A Father’s Gift

He lies prone, in blue field uniform, in high boots and spurs, his shooting eye aligned with his Sharp’s rifle, cheek pressed, body firm, rifle steadied, right arm at ninety degrees, finger to the trigger, left hand forward steadying. With Union cap, belt stamped US, cavalry saber by his side, he is a plastic man.

Part of a Western frontier playset, some version of the 1960s Fort Apache plastic masterpieces, iconic toys from Marx, an ironic name for the Native slaughter these toysets always set off. It came with brown fortress pieces, a locking gate and corner towers.

A Wild West town in tan façade, storefronts in a line, saloon dead center with swinging batwing doors. For corralling horses, fence sections in white. A blue cannon fired blue pellets. Metallic blue cavalry troops, brown Davy Crockett frontiersmen, assorted cowboys and Indians in yellow, red, blue, orange, purple, green, all colors in between.

The cowboys aimed Winchesters and Colts while standing: from the hip: kneeling: or prone. They fired pistols in the air. They stood with arms cocked, legs tense, sixguns on both hips, steady and ready to draw. They drooped to the side, shooting arm dropped, offhand raised, pressed to chest to stanch a dead-center shot. On black and white and brown plastic horses that trotted and galloped and reared, they lassoed or waved ten-gallon hats. Afoot, they advanced warily, took no prisoners. They reached for sky.

The Indians rode rustled horses bareback. They ran and charged and skulked and crawled. They fired bows and arrows and some Winchesters, probably stolen, or pilfered from brave settlers upon whom they’d visited horrible atrocities. They rose from ambush with spear, set upon from behind with tomahawk. They wore full headdresses or long hair and feathers, loin clouts and leather pants. Their bare chests murderously muscled, faces frozen red in hatred, mouths wide with war shouts and ululating cries. Brows furrowed with revenge.

But here came the cavalry. On chomping horse stomping, sabers chopping and triumphant, rifles raised and spitting justice. Dismounted they advanced to rape the women, slaughter the children, finish the wounded. (Women and children figures not included.) Officers charged with swords, soldiers fired rifles from shoulder, while kneeling, or prone, aiming through the high grass, picking off stragglers and fleeing survivors. And for after the fun, some cavalry mounted for review, guidon in salute, the bearer eyes right, troopers eyes forward, hands on hilt at parade rest, some with saber raised to call attention, others saluting. Standing cavalry presenting arms. All quiet on the western front.

A massive playset with dozens of figures and pieces, hundreds it seemed, maybe the best gift I ever got as a kid, the one time my father visited for Christmas. I was five or six and played with that set and its decaying remains all the years I played with toy soldiers. Longer — my brother Jason was four years younger and sometimes during my high school years we would set up massive plastic armies in our basement.

We congregated our cowboys with Nazis with Indians with Japs with spacemen with cavemen with dinosaurs with zoo animals with tanks and jeeps and trucks and stagecoaches and wagons, all outnumbered by our brave American GIs armed for the Civil War, WWII, Vietnam, armies from all eras and races and species covering more than half our family’s basement, in battleline, in columns and phalanxes, massed in groups and hordes, ordered into ranks, with main bodies and flanks. We teased our pawns and playthings into position for hours. We machinegun-mowed them in minutes with marbles.

Maybe my favorite toy as a kid. I still have that soldier lying still. Through all the years of my childhood and all the years after, while a kid and now as a father and a man, during the time I myself was once a soldier who knelt with rifle raised in aim, from the time I was a boy maybe my favorite toy. Now just a last man standing, or rather lying low, prone, a last stand in the high prairie grass, waiting for the Indians, waiting for the end. From my father — the only thing I have.

Actually, that’s not true. I found it on the street one day walking with my wife years before the idea of our own child ever struck us. I saw it and stopped and picked it up. She asked, why do you want that trash? I kept it because it reminded me.

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