Tag Archives: Shawn Degnan

Throwback Thursday: Topps’ “Return of the Jedi” trading cards

I was going to save this blog post for the summer — I remember trading Topps’ “Return of the Jedi” cards and stickers with my best friend Shawn Degnan at the end of my driveway on hot July afternoons in 1983.  (It was also where we traded baseball cards, stickers, and … even rocks, when we were both tots.  We were both quite the childhood collectors.)  I’m running this today, of course, following Carrie Fisher’s passing.

“Return of the Jedi” cards were huge.  I was 10 when they went on sale at the local family “drugstore” — which was a couple of miles away; seriously, a lot of New York is quite rural.  I seem to remember a couple of “Star Wars” cards floating around at the bottom of my childhood toybox, too — but those were released when I was a tot, and too young to collect anything in an organized fashion.

These came in bright red wrappers, with a hard, occasionally brittle stick of truly cheap pink gum.  (I am a little confused by a Google image search that shows yellow packaging.)  The dust from the gum would sometimes pepper the cards and make them smell like the gum.  I relished that scent as a kid — it meant the cards were new.  There was also one sticker per pack, but you never peeled it off, as then you could not trade it.  I think I had all the cards pictured below.

The Holy Grail of these cards was one that Shawn had and I did not — it had an image of Han Solo being unfrozen from carbonite in Jabba the Hutt’s palace during his rescue by Princess Leia.  (I’m confused again by the fact that I can’t seem to locate an image of that card.

 

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I am so trippin’ right now.

So anyone close to me who’s asked me why I became a writer (and a horror fan) knows that one of the reasons is my awesome childhood memories — telling ghost stories under the front porch at the house of Jason and Adam Huhn, across the street in rural New York, along with my next-door neighbor Shawn Degnan.  Those were some damn fun summer nights … and ghost stories were a perfect way to end a long day of exploring the woods, trading baseball cards or playing basketball in the hoop that Mr. Huhn put up for all the kids on the street.  I used to beg my Mom to let me stay out longer.

Jason, Adam and Shawn and were my closest boyhood friends.  Our quartet could easily be the 80’s equivalent of the kids in “Stand By Me.”  Or, maybe better yet, we were adventurous enough to be “twinners” for a certain Ka-Tet in Mid-World: Roland Deschain, Cuthbert Allgood, Alain Johns and Jamie De Curry.  (Seeing how I was an obnoxious chatterbox a preteen, I’m pretty sure I would be Cuthbert.)

Well, tonight Adam found me via this blog, and wrote to say hello!  (I’d tried previously to find the guys via social media, but to no avail.)  Adam even asked if I remembered telling ghost stories under the porch!

This Internet thingy can be a good thing, I tell ya!

 

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Throwback Thursday: the most 70’s-tastic screenshot ever!

How’s this for a pop-culture artifact?   It was shared recently on Facebook by my friend Conrad.

This is a screenshot from 1977’s “CHiPs,” that weekly, family-friendly, primetime police dramedy in which a pair of affable California Highway Patrolmen would never even draw their sidearms over the course of an hour-long episode.

And, yes, the period marquee in the background is indeed advertising the original “Star Wars.”

Even at the age of five or six, CHiPs was too goofy for me — despite the fact that Shawn Degnan, my best friend next door, frequently recommended it.   Shawn and I did agree on the show’s contemporary, however — “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” (1979-1981).

 

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Throwback Thursday: TSR’s “Endless Quest” books!

Okay.  Who remembers these?  I do, and fondly.

I always assumed that the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books that every 80’s kid remembers were inspired by the “Dungeons & Dragons” role-playing games.  But I was wrong.  Edward Packard penned the first draft of “Sugarcane Island,” the very first CYOA book, way back in 1969, half a decade before Gary Gygax and Dave Ameson at TSR released the groundbreaking first edition of “D&D” in 1974.

The “Endless Quest” books, which arrived on the scene in 1982 and 1983, conversely seem like TSR’s attempt to cash in on the CYOA phenomenon.  And they did a damn fine job, if you ask me.

