Belly crawling through thick dew covered grass I was one with the spiders and the bees jumping from one clover flower to the next. The fragrance of fresh grapes hanging above me hugged the ground tighter than me. With each slither I moved closer to the enemy that I knew was waiting for me at the end of the arbor. My rifle, a constant companion, was slung over my back secured with the sling. We share the same battle scars from a recent 18th street fire fight. A bayonet was secured to the end in case I needed it for unexpected close combat. Three bullets were loaded in the clip, and three more were stuck in the band of my helmet.
I finally reached the end of the arbor. Grape juice stained my shirt and arms giving me the appearance of already being in a thick encounter. I could see the enemy clearly. He had no idea I was coming up behind him. I decided he was not worth wasting a bullet on. I reached around, slid my friend off my back, checked the bayonet, making sure it was secure. My next move would either free the hostages or would bring me to a swift end. Either way, I had to try. Raising up slowly and about to lunge forward the attack took a terrible and abrupt turn. I heard the voice of my commander, “Brian, don’t you dare hit Butch with that knife, get in here right now and get cleaned up for lunch.”
Butch, aka the enemy, headed across the lawn to his grandmother’s house for his lunch break while I sulked through the back screen door smelling more like a wine-o than an eight year old soldier. I am sure I spent the next few minutes explaining to mom that I had no real intention of stabbing my best friend in the back with a rubber bayonet. There is little doubt she believed me. Of course it should also be mentioned that she was a contributor to this behavior so she was not entirely blameless. It started with her part in the Christmas gift of ’62.
Christmas 1962 was not unlike my previous eight. Although I have little recollection of one, two and three, four and up start to register with me. Christmas morning always started with Mass. A waste of time for a child. Any parent that takes more than one child to church on Christmas morning deserves some type of special dispensation for future sins. The worst torture for us kids was having to pass the tree, surrounded by irrefutable evidence of Santa and not even being allowed to walk into the same room as this splash of gifts.
Making things worse, Santa always left one special gift sitting on top the gifts. I know he did this just to torture us and make us feel like Msgr. Oberst Christmas sermon was longer than it really was. Once home, we dutifully ate breakfast, waited for dad to get off work from the Post Office and then we all finally gathered around the tree.
After Teresa opened countless toys geared for a three year old it was my turn. Sitting on top of my gifts was an official replica M1 Garand rifle equipped with a rubber bayonet and three wooden bullets in the clip. There was also helmet that somehow followed dad home from the Armory. Putting on the helmet and holding the rifle I assumed my best Vic Marrow pose. You can date yourself if you remember Vic as Sarge on Combat.
Dad had to be the one that snapped the picture with mom desperately trying to get out the picture. There is my evidence she must have known what this gift would lead to. The caption on the back of the snapshot says, “Brian pointing his new gun at Teresa.” To this day Teresa displays no visible effects from this incident.
The new rifle replaced a one piece rifle made by dad out of plywood. It was modeled after the guns carried by Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. Unfortunately the gun was broken in one of the fierce battles over possession of the grape vine hedge that ran along the alley.
The new weapon elevated me to the rank of Sargent in the local NRA, (Neighborhood Recreational Army.) I was ready to defend the block. But there was more to come with more gifts to open. Opening a tin that smelled of dad’s pipe tobacco three more wooden bullets were revealed. These were fashioned by dad at his basement workbench. They were painted with gold lacquer and looked just like the ones Sarge kept in his front pocket. I was locked and loaded with ammo to spare.
This was the dawn of the great Christmas battle of 1962. Few history books every recorded it but it was a turning point in the history of urban warfare. My buddy Butch this same Christmas received a bazooka that launched plastic shells on the enemy. We spent the afternoon defending the block against an unsuccessful attack by a real enemy…adulthood. We were able to fight it off for several more years. There were numerous battles which were eventually won by grass cutting jobs, homework and puberty, forces more powerful than wooden bullets, rubber knives and plastic shells.
In the end, it was all part of growing up.