The Orange Badge of Courage

Note: A version of this essay appears in the PeteBrownSays podcast, episode 007.

As he caught sight of them, the youth was momentarily startled by a thought that perhaps his gun was not loaded. He stood trying to rally his faltering intellect so that he might recollect the moment when he had loaded, but he could not…
He got the one glance at the foe-swarming field in front of him, and instantly ceased to debate the question of his piece being loaded. Before he was ready to begin — before he had announced to himself that he was about to fight — he threw the obedient well-balanced rifle into position and fired a first wild shot. Directly he was working at his weapon like an automatic affair.
He suddenly lost concern for himself, and forgot to look at a menacing fate. He became not a man but a member. He felt that something of which he was a part — a regiment, an army, a cause, or a country — was in crisis. He was welded into a common personality which was dominated by a single desire. For some moments he could not flee no more than a little finger can commit a revolution from a hand.
There was a consciousness always of the presence of his comrades about him. He felt the subtle battle brotherhood more potent even than the cause for which they were fighting. It was a mysterious fraternity born of the smoke and danger of death.
— From Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage

The Red Badge of Courage is considered a seminal work of Civil War literature although at the time Stephen Crane wrote it, he had never himself been in a battle. He famously said he drew on the feeling he had while playing college football to color the experiences of his soldier characters, and it wasn’t until years later, when he saw combat first-hand as a reporter covering the Spanish-American war, and later let his friend Joseph Conrad know that he felt like the descriptions of Red Badge we’re all right, and stood up to his new experiences.

This story about Crane always interested me; could a modern writer write as covincingly about battle having only played football today? Or laser tag? Or paintball?

When I arrived at college in the fall of 1989, I was inexplicably given a credit card by a too-trusting Discover company, which I immediately maxed out by purchasing a Brother word processor and ten cases of a now-defunct beer called Hudepohl Gold (or, Hudy Gold, as we said back then). And one of the first things I wrote on that machine was an essay about Guns. Not the fact of having them, but of not having them. I’ve tried mightily to find and share this essay, but it doesn’t appear to have survived the intervening life.

It began, as I recall, with an explanation that I was one of those kids whose parents did not allow him to have toy guns. No cap guns. No dart guns. Not even Star Wars blasters. This proved difficult because in our neighborhood, we often played ‘Guns,’ which was a game in which we split into two teams, the good guys and bad guys, as it were, ran off and hid, and then had mock gunfights when our groups ultimately came upon one another. I always borrowed a castoff pistol from somebody for this game, although there were a few times when a sported a tennis racket, which I held to my shoulder and made pew-pew-pew noises.

I can say for certain that my experiences playing Guns with a tennis racket would never have provided me with the experiences I would need to write convincingly about battle as football did for Crane. On top of the huge task of convincing myself and my friends that my tennis racket was indeed a shoulder mounted rifle, there was no discernible finality when we played guns. When two groups would encounter each other, there’d be a lot of running and yelling, kids shouting “I GOT YOU” and “YOU MISSED” and “DID NOT I WAS RIGHT THERE!” These arguments raged, both sides certain that their imaginary bullets found their mark before their opponents whizzed by overhead. Even at nine years old, I started to clue in to how stupid playing guns was. Who got whom was more a matter of volume, and a person’s willingness to stick to their (pretend) guns.

When I would concede to having been got, I’d typically lean back against the nearest wall or tree trunk and close my eyes to indicate I was dead. I mean, it never seemed like getting shot with pretend bullets and having an argument about it was really worth flinging my body to the ground for a decent death-rattle.

“YOU’RE DYING ALL WRONG,” kids would yell at me. “You can’t die standing up!”

I found this an odd rule in a game in which I was transubstantiating a tennis racket into a rifle with my magical incantation of pew-pew-pew.

“This is how I die,” I’d say. Quietly, but firmly.

“YOU CAN’T DIE LIKE THAT! YOU HAVE TO GET ON THE GROUND!”

“No,” I’d say. “I die standing up. That’s just how I do it.”

When we played with squirt guns, this uncertainty over who got whom was lessened, though it never disappeared entirely. Later, when Laser Tag was invented, I thought for sure the I got you/No you didn’t argument would be laid to rest, but it was really only replaced by arguments over whether you were three feet away when you shot someone, or whether someone was or was not covering up their sensor.

When I had my own kids, in particular my son, I had to face the same parenting question my parents did around toy guns. It’s a different time now, one in which children sporting toy guns have been mistaken for the real thing, and have been shot by police for doing so. So any toy gun even remotely similar to the real thing was out, in my book. Those little orange tips are too easy to miss in an evening dusk.

