“X Box One, Lego Super Heroes, Kindle Fire HD……” My eight year old grandson was speaking a language of which I was not familiar. It sounded more like Buck Rodgers dialogue than a Christmas wish list to me. He punctuated this enigmatic catalog with, “these are the best Christmas toys ever!”
What was my wife always telling me, “Seize the moment!” I sat Luke down to gently correct him a mite, “army men, son, ARMY MEN!” I didn’t want to miss a teaching moment. And every child should understand and appreciate the virtues of those near ’bout indestructible little green fighting figurines.
There were Christmases when that was all we got. And you talk about a blessing! David Mark and I lined them up across the braided rug and attacked the Japanese dug in on Iwo Jima; we scaled the beaches at Normandy, we retook the Philippines, we captured the “Bridge over the river Kwai” in tack. We knew when to move the riflemen, lying on their bellies, forward. We brought up the bazooka guys just in the nick of time. And we always saved the grenade throwers for the last big push. I figure we won every battle fought during World War II a hundred times, or so. We awarded the ones that displayed great bravery and we held elaborate ceremonies to bury our dead with full military honors.
And that was only the beginning.
We traded them on occasion. The flame thrower was worth two of those men with their rifles held high over their heads like they were crossing a river. Most of the others were about an even swap, except for the guy kneeling with the machine gun. He was kinda like a Mickey Mantle baseball card; he was not for sale, barter, swap, trade or loan out!
When we tired of shooting Germans, we played hide and go seek with the men. We lined them up side by side and tumbled them down like dominoes. We stacked them up on each other and built giant pyramids. We taped them together at times and hung a “string” of them off the arm of the couch. We talked to them, encouraged them, gave them the ole “take one for our country” speech when we sent them on a desperate mission. If we tired of these games, we’d hide behind the dining room table and the big chair in the living room and threw them at each other. You talk about a war!
With no TV to draw in the pictures, our games were limited only by our imagination. If we could think of it, we tried it. We held them underwater to see how long they could survive. We cut on them with a kitchen knife. When we tired of the “paint by number” kits, we camouflaged them in white and sent them into the Battle of the Bulge. We laid them on the railroad tracks to see how tough they really were. When Leon, with his shoes in his hands, was quietly slipping in past curfew after a date with one of the Houston sisters, we’d have army men strategically placed across the hall floor. He’d wake up the whole house dancing off of those things!
As we grew older, they matured right along with us. We learned to mix sulfur, potassium nitrate and charcoal into a crude form of gunpowder. Those faithful army men lined up and volunteered to be blown away. We meticulously placed the soldier looking though the binoculars and the guy with the rifle over his head on the concrete side porch, piled the explosives up to their knees, and lit the fuse. Whoosh! A lot of those volunteers lived through it only to be “blown up” again.
They can’t make a toy today with that much loyalty and dedication.
One Christmas we got a Red Ryder BB gun. We quickly tired of shooting at the cedar tree, the mailbox and each other. We “set up” our army men in the bank of the ditch that ran along the road in front of Aunt Jessie Killebrew’s house. We backed across the road, laid down in the opposite ditch, and went to picking off the soldiers one by one! We’d dig our spent BBs out of the dirt, reset the men, and fight till dark called us home.
We buried a time capsule—a mason jar filled with our most prized possessions— in that field behind the house. Included with the magnet, frog skeleton and Stan Musial baseball card was the kneeling machine gun man. You can’t pay a toy a higher tribute than that!
The week after Mom died I was rummaging around in the attic and came across the chard remains of the little green army man with the rifle held above his head. The tears carried me back to a braided rug, the warmth of a winter’s fire and a time and place that surrounded me with love. I wouldn’t trade nothing in the world for that childhood!
I set the lone soldier gently back in his place. I thought of the explosions and bullets he’d taken on my behalf. And here he stood, after all the years, silently defending the house to the very end……..
Let’s see one of those X Box One machines do that!