The first thing I ever wanted to be was a Jedi Knight. I wanted a lightsaber that would make that whooshing sound, and to be able to do front flips and back flips while fending off heavy-breathing enemies in oddly shaped masks. I wanted to make hair-dryers and fine china fly across the room at my brother when he wouldn’t let me watch TV, or at my step-father when he made me do chores or, at the very least, to be able to do my chores with my Jedi powers.
When I learned that Jedi Knights weren’t real I wanted to be a ninja, and when I found out you could actually become a ninja I wanted to move to Japan and join a ninja school where, I was sure, I would run obstacle courses and practice sword-fighting and underwater breathing and the ancient art of deception. I begged my mother to allow me to go, but for some reason she refused to take my request seriously. I tried to explain how I wanted to walk on water, and catch arrows mid-air, to scale buildings using ninja claws and rappel back down on a rope I had hidden to make my escape after I assassinated the emperor. I wanted to hide in bushes and shoot blowgun darts at passing enemies, or throw metal sharpened into a star shape at them, or, while retreating into the night, toss down a smoke bomb and disappear in a flash or throw those little spiky things over my shoulder, where they would stick into the soles of my pursuers’ feet and cause them to hop around saying “Ouch, ouch, those little spiky things really hurt.”
My mother seemed to think this a passing phase, so to prove her wrong I began ordering throwing stars from the back of Black Belt and Kung Fu magazines. My best friend Thomas had also decided his life’s work was to become a ninja, and on weekends we climbed trees and ran through the woods dressed in black, or dark blue when our ninja clothes were in the wash. When we weren’t slinking through the back yards of nearby houses or scaling the elementary school building, we watched old B-movies where ninjas infiltrated guarded compounds, taking out enemy soldiers one by one until only the baddest bad guy was left, or D-movies where Mexican ninjas in sweat pants and ski toboggans swung nunchucks slowly around their heads and the dubbed voice said “I keel you for honor and revenge and honor.”
We began to stockpile weapons. After seeing Bruce Lee wield nunchucks to take out hordes of fat guys in Game of Death, we built two pairs with dowel rods and lengths of gilded chain normally used for hanging plants. When the handles began to fly off our homemade versions, we mail-ordered nunchucks identical to the movie and when my mother caught me slinging them around in the middle of the living room, right under the ceiling fan and right next to the porcelain lamp and the glass coffee table and the TV, she agreed to enroll me in karate classes, most likely out of fear that without some form of guidance I would concuss myself.
After we started karate, Thomas and I spent hours, when we weren’t sneaking through the neighborhood at night or watching Revenge of the Ninja or Enter the Ninja or The Octagon, fighting in my front yard. These fights often ended after a broken toe or a dislocated shoulder or a chipped tooth, but they seemed fun at the time. The idea was not to hurt each other, but to become better fighters, although it escapes me now why we needed to become better fighters. I suppose we thought that, like Chuck Norris’s character in The Octagon, we might suddenly find out a twin brother we didn’t remember had started a school for evil ninjas and it was up to us to end it, or that we would be asked to infiltrate a drug lord’s hideout by entering his martial arts contest, and obviously we could not uncover a secret drug ring or end our evil twin’s reign of terror without superior fighting skills.
The karate class also opened up a whole new world of weapons. We had a few throwing stars and nunchucks, but along the walls of our classroom were long staves called bos and short staves called jos. There were replica daggers and soft nunchucks we could beat each other with. There were sais and jutes and tonfas and kamas and a few swords, both wooden and real, although our instructor had disappointingly forgotten to order smoke bombs and ninja claws and little spiky things.
We did not know at the time that the Russians had huge stockpiles of nuclear weapons, and so did America. After seeing the movie Red Dawn, in which Russian and Cuban soldiers parachute in to take over a small Colorado town, we decided nunchucks were as useless as the dialogue in martial arts movies. Ninjas were not the enemy—Russians were. And while nunchucks might work for taking out bad guys with sticks, they would never work against Kalashnikov-wielding comrades.
We both begged for guns for our birthdays, and practiced by shooting tiny birds and small woodland creatures and occasionally feral cats. Besides the ability to kung fu fight and shoot enemy soldiers, we needed to learn to live off the land, and to know our surroundings in case the Russians ever came. We would hide in the hills, feeding ourselves, and make guerilla attacks against these occupiers. Our families would suffer, but they would live free in their hearts knowing their children were out in the wilds, fighting to take the country back and occasionally shooting bears and pumas and squirrels.
We watched Red Dawn again and again. Also: Godzilla, and Wargames, and Mechagodzilla and The Day After, any movie where outside forces threatened us. I think now we were just kids, and bored. But perhaps we were like people everywhere, trying to find some meaning in our existence, and an outside threat gave us both meaning and existence. Fighting for humanity’s survival would be the ultimate sacrifice, although we weren’t actually planning on sacrificing anything. Our imaginations of how this might occur ended with the glorification of war, the hero’s welcome, the emotional gristle of suffering rendered through a fake lens. Perhaps we didn’t plan the whole thing out very well, or think it all the way through.
We bought more guns. I bought a pistol my parents didn’t know about. Some days I carried it to school tucked into my pants. I kept it under my bed and sometimes took it out at night while the moon fell in the window after I woke dreaming of Russians parachuting in, missiles flying across the world and arcing downward. They would land in a silent circle on a computer screen somewhere. We would hear nothing, only see a bright light at the very end. After that, the world would descend into chaos as the Russians invaded, and only those prepared for the coming battle would survive it.
