The Boy Who Played Army
By Joe Petzel
He was born into a world that was prosperous, maybe the most prosperous time and place in the history of the world, if you were white and middle class. He was shielded from poverty, he was held in a safe zone where all the basic needs were met. Life felt right side up.
He loved toy guns. They were advertised on TV and most boys loved them. He had a couple of Winchester air rifles, a Colt 45 Fan Action Pistol, numerous other guns, holsters, helmets and play weapons. He would have gunfights with his friends and sometimes had quick draw fights with himself facing the huge front room mirror.
He had numerous fighting sets over the years. These sets had fighting figures and replicas of their environments. There was an Alamo set with the Alamo, the Texan freedom fighters and the Mexican Army, led by the evil General Santa Ana. When he played with it he was usually Davy Crockett. There were US Calvary sets, Civil War sets with the blue and grey soldiers, and Old West town sets with horses, Indians and a metal town with a saloon, bank and sheriff's office. He had many World War II sets over the years.
He spent many satisfying hours playing war, battles, and gunfights with these sets. He also spent many hours watching war, gunfights, and battles on TV and at the movies. These rarely showed blood, maybe a trickle of blood coming out the side of a hero's mouth after a fistfight he had won. There were no blown off limbs, no agonizing shrieks, and no post-trauma.
He and his friends played cowboy and Indian battles. Sometimes they had rock fights. There was another game, a favorite game called Best Fall. One boy would be the machine gunner and the other boys would, one by one, charge the gunner. As the gunner shot the charging adversary, the running boy would try to have a realistic death fall. The best fall in the eyes of the gunner became the next gunner. There were quick falls and "agonizingly" slow deaths after a fall.
The idea of war and gunfights was thrilling. It touched a place in each of the boys that was ancient. He wanted to be in the Army or Marines and fight. It wasn't a patriotic urge. It had to do with DNA, coupled with a culture that glorified male hardness and violence, a violence that was depicted as bloodless, shriekless and had no grotesque truth, a very sanitized violence that made the idea of war appealing, thrilling and meaningful.
He was a Catholic school altar boy, patrol boy, boy scout, little leaguer and varsity high basketball player. He felt passionate about all these things. He delivered newspapers on his bike and as a teen worked at a local ice cream and hamburger joint.
As he grew older his toys and games changed. They were less related to war and violence. But many of the lessons of the earlier games and toys remained. One of them was a lack of fear of going to war. The Vietnam War raged and some of his friends found ways to avoid going to war.
His older brother, whom he respected, told him that the president was lying about the war. He urged him to seek a deferment, he told him he knew of ways to get one. His brother had checked himself into a psychiatric hospital and received a 4F deferment. He also told him that if he went to Vietnam it would be the mistake of his life. He felt confused. He respected his brother's opinions, but he also didn't believe the president would lie, or that our country could ever be involved in something so wrong.
He went to his father, a World War II veteran, to ask his advice. His father told him he should serve his country.
He decided to serve.
The truth of war was shocking. It looked nothing like the old games, movies, and TV shows. There was no glory. There was no thrill. There were evil, shrieking, and grotesque injury and deaths. There were soul-numbing experiences. None of it was glorious or gallant. Death was nothing like the best fall game. Soldiers came home burdened and troubled, with injuries physical and of the spirit. Many didn't come home.
He knew his world was now upside down, he was hanging onto the earth as a dangerous dark gravity tried to pull him into oblivion.
He knew the games he had played, the images they showed him on TV, and the movies were all lies. He knew he was a pawn in someone else's game. He knew he had made the worst mistake he could have made, the mistake of being a cog in a wheel of a truly evil enterprise. He knew he had been fooled, manipulated, and used. He never forgot the evil that his army inflicted on the people of Vietnam.
He came home to an upside down world. A world turned on its head. The "outside" world was turned upside down and his inner world was also.
He learned how to operate in the upside down world. He held on from falling into the oblivion with his rage and cynicism, sometimes settling into despair. They were a protection, protecting him from the awful truth he had internalized over there. This awful truth was too ugly and terrifying to stay in touch with. Over time it lessened and eventually his inner upside down world became home. No more play war, no more believing them. An inner shit detector grew that protected him from further grotesque ventures, manipulations, half-truths, and lies.
His life became meaningful, he loved his family and friends. He never forgot the lessons. His earlier mistakes were lessons, not a death sentence as they had been for so many boys. He was loved. His rage lessened to an occasional angry outburst. Sometimes he had to pay the price of depression, anger, guilt, and despair. He tried many remedies for these burdens of the spirit and many of them helped in his healing. He knew he would never be fully "healed." He grew to actually appreciate himself and the gifts he had. He taught his sons and daughter the truth about war. He served his community.
His upside down world became home, no longer threatening him with falling into oblivion. A different kind of gravity held him now. It was a gravity he had discovered. It was his gravity, not someone else's. He actually preferred it to his childhood "right side up" world.
Joe Petzel taught in alternative elementary school for 13 years. Over the last 30 years, he was in private practice, a clinical director in a nonprofit family clinic where he created low fee/no fee services for the local community. He taught graduate level clinical psychology courses and founded a domestic violence treatment center.