Dan Wilhelm

Plastic Soldiers

I remember playing war and planning crusades. I remember very fondly the days of my childhood, swapping missiles and machine gun rounds with my brother’s army of G.I. Joes. It was so easy to wish death upon them when they “died” with sly smiles on their faces.

On a family trip to visit my grandparents in Arkansas, my parents and my brother and I spent an afternoon exploring a flea market near the city of Hot Springs. Joes have never exactly been out of production, but like many things, the older ones are superior — in build quality and originality. As a result, this was the best kind of place to track down our favorite playthings. Some vendors thought mistakenly that they knew what they were worth and looked at my brother George and I with superiority, laughing at the offers we made them. Children though we may have been, it is more than likely that we were better educated on the subject than many of the adults we dealt with.

We found one vendor in particular who didn’t have a clue about the value of his merchandise, which was unfortunate. He had in his shop a collection of G.I. Joes more impressive than any I had yet seen: shelves and boxes and racks with legions of the 4-inch plastic soldiers in every conceivable color — many I recognized, and many more that I did not. I did what I could to remain calm as I pointed out one particular soldier that I had been coveting for some time — a helmeted, flamethrower-wielding soldier in an orange jumpsuit, codename Barbeque — and asked what he wanted for the figure. He shrugged and pulled out a book — The Ultimate G.I. Joe Price Guide — and quoted me an absurd price, which I had to guess was the estimate for the “mint on card” (unopened) figure rather than opened and in questionable condition. Heartbroken, I turned away.

Twenty minutes later, George and I realized that Dad had disappeared. We were milling around with Mom when we sort of collectively noticed his absence. After some searching with my mother, we saw him from all the way down one of the aisles, talking with the G.I. Joe vendor from earlier. He looked torn, but by the time he started approaching us a few moments later, he had a mischievous smile on his face.

“What was that about?” my mother asked him.

“I’m buying his G.I. Joes,” my father said simply. “All of them. He says there’s about six hundred.”

George and I looked at each other with shock and jealousy all at once. If my mother was upset, I don’t remember noticing. My father had watched us, I’m sure, as we built Joe bases out of household furniture or Lincoln Logs. It had never crossed my mind that something inside him was perhaps feeling nostalgic. I remember beaming at my dad, proud that he’d found a way to share our passion. It’s funny in hindsight, but I was jealous that he had the means to live a dream I had only imagined.

Nearly twelve years have passed since that day; grade school and two years of college have come and gone. In that time, I spent evenings without end sitting with my father doing research, pairing Joes with their equipment, selling, buying, and trading from our own collections to reunite our soldiers with their gear. Being kids together. Every now and then we’d come across a dismembered Joe in my father’s collection, and we’d have to take him apart and replace his o-ring, the only thing holding his upper half to his lower half. They looked so sympathetic, so pitiable, in their pre-surgery states. After they were healed they became grizzled killing machines once again.

And somewhere along the line my father moved out. I think I was thirteen. I remember only vaguely the evening I trembled in bed listening to my parents scream at each other for the last time ever. I haven’t subjected myself to attempting very hard to pick up the pieces of that memory or to work backwards in my mind to rediscover the one disagreement that began that final confrontation.

Roughly seven years after his departure, my parents’ lives are still battlegrounds. I had been under the impression that separations were supposed to put an end to this sort of thing. If I had my way, I would navigate the field with the brightly colored weapons and space-age gadgetry that my G.I. Joes use. I wish I could dodge bullets and shrug off the ones I wasn’t fast enough to outrun. But I haven’t any weaponry. I haven’t the comfort of some prop to tell me that everything will be all right, that my instincts and combat training will be enough to see me through. I still get caught — or do they catch me? – in their crossfire.

My parents are not the same people I knew growing up. When I was a child, my father’s behavior was at best unpredictable, and at worst, volatile. He has had graying hair since my very earliest memory of him, which I feel that he wears with a kind of dignity. His down-turned moustache was prominent enough to give him a perpetually frowning appearance, but was still never enough to hide his happiest smiles. My mother told me frequently that he had an anger problem, which I felt was overstating it, despite the many instances where he made me feel shame in public places for some minor offence I had committed. Somehow it’s always been easy to forgive him — a feeling born, perhaps, out of a young boy’s intimidation and never really outgrown.

