“Hang on!” Lou yelled.
He slammed the brakes and yanked the wheel left. The rear of the Nova swung right, kicking gravel and dirt onto green palm leaves already dusted gray from previous passes and tricks. I howled above the yelling of James Hetfield on the stereo, palms and the world in general whipping by outside the windshield. We came to a stop facing the way we had come.
“Engaño el Camino!”
Luís was his real name. He was first generation Cuban-American, and he spoke Spanish once in awhile to keep me on my toes. I probably learned more from him and his family than I did in the Spanish classes at our Catholic high school.
“I love the Road of Tricks,” he said.
Lou gunned the gas and sent more gravel and dirt flying. We tore back toward civilization full of confidence. The Road of Tricks was our proving grounds, a maze of white gravel on forgotten company land bordering the Everglades. We usually came out to kill time, but this ride had been a warm up for battle.
Lou looked left and right without stopping and swung the Nova out onto the asphalt. I banged my head to Master of Puppets as we raced toward an appointment with his older brother and a friend, two seniors who had challenged us to war.
It was the summer of 1986. The Russians were the bad guys, and movies like Rambo and Red Dawn had whipped us into shape. Platoon was the most awesome movie ever. Neither Lou or I could imagine a better way to die than going down in a hail of bullets like Elias on his knees holding his machine gun over his head. We barely knew about paintball, and laser tag was science fiction. I think we were the last generation of teenagers to settle our differences with BB guns.
“Two pumps maximum,” Lou’s brother said. He handed each of us an old rifle-style BB gun. His looked like an AK 47.
“Wear these at all times,” his friend said, tossing each of us a pair of plastic goggles like the ones my dad used to cut wood or edge the lawn.
“First hit you’re wounded,” Lou’s brother said. “Second hit you’re dead.”
“Announce when you’re hit,” his friend said. “And don’t try to lie. You lie and we’ll fill your face with lead.”
Lou and I looked at each other. We were only a year behind them, but this was their turf and their game. I wasn’t feeling too confident. Lou fed a BB into the chamber, pumped twice, and set his sights on the trunk of a cypress tree thirty feet away. He squeezed the trigger and popped the gun. The BB hit the bark with a thud.
“Let’s do it,” Lou said.
“Get going then. We’ll give you five minutes.”
We were dead in fifteen.
bodies fill the fields I see, hungry heroes end
no one to play soldier now, no one to pretend
running blind through killing fields, bred to kill them all
victim of what said should be
a servant `til I fall
Lou and I scoured South Florida for a good stand of war game woods to call our own. It took us a week of driving around but we finally found it, a forty acre rectangle of undeveloped pine forest in Coral Springs. The place was perfect, bordered by a canal, two main roads, and a sleepy industrial park. The woods weren’t too thick or too wide open, and there were big trees to hide behind. One of the roads was Sherwood Street, so we named the woods Sherwood Forest.
We had bought AK 47 BB guns and Copperhead BBs from Kmart, hitting the Home & Garden section for goggles. Lou spent a small fortune at the local Army Navy store. I walked out with a used camouflage army jacket and a Rambo-style survival knife, complete with a compass and secret compartment for fish hooks and matches.
“We need traps,” Lou said.
“Like the sticks in First Blood that stab those guys’ legs.”
“Totally. How about a secret bunker like Red Dawn where one of us jumps out of the hatch and opens fire?”
“Awesome. We can save it for when we really need it and use it as a base.”
“We can stock it with snacks and drinks and ammo and stuff.”
The next day we came back with two cans of Pringles, two candy bars, two bottles of Gatorade, and one collapsible shovel Lou bought at the Army Navy store. We found the perfect plank of wood to use as our roof hatch and the perfect spot to dig our bunker. The earth gave for Lou, but I hit rock during my turn. “I don’t know, Lou.”
I handed him the shovel. He brought it down, cursing as metal clanged against rock. Our plan was clearly impossible, but Lou pounded away ten or twelve more times, until sweat dripped off his nose and his new shovel was bent.
In the end, we settled for eating our snacks and drinking Gatorade while stringing translucent fishing line six inches off the ground between trees. If we couldn’t burst from a bunker like Patrick Swayze and blow away our enemies, at least we could trip them up.
soldier boy, made of clay
now an empty shell
twenty one, only son
but he served us well
bred to kill, not to care
do just as we say
finished here, greetings death
he’s yours to take away
Our enemies would be our best friends. If our core four was the A Team, I would be B.A. Baracus, the big dumb one, the muscle, only I was skinny as a rail.
