Thursday Nights, Part 1 – Strategic Nuclear Warfare, Uncles, and Green Army Men.


When I was growing up, my mom was a police officer and later a homicide detective.  Consequently she worked shift or midnight hours sometimes.  The bright side of that was that I spent a lot of time with my maternal grandparents.  They lived only a few hundred yards away in a clearing in the woods.  As I previously blogged, this was, and still is one of my favorite places to go either physically or in my mind.  I spoke to my mom very recently and she said that a bunch of us would soon be together for a visit.  I am really excited about this visit and that got me thinking of some great memories.  It seemed that there was a disproportionate number of the best ones on Thursdays.

See, Thursdays were the days things got interesting.  For many years prior to my existence, my grandparents did their weekly grocery shopping at the local A&P on Thursday evenings because that was when my grandfather used to get paid.  The tradition held.  There were many times I tagged along and if I was lucky got to go to McDonald’s for a hamburger and small fries.  But many times, I got to stay home in the care of an uncle or two.  One of them, Shawn, lived at home since he was only ten years older and thus was in high school when I was in grade school.  The other, Tom, was working on his graduate studies and PhD in economics.  It was really, really fun when both of them were home with me.

Ok, let me be honest…the shit hit the fan on some of these select thursday nights.  My favorite had to be when I was in second grade, I think.  It was spring time and Tom was home for spring break.  Uncle Shawn and I spent some evenings prior to Tom coming home in building a huge clay fortress on top of a clay hill anchored with a big oak tree.  This hill, the largest of the three, was named “dirt mountain” years later by Tom’s daughters.  This fortress was for my green army men.  And it was huge.  I even lined the walls with small rocks.  It was mighty, it was indestructible (so I thought), and it was mine.  And it had been built with the imagination and skill of my uncle Shawn and with love.  I was a happy boy with that fort.

Well someone, not sure who, got the idea to have a big battle.  So after school and after my grandparents were out shopping, the shovels came out and the laughs began.  Shawn and Tom needed to quickly construct a fort and I had to divide out some army men.  The battle would be fought until some one surrendered or the last army man was knocked down.  The hill edges were sliced up with the shovel and the clay, which was perfect for building, was turned into two small fortresses.  One patch of clay was streaked green and I remember asking why.  Tom calmly stated it was fossilized dinosaur shit.  And I believed him.  Of course it wasn’t but Tommy was pretty smart then.  Shawn’s fort was on a slightly smaller hill than mine with an oak tree anchored in the middle.  This hill was more of a ridge that ran back into the woods.  About 20-25 feet back along this ridge was Tom’s fort.  We only had maybe an hour or so before dark by the time the forts were completed.  Ammunition would be small balls of clay and we would lob these at each other’s men.

The battle commenced and quickly I started losing troops.  It was only a few at first but I wasn’t too happy with the fight.  I had a massive fort but the bombs were arcing high up and raining down inside the walls.  Quickly I lost an artillery piece and crew.  A green tank followed.  As it was, I sucked at both making a nice clay sphere for a bomb and in throwing them accurately.  After a while, maybe out of pity, Tom starting devoting most of his attack on Shawn.  So did I.

The tide began to change.  Although I couldn’t hit the much except the oak tree near Shawn’s fort, a few men dropped from my barrage.  Most of my clay bombs disintegrated mid-flight because I didn’t pack them right and was impatient to get them fired off.  Some of the shards managed to take out the green army men.  But Tom’s force was further away and I wasn’t doing quite badly there.  So I concentrated on uncle Shawn and before too long, his men were down and his fort was a wreck.   To be fair most of his troops were in the open and not well protected.

But many of mine were huddled too close together and Tom’s salvos were doing serious damage.  I was really into the battle and was starting to get mad.  I couldn’t throw well, my bombs came apart and even the fragments were not reaching Tom’s army men.  It was looking bad for me.  I was growing upset.  It didn’t help that Tom had a subtle smugness going.  He was the calm one of the bunch.  Always the calm teacher.  And annoying as crap with his “don’t get upset.  See, you are hitting my men (yeah, about 1 or 2 for every 20 bombs…).  It is a game but we play to win.”