But it was not consistently this way. He was the one beside me during my career in Boy Scouts and elsewhere. He was demanding, perhaps, but always encouraging. He wanted the best from me, and made me understand how proud he was when I reached for those lofty expectations.

In the years since he moved out, I’ve watched as my father’s best characteristics have grown somehow more pronounced. That anger I had to tiptoe around a decade ago is missing, or at least reigned in by some new control. Even the moustache is gone, giving his face a more cheerful disposition. Laughter seems to come more easily.

If my father has mellowed since he moved out, my mother seems to have wound herself tighter. Her age is more evident on her face than I ever observed as a child, an effect compounded by the eyeglasses she wears, which are often hanging from a golden chain around her neck.

My mother used to be the one to take it upon herself to talk my father down from one of his angry heights. Now it’s she whom I feel I need to appease or accommodate in speech or action. She has attempted to ban certain music in our home, along with a handful of television shows and video games. The general rule of thumb is that, if Jesus was in the room and I would feel embarrassed to show him whatever it was I was watching, then it’s off-limits.

Yes, Mother is very religious. Church had always been a part of our lives growing up, but it wasn’t until I learned to see how blindly and obnoxiously my mother cleaved to her faith that I learned to hate her apparent adoration of organized religion. My belief in God has never wavered, but I find that He is somehow lessened or made cheap by my mother’s lectures on the subject. I love my mother dearly, but all of these things that divide us only compound our disagreements, making it that much easier for me to hate her unjustifiably.

It would be incredibly unfair of me to point out her flaws without addressing her many positive qualities: I am attending my first-choice college due almost exclusively to my mother’s influence. She hired the advisor who helped me find Susquehanna University, out of her own pocket. She looks after my finances without my ever having asked her to. She does battle with my father in court and out, more often with my best interests at heart than hers. Abrasive though she may be at times, my mother is by far the most selfless person I have ever known, at least where her children are concerned.

Still, my parents have swapped roles somehow in the years since their separation. And somehow, as frustrated as I sometimes am with my mother, and in spite of the fun and mutual respect that my father and I share, I am somehow more confident and comfortable around my mother. I cannot wrap my mind around this contradiction.

And still my parents fight, if not in person then through correspondence or their new mouthpieces: their lawyers. Oddly, the G.I. Joes have become a sort of bargaining chip in this war between my parents. Silent prisoners of war. After my dad moved out, he made frequent trips back to the house to collect his things, mostly furniture and such. For whatever reason, most of the G.I. Joes remained behind.

And somewhere along the line it was decreed that my father was no longer welcome in the house. I don’t pretend to know what it was that made it final. I deluded myself for some time, as we all did, into believing this cataclysm was a temporary one. My life until this point had the comfortable habit of somehow righting itself after a disaster. There were always enough apologies to go around.

“Don’t forget to pray that your father has a change of heart,” my mother would periodically remind me. I remember following her advice, for a time, without knowing with any clarity what needed to be changed.

But as more years passed, I forgot to question it and things silently rearranged themselves into a new order. My dad’s G.I. Joes sat in the basement in Rubbermaid boxes, collecting dust all the while. We never had managed to finish sorting them, so only some of them found themselves in specially-sized zip-lock bags with their corresponding equipment, their names and years printed on index cards placed lovingly behind them. Others are tumbled in tubs, body parts tangled like the fallout of someone’s genocide. For a time, my father stopped asking for them back.

But for some reason, in the summer of 2009, years of injustice somehow made themselves known to me, and apparently to my father, too. Infrequent hints from him reminded me that his Joes were still held to ransom in my home — what he calls the castle — but it never, until one evening just months ago, occurred to me to right what I knew inherently to be a glaring wrong.

One evening as my father brought George and I back home after an evening out to dinner and the movies, I told him to hang on while I grabbed something for him. I descended into the basement, crouched in front of one of our monolithic cabinets, and pulled from beneath it a large plastic container with what might have been fifty G.I. Joes inside it, neatly packed and labeled. They smiled at me through their plastic bags.

I returned it to my father and he thanked me, said he was proud of me, and drove off.

The next day, as I was doing laundry in one side of the basement, my mother came down the stairs and went directly to the other. She seemed to be looking for something. What I had done for my father the previous night had seemed to me so obvious and so natural that it didn’t even occur to me that she might be looking for the Joes I had taken.

