Because some things mentioned here are not flattering, and some people involved may not want their parents to know what was going on, I will have some fake names. The people involved will be called Will, Joel, Stan, Art, and me.
Will was the DM of the group. He was a really gung-ho guy to us, but he had a horrible stutter that made him labeled and dissmissed as “LD” by the school system. Thus, I didn’t have many classes with him, and he was really shy. But he was a great DM, and he taught me that “LD” was simply a label the school gave you, and meant nothing outside of school. He stuttered a lot less in person, only catching on letters that started with “n” and “p” most of the time, so we’d think of other words.
One of us: We’ll go down the stairs.
Will: Is everyone in the p-p-p-p...p...
One of us: Group.
Will: Is everyone in the... group in agreement?
One of us: Yes, we all agree.
Will: Oh, n-n-n-n--
One of us: SHIT!
Will: [laughs] Oh, shit! It’s a gn-gn-gn--- oh, hell, make it a bugbear!
No one thought his disability was awkward or embarrassing at all. You just dealt with it.
Joel was a small and really skinny blond kid. He was my age, but I don’t think he hit puberty until his senior year. Having a bowl cut didn’t help matters. But he made up for his smallness in his exaggerated movements and hyperactivity. he was also very funny, and one of the few people who could quote Monty Python as much as I could.
Stan was a big Jewish guy, who had a thick beard already at 14. He had a deep voice, and could have easily passed for a college student. He didn’t say much, but when you needed a REALLY loud voice, Stan was your man. He often wore his yarmulke to game days.
Art was a tall blond guy who I can’t think of anything odd to say about him except he often wore truck stop tee-shirts that had funny sayings on them.
All of us were 14-16 years of age, and Will and I were members of the RPGA (Role Player Gamer’s Association). That meant we got their newsletter, and invited to do tournaments, which almost never came to the DC area, and if they did, it was usually in Rockville. So one day, Will gets all bend out of shape, and says we’re going to Origins. I had already been to a few sci-fi cons (Evecon, Balticon, Disclave), and kind of planted the idea into his head. So Will got us signed up to “play test” a module (commercial adventure text) for Origins that year, which was at a Holiday Inn in or right next to New York City.
Now we needed a car. Will’s brother, whom we’ll call Hank, was a VW Beetle fanatic. His craft was to fix up classic VW Beetles, pimp them out, and resell them. He paid for his college that way; he’d buy some barely drivable wreck, fix it, buy all kinds of new accessories, replace stock parts with custom, give it a great paint job, and then recsell it. He made about $3000-6000 profit every summer, depending on the buyer. At this time, Hank had just gotten a 1972 Beetle, and he wasn’t ready to repair it yet, but bought it anyway because he saw it at his college for only $150, and he said it was a steal.
I recall the car was beige or peach, maybe yellow in color; some neutral, faded pastel between those colors. The left front fender was missing, and a wooden plank held the headlight on. The driver’s side door latch did not work, so the door had to be tied shut with twine. The side mirrors were the kind usually found on bicycles. The roof had a rack with a sunroof made of a dense cloth and dowel rods that sort of slid back and forth... on its own. The rear seat was completely disintegrated down to the metal springs, but the springs were covered with an assortment of blankets and bedsheets. The passenger’s side floorpan was almost rusted through, and there were cracks where you could actually see the road. Someone welded random metal scraps to keep the floorpan from falling out, and it was a lot more sturdy than I make it sound. The engine ran fine, although it had no muffler, and the electrical system was shot. It had no working battery (there was a 6 volt vs. 12 volt problem, apparently), so the only way to start it was to jump-start the car, or a method you can’t do with modern cars these days: shift the clutch into first gear, and push the car until the engine turned over. I kid you not. Hank said, “She’s got a great engine, the frame is solid, and the body’s in good shape! What a steal at $150!”
Before you ask, “How could such a car pass inspection?” I will say it didn’t. BUT, in Virginia at that time, once you got your car inspected, if it was rejected, you’d get a little pink sticker you’d put in the window that stated (via checkmarks) what needed to be fixed in 14 days since the inspection date listed. Almost all the boxes were checked. Will had his driver’s licence already... think... and so it was decided we’d drive there.
What a mistake.
Our plan was to drive there Friday, and leave Sunday. Due to some issues I can’t recall (some parent issue with one of the other guys, may have been Will’s mom), this got delayed until Saturday morning. This meant we missed out on two games, which pissed Will off a lot, but he got over it in perspective of the rest of the trip. We still had two games Saturday and two more on Sunday, one which I was chosen to DM for.
First, there was the issue of the car’s electrical system. To start the car, you had to push it. Will would get in the driver’s side (through the passenger door), and Joel and I would push the car until it turned over, and then Will would gun the engine until we knew it would not stall while not moving. The headlights only worked when the car was running or idling at high speed. The wire connected to the horn was loose, so when we made a left turn, the horn would go, “wheeeeEEETT!!” People would look at us angrily, like we were honking them on purpose, which we weren’t, because the car could only go 50mph, and so everyone was passing us.
Packing proved to be a problem since the trunk (in the front on the classic VW Beetle) couldn’t hold all our luggage. So we tied some of Joel’s and Art’s stuff to the roof rack, but this caused severe wind drag and forced all the air down trough the cloth sunroof, which opened and closed randomly. It also caused Joel’s canvas bag, the one with all his notes, charts, modules, and character sheets to disappear somewhere in the highways of Pennsylvania after we left Baltimore. Joel was VERY upset about this, and while it was understandable why he was upset, his constant bringing it up it was one of the bigger anchors that dragged us down for this trip.
In the back seat, it was LOUD (no muffler, remember?) so we couldn’t talk, and there were three of us packed in there. During our frequent rest stops, our ears were ringing. It was so painful at one point, I just kept my fingers plugged into my ears for maybe hours at a time. Joel always managed to get the front seat next to Will, but after he lost his stuff, we didn’t bug him about it anymore.
Then we got lost in Manhattan. Let me tell you, getting lost in all that stop-and-go traffic was hellish. Cabs were EVERYWHERE, and sometimes our car would stall if we didn’t gun the motor, and then we’d have to try and get a running push IN traffic, and it’s a wonder no cop stopped us. A lot of strangers helped us, though. Many of them didn’t speak English, and my impression of New York isn’t one of unfriendliness, more like a lot of immigrants with this “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude of “I have been there before” while pushing our car across a stoplight. Will got REAL good at this “push and start” thing by the end. I recall seeing all the tall buildings through the dirty windows of the bug, and sometimes through the sunroof through the cracks in the luggage we had tied up there. We passed the Twin Towers more than once. We were downtown for many hours until we got off the right exit to wherever our hotel was, which thankfully had a parking garage; it was starting to rain, and we had no wipers. But they had valet, and the guy who got the bug nodded like he understood the car didn’t start without a push, but he seemed more annoyed we had to get our stuff out of the car before we gave it to him.
The con itself was in a fairly nice hotel, a Holiday Inn, as I recall. Red and gold carpeting. Origins was unlike other cons I had been to, as I recall. For one, the hallways were uncluttered with people or tables. Everyone was in one of the main ballrooms at various tables. Despite everything, we made it to our “test module” with about 10 minutes to spare. But our table had these jarheads playing Mecha-wars or something with anime robots. Will got our packets while we waited for the jarheads to leave.
They didn’t. Before our time to have the table, one of them even said, “What are you staring at??” They ignored Joel when he told them that was our table in a few minutes.
