This installment is going to wander a bit, so let’s get the basics out of the way first.
I purchased my copy of AD&D’s Monster Manual II at the Paperback Booksmith at the Woburn Mall, right before a Saturday afternoon daytrip with my family to Lowell. Even though the store had the original Monster Manual in stock, I opted for its follow-up because the creatures inside seemed weirder (and thus “cooler”) and better illustrated.
The latter was especially important to me, as ninth grade marked the height of my artistic ambitions. After almost flunking alegbra the previous year (because I refused to wear my glasses despite sitting in the back of the room and having a teacher who communicated only in grunts), I was removed from the valedictorian track and prevented from taking “accelerated” level biology. The typical course of action in those cases would’ve been to settle for a geology filler course, but I decided to ditch the sciences entirely and take art as my freshman elective. My guidance counselor wasn’t happy about it, but my art-positive mom was happy to sign off on my decision.
The low-stress schedule had other benefits as well, namely an across the board block of fifth period study halls. With a little bit of administrative finagling, I got permission to sit in on my eighth grade English teacher’s class instead. The guy was of the “Cool Ex-Hippy” mold of instructors, big on creative expression and laid back about things like punctuation rules and diagramming drills. I spent my time there either working on (shitty and derivative) short horror stories, crafting D&D adventures, or helping him out with minor tasks.
I mostly kept to myself at first, but eventually got drawn into the geeky chatter of three of his students — Scott (not the one who helped introduce me to D&D but a friend of his who lived two blocks over from me), Damian, and Christian. All three were regular D&D players, which let to talk about joining my current campaign or perhaps starting a fresh one at some point.
My art class was scheduled for the period immediately afterward, where I’d crank out countless variations of the same funnybook or fantasy illo themes. Monster Manual II was a favorite source of inspiration, because Jim Holloway’s art style was clean, highly defined, and made for an excellent inspirational springboard for my own (shitty and derivative) efforts.
One afternoon about halfway through the third semester, the vice principal pulled me out of the class while I was in the middle of inking a quick sketch of a bodak. I had no idea why, and panic gripped my bowels as we made the short walk to his office. That panic only got worse after he shut the door and explained the reason why he wanted to speak to me.
My freshman English teacher — who was more Smith to her predecessor’s Hampshire — had this thing where her students had to use the week’s list of vocabulary words in a short writing assignment. I hated the assignment, so my lazy ass usually cranked out a bit of declarative wank so sparse it would make Hemingway blanch.
One time, though, I decided to be creative. I took the words and wrote a tortured bit of melodrama about a Vietnam vet who had contemplated suicide. It wasn’t anything personal. It was 1987, when the entire nation had gone ga-ga for self-pitying acts of soul-searching about blowing the bejeezus out of Southeast Asia a decade an change previous. That zeitgeist was acutely felt on my end, as my father was a decorated special forces vet and our house was filled with books, magazines, and other artifacts about the era and his time in the service. Though my dad never bought into the Reagan Era’s mythic-revisionist take on the war, he wasn’t above basking in its reflected light.
“That asshole asked if I wanted to be Rambo. I told him that Stallone wanted to be me.”
“Ten years ago, guys my age were lying about going to Woodstock. Now they lie about serving in Vietnam.”
My relationship with my dad was complicated and contentious, but did involve a considerable amount of hero worship. Vietnam seemed like a way to understand him, and I absorbed that weird cultural vibe with rapt attention. As a consequence, I wrote a crappy and cliched story about Vietnam cribbed from a dozen popcult sources and turned it in for a letter grade. It wasn’t fucking rocket science, and should’ve been taken as the nonsense it was….
…except for the fact that a student at our school had hung herself a couple of years prior, resulting in a slew of could’ves and should’ves rapidly codified into a district policy.
My English teacher brought my story to the attention of my former teacher, who then brought it to the vice principal for extreme scrutiny.
My terror turned to shock and finally to frustration. Every protestation of “It was just a story!” was met the stony stare of disbelief. It’s an experience I’ve had many time since them — with cops, college administrators, and other agents of institutional authority. Something about the hangdog expression and natural state of social discomfort leads folks to assume my still waters run deeper than trying to remember a lyric from a old pop song or the issue of All-Star Squadron where the Red Bee got kakked.
This was my first experience with it in a scenario with actual consequences, and I had no methods to deal with it apart from a stream of denials which failed to gain any purchase.
Fortunately, the vice principal broke the logjam by telling me that he’d already informed my dad about the situation. That caused the tears to flow — not because any crucial moment of cathartic clarity was reached, but because I realized I would be facing my possibly drunk and probably pissed off sire within a hour’s time. My parents were permissive to a fault and only brought the hammer down hard when it came to bigoted behavior or embarrassing the family in public. I had no doubts I’d committed the latter sin, and the flaming sword of retribution awaited me after the final bell.
From the vice principal’s perspective, though, it looked like he’d gotten through to me and let me go pending further discussion with my old man.
As it turned out, my dad wasn’t that bothered by it. He dismissed the school’s proposals for further action with “I refuse to shield my kids from the real world.” It didn’t stop him from taunting me about it during subsequent drunken rages, but that was par for the course in our home.
The experience did turn me against my groovy English teacher pal, whose protestations of concern were drowned out by my feelings of betrayal. Over time, I came to understand that he meant well, but my after-the-fact magnanimity vanished utterly after he wrote an editorial in the local weekly stating that the lesson of Columbine was that all teachers should pack a piece in the classroom. Really groovy, Mr. C.
On the Monday after the incident, I had my study block switched over to the art room instead.
It may seem a little weird to hang so much emotional weight and mixed memories on a supplemental sourcebook of fantasy critters, but it happens. By timing and circumstance, Monster Manual II has become irrevocably tangled up within a specific moment of personal history.
I suppose it could’ve been worse. It could’ve been the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide.