Cul-de-Sac Warriors


Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has come under heavy criticism lately for reportedly creating his own secret army to fight terrorism. Concern was raised about an unelected official directing a lethal military unit - without congressional oversight - against a foreign enemy of his choosing. But then, these critics probably never had a secret army of their own. So they’re just jealous.

Speaking as one who did have a secret army as a child, I can understand this jealousy. There is a tremendous sense of power one gets when commanding loyal troops willing to go into battle with a single command or, in my case, with me standing outside the neighbor kid’s home and yelling "Ee-ah-kee!" (That was a rural Missouri technique used to avoid contact with adults in the house who, without fail, opened the door when you knocked on it. Better to scream like an idiot on the driveway than risk scrutiny from grown-ups asking a lot of questions about your secret army.)

It was a good-sized army; it included every able-bodied boy in my neighborhood. Unfortunately, it also included Bobby’s little brother, whose mom said we had to let him play with us. Which was a real pain, except when he was acting as the liaison between our secret army and his mother’s homemade popsicles.

To be honest, our army wasn’t exactly secret. Our parents knew about it. So did the mailman, assorted delivery personnel, pedestrians, and most passing motorists. We mainly kept it secret from the girls. This was important because military historians agree that nothing slows down an army like a bunch of girls. When we were on the march, carrying out the battle plans of the day, we would sometimes see girls playing in their front yards. To allay their suspicions we would whistle innocently as we walked by, leaving them little choice but to shake their heads and roll their eyes in envy.

A few years ago, Pakistani scientists used this technique to secretly develop an extensive nuclear weapons program, despite constant surveillance by U.S. satellites. (CIA analyst: "Hey, those guys in lab coats are whistling innocently again. Must be a cultural thing.") In fairness to the CIA, however, this particular oversight did not threaten the agency’s 100 percent record of failure which, in the past 40 years, surpasses any other federal agency in the category of performance consistency.

Anyway, my army was fairly similar to the playgroups - excuse me, warrior groups - from adjacent neighborhoods, with whom we were in frequent mock combat. We wore cowboy hats and boots, and each of us carried a brace of weapons made by Mattel, a major children’s arms manufacturer with a respected line of Western-style munitions. Unfortunately, this company also made Barbie dolls - designed with an anatomical accuracy that impressed even this 11-year-old - but we soldiers tried not to think about that.

Our secret army also had a secret weapon: a real live horse, my horse, which gave us an advantage over the kids from other neighborhoods. I named him "Little Joe Cartwright," after a character on the TV show Bonanza. For some reason, however, the horse never responded when I said "Here, Little Joe Cartwright!" My dad pointed out that the horse wasn’t a TV fan and, incidentally, was probably the stupidest animal alive, so I should just call him "Joe." This didn’t work either.

I can still remember the feeling of leading the troops into battle, urging my horse into a gallop toward the enemy. Then I’d remember that my friends were on foot, so I’d have to turn around and just walk alongside them.

Sitting high up on a horse meant I could see the positions of the opposing troops and, more important, the ice cream truck when it rounded the corner. That’s when we stopped our battle and ran home to get money. It was kind of like in World War I when the Germans and British troops stopped fighting on Christmas Eve and played soccer, drank cocoa, and exchanged e-mail addresses.

Our battles were waged under the stern but fair rules of engagement that have been passed down through centuries of armed combat: Namely, we fought until somebody started crying. That was our signal to holster our weapons and run back home at top speed before somebody’s mother burst out her front door. If it was a dad bursting out the front door, we first peed our pants, then holstered our weapons and ran back home at top speed.

Also, we never attacked other kids unless they had attacked us first, although this one kid - Wolfowitz, I think his name was - insisted we should always strike without warning. He argued that this was the best way to defeat the enemy and bring freedom and democracy to kids of other neighborhoods. Actually, he got kind of annoying about it.

Ed Spivey Jr. is art director of Sojourners.

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