Fiction: Boy Trouble

Fiction: Boy Trouble

Two boys playing at the indoor amusement park

by Andrea Lani

This story begins with a Pop-Tart. No, not a Pop-Tart, but, as you explained to the teacher, the principal, the deputy sheriff, the sheriff, and two muzzle-faced State Troopers, an organic toaster pastry with whole-grain crust and all-natural, no-sugar-added, real-fruit filling. Definitely not a Pop-Tart. Perhaps the story does not begin there anyway. It could have started six years earlier, with a pair of Duplo-sized Lego blocks, on the day one square Duplo, attached to the bottom of one rectangular Duplo, was clasped in the dimpled hand of your sweet babe and pointed at you with an accompanying, “Blam-blam!”

And yet, the story may have begun two years before that, when one of several million of your husband’s sperm, having squirmed its way through the labyrinth of your fallopian tubes, united with your freshly released egg and conferred its genetic material, including that gun-toting Y chromosome, through the otherwise-impermeable shell. Then again, this story may go back tens of thousands of years, to your ancestors squatting around a campfire, discussing strategies for the following day’s woolly mammoth hunt, while little boys ran around the camp, picking up sticks and jabbing them at imaginary mastodons, in the guise of their friends and parents.

In any case, because you are the mother of four boys under the age of eight, you had quit worrying about imaginary weapons some time after that first shocking, heartbreaking incident in which your child turned to you from the Lego table where he stood, looking like the Christ child in a Renaissance painting, with his golden curls and round cheeks, and mowed you down with two pieces of primary-colored plastic. By the time your fourth male child was born, you had resigned yourself to the fact that boys turning any remotely L-shaped object into a firearm was as inevitable as their making fart sounds with any remotely concave part of their bodies–armpit, inside of the elbow, back of the knee, ear, neck, palm of the hand, bottom of the foot. One time, they performed the “William Tell Overture” with body farts. Even the baby got into the act, blowing big, wet, noisy bubbles with his pursed lips.

But let us get back to that toaster pastry and the Tuesday morning on which you oh-so-blindly placed it into your oldest son’s PVC-free insulated lunch bag. Tuesday, riding on the frantic heels of Monday, finds you both less organized and less well-rested than the previous day. You had closed your eyes after your husband left for work, intending to doze for five more minutes when, half an hour later, you leapt from the bed, wide awake and aware that it was nearly seven o’clock. When you rushed into the boys’ room to wake up the two oldest, you saw your three-year-old squatting in the corner, his face red and scrunched in concentration. Forgetting your initial mission, you scooped him up and dashed into the bathroom. As you yanked down his training pants and set him on the toilet, two warm, moist turds rolled out and landed on the bath mat. The day rolled downhill from there.

By the time you hustled the oldest two out of bed and into semi-clean clothes and had fed them a breakfast of bread heels with jam, you had no time to make their lunches, and, since you had made every excuse you could think of–the baby was teething, the floor needed mopping, you had to catch up on laundry–to avoid grocery shopping on Monday, your kitchen was woefully devoid of anything with which to make said lunches. So you resigned yourself to letting the boys eat the school-cooked lunch of shepherd’s pie–pink slime and all–rationalizing that they would take one look at the oily glop and subsist off of a carton of milk and a spoonful of fruit cocktail, thus negating concerns over mad cow disease and e-coli. To make up for your maternal negligence, and because you were also out of fresh fruit for snack-time, you rummaged in the back of the pantry until you found the box of organic toaster pastries with whole-grain crust and all-natural, no-sugar-added, real-fruit filling, which you had stashed there for such an emergency, and stuffed one foil-wrapped package into each boy’s backpack as you kissed them on their way out the door and onto the waiting school bus.

Two hours later, you had cleaned the shit off the bathroom floor, bathed your three-year-old, changed and fed the baby, tidied the kitchen, straightened the living room, and written a comprehensive grocery list. You were feeling like a model of domestic efficiency and ready to brave the grocery store with your two youngest children in tow when the phone rang. It was the school secretary. Your oldest child had threatened another pupil with a weapon and you needed to come to the school immediately.

