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Sandboxes and Toy Soldiers: Spring is a time of Discovery

After 40 years, a plastic soldier throwing a grenade and holding a Thompson won again.

Each year around this time, collectors climb out of the war rooms, kick the garage doors open and breath a deep yawn as they shake winter from their laps and limbs. It is spring time… time to rediscover our historic military vehicles, start pounding flea markets and garage sales in search of historic goodies and in some cases, doing all those chores that languished during the dark snowy days of the months prior. Sometimes, performing those tasks can reawaken some long-forgotten memories.

The Attic of the Old House

I was fortunate to grow up in the house where my dad grew up. It was the house his grandmother built around 1906. As you can well imagine, that big, three-story Victorian house—on a large lot across the street from one of the town’s two Catholic churches—held many treasures for a young history-minded kid to discover.

I loved to go to the third story that served at one time as living quarters. For my family, however, it was the “attic.” The attic held the belongings of three generations. Once thought too valuable to throw away, the access was relegated to shelves and corners on that top floor.

When my Dad was a kid, he took over one of those third-story rooms to make his photographic darkroom. Self-taught, he later became a professional photographer before leaving to serve in WWII. After the war, that darkroom remained idle until his sons were old enough to discover photography for themselves. It is where my brothers and I learned to develop film.

The main, open room of the attic was filled with trunks full of old clothes, most from my grandmother’s younger days; lots of old photographs; furniture; plastic hanging “closets” (one of which held my Dad’s uniforms); and best of all, three Charmin-sized cardboard boxes full of toys. Being the youngest of five kids, I loved to go through these boxes. Not only did they contain the toys of my brothers and sister, but there were many that belonged to my Dad and his sister. It was a glorious mix of toys from the late 1920s, early 1930s with those from the late 1950s and early 1960s.

When spring would finally release our southern Minnesota town from its snow-packed covering, the attic would finally warm up enough for my “historic archaeology adventures.” Saturday morning meant no school and not having to go to our family store until after lunch, so I would jump out of bed and go straight to the attic. I liked it up there. There was an old couch where a kid could sit and read magazines pulled from a huge box my grandmother had filled with Life and Look magazines, some dating to before WWII. It was always fun to dig through those and look at the ads. And, there were those three big boxes of toys.

Having three older brothers—each one a military buff—meant that there were a LOT of martial toys in those boxes. If I bent over the side of the box, I couldn’t reach the bottom, but I would dig and dig, gathering plastic soldiers, tanks, planes or anything else that looked good for my imagined battle scenes.

When I felt I had ample troops and equipment to fight a good morning battle, I scooped them into my shirt that I pulled out from my waist to form a sort of basket. Then, I would carefully maneuver down the attic stairs, turn the corner, and head down the walnut stairs to the first floor. Bursting through the kitchen where Mom was putting away dishes from the breakfast I skipped, I ran down the last few stairs to shoot out the screen door (a sure sign it was spring was when the storm doors were replaced with screen doors) and run across to the lawn to the spot that would keep me occupied for the whole summer: The sandbox.

Sandbox Soldiers

Our sandbox was not so much a “box” as it was an old tractor tire. I don’t know how long the sandbox was in our family, but I suspect Dad got it for my brothers when they were little. It was the perfect place for a kid to play. The rubber tire was just tall enough that a little kid could lay over it as he or she created forts or plowed roads. In the summer, the black rubber would become too hot to lay against, but you could sit on it and still work the sand, though you ended up leaning in it with one arm while you created with the other. Invariably, this led to one’s mother questioning, “How do you get your elbows so dirty?”

On that particular Saturday as I emerged with a shirt full of soldiers, I had grand visions of the battle that would eventually occur in my private 4-foot diameter desert landscape. I was pretty particular about scale: I just couldn’t have tall 1/32nd scale soldiers fighting alongside much smaller HO-scale tanks. It just didn’t make sense to me. When I was in the attic digging out my army, I was careful to make sure the soldiers and vehicles all conformed to a particular size range that I could accept as “plausible.”

The troops consisted of about 15 light green plastic soldiers, another 15 dark olive soldiers, and about 3 tanks with removable turrets, one with a removable M113 armored personnel carrier body, two CCKW with removable cargo bed covers (I loved these!) and one small jeep. Looking back, I have to wonder about that particular set of soldiers. They belonged to my brothers who probably acquired them around 1966 or so. It was a great mix of soldiers and equipment: I remember landing crafts; tank hulls that could accept a variety of body configurations including elongated turrets resembling M46 or M47s, the aforementioned M113s, and even M12 self-propelled guns; dark OD soldiers that included bazooka teams and light green OD soldiers that looked like Pacific Theater Marines. They weren’t as tall as the common 1/32nd (54mm) plastic soldiers, but not as small as 1/48th scale figures that one would usually find in model kits.

