Thursday, October 25, 2007

A Life in Four Colors (Part Four)

My first awareness of Jimmy Haynes occurred not because of Jimmy himself, but because of his back yard.

Before I describe the spectacle of that yard, though, I should mention another massive accumulation that I enjoyed in my childhood: plastic soldiers.

For the uninitiated, plastic soldiers came in massive quantities back then--veritable armies of hydrocarbon-based troops, usually olive in color, frequently carrying bent weaponry because the softness of the plastic made barrels particularly vulnerable. These soldiers came in bags that could be acquired at any discount toy store. The serious soldier aficionado, however, had managed to wheedle his way into at least one boxed set of soldiers, which included scenery, some vehicles, a tank or three, and other items designed to add more variety to one's military play.

(And here's a warning that comes from sorrowful experience: the toys advertised on the back of the comics were not a good deal, no matter how great it sounded. I actually saved enough money to order one of those sets, and what I got was a small army of flat, two-dimensional soldiers. Yes, flat. It was as if someone had taken a huge sheet of 1/8" thick plastic and had stamped out a flat little army, stamping a few bas-relief details to give them some appearance of toy-soldierness. These flat figures were mounted on flat rectangular bases, and could only be enjoyed by flat, lackluster children leading flat, unexciting lives. Over a period of months, I smashed many of them with a hammer; others were buried in the back yard; I have no idea what happened to the remainder, but they very well may have realized their impending fate and escaped into some 2D sanctuary.)

Not only did I have an army of olive-plastic soldiers, I actually had a platoon of blue and grey Union and Confederate soldiers from a civil war set that also included some Civil War cannon, some emplacements, some cavalry, and more. Those were given to me as a gift by my parents in the Christmas of 1959; I believe they were ordered from Sears. Due to pure serendipity, I actually discovered them about ten days prior to Christmas, where my parents had hidden the set in their closet. This discovery was made totally innocently--I really wasn't looking for Christmas presents, but was actually getting some now-forgotten item from their closet at my father's behest. I spotted the long, flat cardboard box further back in the closet, and gazed at it for a while before attempting to cover it up. Somehow, though, I failed at the task of restoring things to their former state, and my parents realized that I had seen the gift ahead of time. They were very unhappy with me, and I felt totally confused because this was one of those rare occasions in which I had gotten in trouble for an action with no mischievous or disobedient intent!

(I think now that their aggravation was caused largely by the fact that this was to have come from Santa, not from them, but now they were faced with a dilemma because I knew they had hidden it in their closet ahead of time, necessitating Santa coming up with a replacement for what was to have been the centerpiece of my Christmas extravaganza. I think the microscope that Santa brought me that year was the replacement gift--and a gift it was! I played with that microscope for years, attempting to peer into the center of the microcosmic universe with a device that probably had, at best, 50x magnification.)

So how does all this relate to Jimmy Haynes and his back yard?

What I saw as I looked into Jimmy Haynes yard was a battle scene, complete with trenches and foxholes. Not toy-soldier sized foxholes and trenches, mind you--kid-sized foxholes and trenches! Somehow, Jimmy Haynes had convinced his parents to let him dig up large expanses of their shady back yard, converting it into his own European Theater of Operations. This was a fantasy come true for a young boy with a toy soldier fascination; I knew that Jimmy and I had to become friends.

As I got to know Jimmy, I learned that (a) his father was in the army, which had a lot to do with Jimmy's penchant for military re-enactment in the back yard, (b) Jimmy was a mercurial person, given to quick bursts of temper, and (c) Jimmy read comic books. No surprise that his favorites were war comics... but what was a surprise was that his father read comics as well, and had a huge war comic collection of his own that he would let Jimmy and me look through, although they couldn't leave the dark, shadowy den in which Mr. Haynes kept them.

Through Jimmy and his father, I first met Sgt. Rock and Ice Cream Soldier and Bulldozer and Gunner and Sarge. My favorite of this bunch, though, was a Haunted Tank that received guidance and advice from the ghost of Civil War general Jeb Stuart. War stories and ghost stories--what could be better?

Jimmy's father also enjoyed the adventures of the Sea Devils; suddenly I discovered that there could be real adventure in diving, since obviously the oceans were filled with supernatural beings, dinosaurs, and more!

Jimmy lived near our new house on Plymouth Road, so we saw each other almost every day. We played soldier, we dug trenches, we made smaller scenarios for our armies of plastic soldiers, we read comics, we traded comics... oh, what fast friends we were!

I should have known that something this good couldn't last...

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