“Bring up Tank!  Come on, hurry up there!”

I hurried at a run, my two guys behind me, ignoring the flames running up and down my legs.  The squad leader, a youth of about fifteen, stood silhouetted in the darkness of the woods beyond which lay a street light on a road.

I was dressed in shorts – not a wise choice for this kind of mission, but it was what I had been given: shorts and a tee shirt.  My half torn old tennis shoes flopped, one sole half torn lose.  I was steaming hot yet soaked to the bone.

“Tank!  Hurry up!  We need you!”  The squad leader didn’t bother to hide his impatience to get going.

I redoubled my efforts, my girth hampering me some.  I had grown during my years here – mostly around.  The briars and nettles raked me – it was impossible to see them, except when we’d cross the occasional field under a spotlight moon half hidden most of the time by darting clouds.  It felt like it would storm again at any time.

“Where’ve you been?”, he asked, crouching as I came nearer.  A few other guys – kids my age – were crouched down around him.

“I had to pee – and we had to finish setting up the deadfall.  Remember?” I told him with a bit of anger in my voice.  We had set the latrine up as a trap – a pit someone might fall into if they came scrambling over a certain log, and if they missed that there was the deadfall to get them.  Or so we hoped.  Everyone was certain our camp would be raided again tonight; they always did, those raiders like us: other kids who were being trained in the guerrilla art-form of warfare.  But we wouldn’t be there – instead, we would be out raiding them, at their camp.  Or so we hoped.

Our fearless Leader had come up with this: the idea of an early offense, striking earlier than was anticipated, and thereby hopefully taking out their camp while they were there – beating up a few kids (maybe), striking many with the sticks we held in our hands.  Nobody was allowed to actually do anything – the use of knives or guns of any kind was strictly prohibited.  Injuries were to be kept to a minimum.  However, our boobytraps – some of those could be quite deadly, if you were foolish enough to get caught in them.

This was while we were overseas, at a camp – I don’t know, some military camp around there, over in the Eastern part of Bavaria.  We were always moving around, and this was a larger camp I’d found myself – there were plenty of amenities and plenty of woods for the G.I.’s – and us – to ‘play’ in.

“You, Tank – you take the lead,” the squad leader said, pointing his finger at me.  The other boys smiled and nodded vigorously while my heart sunk.  I hated going first sometime.  First was always a precarious position – and they were using me as their ‘Tank’ – someone to take the lead, pushing through all the nettles, briars, and bushes – busting a trail while running, not knowing when someone (or something) might take offense to your actions.  But that was what I was known for: my toughness, ability to stand pain.  I could pick a path out through the dark before I was ten and I never got lost.  If I knew where the target was (or home was) I could keep on going (albeit in a straight line) until I got there.

They depended a lot on this unfailing quality about me.  I could guide them to our campsite in the dark – and I could take them through the brush to the enemy.  (This quality was to come in quite handy – and profitably! – when I entered the Corps – escorting Marines through the brush to the theatres.)

We crept slowly up the hill – me sensing more than seeing the paths ahead.  I had been practicing my Indian walking for a long time – about two years, ever since I’d studied it at about age eleven.  My tennis shoes, worn as they were, offered a hope of feeling a branch before I crunched down on it.  I could ‘see’ in the dark rather well compared to some of my peers (a quality I regret to say has been going with age).  I was a good leader.

And I made a good tank in the woods.

Bursting forth with a run, I ran screaming and waving my club through the last dozen feet of woods.  There, in front of us (my legs still burning from the nettles) sat our startled enemy – sitting down, cans out, food half eaten by a small fire who’s light I’d seen.  Behind me, through the hole I’d carved – I’d intentionally went through the thickest set of bushes, figuring they wouldn’t set any boobytraps in there – poured the rest of my squad, the leader behind them, taking up the tail.  With a bunch of Indian screams we ran around, punching in the tents and snapping some of the poles with our clubs.  The kids, startled, jumped up screaming and ran helter-skelter through the woods – I watched as one of them got caught up in his own trap – a net that swung up from the ground and bore him aloft – all the while raising my club and screaming and shouting . . .

It was great, and it was fun

but I’ll never forget how my bare legs would burn and burn for hours to come . . . the deflation after victory, the long march back home . . .

marching through the nettles, to the place we called home
for now.

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