Gallantry and Grenades is a chapter from “The Last of the Bungalow Warriors” by Maurice Deats available for purchase at The Book Patch.
The war was over before either the young warrior or the Great Chief had been born, but its effects would linger, and would remain an influence on their lives. There was still a strong feeling of patriotism, but more than that, there was a feeling of community. And beyond that, there was a belief that sacrifice for the greater good was both a duty and an honor.
The warriors were torn this morning. They wanted to go to the bungalow as was their daily habit, but it had been the youngest warrior’s birthday the day before, and among the somewhat meager collection of presents that had been bestowed upon him had been an assortment of green rubber army men that the only friend they had in the tiny community had given him. These had been faithfully retrieved from packages of Cracker Jacks. It was not originally the intention to save them for gifting purposes, but faced with the need for a suitable present and driven by a strong feeling of social obligation, they were hastily gathered together, crudely wrapped and proudly if somewhat reluctantly presented at the appropriate time at the party the day before. There was of course nothing as exotic as ice cream at the party, but there was a cake that went a long way towards alleviating the young friend’s sense of personal loss. Besides, toy ownership was a communal concept given the level of scarcity, so it wasn’t like he would not be interacting with them at roughly the same frequency. Just the same, the youngest warrior was thrilled to get them, and felt richer than he had ever felt before.
So the choice was obvious. Especially after a certain young boy came riding into the yard on his army green bike with the dark camo stripes, singing “You’re in the army now…you’re not behind the plow…you’ll never get rich by digging a ditch…you’re in the army now.” The youngest warrior was not upset. Truth be known, as much as he loved his life as a Bungalow Warrior, he had really hoped to spend the day with his new toys. The Great Chief knew that morale would be low in the tribe if he forced them to be warriors today, so he gave in and the three of them quickly enlisted in the United States Army, Bravo Company. They quickly ran up to their bedroom and reached under the bed where the weapons of war were stored and extracted a pair of metal and plastic army rifles and a knife in a green woven sheath. The presence of the knife was not generally advertised, but military secrets were hard enough to keep in general, and it was especially hard to hide things from “she who knows everything”. Just the same, the Great Chief slipped the knife inside his shirt as the boys scrambled down the stairs and headed for the door, cautiously delaying attaching it to his belt until they were safely outside, away from prying eyes. The youngest warrior snatched up the cigar box with the little green army men from its place in the toy box in the corner of the stair landing on his way by. It felt good to hold something of that great value in his hands, and owning it gave him new status that, as the youngest, was very much welcomed.
The three boys rushed out onto the porch, jumped down the length of the steps without touching any, gathered themselves and raced each other to the sandpile where a proper battle could be joined. Since his arrival their friend had been grinning but not saying anything. The warriors knew something was up but didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of asking what it might be. At last the boy could contain himself no longer, and from the genuine army green ammunition pouch he had strapped to his belt he produced, with a flourish he had obviously practiced, a green oval item with a handle and a pin. A real pretend grenade! The warriors had seen them in the five and dime and dry goods store in town but of course did not have the money for such a thing as that. And they had never known anyone fortunate enough to actually own one. Turns out their friend’s cousin had left it by mistake when his family had stopped by for a quick visit the night before.
The grenade was a fancy one with a place you put in a special round cap or a cap torn off from a standard roll from a cap gun. When you pushed the handle in and put in the pin it wound up a spring. When you pulled the pin and let go of the handle the spring would unwind and turn a mechanism inside that caused a few second delay before the trigger released and detonated the cap, simulating an explosion. It was designed so that even if you threw the grenade, and of course that is what it was for, the cap would stay in place and not jar free on impact. The boys tried it a couple of times and were delighted to see the delay was long enough that it wouldn’t detonate until it landed, no matter how far they could throw it. And better yet, it wouldn’t break. A broken toy was bad enough, but a broken toy that didn’t really belong to you and that you probably shouldn’t be playing with was far worse. They had had some experience with this, and they knew this to be true.
The boys had had access to comic books featuring actual soldiers who were war heroes, like G.I. Joe, so they knew a great deal about war and how it was supposed to go. They arranged the green rubber figures in various battle configurations, half on each side of the mound of sand that was the battlefield. The top of the mound was the prized target for both sides, as anybody knew who knew anything about the Battle of the Bulge. This battle raged back and forth, and the grenade was tossed from one side to the other from time to time, scattering sand and little green men as it exploded, aided somewhat from a small sun-bronzed hand as needed.
As much fun as this was, especially given the recentness of having acquired the troops involved, it wasn’t long before the boys wanted to take a more active role in the war, and almost as if on a signal the three of them trotted off to the pig apple tree to gather up green apples to conduct a proper battle with. There were three of them, so they would rotate where the extra man was, but whichever side ended up with only the one soldier would have use of the grenade. That was only fair.
Well the thing about grenades is that they will wipe out anybody that happens to be in the neighborhood when they go off. That meant instant defeat for the receiving team. But the boys had paid close attention when reading those comic books, and they knew it was every soldier’s duty, nay his highest honor and deepest pleasure, to fall on any grenades that happened by, thus saving his comrades and preserving the victory, and possibly freeing all of Europe and ending conflict in the Pacific Theater in the bargain. The more grenades you fell on the greater your legacy, and leaving a legacy was the thing that all soldiers strove for, and there was no greater shame than failing to die and therefore not having an opportunity to leave a legacy. So when the grenade landed, the boys would jostle each other as they scrambled to be the one who had the privilege of falling on it. This put a strain on civility and threatened unity amongst the troupes. In fact, in days to come, when some boys visiting from out of town joined in the battles, a fist fight actually broke out when one boy felt that another older boy was hogging all the glory for himself and not letting anyone else fall on the grenade. But today there was no such conflict, as the three boys were inseparable friends and the idea of fighting among themselves was unthinkable. Well, mostly.
The war ended eventually, with the allied forces emerging victorious. The soldiers trudged home anxious to be reunited with their families and ever hopeful that there might be some scraps of cake remaining from yesterday’s party. As they trudged wearily in, “she who knows everything” smiled to herself as she saw the multiple black smudges on the boy’s shirts where the caps had exploded, and guided the boys to the table where the last three pieces of cake perched invitingly, along with a glass of chocolate milk. The chocolate had been purchased because of the party and was not something that one could rely on being available generally speaking. As the boys settled over their cake, “she who knows everything” leaned over and put her lips close to the Great Chief’s ear so that only he could hear and said lovingly, “If I ever catch you rolling around on the ground with that knife on your belt again I’m going to skin you with it.” And then she smiled sweetly and went back to her chores.