War is Swell

My body hit the ground like a fifty pound bag of potatoes. I had sprinted across the open ground with Private Mike Elfland on my left and Sergeant Major Robby Kaplan on my right, all three of us cut off from our battalion. We had kept our heads low and prayed that the enemy fire didn’t hit its mark (namely, us) before we could find some decent cover. We had just about reached a huge dirt mound when we saw the grenade hit the ground between me and Private Elfland. One of us yelled, “Grenade! Go! Go! Go!”, I don’t remember who. Hell it could have been me for all I know. We hustled over the dirt mound, desperate to get a five foot pile of solid earth between us and the explosion that was about to come. 

When I got to the top of the mound, for whatever reason, I just jumped. Springing into the air like I expected the other side of the mound to be a swimming pool on a lovely summer day. But instead, I belly flopped onto the hard ground, sliding a couple of feet before I came to a stop, dirt filling my nostrils and mouth. For a second or two, we all just laid there. I heard Kaplan yell, “I’ve been hit!” But I was too busy trying to catch the wind that had just gotten knocked out of me to roll over and check on him. I managed to sit up, quickly scan the scrapes on my elbows, and pick a few leaves out of my hair. Where was my helmet? It was probably the same place that my M-16 had landed. Great. No helmet and no rifle.

I glanced to my left and saw Elfland crouching down, his M-16 still in his grasp, looking up at the top of the mound, as if expecting that space to be filled with the silhouettes of enemy soldiers any second now. He was smart enough to have scrambled down the safe side of the mound, unlike myself, who momentarily thought I could fly. To my right, Kaplan was holding his right thigh. I couldn’t make out what had hit him. Maybe shrapnel from the grenade, maybe a hot round of lead from an enemy rifle. Either one was bad news.

We all heard the voices and scrambling feet of the enemy soldiers on the other side of the mound, coming to finish us off. There was no time to look for my rifle, so I pulled my Colt 1911 from its holster and aimed at the top of the mound. Time seemed to freeze as we waited for them to crest the small hill. Kaplan had forgotten about his leg, his rifle at the ready, getting a bead on the top of the hill. With any luck, we could turn this into an ambush. At least enough to take a few of them with us before they mowed us down.

At the first sight of the heads of the enemies peeking over the top, we all yelled, “BLAM! BAM BAM! CH-CH-CH-CH-CH-CH! BLAM! BLAM! We got you! You’re dead!”

The other soldiers looked down at us like we were idiots. Sergeant Jimmy Elfland, Mike’s older brother was the first to speak up, “Oh bull crap! You guys were already dead from my grenade! You shouldn’t have even crawled over the mound because I blew all your legs off!”

“No way!” I yelled back, “Grenades don’t blow up for like five seconds or something!”

“No duh,“ Jimmy shot back, “That’s why I held it for a count of three before I threw it, dummy!”

The argument went on like this for some time. 

Every time we played war, it almost always devolved into who shot who, or how hiding under a truck is cheating, or how so-and-so’s yard is out of bounds or whatever. It was part of the game. 

By the way, the grenade was a pine cone.

That my friends, is what we called “Playing War”.

It’s rather odd to think about these days, but playing war was a pretty serious staple pastime among kids my age back in the day. Today, war is not so attractive and frivolous. We now know about the true ugliness it brings. We see the soldiers come home with missing limbs and we’ve felt our hearts break when watching a loved one deal with the cruel horrors of PTSD. We’ve seen the footage, often coming to us live on the major cable news outlets, of civilians having their homes and neighborhoods decimated by bombs and missiles. We hear about the woefully underfunded and ill-prepared VA hospitals unable to properly care for the men and women who fought often unnecessary wars, so that we could go on living our peacefully ignorant lives back home. 

