By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
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By Craig Malisow
For a game so steeped in fantasy, the origin of its name is quite banal. Haren named it after two friends, Matthew and Katy Amt, he knew from his Kagehiri days. The Amts (brother and sister) say they and Haren parted on bad terms, and they weren't even aware of the game until about five years ago.
"I think [we] just had a big yuck over it," Matthew Amt recalls from his office in Pennsylvania, "because we all assumed it would crash in flames, and that would be the end of another Grue story."
The Amts recall Haren turning up on their porch one night; a neighbor called to alert them. He was huddled in the corner, sleeping. The Amt family took him in for a few weeks, but Haren wouldn't talk about his relationship with his own family. All he'd ever say, according to Matthew Amt, was that he was the "white sheep" of the family. Before he left for El Paso, he moved from couch to couch, even living at one point in someone's walk-in closet.
"He's been spotted a few times since then," says Amtgard historian and transplanted Houstonian Michael Lynch. "But basically since...'84 or '85, he hasn't been in Amtgard at all."
Subsequent Haren sightings are akin to glimpses of Sasquatch. Reports have had him working as a department store Santa Claus, living on the streets of San Francisco and once turning up at an Amtgard battle in Hermann Park, demanding royalties from these people who were so brazenly playing his copyrighted game. Although Haren never made much money off Amtgard, he had an entrepreneurial spirit that might have been a gift from his dad.
Speaking from his home in Florida, James "Bulldog" Haren Sr. says he hasn't heard from his son in about three years and is not sure where he's living.
The elder Haren runs a home health-care service for seniors that has branches in Florida and Texas. He's proud enough of his achievements to post them on his company's Web site. These include having his name above the varsity weight room at Virginia Tech, his alma mater, and being listed in the International Who's Who of Intellectuals.
The Web site also cites Haren Sr.'s business acumen, which includes founding "two national corporations." Although the names of these corporations are missing, business filings in Virginia and Florida show Haren Sr. as the head of International Inventors, Inc., and the International Bartending Institute. The former charged budding Edisons $250 to evaluate the "marketability" of their contraptions, and, in 1979, received a warning from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission for allegedly misrepresenting franchise agreements. The FTC ordered Haren Sr. to disclose a success ratio, to provide a ten-day cooling-off period and to give copies of the FTC order to employees and prospective clients. Fifteen years later, the FTC fined Haren Sr.'s bartending school franchise $50,000 for allegedly violating the 1979 order. (Because Haren Sr. wrote the International Bartending Institute's textbook, which was sold to students, he's listed on his current Web site as a "bestselling author").
Haren Jr.'s half-brother Greg Haren runs one of his father's Houston locations. He says he hasn't seen his half-brother in about nine years and that, at one point, Haren Jr. was living with his mother in El Paso. Messages left for her were not returned.
"My dad always worries about him," Greg Haren says. "And we'd like to at least know where he's at."
Before today's battle begins — before Germ will split his lip — an ominous black school bus pulls into the parking lot here at Jack Brooks Park in Hitchcock.
With blacked-out passenger windows and a skull dangling from the rearview mirror, the bus looks like it belongs to the Bowels of Hell Independent School District. As soon as it stops, the front and rear doors fly open and a band of black-clad figures pour out. They are Corpus Monstrom, one of Amtgard's many fighting companies — fraternal organizations that stick together on the battlefield. (Or, as one of the Monstroms likes to say, "We're not a fighting company, we're a family.)
Corpus Monstrom consists mostly of current and former peace officers and military men. And it's at least 62 pounds lighter than when it formed nine years ago — that's how much weight Monstrom honcho Nomada Demonicus Non ConCeedo dropped after his first year.
Nomada (a.k.a. Damon Jackson) took to Amtgard almost instinctually.
"It's genetic," he says, adding later that games like Amtgard were borne out of "hundreds of years of no outlet for warrior culture in this world."
So Jackson and his companions travel from park to park in the vessel they've named the Big Black Bitch, ready to get their warrior on.
While they prepare, a knight-in-training-slash-property-manager named Dughan ambles around the parking lot, plucking a mandolin. Well over six feet, with long, rust-colored hair and a sideburn-mustache combo like Lemmy from Motörhead, Dughan might make for an imposing figure if he weren't in fact playing a teeny-tiny guitar, and if he weren't in fact a supremely nice individual.