by Terry Hargrove
General McChrystal has warned that the United States needs to send thousands more troops to Afghanistan or risk losing that conflict. President Obama is now considering his report. I don’t know what the president will do, or even what he should do, but the whole thing reminds me of a story,.
Boys love to play war. Any guy who grew up before 1970 probably took part in innumerable skirmishes, doomed charges, and pitched battles. I fell in heroic fashion three times during the Battle of Tillman’s Apple Tree, a personal record. My deep fascination with playing war didn’t end until my third minute of boot camp.
But unlike the Union and Confederate forces at Gettysburg, we wouldn’t stage mock battles if the sun was too hot. We still played war, but in a more civilized fashion: with plastic army men.
There was a kid in our neighborhood named Mars Hill. Yes, I know how contrived that sounds, since we were going to play war, but Mars really was his name. I think it was short for Marshall, and he had every toy ever invented, including several thousand plastic army men. Tragically, Mars was kind of crazy, and he didn’t let anyone play with his stuff unless you were willing to play inside his house.
“Hey, Mars?” I asked one day. “Why don’t we take some of this stuff outside?”
“Why would I want to take anything outside?” he replied. “Stuff gets lost when you take it outside. Or broken. Or stolen. Are you gonna steal my stuff?”
“No. Not today, anyway. What if we took something outside that couldn’t be broken?” I said. “Like these plastic army men. They’re so cheap nobody would want to steal them. You can’t break them. And we’ll keep them in your back yard, so you won’t lose them and I won‘t be seen playing with them. I am 15, after all, so I don’t really want anybody to know I still play with toys.”
“What would we do with them?” Mars asked.
“What would we do with plastic army men? Play war, of course,” I said. Mars was kind of thick. “We’ll set them all up in two massive formations and let them fight it out.”
“They don’t move, so how can they fight?” asked Mars.
“I know they don’t move,” I replied. “Look, we’ll set them up and build bunkers and bridges and fox holes, then we’ll throw rocks at them. I’ll throw at your guys and you throw at mine. When a toy soldier gets knocked over, he’s out. You know, dead. Whoever has the last guy standing is the winner. What do you say?”
Mars hesitated. I had to convince him that a rock couldn’t really damage the plastic army men, but once I did, he reluctantly agreed to the contest. We gathered up bags of the army men, about 500 of them, including ten of the really big ones that were five inches tall. We split those up five to a side, then began two great construction projects, as battlements and twig fences were set up all across his back yard. My army was composed of green American GIs, gray Confederate troops, and bright red American Indians. I faced a formidable force of golden Japanese soldiers, blue Union cavalry, and 50 bright white revolutionary minutemen. After two hours of frantic construction, the aerial bombardment began.
The big plastic army men were the easiest targets, so they were the first to fall. There was a lesson in that, somewhere, but I didn’t have time to dwell on it. We started by lobbing rocks that were the size of dimes, but an arms race soon overtook us, and the rocks got bigger and bigger, until a brick careened across the summer sky and landed on Mars’ bridge, putting and end to his immobile reinforcements. Custer’s men flew everywhere, brought down by Little Big Rock. Then a bowling ball destroyed my left flank.
The casualty count on both sides grew, but just when we thought the battle was won or lost, we would find a few stragglers leaning against a rock or stick. Then there were the reclining snipers, with their bellies hugging the ground. We decided those guys weren’t out of the battle until they were flipped onto their backs, and that was hard to do. Then things really began to get interesting. Mars produced some bottle rockets, and the grass soon caught fire. The scattered forms began to melt into pools of green and gray and blue. I could almost hear the screams. I counterattacked with a water assault, pulling the hose from the side of Mars’ house, and attacking the growing grass fire. All the tiny plastic soldiers were trapped between the elements.
At the end of the day, only two soldiers, both prone snipers, were left. I commanded one, and Mars the other. We considered calling the whole day a draw, but that seemed a disgrace to all the honorable dead on both sides. Some ancient belief rose up in us and refused to look away. No. I will not yield. Neither will he. Such a beautiful sacrifice deserves a winner. The gods demanded it. And so we took turns hurling a basketball at each of the survivors, until Mars struck my guy and flipped him onto his back. He had little time to gloat, however, because at that moment, his dad came around the corner pushing a mower that would destroy them all, the victor and the vanquished.
“That was fun,” said Mars.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “Sorry about your army men, though. I think the mower will do what our rocks and stones couldn’t.”
“Aw, that’s all right,” said Mars. “I got hundreds more inside. Let’s do it again tomorrow. This can be the first battle of the Great Backyard War.”
As it turned out, that was the last battle of Great Backyard War. While the lawnmower, as purifying as time, rolled over the holy ground of our battlefield, the whirling blades shot all our ordinance and foot soldiers out the side and back. Bits of plastic and sharp stones made a furious bombardment, and we ran for cover, even as Mars’ dad, bleeding from both shins, screamed and jumped and yelled at us.
I had to make a strategic re-deployment when Mars’ dad took off his belt. It wasn’t his bleeding shins or the fall he took on the wet grass, but the sight of his bowling ball floating away that enraged him. From that day until he graduated, Mars kept the Hill Family lawnmower in his room with the rest of his toys.
It was just as well. And now, all these years later, as I watch my son deploy his toys for another imaginary assault on Castle Shoebox, I am filled with sorrow and fear for his future. He wants me to join him, but I refuse again, and I hear laughter as he plays. He doesn’t understand that when a guy reaches a certain age, playing war just isn’t as much fun as it used to be.