From the book about Southwest and South Central Wisconsin
Our Battle Field
Submitted by Virgil Olson of Alma Center, Wisconsin
I was 11 years old when World War II began. Money was tight, but my parents were blessed enough to buy a small house not far from where my father worked. There were four of us, so they added the little trailer we had been living in to increase our space. Behind that house sat every boy’s dream—a wide, open field just waiting for adventure. It didn’t take long for my brother and me to meet others our age and put that field to good use.
In those days, not many families had much because of the Depression. The war was getting worse. Food and gas were hard to get. Most people were frugal and resourceful, and we boys were no exception. We had to entertain ourselves as best we could, so we shared our toys, traded comic books, and created games for ourselves to play.
I’ll never forget the day we came up with the idea of building tunnels and forts out in the field behind our house. We cut the ends off 55-gallon drum barrels and placed them in rows end to end so there was no chance the soil could cave in on top of anyone, even if it rained hard. Then we dug into the ground and covered them with dirt the best we could. We gathered scraps together to build our forts, which had roofs, and doubled as clubhouses. No girls allowed, of course. We figured girls only liked to play house with their dolls and things like that. Yuck!
We spent every minute we could in that old field, making up games, doing battle, and pretending we were men. One of our favorites was forming teams and taking turns trying to capture the other team’s fort. We were pretty good at making rubber band guns, and we used car inner tubes for the rubber bands. There were even guns that would shoot more than one rubber band at a time, and machine guns that would shoot up to ten times before reloading. Our pistols used bands made from old bicycle inner tubes. I made one to carry in my belt.
I still remember the day our side was outnumbered while trying to take one of the forts. This fort had a tunnel dug to a turret, which was the only thing showing above the ground. It held two defenders well. They had a better shooting range than we did, so our guys were having a hard time getting close enough to reach them without getting shot. I saw one of the defenders reloading his gun, so I quickly crawled through the dirt on my belly and sat on top of the turret knowing I would be safe there.
I was working on a plan when I realized the rubber gun I was using wouldn’t work if I poked it into one of the turret slots. I pulled my pistol from my belt and lay on my belly, calling out for the defenders to surrender. One of the guys yelled, “NO WAY!” I waited for one of them to shoot again and took my chance while he was reloading. I poked my pistol through the slot and fired. I heard a yell and a voice called out, “We surrender!” The rest of my guys heard them and came running to help me capture the fort.
As the defenders came out, one of them was holding his bloody nose. My shot had caught him in the face! Lucky for both of us, I had used the pistol instead of the more powerful rubber gun. Though we knew our homemade guns could be dangerous, we weren’t trying to hurt each other, so we agreed to a new rule to only use the pistols at close range, and not aim for the face.
We spent as much time as we could playing in that field. Even when winter came and several inches of snow covered the ground, we found a safe way to keep warm inside the forts. We built a fireplace out of old bricks that had been thrown away. The chimney was made from old earth pipes. We’d huddle in there as long as we were allowed. It was cool to see smoke coming out of the ground, and all the neighbors were surprised to see how creative we were.
I learned a lot from my days in that field which are lessons I value to this day: The importance of imagination and play in a boy’s life, the need for safety when you’re having fun, gratefulness for what you have, being resourceful, and most of all, the camaraderie of good friends in hard times.