But I was OK with blatantly toy guns for my kids — bright yellow nerf blasters or hulking blue and white water guns. I knew one thing for sure — my kids weren’t going to have to pretend a tennis racket was a rifle. And I thought, in the naive way that Dads think things before they say them out loud and realize how crazy they are, I thought I was being a cool parent with this choice. In fact, not a cool parent, but the cool parent.

Cool parent or not, one thing I’ve noticed for sure as my kids became teen agers is how little they want to do with their Dad or Mom, no matter how cool they were back in the toy gun buying years. Their interests and their peers grow away from us, and we struggle to find ways we can still connect with our kids outside the realm of day-to-day living and going to and from school and activities in the car.

Which is why I was so excited to receive the text message from my son that I’m about to tell you about.

I received the text in the midst of a drawn-out Tuesday afternoon while I was at work, one of those days where you brain is stretching to find something, anything, besides what sits before you as part of your actual job.

Now, usually when my son texts me, it is for one of three reasons.

1) He is locked out of the house. This is a common occurrence for him, and after several years of trying to resolve it with different keychains, lanyards, key codes and what not, I finally gave up and just decided to accept my son as someone who frequently locks himself out of the house. I’ve been much happier ever since.

2) The second reason he texts me is because he needs a ride. I usually don’t mind these texts, because once I get him home, I can go ahead and unlock the door for him as well. Two birds, one stone, as they say.

3) The final reason he texts me is because he is hungry. Granted, as a teen, he is hungry all of the time. But if he’s really hungry and all he can find in the house is — euh — the healthy food his mother prefers, he’ll reach out and see if I’m up for a Burger King trip, or a run for the border at Taco Bell.

It doesn’t seem to occur to him that the middle of the workday on a Tuesday is a difficult time for me to break away from the office. And he often baits his request by dangling some crazy new-fangled fast food menu item in front of it, like “Hey Dad! Burger King has Lucky Charms milkshakes. Can we go? I’m hungry!”

From a strategic perspective, I can really admire his approach. He knows that the more oddball the menu item, the more interested in trying it I become. And, who among us wouldn’t want to be known as the parent who blows off work on a Tuesday afternoon to go and try Lucky Charms milkshakes? Now that’s a cool parent.

Unfortunately, more often than not, I’m not cool. I put him off for a few hours. “I’m tied up at work,” I’ll text. “Maybe later.”

That is not a cool parent response. But it is the pay-the-mortgage response, which often overrules the heart’s desire in life. I will say, the one time I did hasten my work so I could get home and take him out was when Burger King announced that they had developed Cheetohs that were stuffed with Macaroni and Cheese. Like, actual macaroni and cheese inside an actual Cheetoh. I mean, I didn’t even believe him when he brought it up. Like, didn’t believe him because of, you know, the laws of physics and such. But he sent me a link and, sure as damn hell, Burger King food scientists, let’s be honest, likely from the stoner-food division, have made some sort of miraculous breakthrough on the food front, and have solved the ages-old problem of how to get macaroni and cheese inside of a puffed, orange Cheetoh. Which is to say, the solved the greatest problem mankind didn’t know they had.

“On my way” I texted.

But the text message I am referring to now, the one that precipitates this story, did not fit into any of the three usual categories that prompt my son to text me. Instead, it said “Dad — watch this video — very important — can we go?”

The link he provided was to a video posted by a popular YouTuber in the world of nerf gun modifications, which is a subgenre of youtube video that is pretty popular among the my son’s teenage set. In the video, the youtuber was describing what, from his account, would be an epic game of Humans versus Zombies that would take place across the upcoming weekend on a college campus that was about 60 miles south of where we live, and is also, as it happens, my alma mater, one of the places that I’ve talked about with such love in my voice that my wife now derisively refers to it as the ‘oasis of my soul.’

“I just booked a room,” I texted back, to which he responded only with those little ellipsis that tell you someone is trying to compose a text message, largely because, I assume, he was picking his jaw off the floor.

So, Humans vs Zombies a la nerf dart guns. Here’s how I learned that it works, more or less. The game begins with a small group of zombies, who wear a bandana on their head. The much larger group of humans, armed with nerf dart guns, are given missions to complete that typically involve coordinating with each other and marching across the mostly empty campus. A group of very dedicated volunteer moderators tag along to ensure that rues are followed and everyone remains safe.