But there was a time when we, mostly out of ignorance, gleefully ate up the concept of war in the form of products, entertainment and pastimes. During President Ronnie Raygun’s early to mid 80s, war was processed, homogenized, repackaged and sold back to us to consume at will. Rambo and Chuck Norris riddled our movie screens with bullet holes from ridiculously giant machine guns held in one hand. Realistic toy weapons were a staple under Christmas trees all over America, just slightly scaled down so little kid fingers could reach the triggers. And some of our most glorified heroes, coming at us from after school cartoons, comic books and action figures, were touted as “Real American Heroes”.

I guess it was just a different time.

As a kid born in the 70s and raised in the 80s, I was just as susceptible to the glamorous repacking of war that was sold to us all on a daily basis as any other kid my age. And as I look back on it, I admit I cringe a little, but it’s mixed with that halcyon sweetness of nostalgia. It’s honestly a strange combination of flavors when you try to swallow them both at the same time. Regardless, I do still find myself fondly looking back to when ignorance was bliss.

As a father today, I recently found myself at a moral crossroads when my son finally became old enough to salivate at the sight of an aisle full of gleaming, brightly colored Nerf weapons. I understood the lizard-brain need to find objects that can be used as a weapon. Give a three year old a stick and it instantly becomes a spear or a sword. Find one with an offshoot section of branch at 45 to 90 degree angle and they’ve now got themselves a gun. So how could I win against row after row of neatly displayed firepower, complete with Gatling drums and pump action handles, even if they only shot harmless foam darts and were molded in neon greens and oranges?

When I was a kid, playing war was not only okay, but it was serious business. If you wanted to fit in with the other neighborhood kids, you had to be ready to go into battle. And the cooler you looked going into battle, the cooler you were in the eyes of your peers. Toy companies from the 40s on up to the 90s knew this, and made damn sure they provided us kids with weapons that looked and felt as realistic as possible, whether its a trusty cowboy six-shooter or a battery-powered automatic cap firing Uzi. I remember a line of toy weapons advertised on TV and in comic books called “The Real Deal”, and their draw was that the toys looked so much like the real thing that you could fool your parents. Good lord. Can you imagine that today? Of course, this was long before wiser heads prevailed and someone figured out that less kids would get accidentally shot by police if they made the gun in neon colors, and eventually in absurd fantasy shapes just for good measure.

But during my time in the “Backyard Army”, it was all about realism. I had my M-16 that went “Rak-rak-rak-rak-rak-rak” when you pulled the trigger. I had my trusty .45 semi automatic M-1911 sidearm that fired a strip of plastic caps as fast as my little finger could pull the trigger. And, of course, I had my “Rambo knife”, which was a plastic reproduction of the classic survival knife, complete with one serrated edge to the blade, a compass on the butt and a hole in the crossguard for when my M-16 needed a bayonet attachment. You know… so I could stab the neighbor kid. And of course, I had my plastic replica army helmet for that true gritty soldier-of-fortune magazine cover look.

Some of the luckier kids even had their own child size military fatigues. As a fourth grader who regularly strived for authenticity in my neighborhood battle reenactments, that was just about the coolest thing I had ever seen. But from what I gathered they were hard to come by. You had to have a parent that was willing to drive up to Ann Arbor, Michigan to the nearest Army/Navy surplus store and buy you a set. And since my mom was a former march-in-the-streets peace loving hippie, there was no way she was going to go in for that nonsense. I’m pretty sure she barely tolerated my growing toy arsenal as it was. So I had to make due with a pair sandy-brown jeans and an olive green t-shirt. But if I rolled around in the dirt enough, they eventually began to take on a camouflage quality.

And even the coldest days in the dead of winter couldn’t stop us from playing war. When you couldn’t get outside to yell “BAM!” and shoot your neighborhood chums, you could always count on hunkering down on the living room carpet with a pile of little plastic green Army men, for a guaranteed fun afternoon. Toy Army men were the staple of staples when you were a kid back then. Every Christmas I always found a fresh new bag of recruits ready to replace the battered soldiers that either got lost in the backyard, or blown to smithereens with a firecracker, or carefully dismembered with a pocket knife, complete with painted on blood thanks to the small jar of fire engine red nail polish that I swiped from my mom’s stash.