What kind of weapon could your seven-year-old possibly have gotten ahold of, you wondered? You pulled open the utensil drawer. The sharp knives appeared to be accounted for. In the boys’ room, you tiptoed over Legos and Beyblade parts and turned a slow circle in the middle of the room, trying to see if anything was out of place, wondering how you would know if anything was out of place. Your eyes lit on three wooden swords, tucked hilt-up in the dress-up bin. They were not the culprits.

Your three-year-old had been following you around this whole time, saying, “What are you doing, Mommy? When are we going to the store? Why are you in my room?” The baby, riding on your hip, was starting to fuss. He whapped his fist on your chest and whimpered. You sat down to nurse him and sent the three-year-old to sit on the potty, then you loaded them both in your mini-van (the one you could no longer avoid succumbing to once the fourth baby was on his way), and drove to the school.

The town where you live is not so much a town as a scattering of houses–modulars, capes, trailers, old farmhouses–tossed like a handful of dice along directionless roads. Your children’s school squats in a clearing along one of these roads eight miles from your home. An exhausted slab of yellow brick, it had exceeded its expiration date twenty years before your children were born, but considering your fellow townspeople’s allergy to tax increases, it will no doubt continue to draw students into its weary hallways long after your grandchildren have mastered their ABCs.

The school secretary directed you to sit on one of the chairs lined up along the dingy white-painted cinder block wall outside of the principal’s office, chairs designed to accommodate children the size of your weapon-wielding son. You nestled your right butt-cheek into the cradling embrace of the molded plastic, letting the left one hover in the air, propped the baby on your hip, and tried to encourage your three-year-old to take a seat on one of the other chairs. But he was too busy jumping up to try and reach the banner hanging across the hallway, displaying the school’s motto: “Aim High.” This was another mystery you had discovered about boys: their insatiable urge to make contact with objects much higher than themselves. You had never understood this behavior, when the boys in your high school jumped in the halls, scraping their fingertips against the acoustical tiles, and now you have a houseful of males climbing on the back of the couch, trying to transfer their grubby fingerprints onto your white ceiling. For now, they are too short to reach it.

A squat woman in a corduroy jumper, your son’s second-grade teacher, Mrs. Greene, shuffled down the hall. She looked as weather-worn as the old school building. Budget cuts had resulted in a reduction in teachers and a consolidation of classes. Mrs. Greene now had to contend with twenty-four second- and third-graders, most of whom appeared to suffer from some form of attention-deficit disorder. You had been into your son’s classroom once, thinking it would be fun, or at least virtuous of you, to read to the students on a Friday afternoon. The experience had been like being rubbed with meat juice and placed in a room full of Jack Russell terriers on meth. Ever since, you had found excuses for not going into the classroom whenever the teacher called. The baby would have a mouth like a shark if he actually grew a tooth for every time you told Mrs. Greene he had been teething.

“Mrs. Sheffield,” Mrs. Greene said, addressing you by your husband’s name, which you did not adopt on principle, believing at the time that by retaining your own last name, you would retain your own identity. She opened the door to the office and said, “We can wait in here.” As you hoisted yourself and the baby out of the tiny chair and herded your three-year-old in behind her, she added, “Mr. Peacock will be with us shortly.”

You cannot hear the teacher’s and principal’s names together without thinking of the board game “Clue.” Normally, you busy your mind pegging other teachers as Miss Scarlet or Colonel Mustard, but on that day, your brain leapt straight to lead pipes, revolvers, and candlesticks, and you wondered out loud what sort of weapon your child had wielded that day. You refrained from asking if he had been in the ballroom or billiard room.

“You sent your son a Pop-Tart for snack today,” Mrs. Greene said

“An organic toaster pastry with whole-grain crust,” you corrected her. Had he gotten high off of the all-natural, real-fruit sugars in the filling and gone berserk, rolling his poster of the water cycle, which the two of you had painstakingly put together late last Thursday night, into a club and beaten other children with it?

Mrs. Greene pursed her lips and blew air out her nose. “You are aware of our school’s zero-tolerance policy on weapons?” she asked. You nodded your head, although you were not aware of this policy. However, at the beginning of the year, you had signed a form confirming that you had read the school handbook, and telling the truth now would prove that you had lied then, and somehow it seemed worse to have lied on paper, with your signature, than with a slight incline of your neck.

