Monday, November 26, 2012

Cold War Paranoia and 10 year Old Boys

In the summer of 1955, Johnny, Dick and I were addicted to playing, as we called it, Army. The three of us had collected surplus military gear and were well equipped; pistol belts, canteens, first aid kits, entrenching tools, army flashlights, knives, compasses and ammo pouches. When school got out, the Army Surplus Store started selling helmet liners and M1 rifle stocks with wooden receivers and barrels. No more bad fatigue caps and bad imitations of military weapons cut on a jig saw in the garage. We carried cap pistols that looked like, as we called the US M1911, Army 45’s. Dressed in our boy sized fatigue pants, green t-shirts we thought we looked like authentic GIs, the only give away was our tattered Chuck Taylors. The Cold War was going full blast,never the less we were still fighting WWII.

That summer, my 10th, we were given an unbelievable gift. The Army Corps of Engineers had designed a 3 mile long dike on the river across the street and down the hill from our houses. The first order of business was to bull doze the trees close to the river bank. The resulting tangle of toppled oaks, cottonwoods, elms and maples created a war-like devastated land scape. It was perfect. It was beautiful. We patrolled, set up defensive positions, dug foxholes and ate our rations in the middle of this nightmare landscape. Rain or shine we were in the middle of Normandy, fighting our way across France or attacking across the Rhine.

By July we had run out of enemies. The kids who played our Krauts and Nazis were tired of losing, tired of being killed in action, wounded in action or taken prisoner and were really tired of having to wear homemade Nazi armbands or being confined in the POW camp we constructed. The 3 of us were now garrison soldiers, bored and restless just like real garrison soldiers. We took a weekend pass over the 4th of July.

We reassembled after the 4th; I was leaving for the lake with my family for a month. Johnny was going with his mother on the train to the West Coast and Dick had been ordered to his grandparent’s farm. Our unit, after a month on the front lines was being deactivated. It wasn’t a happy day as we assembled in full combat gear in our headquarters dug under a toppled 60 foot oak. We decided after our rations of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches washed down with Pepsi from a genuine army surplus canteen we would go on one last patrol and see if there were any German stragglers left to clean out of our area of operations.

The patrol was routine, I took point that day, Dick with his wooden replica of a BAR walked in the middle and Johnny walked drag. We were on high alert as we worked our way through a thicket of brush that had grown up around the broken trees. We walked the river bank and as we made our way into clearing at the foot of a hill we heard a jet in the distance. Johnny took out his Dad’s binoculars, the ones he wasn’t supposed to “fool” with. With them, he spotted the plane about a mile way doing aerobatics over the south side of town. The jet banked and came towards us at about 500 feet and then banked again.

I was the aviation expert and told my fellow soldiers, “It’s an old F86, from the Air Guard.” We started up the hill. The hill had been cleared of all vegetation and was rough, it was going to be part of the dike and until it did, it was going to be left in its scarred condition. It looked like it had been carpet bombed.

When we reached the top, Johnny yelled “He’s coming back!” a split second later the F86 screamed over our heads, Dick hit the dirt as Johnny and I stared, then swiveled as the jet passed over us at low altitude, so low we could feel the heat from the engine. As we watched the jet climb, the pilot banked, rolled and started back towards us, nose down and gaining speed. He passed over us at what seemed like 50 feet. Johnny and I tossed our helmets in the air and jumped up and down, waving and yelling, “Come on back, come on back!”

Dick was laying on the ground his hands clutching his helmet saying, “No, no!” He sounded like he was crying.

The jet gained a little altitude and turned hard to the east, we could see the pilot through the canopy. We waved at him and he gave us a salute. We returned his salute. Then he obliged his fellow combatants. This time without gaining much altitude at all, he flew off to the south and turned towards us. Johnny and I were staring into the air intakes as the jet howled towards us; he flew over so low I could see the stenciled “No Step” signs on the fuselage. Later Johnny claimed he could count the rivets. The air turbulence was so great it flattening the dust on the top of the hill, making it blow out paralell to the ground. I could feel my t-shirt ripple as he made his pass. Johnny and I spun around to watch and we could see the glow inside the F86’s tail pipe. We leaped into the air again and hugged each other. We watched as “our” jet climbed and headed off to the south, we watched until it disappeared. Dick stayed face down on the ground; he was crying, hard enough that his face was muddy and streaked.

Dick looked up and blubbered, “Is it gone?”

The jet was gone, we could hear every dog in the neighborhood barking, cop sirens wailing. When we came through the Rosenthal’s back yard we found the sidewalks were filled with mothers and little kids, they were all searching the sky and all talking at the same time, some of the moms were crying and all the little kids were. Two cop cars screeched to a halt, lights flashing and the cops got out trying to look like they knew what had happened and were in control. Dick took off running, headed for home. Johnny and I walked slowly across the street; we drank water out of the Leonard’s garden hose. We were lying on the grass in Leonard’s side yard, our heads on our helmets; my cocker spaniel had found us and snuggled up to my legs. We were talking about how lucky we were to be buzzed by a jet. One of the mothers pointed us out to the cops and a big, fat cop walked towards us, hat off and wiping his brow with a cotton handkerchief.

