“My son seems to really like military history, but he just sits in front of the television,” a young mother confessed to me this past weekend. “He really has a good imagination, but I am afraid it just won’t develop.” This is a complaint I hear from many adults, but this one struck home—the 8-year-old is pretty dear to me. I was visiting him, his parents, and two younger siblings at their refurbished 1880s farmhouse. “Hey!” I hollered over the din of Call of Duty, “I have never seen your basement.” Reluctantly, he fired the last few rounds from his controller before he dropped it to lead me down the narrow, wooden stairs.
“Oh my gosh!” I exclaimed as we reached the cement floor of the musty smelling basement. “This is awesome!”
Brushing cob webs aside, the Boy (that’s what I call him—a vague Homer-to-Bart reference) said, “Whattya mean? It’s gross down here! Nobody comes down here.”
I launched into a plan: “Nobody comes down here? You mean, we can use this whole space as our hobby platform?” I was already sizing up the area not occupied by the furnace and water heater.
“Right here,” I outlined with my hands in the air, “We can build a table for the slot car track!” Turning to another darkly lit space, “And here, we can build a 4 foot by 8 foot battlefield!”
“Hey-John (that’s what they call me, “Hey-John.” Seriously. It has been said so many times, it has devolved to a nickname), whattya talking about?” the Boy asked with a glimmer of interest. “A battlefield?” I had his attention.
Okay, I know I “can’t go back,” but when I was a kid, I spent entire afternoons in our Victorian home’s basement, setting up intricate Civil War battlefields on an 4’x8’ sheet of plywood on top of our pool table. Over time, the plywood received a coat of grass green paint, sprouted lichen foliage on broken apple tree branches, and grew papier-mâché mountains.
The 1/72nd scale plastic Yankees and Confederates were a mix of Airfix figures, a set of “exploding fort” soldiers ordered from a comic book, and a few HO metal soldiers I had ordered, one at a time, from Stone Mountain Miniatures, a company that had a tiny advertisement in Civil War Times Illustrated.
Over a few years, the battlefield grew as I added a Civil War vintage HO scale railroad (thanks to a some serious Christmas “Red Ryder BB Gun”-like pleading to my parents), a plaster of paris river, and several yards of balsa wood snake fences and stone walls constructed from driveway gravel.
This didn’t occur overnight, but rather, took several summers to complete. It began when I was 10 years old, when Dad suggested I take my soldiers into the basement to play—that way, I wouldn’t have to pick them up every night.
He found a sheet of plywood and called it, “My battlefield.” Placing on the pool table that we didn’t seem to use much anymore, he said I could leave it set up until someone wanted a game of pool. My older brothers were now far too cool to hangout in the basement, so that interruption to any serious military campaign was unlikely to occur.
The basement sat under the footprint of a 1906-built, three-story home. So, in the winter it was warm, and in the summer, wonderfully cool—much like the basement under the Boy’s home.
“Hey-John!” the Boy awoke me from my nostalgic daydream, “How are we going to build the battlefield?” The hook was set, I just had to reel him in. “I think I saw a sheet of plywood in your dad’s garage. Let’s see if we can have it.”
“Dad!” the Boy yelled as he bolted up the wooden stairs, “Can Hey-John and me have a sheet of plywood?” His dad, now immersed in his own video game on the couch, lethargically replied, “I don’t care….”
I followed the Boy to the garage. Along the way, he scooped up rocks from the driveway. “Hey-John! We can use these for boulders!”
After carrying the half-inch-thick sheet to the basement, I propped it up on some sawhorses. The Boy had already retrieved his bucket of troops.
I bit my lip…they weren’t as cool as Airfix figures. Rather, they were a mix of approximately 1/32nd scale sand-colored plastic soldiers armed with M-16s and some slightly larger green soldiers who appeared to be armed with M14s or Garands. Two out-of-scale M1 Abrams represented the only mobilized units.
The mix of scale and weapon-eras didn’t distract the Boy. He already divided the forces into a two piles: Sand-colored figures in one and green soldiers in the other. Each pile received the back-up of one tank. Assigning the green soldiers to me, we commenced deployment. The “boulders” were arranged to provide cover.
The Boy disappeared up the stairs as I carefully arranged soldiers on each of my defensive flanks. When he returned, he dumped out a bucket of Legos. With the dexterity of an iPod production line worker, the Boy slapped together several “buildings” that he place on the battlefield. “Now we have a town!”
We fought our first battle, interrupted from time to time as the Boy bounded upstairs and returned with some addition for the battlefield: A construction paper river, some styrofoam packing hills, and a few bewildered plastic cows and horses. Freed from his video controller (and I used the word “Controller” on purpose!), the Boy’s imagination was released.
It seemed like minutes, but several hours had passed when we heard the call for supper. “Mom!” the Boy responded to her beckoning, “Come downstairs and see Hey-John’s and my battlefield.”
Tip-toeing down the stairs as if she were entering a dank dungeon, she asked, “What have you two been doing all afternoon?” The Boy stood proudly pointing to his battlefield and just said, “This.”
Unleash the passion,
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine