The chance for a living history lesson

Even today, nearly 70 years since he joined the first wave of soldiers through the surf onto the German-fortified shores of Normandy, Charles Chappell remembers.

“I am getting really forgetful about a lot of things,” he said. “But I can picture today right in front of my eyes how that beach looked that day.”

Born and raised in Durham, Chappell is now 91. He retired from IBM in 1987.

He’s battled cancer, a war waging in his own body. Three operations and 31 radiation treatments later, he hopes he has it beaten.

At the very least, Chappell wants to stay healthy long enough for the chance of a lifetime – not just for him, but for a handful of students from Chapel Hill and East Chapel Hill high schools.

Working with Smith Middle School teacher Robin McMahon, the teens are raising money for a trip to Normandy and they want to take along two veterans who experienced World War II first-hand.

The second veteran they’ve picked, Mark Sumner, lives in Chapel Hill. He landed in Europe months after D-Day, but fought in the pivotal Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes Forest.

Sumner had volunteered to join the U.S. Army’s Air Corps just after Pearl Harbor, when he was 18.

“That was the glamorous thing back then,” he said. “Everyone wanted to fly planes.”

They turned him down. He was nearsighted.

He tried another route, enrolling in a course for potential platoon leaders at the Asheville Biltmore (which eventually would become UNC Asheville). Sumner planned to finish studying, go to Quantico and join the military as a second lieutenant. Navy doctors put the brakes on that, though. Again, because of his eyes.

“I was really in the dumps until I got home and opened a letter from the draft board,” he said. “They said, ‘We’ll give you binoculars and a telescope on your rifle,’ so that’s what happened.”

After the war, he pursued a career in the dramatic arts and worked at the Institute of Outdoor Drama at UNC Chapel Hill. He helped groups in 25 states launch at least 30 dramas. One that he wrote about the Underground Railroad between North Carolina and Indiana, “Pathway to Freedom,” is performed to this day at North Carolina’s Snow Camp.

Neither Chappell nor Sumner has been back to the sites of their World War II conflicts.

The students at Chapel Hill, though, have made several trips, during cultural visits while they were students at Smith.

Never before have they had such an opportunity to see it through the eyes of people who were there when that history happened.

Graham Austin, a 16-year-old junior, said that he read Tom Brokaw’s “The Greatest Generation” and saw the importance of bringing a veteran along.

“That book talks about a whole generation passing away,” Austin said. “It’s an experience you just can’t get again. It’s a chance to see and hear what it was like beyond what you get in books from someone who was there.”

Sarah McMahon, Robin’s daughter, is 17. She thinks the viewpoints of the veterans they want to bring along are critical to giving perspective to what they learn during the visit.

“A lot of people think that our youth are forgetting the sacrifices that were made so long ago,” she said. “We want people to know we’re not forgetting. It means so much to us to be with someone who was part of that history.”

It costs money to make the trip. The kids have sold concessions at Odyssey of the Mind and school dances. They’ve raised money from the local VFW. They’re hoping to find a restaurant to host at least one weekend tea social. They also have a website about the trip where they accept donations, at gettingtoknoweurope.org/nc-to-normandy.

Chappell can’t wait to go.

“God bless these people,” he said. “I’m just shivering all over from the thought of going and seeing that hallowed ground over there where so many of our soldiers gave their lives.

“I pray each night that the good lord will make it possible that this dream does come to fruition.”

Wes Platt can be reached at wplatt@heraldsun.com or 919-419-6684. Follow on Twitter at @HS_WesPlatt. Connect on Facebook at facebook.com/wesplattheraldsun. 

Just another excuse for change?

The idea of the OtherSpace reboot is interesting to some, but really, they wonder, isn’t it just another huge change for the sake of change?

If that were the case, I could certainly see how the novelty of such a change might quickly wear off. But I think the sort of “huge change for the sake of change” I’ve initiated in the past, such as the shift to the Ancient Expanse and the evolution of the multiverse, provided a change that was acceptable to some veteran players, a turnoff for others, and an over-complication of an original theme for potential newbies.

With the upcoming OtherSpace reboot, I’m taking the altogether new approach of essentially saying we can forget everything that’s happened in the past 16 years and we can also dismiss all of the pre-OtherSpace Drive canon. We’re taking the lore back to new roots, a century before the original game began, with the following ideas in mind:

  • The OtherSpace Drive doesn’t exist yet. Mankind hasn’t broken the speed-of-light barrier. In our reboot, some player or group of players – rather than an NPC on a staff-devised timeline – will get credit for the discovery.
  • Humans haven’t made first contact with any alien races yet. When they do, it’ll be accomplished by players.
  • Humans haven’t colonized any worlds beyond Sol System. Ungstir, Sivad, and Quaquan aren’t even the stuff of dreams or distant myths. They flat out don’t exist. Any new colony worlds will be settled by players.

