Monday, October 16, 2006

War Games

Crisp spiral pass against intense blue sky. Red, orange and gold leaves flutter and fall as the ball lands in the boy's outstretched hands.

"Touchdown!!" he yells, spiking the ball on the driveway/end zone.

My son doesn't like to watch football on TV, and really doesn't understand its allure. Too violent and war-like for his taste. But he loves playing catch in the front yard; and his long legs and long arms make him a natural wide receiver. Yet, as you know, he lacks the killer instinct required for this game, and prefers the fantasy of scoring last-second TDs to the cheers of invisible fans.

I really enjoy this too, the old QB, barking out signals and audibles, hitting my receiver for six while barely avoiding a sack and ten-yard loss. I'm just as into it as is the boy, probably more so, for this takes me back to his age, when there were two professional football leagues, and I always rooted for the smaller, newer one. Back then, I doubled as both QB and receiver, throwing to myself, making my receiver-side dash and dive for the ball. I played whole games that way, with the AFL always beating the NFL, and always at the last minute. It was John Hadl to Lance Alworth, Daryle Lamonica to Fred Biletnikoff, Len Dawson to Otis Taylor, and of course Joe Namath to Don Maynard and George Sauer, with Matt Snell coming out of the backfield. While I took it far more seriously then than my son does now, I was, like him, fantasizing about a warrior game at a time when a real war was raging overseas.

I knew about Vietnam, but nothing substantive. I'd overhear TV news reports about the latest fighting, the cities Saigon and Hanoi mere buzzwords to my young ears. No one in my family really talked about the war. My mother was very much for it. My earliest political memory is of her putting a pro-Nixon bumpersticker on her car in 1968. My father never gave his opinion about what was happening in Southeast Asia, though he was young enough to have fought there. His having kids and getting married while still a teen saved him from the draft, and I don't think he wanted to dwell on what others his age were facing in the tall grass and mud. (Later, in the mid-70s, when I was in high school, Dad hired a bunch of Vietnam combat vets to work as bouncers at his nightclubs. These guys hung around our house quite a bit, came over for cookouts and pool parties, and it was then I began to really understand what Vietnam was all about, at least from an American perspective.) To me, it was all background noise. What really mattered was my fantasy sports games, which I played without having the slightest idea about those Vietnamese kids my age who were running for their very lives, and in countless cases, not making it.

Now, here we are, some 40 years later, and the same savage shit is going on. Only this time it's much worse, with our awareness of the brutality more immediate. Back then, it didn't take much to ignore the mass killing and torture, as there were more filters, and Americans of that generation weren't used to opposing imperial war from the get-go. Today, it takes a lot more effort to pretend not to know, which doesn't stop a lot of Americans from trying. Still, it can't be escaped, only denied.

My son is aware of Iraq, though not in any graphic or geopolitical sense. He just knows that people are killing and dying every day, and it bothers him. He asks me from time to time why it's happening and what will it take for it to end. I fudge the first part to a degree, since he's got enough to deal with preparing for middle school. I don't lie, but I don't reveal all that I know. As for how to end it, well, there I'm as lost as him. Concepts and scenarios abound, but we who pay attention are aware that this nightmare is nowhere near over; that further aggression is being planned and war-gamed as I type. If there's light at the end of the tunnel, it's blocked by a rising pile of bodies.

"I wish I could tell you how it ends, son," I say, "but I can't. It may still be going by the time you reach college."

He frowns; then says, "Well, at least we can still throw the football!"

Outside we go, immersed in bold, beautiful fall colors.

"Hit me Dad! I'm wide open!"

I sidearm a quick pass to escape the fantasy blitz. The boy reaches for the ball, tips it in the air with his right hand, runs under it as it bounces off his shoulder, onto the ground and back into both hands. He celebrates anyway.


I smile as he dances in the leaves.

HOW IT LOOKED: Here's the first twenty minutes of Super Bowl III's second half. Pretty quaint by today's standards. And note the low-key approach to the game, which back then was seen by most as a post-season exhibition that promoted the NFL-AFL merger starting in the fall of 1970. All that changed with this game (called by the late, great Curt Gowdy, the voice of the AFL), as the New York Jets stunned the football world by beating the heavily-favored Baltimore Colts, 16-7, on January 12, 1969.

Dig the period commercials, as well as Bob Hope, there to promote an NBC special and the incoming Nixon administration. I watched this game alone in my Uncle Jim's basement. The adults were upstairs, playing cards. Nobody cared about this except me, twirling a football in my hands, experiencing what I often fantasized in my backyard.