At the age of 11 my brother was already an expert on military strategy and tactics. He always outplayed the older relatives at chess and Battleship and he could explain all of the major battles of the Civil War, in detail. These were the days when all children were given IQ tests in school; my brother scored in the genius category. His teacher told my mother in hushed and reverent tones that he needed specialized education and suggested that he be allowed to advance upward through the grade levels at his own pace. My parents discussed it but decided that he would be socially handicapped and isolated by that. They wanted him to have a normal childhood with friends his own age. While it was true that he was brilliant, he was also emotionally fragile; they guessed (quite rightly) that he would have been traumatized by being thrown in with older boys. So, utterly bored and unchallenged at school, my brother poured his intellect into all sorts of challenges that he devised for himself. One of them was the Living Room Wars.
At that time, my father was a struggling draftsman studying for his architectural license. With a wife and 3 kids there wasn’t much money for luxuries such as furniture. The vast expanse of the living room, which spanned the width of the entire house, was empty except for carpet and venetian blinds. It was the perfect location to lay out every major battle of the Civil War and World War II.
My brother spent every dime of his allowance on big bags of plastic army men, a popular toy in the 1950’s. He had collected, sorted, categorized and color-coded literally hundreds and hundreds of plastic soldiers, artillery pieces, tanks, tents, ships and planes. With history books and maps spread out, he would set up these pieces from wall to wall across the living room floor. Beginning with the starting position of all of the units in major battles, he painstakingly moved each piece, one by one, according to the historical accounts of the real troop movements. When he finished playing out the battle as it occurred in history, he started over. Wondering what would have happened if General So-and-So had known this or that bit of intelligence, he played out alternative scenarios to see if the battle would have ended differently. He would become engrossed in this project for days on end. Our parents gave me strict orders to stay out of the living room and leave my brother alone. Of course I didn’t listen.
One day, bored and curious, I wandered into the living room and asked, in typical four-year-old-fashion, “Can I play with you?” My brother sighed, thought about it a moment, then said yes. He grabbed one of his bags of soldiers, dug through it and pulled out a plastic German Shepherd dog and a couple of soldiers. ‘Here” he said “you can be the K-9 Corps.” I was thrilled. Even my pre-school brain had enough sense to understand that I was bothering him. I had fully expected him to say “No! Go away!” Instead, he kindly ordered Patton and Rommel to cease hostilities and brought the Battle of the Bulge to a halt. So for a little while we played out a made-up battle where the heroic K-9 Corps bravely held off the German army until finally, the courageous hero-dog, at the front of the action, took a bullet for the team and died. He was accorded full military honors and was buried on the battlefield. At that, I was content to have played my small part in saving the world, so I ran off to play with my dolls. More important, I was vastly satisfied that my brother had taken time to play with me. I felt loved.
Years later, all grown up and growing old, having been in real battles himself, he reminisced about our childhood with me and our siblings. Our father had just died and, as is common at such times, we were reviewing our own lives and thinking about our mortality. My brother said to me “I have a confession to make. You won’t remember this but I have felt terrible about it all these years. I have to get it off my chest.” Then he recounted his memory of that afternoon when he stopped his war to play with me, only his version was different. He told me he staged the death of the dog in order to get rid of me so that he could go back to his game. “It must have hurt your feelings terribly. I should have played with you as long as you wanted to play” he said. “I just wanted to tell you how sorry I am that I did that. It’s been bothering me all these years.”
I laughed. “I remember it vividly! I’m amazed that you remember it!” I said. “You didn’t do anything wrong. I was the one who was wrong. Mom and Dad told me to leave you alone but I went in there anyway. I knew I was bothering you but you stopped and played with me anyway. And you played with me just long enough. After all, I was only four; I had a short attention span. You don’t owe me an apology; I was thrilled. It’s one of my all-time favorite memories.”
I saw his face visibly relax and his shoulders slump. He had put the burden down. He fell into a thoughtful silence. After a while he mused “It’s funny how we all experience the same event differently, make incorrect assumptions about what others are thinking, about what’s really happening.’
“Yeah” I said “Kind of like the fog of war, huh?”
He nodded. “If only people would talk to each other.’ He said.
We looked at each other sorrowfully.
If only we had.
If only we would.