Army Men

Boys at Play

My father’s parents lived in an amazing spot. When first married, they had lived in an upstairs apartment in North Haven. But with two growing boys, they were ready to get out to the suburbs. When a Bussmann matriarch died, my grandfather bought her house in Short Beach and moved in next door to his Uncle Freddy.

The two-bedroom house was hardly more than a beach bungalow. It stood on the side of a terraced hill next to a tidal river, anchored to the ledge of the hillside. The cellar was half ledge and half poured and had a drain to let the little stream that came down the rocks flow on its way.

When I knew it, the house had a third bedroom, the old porch was closed in, and the many windows each had a custom storm and screen that we changed over in the spring and fall.

For me, the magic of the place, beyond the comforts of Grammy’s house, existed in the beach atmosphere, the jumble of buildings and stone walls, and the mix of children to play with. And especially the three boys my age who lived next door.

One brother, tall and blonde, was older than me by a year or more. Then there were red-headed twins several months younger. When we got done fighting to establish the pecking order, we would usually settle on playing either hide-and-seek (if there were younger children in the mix), or Army.

I was an only child until I was almost eleven. I had a friend or two in my neighborhood, but many of my outdoor games were solitary, sometimes involving my dog, or a game geared for two boys, usually involving throwing something. So, when I got together with a group of kids my age I was often odd man out. But Army was a free-for-all, for which suited me well.

The twins had wooden toy rifles that resembled and M1. The older boy, Marty, had something that resembled an old 1911 semi-auto pistol. There were no implements of war in Grammy’s house, but the boys often had spare guns that would suit. Or sometimes I would bring a gun I had, which looked more like what we saw on the evening news clips from Viet Nam.

Normally, the rules of the game of Army involved trying to live the longest, usually by arguing about why the other guy had missed hitting you with a clean shot. But my favorite part of the game was getting shot. I loved to fall. And like Buzz Lightyear, I could fall with style.

Falling off of a stone wall taller than me was a great trick. There was soft lawn to land on, so it was just a matter of landing well. Rolling across the hood of a car or falling out of a tree were good tricks, too. There was a sand pile to roll down and plenty of hillsides to roll down, too.

The other boys got into the falling concept, too. Soon it was more a contest of who could be more dramatic than who was the best shot. Our mothers didn’t appreciate the grass stains on our clothes, but our war games wore us out and kept us from punching each other, so they didn’t complain too much.

And as for who won the drama award, no doubt it was me. One day while hiding in a tree, I got into a hornets’ nest, literally. I ran screaming when they started to sting, reaching up onto my shoulders and crushing the hornets between my fingers as I pulled them off. Twelve stings caused me to put on quite a show as I ran toward the cover of the basement. And my back looked like I had taken shrapnel from a grenade.

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