Even after we grew older we spent a lot of time watching movies about the coming apocalypse. And ninjas. Occasionally we fought in the front yard, and some nights crept through the neighborhood wearing black and pretending our neighbors were invading Russians, but both of us began to suspect Red Dawn and others movies like it were intellectually dishonest, preying on the cliché of the average American rising up to defend his homeland against outside forces, whether commie atheist socialist Russians or post-apocalyptic cyborgs or aliens from outer space or evil ninjas bent on world domination. We suspected the movies depicted a world that didn’t really exist except on the screen, or in the imagination, or in the fear of “others” that pervaded our country.
Then Gorbachev began his Glasnost and Perestroika business and the Cold War ended, along with any threat of invading Russians. Besides which, we decided, instead of an invasion of soldiers there would have been an invasion of missiles, and after such an invasion there would be no survivors except maybe a few monasteries of ninjas deep in the mountains of Japan who would then rule the world, until they assassinated one another because there was no one left to assassinate. Or the aliens would come in with superior technology. Or the cyborgs would rise up.
At seventeen, I joined the military and a few months later shipped to Basic Training. At the rifle range we shot at cutouts of Russian soldiers, painted with hammer and sickle and AK-47s. We tossed dummy grenades at more Russian cutouts, and stabbed others with our bayonets. We traipsed through the woods carrying rifles, but it was nothing like what Thomas and I had imagined. It was too hot, and bugs swarmed everywhere, and there was always the threat of being gassed. I wrote to Thomas that the days were long and tiring and we mostly did push-ups, and even firing an M-16 wasn’t that much fun, lying on gravel in hundred-degree heat while the sun stabbed down like a knife. He was a year younger than me, and considering joining the military as well.
Don’t, I wrote him. Just don’t.
One day we watched The Green Berets on base, hundreds of us crammed into a movie theater. We were hot and tired, as we always were, eyes slipping closed in the cool air, until the part at the end where the Viet Cong are defeated and John Wayne stands proudly and the theme song comes on, and we walked out into the world humming the tune to ourselves.
Near the end of my Basic Training Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. I was in college when the ground war started, but for six months, while the build-up went on, more and more troops landing in Riyadh, battle groups passing through the Suez Canal, division after division massing along the southern border to Iraq, I cut pictures from the newspaper of soldiers leaving home, then landing on airfields in Saudi Arabia, disembarking in the swimming heat. Once the war began I collected pictures of night-vision lenses over Baghdad catching the bombs lighting the city and the tracer fire of anti-aircraft batteries frozen in flight, Apache Helicopters and A-10 Thunderbolts and Multiple Launch Rocket Systems firing skyward, pictures of the oil fires burning in the desert, Iraqi soldiers surrendering, rubble in the streets, bullet-riddled tanks along the side of the road.
My roommate and I drove to the liquor store each night and bought a bottle of whisky and sat in our dorm room and watched the war coverage, until we were swimming drunk in an Arkansas night lit up by heat lightning like the green skies over Baghdad, and what showed on our screen seemed like a distant movie. Near morning, we’d say we wished we were over there, although when I woke at noon, hung over, my head hurting and my stomach heaving and the TV still showing scenes from the Middle East, everything seemed not only too real, but frightening, and sickening. I’d imagine the smell of the oil-fires, the way the air would taste like slick scum. I’d imagine the glassless vehicles along the side of the road with bodies still inside them. I’d imagine what the bunkers must have been like, inside, once the rubble had been cleared and the bodies uncovered.
After a few months, while the bombers continued to fly, we grew tired of watching the war. We still got drunk every night and checked the news, but after a while we’d switch the channel to GI Joe or Transformer cartoons. Both dealt in war, but the animation proclaimed that it wasn’t real, allowed you to indulge in the romantic notion that here was something worth fighting for, without the images of fire in the desert or empty vehicles along the side of the road like the apocalypse had finally come. No one took Megatron or Cobra Commander seriously.
And though no good ninja movies have been made in twenty years, it is now easy to find war coverage anywhere in the world, any time of day or night. The US still has troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. We still have bases in Germany and Japan and Korea. Late at night the History Channel shows World War II in color, and the Military Channel recreates old battles, complete with eyewitness testimonies and expert opinion.
Ninja movies have been replaced by Game of Thrones. By Rome and The Sopranos and Walking Dead, though I don’t think anyone over the age of thirteen wants to take on Jaime Lannister or Titus Pullo in a sword fight. No one really wants to be Jason Bourne. Or the guy in Jarhead. Or The Deer Hunter. Or Platoon or Full Metal Jacket or Saving Private Ryan or The Hurt Locker or All Quiet on the Western Front or Apocalypse Now.
At some point you outgrow all that. You realize you never wanted to be a Jedi Knight, or a ninja, or you only wanted it with the strange emotions of childhood, the belief that what you see is real, and the feelings the images stir inside you are as real as the images themselves. Sneaking through someone’s backyard at night can get a person my age arrested. Infiltrating heavily-guarded compounds means something bad is going to happen, whether the person doing the infiltrating is carrying a blowgun or a machine gun, and at some point you realize even if it is the baddest of the bad guys, no matter what he has done in this world, he is going to lose his life.
Those things don’t turn out well even in movies. Be honest—you never wanted Russian paratroopers to land outside your high school in Colorado. You never wanted to flee to the mountains, to see family and friends killed. You never wanted to wake to the sound of bombs in the distance, and fighters streaking overhead, machine guns rattling through the empty streets of the town where you live.
And at some point, you begin to wonder if people in other countries feel that way too.
Rumpus original art by Max Winter.