Playing Soldier

Flashlight beams cut across the hillside, weaving lighted patterns through the tall grass, limbs of trees, and broken mess of undergrowth. I was on my belly… trying to low crawl up the hill. The game was simple. A few boys would be the “defenders” armed with flashlights while the other boys… the “attackers” would attempt to sneak up and capture the objective. If a flashlight beam lit you up, you were dead and had to return to the bottom of the hill and attempt again the slow and low crawl up. The objective was an old stone chimney from a ruined… a heap of stones… farmstead, dated early 1900s, that sat on my family’s farm. The game could only be played at night… it is too easy to spot the attackers in daylight. The defenders sat in one place and the attackers crawled. Defenders searched the darkness with flashlights. Darkness assisted the attackers and rendered the defenders almost sightless… thin lighted beams… thin tunnels of light were the only way a defender could maintain his dominance by the objective… the chimney.

This game would last for hours… best played with 3 on 3. Six teenage boys playing soldier… we were always camouflaged. High school stars and studs we were not. Fascination with guns, war, and the military were not the ways to garner respect among peers. While I crawled forward, I did not think of what my teen peers were doing on this Friday or Saturday night, instead I focussed on staying low and attempting to conquer the objective. Singular in purpose… I moved forward and up the hill getting wet and dirty… I imagined myself some soldier with a wartime goal… winning all for God and country.

Later… following the bragging and denial of winning and losing… we would sit around a campfire and discuss different tactics… or the proper way to load combat equipment. We were bedecked in vintage military equipment and clothing. Weapon stats were discussed in heated exchanges… the argument always centering around the perfect assault rifle or pistol. For me, the AK 47 always won out… a durable and steady weapon that rarely jammed… a jammed weapon in combat could mean the difference in life or death… I had read this in a book. I had no loyalty to American or NATO made weapons… I prefered the weapon that was deadly and reliable.

If we weren’t attempting to capture 86 year-old stone chimneys, we were “patrolling” the farm… imagining enemy ambushes. Stealth movement became a vain attempt of boys with no military experience or training. What we knew was based on movies and books… we were continuing a type of game play that boys had been doing since the dawn of age. Imagined heroics at war is the dream of many a young boy. By the end of each patrol, we would become nothing more than a gaggle of excited talk and exaggerated movements… one tires of fake and ghostly enemies. Sometimes opposing sides would be drawn up and ambushes executed with the typical disagreement on who died, who survived, and which side won… this too was based on the typical boyhood nature of admitting defeat when obvious and denying death when the circumstances were questionable. There were no referees… an honor system was expected and executed.

Today, the smell of wet grass and the feeling of dirt on my skin make me feel emotionally mixed. I have crawled on my family farm as a boy and then crawled in places near and far as a soldier. Crawling in grass is not an imagined experience… but a real and powerful memory. Fall and Spring are better seasons for crawling… summertime heat can be overpowering… grass, dirt, sandy and loamy soil would grind into you. Winter is wet… the earth and grass soaks one’s uniform… either issued by the Army or bought at a surplus store. The soaking continues once the crawling is done… seeping deep inside and makes you chilled for hours or days. Regardless of the season… you remain constantly dirty.

With the mixed feeling of grass and dirt, there is the strange relationship with weapons. As a boy in Tennessee, I had fired shotguns, pistols, and deer rifles. I had a friend whose dad was a gun collector… this friend had numerous semi-automatic versions of standard military weapons. Nothing illegal… but close civilian versions… cold, dark, and sensual in their deadliness. I knew the kick of 7.62mm rifle and knew the procedure of correcting a jammed round in a 1911 .45 cal pistol. Learning these weapons as a teen seemed to equal other boys’ experience with cars… however, my lust wasn’t for automobiles… but for weapons.

Later, in the Army, I experienced the pleasure… delightful powerful pleasure… in firing powerful weapons… the M60, the hog of Vietnam… the SAW (squad automatic weapons), a lighter and more modern version of the M60… the M16 and M4… I learned how to set the head space and timing on a .50 cal machine gun… I learned that it took a lot of gun oil to ensure that an M19 40mm grenade launcher did not jam. From these smaller weapons to larger ones, I learned the deadly profession of large-caliber weapons. I felt the rush of firing a 25mm Bushmaster cannon on an M3 Bradley infantry fighting vehicle (IFV). I learned how to load and fire a 60mm mortar… and finally I learned how to load and fire howitzers. Pumping rounds downrange become a skill that I perfected… seeing those rounds go downrange is definitely a way to make a man a boy again… there is a rush… a sexual tingling of power.

This real and professional use of weaponry overshadowed my youthful play. It was no longer play. Gun oil became the smell of the office. The physical experience of loading and carrying a weapon… the presence of a weapon sitting in a holster or shouldered became the equivalent of a wearing a suit and tie. In conjunction of learning how to handle and carry weapons, I learned how to maintain and drive military vehicles… both tracked and wheeled. Driving military vehicles… the Army actually licensed me… over broken terrain makes any idea of going mudding in an ATV seem infantile. These things became my professional skills. All skills that one could put on a resume… but skills that left one wondering really what your professional experience was… what is the value in knowing how to load and fire a weapon in the civilian world.

Dirt, grass, gun oil, and military vehicles all have distinctive smells. Smells that immediately trigger memories. The memory of being cold, wet, and dirty are also distinctive. Senses associated with all of this gives me the mixed blessing of remembering a childhood of games and an adult life of professional military experience.

I often ponder if I would repeat my youthful play if I knew how my life would turn a game into a profession. I wonder if I would be so keen to assume that playing soldier is harmless fun. Societies require soldiers… young boys… and being a responsible member of society, I always assumed it was my role to be a soldier. Those other boys I grew up with… playing soldier with… have grown up and none entered the regular Army like I did… they too became responsible citizens… fathers… husbands… professionals in their own right… I wonder though, do they just fondly remember the game on that hill… the smell and feel of wet grass… the lure of weapons. I know that lure, smell, feel, and memory of these things no longer hold the immature fascination that once caused me to spend a weekend night playing soldier. I know that I grew up.

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