It was really grating me.  My temper was building.  I knew I was going to lose this fight.  So I hopped off the hill and went to the base down where we mined the clay.  Shawn could see me but Tom couldn’t.  Tom kept asking me what I was doing and slowly and methodically began to pick off my men.  But there were a few left and they were well protected.  Maybe long enough to carry out a strategic decision.

Meanwhile I was mad and ready to get even.  I plopped down on my rear and starting gathering as much clay together as possible.  It slowly was becoming obvious what I was doing to my uncle Shawn.  He couldn’t help it and started to laugh.  By now Tom had to be curious.  The huge mound of clay between my feet and knees eventually gained significant mass and became roughly dome-shaped.  I managed to break it from the ground and lifted it to my waist.  It was heavy and I wondered if I could carry it at all.  Then I started to lumber up the little valley between my hill and Tom’s hill.

By now Shawn was cracking up in earnest and Tom saw what was coming.  Yeah.  Mr. Calm and Smarty Pants Uncle Thomas, PhD to Be, was going to get a lesson he wouldn’t soon forget.  If I could get there.  Slowly and one heavy footstep at a time, I carried a massive payload of Get-Even up the valley.

Tom wasn’t too happy with this turn of events, understandably.  Again he started “now, now.  You are getting some of my guys.  Go back to your fort.  It isn’t over yet.” Boom boom went my feet one slow step at a time.  Little rocks shifted under my feet.  Sweat was forming on my forehead mixing with the clay.  “Ok look Rebel, (my family nickname and very appropriate), that is not part of the rules.”  Boom Boom went the footfalls.  Oh and never mind the rules.  I didn’t recall signing a damn treaty or a Geneva Convention.  Did I break out construction paper and my crayons and write cursive? Hell no!  Boom boom.  “Rebel….rebel.  Now that is not the way to be.” Boom boom.  Target sighted.  Still Tom continued.

It was like arguing with a brick wall.  No effect.  Tom hurried to toss a few more bombs at my remaining troops as I lumbered ever closer.  I stumbled a little but managed to hold the nuclear clay payload.  The sun was low on the sky.  I remember it blazing through the trees as it was near setting.  Boom boom.  “Rebel, rebel…”  Shawn was on the ground already laughing hysterically.  He knew there was going to be no talking me down.  The orders were given, the codes verified, and the bomber was nearly to target.  If there would have been a siren in Tom’s fort, it would have been going and green army men diving for cover.  “Rebel, now rebel…”

Finally I reached the target zone.  My arms were shaking with the heavy load.  I planted my feet and struggled to life the nuke up and over my head.  Shawn was laughing but no sound was coming out, none.  He was far too gone with hysterics at that point.  “Rebel, now rebel, that is not the way to play…”  It was over my head and I stood over the pitiful fort and the platoon of green plastic men.  My smug, smart uncle was in for it.  At last.  “Rebel, rebel…don’t do that…” Release.   “Rebel…Reb.” Impact.  Tom’s words ended mid syllable.  Utter silence for a second or two followed by the faint call of a crow and the “glunk!” of a green frog in the pond.

The clay nuke impacted so hard it smashed over the men and they were buried up to their plastic weapons in a huge flattened pile of rust red mess.  Some were actually still standing, rooted deeply in the clay or completely buried in some cases.  The fort’s walls were crushed flat.  Tom looked in disbelief with his head hug low.  Shawn was gasping for breath still laughing, rolling on the ground next to his wrecked fortress.  And I stood triumphant with the last of the day’s light shining its nuclear radiance for a few seconds over the destroyed remains of Tom’s fort, with sweat and clay staining my numbered sports T-shirt, arms, hands, legs, and freckled face.

Game over.   What Smarty Pants “Tommy Toes” (a family nickname), PhD to Be, later to be Dr. Toes, learned that day was that conventional warfare is always in danger of going nuclear in the modern age.  I became a determined B-52 strategic bomber that day in second grade.

I learned a great deal from Tom over the years.  I like to think he learned from his little nephew that day.

PS:  History is written by the victors and if there are any parts that are slightly off or Tom is portrayed incorrectly, then too bad.  He lost.  Even a year later, the ruins of all three forts (rain will take its toll) were clearly visible and even the splat marks of clay bombs on the nearby trees.  Several years went by before the final traces of these forts were clearly swept away.   But the memory sticks with me, Shawn, and Thomas. 

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