These were far better written.  And they seemed aimed at older children or young adults — maybe the same target demographic that TSR was hoping would graduate shortly thereafter to its RPG’s.  A few of them arrived under the Christmas tree for me when I was, oh … maybe in the fifth grade or so.  And I was thrilled to discover that they were frikkin’ awesome.

They were slightly different than the CYOA books.  For one, the “you” described in the story wasn’t really a reader avatar. It was already a fully realized character, with a backstory in the context of a TSR fantasy universe.  The diverging storyline options were less random, too — they were all part of a larger, more detailed and coherent overall story.

Maybe the “Endless Quest” books didn’t appeal as much to every kid.  They certainly weren’t as popular as CYOA.  A more detailed story meant far more text in each book’s introduction, and in the “choice” sections.  That meant fewer choices could be made within the length of the book.  If memory serves, for example, you had to read 11 or 12 pages to set up the story in “Mountain of Mirrors” in order to reach the first junction of the narrative.  My best friend and next-door neighbor, Shawn Degnan, complained about that.

All of my books were authored by Roses Estes.  I think my favorite was “Dungeon of Dread.”  That had a straightforward story that most closely resembled a game of “D&D;” you proceeded room to room in a dungeon, fighting monsters in turn.  And monsters appealed slightly more to this grade-school boy than magic swords and spellcasting and codes of honor and such.

In fact, “Dungeon of Dread” boasted what remains one of my all-time favorite monsters to this day — the wicked-cool, alliteratively named “water weird.”  You entered a room with an ornate well at the center, where a stone-inscribed warning advised you to “Watch The Water That Is Not Water.”  If you failed to be so circumspect, then the quite ordinary-looking clear water in that well would magically form up into the shape of a serpent and rip your goddam head off.  (I don’t think that this is much of a spoiler, as the water weird and its method of attack is depicted right there on the book’s cover; you can see it below.)  A smarter child might have wondered why whoever built this dungeon and placed the creature there would also include a helpful PSA about how to avoid the monster.  But that didn’t occur to me at the time.

It was a fairly dark fantasy book, too, at times.  One room revealed the fate of a less fortunate adventurer — he had been captured by some unknown bad guy, and chained to a wall where a running fountain of fresh water was easily reached.  His cruel captor had deliberately fated him to starve to death.

“Mountain of Mirrors” was my second favorite “Endless Quest” book; it had frost giants.  Yes, the intro was lengthy, but Estes did a great job in establishing a sense of setting for a freezing cold mountain range.  I enjoyed “Revolt of the Dwarves” slightly less; it was a little strange to see dwarves cast as antagonists when I they were the good guys in the animated film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.”

The only book about which I felt equivocal was Estes’ “The Hero of Washington Square.”  That wasn’t even a fantasy adventure at all. It was just some average kid getting swept up in a spy adventure — it was based on a different RPG created by TSR called “Top Secret.”  “The Hero of Washington Square” was a toothless adventure that seemed more aimed at younger kids, if I recall.  It was lame.  It had little in common with the James Bond films that I absolutely loved, even if I did grow up in the Roger Moore era.  And my love for Tom Clancy’s universe would only bloom many years later, when I read my sister’s thick paperback copy of “The Cardinal of the Kremlin” the summer before college.

The Internet informs me that the “Endless Quest” books are still easily purchased.  They were rereleased in 2008.  And they’re edited now so that “you” are described in gender-neutral language, so that girls can better enjoy the books.

I honestly would recommend these for older children or pre-teens.  Parents, keep these in mind for Christmas.

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This makes me think of Shawn Degnan, Jason Huhn and Adam Huhn, and telling ghost stories under the porch.

Not to mention Peter Hughes and Keith Nagel, who loved the movies as I did.

Also Michael Wagner.  (We won’t call him “Mikey” here, because he eventually grew to hate that.)  If you can somehow read this, Michael, then know that you still inhabit the fine summer memories of this kid from the old neighborhood.

All the kids explored the woods.  You left the path ahead of us, and are now finding the places that the rest of us can only guess about.  Rest easy, Fellow Adventurer.

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Mother’s Day should be renamed.

After I was born, they should have called it Martyr’s Day.

I was a difficult child to raise, and I am quite grateful to my sainted mother for succeeding (and surviving) that Herculean task.  You guys think I am weird guy now?  Imagine me as a child and then a teenager.

