Monday, March 4, 2013

Grandpa Guy and the Tin Soldiers: A Childhood Morality Tale

At my grandfather’s house (VAL photo, 1939)

Dear George,
My Grandpa Guy moved to Menominee from Omaha around the time of my birth and lived in a house on Ogden Ave. down the street from us.  He died when I was five, so I only have sketchy memories of him.  What I remember most vividly is that he regularly bought tin soldiers for me, and each time I’d go to his house he’d give me a new one.  I’d play with the whole army on his living room floor, and they were magical.

Ironically, my toy soldiers were also the focus of a childhood catastrophe.  Somewhere as a four-year-old  – maybe at a circus or a carnival -- I’d been exposed to a complex, brightly colored machine with many different moving parts.  The apparatus had been fabricated to amaze young children, and it was entirely successful.  I thought about it for days after seeing it and even dreamt about it.  I realized that humans had made it, and my entire became centered on personally creating a machine that would do such fantastic things.  I realized that I needed a lot of metal pieces, and I searched around our house and yard to find materials, but with no luck.  It finally dawned on me that the one source of metal pieces available to me was my collection of tin soldiers.  As much as I loved them, the idea of building a machine took priority.

I don’t know where my parents and grandfather were at the time, but I was alone in the living room of Grandpa Guy’s house playing with my soldiers when I decided it was time to build my machine.  First I needed to break the tin soldiers into small parts so they could be put back together in a new form.  I tried breaking the soldiers by throwing them against the living room wall, but I couldn’t muster enough force.  Then I got one of Grandpa Guy’s tools – probably a pliers – and that worked better.  Soon I had a large pile of fragments – arms and legs, feet, heads and torsos.  There were so many that I was sure I’d be able to construct a big, complicated apparatus – even better than the one I’d seen.  I started fitting various pieces together, but it didn’t take more than a minute or two to discover that none of them connected firmly with any of the other parts.  Soon I realized that my compelling vision of constructing a machine was nothing but a fantasy.  Not only did I have nothing to show for my actions, but I’d destroyed all my toy soldiers in the process.  I broke into uncontrollable tears. 

My parents found me crying on the floor, surrounded by my broken toys.  As they recounted it years later, they were mystified and couldn’t imagine why I’d done what I’d done.  I tried to explain about building a machine, but it didn’t make any adult sense. I think they believed that I had acted out of rage toward my grandfather, and they were horrified.  That, of course, was completely wrong, but my four-year-old verbal skills weren’t sufficient to articulate the truth.

This memory still gives me a bad feeling in my throat and chest.  I feel particularly miserable about possible effects on my grandfather’s feelings.  Destroying my tin soldiers was probably the first big mistake of my life.  I hope I learned some important life lessons.  Looking back, I’d have to say that it’s fine to have high ambitions, but you need to be careful not to sacrifice valued things for an illusion.  Maybe it’s also a good example of what’s meant by “look before you leap.”  From a parent’s perspective, it suggests that sometimes children can do things from a primitive logic of their own that’s incomprehensible to adults, and it takes a lot of patient work and withholding of judgment to try get a sense of it all (if one ever does).  I can think of a variety of mindless mistakes in my subsequent life, but my experience with my grandpa’s tin soldiers ranks among the very worst.   

G-mail Comments
-Donna D (3-5): david, is this all true?  what a lesson!

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