At that moment Mr. Peacock walked in, greeted you by your husband’s name, and waved both you and Mrs. Greene into a pair of straight-backed wooden chairs which were at least sized for someone who had lost all of their milk teeth. He looked even wearier than Mrs. Greene. If your sons’ reports of their classmates’ behavior were any measure, this was likely the third or fourth disciplinary conference Mr. Peacock had held already that morning.

“I’m sure Mrs. Greene has informed you of this very grave situation,” he said.

“Not really,” you replied.

“The Pop-Tart,” he began, and you corrected him, wondering if your son had slipped a razor blade into his organic toaster pastry when you weren’t looking, or had perhaps molded the foil wrapper into a shiv and started a prison riot in Room Seventeen.

“We take violence,” Mr. Peacock said, pausing to extract your three-year-old from the Zen fountain sitting on a table beside his desk, and handing your dripping-wet child to you, “and threats of violence, very seriously.”

You merely nodded your head, because who wouldn’t agree with that, and, with one arm around your baby, who was growing fussy, and the other around your three-year-old, who was squirming to get at the lamp cord plugged into the wall near your chair, you could scarcely think, let alone form sentences. Also, you wanted Mr. Peacock to get to the point and tell you what horrible deed your son had committed, so that you could go home and find him a psychotherapist.

“Today at snack time,” Mr. Peacock intoned, “your son bit his Pop-Tart–“

“Organic toaster past–” you began, but he held up his hand and cut you off.

“Bit his Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun and pointed it at a fellow classmate,” he finished.

You waited for the rest, but Mr. Peacock folded his arms across his chest and leaned back in his chair, lips pursed with finality.

“And?” you asked. When did the shiv come in?

“Zero Tolerance, Mrs. Sheffield,” he said.

You shifted the three-year-old so that you could clamp him with your knees and propped the baby up on your shoulder, patting his back to try and quiet him.

“I’m sorry,” you said. “These kids are making so much noise. I missed the part about the weapon?”

“Perhaps this would refresh your memory,” Mrs. Greene said, holding a copy of the school handbook open in front of you.

“Section 7.6.9. Weapons Policy,” the page read. “Any student who brings a Gun onto School Property will be immediately Expelled and the matter will be Handed over to Law Enforcement Authorities.” The writer’s enthusiasm for capital letters continued down a full page that dealt with knives of varying size and function, blunt instruments, brass knuckles, and even shurikens, nun-chucks, and various other Ninja weaponry.

“But,” you said, not entirely sure you grasped the situation. “It wasn’t a gun. It was an organic toaster pastry.”

“Mrs. Sheffield,” Mrs. Greene said. “If you look at the definition of ‘Gun’ in Section, you will see that it includes ‘simulations.'”

You smiled, thinking that perhaps they were playing a joke on you, or maybe you had stumbled into a bad reality TV show. You looked around for hidden cameras. But when your eyes settled Mr. Peacock’s face, your smile dissolved.

“But what could he possibly do to hurt someone with a toaster pastry?” you asked. “Rot their teeth? Give them diabetes?”

“Mrs. Sheffield,” Mr. Peacock said, “this is not a laughing matter. We take these situations very seriously, especially after the tragedy in Connecticut.”

“But,” you said, your brain aching with the effort of following his logic, “that was a deranged man with high-capacity assault rifles, not a child with a snack of dubious nutritional value.”

“That is really not the point, Mrs. Sheffield,” Mrs. Green said. “Zero tolerance is zero tolerance. If we make an exception for a Pop-Tart gun, what next? Water pistols? Cap guns? Air rifles? Bazookas?”

“We are going to have to suspend your son from school until we decide how to handle this matter,” Mr. Peacock added.

“What do you mean, ‘handle this matter’?” you asked.

“Expulsion is not off the table,” Mr. Peacock responded.

“Expulsion?” you repeated. “Are you kidding me?”

“We have an obligation,” Mr. Peacock replied. “Under the Federal Gun Free Schools Act, to protect students in this building from others who pose a threat to the overall safe learning environment. My hands are tied, Mrs. Sheffield.”

By now the baby was whimpering and clawing at the front of your blouse, and your three-year-old had squirmed so that he was dangling upside down, his pants pulled halfway down from the effort of trying to escape the vise-grip of your knees, exposing his Jake 7 underwear, and you just wanted to get the hell out of this office.

