War Is Not a Game

War Is Not a Game

From Chicken Soup for the Military Wife's Soul

War Is Not a Game

All rising to a great place is done by a winding stair.

Sir Francis Bacon

I was eight and my brother, Butch, was eleven when we arrived in Naha, Okinawa, in 1952, after three weeks aboard a government transport ship. We must have driven our mother and the ship’s crew crazy with our adventures: playing tag in the engine room and hide-and-seek in the lifeboats. Yet none of those shipboard escapades upset her as much as our visit to the cave. And nothing ever taught me more.

We were elated to join my father, an officer in the U.S. Army already stationed on the island during the Korean War. Uncle Sam provided everything. My mother had a maid, Tamiko, and the schools, post exchange, commissary and hospital were only a short drive away. On weekends, a school bus took us military brats to the movie theater where we saw the latest Flash Gordon serial and a feature film. It was hard to believe we lived on an island in the middle of the Pacific.

Our housing area was new, so much so that the hills surrounding it held a threat. Although eight years had passed since the U.S. invasion of Okinawa, the military hadn’t completely cleaned out the caves inside the hills. During World War II, the Japanese hid in those caves. Now, the hills were off limits. Fences bearing warning signs enclosed those deemed most dangerous, but others, like the one behind our house, remained wide open to curious minds.

Mother would wave her hand in that direction. “Don’t ever play up there. The hills and caves are dangerous. Your father says you could be killed.”

Of course, the warnings only made the adventure seem more inviting. War was still a game to my brother and me. We wanted to be soldiers. Armed with a flashlight, he and I hiked up the hill to see what all the fuss was about.

As we stepped inside one of the caves, dark and dampness enveloped us. Butch turned on the flashlight, and we inched ahead.

Something that resembled a miniature Flash Gordon spaceship lay in a puddle of water. “What’s that?” I asked.

“A mortar shell.”

I gasped. My knees trembled. “I’m scared. Let’s go home before it explodes.”

Butch stepped around it. “Don’t be chicken. Just stay behind me and walk where I walk. We’ll be okay.”

Shivering in the cold and rank air, I clasped my shoulders. Water seeped from the gray walls.

“That was a hand grenade,” Butch said after stumbling over an object rolling past my feet. He aimed the flashlight. “Don’t touch it.” It looked like a can of C rations with a pin sticking out of it.

“I wanna go home.”

He ignored me, at least for a few more steps. “Look!” he said.

Before us lay a skeleton. I jumped back and leaned against the cave wall. I wanted to run but knew I couldn’t, not with all that explosive stuff behind me. “Please, let’s go home,” I cried.

“Okay, okay,” he said with a sense of satisfaction. “Now that we’ve got a souvenir.” He reached down and grabbed the skull.

We climbed out of the cave, and I blinked to adjust my eyes to the blinding sunlight.

Butch said, “Now here’s the plan. When we get to the house, I’ll go inside alone and see if the coast is clear.”

“Uh-uh,” I said. Too many times before my brother had left me holding the . . . bag. Yes, that’s what we needed, a bag to hide “the souvenir.” Then everything would be okay. Pleased with my cleverness, I suggested that.

“Yeah, sure,” he said.

As we approached the side of the house, he handed me the skull. “Wait here while I go inside.”

Moments later, Butch came out the front door. “Mom and Tamiko are in the kitchen, so I couldn’t get the bag, but they’re too busy to notice anything. I left the door cracked for you. Hide it on the shelf above our closet.”

“But I can’t reach that high.”

“On tiptoe you can,” Butch reassured me.

Skull in hand, I ran up to the front door and crept inside. No one saw me. So far, so good. With the hallway to the bedrooms just around the corner, I tiptoed and turned . . . right into Tamiko! When she saw the body part in my hand, she reeled back and shook with horror, her low moan sharpened into a scream and she ran out the front door, past my laughing brother, never to be seen again.

I didn’t think it was funny, because along came Mother. Her puzzled look grew stern when she saw what I carried. She had seen far too much from her army brats to be upset over trifles, but there were limits.

“This time, you’ve done it,” she said with a shake of her head.

Dad and the military police soon arrived, bringing with them swift and severe discipline. Our butts hurt, and, within two days, a fence surrounded the hill. We had broken the rules; we could’ve been killed. But even before that happened, Mother taught us a more poignant lesson. Sentenced to our room, from the window Butch and I watched her walk up the hill and return the skull to its proper place.

“A brave soldier died there,” she told us when she returned. “He fought for his country, and you had no right to disturb his grave. God forbid, someday it may be your turn to fight. War is not a game.”

In 1966, I spent the last summer of my youth in France. Orléans was my dad’s last duty station; he would retire soon. With college behind me and the real world before me, I stopped at the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer on the way to Orly Airport. Displayed neatly in rows of sorrow were crosses marking the graves of 9,386 of our soldiers who lost their lives in the Normandy invasion. I couldn’t swallow the tears. Can we ever forget their sacrifice?

Some may ask why I went to that cemetery. There are more charming places in France for a young man to visit—Paris, the Loire Valley or the Riviera. But I hadn’t forgotten what my mother taught me long ago: that war was not a game, that someday I might be called upon to serve. I stepped away and marched to my car with a sense of duty. In the right front seat lay my orders for Vietnam.

Michael J. Jett

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