“We don’t really grow up. Our toys change with time.” ― Nitya Prakash
In February of 1973 – around the same time that Sam Ervin, a Democratic Senator from South Carolina, was named Chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee, and the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Denmark became the first Christian organization to officially accept gay marriage – I was nine and going on 10 and lived in a relatively comfortable house in the Coral Estates Park neighborhood of Westchester, an unincorporated suburb of Miami, Florida.
Like many of my peers in the neighborhood, I owned and played with military-themed toys, even at a time when many Americans had strong antiwar and anti-military sentiments as a reaction to the recently-concluded “American” phase of the Vietnam War.
In my block, which ran north-south along SW 102nd Avenue from the corner of SW 8th Terrace all the way to the opposite corner of SW 12th Street, I didn’t know any boys whose parents were pacifists or obviously liberal, and all of my friends had toy collections that included “green army men,” Corgi or Matchbox miniature replicas of tanks or other military vehicles, and, in the case of the older (11-13-year-old) kids, Revell or Monogram Snap-Tite model kits of British Spitfires, German Messerschmitt Bf-109s, Japanese Mitsubishi Zeros, or models of ships such as USS Hornet (CV-6).
I didn’t own any models; I have a “mild” version of cerebral palsy that affects my dexterity, so I lack the ability to assemble model kits, much less paint them or apply decals on them. I did, of course, own a few miniature models that came pre-assembled, but I wasn’t good at taking care of them and tended to either break or lose them.
I also owned some of the more toy-like die-cast models of World War II aircraft, like the German Ju-87B Stuka dive bomber and the British Supermarine Spitfire fighter. Those lasted a little longer than the other types of models, but they did not survive my childhood, either.
What I did have a lot of in those days before – and after – my 10th birthday was a veritable army of plastic soldiers, aka “green army men.”
If you were a kid – particularly a boy – in the late 1960s and early 1970s and were too young to opine about the rightness or wrongness of the Vietnam War, or lived in a household with conservative parents who thought the war was a “just cause,” you probably owned at least one bag’s worth of relatively inexpensive (a bag of Marx or MPC “army men” could be had for a dollar at the drug store in the nearby Coral Park Shopping Center) replicas of (almost exclusively) American soldiers from either the World War II or Vietnam War eras.
I remember those $1 bags all too well; my mom gave me an allowance of 10 cents a day if I kept my room reasonably tidy and did certain chores, such as taking the kitchen trash bag out to the garbage bin by the utility room or washing dishes, without complaint. If I managed to earn my money, Mom would give me the money I earned every two weeks or so.
Until I moved to Lithia in 2016, I was fortunate to have lived in two neighborhoods that were within reasonable walking distance of your average shopping plaza that included a supermarket, a drug store, and, in the case of the Coral Park one, a department store with a modest toy department. I don’t recall if the Food Fair store had a small toys section like some Winn Dixie stores do, but the drug store in Coral Park (which is now a huge CVS pharmacy) did, and so did the Neissner’s store that was there in 1973.
At first, I could only go to that shopping plaza if I tagged along when Mom went grocery shopping. My mother was not ridiculously overprotective and she encouraged me to be as independent as possible, even back then. But there were limits to her confidence in my ability to meander about on my own, and because she thought that the only route to the Coral Park Shopping Plaza was the one she took when she drove there, i.e., north on SW 102nd Avenue, then east to the shopping center on the 9700 block of SW 8th Street (Tamiami Trail).
However, some of the guys I hung out with during my five years in that neighborhood either rode their bikes or walked on their own to the same shopping center.
Most of the time it was to run errands for their stay-at-home-moms or to grab a burger at the nearby McDonald’s, but sometimes it was to grab a bag of “green army men” or a Revell model at the drug store, which in 1973 was not yet a “My Pharmacy” or CVS store. They told me that I could avoid the more dangerous “alongside Eighth Street route” that my mom didn’t want me to take if I cut through the Coral Park Apartment buildings, which at the time were barely fenced and you could traverse without being stopped or hassled by anyone.
