It was a sunny day, with only a few white clouds in the sky, the billowy white clouds that would take the shapes of all that our imaginations could muster. But today, we weren’t worrying about clouds. We had much more serious things on our minds. We had to make sure we wiped out the other team. The cracks of our toy cap guns could be heard echoing off the surrounding hills. The sounds of our battle cries, like a herd of banshees, could be heard for miles. Pure chaos! It was a youthful battle raging in the woods surrounding our homes.
I was sneaking swiftly through the woods, as always, making as little sound as possible. I was alone now, after my partner had taken one through the chest. He, of course, was out of the game. Now it was up to me. I was nearing the enemy base, and I could feel my adrenaline surge with every step. I was snuggled up so close to the tree I was hiding behind that I actually felt like a part of it. “This is it,” I told myself. “I’m going to be a hero.” Then, just as I was getting ready to jump behind the tree and “waste” everybody, my head exploded with a loud crack. My ears were ringing. I could see my friend from the other team jumping up and down laughing at me, still clutching his smoldering cap gun. His voice, sounding far off because of the ringing, was shouting, “You’re out, I killed you!” I headed home sulking. I had been defeated.
As I neared my house, I could feel the dread run through me. Today was my stepfather’s day off. I was worried about what kind of mood he was in. My stepfather was generally an angry man, complete with violent mood swings. All through my childhood years I could feel this huge, ominous, oppressive shadow over my everyday existence. That was my stepfather.
I approached the door with the full intention of going straight to my room. I knew my stepfather would be watching TV and that my room was the closest sanctuary. Actually, any room where my step father wasn’t was my sanctuary. As I walked in the door, I saw that the living room was darker than usual. My step father was sitting there on the couch, his back to me.
I headed for the stairs, but then noticed that he was watching a good war movie. A second glance confirmed that he wasn’t drinking. I thought that maybe it would be okay if I watched a little of the movie. I settled down on the steps and immediately became enthralled as I watched Robert De Niro “wasting” a bunch of bad guys. “Now this guy is a real hero,” I told myself. In the next scene, the hero was in some type of prison camp and he and his buddy were being forced to put guns to their heads and pull the triggers. I figured out that it was some type of game. The bad guys were screaming and laughing as they passed money around. The hero and his buddy were crying as they put the guns to their heads and awaited either the life-giving click, or the loud blast that would end their existence.
Suddenly, the TV went off and the room got darker. I looked at my stepfather. His hands were shaking as he put down the TV control. As he turned to me, I could see the tears running down his cheeks. In his widened eyes, I could see terror, anguish, and rage mingled together. With a look of desperation, he half grunted, half shrieked, “that happened to me. Those mother-fuckers did that to me.”
I got scared and ran upstairs to my room I didn’t know what he would do next. I had never seen him that full of emotion before. Listening so carefully that I didn’t dare breathe, all I could hear was the refrigerator door open, then the distinct sound of a beer can opening. I breathed a sigh of relief. I tried to remember each detail of the movie. The terror in the actors’ eyes looked real enough, but they could not compare to the turmoil I had seen in my stepfather’s eyes. And suddenly, I realized that war was neither fun nor a game. No matter who wins, everybody gets hurt.
My friends would often ask me to play war again. I never did. My guns went into my closet with the rest of my toys. I started to hang around with older kids or else I kept to myself. I began reading more books and started paying close attention to my studies. I still stayed out of my step father’s way, but he no longer seemed ominous or oppressive to me. Now he just seemed old, tired, and sad. And I, I had moved toward an agonizing stage of awareness on my way to becoming a man.