And you weren’t limited to only toy soldiers. You could have tanks, Jeeps, Howitzers, B-52 Bombers, little plastic sandbags, razor wire and lookout towers. Hell, I even got a set once that came with miniature plastic palm trees for those surprise attack beach landings. And if you were really clever (which I was), you’d strategically wad up a tan or green blanket (it was just post-70s, every house had an old tan or green blanket around) to use as your battle terrain. You’d carefully lay out one end as flat ground or beach, then smush and jumble up the middle for dunes and foothills, then top it all off with some poofed up spires for mountain attacks, which made natural high ground advantages and valley passes that were perfect for ambushes.

We even took our toy Army man play to the next level and developed some rudimentary rules of engagement. For example, you would have a short pencil and a long pencil. You each took turns either strategically moving your guys the length of the short pencil until you were within range (the length of the long pencil) to fire on an enemy. We had a couple of different ways of firing on each other; we would either carefully aim and flick a marble at the opponent’s figure, hopefully hitting it, or we would both roll dice and whoever got the higher number won. If the shooter got the higher number, then they hit the opponent. If the opponent got the higher number, the shooter missed. This system worked great and got more and more complex as we got older. At one point we had a series of differently sized balls of tin foil that we would drop from shoulder height on a group of enemy soldiers to mimic a mortar shell explosion. This was long before any of us knew about real war gaming (which is a thing) or were introduced to the battle systems found in Dungeons & Dragons. Thinking about it now, we were pretty brilliant if I do say so myself.

But out of all the war-themed toys that were made available to us in those days, nothing, and I mean nothing, was a bigger deal to me and many other kids than the one and only G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero.

G.I. Joe started out as a larger 12-inch tall figure with real clothes and a slew of weapons and gear. Scores of books have been written about the origins of the original G.I. Joe toys so I won’t go into a lengthy history lesson here. However, by the time G.I. Joe was re-imagined and rereleased as a highly posable 3 3/4” tall figure, I was well into the depths of my love for action figures (see more about that in another chapter) and primed for something new and exciting.

G.I Joe: A Real American Hero was released in 1982. By that time, I was at a crossroads in my personal fandom and it showed in my toy choices. This was two years after the heady days of Empire Strikes Back fever and I had yet to discover Masters of the Universe (which would hold a neck and neck spot as my favorite toy line alongside G.I. Joe for the next couple of years). I was completely enamored with both Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T., but E.T. toys were practically non-existent and what they had released was pretty lackluster. Kenner did a fantastic job on the Raiders of the Lost Ark toy line, but didn’t take it very far, possibly due to sales. So there I was in 1982 with Christmas quickly approaching and my poor mother without a clue as to what I wanted under the tree that year.

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving of that year, I found myself in a K-mart with my cousins during a trip back to Kankakee, Illinois, where my dad’s side of the family was all located at the time (and incidentally, where I was born). I was perusing the toy aisles with my cousins Carla and Angela, while our parents shopped for who knows what in another part of the store, when my eyes fell on a humble display of a new action figure line. The figures were mostly decked out in military olive greens. The logo on the packaging flew the colors of red, white and blue. Each character was lovingly painted on the front of the backer cards with a violent explosive burst behind them, as if they had just detonated an incendiary device inside an enemy bunker and could feel the heat of the conflagration on their backs. They were, by far, the coolest action figures I had ever seen.

Look at all their guns! That one has a clear visor on his helmet! This one is a female Counter Intelligence agent with throwing stars on her glove! That guy is a Green Beret and covered in camouflage! And look at this dude! He’s completely cloaked in black from head to toe and he has an Uzi!

