Protected By Red Ryder

I’ve always liked to read military history –memoirs, narrative histories, you name it, and poetry too. The British poets and memoirists of the First World War are especially fine. I suppose this is to be expected since they were all highly educated public school boys who had Latin, Greek and English beaten into them. It shows in their poetry, Dulce et Decorum est, and in their memoirs. I have an investment in the Vietnam War so I have read a great many poems, memoirs, histories and reporting written by men who have made a larger investment. Here again, these are well educated young men — products of the extraordinary expansion of American higher education in the 60s— who, as patriotic, law-abiding men, had enlisted or had been captured by the draft, not a bone spur among them. Larry Heineman, Tim O’Brien, Robert Mason and many others from that mold have written superior literature.

Anyhow, along the way I have taken on the notion, or it has glommed onto me, that there was an American infantryman who went through his tour carrying a Daisy BB gun, the Red Ryder Model. It’s always the Red Ryder Model, the one with a movie cowboy lever action. The image is firmly in my head. It sticks there in crisp detail: a vacant-eyed infantryman, I can’t tell how old he is, levering out BBs with a Daisy Red Ryder over a parapet of green sandbags.

Now, this is REDICULOUS; it can’t be true. As has been said since 1775, “ The Army is fucked up, but it isn’t that fucked up.” It has taken longer than it should have, but at long last I know how this image got into my head and why it won’t go away, like the other images in my head that were once real and now refuse to leave.

My Red Ryder infantryman is not there because I had a BB gun. It’s there because every kid I knew had a BB gun. And like Ralphy we shot imaginary burglars. But more often we shot Germans and Japanese . . . easy to forget that this would have been only a few years after the Second World War. Kneeling behind dirt piles we happily shot BBs into phantoms. We never shot Vietnamese phantoms because nobody had heard of Vietnam. When we played “Army”, we didn’t have to come up with our own plots: the movies provided them— Bataan, Back to Bataan, The Sands of Iwo Jima . . . anyone of my age can add to the list. Later, I watched them again in my high school auditorium and I don’t think that was unusual.

The United States was certainly not the only country to produce jingoistic films to enthuse its cannon fodder. But so far as I know we are the only country in which the protagonist is often a firearm. Really! – the Colt Peacemaker and the Long Rifle are stars in dozens, if not hundreds of films. There is the movie, Carbine Williams (ok it’s about a gun maker); and a particular favorite, Winchester 73, about a lever action rifle wielded by Jimmy Stewart who demonstrated that the weapon could kill no less than eleven Native Americans without reloading. And, John Wayne, I mean Davy Crockett, carried a Long Rifle at the Alamo. Since 1942 young men had only to look down at their Combat Infantry Badge to see to see a rifled musket. I’ve seen it on the chests of seventeen year olds and I know that if you asked them what was on their CIB they would say,   “Long Rifle.”

So why shouldn’t we imagine that an American infantryman in Vietnam carried a BB gun. It’s what got him there. As for me, this Memorial Day there will be a decal on my car. It will say PROTECTED BY DAISY RED RYDER.