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Thursday, April 21, 2016

Chapter Three - War on the Floor


I'm a Cold War Baby. My childhood memories are backlit by the reassuring glow of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). I was vaccinated against smallpox - not because it was much of a problem in the late Sixties, but because they knew it would be unleashed on us by the Soviets if things ever went too far. (Because, by then, they already almost had.)

In elementary school, we had "disaster drills", where all the kids would practice kneeling against the walls in the hallway with our textbooks opened up and held over the backs of our necks... The grown-ups probably figured that would make it easier for THEM to panic in the streets. This environment, this death pact that our governments had made with each other, was very much reflected in the toys that we played with.

Long before Star Wars and Gene Simmons made it socially acceptable for boys to play with dolls, there was G.I. Joe. But he was kind of expensive, because of the elastic guts and the rotating joints and the Kung Fu Grip, the uniform... Until a kid displayed enough responsibility to receive a nice toy like G.I. Joe, most of us had to make do with good old Army Men.

Army Men have been around since 1938, when a company called Beton Toys acquired all the molds from lead toy makers who were going out of business. World War II revolutionized the plastics industry in general, and by the 1950's, Army Men were a staple in any American household that had children hollering in it.

My little brother and I both enjoyed them, even though the Vietnam War had soured the public on war toys. I just saw them all, in a cardboard box, in Mom and Dad's basement, replete with tanks. Did it have any effect on us? I mean, maybe... My brother served in the United States Army as a tank driver, and a grateful nation (by way of the G.I. Bill) paid his tuition, and he graduated from Western Michigan University.

For those who would argue the relevance of Army Men in today's CGI world, all I can say is, well... Just go to YouTube and search for Plastic Apocalypse... And buckle your helmet on.

Charlie was like every other kid who has been born since the turn of the millennium: He liked video games, movies, digital stuff. I'm not saying he lacked outdoor activity. Every year, his grandparents and aunts would chip in to send Charlie to golf lessons, or judo lessons, or swimming lessons, soccer, bowling league. He attended Derek Jeter's baseball camp two years in a row. He even did his time in the Boy Scouts.

In the winter time, though, it is not really fair to bundle the children up and shove them outside anymore (although that was fine in my day). Sub-zero temps dominated our environment in the early months of 2015, with air so cold that you could see water molecules sparkling like fiberglass before your eyes as they formed and collapsed to the ground.

I saw the Army Men at Walgreen's. It cost me $3.99 to get about 45 green Army Men and a couple of tanks in a single plastic bag. I brought them home, but didn't unleash them yet. A couple of days later, at the local Dollar Store, I found some brown Army Men. Then it was time. When I heard Charlie profess to be bored, I pounced.

Our first battle was fairly straightforward. After Theresa had swept the wood floor of the living room to her satisfaction, Charlie and I built a dividing wall with his wooden blocks. Then we each set up our fortifications. Mine consisted of some play set, a castle from another toy of his (he was blessed with an abundance of games and toys, spoiled boy). His was a farm play set. Pretty heavy duty, so I got the tanks and he got artillery.

It would have been too easy to simply set up Army Men and knock them down using rubber bands as ordnance. Plain old rubber bands were used for rifle fire (red and green ones for tracers!) with heavier ones used for bazookas, and the really big industrial ones were used for tank and artillery rounds. Grenades and mortars were a pair of dice lobbed at the target. I folded up about 30 paper airplanes (wings emblazoned in red Sharpie with 'P' or 'C') for airstrikes.

But this would not be mayhem. I wanted to take this opportunity to teach Charlie important lessons - about history, strategy, geometry, math... and bravery. Each move, I explained, would be predicated by a roll of two dice. If you rolled a 4 and a 3, that's a 7. So the player would be able to move any 7 of his pieces a distance of 7 inches each (as measured with a ruler), and then be able to take 7 shots.

With the tanks, I had a strategic advantage offensively, but with the heavy plastic barn from the farm play set, he had an impenetrable fortress. With the capture of each other's flag being the victory milestone, I would have to roll good enough numbers to get one of my tanks all the way across the living room, around the back of the barn, and then get it in through the double doors. From there, the endgame was fairly obvious.

What we did not know (couldn't have known, as it was our initial battle) was that the tanks were as impervious as the barn. Even at point-blank range, his artillery rubber bands simply displaced the tank's location. It could not be upended, so it could not be destroyed. Further, it did not need to fire a weapon to inflict casualties. It could just run over enemy Army Men in its path (or even livestock).

As soon as Charlie saw what was happening, he adjusted his tactics. He kind of had to anyway, since my opening salvo was a series of paper airplane airstrikes that decimated his troops, which he had in formation out in the open (he never made that mistake again). Upon rolling an 11, he sent a lone soldier sprinting through enemy lines, past my tanks and battlements, right up to my flag, using up all but two of his shots on the way. With two moves left, he was already there. So that meant two shots.

The only ones left defending my flag against this bullshit Rambo move were a useless radio man and a captain holding a pair of binoculars in one hand and his .45 1911 ACP in the other. Approaching full gloat mode, Charlie pulls back his rubber band and blasts the poor beggar working the radio.

But something goes wrong. My camp is tucked behind a table leg, up against the baseboards, and the shot blows my radio man up against the wall with a great THWACK and he wobbles... but he doesn't fall. Charlie looks up at me.

"He survived," I said. Obviously, he had. So he took his last shot and the radio man fell. That just left Cappy... and his Colt. After that groaning disappointment, my tank made it into the barn, and that was that. Charlie's enthusiasm for Army Men was not diminished in any way by his loss. He loved it, and so did I, even though my knee was sore for days.

Charlie told his Mom that night that he and Uncle Paul were closer because of it. And the next time we played, he won.

Over the course of the next six months, which were the last six months of his life, we played many more times, playing out important scenarios that he might someday have to really deal with. There was the Train Trestle Crossing the River Battle. The Amphibious Assault on the Fort. Godzilla Attacks Tokyo... This is critical stuff when you're 11 years old.

As I write this, there are 18 Army Men guarding Charlie's grave: A 6-man mortar team, 7 riflemen, 2 bazookas, a minesweeper, the Captain... and his new radioman. There's also a state-of-the-art Hot Wheels surface-to-air mobile missile launcher. I rotate the men out regularly so they can get some R 'n R. Charlie and I sleep equally well knowing they are there.

pH 4.21.16


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