Heat of Combat

I remember back in the early 1970s when Testors came out with a new non-toxic formula for their model airplane glue. It smelled like oranges and wouldn’t hold your models together worth a crap. You could spend two weeks putting together the USS Nimitz in 1:350 scale, only to have pieces start falling off the first time you tried to take it into the bathtub with you.

And you’d think that the fact that plastic floats in water would preclude you getting a miniature, carrier-borne F-8 Crusader stuck in your ass, but I assure you the laws of physics did not apply in my bathtub, and it happened more often than I would care to admit. During these naval combat scenarios, I normally played the part of the German attack sub. This was because I had my own built-in periscope, and you can bet that the US crews sounded general quarters whenever it hove into view.

Aside from the extremely poor adhesive properties of this new cement formula, there was the withdrawal to deal with. I had already passed most of my childhood up to that point in a sort of model-glue-induced euphoria. I sat for hours in small, un-vented rooms glopping three times the recommended amount of cement on my models under the truism that: “if a little is good, then a lot must be even better.” I have continued to live by that old adage, which probably explains why I burn my lawn up every year with fertilizer, and why, after I spray for bugs, the ground water around my house has enough Diazinon in it to set the EPA scrambling to their tactical emergency response vehicles.

The new formula was non-toxic. And just as in cooking, fat = flavor, so too in model building does toxic = mind-blowing trip. However, unlike today’s 10-year-olds, we weren’t actually trying to alter our consciousness, it was merely a cozy byproduct of the model-building process. Going cold turkey on the crappy orange-scented glue was like trying to kick a well-established heroin addiction by drinking an RC Cola. I’m pretty sure my symptoms were mitigated, however, by the fact that I continued to use gasoline as paint thinner.

One summer day, I was just putting the finishing touches to a JU-87 Stuka dive bomber. Once a model was completed, it was eventually destined for destruction in one of our cataclysmic recreations of WWII battles. If it was a particularly well-executed piece, it might last a year or more. Sooner or later, though, it would end like all the rest: a fiery, amorphous, blob of melted plastic.

These episodes of barely-controlled carnage usually followed a set pattern:
1. Set up all your green, plastic army men in two opposing groups.
2. Assign any models selected for destruction to one side or the other.
3. Liberally apply any accelerants at hand (glue, gasoline, turpentine, motor oil, etc…).
4. Flick matches at whole setup until the ground layer of explosive fumes ignites and knocks you on your ass.
5. Dance around gleefully like some Druid witnessing human sacrifices in a burning wicker cage.

These events always took place outside for two reasons: First of all, Mom could smell burning plastic, matches, candles, hair, hamsters, clothes, curtains, and bedspreads from anywhere in the house. She had, by necessity, acquired a “sixth sense” through years of having to deal with our dangerous fascination with open flames. Secondly, you really didn’t want to take the chance of getting burning plastic on your periscope. Sea battles in the bathtub were strictly of the non-flammable variety.

The Stuka had turned out pretty lousy. I blamed the new glue as pieces were already falling off even before I finished the damned thing. I decided not to bother painting it and to set up immediately to fight The Battle of Clark Avenue. Although not one of the more famous battles of WWII, The Battle of Clark Avenue had been raging off and on at Richards Gebaur AFB for two years at that point with no clear victor.

I took the fighter bomber and my collection of green, plastic army men out to the front yard, and began setting them up. That day, the opposing forces were the Germans and Americans. The American division consisted entirely of green, plastic army men. Since German army men were harder to find, I augmented their forces with figures from my cowboys and Indians collection, 19-century US cavalry figures, and several medieval knights on horseback from a castle set I hadn’t seen since we were stationed in Africa in the 1960’s.

The German division was dug in in behind the marigolds in front of the front porch and held the high ground around the brick planter. They were supported by one Panzer tank and two Flak-36 88mm anti-aircraft guns. The Americans were attempting to split the German front with a pincer maneuver. One American brigade drove along the edging of the driveway to face the German right flank, another engaged the German left flank, keeping cover behind the water hose running through the yard, while a crack platoon of commandos drove straight up the middle and assaulted the brick planter.

The Americans were supported by an M3 Lee/Grant tank (in the Lee configuration), a half-track, some sort of Lunar-Rover-looking thing from my Major Matt Mason collection, and the Stuka. One might blanch at the historical discrepancy of Germans teaming up with Indians, cowboys, 19th-century cavalry, and knights as well as the US force’s use of a German fighter bomber and a late 60’s NASA vehicle, but the mind of a 10-year-old is uniquely equipped to deal with such anachronisms. Namely, the Stuka pilot had defected to the Americans the week before and the Lunar Rover had traveled back through time as it was reentering Earth’s atmosphere from one of the Apollo mission, bringing the Indians, cowboys, cavalry, and knights along with it. See? All very neat and tidy.

The first casualty on the American side was the day-glo pink army man. Pink Army Guy was always first to die. He looked like the regular army men except, instead of olive drab, he had been molded out of bright pink plastic. I have no idea where I got him from or why in the world a company would make plastic soldiers in day-glo colors. It probably had something to do with prevailing trends at the time – it was the end of a pretty groovy decade and the start of another, and obnoxious colors, peace signs, smiley faces, and furry feet were de rigueur. Unfortunately for that G.I., he stuck out like a sore thumb, so: BLAM! Sucks to be you Pinky!

