By: Lawrence S. Howe, with M. C. Pehrson
Word Count: 1935
Summary: Kids playing in backyards, create their own versions of beloved movies
The coming of movies had a great effect upon us kids. Our main interest at first was the cowboys and Indians. Now began the Big Epic of Backyard Productions. Cecil B. DeMille never heard of us or even cared, and in exchange we never gave him cause to worry about competition.
Our first attempts were simple and crude, like pointing a finger and saying “Bang, bang, you’re dead.” But if the fellow didn’t want to die—and that was most of the time—we would have to try something else. So we took up using homemade slingshots, and the idea caught on quite well. Numerous things began showing signs of a short life expectancy. Tin cans, for example, would for no apparent reason suddenly leap off a fencepost and pop up into the air with a clang. Chickens cocked one eye and haltingly proceeded on their way as if they had recently been the victim of a Lilliputian meteorite. The day of Bang-Bang was over. There was a certain measure of authority about slingshots, along with another useful noisemaker that made its appearance—the cast iron single-shot cap pistol that looked like the guns used by Tom Mix and Buck Jones.
Covered wagons rolled across the screen at the Maybell Theater, and before long they were rolling out of our backyard, across a pasture. Hoops were secured to the sides of our wagons, old burlap or old sheets were stretched over the hoops, and there you had it. Now, if you could look at Charlie pulling a wagon and you had enough imagination to see oxen—okay, you could join the club.
When the Indians attacked the wagons, the show was on the road. Clay made the best ammunition—balls the size of hazelnuts rolled out of wet adobe and allowed to dry hard as a rock. We made thousands of them. When they hit a wagon or its cover, they made a sharp report and everybody ducked.
We aimed low, because we didn’t want to hurt anyone seriously. We only wanted to let the guy know that he had been hit and that we did it. But slingshots being what they were, and we being what we were, there were shots that went astray. Some poor Jasper would let out a yell, and we would run over and give him “first aid”. It went something like this. “Aw, shut up, you ain’t hurt, an’ besides, Ma will hear ya.” “Gee willikers, I didn’t think I could hit ya’.” “Where did I get ya? Gee whiz, why ya ain’t bleeding yet.” “Heck, you’re OK, see it’s only bumpy and all red.”
For some reason we never thought that anyone was really hurt unless he had to be fixed up with general surgery. Small blood leaks were checked with a bandage till the bleeding stopped, then the bandage was removed. After such tender and skillful administrations, the casualty skipped all kinds of convalescence and re-entered the mock combat with a sort of Hero Veteran status, receiving comments such as “Gee, that sure was a bad one” or “That must have hurt like the dickens, look at that big ugly bump”. Such remarks from our peers constituted a sort of combat pay and decoration of the highest order.
This headlong attempt to reenact movies had to be met with realism and ingenuity. First of these refinements was the introduction of the air rifle. This may have been spelled “Daisy”, but as far as we were concerned, it was simply “Winchester” spelled wrong. A fellow armed with a slingshot and an air rifle, and mounted on a trusty bike, was as close as you could get to our screen heroes without crashing Hollywood.
One afternoon a rider rolled in all out of breath. The Sand Pit gang had ambushed some of our boys, and the rider rubbed his rump, which still stung from a well-placed fusillade of BB shot. Runners and riders were dispatched. There was no meanness involved; we liked the fellows from the Sand Pit and played with them at school. This was just for the fun of it. Each group would have about 15 or so members, so it was an even contest.
We couldn’t let them run us out, so we were going to make a stand of it. We arrived at the Sandpit—160 acres of it with little islands of brush scattered all over the place, offering great cover for both the defenders and the attackers. We hid our bikes, left a guard on them, then formed a skirmish line and advanced using all the cover we could. We began to sprint from one clump of brush to another. Suddenly the Sand Pit gang saw us from their positions and opened fire. We could hear the chung, chung, of the air rifles and feel the sting as the shot struck our legs. We began to return the fire.
The closer you got, the more it stung when you were hit. Every once in a while someone would take a real smart sting and elect to leave. This, in turn, might encourage some others to do the same. So you would step up the fire and soon one side or the other would decide to withdraw to fight another day. When your ammo ran out, then the slingshot would come in handy. Soon they were throwing dirt clods, and we knew we had ‘em. With our slingshots working with telling effect, they all cut and ran as fast as they could. All along the line, you could hear the shouts of the victors. Next day at school we used to kid each other about who ran out of the pit first.
