When we were kids, my brother and I were crazy about playing war. We didn’t play cowboys and Indians though, we thought that was for sissies. We played army. We thought of ourselves as hardcore soldiers. Our favorite TV shows were Combat and Hogan’s Heroes. My brother and I had plastic army helmets, the toy rifles, the canteens, and we used branches and twigs for camouflage. Mom would get upset if we used her green eye shadow and black mascara to paint our faces in camouflage.
Any rock or dirt clod was well suited for us to be used as an imaginary hand grenade. If we ran out of grenades we would simply pick up a “Potato Masher” grenade that had been thrown at us by a Gerry, to throw it back, before it exploded. By pulling on a handful of long grass, we were able to pull it up by the roots. If done right, the grass came out of the earth with a dirt clod on the end. This served as the “Potato Masher” grenade, that when thrown back at the Gerry machine gun nest we were about to overrun.
The hills behind our home became our battlefield. One day we would walk out our back gate into the hills, and we would find ourselves on Guadalcanal. The next day we were at Normandy. We saw many days of imaginary battle.
I was the youngest of all our friends and out of all the boys in my family. I wasn’t always happy with my role in some of our war games. My older brother, my cousin, and their friends always got to be the American soldiers. As the youngest, I always had to be a Jap or a Gerry. Then I would get captured and I was relegated to Jap, or Gerry POW status. This meant that I would not get to have a weapon, and that I would spend most of our play time tied to a tree, or a fence post. This was to prevent my escape.
One day I protested, and I demanded that I was to be an American G.I. I thought, that If I was an American, that I wouldn't have to be tied up. Moreover, I would get to have a weapon. The other boys agreed to my demand. So, I got to be an American POW. They were one step ahead of me. I spent all my time weaponless and tied up. I felt gypped. Today I look back upon those days fondly, even the times when the older boys picked on me.
We were just innocent schoolboys back then. We were unaware that there was so much turmoil and unrest on the social scene, back then. My Mom and my step-dad were able to shelter us from the nightly news reports of what was actually happening in the world. We did not know that a war was raging in a place we had never heard of. A place called Vietnam.
My step-dad complained about people called ‘Hippies’ who were always protesting about something. But we didn't really know what they protested. Dad said they hated our soldiers, that they were downright ugly and disrespectful of our soldiers. But, we didn't know why anyone would act like that towards soldiers.
As I would learn years later, the Zodiac killer was also prominent in the news. The Zodiac had caused the San Francisco Bay Area to become paralyzed with fear. The Black Panthers were also in the news reports of the day. Carrying assault weapons on the streets of Oakland as a political movement. There was so much unrest that we were unaware of.
The only thing we knew of the outside world was that Americans had recently walked on the moon. More missions were being planned for the Apollo space program. And we relished watching anything that had to do with NASA, and space exploration. The best part for us was that all of the astronauts in the Apollo program were also American soldiers!
We didn’t know, or understand much about Vietnam. As far as my brother and I were concerned, soldiers were to be looked up to. Soldiers were our heroes, and we were prideful that our nation had been victorious in WWII, a war which had ended just over two decades ago. To us, the Japanese and Germans were still the enemy, and when we played war with our friends, not one of us wanted to be a stinking Jap, or a lowdown Gerry. This is the way it was. In those days, we got to be kids, unburdened with the ugliness of the outside world.
In 1969 I was but a naive six year old boy. My older brother was eight. As we did every summer, we hopped a flight aboard the now defunct PSA airlines, from Oakland to Phoenix. My brother and I were going to see my dad. Our folks had divorced a few years earlier and my dad had us for two weeks over summer vacation.
As we were about to get onto the plane, my brother and I walked across the tarmac escorted by a stewardess. We always thought the stewardesses were pretty. The stewardess assisted us as we climbed the stairs to the plane, and as she showed us to our seats. She made sure that we were all buckled in. My brother got sit by the porthole, and I was in the middle seat. As we could looked out the porthole we could see Mom waiting for the plane to take off. Other people began boarding the plane. Some people settled in and smoked cigarettes while they waited for the no smoking light to come on. Others moved about the cabin to stow their belongings, then to take their seats.
