“We need you to go help Santa.”
It was the last thing I wanted to hear as I strolled into the volunteer office of Brookfield Zoo the Sunday before Christmas. I’d been employed there back in the late ‘90s but, after a few years of discovering the elephants weren’t the only ones working for peanuts, decided to seek a job elsewhere. This should not, however, imply that I have any ill feelings towards the place, in fact it’s quite the opposite. I’ve loved animals since I was a kid and, growing up in Chicago, this was the place that helped cultivate that. I believe in the zoo’s message as well as its conservation work which is why it was only a matter of months before I’d return as a docent and remain one ever since. Usually volunteering entails talking to the zoo’s visitors about animals but, every once in awhile, you’re asked to do something different. Helping out with their Santa Claus event would be a prime example of that.
I walked over to the area designated for a special brunch with Jolly Old Saint Nick and soon ran into one of my old managers, Amy, who was one of the folks in charge. I don’t often see the old gang from Guest Services (where I used to work) and as soon as she saw me she ran over and gave me a big hug. Apparently most of her scheduled crew never showed up, leaving her in a bind and with little choice but to hit the volunteer corps for assistance. She quickly explained what she needed me to do and I went right to work. My job was to entertain the kids in line who were eager to reveal what they wanted for Christmas to the man himself. I had no idea at the time that I too would be receiving a special gift and without the assistance of Santa.
After the event died down, Amy approached me carrying a bag. “I saw this at a thrift shop recently and knew you had to have it,” she said before handing it over.
I immediately pulled out the contents which consisted of a single book bound in black leather. The spine was ripped from overuse and was literally being held together by both scotch and electric tape. The pages had aged a tan color though I’d little doubt they’d once been a snow white. The book had a heaviness to it that seemed at odds with its size but this phenomena was soon explained as closer inspection revealed thicker card stock pages versus the standard type. Each page contained magazine clippings and papers that had been glued on. This wasn’t a mere a book…it was a scrapbook.
The creator had his or her identity written on the inside but time had not only worn away the first name but parts of the last as well. All that remained was “___rker” which my best guess made the former owner a Mr. or Mrs. “Parker.” On the inside of the back cover was a more ominous signature; the words “The Last Human” cut in its entirely from a magazine headline.
But not just any magazine…
The inside pages were pictures of monsters that I could instantly tell had been cut from issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland. This legendary periodical was a monster fans best friend back in its day and responsible for inspiring many celebrities such as Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg, and even Gene Simmons from KISS. I was mesmerized by the new gift and thanked Amy several times before giving her yet another hug.
“Somehow when I saw this, I thought of you immediately,” she beamed. I was glad she did.
I can best describe this book as something of a monster fan’s “time capsule.” Aside from the partial last name there were a couple of other clues regarding its previous owner. For one thing, I could tell it was created by a youngster due to the child-like handwriting (5th or 6th grade being my best guess) that had been used to caption some of the pictures along with innocent misspellings such as writing Mummie instead of Mummy. I was also given a year as to when the book may have been at least partially constructed as, about a quarter of the way in, a seven page Frankenstein section begins with a cut out of the monster’s name next to handwritten block letters stating “1970.”
That would also happen to be the year I was born which would have made its creator about ten years my senior …not very comforting in lieu of the book’s ancient appearance.
Few would find something like this of value and I wondered how long it sat on that thrift-store shelf. Gutted magazines don’t fetch much in resale as far as I’m aware of so even someone looking to turn a profit on eBay would likely avoid it. In my hands, however, it was a veritable box of treasure.
As I turned the pages I discovered that the original owner had the same eclectic taste in monsters that I did. He liked the Universal greats but also some of the more obscure. He even had a Rodan page highlighting the Japanese variety as well as the stop-motion majesty of Ray Harryhausen. Like Famous Monsters of Filmland at the time, the entire book was Black & White save for two pages containing sections of horror comics. Both of these featured supernatural tales with one titled “Ghostly Miners” and the other “The Mystery Ship.” With each turn of a page I’d smell the recognizable odor of “old book.” I’ve always loved that smell though I suppose it’s bittersweet as it signifies the acidic breakdown of paper and ink.
I’m guessing younger generations may find it silly to create such a tribute. In today’s world one has only to Google a monster’s name before being served up a smorgasbord of images. Type in “Frankenstein” and you’ll likely not only be given a bevy of shots from the 1931 classic but his various return visits to the Silver Screen as well. Any kid with access to a laptop or an iphone can conjure the appearance of virtually any monster they choose and at any time they’d like. Today’s youth has no concept of the way things used to be in their not so distant past.
No, back then it was an entirely different story. If you loved monsters, you had to wait for your local Creatures Features or horror hosted show to see one and there were no VCR’s or DVR’s to save them if you weren’t available during their scheduled times. The sad truth was that if you missed it, you MISSED it and had to wait months if not years to catch it again. The only other other options were pulpy magazines such as Famous Monsters which allowed you the privilege of ogling them at your leisure.
Thumbing through a collection of magazines, however, could prove tedious. This creative fan figured out that the best solution to the problem was to choose his favorite shots and place them in ONE easily accessible location. When I was a kid I’d done the same thing with my Wacky Pack cards, particularly the ones that featured monsters. I smiled as this book illustrated how while we adult fans may have been isolated back in our day we were still very much alike in our devotions.
Since receiving the book I’ve often pondered the fate of its creator. Did the person pass away and this book end up getting lost in an estate sale; sitting idly by as bargain hunters quickly moved past it in search of the perfect lamp? Or did they simply grow up and move away from their childhood interests while getting caught up in the mundane responsibilities of adult life? Maybe it sat in a closet for years before the owner was finally able to garner the strength to get rid of it; stopping just short of throwing it in the garbage. And why didn’t they just throw it away? Perhaps they tried on occasion but faint remembrances of those rainy afternoons when they crafted this book, a monster kid’s labor of love, prevented them? Instead they might have chosen to simply let it go and find its way into the hands of someone like me who would allow it to live on – a gift from one monster kid to another. I’ll likely never know as the old black book is sure to keep its secrets from me.
Now it sits on my bed side where its serves as an “idea book” of sorts. On nights when I feel like unwinding with an old classic but am at a loss for which one to choose I can look to it for inspiration. That’s the irony of us adult monster kids, now that we have most of our favorite movies at our fingertips the numerous choices often have us settling for whatever is being broadcasted anyway. Regardless, the old book will now live a few years more. And who knows? Maybe someday after I’m gone it will continue it’s journey and reach yet another of like mind?
And to its former owner, my friend that I shall never meet but allowed me the honor to own such a relic, I can only say…“Thank you for this absolutely perfect Christmas gift.”