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Imagine that -- Wooden Guns!

Crouched in a corn field on the edge of a cemetery, three young men held their breath. On the left was Murph, clad in a olive drab button-down fatigue shirt and an M1 helmet with cloth cover and armed with a M1911 Colt. Next to him was Briggs, an HBT cap shielded his eyes from the autumn sun as he held a Walther PPK at the ready. And on the right, there I was, finger looped through the pin of a MkII grenade, right hand trembling as I gripped the bomb’s serrated iron body.

A Jeep with a driver and a passenger came down the dirt road between the tombstones—straight at us! Where the road turned away, the Jeep left the road and stopped in the tall grass-- about 10 yards from where we were pushing our bodies into the furrows between the rows of corn. I popped the pin, and let the old WWII grenade fly. Following one bounce, it rolled perfectly under the Jeep…

Boys Will Be Boys.

That grenade didn’t explode. In fact, it had been launched hundreds of times by my brothers and myself and never exploded. It was one of my Dad's WWII "bring-backs"--a blue-bodied training grenade. On this particular afternoon, Murph, Briggs, and I had been out “playing Army” with our lifelike weapons, when we were half-startled by someone turning into the usually vacant cemetery—a perfect playground for imaginative kids. After the vehicle passed through the gate, it was easy for us to recognize the occupants were a pair of older boys who cut the cemetery’s grass. We actually knew our “targets.”

After the grenade rolled directly under the driver’s seat, we three concealed warriors jumped out of the corn field declaring, “We blew you all to heck!” just as the lawn-mowing brothers began to unload their equipment. They joked with us while I retrieved my Dad’s WWII practice grenade and spoon. It was just another summer afternoon in the cemetery.

Times Have Changed

I remember Dad telling me, “You will know you are old when you begin sentences with, ‘When I was a kid...’” I never thought about that much until I began sharing stories. Most of them begin with, “When I was a kid…”

But more than the passage of time separates me from my youth. The world has changed drastically, as well. Kids can’t play with deactivated grenades, lifelike pistols, or even openly express an interest in “all things military” these days. "When I was a kid" we didn't fear mass shooters, “lone wolves,” or “active terrorists.” Rather than not even noticing when three kids walk down a country road clad in camouflage and armed with realistic looking weaponry, it has become politically expedient to frown upon any kid’s interest in military history. This really makes it hard for our hobbies to replenish their ranks by getting younger people interested.

This past weekend, however, I witnessed an episode at the recent Iola Military Vehicle Show in Iola, Wisconsin that refutes the trend. In its 25th year, the Show has always attracted families by offering a variety of activities including deuce-and-a-half rides, radio-controlled aerial combat demonstrations, historic agricultural demonstrations, and military reenactments. A family can come and spend hours while enjoying a good selection of hot and cold food. This combination of activities has been the core of the show’s success.

At the show, kids’ interest in military matters is encouraged – even supported. Vehicle displayers allow kids to climb on their OD machines, talk to them about the history, and let them hold equipment and wear helmets. After the reenactments, the announcer allows the children in the audience to run out onto the “battlefield” to look for spent cartridges while reenactors assist and explain the kids’ finds.

One of the most interesting “kid-friendly” activities that I have witnessed at this show is the proliferation of “wooden guns.” One vendor spends his winter cutting out replica Schmeisers, Thompson, M16s, and Uzis from 1” thick wood. Rounding the edges and sanding are his only efforts toward finishing. He leaves all the other details to each child’s imagination. Made of bright, fresh wood, it is obvious the “guns” are not real and don’t have the “orange tip” that is found on virtually any toy or replica these days.

Cut from soft, 1" thick boards, a variety of "weapons" await new armies of imaginative young people at the Iola Miltary Show.

Cut from soft, 1" thick boards, a variety of "weapons" await new armies of imaginative young people at the Iola Miltary Show.

Even though the kids strike aggressive, militaristic poses with their guns while accompanying their families up and down the show aisles, something even more unusual played out after this year’s afternoon reenactment. After the announcer’s release, the kids ran down to where they could find hundreds of spent .30-06 and 8mm casings. In a few minutes, most of the kids drifted back to the bleachers where they showed the plunder to their more-than-patient parents.

Just the outline provides the shape of any particular weapon. The kid's imagination fills in the details.

Just the outline provides the shape of any particular weapon. The kid's imagination fills in the details.

I say “most” of the kids, because, as I looked back to where the battle had occurred, I saw a new “skirmish” forming. About two dozen kids… who didn’t know each other and without any parental “guidance”…were gathering and picking “sides.” The only common denominator among them was the wooden gun each kid carried. After sides were determined, they launched into a 10-minute battle of commands; running, rolling, and hiding; and verbal “explosions” followed by declarations of “I got you!” and “No you didn’t!”

While it is obvious that the reenactors have spent hundreds of dollars on uniforms, gear, and weapons in the desire to give the audience some sense of what it was like for our fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers in combat, it wasn’t obvious to anyone what these two dozen kids were imparting. In fact, most of the audience had already dispersed. Those who remained were engaged in conversations or checking their phones.

Discussions preceded "storming" a hooch during the 10 minute "wooden gun" battle.

Discussions preceded "storming" a hooch during the 10 minute "wooden gun" battle.

I just sat and watched the kids playing army. They didn’t realize it, but they were recreating episodes from my childhood. As they fired, fell, and yelled orders to each other, they were opening mental paths that allowed me to recall the days when Murph, Briggs, and I would lay in a corn field adjacent to a cemetery, waiting for the “next enemy patrol” to fall into our trap.

Preserve the Memories,

John Adams-Graf

Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine

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