“The following is a contributor post by the Beer Mage.”
I recently celebrated my 33rd birthday this year, which also means it was the 15-year anniversary of the death of the closest friend I have ever had growing up. It’s a subject I haven’t spoken about in a very long time, but I feel I am ready to be open about how computer games brought me to know Shane.
Let’s take a trip back to the late 1990’s/early 2000’s. The internet was just beginning to boom and become a household necessity. AOL was king and “you’ve got mail” was a phrase heard almost every day, along with the beeps and wails of dial-up internet. Chances are you were well versed in Minesweeper and logged into a few chat rooms only to be asked “A/S/L”. If you were a teenager like me, you likely had access to some kind of instant message program, and you’d spend hours perfecting the perfect profile and away messages. You used your computer as a way to get free music off Napster and most likely helped put your local FYE out of business. It was a great time to be a teen, and I am lucky to have been there for it.
Around this time, my high school upgraded the library to include several computers. These were stationed in the middle of the floor, surrounded by bookshelves. The school also included cable internet service which knocked the socks off my 56K dial-up internet at home. I was absolutely fascinated with computers ever since I was a kid when we used my dad’s old computer to play Wheel of Fortune on a 5 and 1/4 floppy disk. Needless to say I was a computer nerd, and I was proud of it.
My friends and I would spend hours at these computers every day sending links to each other and laughing about nerdy things. I spent a lot of my time using Netscape (yes, Netscape!) to play games and make my own websites on Geocities, which were really nothing more than copying images ( <img src=…)– mostly from South Park, which was extremely popular with my age group at the time. You could find me in the library pretty much any moment I had free, and there were several instances where the librarians had to ask me to leave at the end of the day because they wanted to go home. It was here I met Shane for the first time.
During my freshman year, several of my nerdy computer friends (including my older brother) got me involved in this online text-based strategy game known as Forgotten World (which still runs today under the name of Shadowmere Tales). The premise of the game is that you own a kingdom where you represent one of over a dozen races, each having their own strengths and weakness. Your job is simple: acquire more land by any means necessary. You can do so through military conquest or by searching for it. The more land and resources you have, the higher your score.
Forgotten World ended up becoming a game that I have played on and off ever since I was 14 (most recently last year at this time). I played as the character “FatherPunk,” mainly because I wanted to sound older, and I was really into punk music in my teens. We spent hours playing this game, day and night, at school and at home. It became a mild obsession amongst our group of friends.
One day, I walked into the library and passed a guy sitting at a computer. Right away, I recognized the color scheme of the game he was playing on the computer; it was Forgotten World. I went to my friends and asked, “Who’s that?” They remarked that he was a new kid and was a year older than us. I walked over to him, sat down at the computer next to his, and began to eavesdrop on what he was doing.
To my surprise, his score in the game was almost double mine! I couldn’t hold back. “Hey, how did you get that high in score?” Shane looked at me and said, “I just asked some of the veteran players how to play, and they taught me the ropes.” I thought to myself, Why didn’t I think of that? Still in awe, I asked, “How long have you been playing?” He laughed, and with the widest grin on his face, he said, “A couple days.” I was both crushed and immensely impressed at the same time. I had been playing for over a year at that point, and I never got to his score.
Naturally, I begged him to teach me, and we spent the rest of the afternoon going over tricks and tips he had gathered by talking to top players. It’s rare that you run into someone that you have so much in common with that it appears you’re long lost brothers. Shane was most certainly my brother (I’m also lucky enough to have a real brother who is just as close to me).
We ended up becoming fast friends and spending everyday playing Forgotten World in the library. Soon this turned into hanging out at each other’s houses. I was big into playing hacky sack at the time; I was pretty skilled at it, and it didn’t hurt that I have unusually large feet. I introduced hacky sack to Shane, and soon it became a daily ritual of ours to play. When we weren’t doing something else, we were kicking around the hacky sack. We got bored with playing it in close quarters, and so eventually we’d stand across the street from each other and serve the sack over the road.
Progressing through our high school years meant better computers and faster internet at home, and that led to us playing bigger, more impressive games. StarCraft and Diablo 2 were an infatuation of ours, and we’d often play them while waiting for turns to accumulate in Forgotten World. We were also still avidly playing the PS1 at that time, and we’d go on marathon sessions with Twisted Metal 2 (my brother played a lot of TM2 with me, as well). It’s a game I still love to this day.
I also introduced Shane to swimming. I was an avid swimmer and had made the varsity team as an 8th grader. Shane wasn’t the most in-shape young man, and there is a part of me that knows he only joined the swim team so we could hang out more often, even though he secretly hated it every day. However, it afforded us the chance to travel to meets together, and I think we were both pretty happy about that.
Every year, our high school team would get invited to a meet in Elmira, New York. It was a big meet with lots of good teams participating. Each year, the night before the meet, the team made it a tradition to eat at an Olive Garden near the hotel. The idea was to load up on carbohydrates so you’d have more energy the next day.