“What are you looking for, Mom?” I asked her.

“Don’t worry about it.”

“If you tell me what you’re looking for, I can tell you if I’ve seen it.”

She seemed to weigh her options.

“Did you move anything of your Dad’s?”

When I told her I hadn’t, it wasn’t deception that gave me confidence, as deception sometimes does, but my conviction that I had done nothing wrong. As I reflect on my answer, I see what a fine semantic line I had drawn between “moving” and “removing.” But even as I answered, I couldn’t fathom that she was speaking about the G.I. Joes. She just couldn’t be. I had put their liberation quite out of mind and moved on, knowing that there had been justice.

My mother cast her eyes about the room — not looking at anything in particular, but apparently judging very carefully what her next words should be.

“Do you know what happened to the container of G.I. Joes from under the cabinet?”

“I gave them to Dad last night,” I answered matter-of-factly.

In the several minutes that followed, my mother and I screamed at each other with more ferocity than we ever had in the twenty years I had been alive. When I came to understand the terrible shape her rage was taking, I responded in kind. She: demanding how I could have been so brazen as to remove something from “her house” without her permission. I: demanding how she could presume to require her permission for removing something that wasn’t hers in the first place. I screamed at her to tell me where she got the nerve to hold my father’s belongings hostage.

Angry tears glared from her eyes as she seemed to somehow will herself larger before me. I wondered where all of her piety had gone, the very moment she needed it the most. Where was this Christian grace I had heard so much about?

I don’t believe my mother has ever wanted quite so badly to hit me. And I completely believe that I would have hit her back if she had. We were dangerous, the two of us.

At some point during our broadside exchange of words, she made it known to me that she and my father were engaged in a kind of stalemate, negotiating for the return of certain items. It seems my father had at some point absconded with some of the family’s home movies on videocassette: from piano recitals and orchestra performances my brother and I had taken part in, to antics with the pets, to George and I roughhousing in the yard. We did not at present have a VCR in the house, and therefore no facilities to watch the videos, unlike my father, although I don’t believe that factored into his decision to take them. My mother had evidently told my father that if he wanted the G.I. Joes back, he would have to copy the movies onto DVDs for her. I had been riddled with holes crossing a battlefield I knew only vaguely was there.

I said that I don’t remember the exact words my mother and I used. While that’s true, it’s not to say that I don’t remember the sentiments she expressed toward the end of her tirade:

This changes everything.

You and I will never be the same after this.

You have betrayed me.

Your family will never look at you the same after they find out what you’ve done to me.

I left the house trembling with fear and anger, walking outside to clear the buzzing in my head and wondering what exactly it was that would never be the same again. To this day I wonder why it is that human beings get so passionate about things that should never be taken so seriously. You’d have thought there’d been a murder, the way we carried on.

When I told my father what had happened, days later, what started as glee slid very quickly into horror.

“So how did your mother like you taking the G.I. Joes?”

“She, uh… didn’t.”

My father laughed. “What did she do?”

“She just about lost her mind,” I said. “She told me I had betrayed her, and that she and I would never be the same again.”

The smile on my father’s face vanished as he gasped, looking at me with his mouth hanging open.

“She said what?”

“I think she was this close to kicking me out of the house.”

My father looked up at the sky and then at the ground. “I never meant for you to get in trouble. I’m sorry you’re in the middle of this. You know — I can clean out your room at my house anytime you want to come crash there.”

I don’t know what it says about me that I never seriously considered his offer.

* * *

For some months before the GI. Joe incident, my mother and George and I had planned a vacation to Florida. I had been completely opposed to the idea, not because I felt particularly strongly that I didn’t want to spend time with my family, but because I didn’t want to surrender quite that much time off from my summer job at a friend’s construction company.

I may also have been trying to distance myself from our true purpose in visiting Florida in the first place. One of my mother’s sisters, Michelina (“Auntie Lina” to me), had been suffering for years with unexplained fainting spells. Earlier this year my cousin, Logan (the youngest of Lina’s two sons), had gotten out of bed after hearing a crash in the kitchen. After leaving his room to investigate, he found his mother lying facedown on the floor, her blood pooled around her. According to Logan, there were handfuls of paper towels scattered in the puddles of blood, as though she had attempted clumsily to clean her mess before succumbing to whatever had caused her fall.

