“Check this out.” Jeff Herman called to me from the next row. As I rounded the end of the shelf and walked toward him, I could see he was holding a hand grenade.
“Is that live?”
“No, man. It’s a dud. There’s more in that basket.”
On the sheet of aluminum before me sat a milk crate half-filled with the things. I reached in to pluck one out. An hour earlier, we had piled into Jeff’s dad’s Plymouth and begun the drive up Route 2, winding our way along the bluffs and backwater of the Rock River from Dixon to Rockford, the second largest city in Illinois. Though I always enjoyed the scenery, by the time we’d reached the parking lot of the Army Navy Surplus Store, I was only hoping the trip would be worth my bulging bladder, which I’d neglected to empty before we left.
The faded black paint on the sheet of plywood bolted to the wall of the anonymous strip-mall on Forest Hills Road had hinted nothing of the wonders within. When Michael Herman pulled open the glass door with his freckled right arm and motioned us through with his left, the smell of old canvas and oil assaulted us, my eleven-year-old eyes took in the interior of the cavernous shop, and all doubts were washed away. The sight was unreal.
Against one wall, bomb shells were stacked on pallets like un-split firewood. Along another, laces of combat boots spilled from the tops of bins like spaghetti sloshing over the rims of colanders. Gas masks hung from hooks like the severed heads of pigs in a medieval barnyard scene. A glass counter revealed the sharp glimmer of throwing stars and jackknives. Behind the cashier, displayed like trophies, AK-47s and M-16s aimed barrels toward the ceiling like fingers pointed at a distant enemy. As we walked down aisles crowded with shelves of fatigues, a man in jeans and a Harley shirt picked through a rack of olive coats.
The clasp of an ammo canister clinked open and shut under the bill of a ball cap while someone studied its seal, and I took stock of the grenade in my hand. It was heavier than I expected, dark green, with a texture like the inside of a waffle iron. Despite the lack of explosive at the core of the iron casing, as I palmed it, I felt a kind of power that would be hard to explain to anyone who’s never held such a weapon.
I was ready to lay waste to some gooks. I can’t say it any other way. Mamasan, you’d better hitch up your water buffalo and hightail it on back to the rice paddy, cause I’m about to blast Charlie right out of that fox hole. That was how we spoke, and that was how I thought. I didn’t know at the time the cause of my birth defect was dioxin my father had absorbed from a mist of Army defoliants. I was far too young to consider that the reason Mike Herman was willing to indulge our compulsion for military artifacts might be the fact that the closest thing to combat he’d seen were inmate fights at the Dixon Correctional Center where he worked as a guard.
He was a good man, but he was also, as I recall, bigoted—not in a sadistic way, but in the style of the perpetually nervous, men who puff out their chests and make flagellant jokes about that which frightens them. And Mike seemed to be frightened of nearly everyone over the age of twelve, particularly if they came from a culture he didn’t understand, which may begin to explain why that day in the Army Navy Surplus he bought the biggest Mag Light they stocked. It was twenty inches and three-and-one-half pounds of D-Cells and metal, more night stick than flashlight-the type of thing Rodney King was beaten with.
Who exactly did he mean to fight off with that club? I can’t say for sure. Break-ins in Dixon were about as common as new restaurants, which is to say some poor soul might have attempted one every few years, but the chances of entry, particularly on a house with as many locks as the Herman’s, were slender. But as I cradled that grenade and pulled the pin in and out of the aluminum handle just like I’d seen in so many movies, I couldn’t care less about the motives of my best friend’s father. I was feeling the potency of that oval of iron in my hand and dreaming myself off to the front line. I was ready for action. I was G.I. Joe. I was fire in the hole. And after I finally found the will to set that empty promise back in the box and continue perusing that warehouse of artifacts, I was wishing my parents had given me more money. I was wishing I had done more chores.
In a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars during the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan had decried America’s recent reluctance to engage in war. The “Vietnam Syndrome,” as he called this seeming lack of enthusiasm for military aggression, was a sickness inflicted upon the leaders of the country, especially the Carter administration, which Reagan accused of having cut defense spending to dangerous levels. The carriers of the disease were the peaceniks of the Sixties and early Seventies, whose demonstrations and scorn for veterans had so emasculated the forces of freedom. The failures of Vietnam lay at their feet. “It has always struck me as odd,” he said, his Addams apple moving with his voice, the soaring lines of his suit as still as a missile silo, as he accepted the endorsement of the VFW, the first presidential candidate to ever receive the honor, “that you who have known at firsthand the ugliness and agony of war are so often blamed for war by those who parade for peace…… It is time we recognized that [the Vietnam War] was, in truth, a noble cause.” Even so, Reagan lectured:
“There is a lesson for all of us in Vietnam. If we are forced to fight, we must have the means and the determination to prevail or we will not have what it takes to secure the peace. And while we are at it, let us tell those who fought in that war that we will never again ask young men to fight and possibly die in a war our government is afraid to let them win.”