Lou would be Hannibal, the brains behind the outfit, the man with the plan. I could just see him smiling and smoking a Cuban cigar after a successful battle in Sherwood Forest.
The guy complaining about Lou’s driving from the back of the van was Silly, short for Sylvester, the name his mother still called him. One look at Silly and you knew he was our Face, the charismatic babe magnet.
“Jeez, Lou, I’m gonna puke my pasta up back here. How long you been drivin’ this thing?”
The van lurched, a blue Ford that Lou’s brother had let him use. “About twenty minutes,” Lou said, fighting the clutch. “Don’t get your panties in a bunch.”
I looked back to second Silly’s concern, but he was looking out the bubble window at a girl walking by. He ran his hand through his hair. Silly was a lady killer, an Italian love machine, and pretty much anything I knew about girls I got from listening to his stories.
Lou turned the radio up and got the hang of the van pretty quick. Before long we were passing through Plantation Acres, home to Chuck, our own Mad Murdock. The Acres were out west, on the edge of the civilized world. Kids out there went barefoot and shot BB guns whenever and wherever they felt like it. Chuck had his little brother Gordy in a headlock when we pulled up.
“Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!” I yelled. Lou slammed the horn. “Move it, you maggots! Back to the front!”
Chuck gave a rebel yell and swung his golden mullet in time to the Slayer blasting from his garage. He let Gordy fall on the grass. Acres kids streamed out of backyards and fell from the trees. Most of them were too young, but we took anyone who promised they wouldn’t run and cry to mommy if they came home with a BB in their cheek.
The battle was a blowout. Afterwards, Chuck and Silly made a new rule. Lou and I couldn’t be on the same team anymore.
back to the front
you will do what I say, when I say
back to the front
you will die when I say, you must die
back to the front
you blind man
War became a way of life. All I thought about was getting out to Sherwood Forest and doing battle with my buddies. I started thinking about following in my father’s footsteps and joining the Navy after high school. Fighting was an adrenaline rush that ranked right up there with stage diving at the old Cameo Theatre in Miami. My mother would interrogate me before I left for either place.
“Who’s going? What happens out there?”
“Just war games, Mom.”
“What war games? Like the movie? What’s with the camouflage and writing all over your clothes?” She stopped me from walking out the door by grabbing the back of my army jacket. “What’s that symbol?”
I had written “BACK TO THE FRONT” in black marker above a black spray-painted anarchy sign. “Nothing, Mom. Metallica lyrics.” She didn’t let go. “We just run around in the woods and chase each other. It’s like a game of tag.”
I didn’t answer.
“Lou’s picking you up?”
“Yeah, he’s right outside.”
Lou was walking up the drive. He wore his hair short and his shirt tucked in. He was polite as could be and had all the parents fooled, kind of like Eddie Haskell except he wasn’t faking it. He really was polite, and parents could really trust him, only he liked to do crazy things like jump out of airplanes and light smoke bombs off in the cafeteria.
barking of machine gun fire, does nothing to me now
sounding of the clock that ticks, get used to it somehow
more a man, more stripes you bare, glory seeker trends
bodies fill the fields I see
the slaughter never ends
One of the best parts of battle was the debriefing session afterwards at the Sherwood Street 7 Eleven. We loitered on the curb sipping Slurpees, sharing stories, and showing off our BB wounds. We looked so dirty and sweaty, bloody and wild, that no one chased us away. We never knew how much to believe each other’s stories. Half the time our goggles had been so fogged up we couldn’t see anything anyway.
There were some good ones, though, like the time a sophomore showed up in a bright blue and red Houston Oilers jacket. Lou pegged him ten minutes into the game.
“I’m hit!” the kid said.
A minute later he stood up and Lou nailed him again.
“I’m dead!” the kid said.
Lou shot him again just for wearing such a stupid jacket.
I had two stories worth telling. In one, I was the last guy alive on my team, going up against four or five other guys. It was actually rare to totally kill a team. Usually the game just trickled out and we counted survivors to see who won.
“You’ll never take me alive!” I yelled. I loaded BBs as I ran and took random pot shots behind me, shouting Metallica lyrics in defiance. “I was born for dying!”