It was a stroke, as I learned from a third- or fourth-hand recounting of the incident, and had led to what would later become a coma. I have never known my aunt particularly well, but if my family’s descriptions about her are accurate, then she is vindictive and narcissistic. The one week per year that I spent with her for much of my childhood was enough, and I never felt that I should know her better. Even her sisters — Andrea, the youngest, and my mother, Gina, the oldest — tended to keep their distance. Theirs were the kinds of relationships where the incompatible codes of morals were so glaring and eternal that they aren’t really dwelled upon. I guess we look at people differently when their future is uncertain.

Even after all of the reservations I had about what the trip would cost me in lost wages from work, and after the colossal fight my mother and I had about the G.I. Joes, I still agreed to go to Florida. Why? Because my mother told me that if I didn’t go to Florida with her and my brother, I wouldn’t be permitted to live in the house by myself in their absence. Whenever the topic was broached, my mother would become fiery and passionate, telling me that we were going to have a great time as a family. The or else went unsaid.

So we spent two days driving to Boca Raton. In the summer. To visit my comatose aunt. A vacation, we called it.

We hadn’t been there forty-eight hours before the time had come to visit Auntie Lina. I walked the too-clean hallway with my brother, my mother and aunt Andrea, to the door of her hospital room with a kind of heaviness, at once not quite sure what to expect and certain that I had made the wrong choice in deciding to come along. In the months since her collapse in the kitchen, I was given sporadic status reports on her condition — when it was improving and when it remained frustratingly unchanged. At some point Auntie Lina had rediscovered her ability for very rudimentary human interaction, though she still seemed to struggle with even basic commands. Squeeze my hand, Lina. We’re all praying for you, Lina. Blink twice if you can hear me.

The angle of the room was such that I had a view of my aunt before I had even entered. I had a moment to steel myself after that initial shock, but it still wasn’t enough. When she lifted her lolling head off her shoulder to look at us, bewildered, I saw that one half of her face sagged and her arms and legs lay at awkward angles. The word pathetic has been robbed of its full meaning by people who have not witnessed it, but I understood it entirely now.

There was a tube in her arm and another in her neck. Machines beeped and hummed, breathing stale life into another fleshy machine.

I moved close to her when my turn came. I looked into her wide deer’s eyes and told her it was “good to see her.” I received no flicker of recognition nor sign of comprehension. Her mouth moved, maybe tripping on stillborn words.

I moved aside to make room for my mother, who made her way to her sister’s side.

Aunt Andrea busied herself around the room, adjusting the curtains and objects on the bedside table. This was routine for her now, and she carried it out with a kind of weary dignity.

“Hi, Lina,” my mother said as she took her sister’s hand. “It’s Gina. I’m here with the boys. We all came to see you.”

Auntie Lina may as well have been blind as she looked aimlessly around the room, her gaze not lingering with recognition on any of us. She turned back to my mother.

“It’s so good to see you, Lina,” my mother said, trying to rush her words before the tears came. “You’re a fighter. You’re doing so well. You’re going to get through this.”

I stood at the foot of the bed, watching as the love between them was somehow magnified in this beautiful tragedy. My mother has spoken at length of the great many things that separate her from Lina, from politics to religion. I have heard her question her sister’s integrity, her personality, and her morality on many occasions. I have often wondered how there could possibly be any spark left of their sisterly love, let alone any kind of casual fondness, and certainly not respect.

But as hopelessly divided as their worlds are, I have never witnessed a purer form of love than my mother sweeping the sweat-drenched hair from her sister’s forehead, the clutching of her hands and the whispers that everything would be all right. When the tears came to my mother later, I watched her palm them from her eyes. We call this kind of reaction natural. We call this pity a virtue. When Auntie Lina started crying in response, we called it a breakthrough. Precious signs of life that were, in her condition, so few and far between.

“She hasn’t done that before,” Aunt Andrea said soberly.

I watched as a lifetime of disagreements and damages seemed to evaporate — heavy bonds that were lifted somehow in the presence of this great sadness and misery. Something inside me was jealous.

* * *

I have asked myself frequently in the months that followed whether tragedy is what’s been missing from my life, but I find that I’m asking the wrong question. Lately I’ve been wondering what it takes to stir compassion in me — to make me feel.

