The North Woburn apartment where I lived as a kid was cramped, but it didn’t lack bookshelf space. Nearly every room — with the exception of the bathroom — had at some place set aside for the large number of books my family owned.
The enclosed back porch which doubled as a laundry area and playroom had a low wall-length jobber which held the majority of my childhood favorites. The taller number in my bedroom was stuffed various Time-Life science and nature tomes handed down from elderly relatives (and doubled as an improvised Death Star and treacherous cliff face for my action figures and army men). My parents’ dresser was topped off with significant volumes from their childhood wedged between a pair of bookends and the sideboard in the combination kitchen/dining room hosted my mom’s collection of cookbooks.
The most significant and weighty (in a most literal sense) bookshelf in our home occupied the far wall of the family room, where its stained walnut bulk covered up a “door to nowhere” left behind from a previous remodeling effort. It was separated from one end of the garish family sofa by a single arm length, a decision driven by both convenience and limited space that also provided a cozy little niche for a skinny five year old to claim as a private hidey-hole.
This shelf, being centrally located, housed the Good Stuff. It was home to the family’s set of encyclopedias, American Heritage’s pictorial histories of the United States, and all the miscellaneous general reference books my parents picked up over the years. The coffee table Encyclopedia of Fishes was shelved there, along with a hefty tome covering ironclad warships (with technical illustrations and diagrams) and an college earth science text of my fathers which contained plastic overlays illustrating the gradual process of erosion and continental drift.
All loomed large in my formative years, but the most fascinating of the lot were the two “bookshelf games” residing on one of the upper shelves. Originally published by 3M before its sold that part of its conglomerate off to Avalon Hill, the games were intended to be upscale diversions for self-conscious sophisticates too high-minded for traditional fare. Each one came packed in a fancy-pants slipcase so they could be shelved alongside one’s copies of Marcel Proust, Robert Michener, and Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
I’m not sure where my father obtained them from, though they seem like the type of thing my maternal grandfather would give as a present. Pulling one the games off the shelf was a major event on par with setting up the slot car track or sifting through the collection of family memorabilia stored in the sea chest that doubled as a Christmas tree stand during the holiday season.
Facts in Five — a forerunner of Scattergories — was the one that actually got some play between my parents and their more erudite friends. I didn’t really understand it, though I was captivated by the art on the box and the miniature hourglass that came packed inside it.
I was more enraptured by Feudal, which had a distinctly toyetic bent.
The game was a more complex iteration of chess, played on a fold-out plastic pegboard into which tiny figurines representing medieval fighting men were inserted. I didn’t understand a lick of it, but spent hours upon hours playing “men” with its pieces and cursing how little nubs on the bases kept me from taking the action on the road.
Only one serious attempt was ever made at playing it, during my teens when my D&D buddy Scott and I tried to make sense of it and failed. We then tried writing up our own set of rules, but soon lost interest and went back to playing videogames.
Both the game and the bookshelf that held it fell into my possession after we moved to Hammond Square outside Woburn Center, and both were lost during the chaos following my mother’s death four years later.
I’d entirely forgotten about the damn thing until yesterday afternoon, when I had some time to kill at the end of my shift and spent it running eBay searches for various childhood treasures. For some reason I can’t explain, “1983 hot wheels cobra rubber tires” turned out to be the keyphrase which unlocked whatever mnemonic vault held my memories of Feudal.
There were a number of complete copies for sale on the site, and for pretty reasonable asking prices. I briefly considered buying one for the sentimental value, but ultimately decided against it.
It wouldn’t be the same. There’s no recapturing the old magic of squatting on a dining chair and peering across the abstract battlefield laid out on the kitchen table — while my father made sure none of the figures found their way into the mouths of my toddler brother or the family dog.