Thursday, October 9, 2008

What Reading Means to Me...continued

Most of my adolescence was spent pretending I was someone else. A need to transcend the mundane manifested itself through the years I spent sitting around a table role-playing with character sheets and dice. Sometimes role-playing involved playing at war in the back of the allotment. In these fictional landscapes, the possibility of death lurked like a dark bird on a highwire.

When I was in fifth grade, we moved from Barberton to Canal Fulton, Ohio. Not much of a distance, twenty minutes in a car, but what a change! Suddenly, I was truly alone. My friendship with Paul evolved as a default—he was the nerd no one liked—I was the nerd no one knew. It made sense that we should become friends.

Paul was, is, very smart—he went on to be valedictorian—but he was also quite imaginative (it has been my experience that these two qualities don't necessarily go hand in hand; however, they are not mutually exclusive either). Weird was our peers’ word for imaginative, and I suppose Elvish script (it was on our book covers, and in some cases we wrote it on our bodies) was weird to anyone who had not read The Lord of the Rings and there was a lot of those types--leave reading to the nerds. For us, sitting around a table on a Friday night, experiencing a Tolkienesque world through an imagined persona was as good as it could possibly get. The dice were the means to act, and act we did. Sometimes we dressed up as our characters or acted out battle scenes. Our enthusiasm drew other social introverts, and soon enough, we had enough people to start a real campaign—it lasted seven years.

Dungeons and Dragons experienced a rebirth during the nineties. It had been admonished since its inception as a game that further disconnected people from reality, inspired violent behavior, and in some cases, caused lasting mental harm. All three of these side effects could be true for all I know, though I have firm suspicions they are not, I thank God that no one forbid our role-playing. Sometimes I wonder if Dungeons and Dragons could have vented Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s psychotic behavior into a harmless, hot steam. We certainly had violent tendencies (what teenagers don't?) and our discussions, had they been broadcasted or written down, could nowadays be considered grounds for expulsion.

I remember my first characters —vital statistics lovingly printed with a mechanical pencil on graph paper. There was Randolph the Mighty—he was my first—a fighter-mage. I needed the best of both worlds—the ability to cast fireball and swing a bastard sword. Dragnor was an unfortunate one armed thief. Kynnance was an elven mage with strange runes tattooed on his body. I had, of course read Tolkien in middle school, but he inspired so many other writers. I especially liked the worlds of R.A. Salvatore, and Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. I remember Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman explained magic, in terms of wizard’s magic, in The Deathgate Cycle as the ability to bend the constant line of reality so it crossed the parallel, chaotic line of all possibility. Naturally, I was interested in the realm of all possibility. Where better to find it than the blank page? It seems writers are indeed magicians and the best books can act as portals to those inspired landscapes.

I played war with friends from the neighborhood. I recall the dank smell of dirt, wet leaves, army surplus flashlight on one hip, canteen on the other. We all had plastic guns—in some cases they were metal—they were all fake, but looked dangerously real. If there happened to be any sissy orange plastic, we pried those parts off or spray-painted them black. We were serious. We took no prisoners and humped the entire woods that spanned for five or six miles behind the allotment—these same woods became the place where we learned to drink or smoke- an irreverent place.

In sixth grade, a man came in to speak to us about the Vietnam War. James Crumb was the father of one of the girls in my class. He talked about how he was drafted. He spoke of his dread but also his sense of duty. He told us his weapon was the M-60 machine gun. That was the gun Rambo held with one arm. He had my attention.
He gave us real answers to our questions. “Were you scared?”


“Did you kill anyone?”


He brought with him a cardboard box full of books telling his experiences in the war. I was a sixth grader with five dollars lunch money. I decided I could afford to go hungry. Those days I remember thumbing through military equipment guides, marveling over the pictures of guns, tanks and missiles in our library. Here was a living, breathing story. Crumb carried an M-60 machine gun, which could fire 160 rounds per minute. He called it the pig because of its weight and the pig was called on often.

I still have the book. Its cover is a map of Vietnam which highlights the areas Crumb fought in or traveled through. I believe the memoir was self-published because the typeset looked like Courier and there were misspellings. None of these things mattered to me. Here was a true account--truth that wasn't filtered through the news or a history book.

At one point, he described diving into a foxhole to avoid mortar fire. Many others had the same idea and soon he was buried under soldiers seeking refuge. A shell hit them and these bodies saved his life. He described finding a mass of slaughtered Viet Cong that had been exposed to the sun for weeks and he described their efforts to clean up the bodies, how their sunbaked skin stuck to the hands of the American soldiers. I remember the smell of cooking flesh, ravenblack, swirling, bonesmoke clouds. The description of how his own reflection grew unrecognizable. It was one book I never forgot.

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