It seems more and more that my involvement in the G.I. Joe incident was not so much a way of standing up for someone or something, as much as it was a way of standing against something. A product not of compassion, but of justice. Justice is unfeeling, is automatic.

My mother has told me in no uncertain terms that I can seem to feel more strongly for characters on a screen than I do for certain people in my everyday life. Is this true? Is she right? Maybe the G.I. Joes are the ones who I pitied in all of this. Her words have me thinking that it’s possible.

And how differently we see people when they flirt with disaster! Recently I was entrusted with taking my mother to the hospital for what is usually routine surgery but was, for a person her age, somewhat more intensive. A hysterectomy, they call it. I told my mother to spare me the details when she explained to me some months in advance that the time was fast approaching when hers would be necessary.

“But you haven’t told me what it is. What kind of surgery is it?”

“It’s called a hysterectomy. Do you know what that is?”

“Do I want to?”

“It’s when they remove the uterus.” I think I winced. “It’s usually a simple procedure, but it’s more complicated for me. I never told you what I went though to give birth to you, did I? There’s basically very little keeping my insides from falling out.”

“Mom! Don’t tell me that. I don’t want to know.”

“This isn’t trivial, Daniel! Excuse me for thinking you have an interest in my life.”

There was hurt on her face as she turned away from me.

Months later, I stayed with my grandmother in the waiting room for the surgery to conclude. Some two hours passed before we were told that the surgery was a complete success and that my mother was waiting in her hospital room — the same one in which she would spend the night.

As I entered the room and looked at my mother, still bewildered from painkillers and anesthesia, I noticed that the shoulder of her hospital gown was slipping dangerously down her arm. At that moment I saw my mother differently. She was human in a way that I had never noticed — more human, in fact, than I had ever given her credit for. Vulnerable. Even sedatives couldn’t numb her faint shame when I told her gently that her hospital gown needed attention.

A kind of foreign respect and empathy for my mother stirred in me when I saw her incapacitated after her surgery; I saw her in a different light. She has always been a constant in my life — omnipresent sometimes to a fault. I never had the room or the time to observe the frailty of her human life, a frailty we all share. I was reminded of how our worlds change in the wake of disaster, of uncertainty, of hardship, or of anything approaching these.

There’s nothing like a hospital stay to set the gears of reconciliation in motion. A lifetime of regret and anger washed somehow clean in a moment. I wonder sometimes if G.I. Joes would have been enough to unhinge my mother and I if we had first seen each other kept alive by machines, held hostage by our own bodies, worse off perhaps than we might be in death.

And I am not alone in this. To some degree we all change our orbits to fixate on some triviality, some moment’s indiscretion, some one little thing. Our disagreements become our world, and we let those plastic soldiers come between us.

I see my mother sometimes, lying on a hospital bed with a tube in her arm. A tube in her neck. I wonder if her life would be somehow lifted in significance for me if I questioned whether it would soon be over. If I could learn to forgive her for ever making me believe that I had a right to be angry with her. I wish there was a way for a human being to arrive at that kind of newborn appreciation without such suffering.

In the meantime, Mother, when I do battle with you, I’ll try to keep my eyes on the bullet holes. As long as I can see you bleeding, I can sympathize with you. I wish it were easier, but if I spend too much time thinking that you’ll be here tomorrow — no matter what — then I can put off my apology for one more day. Nothing is at stake.

I see my loved ones around me. I see myself allowing my life to be stalled by those times they’ve upset me with the inconsequential. Maybe I’ll picture them dead and dying, gunshot wounds bubbling life through gashes in their side. I’ll see them in a hospital gown, surrounded by nurses who change their bandages. I’ll see how I somehow come to wish that I had seen things from their point of view, long before now, before it was too late. Before they were taken from me.

And as much as I see myself wishing for that kind of clarity, wishing for that missing quantum of empathy, I wish all the more that it was theirs to give, instead of mine. I hate myself for wishing they’d see things from my point of view for a change. I see that figure in the hospital bed and wonder if I’m selfish enough to wish it was me.

So put a bullet in my head. Picture me in that hospital bed the next time we argue. Hold my hand to get me through. Tell me I’m a fighter and that I’ll survive this, and that you forgive me for every time I’ve hurt you.