listened eagerly as the story continued, embellished with a witch, bandits, a thriving village where we got in a tavern brawl, Shadow tried to pick a pocket and failed, and heard tales of a mountain nearby wherein lay a fierce dragon upon a hoard of gold! I felt as though I could see clearly every fantastic image that Richard described.

By the time the game ended, the shadows were long and dark as I hurried up the road to my grandparents home. I could easily imagine the skeleton troop in the moonlight ahead...upon getting home I excitedly related the entire tale to my grandmother who had not the slightest idea what to make of it.

For the next year we played D&D every chance we got, raising our characters in level and encountering every creature in the Monster Manual just about--from Bahamut to Trolls and Ettins, Sea Hags and Elementals to Leprecauns and Owlbears....monsters to delight a boy's heart. Richard even taught me to DM and was glad to play Mension Lief in the many scenarios I devised to try and test his mettle and that of Snipper.

When I left Oregon and returned to my home, I took many great memories of my Grandma and Grandpa with me.

I also embarked on years of D&D playing that led to many good friendships, lots of awesome campaigns, and a love of the mythical and fantastic which is still with me to this day. I contacted Richard once about five years ago through Facebook. We didn't talk much, it was friendly, but he informed me that he had quit playing D&D years ago and was into World of Warcraft instead. That made me a bit wistful, but I will never forget the amazing world of imagination that D&D opened for me when I was needing exactly that....

Thank you Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson and crew!

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