Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Toy Soldiers

(OK, this is nuts. I just came across a stapled together little magazine called "OFFERINGS 71", which was from Harvard Divinity school when I was there. It was part of 'The Festival of Religion and the Arts' and contained some poems and some fiction. And one of the stories was mine. I had totally forgotten it, it having happened some 43 years ago, after all. I read it and decided to share it with you from my 24 year old self.)

Toy Soldiers

I had hundreds--two shoe boxes full. One shoe box said NUN-BRUSH on the end. The other said BOSTONIAN. Both said 9 1/2 C on the end which, though I never thought of it then, must have been my father's shoe size.

Not all my little men were soldiers, though most were. I had a few baseball players on little platforms with names on them--Grany Hamner, I remember, and Billy Pierce and Ray Boon with his glove hand high above his head. And there were bright colored cowboys and brighter colored Indians. A knight or two, with their legs spread wide for either an unnatural sex act or for horses I didn't have. I didn't have horses for my knights, but I had a statue of George Washington that I found in a cereal box I thought was going to have a model racer in it.

But most were soldiers in various positions of war--throwing grenades, crawling under non-existent bob wire, shooting from prone positions, marching...things like that. They were mostly hard plastic which felt good to bite, so some of my men had a hand or arm missing, long chewed up and spit out, or else swallowed to keep peas and carrots company in my stomach.

My soldiers were an all-alone-time toy. I shared them with no one except my mother. I guess I didn't trust anyone else to know about them but I would talk about them often with my mother. She even remembered their names--I had named them from a box of books I found in the attic. Their names were Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Will Durant, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Dickens, Percy Shelly. Names like that.

But my soldiers never played soldier. I didn't play war with them because somebody had to die and then, when they died, I'd have to go to the attic and find a new name and that was a lot of trouble and sometimes I'd forget the names and wouldn't know who I was playing with--so, anyway, war was out.

Most of the time I'd get a piece of clay and shape it like a tiny football. Clay, if touched with the tip of tongue, will stick to plastic toy soldiers, just as if they were carrying it and running for a touchdown. Those who were throwing grenades were quarterbacks since they looked like they could have easily been throwing a football.  And those who were marching were ends because they looked like they were about to break into a z-out pattern. And those who were crawling under imaginary bobbed-wire could just as easily be trying to crawl under guards and tackles and trying to get to half-backs.

After every game, played out on my bed, that was roughly the shape of a football field, I'd talk to my mother--sort of a post game wrap-up--and tell her what had happened. Slashing Sam Jonson was the leading rusher and Bullet Lord Byron was close behind. She seemed interested in their rivalry, but her favorite was Spinoza. Benedict Spinoza, as they say in the game, did it all. He was a quarterback, fullback and middle linebacker. He was the most charismatic of all my men since he stood nearly a sixteenth of an inch taller than any and was in a pose that reminded one of strength, character and leadership. He was red instead of olive green as most were. He just stood out. After a long game on a rainy afternoon, my mother would ask me, "How did Benny do?"

I'd tell her about her hero. Sometimes I even exaggerated, told her he caught a pass when it was really Thomas Mann, or made a tackle that belonged, instead, to George Elliot. But it made her smile to hear of Benny Spinoza's feats so I didn't think it mattered to lie a little.

And because she liked him, I liked Benny too. I would carry him around in my pocket and more than once he went through the washing machine. Once, I remember, I thought he was gone forever. He wasn't in my pocket when I came home from playing tag with Herbie Lowman and Billy Michaels and Arnold Butler. I finally got up the nerve to tell my mother and then burst into tears, thinking she would be angry that I had lost her favorite.

But the next day, he was on my dresser and she claimed no knowledge of how he got there though I heard my father ask her why Mrs. Lowman had seen her in the vacant lot on her hands and knees.

My mother said, "Shhhh!", which is what she said a lot when she wanted to wait until they were whispering in bed. I could hear the whisperings through the wall, but not the words, and may was the night that their soft music put me to sleep.

But the whole point to all this is that when I came home 20 years later, after my father and Aunt Lizzy had called me and told me what had happened in this: I just had to be alone and before I knew it I was up in the attic sitting in the dark. I moved to lay down on the floor and my hand touched a shoe box. I sat for almost an hour, taking each man out and looking at him, trying to remember his name, trying to remember something we had done together.  Suddenly, red and strong, Benny was in my hand.

I don't remember too well what happened then, but I remember when Lizzy embraced me after my mother's funeral, she felt something in  my shirt pocket and it was Spinoza. I guess I thought  he would want to say 'goodbye' too. And I guess he did, in his own way. I wondered if my mother ever thought of him after I quit playing with the soldiers...if she ever explained why she was in the vacant lot on all fours...if my father understood...if they shared that in their whispers?

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some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.