They caught me, of course. My legs tired and they closed in. I felt the BBs pepper the back of my jacket. I fell to my knees with my gun over my head, and for one awesome moment I was Elias going down in the jungles of Vietnam.
My other story involved Silly. During a battle where I hadn’t seen him, I slipped away from the action, circled around to where I knew he liked to lay low, and came out of the trees about fifty feet behind him. He was on his belly looking forward. I raised my gun and had a perfect bead on his butt. I couldn’t miss. It was the shot of a lifetime, but I didn’t take it. Instead I snuck up on him.
Having never hunted, I had no idea what it meant to move quietly. It took five minutes to walk thirty feet. Ten feet away I thought about shooting him again. I figured there was no rule against it and his butt could take it. Instead I crouched and jumped forward with a war cry. He spun around and stared down the barrel of my gun.
“Mercy kill,” I said.
why, am I dying?
kill, have no fear
lie, live off lying
hell, hell is here
I was born for dying
For the most part, Lou and I avoided each other on the battlefield. We never talked about it, but I think each of us knew the other so well that it was self-preservation. We took out as many other guys as possible to make better numbers for our team. Our numbers had steadily grown over the summer, to the point where we were pushing twenty players one day in late August when both the temperature and humidity level were pushing a hundred.
My goggles were fogging as usual, mosquitoes swarming over the mud left after a morning thunderstorm. Wearing long pants and a jacket was torture, but worse would be getting bit to shreds or stung by a BB piercing my skin. I was deep in the forest, wiping out my goggles behind a big tree, when I noticed how quiet the woods had become.
We weren’t that far into the game, and I had only shot a couple of guys. I dropped my pack and drank from my canteen. I waited but heard nothing, no shots or shouts or running around, just the buzz of mosquitoes and a few singing birds.
I gathered my stuff and got ready to move. A stick snapped. I followed the sound and saw someone running. My goggles were already fogging again, but I could tell by his size and how quickly he disappeared that it was probably Lou. I ducked behind the tree, checked my chamber, and wondered if he had seen me. I quietly unzipped the front pouch of my pack and took out a rock. I waited but heard nothing.
I threw the rock as far as I could into a clump of underbrush, where it made just the right sound. I peaked out from behind the tree, ready to shoot at anything that moved.
A gun fired, and in the split second that followed I heard the BB flying at me, a sound like air being released from a tire. The BB stung the back of my hand like a needle.
I ducked behind the tree and let my shaking hand fall from the barrel. Blood oozed from a small hole directly below my middle knuckle, smack in the center of my hand. I felt the spot and winced, happy at least that the BB wasn’t stuck inside.
Lou pumped twice, fired again, and hit my tree. He was all over me.
I ran. I figured running was my only chance. I still had a BB in my chamber, but I didn’t dare slow down to turn around. Lou fired again but missed, and I ran further before finding a fallen log to dive behind. I wiped out my goggles but it was useless. My body heat just fogged them up again.
I heard sticks snap as Lou moved closer, but I couldn’t see anything. I was tempted to take off my goggles. I knew Lou was crazy enough to do it, but my throbbing hand made it too easy to imagine taking a BB in the eye.
I ducked behind the log and waited, not sure what to do. Sticks snapped, but quieter now and slower, closer. My heart pounded. Each beat made my hand ache.
Lou was stalking me, probably tracking my footprints in the mud. This was different than getting chased by four guys and screaming in defiance. This was fear, knowing that my enemy was better than me and it was only a matter of time before he finished me off.
For the first time, I had a notion of what war must really be like, a never-ending struggle against overwhelming fear. The pretending was over. I was a kid in South Florida playing a game, grateful beyond measure that I wasn’t a real soldier holding a real gun on foreign soil. In that moment I had new respect for every soldier who ever served. I also knew that I would not be following my father into the Navy. Real war wasn’t for me.
I wiped out my goggles and peaked over my log. Lou was aiming at me from behind a tree twenty yards away. I ducked in time to hear the BB whiz over my head.
Lou pumped twice.
I ran through my options. Fire and run. Run and fire. Listen and wait. Surrender.
Never. In real war maybe, but this wasn’t real, and I would never live it down or live with myself knowing I didn’t even have the guts to finish a fake fight.