The zombies will attempt to tag you. These are not slow-shuffling, Walking Dead-style zombies. They’re World War Z-style, or I am Legend, if you will. Fast, smart, driven zombies. If you shoot them with one of your orange-tipped nerf darts, (or, if you throw a rolled up sock at them — the preferred weapon of a so-called ‘Sock Ninja’), they take their bandana off and are out of the game until the next spawn point, which usually are set to happen every 5 minutes during a mission. But if you get tagged, full palm, by a zombie, then you become a zombie. For the rest of the weekend.

So as the game proceeds across three days, the numbers of humans begin to dwindle and the numbers of zombies begins to grow. By the end of the weekend, if the game has been planned just so, only a small contingent of humans remain to perform a last stand against what I learned would be an unruly and brains-hungry zombie horde.

Those are the basics, anyway. When we arrived on campus, I learned that first of all, many humans take their Nerf dart gun mods pretty seriously, amping up the power, adding motorized firing mechanisms and velcroing custom clips all over their body. There was an entire room of small 1–3 person companies who sell custom parts to make these modifications. One vendor let me test fire an automatic machine gun and in the few seconds I had puled the trigger, an LED counter built into it informed me that I had fired 23 darts. I laughed out loud with the sheer joy and absurdity of it all.

Because modders, as they’re known, spend a lot of time and effort in building their guns, you can imagine that they want to stick around long enough as humans to give their guns a good workout. My son, just wading into the modding world (though having watched what I can only believe are hundreds of hours of youtube videos on how to do this) had added a second spring to his rifle, effectively doubling its distance and power. The mods can get so powerful, in fact, that part of checking-in to the game involves you getting your gun certified, which you do by firing a dart through a chronometer to confirm that it is under the rule-set limit of 130 feet per second, which in case you’re wondering, is pretty damn fast for a nerf dart to travel.

These Nerf guns are, I assure you, some seriously impressive weaponry built by the 15-to-30 year old set. You’ll note I do not mention the 40-year-old-set, or even the 46-year-old set, which includes me, because by my visual estimate, I was the oldest of the 500 or so players that weekend by a good 15 years. When I shot my $7 bought-at-Walmart-on-the-drive-down pistol through the chronometer, the official kind of chuckled. He put his hand on my shoulder and said “it’s really cool you’re doing this,” in the empathetic way, I suppose, that those Polar Bear idiots who jump into Lake Michigan in January must say to the inevitable 80-year-old guy who shows up to join them, and always makes great visuals on the evening news.

After certifying our weapons, we underwent a fairly lengthy safety briefing, before the zombies left the lecture hall we were gathered in and we were given our first mission. The mics weren’t working in the lecture hall, so the speakers used what appeared to be a toy megaphone so we could all hear them. I don’t know why, but that odd detail really lent the briefing a veneer of surreality.

By this time, it was late Friday evening. Darkness had fallen across the campus and thunderstorms we’re rolling through. The humans were to make our way across the campus, finding, along the way, 8 marked, stuffed garbage bags that we would throw on a cart that we towed along with us. Once we had found all the bags, the mission would be over.

So some 200 or more humans head out in the rain, big cold drops of rain that capture the streetlight’s glow, lighting up for the briefest of instants before falling to the ground.

As you might expect, 200 armed-with-Nerf Gun people who have just met and have no discernible command structure can be a bit of mess. Some people claim authority by shouting loudly. Others, by the sheer site of modded up nerf weaponry they have hanging all over their bodies.

The rain picks up as we more or less form a group around the cart, with smaller groups up front and trailing behind. Our route takes us down what — on a nice day — are picturesque trails between the campus greens, but in the dark night, in a downpour, with the threat of zombies about, are kind of nerve wracking.

“Heads on swivels, people,” someone near me yells every few seconds. “Watch those bushes!”

I try to stay with my son, figuring, if nothing else, I could watch his back with my lone, pathetic, stock un-modded nerf pistol.

The first zombie attack explodes from a fairly large stand of bushes. Shouts from the point group rise into the night. Your adrenaline spikes, if you’re back by the cart, and aren’t yet sure what was happening.

“Watch your six,” a person yells in my ear.

“Zombies!” many more people yell. “Zombies ahead!”

It turns out that this first charge is from a relatively small horde, and the zombies are quickly darted by some of the more impressive automatic nerf guns. Once shot, they begin trailing behind us, waiting to re-spawn. This forces us to split our attention, front and back. Bushes ahead! Heads on swivels, people! Heads on swivels!

A larger horde meets us as we are crossing a main road onto West Green. Here, I learn, the basic Zombie strategy is to attack in numbers. Those in the front pretty much sacrifice themselves so that a zombie behind them can get in a full-palm tag. It’s pretty effective, and we lose a good number of humans in this charge.