“Please, can I see my son?” you asked. You would take your kindergartener home, too, and homeschool your children. Perhaps un-school them. Show up these brainless bureaucrats by raising four independent-thinking human beings who didn’t need a handbook to tell them what’s right.

“I’m afraid that’s impossible, Mrs. Sheffield,” said Mr. Peacock. “He’s been taken to the sheriff’s office for questioning.”

Your head felt like an animal was trying to claw its way out through your skull as you sputtered out a “What?” hoping you had heard incorrectly.

Mrs. Greene tapped the handbook.

“Law Enforcement,” she said. “That’s the policy.”


After buckling the now-wailing baby and your still-damp three-year-old into the van, you punched the address for sheriff’s office into the GPS device your husband had given you for your anniversary. As you pulled out of the school parking lot, the supercilious British woman inside instructing you to “turn right,” you dialed your husband’s work number. When his voice mail picked up, you left him a terse but pointed message that you needed him. Now.

Inside the sheriff’s office, a woman with a thick, dark braid and a shiny “Deputy” badge on her brown uniform led you into a small, cluttered room. The prisoner sat on a swivel chair, using his legs to push against the desk and spin the chair around. He stopped when he saw you on his next pass.

“Hi, Mom,” he yelled. “Check it out!” He raised his left arm as high as the handcuffs that shackled him to the chair’s arm allowed.

“Oh my God,” you shrieked and ran to him. With the baby in one arm and your three-year-old grasped by the wrist with your other hand, you managed to half-hug your firstborn child with your elbows, then turned to deputy.

“Why is my child in handcuffs?” you demanded.

“After the incident with the Pop-Tart gun, we needed to hold him while the sheriff completes the charges and a judge sets bail,” she said.

Your three-year-old climbed into the chair with his brother and wriggled his wrist into the loop of handcuff fastened to the chair’s arm. “Now we’re both in jail,” your oldest son yelled and he spun the chair, kicking the backs of your knees with each revolution.

“It was not a Pop-Tart,” you clarified. “It was an organic toaster pastry with whole-grain crust and all-natural, no-sugar-added, real-fruit filling. And since when was there a law against biting food into a gun-like shape? I believe you are violating my son’s First Amendment rights, as well as his Second, Fifth, and Thirteenth.”

“Want Pop-Tart,” your three-year-old hollered from the spinning chair. When you left the house that morning, you had given him a toaster pastry as well, hoping it would tide him over through the school visit, but it was now past lunchtime, and you sensed the first tremors of a low-blood-sugar-induced meltdown.

A man who looked like a Doberman Pinscher in a uniform walked in the door, his eyes on a piece of paper in his hands.

“Okay,” he said. “Charges are obstructing education.”

“Excuse me,” you said. “Why are you charging a seven-year-old?”

“Pointed a Pop-Tart gun in class,” he said, holding up three fingers and ticking off his list. “Threatened violence. Obstructed education.”

“It was not a–” you began. “Never mind. But, seriously, what kind of violence can a seven-year-old commit with a bit of crust and jam? And the incident, if you can even call it that, happened during snack-time. There was no education taking place at the time.”

“Tell it to the judge,” he said, as if he stayed up late watching reruns of old cops shows.

“Please, release my son.” You pointed to the boys spinning and laughing like stoned college kids. “Can’t you see how distressed he is?”

“Sorry, lady. Gotta wait for the Staties,” he said. “School violence situation we always bring in the State Police. Should be here any minute.”

“My son is not violent,” you said, as your three-year-old shrieked for his brother to stop the chair. When the chair didn’t stop, he wiggled his wrist out of the handcuff and punched his brother. Your oldest son punched back with his un-cuffed hand, and your three-year-old cried so hard he threw up what was left of his toaster pastry in a stream of purple foam down the front of his brother’s shirt. Your oldest son screamed and kicked his brother, whom you scooped up the under the armpits with your free arm. The baby, who had been resting his head against your shoulder, half-asleep, became agitated with this disturbance and started to cry.

“Sorry, lady,” the sheriff said. “Gonna have to ask you to leave.”

Realizing that crying, vomiting children may constitute the world’s best agent of civil disobedience, you planted yourself with two of your three howling offspring onto the only other chair in the room.