I practically swooned right there on the spot. I had never seen so much action and excitement packed into a series of action figures before in my life. I remember picking up a bearded blonde guy, Codename: Rock-n-Roll, who came with an M60 heavy machine gun. I could scarcely believe what I was looking at. I then flipped over the card and my eyes landed on the file card on the back, complete with each character’s civilian name (unless unknown), primary and secondary combat specialties, and a brief bio. That was it. I was in love.

A quick glance at the price, a whopping $1.95 each, and some quick math told me that the $15 in my pocket meant that I was leaving that K-mart with no less than seven new action figures in my hands. That was practically an instant collection! But then came the hard part, I had to choose which ones. And this was no easy task when the next figure was just as amazing as the previous one you looked at. But time was short. My Parents weren’t going to let me just stand there all night being indecisive. And what if another kid came walking up and experienced the same near-religious feeling of new toy rapture that I just felt? I can’t let that loser get his grubby mitts on this newfound joy before I got my pick of the litter.

After settling on going for variety (which seemed to be a major selling point of these figures, anyway), and a little impatient rushing from my older cousin, Carla, I finally narrowed it down to the lucky seven that were coming home with me; Scarlett, Flash, Stalker, Rock-n-Roll, Breaker, Cobra Officer (the one bad guy I could find) and of course, the man in black himself, Snake Eyes. This was love at first sight. Taking them out of their packaging and playing with them was a mind-blowing experience. Up until then, my action play had been limited to five measly points of articulation; at the neck, shoulders and hips. But these guys had knees! These guys had elbows! These guys had waists that twisted and turned from left to right and forward and back!

Believe it or not, my mom was actually happy that I had found something to put on my Christmas list that year. As far as I was concerned, I wanted G.I. Joe and nothing but G.I. Joe. And, as she always did, mom came through that following Christmas morning. I gleefully ripped open present after present to the glorious sight of that red, white and blue G.I. Joe logo. I got the Cobra soldier, Short Fuse, Grunt, Zap and Breaker. I got the Heavy Artillery Laser with Grand Slam, the Mobile Missile System with Hawk and the Vamp Attack Vehicle with Clutch. I even had enough proofs of purchase to send away for the leader of the world’s worst terror organization, Cobra Commander.

For the next couple of years, G.I Joe would become a part of my life almost on par with that of Star Wars. Soon, an animated TV series was launched, which I watched religiously. An incredibly well-written comic book was released by Marvel Comics, which I read religiously. The characters, so richly imbued with personality by Larry Hama at Marvel comics and the writers of the animated series, started to feel like friends to me. And as far as I was concerned, I wanted my friends’ images emblazoned on every product I bought or asked for. I had G.I. Joe Colorforms, G.I. Joe bubble bath, fuzzy G.I. Joe sweatbands (which I wore to school and managed not to get beat up), a G.I. Joe sleeping bag to cozy up into while I watched yet another airing of the animated G.I. Joe movie. I would go on to collect other waves of G.I. Joe figures and vehicles for probably a little longer than I should have, if I’m being honest (much to my father’s dismay, I might add). I was getting older, yes, but I just couldn’t resist such characters like Destro, the Baroness, Storm Shadow, Quick Kick, Roadblock, Barbecue, Snow Job, Torpedo, Gung Ho, Zartan and so many others.

They were a new kind of hero for me. They were brave, and fearless, and tireless. They always ran toward the spot where the danger was the thickest. Their strength was their camaraderie and trust within one another. They were rough and gritty, covered in the soil of the battlefield and the soot of burning enemy tanks. These weren’t elegant, soft spoken space wizards or morally ambiguous scoundrel pilots in a galaxy ruled by an Emperor in a black bathrobe. These were down-in-the-trenches heroes with blood under their fingernails. They battled tyranny and terrorism whenever duty called. They never hesitated, never shrunk away from the fight. They fought for truth and justice under the ever-waving flag of America. And they did it all… by blowing up their enemies with high explosives and thousands upon thousands of rounds of ammunition, leaving a smoking trail of good old fashion American destruction in their wake. Hmmm…

Well… Like I said, it was a different time. Yo Joe.

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