I remember sitting impatiently on the plane as we waited to pull away from the gate. That was always exciting for us. My brother and I looked around impatiently as we waited. Looking up, I saw a soldier making his way down the aisle. My brother spied him too. Both our eyes were riveted on him. We immediately knew that the soldier had to be a general, or something. He had a chest full of colorful ribbons. To us, he appeared to be an old guy too. He was tall, and he was a Negro, just like Reggie Jackson was, of the Oakland A’s. We hadn’t seen too many Negroes in our time growing up in the suburbs. Now, a Negro, and a real soldier was making his way down the aisle towards us.
When the soldier reached our row of seats, he sat down, right next to us! We couldn't believe our good luck! A soldier was seated right next to my brother and me. We were dumbfounded. All of the sudden the two of us, formerly rambunctious, loud little boys, had became shy. We couldn’t even muster up the courage to look at the man. The only thing I could think of was that this man must have killed hundreds of Japs and Gerries in hand-to-hand combat, to get all those ribbons on his chest. My brother and I just didn't know what to do, or to say to him.
As the door closed and the engines revved up, the plane began to move. Looking out the porthole, Mom waved to us. We waved back. The plane taxied from the gate and soon was gaining speed as it moved down the runway and climbed into the sky.
Soon, the pretty stewardess came around with drinks. I remember I took a Coke. My brother did too. I also remember that my brother had a knack for cracking me up, at just the right moment, when I was taking a drink. Ultimately, Coca Cola would squirt out my nose. As usual, my brother once again pulled his stunt. I cracked up, and Coca Cola came streaming, and foaming out of my nose.
When I stopped sputtering and giggling, a large, strong and dark hand appeared in front of me with a napkin. I can remember that I sheepishly took the napkin from the man and I thanked him. I began to clean the Cola from my face, my shirt my clip-on bow tie, and from my jacket. Then, I glanced sideways and studied the soldier sitting next to me as I worked up some courage. Finally, I looked up at the man and asked, “Are you a real army man?”
“Yes, I am.” He said with a hint of a smile. "I am a corporal in the U.S. Amy." He said.
My brother asked, “Are all those ribbons and medals on your chest from killin’ Japs n’ Gerries?”
“No”, he said. “I got these from doing other things in the army. I never killed a Jap or a Gerry.” He went on, “Don’t you boys know it’s rude to ask a soldier if he’s killed someone in battle? Killing enemy soldiers is hurtful and troublesome to American soldiers. Those enemy soldiers have wives and little boys just like you.”
“We didn’t mean to say anything wrong, mister.” My brother replied.
The soldier answered back, “Of course not, son. I’m just pointing out some good manners for you to use later, when you see another soldier. All you need to do is to thank him for being brave and for doing his duty in protecting you and your country. That’s his job and he’s glad to do it for you. But, don’t ask him about the ugly things of war, like killing. That’s private and some soldiers feel sad that they had to do it, even when it was necessary. OK?” The soldier smiled at us.
My brother and I made chit-chat with the soldier for the rest of the flight. As we landed in Phoenix, and as the plane taxied to the gate, the soldier took two off two of the ribbons from his chest. He then reached over and he pinned one on my brother's lapel, and one on mine.
As the stewardess took us off the plane, before the rest of the passengers disembarked, we said goodbye to our new soldier friend. We puffed our chests out with pride. We had an honest for goodness medal, from an honest to goodness, real soldier, pinned on our chests!
The memory of my encounter with an American military man made a profound impact in my life. I had learned a valuable lesson from him. Over time, as I matured, I learned other lessons. I learned to always be grateful for the service to our country that these fine men and women provide to our nation. I learned what not to ask a soldier, so that I would never hurt their feelings. I learned war causes pain for our soldiers, for some of the tasks that they must undertake while fighting wars are not pleasant ones. I learned that war is an ugly affair. As ugly as war is, I learned that war is a necessary evil.
That day on the plane took place over 40 years ago. It has stuck with me ever since. Every so often I think of that soldier, and I wonder how his life may have turned out. I wonder if he remembers two little boys on a plane bound to Phoenix. I am sure that he would be happy to know that he made a positive impact in our lives. He taught us to appreciate soldiers and to understand the human side of a soldier, if just a little bit.
To him, and to all other soldiers who have served in war and in peace, I share another lesson taught to me by that soldier on the plane,
To always stop and thank a soldier for their service and sacrifices for our country.
I wish I knew who that man is today. I'd like to shake his hand and thank him for his service to our country.
Please pray for our soldiers.
(Repost) - Copyright 05/02/2005 & 08/272010. Use granted to all who identify this website