“I’m not going anywhere without my child,” you said. “And we need food and water. And I need to make a phone call. We’re allowed one phone call, right?”

The sheriff twitched his head toward the door and deputy exited as you pried your phone out of your pocket and tried calling your husband again. You held the phone with your shoulder, bouncing the baby with one arm and patting your three-year-old on the back with the other as you left yet another message, pausing to make sure the recording picked up their wails.

When the deputy returned, she tossed three dusty bottles of Poland Spring water and several packets of oyster crackers onto the table, and drew the sheriff aside. The boys tore into the packets and even the baby quieted down when you gave him a cracker to gum. But you knew you had only gained a temporary armistice. Your children had eaten nothing but toaster pastries since breakfast, you had eaten nothing at all, and you were all in desperate need of protein-based nourishment.

You chugged from one of the bottles, putting thoughts of corporate takeover of public water supplies out of your mind, and tried to overhear the deputy and sheriff’s hushed conversation. You only caught words like: “DA,” “election,” “land mine,” and “ten-foot pole.”

After a few minutes, the sheriff walked over, unlocked your son’s handcuffs and said, “All right, we’re going to drop the charges. This time. But I’m going to have to warn you about the use of weaponry on school grounds…”

As he spoke, you gathered up water bottles and half-eaten packages of crackers. You stuffed them in the diaper bag, lifted the baby to your shoulder, and turned to gather your other two children as two burly men in blue uniforms and black hats walked in. If the sheriff was a Doberman, the state troopers were Rottweilers.

The sheriff squared his shoulders and said, “We were just wrapping up here.”

One of the troopers gave him a curt nod, then looked down at your oldest son, “Heard there was an incident with a Pop-Tart at school today,” he said.

“Actually,” you began, “it was an organic toaster past–” you trailed off at the look he shot you.

For ten minutes, he lectured your son on firearm safety, bullying, and avoiding violence. Your son’s mouth gaped as he gazed at the huge men standing in front of him, their legs wide, hands on their hips. Meanwhile, you strategized the remainder of your day. You had never made it shopping, your refrigerator was still as bare as Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard, and the last place in the world you wanted to take three fractious children was a grocery store. On the way to the sheriff’s office, you had passed a gas station with a sign out front advertising, “Best Pizza in Town.” It was undoubtedly true, considering it was probably the only pizza in town. You would stop there on the way home and pick up a pepperoni pizza, and whatever else the kids asked for–Doritos, root beer, real Pop-Tarts–nitrates, genetically modified organisms, and high fructose corn syrup be damned. Afterward, you would collect your kindergartener, who will be sitting in the principal’s office after school lets out. He will probably have wet himself and Mr. Peacock’s guest chair by the time you get there, because he refuses to use public bathrooms. You smiled at the thought.

“Any questions?” the trooper asked your oldest son after he wrapped up his speech.

“Yes,” your child replied. “Can I see your gun?”

Author’s Note: I feel a mounting sense of outrage every time I read a news story about a kid being suspended or expelled or arrested for a toy gun or a toast gun or a finger gun. This story arose from that rage and the absurdity of a society that criminalizes children’s make-believe but refuses to address real gun violence.

Andrea Lani is mother to three sons who have fashioned guns out of everything from crayons to grilled cheese sandwiches. She lives in Maine where she works a tedious day job, teaches nature writing and journaling classes in her spare time, and writes on the sly. You can find her at

Raising Private Milo

Raising Private Milo

By Andrea Lani

Screen Shot 2015-01-24 at 2.07.33 PMMilo emerges from the basement, dressed in full camouflage regalia: knee-length jungle camo shorts, held up with a tan fake-leather belt, long-sleeved jungle camo T-shirt, olive and green camo cap, with plastic mesh back and John Deere logo over the stiff brim. On his feet he wears cobalt-blue knee-high mud boots—Christopher Robin meets G.I. Joe. Over his shoulder he has slung a green Army surplus bag. His steps are accompanied by the tinny music of his survival kits—Altoids tins stuffed with a cork and fishhook, needle and thread, Band-Aids and alcohol swabs, and other emergency items—rattling in his pockets. In one hand he carries a long stick, curved at one end into a vaguely rifle shape, in the other a longer stick with a small American flag taped to the end.