During Shane’s senior year, we had just finished up dinner and were waiting outside for our parents to pay the bill. It was in the middle of January and freezing outside. Naturally, we pulled out the hacky sack and started kicking it around. Suddenly, Shane turned his foot the wrong way and the hack went hurtling towards a massive thorn bush. This was a catastrophe! That hack was one of the finest that we ever played with. Shane spent hours removing just the right amount of beads to make it rest perfectly on your foot.
Without thinking, Shane jumped into the bush, clawing through the thorns to get to the center where the hack had landed. After several minutes of acquiring cuts and scrapes from the thorns, we had to convince Shane it was futile. Head hung low, he returned to the hotel feeling a bit defeated.
Shane, of course, graduated that year, and after a failed attempt at community college, he went down to live with his mother in North Carolina. He was looking after his niece and spending his days enjoying life as an 18-year-old kid. Life was a little different during my senior year without him around, but thankfully we talked a lot over AIM and kept up with each other as often as we could.
That year, our swim team went back to Elmira for the swimming invitational, and of course, we went to the same Olive Garden as always. I had Shane a lot on my mind that trip, but I couldn’t tell you why (call it intuition, if you must). I thought how funny it would be if I could retrieve the hacky sack he lost last year and surprise him with it on his birthday in June, when he was due to return.
After dinner, I snuck over to the thorn bush and glanced inside, but I didn’t see anything that resembled a hacky sack. I then looked behind it, and much to my surprise, there was a ball of ice resting against the roots. It was our soccer ball hacky sack, sewed together with green thread, and frozen solid! I was absolutely elated, and everyone agreed it was going to be a great 19th birthday surprise for Shane.
As summer neared, I was getting ready to graduate high school. I would spend my summer as a lifeguard before beginning my NCAA swimming career at a Division 1 university. My birthday always fell a week or two before finals, and I was busy planning Shane’s visit so we could throw a joint birthday party with friends. It was natural considering his birthday was only a week after mine.
On my birthday, I arrived at school just before 2nd period, as I always did on Tuesdays and Thursdays. But when I tried to walk into the classroom, the teacher met me at the door. She said that I needed to go to the Principal’s office. She refused to give me any more information than that, so I spent the long walk to the office wondering, What did I do?
In the office, the secretary wouldn’t make eye contact with me. She only said, “She will be with you shortly. Take a seat”. Nervously, I listened to her pick up the phone and say, “He’s here.” Grim-faced, the principal opened the door and invited me into her office. What came out of her mouth next changed my life forever: “Ryan, I am sorry, but Shane died this morning.”
Shane was riding with his cousin to the bank where he was going to withdraw money to make the trip back home. His cousin had recently purchased a new Corvette and was driving fast down a street that was still slick from a recent rainfall. The vehicle slid out of control and collided with a brick wall on the passenger’s side of the car, killing both Shane and his cousin instantly.
I was lost. How could this be? How could he be gone? We had so much planned, and now it was over. I went home and found my mom waiting for me. She hugged me for a long time, and then I went to my room. Overwhelmed by emotion, I fell asleep for hours. The phone rang off the hook for days, and I listened as my mom told the callers, “Ryan doesn’t want to talk to anyone right now.” Days later, we attended Shane’s funeral, and I couldn’t tell you what was going through my head. The pain was unbelievable, especially seeing his parents so distraught. I was a shell.
A month or so later our swim team planted an evergreen tree in the courtyard of my high school in Shane’s memory. I remember we were having trouble getting it to stand upright, and my swim coach saying, “I bet Shane is laughing right now.” I am sure he was. He was always laughing and had an amazing sense of humor. In fact, I can still hear his laugh.
Shane brought me so much joy in my life. He was a fierce friend and was so infectiously happy that you couldn’t help but love to be around him. Life is difficult sometimes, especially when it teaches us lessons long before we are ready to face them. But I am so lucky to have met someone in my life worth shedding a few tears over. I am reminded to hold onto people like this and cherish the moments while you’re in them.
It’s been fifteen years since that day and I am reminiscent whenever I look at our hacky sack how truly blessed I am to have known Shane. That hacky sack has been a keepsake of my friendship with Shane and oddly enough has become a lucky charm. It has traveled all over the world including the Philippines with me on my first international work assignment and to my first big move away from home to Las Vegas. It took a trip to Iraq and Afghanistan with a friend Alex who was in the military as a medic. Living up to its lucky charm status, Alex and the hacky sack made it home safe and sound. I still have it to this day and it is one of my most prized possessions. It’s a reminder to live every day with a smile on my face and to always see the humor in things, just like Shane would do.
It still amazes me to this day that an online computer game introduced me to the best friend I ever had, and this may very well be why I love gaming so much.
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