I wasn’t just playing war. I was up to my helmet and goggles in a pitched battle.
Granted, the gear was from my brother, Bill White, who was somewhere over in Germany dropping bombs on Adolf Hitler, but these backyard exploits were real — as real as a boy’s world can be. As was my brother’s khaki T-shirt, which I pretended had real bullet holes, and his webbed ammo belt with brass casings, worn over a brown leather jacket with a sheepskin collar.
Inexplicably, this day I had also donned his size 10, steel-spiked track shoes as I patrolled the perimeter of our small backyard, shouldering a well-used Red Ryder BB gun with genuine Winchester 30-30 lever action.
My job: rid the skies of stray Red Baron Air Aces that threatened our low-flying B-26 bombers, led, of course, by Bill’s Martin B-26 Marauder, a low altitude, two-engine death machine named Heads-up, Adolph! It was his idea. Bill was always good with words.
As he had with my brothers, Dad showed me how to load BBs and to release the safety. He taught us how to keep the target atop the line of sights and squeeze (not pull) the trigger, ending every lesson with, “Never, ever point a gun at anything you don’t intend to hit. This is the most dangerous weapon in the world,” he preached, “because we treat it like a toy.”
So, there I was on slow-step patrol, safety on, finger off the trigger, in full uniform, including track spikes, when out of the corner of my air warden’s eye, I spied movement above. It looked like a lone wolf Messerschmitt Bf 109 high in the sky and on the prowl for my brother’s squadron. It looped and dove and glided, landing gear down onto our clothesline within range of my anti-aircraft field weapon.
I slowly raised Red Ryder’s barrel, pulling the lever to lower ammo into the chamber. I cleared the safety, squinting into the sun at the target swaying slightly in the breeze. There was nothing but sky above and behind — no windows, no houses, no one in danger and no chance of collateral damage. Furtively, I edged the wooden butt to my shoulder, with my left hand supporting the barrel, as I elevated the weapon until sights were locked and loaded and I squeezed the trigger.
The target dropped like a stone. I watched it all the way to the ground and then ran to see if Red von Baron’s flying days were done.
He lay in the grass on his back with his head to the side. I touched the body with the barrel. He squished, but never moved. I knelt and touched the warm, surprisingly small handful. The eyes were lidded shut, his toes balled like fists and a dot of blood clung to his feathered neck.
Scalp to nape, my face felt tight and flushed. My arms tingled and my hands were clammy. Seeing up close like this was a revelation — my coming of age. I had not downed an imaginary Luftwaffe lone wolf fighter pilot. This was a songbird who had used our feeder and trusted us enough to eat from my father’s hand.
“Never point a gun at anything you don’t intend to hit. This is the most dangerous gun in the world because we treat it as a toy.”
I felt light headed and tight in my throat. I coughed. I cried. There, on my knees, I buried my childhood and never touched that Red Ryder again, professing disinterest when my father invited me to join him in target practise on the range he had constructed in the basement.
Now, eight decades later, I see my boyhood self in the news nightly, coming from every corner of our warring planet. Boys posturing with bands of bullets across their chests, toting AK-47s, striding with manly steps, cigarettes pasted to pre-teen lips and flasks raised in toasting. They’re boys wearing a collection of mismatched gear.
I know a child’s feel for the heft and credentials of a gun. I also know the stone-cold quiet of a wee bird that dwells in my lifetime of memories.
What images will haunt the dreams of today’s child warriors in but a very few years?
Art White (82), retired clergy, playwright, author lives with his wife Alice in Dartmouth.