The Wizard’s Den

I went back to my hometown this summer for a few weeks.  Most of that time was spent doing a 10 day Colorado road trip, and I will be talking about that road trip for my next post. But I also spent some time just sort of wandering around the old hometown.

The friend I was visiting there had to work some of the time while I was in town, so I had a lot of free time on my hands. So much so that I played one of his video games on Play Station 3, start to finish. Nice use of vacation time there, Brent. Anyway, I digress.

I drove around the town and took pictures of the places where a lot of my childhood happened, the elementary school, junior high, the high school, the bus barn (see my previous post “7th Period Bus Driver), city parks, the library, what have you.

I also drove out to the old house I grew up in, talked to the current owners, even farted around the Blockplant a little (another previous post). Course I was technically trespassing at the Blockplant, I knew that, but all I was doing was taking pictures, and well, I guess I felt like my childhood ties to the place gave me admit one, if only for a few minutes. That would have been my lame story if I had gotten caught, anyway. Heh.

Oh, before I left, I had to see if the Wizard’s Den was still there.

Summer, 1983. My brother and I were really into these role playing board games – I think they called them book shelf games because the box the game came in was no bigger than a large paperback book. The graphics were powered by the human imagination, and the suspense and storyline all took place in the land of make believe.  The games themselves were little more than a folded paper map, some small square pieces of cardboard that were the game pieces, and an eight sided die (singular for dice). And a little booklet instructing how to turn the box’s meager little contents into a five star theatrical experience in HD and surround sound and an award winning plot, if you just had a little imagination.

The titles of these things read like Dungeons and Dragons wannabes, and maybe that’s what they were. A game might last a few minutes to an hour, sort of short mini-Dungeons and Dragons type games.  Melee was just that – your cardboard pieces beat each other up using math. Heh. Wizard was just like Melee, only with magic instead of swords. Ogre was a futuristic tank battle game. Ramspeed was Viking and Norse ships going at it on the high seas. And of course we can’t forget my personal favorite – The Awful Green Things From Outer Space.  2nd lieutenant Sparks finds a pretty rock on an away mission (no shameless Star Trek ripoff here, I assure you) that turns out to actually be an egg. It hatches, and pandemonium ensues. (Hmmmm, this plot does sound vaguely familiar, doesn’t it?  Hmmmm……just…..can’t……. place it………)  Anyway.  (If you don’t realize what movie the game was a parody of, you need to stop reading because you are just not nerdy enough to be reading this blog.  Oh, just kidding.)

Anyway, well, believe it or not, we got sick of playing these things downstairs in our room, because the stupid house was haunted (see previous posts), and noises and slamming doors kept interrupting our games. So one summer day we decide to go play our board games outside. But where? The yard? Nah, we were supposed to be watering it. The travel trailer we had?  Yeah, that worked for a while, but it was hot and muggy in there. The Blockplant? Neat idea, but we’d get caught in the middle of a game or something. So, ridiculously enough, we put our book shelf games in our day packs with some snacks and water, and set off on our bikes to find a Secret Gaming Place.  We headed down to The Old Barn (another future post) thinking somewhere down there might be a cool place to play our games. We ended up going just past there, to where the railroad crossed over a creek.

We had found it. The stream widened to a pleasant shaded pool with grassy banks under the bridge, and there was a little knoll there with a young oak tree just starting, some logs that made perfect stools, and a large sandstone boulder about the size of a small table. We managed to roll the boulder over on one side so that the “top” of the boulder now presented a reasonably flat surface. We cleaned the boulder up a bit, and carved runes (sort of like made up hieroglyphs) into the sandstone that read, in a cryptic language that was never actually spoken by anyone outside of a game, “Here begins the Wizard’s Den.”

Our secret little knoll was perfect. It was in the shade of the railroad bridge, which also sheltered it from most of the wind. We had found and made ourselves a little slice of gaming Nirvana under a railroad bridge in Northern Wyoming, of all places.

And we played every single one of those games (a game was never the same twice) dozens of times in the Wizard’s Den, playing out grand epic battles and adventures that would have made Warner Brothers a bit jealous, except that it all played out in our imaginations, battles between good and evil and alternate history in the making, all on unfolded paper maps with little cardboard squares. These games probably cost 50 cents to produce, I think they charged three bucks for them at the used bookstore in town that carried the things. I think I even managed to redeem old Sparks a time or two in The Wizard’s Den. (The Awful Green Things almost always spelled doom for the player playing the crew – seems like the proliferating Awful Green Things won almost every time……)

The trains weren’t really a problem, they didn’t come very often, and when they did, it was just time for a Better Cheddars cracker break and a pop (they call sodas “pop” in that part of the country).

Well, I got to the Wizard’s Den for the first time in 30 years, those memories flooding back, and was saddened but hardly surprised to see that the oak tree  had been cut down (it would eventually have posed a hazard for the trains) the sandstone boulder was gone, and where a meandering babbling brook had once been was a concrete irrigation ditch, its grassy banks replaced by mud. The Wizard’s Den, like those simpler times of paper and cardboard bookshelf games, was now nothing but a memory.

I went back to my friend’s house and finished playing Call of Duty Modern Warfare. The graphics and sound, complete with dramatic musical score, were really awesome, and the gameplay was intense and suspenseful.

But the contents of that shiny DVD disk, spinning at thousands of revolutions per minute inside of a machine with more computing power than the Apollo space capsules had, could never hold a candle to those games we played on those long hot summer afternoons in The Wizard’s Den, in the very best theater of all time, the theater of the mind.

Yes, yes, I know. I’m getting old.

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