A favorite childhood hobby, for example, was building weapons, including a quite functional crossbow, of which she wisely deprived me after we successfully tested it.  Broom handles met the saw in the garage and were linked by chain to become nun-chucks.  (I owed the 1980’s “Ninjamania” magazine for the inspiration here.)

I took up another favorite childhood hobby, after seeing “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in 1981.  I donned a brown cowboy hat to dig holes in the backyard, explaining to anyone who would listen that I was an ARCHEOLOGIST, and that I was “on a dig.”  Shawn Degnan, the kid next door and the greatest best friend ever, would help.  When my poor mother made me stop, Shawn and I simply took to the woods and held our digs there.  Because I was a child both stupid AND dedicated.  The rare passerby through the woods would be curtly informed that we were ARCHEOLOGISTS looking for dinosaur bones.  (Yes … Shawn and I were slightly confused about what an archeologist actually looks for.)

I took my first sip of beer when I was … around six or seven?  David Darling and I swiped it from a less-than-vigilant uncle who got up from the front porch to go to the bathroom; we sat cross-legged in the front yard and took turns taking sips.  I didn’t smoke when I was a child, but I … once ATE a piece of pipe tobacco, left behind by a dinner guest.  It looked like chocolate, Dammit!

I fared poorly in grade school.  I understood about as much mathematics then as I understand Attic Greek today.  I was far more interested in the classroom in pondering questions arising from “Sgt. Rock” comic books.  (Does he ever get to go home?  Or change out of that ripped up shirt?  Does he ever meet G.I. Joe, or was that guy fighting in the Pacific?  Is his brother really dead?  Will he survive the madness of World War II?  And what about Bulldozer?  Four Eyes?  What about Little Sure Shot?!  WON’T SOMEBODY PLEASE THINK OF LITTLE SURE SHOT!?!)

Math remained the bane of me, despite my mother’s best efforts.  The poor woman eventually hired a tutor for me.  But by then I was 14, and the patient blonde high school girl who came to our home was really, REALLY pretty.  Her smile distracted me even more than Sergeant Rock did, and my math skills worsened.  I might have needed “special help” in middle school for math, but I already knew who I intended to marry, so I figured I was a step ahead of the other kids.

At the age of 15, I disavowed the Roman Catholic Church (y’know … the kind of thing that goes over really well in a conservative, working class Irish Catholic family).

At the age of 17, I asked a science teacher (Mr. Ignolia, who hated me), if I could try to build a functional model of an atomic bomb for the required science project.  (I was too dumb to realize either the political sensitivities here or the scarcity of the necessary plutonium.)  After it was suggested I pursue a different project; I began to lose interest in science.  i was thrown out of class a week later for NOT PAYING ATTENTION.  (Ingo always was a Draconian jerk.)  And, yes, my mother was called.

I was occasionally punished or grounded.  Sometimes it left me bitter.  In a ruse straight out of a goddam Batman comic book, I aspired to a villainy worthy of The Joker.  Once or twice when I was 11 or 12, I sprinkled ammonia in her houseplants upstairs; they then had a 48-hour life expectancy, at best.  She never guessed I was the culprit — I still remember the image of her in the upstairs bathroom, perplexedly examining an overhanging spider fern which had suddenly turned the color of breakfast toast.  [Mom — if you are reading this right now … I’M SORRY!!  I WAS A KID!!!  There … is some sort of statute of limitations for this kind of thing, right??]

Anyway, the point of all of this is that my mother was faced with an extraordinary task.  And I’d like to think that she succeeded.  She kept me safe, housed and well fed, and then financed and supported a wonderful college education.  I was raised with what I still think of as Irish American values … hard work, humility, independence, respect for others, patriotism, and a love for poetry and prose both.

I am the kind of man who tries to respect the elderly, our nation’s veterans, and an old fashioned work ethic, and who always has worn paperbacks lying around the floor.  They are beside me now, as I write this.  And, as I have gradually approached my own middle age, my mother has always been a true friend to me when I have felt the most alone.

Mom, thank you for these things.  I love you.

Happy Mother’s Day.