In between times, of course, we had to study. We were almost normal kids—that’s why we went to school, to get the rough edges smoothed up. We learned to read, write, do sums, etc., and some of my sums really needed doing—mostly over and over again. Homework was like eating—if you didn’t do it, you were dead. A kid going home without books and homework must have stood out in the hot sun too long and wanted to be expelled. And if he kept it up, the squirrels would start following him around, waiting for him to light somewhere so they could enjoy a meal.
Reading had become an obsession with me. I developed the library habit and began dragging home books of all kinds. King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table really made an impression on me and promised to be great fun. “Let the mind on goodness dwell, good will prevail”—so goes an old proverb. Let the mind dwell on King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table and a headache will surely come to thee, with a goodly crop of lumps and bruises. Soon everyone who read the book became a knight by simply taking one name of Arthur’s knights. In short order lances, shields, swords, and helmets began to appear. An automobile headlight made an excellent Saxon helmet, as it rose to a point. Another type of helmet was made from a small bucket with the bail removed and an eye-slot cut in its side. Add a straight shaft of bamboo, and you had a lance. A couple of boards, a hammer and some nails, and you had a shield. A little paint created a coat of arms. A few well-placed insults, and you would have to use your armor to defend yourself. Soon all were taken by the fever and we spent many hours on quests. Secretly we were simply looking for someone who didn’t have the knack of clubbing his opponent into cries of “Yield!” Meanwhile, the girls were busy playing Morgan LeFe or Lady Guinevere. Once in awhile they would venture to take up a sword and shield, and I must say gave an excellent account of themselves.
Next, of course, we boys decided to joust. We would mark off a hundred paces, turn, face each other, pull down our helmets, push up our shields and level our lances to hit the center of our opponent’s shield. At a given signal, we now ran at each other pell-mell, with the spectators cheering like mad. After you got started, you began to realize that this takes courage and an almost total disregard for life and limb. The ground was quickly covered and the jousters met midfield with a terrible crash. The true knights struggled to their feet only to begin the swordplay. Sweat mingled with the sounds of splintering wood until one of the contestants was knocked down on his seating arrangement. After all was repaired and the battered warriors attended to, we celebrated back at King Arthur’s castle, which most people called a barn.
Later, the jousting was further refined. After all, we should be mounted, so our bikes became our steeds, and if you thought the first encounter was kind of hairy, you should now join the spectators to witness the latest entrants in the lists. On signal, both push off and pedal as fast as our gear would permit, head-on into each other at full tilt. It’s frightening to think about now, but at the time it provided an air of reality that we loved. It was fun because even in our enthusiasm we tried to be as careful as our rules allowed, and we tried to be fair. No one was forced to do anything, but no one wanted to be left out, either. Naturally there were accidents and there were a few times when tragedy was avoided by merest chance and the grace of God.
For example, during one BB gun war, a boy jumped up and yelled “Charge!” with all the enthusiasm of a Johnnie Reb, and as he opened his mouth he took a double charge of lead in his tongue. Well, it bled for a few moments and then healed over. Some months later, while sitting in class, he felt two small lumps on the side of his tongue. While sitting there, he bit into the skin of his tongue and dislodged the shot.
My brother Les got up to make a charge and took a shot right between the eyes. Since we tried to aim low, there were not many such accidents, but to those who had the close calls it was serious, and it gave the rest of us food for thought.
During one such pitched battle in the backyard, just between ourselves for practice, Dad unknowingly walked into no-man’s land, which happened to be a grape arbor covered with leaves. Visibility was not good, but movement was discernible. So both generals, having been assured that all their men were accounted for, proceeded to open fire on the intruder. Dad emerged yelling “Cut it out! Stop it!” while rubbing his legs and nearby parts vigorously.
There are some things one doesn’t shoot at, such as Red Cross units, hospitals, and defenseless people—and especially fathers caught in grape arbors. This we learned not from the Geneva Conventions, but by the heavy hand of Dad Himself. For a while, at least, our BB battles came to an end. We again were reduced to shooting at tin cans or the “O’s” in printed signs.
For a good number of years we had the time of our lives. We tried to get all the fun out of every moment. No one had a better time growing up than us Howe kids and the gang of friends we had made.