So, surreptitiously at first, I started making the trek from 1001 SW 102nd Avenue to the Coral Park shopping center. The first time I went, I had to go with one of my friends in case I got lost or got nervous. When I saw how easy it was to follow that somewhat roundabout route, I went there solo, almost always on weekends and rarely in the late afternoons; I didn’t want to walk home in the dark, after all, especially in the colder winter months when the sun set around 6 PM or so.
Mom was not happy about my adventures at first; she grounded me the first time that she noticed I had a larger army of toy soldiers than I’d had earlier in the week and got me to confess how I’d gotten a new bag of “green army men” on my own. She wasn’t being mean or unreasonable; she was just afraid that I was taking the same route she took when she went to Food Fair – which was replaced by a Pantry Pride I 1974 – to buy groceries and the weekly issue of TV Guide.
Later on, when I finally convinced her that I was taking a safer route and was in little danger of getting hit by a car, Mom relented and even started sending me to buy food at McDonald’s on those rare occasions when she didn’t feel like cooking or craved some fast food herself. It was her way, she later explained, of showing me that she trusted me enough to be more independent and self-reliant.
I eventually outgrew playing with green army men; by the time Mom sold the house in Coral Estates Park in 1977, I didn’t have any, although I did hang on to a Corgi die-cast metal replica of a German Tiger tank for a couple of years while I attended Riviera Junior High School. I don’t know what happened to that tank because, by the time I entered high school in August of 1980, I no longer had it.
“No one ever forgets a toy that made him or her supremely happy as a child, even if that toy is replaced by one like it that is much nicer.”― Stephen King, The Eyes of the Dragon
Still, my love for militaria and war games never went away, and in 2023, 50 years after I bought my first bag of “green army men” in Miami, I play computer games that depict different wars, including historical conflicts such as World War II and the Civil War, alternative history Cold War-turned-hot scenarios pitting NATO against the Warsaw Pact, and Star Wars fantasy battles set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
Funnily, I was reminded of my toy soldiers the other day when I purchased Second Front (Hexdraw and MicroProse) when it was released on Steam last week. This turn-based computer wargame depicts Second World Warfare at the tactical (small-unit) level and in both the Eastern (Soviets vs. Germans) and Western (Americans – for the time being – vs. Germans) fronts.
Like many of the games I bought on Steam, Second Front features different types of games, including tutorials that teach players the basics of WWII-era combat and the mechanics of the game, single battles, and the grand campaign. The game designer also gives players the ability to create customized (sandbox) games, so in theory, I could invent my own scenarios. I more than likely will not do that; it’s too time-consuming and I lack both the patience and the dexterity to invent my own locales and situations in Second Front.
However, whenever I try one of the tutorials and look at not just my performance – which is not that good so far – but the graphics (which have an unusually whimsical style reminiscent of early 1990s games and the movie Toy Story), I can’t help but wonder what my 1973 self would think if he/I could have played games like this at the time. I think 10-year-old me would have been bowled over not just by the images on the screen, but by the fact that the game depicts German troops and vehicles and not just Allied (mostly American) troops.
See, back in the day, those $1 bags of toy soldiers only depicted U.S. soldiers and/or tanks. Some companies did offer sets that included enemy (mostly German) troops, but those were more upscale and available only at stores such as Sears & Roebuck or the bigger chain toy stores like Lionel Play World or Toys R Us. I eventually got such a set (with a Guns of Navarone-like playset that featured a cutaway of a mountain fortress that obviously inspired Kenner when it created the Death Star Action Playset for its Star Wars collection in 1979), but that was late in my infatuation with military toys, and I gave it away (or threw it away?) when I started collecting Star Wars stuff in 1978.
But I digress. As I was saying, most of my “army men” were American GIs from either World War II or Vietnam (you could tell, because the latter were equipped with M-16 automatic rifles), so I had to use my imagination and pretend I was fighting Germans – it was almost always Germans! – that were “hidden” from my view.
Second Front and other video games, on the other hand, not just show you the opposing force, but they also show the actual fighting, the terrain being fought over, and the randomness of luck and fickleness of weapons effects.
I, of course, can’t say for sure, but I think the younger version of me would have liked games like Second Front. The graphics might have amused younger me, but the ability to recreate historical battles in an immersive but easy to understand fashion would have amazed me back then, had computers been a thing in 1973 the way they are now.
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