By Father Andy Costello, C.S.S.R.
(This essay was originally published in the May 1992 issue of U.S. Catholic—a special issue on war and peace. While many parts may seem a little dated, the parallels between the issues of the author’s world and today are shocking.)
Recently I was attending a baptismal party for my grandnephew. There were lots of adults around and, thank God, lots of kids. Four of my grandnephews kept running by. They were either hiding or climbing up and down the stairs. They were shooting at each other with their toy guns: “Bang! Bang! You’re dead! Got you! Firepower! Boom!” They were having a great time.
While watching them, I became a kid again. In my mind I was shooting my cap pistol, water gun, and toy rifle (bang! bang!); I was dropping water-balloon bombs out of trees, balconies, and windows (splash!); I was throwing firecrackers (boom! boom!).
Then, in the midst of the adults, I spied 2-year-old Angela. She was patting the new baby on the head. I started to look around at all the other kids; the girls were playing among themselves, and the boys were excitedly shooting their guns.
Although it was 1992, it seemed like the 1940s all over again. Who said that times have changed? I don’t remember seeing too many guns in the generation after me. Was it because in the early ’70s we started to question whether little boys should be playing with guns? Or was it due to the fact that I had nine nieces and only two nephews? (Come to think of it, my nephews did love to shoot me with their water guns.)
During the baptismal party I was standing around the pool table with the older boys (those over 30) waiting my turn to shoot. We were in the middle of a great game till Angela showed up. She marched up to the pool table with a red plastic bowling pin. Unexpectedly, she knocked two pool balls with her bowling pin; one ball hit another and went right into an end pocket. We all clapped.
It seems Angela is interested in more than newborn babies; she will do the unexpected, whether it be with children or adults. At her young age she is learning to interact with adults. Angela isn’t just interested in dolls or guns; she is outgoing. She has the signs of a winner.
When you say someone is a winner, does that mean others have to be losers? There is a bumper sticker that reads: “Whoever dies with the most toys at the end wins.”
Does this mean life is just a competition or a game with winners and losers? Can life be compared to a battle?
John Fowles said, “Men love war because it allows them to look serious. Because it is the one thing that stops women from laughing at them.” I asked a few of the mothers at the baptismal party about boys and their toy guns. They agreed that it’s all a part of a boy’s makeup: all boys go through the sticks, stones, and gun stage and have a fascination with guns.
I remember having a great time in my youth playing cops and robbers and cowboys and Indians. I killed hundreds of Indians (I wasn’t politically correct yet, although there were some good Indians, such as Tonto from the “Lone Ranger” radio show, which aired every Wednesday night of my childhood at 7:30 on WJZ in New York), and I was killed hundreds of times myself.
During the winter we stayed inside and played toy soldiers. My Uncle Johnny, who was working on the New York City tunnels, was able to get us lead; and Mr. Fredholm, who lived next door, had a mold to make lead soldiers. We had lots of toy figures. My favorite was the cop with the pistol, his hand outstretched to shoot. In those days, upward mobility for Irish boys meant you either became a policeman or priestman.
Did all this shooting ruin my life? Have I turned into a warmonger? Have I really evolved that much from the caveman ready to beat enemies with a club?
I’m sure the shooting games had some negative influence on my life. Yet those childhood games helped me to develop my personality and imagination. I have memories that help me laugh at myself and not take life so seriously:
There I was at the corner lot, a boy hiding in the bushes, lying on the cold ground with my toy rifle. I was waiting in ambush for the other guys. I could see them getting closer, but they couldn’t see me: “I don’t think he’s here; he is probably hiding in the back alley.” After they had passed me by, I leapt up: “Bang! Bang!” They all fell down and played dead. Then, looking up at me, all of them started laughing. It seems that I had lain in dog doo, and it was all over my navy pea jacket.
Boys and guns; gunplay is in our genes. We need to be warriors, to beat drums, to do war dances. The history of the world is page after page of big boys running around the house with guns: “Bang! Bang! You’re dead! Got you! Firepower! Boom!”
And as we boys grow older, we turn to sports more than war games. We need competition to thrive and survive: “Let’s beat those guys 35 to 0. Let’s beat them to a pulp! Kill the umpire!”
And then there is war, actual war. Blood on our jackets (not dog doo); this blood should wake us all up.
I once read the novel And Quiet Flows the Don (New American Library) by Mikhail Aleksandrovich Sholokhova, the story of a teenage boy in Russia. In one scene he is marching toward the train station with a group of soldiers who are going off to war. He wishes to be one of them, to turn his toy gun in for a real one.
The soldiers fill the waiting trains and wave to their sweethearts on the platform. The trains pull out; everyone except the young boy walks home. On the other platform is a train that has just pulled in; it had been hidden by the departing one.
This train is filled with blood. This train carries the wounded coming home from war. Suddenly he is awakened to the reality of war.
Thank God for television. What that young boy saw at the train station, we have seen on the evening news. By watching the bombings of Iraqi soldiers on their way out of Kuwait, the shootings in Croatia and Serbia, and the slaughter during the Civil War that was reenacted in the recent PBS series, we also will have a chance to see the cruel realities of war. We look at the faces of those dead soldiers and hear them say, “Read my lips. No new wars.”
I hope in this presidential-election year that we’ll see through the political rhetoric and realize that politicians are just trying to push the buttons that the pollsters tell them to. Twelve years ago we knew that the U.S.S.R. was not the Evil Empire politicians claimed it to be. They had nuclear bombs pointed toward us, but we had bombs pointing right back.
We should have seen through the nonsense of the presidential candidacy four years ago, when riding in a tank or denying weekend prison passes meant a candidate was macho and not the wimp his opponents claimed him to be.
People know that war and peace take place deep down in the human heart. When we’re honest with ourselves, we know that it’s easier to blame the other person, whether individual, group, or nation, for our inner problems. We don’t like to face the bad in our own hearts, and so we see the specks in our neighbors’ eyes. We must learn from the basic teachings of Jesus.
War is easier than peace. To talk to a person we can’t stand or understand is tougher than to ridicule that person behind his or her back. Stabbing incidents seem more common than face-to-face communication.
Shuttle diplomacy takes time and dozens of plane trips. One jet loaded with one bomb (the big one) would save a lot of time and hassle—we wouldn’t have to attend all those endless meetings with our enemy.
Meanwhile, babies are born and baptized, causing us to gather in celebration. Young boys run around playing war with their toy guns. As I drove home the night of the baptism, I couldn’t help wondering: What will become of Angela? Will she grow up to be a politician, a pool player, a priest, a soldier? What about those little boys with their guns? Someday will Angela and the boys have to face a real war with real guns? “Bang! Bang! You’re dead!”
Post Credit: US Catholic
Photo Credit: Sydney Morning Herald