Neither of us moved, unless Lou could move quieter than I thought, which I didn’t doubt. I was psyching myself up for the run and fire strategy when I heard a foreign sound drifting through the forest. It was mechanical and coming from where we parked, but it wasn’t music.
“Time out!” Lou called. “You hear that?”
I stood up. “Yeah, what is it?”
We both turned to listen, staring at each other when we made it out. A voice spoke through a megaphone. “This is the police. Come on out. Game’s over.”
life planned out before my birth, nothing could I say
had no chance to see myself, molded day by day
looking back I realize, nothing have I done
left to die with only friend
alone I clench my gun
We considered running, going deeper into the woods and claiming we never heard him, but it was the police after all, and the game really was over. It explained why the woods had grown so quiet. We walked together in silence, stopping only for me to show Lou where he shot me in the hand.
We stepped out of the woods and saw a police cruiser parked behind our cars. An officer in uniform talked to our friends. A pile of guns lay front and center, looking like something out of a Miami Vice drug bust.
The officer looked up when he heard us. “These the last ones?” he asked.
“Yes, sir,” Chuck said, which was weird because Chuck never said sir to anyone.
The officer motioned for us to add our guns to the pile of weapons. We dropped them on top of the others.
He called in on his radio. “You’re not gonna believe this,” he said. “I got about twenty kids and a pile of BB guns. Some kind of Rambo game going on.” He turned down an offer for back up and looked us over before finally letting a smile slip.
“I shot BBs when I was a kid and all, but nothing this…” He paused and waved at our gear and the stockpile of weapons. “Elaborate,” he finished.
None of us said anything. We smiled along with him and tried to look innocent.
“Neighbors across the canal called you in,” he said. “Older couple saw you running around shooting each other. They didn’t know what was going on over here, maybe World War III for all they knew.”
We laughed at his joke and waited to see what he would do with us.
“Like I said,” he continued. “I did this kind of thing, too. And I can see you boys are being careful with the goggles and all.” Another pause. “You all go home and don’t come back for awhile. What you do after that is up to you, but if you ever do come back, I’d strongly advise you stay away from that canal. We get another call and you can bet your folks will be involved and we’ll be talking this over back at the station. Got it?”
We nodded and smiled and showered him with sirs. He shook his head and smiled again before stepping into his car and driving away.
We stared at each other and started laughing. Chuck ran over to his father’s El Camino and reached inside, holding up a finger for us to wait. We heard a cassette tape rewinding and then the first pounding chords of Disposable Heroes blasting from the speakers. Chuck flew from the car and grabbed his gun from the pile, banging his head and playing air guitar on his rifle. A spontaneous mosh circle started around him.
“Bodies fill the fields I see…”
There was no shortage of stories at the 7 Eleven that day.
back to the front
We did come back a week or two later, but it wasn’t the same. Our numbers were lower, and our woods weren’t our own anymore. All of a sudden we had to share them with strangers across the canal. The game wasn’t the same for me, either, now that the game was just a game.
School started and we went about the business of being juniors, following Silly’s lead in chasing girls and piling huge numbers of rowdy teenagers in the van for concerts. Lou always drove, always sober but always up for adventure, once cramming in nineteen of us for Mötley Crüe and driving a mile on the median to avoid the traffic.
We finished high school and went to college and went about our lives. To the surprise of everyone, Chuck cut his hair and joined corporate America, a regular pillar of the community. To the surprise of no one, Silly had numerous messy entanglements with members of the opposite sex before finally settling down and marrying a nice Italian girl.
I moved out to the Pacific Northwest and kept my connection to the woods. Every few years or so, Lou and I get together and pull off an epic backpacking trip.
Lou is a high-ranking officer in the United States Air Force, currently stationed in the Persian Gulf, fighting a new enemy from the cockpit of his jet. He’s had an amazing career, manning a nuclear missile silo miles underground and flying the largest plane in the world, a C5 cargo transport used to position troops and equipment like tanks and helicopters. I worry about him, of course, but I can think of no better man for the job.
We listen with awe and admiration to his stories during those rare and precious times when we all get together, but like a bunch of old veterans, the stories inevitably return to the wars of ’86 that we fought in Sherwood Forest. It’s tempting to long for those lost days of innocence, but the forest is gone, paved over and replaced with one more cookie-cutter shopping center. The world has changed, but heroes remain.