Military service is a much more popular career choice now than when I was a young man. While public antipathy had ebbed from the poop-flinging, hippie-spitting antics common during the height of the Viet-nam conflict, wearing an ROTC uniform on campus didn’t exactly make me a babe-magnet. The kindest comment usually involved my military aspirations being motivated by not having brothers to play army with when I was in grade school.
…a comment that wasn’t all that far off. Living on a homestead in Sterling (AK) with only my four sisters for company left me with little prospects for recruiting playmates (oops!) squad-mates. Living in Anchorage had been a different case entirely when on any given day there were at least two armies headquartered in Mrs. Green’s fifth grade class. These two armies were usually under the command of either Mark Davis or myself with national identity alternating between Americans and Germans, depending on who looked coolest on the latest episode of Combat!
That type of play was not happening when we subsequently moved to the Kenai Peninsula where I encountered a reverse sophistry in place. You’d assume that an urban institution would be much hipper and “grown-up” than a country school but the opposite proved to be the case: while imagination games were accepted at Woodland Park Elementary the kids at Sterling were much more interested in sports (and the female body). It may have been a natural change in attitude for that particular age so it was possible the Anchorage kids were embracing older interests at the same time but as the change in attitude happened at the same time as a change in locale I missed the memo and ended up being mocked unmercifully by my Sterling classmates for playing “baby games”. 1
Eventually I smartened up and learned to blend in at school by talking tough and playing sports during recess but at home my spare time was still taken up with living room maneuvers with my plastic soldiers, writing to former comrades-in-arms back in Anchorage or (on warmer days) getting outside to run and fight the phantom armies of my imagination. Such activities were good for passing the time, but I never had as much fun as I’d previously had back in Anchorage with my buddies. Sadly, the situation didn’t look to get better anytime soon as there was little hope for recruiting the manpower to fill the roster for an elementary school infantry squad.
Then a solution came to me one evening as my whole family was gathered together watching Sink the Bismarck! on TV. As I looked at the faces around me transfixed by the on-screen action I realized the answer to my manpower shortage was in fact girl power – my three little sisters who had had been pestering me to join in the war effort from the day I got my first Mattel Tommy-burst. All along they’d been sitting right next to me watching Combat! and The Gallant Men, and had been bitten by the imagination adventure bug, but in my grade school chauvinism I had classified all three of them as 3-F: three little females with no business on the battle field whatsoever.
It appeared that in the intervening year or so all three of my little sisters had grown out of their toddler clumsiness and would make good soldiers. It also appeared that the tom-boy gene figured prominently in their DNA and they could all shoot and scoot right alongside of me without missing a step. What’s more each one also brought a unique skill that added to the play:
- Holly had the gait of a deer and made an outstanding scout.
- Heather was deceptively strong and was good at negotiating obstacles.
- Dana had a talent for camouflage and could literally hide behind a clump of grass.
They also collectively possessed something else that would add immensely to our experience: friends. There wasn’t a weekend that our squad strength was not augmented by the addition of Patty, Sandy, Bonnie or any number of the girls’ friends who were just as enthusiastic about pseudo-combat duty as they were.
I soon had them kitted out in mix of helmet liners, satchels, canteens, carry-cases that I had acquired as personal gifts, thrift store purchases or trade with other kids2, and I was able to issue each one of them at least two items of equipment. It was during the issue of this equipment that the experience took on an even more realistic Army flavor when Dana, the youngest and smallest of the three was invariably saddled down with the heaviest gear.
Once we were all equipped I started out with some very basic training:
- How to wear and use the wide assortment gear I’d come up with
- Basic terminology – as in using the term “weapon” instead of “gun”
- Marching in step was right out so I just taught them to all move in the same direction
- Proper use of our toy weapons to include proper sound effects3
One seemingly obvious training aid conspicuous by its omission was the use of pyrotechnics or in our case fireworks. At the time they were legal and when we lived in Anchorage my friends and I would add realism to our maneuvers by lighting off the occasional string of Black Cat firecrackers or peppering each other with torpedoes, a silver-colored munition about the size of a cherry bomb that would detonate on impact. With my sisters involved it seemed better to rule out firecrackers, a seemingly altruistic decision that in fact came about when I discovered the hard way that I couldn’t lead troops and chuck Black Cats at the same time.4
Despite our rural location one of our biggest problems was finding areas to train in. There was a real danger from wild animals like moose or bear so we had to stay relatively close to the house but as LTGEN Arthur Collins states in his excellent book Common Sense Training you don’t always have to have large areas to conduct good training. The outbuildings behind our home worked well for house-to-house combat and while the barbed wire fences around the horse pastures weren’t quite the impenetrable obstacles that concertina coils were, they could still prove to be tricky to negotiate and added an element of realism to the activity.
Both my mom and older sister were working at a cannery in Kasilof so there wasn’t much to distract us from our training. Other than the week I was at scout camp we spent the entire summer outside conducting operations, which says a lot when you consider that KENI TV began day-time television and Saturday morning cartoons in mid-June. The only reason we stacked arms and stood down in August was the start of school.
Like most aspects of my youth playing army didn’t abruptly stop but was slowly edged out by other activities competing for my attention. My relationship with my little sisters changed as well when I left Sterling Elementary for high school – it created an interest-gap just a little too wide to bridge. In the following years we would still have a good time playing outside but working every summer made it hard to keep the intensity going. Playing army slowing morphed into a combination of hide & seek and tag with undertones of James Bond, but as I continued to take on further outside interests and activities the time we used to spend running around the outdoors was replaced by Risk and other board games played inside.
Then I blinked my eyes and I was leaving home for college, mission and the “for-real” army where I would run my platoon through collective and individual combat skills in the same way I trained my little sisters. Another blink and I was no longer a soldier but still passing hard-won leadership skills on to students, Scouts and Scout leaders…then I blinked a third time and found that I was old, and my body was cashing all the checks my ego had written years ago.
Now any shooting and scooting in my life happens only in my memory.
1) It was my first exposure to mankind’s innate hypocrisy. All day long at school I was mocked for playing baby games (army), playing with baby toys (army men), and (gasp!) playing with dolls (G.I. Joe action figures). However, when George, Steve or any of the other kids at school came over to my house they’d make a bee-line for my Mattel Tommy-burst or my G.I. Joe, but the next morning at school they’d revert to type.
2) Between operations in the state during World War Two and the nearness of both Army and Air Forces bases Alaska was blessed with a plethora of surplus clothing and equipment. Quonset huts dotted the landscape, every contractor had at least one surplus Caterpillar tractor and thrift shops were loaded with personal gear.
3)There were several schools of thought on reproducing gunfire sound effects.
- Single shot was easy – a loud raspy “K” sound formed inside the back part of your mouth.
- The easiest machine-gun sound was a phonetic “duh-duh-duh” chanted out at low pitch.
- Another option was a variation on the single shot method, with the raspy “K” rapidly repeated.
- My favorite a combination of a tongue-stutter combined with a kind of deep gargling sound which a buddy’s veteran father told me sounded disturbingly similar to an MG42 in the distance.
4) The first accident involved a short-fused Black Cat that went off just as it left my fingers which required burn salve and bandages for a week. The second incident involved a torpedo that blew off the side of my sneaker. I didn’t wait for a third incident.