He heads toward his fort. Milo has claimed for his own the space under our playhouse, which opens onto our deck and sits several feet up off the ground on posts. He’s dug a network of tunnels and foxholes roofed in bark and giant rhubarb leaves for his plastic Green Beret action figure to inhabit.

The military has become eight-year-old Milo’s latest obsession. With his own money he bought the Eyewitness Soldier book at his school’s book fair, he checks out endless volumes on both World Wars from the library, he fills notebooks with ballpoint-pen drawings of fighter planes and jets engaged in combat, he dresses in his military get-up almost daily, and for his last birthday he had two friends over after school, also dressed in camo, to eat Army beans straight from the can and a shrink-wrapped, freeze-dried military-issue meal that included a self-heating rectangle of “turkey” and pouches of pudding, coffee, and orange drink provided by one of the friends, whose dad is in the Air Force.

At my core, I am a pacifist. During the Persian Gulf War, as editor of my high school newspaper, I polled students on their response to the war. I wrote a dispassionate article, but in my heart I sided with the rag-tag group of kids assembled in the commons carrying protest signs. During the early days of our current war in Iraq, I stood one vigil with Women in Black, and while I found the experience at times moving and uplifting (as well as freezing cold and boring), I never felt compelled to go back. While I might have once imagined myself carrying small children to peace rallies, the reality of mothering hasn’t allowed me much time or energy for taking on the military-industrial complex. But watching my son dressed as a mini-Marine gives my heart pause.

Milo first showed an interest in weaponry when, at one-and-a-half, he connected a square Duplo to the bottom of a rectangular Duplo, pointed at me and fired. Any veteran parent could have told me I reacted in exactly the wrong way if I wanted to discourage gun play: I freaked out, which of course delighted and encouraged him. Every remotely L-shaped stick or toy became a gun in my preschooler’s hands. (I took some comfort, and felt not a little bit smug, that Milo never bit his toast into a gun shape as I had heard other boys did, but his younger brother disillusioned me when, at the age of three, he shot me with part of a grilled cheese sandwich). By the time Milo was four he had assembled a regular arsenal from crayons and pencils taped together into pistol formations. At this point I threw up my hands in defeat: I was at once exasperated with his gun-focus, annoyed with the waste of perfectly good art supplies, and impressed with his ingenuity.

Before I had children, I thought my own gun policy would be simple to enforce: I would not buy gun toys. But here I had a child, barely more than a baby, who perhaps had seen another child build a Lego gun, or had seen a movie with a gun at daycare and decided to build his own or, for all I know, had the blueprint for weapon-making encoded in his DNA. As much as I don’t want to believe that violence (or violent play—there is a difference) is what naturally makes a boy a boy, six-and-a-half years and two more boys later, I have a hard time believing it’s not.

As I slowly began to accept the inevitability of Milo’s gun creation and play, I would try to talk to him about the complexity of issues around killing and war. When I told him that killing is wrong, he would tell me that he only kills “bad guys,” and I would try to explain to him that even bad guys have mothers who love them and would be very, very sad if their son got killed. The discussions did not seem to penetrate very deeply—there is something about that age that needs the certainty of a binary world. With everyone from Disney to the then- president dividing the world into “good guys” and “bad guys,” I could hardly expect more sophisticated reasoning from my preschooler.

When Milo was three, he asked me on the way home from daycare one day, “Is the Army bad?”

After pausing a moment to weigh the many horrific war-related stories I had just heard on the radio against a petition I had signed that morning urging the U.S. military to intervene in the Sudan, I responded with a tentative, “No.”

“Papa said it is,” Milo replied, alerting me to the fact that I’d been set up with a trick question.

“Well the army sometimes does bad things [invade countries under false pretenses] and sometimes does good things [prevent genocide],” I said. Peacekeeping good, warmongering bad. “And some people in the army do good things, and some do bad things. And sometimes people in the army do bad things because they have no choice because bad people told them to do it.”

At this point I had sufficiently confused him (and myself) to change the subject, but the question lingers five years later. When Milo asks which side of a particular war were the bad guys, I explain to him that each side believes itself to be in the right and the other side to be in the wrong. Even in wars generally considered to be justified—such as the Civil War or World War II—unspeakable atrocities were committed by both sides, and innocents on both sides were slaughtered.