The trend I’m hoping to encourage here is a renewed and strengthened sense that players who show initiative and creative ambition can really make their mark in a whole new way, compared even to our first go-round.

In the original OtherSpace, it was possible for a player to inherit the role of Lord Fagin the Pirate King, but that was essentially slipping on the costume of a shadowy figure – albeit an important one to the game mythos – until they went inactive and got replaced by someone else. That’s not quite as big an accomplishment as establishing one’s own version of a pirate king or queen, building their own rogue-ish empire.

It’s certainly my hope that the OtherSpace reboot will provide fertile ground for players who want to lead, follow, or challenge their peers for the race to make new history.

Too accustomed to staying connected

This column appeared in The Herald-Sun in March 2014:

I’ve been plugged in, one way or another, ever since I was a kid – certainly as long as I remember.

Sitting in front of the TV, I watched “Sesame Street” and the Watergate hearings with equal interest, if not always equal comprehension.

It was a Magnavox set with dials on the front. If you wanted to pick one of the other two network channels, you actually had to stand, walk and use your wrist muscles to do so. Uphill. Both ways. In the snow.

I used to text people, using an envelope and a postage stamp.

I surfed the aisles of the local library for interesting topics, an earlier version of Google’s “I’m Feeling Lucky” search option.

When I was in junior high school, my parents got me a (super high-tech!) Casio calculator watch. I used that watch less for math and more for making inappropriate words with numbers – a sign, perhaps, of why I shouldn’t have nice things.

During high school, my family shared one computer. We huddled around, basking in its ghastly emerald glow, and built rudimentary BASIC programs using code “recipes” from thick computer-geek magazines.

In college, I had my own computer, with a modem that gave a shrill squeal as it communicated with another modem and linked me to a BBS – bulletin board system. These were privately hosted computer communities, precursors to the Internet as we know it today, with games and discussion boards.

I participated on several local boards in Orlando, but mostly I was a regular on The Philosopher’s Stone BBS, which was hosted by a guy named Vick Degiorgio. He hosted parties at his home to bring together in real life the people who gabbed and played together in his virtual playground. He was a down-to-Earth and far less money-hungry version of Mark Zuckerberg.

Then I got a job as a reporter, and the editor gave me a pager and, eventually, a clunky cellular telephone.

Suddenly, I couldn’t escape contact with the powers that be – unless I left transmission range or the AAA batteries conked out.

But as the technology evolved, the plug grew stronger and harder to yank free.

Once I had an iPhone, I might as well have become a Borg, assimilated into a culture that can phone, text, track sports, tweet, poke, watch TV and movies, read books, listen to music, share apocryphal information with friends and angrily fling birds at pigs, all from one device.

On March 7-8, the country held the Annual National Day of Unplugging, created by the Reboot network in 2002.

I’ll be honest: I didn’t even realize it was happening. I only found out it occurred because I was surfing Facebook this week and a friend shared a link to a New York Times blog post by Casey N. Cep about “The Pointlessness of Unplugging.”

I can sympathize with the notion of taking a break from technology that keeps us so distracted so much of the time, especially as social media options keep growing.

Shutting off for an hour? Two? Eight? Maybe.

But a full day? A week? Longer?

I’ve never been wired that way.

Wes Platt can be reached at wplatt@heraldsun.com or 919-419-6684. Follow on Twitter at @HS_WesPlatt. Connect on Facebook at facebook.com/wesplattheraldsun.

Only human

Back in 1998, when I was first creating the universe of OtherSpace, my focus was mostly on providing an abundance of options for people experienced in MUSHes who also were fans of various space opera/space fantasy franchises.

So, besides garden-variety Earth humans, I introduced talking cat people, lizard people, fish people, bug people, psionic bear people for all those Ewok fans, and even super-cold jellyfish people.

I won’t call that a mistake. I think the scope of choices available to players in the original iteration of the MUSH proved most appealing and helped build a following for the game.

But, over the years, it seems like that broad spectrum of alien options somehow became too much for the average player to grok, especially after the theme evolved. Empires rose and fell. Universal variants came and went. In some cases, the essential nature of what made the aliens so appealing to start with shifted due to the changing story.

Plus, here’s the thing: Humans can be awfully interesting. How we see ourselves, how we interact with each other, and how we react to new and unusual circumstances are often fascinating to behold.

As I work on this reboot nearly 16 years after the first go-round, it’s no coincidence that character creation leading to Earth 2550 will offer only humans as a racial option.

Since 1998, other text-based MUDs and MUSHes have drastically dwindled toward extinction. So those aren’t liable to provide us with new blood. Given my relative lack of free time, I can’t afford to spend a lot of OtherSpace time answering questions about cultural development for more than a dozen races.

Our adventure begins with humans on Earth, Luna, and Mars. We’ll find intrigue and diversity between the regions, cities, and cultures inhabited by humanity. And, together, we’ll start down a path of research, exploration, and discovery in which new and veteran players alike have the opportunity to forge a new future for OtherSpace.