The first time I remember seeing a soldier was at a school assembly in first grade. Throughout the year we had had assemblies with guests including policeman coming into the school, firefighters, or electricians. I recognized the other uniforms and the descriptions of their jobs, but I can remember feeling puzzled as I wondered what the man in the green, tan, black, and brown did for a job. Soon enough, my curiosity was voiced by one of my other classmates. “What do you do?” I remember the man saying, “Do you guys play video games with lots of explosions? Because that’s what I get to do…with real missiles.” His response was geared only to the boys. I remember being in awe at the prospect of being able to play with weapons, and get paid for it. And from that point on, my imagination would only transport me to being a soldier, with my own camouflage.
My childhood friend David Nelson and I were outside kids. We also had that incomprehensible talent of transforming a tree house into a military base, or leaf bags into training dummies. Ever since we had seen that assembly in first grade, we could not play anything except “army,” as we called it. For years the game would simply be us running around with brightly colored Nerf guns in athletic shirts and jeans. We had to rely on our own imagination to create the colors, the sounds, the smells, the bunkers, and the enemies.
It was not until about age nine when “Army” changed. David’s mom had brought down her father’s old World War II camouflage shirt, helmet, and boots. Suddenly when I would be dropped off at David’s house, I would always get ambushed by him hiding in the bushes because of how hidden he was. Rather than being scared, I remember being amazed that he had gotten his hands on a real soldier’s uniform. It didn’t matter that the sleeves had to be rolled up three times before you could see our hands. As we always said, we would grow into them. And better yet, he had extras.
Those camouflage shirts were put to immediate action. We felt a sensation of freedom with them. Not because that’s what grownups told us they represented, but because we knew that they would withstand what ever we threw at them given our desire to explore. The dense pine woods were our formidable foe. We respected them because they held secrets. They knew themselves well. We longed to share in the knowledge of where the unbeaten paths went. But our bright red t-shirts and blue jeans of the old days were out of place. We always decided to go our own ways to complete the mission we were on. Never together. And during these missions, it felt as if there was always someone watching, or that something knew that we were in a place we didn’t belong (fitting description considering that we were trespassing on the neighbors property most of the time.) But both of us were undeterred by the potential consequences. We figured that we’d cross that bridge if we came to it, but the whole point of our missions was not to arrive at that bridge.
But our new uneven pattern of browns and greens were embraced by all the mosses, fallen leaves, and bent branches that made up the the mystery that we could not be part of before. To David and I, we could now go anywhere.. In fact the only way I can describe it are in the words a friend told me, “once you’re in the woods, you’re in the woods.” We were once the anomalies, but now the woods were not something to be unnerved by. They were our ally. Like them, we now participated in observing the anomalies that came into the woods (mostly the other kids in the neighborhood who tried to copy our version of “Army”). And you should know that nothing gives you more adrenaline than knowing that you cannot be seen while watching others trying to be unseen. They would crash through the undergrowth not caring about what was in their way. But when rocks went whizzing by their faces, they would look for us, annoyed that someone else was intruding on their game. They would try and find us, even walk straight past us. We would revel in their vain attempt to be like us.
Not out of dislike for the other kids, but the reveling came from the fantasy that pitted against each other in a game of manhunt or airsoft, David and I would be victorious.We knew the woods and we could blend in. The same uniform now kept us together. We felt like a team. Like brothers.
This spying sect of “Army” became one of the regular activities for sleepovers. When the only sources of light were the streetlights, David and I would suit up. First: pants, then boots, shirt, combat vest, camelback, kevlar gloves, helmet, goggles (due to rain or high wind speeds), and finally our backpacks stuffed with walkie talkies, Flavor Blasted Goldfish rations, flashlights, binoculars, and small shovels doubling as machetes to cut through thick thorn patches.
Then we would type the code to his garage door and duck under it as we entered the dark. We would always secure a perimeter around his house and meet up back in his front yard. After this, flashlights would be turned off for the rest of the time. After 20 minutes of our eyes warming up their night vision, we set off into the woods to get “eyes in” on what David’s neighborhood was up to.
Whether it had been an abnormal sound we heard, like all the neighborhood dogs barking, or a car we did not recognize from playing in the afternoon, we always scoped it out to gain a sense of security. This continued for years. And with time, our uniform morphed from World War II camouflage into the modern digital patterns we saw all the time in army advertisements. And so did our “tactics,” as we liked to call them.
We incorporated the vernacular of cop shows and real soldiers: “Recon, sierra, scorpio, black wall,” and our favorite phrase “I have the solution,” meaning “I’ll finish this if I have to (applicable if we were in one of our pretend hostage situations). Then there were also less orthodox words: “Dammit,” (censored for LTR) and whatever other creative things we could think of. Truth be told, we didn’t know what all of these words meant, but we did know using the words emulated the soldiers we pretended to be, so we used them anyway.
I don’t tell many people that this is what I did when I was a kid mostly out of fear of judgment. I mean come on, what 15 year old still plays this pretend game since they were six or seven? It seems I could have been playing sports, practicing music or something else that apparently would have been a good use of time. But to those who say that, I say that my childhood “Army” career was well worth my time. I loved soldiers. I loved them because I could not comprehend someone who makes the conscious decision to potentially give up their life, and in some ways, for what? The country? In that way, I couldn’t see a reason not to pretend to be a soldier. I wanted that bravery. David wanted that bravery. So, we simply imagined ourselves having it.
But despite having a keen imagination, I knew then and still know now that that priceless facility of my mind is dying, with nothing I can do about it. I still have the memories of “Army” in my mind, but accessing them proves to be difficult. Worse still, I have seen imagination go MIA (missing in action) in people, my siblings, (though I was not old enough to distinguish when), and worst of all, David. Like his real person, his imagination was something I knew about him inside and out. He was my only other squad member and friend for most of my life until high-school, the one I trusted implicitly with scouting missions down the block and being my foothold when scaling a wall. And I saw it leave. Our “Army” died. Without David, there were no soldiers and there were no more missions to complete. Like a real soldier, I watched my friend lose himself while I still retained the good memories. It was like a twisted case of shell shock.
When I see soldiers today, the memories of my tour of duty come to mind. The digital patterns remind me of how my interest in soldiers began, just a school assembly. It also reminds me of how I became a brother to David. In fact I struggle to find a significant memory in which there was not camouflage involved somehow. Something so simple as a pattern, can symbolize something for the nation, but people wouldn’t think it could symbolize a friendship. That’s who we were. Camo became our color. In fact, David would always lay out a “training exercise” when I would get to his house. When I arrived there would be the walkie talkie and goldfish (and usually an painted black nerf gun), leaning up against the garage doors. I didn’t need any briefing. What was my challenge? To find David. And that would entail me having to use all of my skills that we developed as a squad on my own. After I found him, it was my turn. find myself scared whenever I see the old uniforms gathering dust in my closet. I’ve said to myself “our tour is over.” What made our friendship strong and successful for so many years came out of those experiences.
Now, with high-school and college, we have drifted back into our own one man armies. I no longer feel like David is my brother. He’s choosing red while I’m choosing blue. And there is no pattern to unite us. The camouflage that brought us together can’t even help because David has lost the ability to see himself as a soldier. But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t.
Artwork by Cordelia Tapping