Every Christmas season, Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch holds a “toy gun bash.” Parents bring their children to feed their politically incorrect playthings into the maw of the Bash-O-Matic, a contraption the Boston Globe described as “a large black foam creature with churning metal teeth and the shape of a cockroach spliced with a frog.” In return, the children receive wrapped gifts such as board games, dolls or stuffed animals. To some kids, such as eight year old Malik Hall, guns for stuffed animals is a stinky trade. Malik had been “furious” at being forced to sacrifice his favorite toy, and had tried vainly to hide it under his pillow, according to the Globe’s account.
I learned about the Bash-O-Matic one recent morning on my way home from getting my coffee, when I tuned into the Michael Graham show on Boston’s WTKK. Graham was bashing Lynch, and Malik’s mom, and by extension, all liberals. My liberal heart notwithstanding, my sympathies lay with Malik, and Graham. Toy guns, and childhood fascinations with war don’t lead to adult violence.
Nonetheless, I wanted Graham and his listeners to know that not all liberals are heartlessly and mindlessly politically correct. So I dialed his number. I told him how my brother and I, then almost ten, and seven, respectively, had shot both 22s at MIT day camp, despite the fact that our late mother was a pacifist among whose first words to our besotted father, a WWII vet and graduate student who used to walk around Harvard Yard in his army fatigues were, “how could you bring yourself to fight?” (He hadn’t fought. He’d been a radar mechanic in the Air Force.)
I told Graham further how my parents had bought my brother a BB gun when he was 12, which we’d both used for target practice. I think I still have that BB gun somewhere in my basement.
Graham cut me off before I could tell him about my friend Kenny, the son of then-Harvard history professor H. Stuart Hughes, a close family friend who had run for the Senate as a pro-disarmament Independent against Ted Kennedy during the latter’s first Senate race, at a time when Kennedy’s campaign mantra, strange as it may now seem, was “We must arm to the teeth.” Stuart’s antiwar views notwithstanding, Kenny had battalions of toy soldiers, all on active duty.
Then there was Kee Il Choi, a classmate at my Quaker elementary school. Kee Il (pronounced “Keel”), a serious soul, was the leader of the oxymoronically-named Cambridge Friends Cadets. I can still see Kee Il and his crew of pretend fighter/bomber pilots charging around the parking lot, their arms spread like wings, making engine noises and incendiary device noises.
Nor was Kee Il the only budding militarist at Cambridge Friends School. At the Christmas assembly one year, Peter Ingram graced us with his poem, [a celebration of] The Dive Bombers. If any of this ever bothered Mr. Waring, the headmaster, he never let on.
Come to think of it, we spent fourth grade studying the Vikings, those marauders whose arrival struck terror in the hearts of the coastal residents of England and Ireland. Under Saran Morgan Hutchins’ superb tutelage, my initial distaste for these bandits turned into fascination with their adventures, and identification with their heroes and gods.
Attorney General Lynch’s views notwithstanding, both my brother and Kee Il became devoutly antiwar in high school, working for Eugene McCarthy during the 1968 election season, and my own love for Odin, Thor, and Eric the Red failed to steer me towards violence.
In fact, one purpose of play is to come to terms with one’s fears. Kids incorporate all sorts of frightening stuff into their games. A girl I know, who was seven when her grandmother was killed in one of the trade towers, spent weeks afterwards making towers out of blocks and knocking them down.
Once kids deal with their fears, they move on to new interests. I’m sure my parents and the Quakers understood all that. They also understood something else that seems beyond the PC police on the left, as well as the generals and soldiers in the War on Drugs on the right. Prohibition fuels fascination with the prohibited. And exposure to would-be objects of prohibition demystifies them.
To wit: I was almost 13 at the end of the year my family spent in Paris. One night we ate out with two other American families. The grownups ordered wine. The 16 year olds—my brother’s cohort–ordered wine. Observing the latter, my friends and I turned to each other with the determination of General William Tecumseh Sherman. Our decision was made. We too ordered wine. The waiter brought it. We poured it. We tasted it. But we didn’t drink it. After all, what was the point?
Between that outing, and having always had a sip of my father’s drink of the evening since I’d been five or six, the lesson was simple. There was nothing mysterious about alcohol, and it tasted bad. I didn’t start drinking regularly until I was pushing 30, and I’ve been seriously drunk but twice in my life.
So let the kids have their toy guns.