Of course this is much more than I wanted to lay on a three-year-old, and even now, at eight, he seems too young and innocent to comprehend the true human cost of war. What I believe, and what I try to get across to Milo, is that the bad guys in war are generally the guys who run the government—on both sides. The people in power in one country want something from the people in power in another country, but the people with no power at all—the civilians in the line of fire, the enlisted and conscripted men and women—are forced to fight the war, suffer death, injury or a lifetime of psychological trauma, often for reasons they are not privy to, and for a gain they will never experience personally. I realized I had perhaps gone too far in blurring the distinction between good and bad when I overheard him telling his brothers that the Americans are the bad guys during this particular war, and then again later, when he asked me to make him a German World War II uniform.

*   *   *

Milo is not a violent child. He has not struck anyone (other than his brothers) since he outgrew the impulsive toddler years. While I can’t say he wouldn’t hurt a fly (he chases after any fly that enters the house with a flyswatter in hopes of earning ten cents from his father), he protests loudly if I squash an ant (“how would you feel if a big giant stomped on you?”) or flush a tick down the toilet (“Just let it go outside, Mom! Everything has a right to live.”). When he plays war, he assures me that he doesn’t like real war, just pretend war (including his favorite game with his friend, “Kid War,” in which kids fight the Nazis. Just the phrase brings sickening images of child soldiers in Burma or Sierra Leone to my mind).

I’ve had to try—not always successfully—to balance my desire to shelter my son from all of the horrors in the world, and a competing desire to convince him that war is not glamorous. After his request for the Nazi uniform, I subjected him to a two-minute synopsis of the Holocaust that left him burrowed in the couch cushions, sobbing. Last winter, our neighbor lent Milo a series of videos called Dog Fights, documentary footage and computer-generated reenactments of air battles during World War II. The narrator spoke blandly about American planes being “lost” or “taking” Japanese planes. There was no clear connection between each lost or taken plane and the deaths of the young men flying those planes. The books he was reading on World War I also lacked a human element, reciting facts and events as if they had no impact on real people. Looking back at the history books from my own school years, I recall very little compassion and value of human life; I want more than this for my son.

Tired of being asked questions on every element of a soldier’s life, I suggested that Milo write a letter to my dad, who served in the Army in the late 1960s. He was stationed in Germany where he worked as a radio systems operator. When offered big incentives to go to Vietnam, he declined. Milo wrote, “Dear Grandpoppy, I would like to know about your Military training & Tactics. And what did you have to put in the pockets on your uniform? What kinds of food did you have in your M.R.E.’s (Meal Ready to Eat)? Did you have fun in your training? What colors did you wear for camouflage? What rank in the Army were you going to be? Love, Milo.”

My father wrote back, telling him that during training he could only carry his ID card, a notebook and pencil in his pockets, but later on he could carry anything he wanted. Instead of MRE’s, they had “C” rations, canned food that was very heavy and they could only fit two days’ worth in their packs. They didn’t wear camouflage but put small branches and twigs into nets on their helmets. “Some other parts of the training,” he wrote, “were learning to shoot rifles and machine guns which was a lot of fun.”

My dad assures me that all boys play army—himself included, inspired by John Wayne movies—and, despite having no interest in hunting, as a child he had BB guns, .22’s, a .30-30 rifle and a shotgun. Even my husband, Curry, who drives a Volvo plastered with anti-war bumper stickers, claims he was just like Milo when he was a kid—smart, focused, and dressed in full camouflage, toting all manner of toy guns.

*   *   *

This spring Milo picked up several brochures from the nearby Army recruiting center from a display at a local pizza place. He squirreled the brochures away in the playhouse, where he would lie on the bench for hours reading and memorizing the slogans and statements. I tried to leave him in peace, but one day I spirited the brochures away to the bottom of the recycling bin.

Unfortunately, I can’t spirit away his obsession as easily as a few brochures. Last week, Milo came home from a few days spent with his great aunt wearing a black hat with the gold letters “Go Army” emblazoned on it. “Where’d you get that hat?” I asked casually.

