playing army

"Winter Army Games"

By Jeff Owenby

This tale is taken from a soldier's diary who fought bazillions of great military battles, engaged in countless rigid campaigns, and traversed many foreign lands within a six-block locale. As a boy of eight years, playing army was the most fun imaginable. Each season of the year brought with it its own challenges and expectations, and each was met with furious deliberation and fiery determination. No neighborhood went unscathed; no battleground was without the blood and sweat of numerous engagements soaked into its soil. Casualties were high, and not one of us was left unaffected. We marked our dead with Popsicle sticks in the ground and moved on to the next fight.

I was nine years old when the rifle fire had momentarily ceased. The cold was so sharp and biting that I felt as if the tip of my nose had been frost bitten. We were still alive, but barely. The enemy had a fortified location across the way and had the cover of a hedge row to move back and forth between their lines. My squad was dug in behind the rubble of a bombed out church. We had no wounded, but were nonetheless casualties as we were tired, and hungry, and freezing. Supplies were short; our canteens were empty and we had no more Good N' Plentys.

We also had to be home by noon for lunch, so whatever action necessary to prod our enemy into making a bad move had to be reconciled at that very moment. Unfortunately, the sissies got cold and wanted to go home and watch TV. And this ends my sad story of one of the most horrific battles for me in World War II.

The year was 1963. We were engaged in the European theatre of war, and had just taken a small village in France where German occupation was high. The bombed out church where my squad held the line was in reality our neighbor's Rambler station wagon. The village was the neighborhood of SE 62nd Avenue between Clatsop and Flavel streets. Though the distance was quite a span, there were other things to consider. There were land mines (puddles), snipers, (kids who might be willing to play if you shared your candy with them), and enemy tanks (approaching trucks whose drivers waived at you giving away your position). If that wasn't bad enough, our own commanding officer screamed out "J-E-F-F-F-F-, time to come in for lunch!" Other soldiers had similar commands.

So, cutting through all the military red tape, there is a story buried in this particular foxhole. And quite unlike the scenario described above, we were quite prepared for a long patrol. Canteens were at the ready, filled with chocolate milk. Cartridge belts were fully equipped with not only Good N' Plentys, but Tootsie Rolls, Red Hots, Licorice, and anything else worth buying in the penny candy shelves at the B & F Market. It was a freezing day in January. After acquiring a multitude of actual army surplus gear, I bundled up for what I had planned to be an epic game of Army.

My brother Pat, a bunch of kids from the block, and myself, went out to play army. We clanked and rattled with our toy guns and actual military gear. Aside from the candy-stuffed cartridge belt, I had an official Army back pack, mess kit, and shovel. As an eight year old kid, high adventure was always welcome, and find it, we did. Long patrols were serious business which was why we needed so much candy; discussing a plan of attack sounded so much more authentic when mumbled through a mouthful of Tootsie Roll.

First, as any tight military unit would be, we prepared for the elements. Sweatshirts and jackets were donned, as were rubber boots for the land mines of puddles. In certain fields near our houses, patches of puddles and wet grass were abundant, so boots were not only really cool to wear, but mandatory. As we trekked our way down 62nd avenue, some of the other kids got cold and decided to go back home to play inside. The rest of us die hards marched forward, ignoring the cold, the pain, and the perpetual anguish of battle.

We hiked it, probably eight or nine blocks beyond our lines. Across Flavel Street, which was a busy two-lane thoroughfare, we ventured into enemy lines. Taking a short cut, we took refuge in the backyard of our friend David's house. It just so happened that his mom and mine were the best of friends, and my mom was over visiting. While they talked for hours about girl stuff, we set up an outpost in the back yard.

David and my brother Pat got the brainy idea of collecting wood to make a campfire. After finding suitable burning material, they proceeded to use old newspaper for kindling until a suitable blaze engulfed chunks of tree branches and found two-by-fours. The smell of wood smoke on a frigid winter morning was very delightful. As the dry wood crackled and popped, we used my army surplus mess kit, and proceeded to make oatmeal over the fire. As a mission in general, it was quite successful. When the oatmeal was ready, Pat and David couldn't resist running into the house with the mess kit and declaring "Got any sugar?"

All said and done, the backyard campfire did not meet with favor, and we soldiers were reprimanded and put on report. Still, this one is one of my most cherished memories, and those wonderful, carefree days of playing army were among the best times in my life.