First Time in the Red Box

Like everybody else my age.

Joe Carriker posted this describing his 30th gamer-versity, about encountering the Red Box. Read it. Maybe you’ll remember your start.

I did. It’s my 30th too.

I knew about D&D from a camp for kids who scored high on some tests, I think. I chose animation and writing as my focus (the camp was on a university campus, featuring educators and experts who basically did whatever you wanted them to). But I never played, even though I was fascinated by the cover of Master of the Desert Nomads. Who were those kids meeting, inside that war machine?

Years later. Kids played D&D, but I wasn’t one of them. I was beaten up a lot in an era that didn’t recognize bullying. D&D peaked then, so some of the gamers were the bullies, though most of them were into Marvel Super-Heroes. I didn’t touch that game.

But to this day, I’ve never played it.

Sometimes I avoided going home. Sometimes I walked away, no matter what my mother said. I’d walk East on Eglinton to the then-desolate reaches of North York, beyond Leaside and IBM’s citadel and the Science Centre. It was a long way from Yonge, on foot. I thought maybe I’d see Dad, who lived in Flemo Park, but back then he never really wanted to see me. Sometimes I took the subway and bus far, far away. I’d been riding since I was a little kid so it was no big deal. Again, I tended in Dad’s direction. He worked at Eaton’s in the Scarborough Town Centre. I’d take the bus. Again, I never saw him. He wasn’t ready for me until I was older.

Eaton’s is gone. Dad’s gone.

That’s where I was. I was a bad kid that day; I’d stolen all the change and a few bills even though it was all we had. I blew it playing video games, all except for four quarters: enough to come home. I wasn’t sure it that was going to happen after the fight I’d just had. I didn’t know where I wanted to go. I didn’t know if I wanted to continue being.

I was wet, shivering: rain of barely-Spring. I’d walked all the way to Don Mills before it occurred to me that Dad would be at work, and I’d have to go to the Town Centre to pointedly not see him. (Once I phoned him. Nothing but silence on his end. He was mad that I’d worried my mother. That’s how I get angry now.)

So I played video games until I dried out and hoped he’d somehow run into me but I never went into Eaton’s, and like I said, I blew all my video game money. I browsed bookstores. (This was back when a mall might have more than one bookstore!) Other stores. I went into the game store.

That red box. It wasn’t the weird books the kids had. I didn’t care. I remembered the Master of the Desert Nomads. I wanted to know what was in the war machine. I didn’t want to wander anymore, bored and sad. It had a dragon and a guy with a sword. The guy  wasn’t a desert nomad, but I bet he knew where to find them.

I grabbed it and quick-marched out. It’s the only thing I ever shoplifted, and it scared me shitless. It gave me that snake’s caress feeling.

I tore the wrap off to read it in the food court and turned the pages again and again until it was absolutely night out. Then I cradled it in my thin jacket against the drizzle and shivered, waiting for the bus home.

Later I played Sturm in Dragons of Despair with kids who were back and forth about me (one of them would become a good friend and strangely, an expert on the Piltdown Man hoax) but I brought the red box to my oldest friends, who I trusted. I thought you rolled under saving throws because the odds were so bad I couldn’t believe it was supposed to be any other way.

I eventually switched to AD&D like the rest, but I never looked down on my stolen initiation, in the red box.



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