The cop looked down at us and said, “You boys know anything about this?”

Johnny and I looked at each other and I said, “Sure.”

The cop said, “The plane, was it a rooski?”

Johnny said, “Huh?’

The fat cop said, “Was it a rooski plane?”

Johnny and I started to laugh, so much, we were crying like Dick.

“You boys better get up or I’ll give you something to laugh about.” Said the cop, Johnny and I just laughed harder.

The other cop walked up, he was skinny and was sporting a nasty face full of pimples and was angry about it, “Okay, what did you boys have to do with that rooski airplane? One of the ladies over there said you were signaling the pilot.”

Johnny and I were now on our feet, we were laughing so hard we had to hold on to each other so we didn’t fall back down on the grass. I looked at Johnny and said, “Rooski plane?” I was laughing and crying so much snot was coming out of my nose. Johnny was going nuts.

The skinny cop turned to the fat cop and said, “What do you think Virgil, maybe a trip down town would do these jokers some good?” The fat cop nodded in the affirmative and took my arm, the skinny cop took Johnny. My cocker spaniel grabbed a mouthful of Virgil’s pants, she was a tough little dog and he was having trouble getting rid of her and holding on to me at the same time. Johnny looked at me and said, “rooski plane”…I could not stop laughing.

The cops marched us towards the waiting cruisers, my dog still nipping at Virgil the cop’s pants. I could overhear one of the neighbor ladies saying, “Well it wouldn’t surprise me, all they do is chase and torture the children in this neighborhood, they could be commie agents, they recruit young, you know.” I saw nods all around, even though Mrs. Kitchen was considered the nuttiest woman on the street.

I looked at Johnny and said, “They think it was a Russian plane.” I turned to Virgil the cop, who was sweating heavily and said, “Do you really think it was a Russian airplane?”

“I don’t know what it was, but we’re going to find out just what you and your buddy there have to do with it.”

I looked at him and said, “You’re nuts, you know that?” He twisted my arm and put me in the back of the patrol car. He said, “We’ll see who is nuts.” He slammed the door. My cocker was jumping up against the side of the cop car, barking. I looked towards my house, my Mom was on the phone, I could see her though the kitchen window. The skinny cop was having trouble getting Johnny in the car, Johnny had his feet braced against the door frame and wouldn’t get in. He turned to me and yelled, “Rooskie” and we started to laugh all over again.

The skinny cop started to get rough with Johnny when our mothers walked up. John’s Mom, a tiny woman got in the cop’s face and said, “Take your hands off my son, you idiot!”

The pimpled faced cop spun around and said, “You want to go down to the station too, lady?”

My Mom who at the time reminded me of Katherine Hepburn said, “Do what she says or you’ll be even more of a laughing stock than you already are. It was on the radio that it was an Air National Guard jet buzzing the town, not a damned Russian airplane; the pilot is going to be arrested by the guard as soon as he lands. I would highly suggest you release our boys and be on your way.”

Virgil the cop joined the discussion, “Them boys was seen signaling the plane, they must have something to do with it.”

John’s mom looked at him and said, “You are a moron, you know that?”

I climbed into the front seat of the cop car, got out and joined my Mom, but not before I threw the keys across the street.

Mom said to the two cops, “If you don’t believe me why don’t you get on the radio and find out?”

The skinny and pimpled cop said, “We need to find out what these boys know and then find the one that got away.”

Johnny’s Mom said, “Do you know the definition of cretin?” She was all of 5 foot one and weighed about 95 lbs., she took out a Winston, offered my Mother one, lit them and blew smoke in the cop’s face, “Aren’t you about finished here?”

Virgil the fat one and Pimples the skinny cop, walked off, and had a discussion, it was a little heated. Our Moms smoked and glared at the cops. Johnny climbed over the seat of his cop car and trotted over to join the Moms and I.

Pimples got in his cruiser and roared off. Virgil told the crowd, “Nothing to see here, just go back to your homes, he tipped his hat at our mothers, got in the cop car and realized he couldn’t find his keys. John and I volunteered to help him, we searched for about 10 minutes, finally I walked across the street and retrieved them from the grass. I motioned to Johnny and he and I walked over to Officer Virgil, I smiled and said, “Found your keys.”

I tossed them to him, Johnny said, “Some rooskie had them, I’ll bet.” We both laughed like crazy and ran to join our Moms who were having a late afternoon cocktail and were smoking on the lawn chairs in John's backyard. Virgil the cop peeled rubber when he left. We had Pepsi and chocolate cookies. We thought our Moms were great and they were.

When school started that fall, all Johnny and I would do is say ‘Rooskie” to each other and we’d break up.

Our pilot was grounded for a year; he was demoted from Captain to Lieutenant. He went on to a career with Northwest Airlines…he had been top fighter pilot in Korea. He sure gave us a cool summer treat.



  1. You capture a time and moment beautifully. What a hoot!
    Sadly some folks still seem to have the same "breadth" of intellect as Virgil and pimples.

    Loved your description of the battle zone. We had a cinder alley with new home construction debris and mounds of dirt and trees and they were our Korea.

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