Leading the American forces was Tank Commander Guy. He towered out of the turret of the M3 tank like a meerkat, holding his binoculars tightly to his chest and glaring at the enemy with his squinty Tank-Commander-Guy eyes and his scowly Tank-Commander-Guy frown. Here was a man in charge. Nobody messed with Tank Commander Guy. His troops did exactly what he told them to, because he would just as soon shoot them as look at them… and he had a tank to shoot them with.

Supporting Tank Commander Guy was Radio Guy, Machine Gun Guy, and Pistol Guy. Pistol Guy had binoculars and a .45 caliber pistol. He was clearly an officer and some sort of adjutant to Tank Commander Guy. Machine Gun Guy was sitting behind a .50 cal. He killed pretty much indiscriminately.

The rest of the US forces were mostly fodder. You had your Standing Shooting Guy, Kneeling Shooting Guy, Sniper Guy, Thompson Machine Gun Guy, Bazooka Guy, Mortar Guy, Running Bayonet Guy, Standing Bayonet Guy, Standing and Keeping My M-16 Out of the Water By Holding it Over My Head Guy, Waving Everyone Else On Guy (sometimes he had a grenade – in which case he was Grenade Guy, sometimes just an open hand and an M-16, but I liked the fact that he lead from the rear – “C’mon you mutts! Charge that fortified position! I’ll be right behind you!”), and Flame Thrower Guy.

Aside from Pink Army Guy (who was always the first to get a bullet in the brain pan), if you didn’t shoot, you were pretty much dead after the first wave. If you marched, ran, waved others on, or acted as adjutant to Tank Commander Guy you were toast. The others fell as the battle unfolded. Sniper Guy almost always survived because he was lying prone in the grass or some shrub and shooting at everyone else – a good combination in combat. Flame Thrower Guy always survived too in case I needed him as an excuse to light everything up.

The Germans/Indians/cowboys/cavalry/knights had beaten back the initial assault and were massing for a counter attack, when Tank Commander Guy decided to call in the Stuka. It was time for the pyrotechnics to begin.

My plan was for the Germans to shoot down the JU-87 with their AAA pieces, only to have the aircraft crash right into their own lines. This would allow the Americans to rush the planter and dog-pile on Rommel (the German Tank Commander Guy) before he could retreat in his Panzer. Then Flame Thrower Guy could have his way with him. I had grown tired of the Panzer and had added it to the day’s “Burn List” on the spur of the moment. I paused the battle long enough to get a large paper Dixie cup from the kitchen and fill it with gasoline from the garage.

The Panzer was comfortably ensconced with one of the flak guns in the brick planter, so I poured some of the gas in the soil around them. Looking back, it’s small wonder my dad was never able to get flowers to grow there. Next, I squeezed glue all over the tank. Toxic the new glue might no longer be, yet flammable it remained. I went back out to the driveway and set the three-quarter-full cup of gasoline at my feet, then proceeded to give the Stuka the “glue treatment.” I would light the aircraft and then toss it at the Flak-36. If the Panzer didn’t catch too, Flame Thrower Guy could finish him up.

I held the plane and matchbook in my left hand and removed a single match with my right. I struck a match to try setting the glue on the Stuka alight. It went out. I dropped the first match and struck a second. This too went out before the plane caught fire. I dropped the second match and lit a third, cupping it carefully against the plane’s wing. This time the glue on the plane started to burn. I switched hands, raised the Stuka over my head to throw it, and dropped the third match… right into the cup of gasoline. I heard a distinctive “Whhoooomffff” sound, and looked down in time to see flames dancing out of the paper cup and into the cuff of the right leg of my jeans.

Naturally, my first reaction was to put some distance between me and the fire. Did I run away? Did I spring nimbly to one side? No, I kicked at the paper cup… knocking it over… spilling out the burning gas… which ran back downhill… and swamped my brother’s PF Flyers which I was wearing at the time. This time I did move. As I danced into the yard by the M3 tank, cleverly trying to put my feet out by waving them around in the oxygen-rich air, the rest of the gasoline spill flowed into the edging by the driveway and began to burn the entire US left-flank.

The gas having burned itself off my shoes, I stood helplessly as my little green army men writhed in the torment of the flames. A joyous cry went up all along the German lines at this unforeseen bit of good fortune. I was just about to turn my attention back to them when suddenly a searing pain hit my shoulder and the top of my scalp. I had forgotten about the burning Stuka I was still holding over my head. Hot plastic was now dripping onto me, making that unique zip-zip-zip sound only burning plastic can make. I was basically napalming myself.

By that point I at least had enough sense to drop the Stuka and run into the house, where I had to carefully peel away the parts of the shirt that had fused to my skin and check to make sure there were no obvious bald patches in my hair.

When I finally returned to the battle, the fires had burnt themselves out. The Stuka as well as the M3 tank it had landed next to when I dropped it were both smoking puddles of plastic. Tank Commander Guy was no more. He had squinted his last squint and frowned his last frown. Radio Guy and Machine Gun Guy were gone too. The US forces were completely demoralized by their losses. They retreated in poor order to the jeering of the Germans and their allies. My shoulder hurt and I had no idea how I was going to explain the burnt patches in the yard to my Dad, and the scorched sneakers to my brother.

Ah well, that was for later. In the meantime, I had a smart-ass German tank commander to deal with. A smart-ass German tank commander covered in non-toxic-yet-highly-flammable model cement. I pulled out a new book of matches and headed for the brick planter…

… and glory.


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