“At the Army recruiting store. It’s next to the Big K-Mart,” Milo said. “They had Army, Marine Corps [he pronounced it “corpse”], Navy and Air Force. We only got to Army and Marines.” While this aunt is known for overstepping boundaries—Milo also came home with a haircut and a book of Bible stories—I’m sure Milo saw the Army sign at the strip mall and coaxed her into taking him. The hat was just part of a pile of military swag—backpack, T-shirt, mouse pad, DVD, bracelet, lanyard, water bottle, booklets and brochures—that the recruiters gave to my eight-year-old son. He had also seen part of The Bridge on the River Kwai at her house and came home whistling the tune the British prisoners of war whistled in the movie (better known to me as the tune to “Comet, it makes your face turn green!”) and has been whistling it ever since.

Curry has always been much more relaxed about the whole gun play thing than I am and even bought Milo his first “Junior G.I.” camouflage outfit for Christmas when he was five. But that night at dinner, disgusted with the promotional items, Curry said to Milo, “I don’t want people talking my son into going to some war where he’s going to get killed.” Milo’s face did that thing he does when he wants to avoid crying—his lips pressed together as his chin pulled down, tugging at the skin under his eyes.

Of course, chances are that in a matter of months, Milo’s military fascination will have gone the way of his other interests. He doesn’t give tractors a second glance anymore, his Pokemon cards are gathering dust in his closet, he deposited his crisp, highly valued fifty dollar bill into his bank account, and his extensive gem and mineral collection has been evicted from his lock box in favor of his military accoutrements. My brother is convinced that by high school Milo will have a ponytail like his dad and wear tie-dyed shirts and Birkenstocks. I’m not so sure. He’s got enough Alex P. Keaton in him to head in the opposite direction of his organic gardening, solar-home parents. Whether that direction points toward investment banker, diamond miner, or Navy Seal remains to be seen.

*   *   *

Today, we are at a birthday party at our friends’ house. A pack of kids runs wild on the lawn between the farmhouse where my friend’s in-laws live and the barn where our friends reside while they build their own house—a structure they will mold by hand from earth and timbers—across the road. Most of the guests are families that home school with our friends, some of whom I knew from La Leche League when Milo was a baby but lost touch with when I went back to work. Milo is dressed in his requisite camouflage shorts and Go Army hat. I hope the leopard frog T-shirt he’s wearing, from a local company that prints nature scenes with soy inks on unbleached cotton shirts, redeems me a little bit.

I encourage Milo to go play with the other kids—girls in hand-me-down party dresses and boys he hasn’t seen since he was a nursling—but he is more interested in a skinny guy with a Mohawk who is describing various elements of military-style physical training. Although he is about the right age, I don’t think he is actually in the military, and I wish he would go away. Milo sits in rapt attention, demonstrating his own version of push-ups and military press with his sinewy arms. Then I notice another boy has joined the audience, also entranced. I feel somewhat relieved that it’s not just my son, and I stop paying attention to what the guy is saying.

After a while I see Milo run off with the other boys to kick a ball around the yard and disappear into the barn. For a moment I see him for who he really is, not Private Milo, but an eight-year-old boy.

For now I have made an uneasy truce with Milo’s military fascination. I still die a little inside when I envision him marching off to war, but secretly swell with pride when he builds a tank out of cardboard or sews his own army pouches. When it comes time to sign his selective service card ten years from now, I’m sure Milo will have gone through a dozen other obsessions and I still will not have fully made peace with the thought of the Army taking my boy away.

Author’s Note: I can’t decide if my role as Milo’s parent is to support him in becoming his authentic self or to guide him in the direction I want him to go. My instinct tells me it’s the former, but when that authentic self makes me uncomfortable, I’m less confident in my conviction. I’m still not sure if in acquiescing to Milo’s military passion I am enabling him to be his true self, or if I have turned my back on my own values. Right now I try to remain neutral on his military interest, while at the same time exposing him to the kinds of activities I’d like to see him pursue: art, nature, science, literature. Shamefully, I sometimes use his interest to my advantage; when he fights with his brothers over their armrests in the car, I’ll say “Soldiers don’t need armrests; they’re tough,” or if he complains that the pool is cold, “Do you think Marines care how cold the water is?” I can barely believe what comes out of my mouth.

Andrea Lani lives in Whitefield, Maine, with her husband and three sons. Her writing has appeared in Literary Mama, vox poetica, and The Motherhood Muse. She produces the print zine Gemini and blogs at

Brain, Child (Spring 2010)