Keeping an eye on this larger horde, we back out way down a ramp to walk through an underground parking garage, and this is where all hell breaks loose. With pillars and pylons everywhere, zombies had plenty of hiding spots, and come at us from all directions. Any order the humans were following vanishes, although we try to stick together, small groups occasionally getting pinned in corners where they hold out for as long as they have ammo and the ability to quickly load and fire their nerf guns. But the numbers are shifting quickly, especially as another horde emerges to block our exit.

Here is something I learn about the zombies, and the humans who become them. They are salty. I guess, either angry at being killed, or relieved that it’s over, people throw themselves into zombie-ing with their full hearts and some grade a trash talk. During one charge, they manage to grab one of the bags off of our cart, and then they pass it around the horde where various zombies pretended to have intercourse with it.

“What do we want?” a zombie leader shouts.

“Brains!” the horde returns.

“When do we want them?” He shouts.

“Brains” the horde responds.

In the chaos, I get separated from my son and try to find a human with one of those automated weapons that I can duck in behind. The horde grows quickly, and gets bolder and more aggressive as their numbers rise. A group of remaining humans forms up around the cart and makes plans for a covered march to the exit. The horde forms up in response, blocking the way, creating a standoff, zombies hurling ever more creative insults at us.

Then we all hear a zombie leader behind and above us shout “Get Him!!!”

Everyone’s head turns. I turn and look up and there I see my son on a ramp between two levels. A horde is approaching from the bottom of the ramp, and a second horde is turning in from the the top.

My son. Lit by fluroescenty-blue garage lighting, dripping with rain, right in the space no parent wants their child to inhabit, stuck, literally, between a rock and a hard place. My first born. My boy. My beautiful, curly haired boy who used to call the end of a train a ‘boose.’ He appears to me as both sixteen and six at the same time, if that makes sense, both teen and toddler, equal parts able and vulnerable.

I break from my group to try and reach him, maybe take out some zombies from behind. As the two hordes approach him, he steps forward and glances over the edge at what would be about a 12 foot drop to the concrete below. We all see him contemplating it. We are all thinking it ourselves. The moderators, who are, after all, trying to keep people safe, are shouting NO!!! presumably because a smashed-up teenager makes for a rough start to the weekend. My boy. My only son. He glances quickly at the hordes approaching on either side, and then I see his body change as he makes his decision, like it’s locking down, decided and resolute. He reache out with his pistol in one hand, pointing down at one horde, and his rifle in the other, pointing up at the other. He begins firing as quickly as he can, just as both groups charge.

And in a few seconds, it’s over. All over. My boy. My first born, the one who called the end of a train a ‘boose.’ Gone

“Brains!” shouts the horde that had been watching from the lower level.

“Brains!” returns the horde that has killed him.

As the zombies clear off the ramp, I see my son, now down on one knee, preparing to tie his bandana on his head. I jog up and take a knee beside him, patting him on the back.

“Hey, kiddo,” I say.

I notice, quite honestly and somewhat embarassingly, that I was crying.

“They got me, Dad” he say, and my heart drops. Legit drops.

“I’m a zombie now,” he says.

“I know, kiddo,” I say, and then to cheer him: “But it was epic. The entire game was watching! Everyone saw it!”

“I know,” he says, but I can tell that this fact doesn’t cheer him at all. I don’t think he’s crying, but it’s difficult to tell in the rain. I’m crying, for sure, quiet tears flowing steady and unwelcome down my cheeks. It seems that he is fighting back some tears as well he looks up at me, the sick fluorescent parking garage light catching just half of his face, the rest left in shadow, caught between two worlds, human and zombie, boy and man.

“It’s gonna be OK,” I tell him. “Don’t you worry about it.”

And then I raise my pistol and shoot him in the face.

***

Whoa!!!!! Ok, friends. That’s not really what happened. There was the garage, the chaos, the salty horde and my son caught between two groups zombies on an elevated ramp. But as for me, I was long a zombie by this point, having gotten tagged just as we backed into he garage. So when I jogged up to my son and he said “They got me, Dad” I patted his back and said “It’s Ok kiddo. You can put your guns in my backpack.”

And that’s what I do. I put his guns and his darts in my backpack, along with sunscreen and bug spray I’ve packed, the fruit rollups and bottled water, the plastic bags that once held the rain ponchos we were at that moment wearing.

It’s not the cool parent move, after all. It’s the practical, Dad, the one putting off a run to Taco Bell because his clients are waiting for a video, or an email, or text. But you’ve got to be many different kinds of Dad to each of your children, and it changes all the time.

Some days, you get the horde, and some days…

Brains!!!!


Be sure to follow me on Instagram to see some images and videos from this weekend of HVZ.