First Blood

Photo by Larry Racioppo

When you are a boy growing up in the year 1985 there are so many cool things going on around you. But of all these things nothing exists that is as pure and as righteous as Rambo.

Me and Cage adored Rambo. He was our hero. We were growing up with the ramifications of Vietnam. Many of our uncles had fought in Nam, Cage’s dad had been there. We were finding out about Agent Orange and the side effects. We didn’t understand the war and that was part of it, too. No one knew. No one could explain this horrifying event that had ripped the generation before us apart. We didn’t have many answers, but we had a few.

The government had fucked up. The troops were not to blame for the horrors that were visited upon them, or the horrors they were forced to commit. And it was all the Russians’ fault. This was what we were told. This is what we knew. They didn’t call it PTSD back then when they talked about the way the men above us would shake and tremble. They called it shell shocked. It was a raw term. A term that left no denials. It wasn’t a grouping of letters to be misunderstood or waved off. This was real. Shell shocked was why we were not allowed to walk up on our trash man from behind. It was the reason why the lunch man at our school would whimper every now and then when you said hello to him. We were being raised in the aftermath of an atrocity and we were trying to make sense of it.

Rambo did that for us. When I tell you that when I was nine me and Cage went to the theater to watch Rambo 2, you will think our parents terrible for letting us watch such a violent film at such an impressionable age. They were not. They were helping us to understand the time we were living in.

“Murdock, I’m coming for you,” was the very voice of our generation as we fought for a way to get some sort of closure on Vietnam.

We came home from that movie and me and Cage went to our corners. I went to my room, he to his. We sat on that story. That violence, we let the blood and the jungle roll around in our minds. By the next day we were ready.

Cage and I were the boldest of the neighborhood kids. What we said usually happened. So the next day when we knocked on every door and called out every boy, they came. When we told them to grab every toy gun they had and come to Cage’s house, they obeyed.

All the guns were set on the grass. Every one of them. We were Rambo Boys so we had a lot of guns. Rifles, hand guns, machine guns, and even a Rocket Launcher the rich kid up the street had gotten from Toys R Us was thrown on the grass. Cage stood uphill as the rest of us stood down and he pointed at us and said, “We are going to have a war.” He planted his fists on his hips and grinned. “The winner gets to keep one of these guns.”

“What do you mean?” a kid asked.

“We are going to bet a gun that we win. You are going to bet a gun that you win,” Cage said.

“I don’t want to play this game,” the rich kid said.

“How about walk, do you want to be able to walk or do you want to stumble around on crutches?” Cage said, holding up a fist.

“Fine,” the boy said, dejected.

“You guys win and you get to have this,” Cage said picking up his M16. It was matte black and when you pulled the trigger it made a loud whirling churning chugga chugga sound that really sounded like what we thought a machine gun would sound like.

“If we win, the Rocket Launcher is ours,” Cage said.

In this blog both times I have written the words Rocket Launcher I have capitalized them. This is not because I am a sloppy typer. This is not an accident. I did that because to type it any other way would be an abomination. This was not a toy. This was a work of art. Perfect rendering of the Rocket Launcher from the movies, complete with the big knobby conical, pointy part that we all loved to look at so much. It was more than a gun. It was a lifestyle and the only real thing me and Cage wanted.

“Do not worry,” Cage said with a lunatic’s grin. “The teams won’t be fair.” He laughed and I saw him as if for the first time. Big and tough and rumbling. The toughest kid I ever knew. The boy I wished I was. Cage was in that moment more than a boy. He was the king of boys. A violent Peter Pan with a nightmare of a father and a missing sister. He was a myth. A boy riddled as if by bullets with reasons to be weak. A boy under pressure. A god boy.

“You will all be one army,” Cage said. “Me and Jesse will be the other.”

My heart stopped. “No!” I stuttered. “We need two more. Just two.” I looked out at the sea of boys. Easily nine other boys that could ruin me and Cage, and I fought frantically to find one Cage might agree to.

But I knew he wouldn’t. Cage didn’t trust anyone but me. Not his mother, not his sister, not his brother or his father. None of his friends except me had his back. We had been in fights together.

When we had gotten into a fight on the bridge he had been kicked into the street in front of a moving car and I had jumped out after him to pull him back up. We had both nearly been killed but we had survived it.

Groups of kids had come at us talking about his father. And side-by-side we had laid them on their backs. We had fought older kids. We had fought teenagers. We had both been in knife fights by the age of eight. There was no foe that we could not face together. I had two people I could count on. He was one of them.

I knew he wouldn’t let any other on our team because we were the only team we had. We were it. It was me and Cage. We faced all of it together.

When I think now about where he is I get a feeling in my fists. I get an itch that makes me want to punch something. Right now I know Cage needs me. He needs the guy who jumped in front of a car to save his life. Cage needs his fighting partner to help him fight the jungle he finds himself in. But he went somewhere I could not follow.

That day, he pointed at the other kids and told them the rules.

“No one goes off of the block. You cross into the street, you lose automatically. You can go through the alleyway all you want but this is the war zone right here. Leave and you lose.”

“Each army gets a base. This is their POW camp. Once you are brought there, you obey. No breaking out. You lost, you have to deal with it. Those boys still over in Nam can’t escape, you can face what they are facing and take it like a man, not try to run from it like a little pussy.”

“Once you’re done, you’re done. If a gun is put to your head, no trying to fight your way out of it. If you are shot, you’re shot. You will fight this fight with honor like an American not some kind of guerrilla warrior. You get shot you’re shot, you get taken, no arguing about it. If you argue me and Jesse will kick your ass into the grass.

“Every team has to have one man in the POW camp at all times if there are prisoners. The camp has to have a guard.”

I looked at Cage but there was no understanding him at this point. No arguing with him. We were playing his game and he got to call it however he wanted to.

“I want this,” Cage picked up a pistol. and tucked it in his belt. “And Jesse wants this.” He grabbed his M16. “The rest of you divide up what is left. We are going to go to our camp. We will wait there for five minutes.”

I looked at my Micheal Jackson watch to mark the time.

“In five minutes be ready for hell. ‘Cause I’m coming for you.”

When we got to the back yard I didn’t even ask questions. I didn’t blink. I just started thinking of what I was going to have my prisoners do while they were at my camp. Now don’t think for a second that I thought we had a chance. I am not saying that. I knew we had lost already. I knew there was no way the two of us could fight the entire neighborhood. But I was ready to do it if he wanted to because Cage needed this. He needed a war to win to distract him from the one he was losing.

“I got the camp, you got a plan?” I said.

“I’m going to bring them all in,” he said.

Don’t you dare laugh when I tell you he rubbed mud all over his face. I will be pissed if you make light of the fact he took off his belt and tied it around his head. This is not a story about a kid who wanted to be Rambo. This is a story about a kid who needed to be something powerful for once in his life. A story about a kid desperate. A kid being crushed by his life. Unwilling to lay down and crack.

Every few minutes he dragged another one to me, gun to their head, shame on their face.

I made them stack the trash. I made them pull weeds. I made them take the impossible rusted steel manual mower and mow the lawn. It took three of them to push the damn thing. I hit them. I yelled at them. I made them do push ups and sit ups. Made them do everything I could think of and more. I laid on a kid’s back and made him do push ups with me on his back.

And Cage brought them in. One at a time, nine little boys. He took them all alive.

That day Cage was Rambo. And he walked off the field with a Rocket Launcher.

To this day I have never seen anything like it.

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