Bang, Bang You’re Dead!

11 Jan

Recently I saw an item on television about young boys playing the game War. When I was a kid we called that game Guns.  One of our gang had a small plot of woods behind his home. He also owned a very impressive collection of realistic looking toy guns including one I particularly coveted, a World War II German Luger.

The game would begin with the selection of weapons. Some of the guys didn’t own guns and we’d share whenever possible, but sometimes a player would have to find a stick that looked something like a gun or less satisfactory, resort to using a cocked thumb and finger.

We meet after school or on a weekend. The rules were simple. First we’d choose up sides. “The Defenders”, thought of as the good guys, would hide in the woods. The enemy would be the attackers. The point of the game was to “Kill” one side before they “Killed” you. The real point of the game however, was to feel the boyish joy of outfoxing a friend.

The enemy would have to keep their backs turned until the good guys had hidden themselves. No peeking.  They could attack after the defenders had yelled “Ready”.  Neither side could shoot until the attacking team had entered the woods and themselves taken cover. The weapon of each player had a predetermined number of bullets and the player was bound by the honour system to keep count of the number of shots he had fired. No cheating.

“Bang, Bang You’re Dead” was probably the one imperative of Guns.  Attacker or Defender mattered not. Once these words were spoken, all action came to a halt. Everyone froze. No movement was allowed by anyone on till it was determined if someone was indeed Dead or only wounded. Making this determination was a ritualistic process which allowed no dissimulation. The crux of our boyhood code of honour was confronted here. Within the context of the game, it was a matter of life or death. But among us it was a matter of friendship and trust.

None of the other players could be called him to help decide who was dead or wounded. After all they would have to give up their hiding places. No, this decision was between two friends, the shooter and the shot.

When “Bang, Bang You’re Dead” was heard followed by the name of the victim, the victim would say to the shooter, “Where am I and how much of me do you see?” The shooter would then have to answer. For instance, “I see the top of your cap and you’re behind that bush with a few leaves on it.” (A dead bush or a pile of leaves was considered adequate cover.) And then a kind of dance began. “How much of my cap can you see?” “I can see all of it down to the very top of the brim”. “Okay, I’m dead, but you have to show yourself”.

By revealing himself the shooter could prove whether or not he’d had a clear shot and if so, the matter ended and the ‘Dead” boy  had to leave the woods to await the final outcome of the game. If he had only been wounded, say only his shoulder had been visible, he could continue on until killed or wounded a second time by which he was considered dead. The shooter could hide again and the game would continue. It was during these Gun moments that for the first time I seriously confronted issues of honor among friends.

I remember a game when I had found a really neat hiding place from which I was sure I could shoot one and possibly two members of the opposing team without ever being discovered myself. In my warm corduroy jacket, snuggled down among damp leaves and hidden behind a fallen log, I had only a peep hole from which to shoot and was certain I’d never be seen by the enemy. I was thrilled by the feeling of anticipation and  invincibility, but I was disappointed.

A game would invariably uncover the need for more rules or the tweaking of an existing rule. These variants were usually  debated in a hideaway we’d found in the woods. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were growing up. We were experiencing our first committee meetings, our first attempts at determining the course of future events. It was all great fun and then we’d go home for dinner.

Friendships were cemented by this game and many of its rules, our rules, remained with us as we went on to other more serious games. I remember the game as an example of cooperative independence. Each of us was responsible for ourselves, but in order to enjoy the game, we had to commit to working with our buddies. We learned to accept the group’s rules and expected them to be observed by everyone.

When Stephen Harper (b. 1959) was first elected prime minister of Canada  in 2006 he proclaimed his desire to make Canada a player on the world stage. He did that by agreeing to play guns with George W. Bush. Harper cast his lot with a despised president and a  nation in an advanced state of  dissolution.

Although Canada’s military involvement as combatants in the wars with Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan had probably been planned prior to his election, it was Harper who implemented those plans. Thus Canada became a major player on the world stage, but in a way most Canadians had never thought possible nor desirable.

Canada had always been perceived as a nation of peace and militarily, a peacekeeping nation. In one stroke Harper change that perception. Now Canada is a nation of war and a war making nation and its military children are dying.

Today friends are not playing games in backyard wood lots, its’ alien cultures making real war.  Today the boys and girls who have died and are dying to protect the insatiable avarice of businessmen and stoke the hubris of politicians, were only a few short years ago playing far gentler games. Today they no longer come home for dinner. They arrive in body bags and their homecomings haunt us.


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3 responses to “Bang, Bang You’re Dead!

  1. Rick Sacks

    January 11, 2012 at 6:02 pm

    Forwarded this to a childhood friend as we used to play this game in the Catskills using miles of forest. Slight variations but basically the same thing. You wrote eloquently about it Robin,


  2. Dave Smith

    January 12, 2012 at 8:33 am


    Excellent writing, as usual. The description of boyhood takes all of us back to simpler, more innocent times, but, having had a son that served two tours in Iraq, the last two paragraphs took the wind out of me. “Bang, bang……” you got me.

  3. Bill Youhass

    January 29, 2012 at 5:18 pm

    Growing up in Teaneck, NJ in the 1950s, there was a “woods” across the street from our apartment complex. Behind it was another apartment complex. In fact the woods was the only thing nearby that was not apartments. It was maybe 1 block by ½ block.
    But the woods seemed so big. It seemed to go on forever. We played Cowboys and Indians and, as you did, “guns.” Also WAR. I had the obligatory “cowboy outfit,” ie. a six shooter, hat, boots, chaps and spurs, and my army get-up, including a fake M-1 rifle, web belt, canteen, helmet, the works. No adults to tell us how to play, what to do. The only adult interference was being called home for dinner. We had to learn for ourselves.
    Something else I remember – The group of boys I grew up with, most of whom played together in that woods at one time or another, was made up of a rather interesting cultural and racial diversity. I was the WASP. There were the red-headed Irish Catholic, the dark haired Jew, the Italian star of the high school basket ball team, the son of an Oklahoma “Indian Chief”, and one whose name was exactly the same as the most well-known English writer in history. I kid you not. I remember all their names but will omit them here. Of course I never gave any of this a second thought. It just seemed the natural course of things.
    It was only much, much later in life that I realized hanging out with these guys (or as we would now say “hanging”), playing in the woods and sharing so many other experiences, had some profound influences on me.


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