This game was fun because it enabled us to vent aggression that nature was silently building inside our 8-year-old male bodies. And no one actually got hurt, except for perhaps the occasional scraped knee or elbow acquired while doing some action-movie dive-roll-and-shoot maneuver that would "save" us from being "killed" in action. I think it was this lack of inevitable pain that made me better at guns than another game from my childhood: "smear the queer." In this game (the homophobic undertones of which I was not aware until I became an adult), a football was tossed into the air and the fool who picked it up was supposed to run for their life as the other players tried to "smear" them. Once the ball carrier was sufficiently subdued, the process began again.
Then and now, I have always been envious of men who seemed to have no fear of pain. (I say "men" as opposed to "people" because I honestly believe women have an inherently higher threshold for pain than any man could ever have.) My brother is one of those people. In his teenage years he could ride his Roller Blades for miles or in half-pipes and come home with giant gashes in his legs. No matter how he hurt himself, he'd always be out there doing it again.
This train of thought sprang to my mind this week as I wrote the story of a young man, Thomas Murray, returning home to Sparks from duty in Iraq. This soldier is just a few years younger than myself and in fact resembled me in enough ways that a neighbor thought I was him when I walked toward the door of his home to interview his parents. Then seeing Thomas in the airport made me realize that he would be more at home in an arcade than in a war zone.
My mind then wandered back a few years to a college bowl game I went to in San Diego. Since San Diego is such a military town, there was a steady stream of camouflage at the game. I shared some booze in the parking lot with a few young soldiers who had recently returned from Iraq with scars, missing fingers and a strong desire to get back to their buddies who were still there fighting.
These young soldiers are the same boys who grabbed the ball playing "smear the queer" when I ran the other way. They, like my brother, didn't let the sight of a little blood break their wills.
One might say that I am the smart one for not getting into a situation where I could get myself hurt or killed. Using my head will help me live to be a ripe old age, or so the argument goes.
I often say those things myself, but part of me thinks it's a rationalization for just being chicken. Will I be an old man who never experienced the rush of zooming down a hill on skis or a skateboard because I didn't want to risk hurting myself? Not that I'm anxious to step in front of a bullet (particularly not for the current cause), but would I even have the guts to for the right reason?
But then I think about this: I have played paintball a few times and I didn't like the sting of a round of liquid-filled plastic shot from a gun using pressurized air, so do I really think I could stand up under live fire with flesh-ripping bullets? Maybe it's better that the other kids are the ones out there while I sit safely behind my desk. Otherwise we'd all be speaking German or Spanish or Arabic or the language of some other invading force.
I certainly don't want to be mourned by my family members for dying young in war, but I wish I had even a fraction of the guts it takes to fight. It might get me further in life in general. I guess it is a good thing I have The Wife on my side, since I sure wouldn't want to be on the business end of her gun.
To that end, I want to say welcome home to Thomas Murray. To Sean Gaul, a former classmate of Murray's at Reed High School who was laid to rest yesterday after being killed in Iraq, I salute you.
Nathan Orme is the editor of the Sparks Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.