When Will returned, he tried to ask the guys to leave, but they said to fuck off, and made fun of his stuttering. This pissed Joel and Stan off, and one of the jarheads stood up and said to get lost before he dragged us outside and beat us all to a pulp. Another one said he would use his knife. So... we went to the main table, and complained. They sent some annoyed woman to the table, and she got the same treatment. So she came back, and asked us to step outside. When we were outside, she said they had been giving them trouble for a while now, and she was now going to find some “big bear to chase the baby bears away.” Then she disappeared down a hallway.
We waited. A while. I recall about 30 minutes, which upset Will, and this made Joel bitch about “at least you have your character sheets,” and added, again, how irreplaceable that stuff was, and why didn’t get get space in the trunk? I recall feeling guilty ALL my stuff had been in the trunk. Finally, Will went to find someone, and then got someone else who said they’d look. More time passed. The first woman came by, and when we asked her was happened, she went, “Oh yeah... I forgot... let me go ask.” She was gone again. The second guy returned, and said he couldn’t find anyone, why don’t we grab another free table? There were no free tables, we explained. “Oh, okay...” he said, and left. Then the first woman returned, and had a huge jarhead with her. THAT guy went into the room, and spoke with the other guys. There was some shouting, and then the guys left, giving us the evil eye. One of them pushed Will to the floor as they passed, and instantly claimed it was an accident. As they walked away, they all made jokes about stuttering. When we got our table, everyone seemed annoyed at us, but we were told the jarhead that worked for the convention threatened to call their Commanding Officer to remove them, and tell his whole outfit he played with toy robots.
This didn’t exactly make us feel good. This is also when we found out the tackle box with Will’s miniatures and dice was missing, and must have been another thing that fell off the roof rack somewhere. We all had spare dice, obviously (even Joel), but were forced to use chits and paperclips for players.
The game was not very good. It was called “The Needle” (named after some obelisk we never found), involved “phase spiders” as I recall, and they all said, “Gee Whiz,” all the time. Our game ended early, since we’d already lost an hour, and we got stuck in some maze with walls that disintegrated you. We gave a poor rating for that module. When Will came from the main table, he said the gaming we had planned for tomorrow had been cancelled.
Dispirited and hungry, we went out to the lobby, and after seeing the prices on the menu, decided to find another place to eat outside the hotel. Since no one wanted to drag their luggage all over the place, I opted to stay with the luggage if they would bring me back something. When they got back, as I ate my McDonald’s food, Will had made the decision not to waste our money on a hotel room, and he’d drive us back. While I can only speak for myself that while I was not happy at the prospect of another 7 hours of a car trip back to McLean... at night in that car, the thought of staying at the hotel was equally as bad. So we all decided to go back to Will’s house and sleepover and have a REAL game. Later, I found out the hotel had cancelled our reservation anyway, and they had no free rooms.
We got to the garage, and sure enough, the valet could not start the car. So we all went into the garage, did a push start, got the bug running, and drove the hell out of there. Joel kept his stuff in his lap, and we drove a lot “in silence,” which is more somatic than verbal since the missing muffler drowned out everything anyway. Just a lot of staring ahead. We only stopped twice for gas, snacks, and bathroom breaks, and didn’t talk much during those times. I recall Will falling asleep at the wheel a few times, but since the highways were pretty empty at 1am, we didn’t hit anyone when we started to drift lanes. Thank God Joel stayed awake! After the first time, a lot of us couldn’t sleep.
“Flick Will’s ear to make sure he’s awake!” we’d say. “I‘m awake! Stop flicking my ear!” Will screamed back.
When we drove up to Will’s house, I decided to walk home (a few blocks) instead of be at the sleepover since everyone was just going to crash anyway.
I haven’t been to an Origins since. Looking back on it, I think that’s an unfair discrimination on my part, so don’t take my advice about a con 22 years ago as much as the bad decision to go to it in a beat up VW Bug. I am sure Origins is much nicer if you go on time, have your room ready, and so on. And I am sure New York is more fun wen you aren’t trying to tie up rush hour traffic in a car that died every few blocks when you are lost, too.