My War Journal
By David Bruce
We’ll call it War
At the tender age of eight years old, my brother Danny and I sat in the pews of my father’s church playing games to keep ourselves entertained while my dad preached the hell and brimstone sermons from the pulpit. Some games we would play ranged from staring at a certain person in the church until they looked; whoever could stare the longest would win.Something infatuated my brother with war, planes, guns, and anything tactical. One service, I noticed Danny had a paper, and on it, he had drawn some figures that looked like little soldiers and also on the paper were tanks, planes, and designated tree area, which represented cover and concealment.
He drew a line down the middle of the paper dividing both sides. Then, he folded the paper, and he took his pen and started putting dots everywhere. After about 30 seconds, he flipped the paper and did it to the other side. I looked at him puzzled and then asked, “What are you doing, Danny?”
He looked at me, squinted his beetle eyes, pushed his nerdy glasses up, and whispered so he wouldn’t bring attention to himself, “I am playing GI Joe.” I looked at him more confused.
He then opened the paper and just like magic, the dots showed through. The little soldiers, tanks, and planes that he placed on the paper were a hit or a miss. My brother made sound effects as if bullets were being shot and little rumbling noises resembling explosions going off. I was so young and pure in mind that the word “war” wasn’t even part of my vocabulary.
I was very interested in the game, so as the service went on, I learned how to play the game. Over the next weeks, my brother and I had a full-blown war on paper; it was like the popular game Battleship.
We would keep score at the bottom of the paper. The only way you won was if you killed everyone. In my mind, that was how war was won. I once asked my brother, “Danny, if you like war so much, why don’t you do something like you do on the paper.” My brother was older and had knowledge of the military structure, so he answered me. “I just like playing war, I don’t think I would be a good GI Joe,” he said. I answered back, “Yes, I don’t think shooting someone would be fun, the paper game is fun, what do we call the game?”
“War, we’ll call it war,” he replied.
When I turned ten, I became fascinated with playing war out in the woodlands and the open dirt fields alone but occasionally with my brother or even all the street kids.
I was into the civil war, so it was always the North versus the South. I would run in the woods with a stick in my hand or even a squirt gun and act like someone was shooting at me, even making sound effects like I was talking on the radio. I would lie on a dirt mound and peak over, looking for the enemy. Just to act like I was getting fired upon, I pounded the dirt and it would fly up, giving a grand effect. I often would try to creep up on the construction workers who worked laboriously on the highway that would later take my field away.
One day while sneaking around way out in the woodlands, I found out what a gunshot sounded like. I couldn’t believe I was out in the middle of the woods and somewhere out there in front of me was someone with a gun shooting.
I wasn’t certain if it was at me, but I perceived it was close. Apprehensive, I rushed through the woodlands as quick as I could; I was so afraid that I was going to die and my parents would never find me. Cutting through an unfamiliar part in the woodlands, I went from running like the wind to crashing face-first into the mud, but this wasn’t just a typical mud, this was quicksand or something like that. As time passed, I appeared to drop further into the muck.
I tried not to cry; I tried to pull myself out of the mud, but I couldn’t. I grabbed the tree limb over my head, but go figure, it broke. In the distance, I could see something coming through the bush. With my luck, I thought it would be a bear. Just like out of the movies, a man came out of the bushes. He stood over me like some kind of odd-looking superhero.
In his hands, he held what looked like a big stick of sorts. The man had a big grin on his face and asked me, “Son, you know where you are?”
It scared me to answer, but I got an answer out. “I was just playing GI Joe,” I answered.
The man laughed and then replied, “Son, it’s hunting season, and real guns are being shot out here in the deep woodlands.” The quicksand that I was in had swallowed my leg and was up to my knees. Did he notice? I did not understand, but I had to get out and quickly. I could only imagine what my parents would say when they found out their second child died tragically in quicksand.
The man took what he was holding in his hand and stuck it out so I could grab on to it. I grabbed it but slipped back. A sense of urgency came over me, most likely because the man had a frustrated look on his face. I leaned in and finally got ahold of the stick and he pulled me out. I sat on the ground and looked at the quicksand and shook my head. The man laughed.
“These sinkholes are rare, but you found one, son.”
I shook my head in disgust. I mumbled back, “I sure did, sir, I sure did.”
I slowly got up and looked directly at the man who saved me from getting sucked into the earth. I observed he wasn’t carrying a stick; rather he was carrying a gun, a big one. The man wore a yellow vest that to me looked ridiculous, but I wasn’t about to say anything, he just saved me from dying in quicksand. I got out of the sand and sure enough; I had lost my shoes and socks and I was just a mess. The man asked me if I wanted to go back to his truck so he could give me a ride home. I was so lost, so confused, and embarrassed that I took the ride.
I know that wasn’t the brightest idea, to jump in the truck with someone I didn’t know, but it was Michigan. I found out later that everyone went to my dad’s church, and he was one of the members. As I got older my story of playing GI Joe and getting stuck in the quicksand became a novel story at church, well among the younger kids, especially the girls. Coincidently a few weeks later, I would stand in front of him again, but this time with my parents. With Dad being the preacher, I mean forgiveness, right?
While my dad was preaching I escaped from my mom’s watch and crawled underneath the pews, rendezvousing with his daughter Mary. There we had a strange kiss, it seemed more like a lick, and it was so confusing. After that life-changing experience, I scurried back under the seat. I popped up and my mom didn’t even notice I had left. Or did she?
Most likely she did, but played it off during the meet up with Mary’s parents. The question I had was what exactly did Mary tell her mom and dad. They asked me what happened, and I honestly couldn’t describe it, so I said, “We did what Moms and Dads do.” That was the end of that conversation. I mean, her last name was lips. It was going to happen. We grew into the experience, but weirdly enough after a while, both our parents relaxed and the excitement was over and we got bored. I moved on to the next church member’s daughter, Gretchen. Apparently, Mary had a thing for my best friend Steve, go figure. That’s a story, but I digress.
I didn’t go out into the woods again unless I was with my brother or friends. My brother and I would later spend endless hours out in the woods playing war against each other. I seemed to be sneakier and knew where to hide, were as he was more one that would spend a lot a time throwing things at me, like acorns, rocks, and sometimes eggs. I could never figure out where it was coming from. This was when I learned from my brother what a sniper was, I never understood, but I knew I didn’t like it. My brother didn’t mean to teach me about war, but he did, innocently. My brother gave me insight into something I would later reflect on when in Iraq on my 1st and 2nd tours. When my brother found out I was joining the military, he wasn’t thrilled, but the only thing he said was, “Dave, just keep your head down and remember they are not throwing eggs, it’s war.”
The year that sticks in my memories, from my younger years, was 1985. It was then I watched the news, well I tried, sometimes all of it just seemed like a bunch of old people telling stories, and started understanding what war and global conflict was and how these issues affected the world that I was in. President Ronald Reagan, whom people called “Jelly Bean,” was running the show and every time he was giving a speech on TV, I would sit and listen intently.
My mom told me I would sit in front of the TV in a silent trance when the president was on. On June 12, 1987, Reagan challenged Gorbachev, then the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, to tear the wall down as a symbol of his desire for increased freedom in the Eastern Bloc.
I was so excited; I remember jumping up and down right after Reagan said his famous words that I would later look back on for an example of a man who fought not just for those who he served, but those in other countries. The following words today still inspire me:
“We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Looking back at the early years when life to me was simple and rather uncomplicated, there was still war and conflict. My parents never had to explain to me what war was, I found out on my own, and from doing that I learned lessons that to this day follow me and give me insight on what we call war.