Then, before a backdrop of American flags, he pivoted. Reagan towered over the medals and officers’ outfits of the brass of the notoriously conservative organization like an eagle, symbol of the Union, perched on the highest branch of a lakeside tree. He told the gathered men that the Russians were coming. He could see them lurking beneath the surface of the water like fish evolving legs and getting ready to swarm the land. In the sleepy voice beneath the Norman Rockwell hair-dark, slicked back, full of body, and parted just so-he warned the crowd of “Soviet-inspired trouble in the Caribbean. Subversion and Cuban-trained guerilla bands,” he said, “are targeted on Jamaica, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Leftist regimes have already taken over in Nicaragua and Grenada.” As Reagan saw things, these incursions were caused by the complacency of Carter. “America has been sleepwalking far too long,” he admonished:
“All over the world, we can see that in the face of declining American power, the Soviets and their friends are advancing….Our credibility in the world slumps further….Our allies are losing confidence in us, and our adversaries no longer respect us….We have to snap out of it, and with your help, that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”
As for defending ourselves from the Russians and their communist progeny prowling the beaches and islands in our back yard, “Our best hope of persuading them to live in peace is to convince them they cannot win at war.”
“Most national myths,” writes Chris Hedges, “at their core, are racist.” Hollywood, despite what the right wing pundits say, has almost always been a willing participant in spreading these myths. The two highest grossing movies of the Eighties to interpret the contemporary military were Top Gun and Rambo: First Blood Part II. Top Gun, the Jerry Bruckheimer film released in 1986 and nominated for four Academy Awards, portrayed Navy fighter pilots as near rock stars, flying aces playing cat and mouse at altitude with belligerent Soviet MiGs. The Air Force worked closely with the filmmakers, and when Top Gun hit the theatres, recruiters set up shop in the lobbies. While their girlfriends were serenaded by Loverboy, and Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis gazed into each others’ eyes on the big screen, young men, charged with adrenaline and patriotic fervor, could slip out to the concession stand to buy overpriced boxes of Mike and Ike’s and enlist. The campaign was incredibly successful: The years that followed set records for recruitment.
Reagan’s election had ushered in an era of jingoistic stagecraft that American politics hadn’t seen since World War II. It was only natural that the show should filter down—or trickledown—into American culture. The Top Gun phenomenon, while high in profile, was merely indicative of a larger theme. At 10:00 A.M. sharp on Saturdays, G.I. Joe and his band of cartoon patriots protected the civilized world from the forces of Cobra—who had distinctly Eastern European accents—on the screens of Zeniths throughout Dixon. During commercial breaks kids could drool in bowls of Frosted Flakes over sales pitches for toy aircraft carriers and troop transporters just like those on the show. Later that night, if our parents let us stay up, and most of them did, we could watch Hulk Hogan and Macho Man Savage beat the shit out of Nicolai Volkov and the Iron Sheik in front of thousands of flag waving fans on the World Wrestling Federation’s Saturday Night Main Event. The Hulkster would enter the arena while loudspeakers blared “Real American,” by Rick Derringer. Often, Old Glory would be draped over his body like a body-length flack jacket. Before long, an animated version of the WWF began airing in the morning, and we could get a triple dose of the American Way on days off, with just enough down time to head outside and play war games in the afternoon.
Just over the Peoria Avenue Bridge, in a copse of trees on the west side of Hennepin, nestled Ronald Reagan’s boyhood home. My friends and I mostly poked fun at him. Curt Delhotal coined a song, sung to the tune of “Camptown Ladies.” Cowboy Ronnie came to town, doo da, doo da. We called the 40th president “Ron-hole Reagan,” and ridiculed him mercilessly when rumors of his senility started to float around toward the end of his second term. We all sensed that the only reason he traveled to Dixon, which he did less than a handful of times, was to win political points with the family values crowd. When he did show up, CNN would invariably run a segment with bare-chested photos of Ron from his days as a teenaged lifeguard on the Rock River at Lowell Park. He’d reportedly saved a number of lives, although I’m sure the tally, like all legends, had become inflated with time, and we all wondered why the hell anyone would want to swim there. The shoreline was more gravel than sand, and there were much better places to get in the water not far away. It became something of a running joke. Were the photos real? The hair looked the same. And the sheepish grin seemed familiar.
But snicker as we did, we were not immune to the seduction of the climate created by the man who, during a 1983 speech to the National Association of Evangelicals, first called the Soviet Union, “the evil empire,” the man who’d joked, in a mike he thought was dead, “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”
In the cinema next to Pamida, I watched in awe when Rocky Balboa pulled himself off the mat after fifteen rounds of punishment at the hands of Ivan Drago, the heavyweight champion from Moscow. The entire theatre stood, and bits of popcorn flew from mouths as the crowd erupted in chants of “USA, USA.” There was national pride in that room, not in itself an awful thing, but there was also hatred. In that climate, any people with even a loose connection to the Russians, like the Vietnamese, were guilty by association.
The fact that Hanoi and Moscow trusted each other about as much as Washington and Beijing and that the communism of the two governments had little in common but name was nuance that flew over the heads of all but the political scientists. Reagan, after all, had ascended the throne of American politics by becoming a near caricature of the cowboys he played on screen. He shot from the hip. He might not have been smart, but he knew how to deliver a line that would stir the masses. “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall.” Even if you didn’t share the sentiment, you had to admire the delivery. Unless of course, you were from the Communist Bloc, and the message was aimed at you.
But the Russians and the East Germans had a leg up on the Vietnamese communists. They may have been brutes, but at least they were swashbuckling, beer drinking brutes that made weapons worthy of respect and fought in boots with steel toes. At least they grew dancers with legs and grace and lords of the gym with biceps like trees. At least they were refined in their violence. At least they were white.