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Big Thoughts for a Little Boy

One of my enduring memories from childhood is a fascination with soldiers and soldiering. I had hundreds of plastic and rubber toy warriors - cowboys and Indians through World War II GI's. They engaged in combat almost daily, ranging from hand-to-hand contests on my bedroom floor to vast battles in the bookshelves or in the rocky soil around our hillside home in California's San Joaquin Valley.

I had a name for these most cherished of toys: ''little men.'' Some of them had personalities. Most were just the unwashed masses of fighting men, who lined up in ranks, made wild charges, and occasionally became cannon fodder when I acquired a string or two of firecrackers and was able to add a touch of real gunpowder to the outdoor engagements.

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Sometimes I may have had in mind the great world conflicts of the previous decade. It was hard not to be aware of the wars in Europe and the Pacific. Nearly all our fathers had been there in one manner or another. But mostly the nationalistic tinge was absent. This was pure, idle, time-consuming play, and I was enthusiastic general to both sides.

People spend careers pondering why boys enjoy this kind of thing. They speculate on what it means for the future of the race, and some suggest that if you could only get youngsters away from military fascinations - the workings of guns, the trappings of uniforms - there might be fewer wars. I don't really argue with that viewpoint. There are certainly more constructive things for boys to think about. But, drawing on firsthand experience, I doubt any cause-and-effect relationship between such play and later yearnings toward war.

I admit, however, to a few such concerns about my own nine-year-old. His interests in these matters are far more historical and detailed than mine ever were. He's forever asking who fought whom in such and such a war, and with what weapons. I search out answers with him and try to steer him toward a more general interest in history, such as the disagreements that led to war and how they might have been less violently resolved. But, from his perspective, that sometimes borders on the boring. The conversation might then turn toward his future. Does he want to be a Marine when he grows up? No, that could be dangerous.

So far, he's gone from the American Revolution to the Civil War to World Wars I and II to ''Star Wars.'' He may be running out of material and about to turn to something else - chess, perhaps.

My own boyhood devotion to miniature warfare endured for an embarrassingly long time. It ended one day, sometime in very early adolescence, when my dad came upon me in mid-battle and sternly commented: ''It's time you stopped playing with little men and started thinking about the affairs of big men.''

I was thunderstruck. Childhood had been routed by a few reechoing words. Had they been looming for years, waiting to crash down on my favorite pastime?

The little men rarely, if ever, left their cardboard-box barracks after that. I doubt my father really objected to that form of play; he just felt it was time to outgrow it. Somehow I sensed he was right. If only adults could outgrow an affection for war so easily.

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Since I've never forgotten them, I've wondered if those fatherly words nudged me toward the lifelong task of identifying what's really important - maybe even toward the realization that the affairs of truly ''big men'' revolve, not around war, but the need to make peace.

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