Born during the Depression and raised in the years of scarcity that lasted through WWII, my father was accustomed to amusing himself by inventing games using whatever materials were at hand. He played war by tossing coins onto his bed, pennies as privates and higher denominations representing officers. Those that landed face-down were killed in action. He once pretended a jar of cherries was a passenger plane, dropping the glass container onto cement and narrating the gory aftermath. When there was nothing else to do, Dad could be found shooting his arrow straight up into the sky with a naive confidence that it would never return to its point of origin.
Years later as the father of six children, Dad still retained a measure of satisfaction in the invention of a simple diversion. I was indulged was shelves and drawers full of toys, yet I do not think that I enjoyed the best of those items any more than I did a crude entertainment that Dad fashioned from a discarded cardboard box. It was a long, flat box, the sort that might have once contained a small folding table. With the aid of a ruler and a ballpoint pen, Dad adorned one of its broad sides with a map of a generic town. The fictitious city featured crisscrossing streets, numerous buildings, an airport, and a busy seaport, all rendered with the endearing precision of an amateur draftsman.
It was a short trip from Dad’s basement worktable to the bottom of the steps, where we placed the box before ascending the stairs. Once we reached the top, we turned around and sat. Dad and I divvied up the ammunition: a small cache of colorful, plastic darts. We took turns throwing them down to the silent city, which looked like a distant metropolis from our vantage point. The overall layout was discernible, but it was difficult to make out the small details. Dad and I were pilots on a bombing run, and our objective was to inflict maximum damage to military targets while leaving civilians unharmed. Half of the fun was throwing the darts, and the other half was running down the stairs to see what we had hit.
The bay was populated with a number of vessels ranging from aircraft carriers and battleships to much smaller speedboats. Hitting any of them was considered a great victory, as was managing to land a dart tip in any of the planes scattered about the airfield. Also meritorious was blowing up one of the circular oil silos, a detail inspired by the enormous containers on the outskirts of our real-life town. Most of the time, though, our bombs struck elsewhere. There was a hospital, clearly visible from the top of the stairs due to the bold cross Dad had drawn on its roof, and I’m afraid that it was the recipient of collateral damage from time to time. I mean, they weren’t exactly smart bombs that we were dropping. Some of mine missed the cityscape completely, embedding themselves in the bottom step or ricocheting off the basement floor. Yes, it was dangerous business, but we were up to the task.
Our faux town included a school, which I believe Dad intended to be another taboo bomb destination. However, as I was not enamored of my educational experience, I rather relished the idea of my school being obliterated. I think Dad took as much delight as I did in the occasions when we reached the end of the stairs and discovered a dart lodged smack in the middle of our little town’s sole institution of learning. “No school! No school!,” I would shout with the enthusiasm of a boy waking up to a raging blizzard, “Can’t go to school because there is no school!”
Undeveloped acreage was still available along the perimeter of the box, and Dad allowed me to add my own streets and edifices in an unrefined style that clashed with the neat aesthetic that he had established. It looked as if the zoning board had been kidnapped and lawless citizens had built amok. Free to add new targets to our bustling town, I enhanced the airport with a few more planes, drew some more ships in the bay, and plotted out a modern suburban neighborhood with winding streets that rebelled against the orderly grid of the city.
My crowning touch, though, was simply to modify one of Dad’s rectangular buildings by adding the label J.C. Penney Outlet Store. Having accompanied my parents on many trips from Lima to Columbus, I had spent what seemed to be an accumulation of many hours waiting for Mom to finish shopping there. I found it quite trying, as the store was vast yet held little merchandise that appealed to me, and so I would exhaust whatever interest I had in the place within ten minutes. Mom saw much that was worth exploring, however, and inevitably Dad and I would pass some time sitting in the dismal lobby before retiring to the car. To me, the J.C. Penney Outlet Store was a military objective of greater strategic importance than planes, ships, and oil tanks.
Sometimes, for added excitement, we turned off the lights for a night bombing run. With only our mental perception of the darkened basement and muscle memory to guide us, we cast our weapons into the blackness and listened intently. A distant thup signaled that one of our darts had at least hit the box, though precisely where was impossible to say. Often we heard the clatter of a bomb striking and sliding across cement, and once in awhile we were startled by the hollow clang of an errant missile bouncing off the furnace. Lights back on, we scrambled down the steps to assess the damage, both to our little town and to whatever else we hit in the basement.
Eventually Dad’s dart-throwing diversion was riddled with holes, and the box began to lose its structural integrity, but by then we had successfully completed many missions together. I was fortunate to have a childhood that included plenty of opportunities, wonderful vacations, and a wealth of material goods. As nice as all of those things were, none of them were better than sitting at the top of the stairs with Dad, tossing plastic darts into a cardboard box.