Whatever the source, they were perfect for sandbox battles. The dark OD soldiers always faced the light green soldiers. The coolest soldier of the latter was the guy who held a Thompson in one hand while tossing a grenade with the other. He was always the last to go in any battle, making a mad dash across the sand toward an invading tank. War movies taught me you had to drop a grenade down a tank’s hatch if you hoped to stop any advance. That light green Marine dropped more than his share of grenades.

The dark OD soldiers’ most prominent member was a GI with a flamethrower on his back. You can well imagine how many tanks and bunkers he took care of before bursting in a sand explosion.

I would spend hours constructing bunkers, hills with tunnels, bridges and barriers before deploying the soldiers and equipment. After the last soldier took his combat position, I would look around the yard. I was hoping my Mom or Grandmom might be hanging clothes on the line. If they were, I could call them over to show them my handiwork before dozens of sand explosions leveled my personal desert to a wasteland.

The battle probably had a predetermined outcome, though I believed I was impartial as sand explosions erupted near soldiers and toppled tanks. As the numbers dwindled, that one Marine with Thompson in one hand and grenade in the other, maneuvered closer to the remaining enemy tank. Hiding near a destroyed bunker, he waited until I pushed the tank alongside him. Jumping on top, I imagined him lifting the turret hatch with one hand (it would be thirty years before I leaned just how darn heavy a hatch really is), pulling the pin with his teeth (also learned much later, that is a great way to chip a tooth) and dropping the grenade before leaping to safety. With his body safely tucked behind a bunker, I would pop the turret off the tank, twist it in the air as I made explosion sounds with my cheeks, and bury it, gun-first, nearby. The battle was over. The only soldiers to survive were that light green, Thompson-toting, grenade thrower and me.

Spring Cleaning

It’s probably been about 40 years since I conducted my last “Battle of the Sandbox.” When I was about 14, we left that big old Victorian home for the new home of my mother’s dreams. She had waited many years to build her own home. The time finally arrived when we packed up most of the contents of that big old family Victorian and moved across town to a newly built house. I remember the day Dad told me we were leaving the “old house.” I may have been a teenager, but I cried. I cried hard. Maybe I didn’t know why, but now, I can see how much that house meant to me. It was the home of my great-grandmother, my grandparents, my parents, brothers, sister and me. My love of history was born and nurtured in that home. I was surrounded by the memories, ghosts and relics of my family heritage.

Well, despite my objections, we moved. My remaining high school days were lived out in the “new house” where I amassed a whole different set of memories. But, because we had moved so many items from the old Victorian home, reminders of those early days were everywhere.

This past weekend, I bumped into one of those memory-keepers: The old sandbox. I didn’t remember moving it to the new house, but I am sure, at some point, my Dad and Mom felt the grandkids could have just as much fun playing in it as their kids had so many years ago. It was in the backyard, surrounded by tall weeds. A statue of St. Francis stood in the center of the tire, probably placed there when the grandkids became too old to play in the sand.

Mom had asked me to clean up the backyard, so that meant reducing the weeds around the tire and turning the sand and dirt around St. Francis so she could plant flowers at his feet. With the weeds around the perimeter gone, I sat on the tire to begin turning the soil inside of it. They say smell is a big memory-inducer, but let me tell you, sitting on the ridges of that old tractor tire sure brought back summer memories playing in the sand with the neighborhood kids.

I sat for a short time just remembering… running my hand on the now rough, dry tire before I startled myself back to the present and the task at hand. Using a small gardening spade, I began turning over the sand and soil mix, pounding the clumps so that Mom could easily plant her flowers. When I broke the last clump to reduce it to loose soil, I spotted something in the remaining pieces of dirt: A light green plastic figure. I carefully broke the sand and dirt from it…I recognized it. Though he was missing an arm and most of his base (casualties of years of tilling and turning of soil), it was my old grenade-tossing hero.

Apparently he had not survived my last battle—the one where I wrestled with the notion of growing too old to play in the sandbox. I probably left behind buried in the sand, as I embarked on more “teenage-like” adventures.

Okay, I admit, that is probably a bit of a romanticized notion. It is much more likely, my daughter, nephew or nieces had found him in the toy boxes in the basement of the new house and brought him out to fight their own sandbox battles. Even so, as I sat there on the old sandbox tire, I decided to believe my version: He had been buried in the sand for 40 years waiting for me to rediscover him.

Cherish the Memories,

John Adams-Graf
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine

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