As a little kid in the early 1970s, I was fascinated with war. All my buddies were, too.
We couldn't help it. As a boy, the image of the World War II American soldier as hero was inescapable. We didn't understand what had really happened, or why, or any of that stuff. But boys have an instinctual understanding of bravery, sense the respect and admiration that comes along with it, and dream of being heroes themselves.
There were some great war movies, and when they played on network television, everybody watched them. It was a guaranteed topic of conversation during lunch at school. First, we were kids, and thankfully had no concept of the realities of war. Second, these movies were cut (edited for time and content). By today's standards, they were relatively tame.
Some of the flicks that come to mind, in no particular order, are: Sink the Bismark!, Battle of the Bulge, The Dirty Dozen, Kelly's Heroes, Midway, The Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare, A Bridge Too Far and Tora Tora Tora!
And then there was Patton. I saw that in the theater with my Dad. It was probably a re-release; I don't think he took me when I was five. We sat fairly close to the screen, and I'll never forget the impact of the opening scene. George C. Scott as "Blood and Guts" Patton, speaking in front of a giant U.S. Flag was awe-inspiring. The man was definitely in charge.
We would watch these movies and use them as inspiration for playing with our army stuff. You would remember certain battle scenes, explosions or incredible shots and work them in to whatever you were playing with.
Most kids had those little green plastic army men, and they were great for reproducing large-scale battles. They were pretty small, and you could get a big bag of them at the Five and Dime. My friend Anthony and I were in his back yard one day, and we set out to make the greatest war scene ever. Our ambition surpassed our supply of WWII guys, requiring us to mix in Civil War figures, Cowboys and Indians and maybe even a Viking or two. Reminiscing with Tony recently, he quipped "how ecumenical of us". We were so proud of it. His mom took a picture and we tried unsuccessfully to have the local paper run a story. Cowards.
One year for Christmas I got the Guns of Navarone set, complete with opposing armies and a plastic reproduction of the famous mountain with huge gun barrels coming out of it. Without question, one of the coolest toys I ever had. My brother Jim was in from Colorado and spent the better part of an afternoon setting it up and fighting it out with me, until we were each down to our last soldier. It was one of the best "battles" of my childhood. So fun!
Every kid had at least one toy gun, and a bunch of us together could have a blast reenacting scenes. It was most fun being the guy who died; recreating a dramatic death accurately was something to be admired. It didn't exist then, but there's a term for it now: quality kill.
I have been an uncle since I was two, and my closest nephews are 2, 4 and 6 years younger. Family gatherings were a blast, and we would work ourselves into a frenzy in the basement, spilling out upstairs in the quest for quality kills.
At one party, my mom lost her patience with us hurling our bodies onto the kitchen floor, getting in the way and disrupting her flow. She was a fantastic cook, had a heart of gold and excelled at entertaining. Making her guests happy made her happy. You don't mess with that.
She stamped her foot, raised her voice and demanded:
"Tom, go die in the basement!