Here There Be Dragons
When I first met him, he wore a green windbreaker.
In tenth grade, when I was fourteen years old, Tucker moved into the house across the street. He brought with him the windbreaker, a few one-color shirts, some blue jeans, a set of parents, and a pair of younger brothers. He also brought a strange shyness. He smiled as if he were ashamed to be happy, as if he expected to be punished for it. His hands started out nervous and stayed that way, really, for years. Tucker had a habit of playing with things half-consciously and of dropping them when anyone's eyes turned to him.
I recognized that self-consciousness. I had some of my own.
He barely introduced himself before my younger brother grabbed him and headed off to visit his house. For a couple of weeks, I held back from joining in. I sulked over the departure of my former neighbor and crush, Jean Fisher. But she was gone. We had another family in the neighborhood now. I had to accept it. One day, I hiked over to visit the new guy. Then I realized how fun he might be as a friend.
Anyone talking with him for a few minutes would realize Tucker was quick witted. And we did more than talk. We figured things out together, mostly in games at first. We played bumper pool in his basement. We played poker at my house. We threw footballs in his yard or mine. My brother and I lent Tucker baseball gloves so we could play hotbox and catch. While it was warm enough, we introduced Tucker to the creek and to hikes through the woods.
We took him around the neighborhood to see the other kids, although there were only two of them and Tucker didn't seem to find them interesting.
When the cold weather arrived, we doubled down on the card games and board games. Tucker continued to learn poker from us but we tried Hearts, Spades, Crazy Eights, Rummy, and Cribbage, too. We pulled out our boxes of Chinese Checkers, Dominos, Monopoly, Life, Scrabble, Parcheesi, and Mastermind.
Then, in December, I got a Dungeons and Dragons manual from my brother for Christmas.
I'd already played a few games of it, none finished. I'd learned about the first version months earlier at Sidwell Friends, where we used four primitive pamphlets and a lot of graph paper to create dice-rolling adventures. It was not quite a board game but it was similar. You drew your own maps. And unlike most other games, you got to make your own storyline.
Since I'd played before and enjoyed drawing maps, I decided to make an adventure for Tucker and Dylan. None of us realized how addictive our sessions would become. When I played at Sidwell Friends, I'd seen the potential but it still surprised me. During those winter months, we spent all our energy on D&D - Tucker, my younger brother, and I - until the three of us could sleep only in school. On the occasions we were awake in class, we drew maps, created monsters, figured out numbering systems, and lived to fulfill our fantasies of power.
That was the allure, of course. Our young, teen lives were captives of the demands of our parents and school systems. But in our D&D fantasy worlds, we could have valued skills. We could have imaginary respect. We could team up. We could split up, too, and decide what direction to take in our lives. We could show how clever we were. Tucker loved to create characters who won by using guile as much as strength.
When the weather warmed, we cut down saplings and beat each other with them like errant knights. We researched ancient combat techniques. We discovered stories about samurai and lamellar armor. We made shields and chestplates out of cardboard and padding. We destroyed them in seconds and returned to research more medieval battles.
Sometimes we fought like savages, like deranged and destitute samurai. At other times, we let ourselves be ordinary kids in the woods. We threw eggs and rotting peaches at passing cars. We built illegal bonfires in the park and shouted to the lonely forest.
By the following winter, though, we returned to our D&D adventures. We huddled in the basement. Tucker put on his green windbreaker when my parents made me turn down my baseboard heat. He cradled his hot tea or a cup of cocoa, careful not to spill it on his character sheets or maps. For hours at a time, Tucker could show that he was clever and brave. He could defy the authorities and no one would humiliate him or hit him for it.