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Why Would a Grown Man Play With Toy Soldiers?

In early March, I was in New York, a writer on the staff of an Apple TV+ show about a society rebuilding after a pandemic. During those early days of the coronavirus’s spread, we ignored the parallels between the real world and the show’s plot, until Apple itself instructed most of its employees to work from home. At that point, the writers — all of us lived in Los Angeles yet had been sent to New York because apparently there is a shortage of writers in New York — flew home. My older daughter returned from Bard College, where she was a junior studying music. My younger daughter missed her prom, graduation and the well-earned lollygagging of a second-semester senior.

My wife and daughters easily adapted to sheltering in place. They initially took to bed as if afflicted not with coronavirus but instead a malaise that induced shopping and the consumption of pastel-colored iced beverages regularly deposited at our door. That initial laziness, however, quickly gave way to productivity. My younger daughter and a friend shifted from shopping for clothes to designing them. My older daughter got back to songwriting via SoundCloud. My wife, trained as an interior architect in the Netherlands, took over the dining-room table and drew plans for a dream house. While my family busied themselves in various useful solitudes, I had no more TV jobs looming. I lacked a pandemic plan.

As a boy, I collected army men, starting with common, green blobby plastic soldiers and graduating to more intricate 1:72-scale armies of German, American and British soldiers and matériel. My favored maker of these figures was the English company Airfix, whose soldiers came 40 or more to a box: men shooting, kneeling (and shooting), lying down (and shooting) and, yes, dying (as a result of all that shooting). I painted them, applied decals and generally ran a disciplined outfit. Some of the happiest moments of my childhood were spent in escapist solitude beneath a plum tree in our backyard setting up and admiring my little works of art. There were war games you could play, similar to Dungeons & Dragons in requiring complicated numerical tables and many-sided dice, and while I claimed to be a war-gamer because that sounded less juvenile, in truth I just liked playing with army men.

Until age 14, that is, when hormonal urgency instigated by the sudden, acute awareness of entire other genders forced a panicked, Napoleon-retreating-from-Moscow abandoning of my men. I left them behind, my brave troops, to disappear into my parents’ attic and then, after a move, to vanish completely.

“The child is father of the man,” as Wordsworth wrote. I took that to mean that someday, once I was finished with this tedious business of being an adult, I would get back to playing with toy soldiers. As the pandemic reduced our lives to the indoors, I decided I would make the most of it by returning to my hobby that had once been, for me, a miniature world. What better escape from the horrors of real life than tiny soldiers in imaginary battle?

The field had expanded since I was a teenager, and military miniatures — as we grown-ups call army men — are an industry that in nonpandemic seasons fills convention centers. The quality and quantity of the soldiers and their equipment had increased to a point that would have made my 13-year-old self weep with joy. From Chinese factories or domestic 3-D printers, detailed soldiers and weaponry are now widely and cheaply available via the internet.

“Just once to have such power in my hands,” says a German general in the 1977 movie “A Bridge Too Far,” as he watches hundreds of American and British planes flying overhead. Now as I saw the thousands of options for tanks, half-tracks, artillery, soldiers, every piece of kit and gear, I realized I could have what the general could not, thanks to eBay.

I ordered, assembled and painted a Panzer grenadier company, dozens of Panzer Is, IIs and IIIs, Pzk 38(t)s, Sd.Kfz 251 half-tracks and … you get the idea. I initially set up my dioramas in the garage, laying out a piece of green felt approximately 3 feet by 3 feet — a stopgap until the proper 7-by-5-foot battle mat I had ordered from Killing Fields, a Maryland company, could be manufactured and shipped. I used my daughters’ paints and brushes as I squinted, detailing my little army. The whole experience was familiar and comforting: getting the shadow in the folds of the uniform fabric, the mud on the tank treads, the gunmetal gray of the ammunition belts. I had stopped time. Even better, I had gone back in time.

Soon, however, my younger daughter began bringing her friends to gawk at her father’s hobby. While a few offered a polite, mumbled, indifferent “that’s cool,” I could see what they actually thought. The toughest soldier will wither before the dismissive scoff of a teenage girl. My army retreated to my office, a rented room above a local bar, where I have set up a large, intricate diorama, which if anyone asks, is a tactical war-game simulation of the Battle of Stonne, a May 1940 encounter in which the French, briefly, got the better of the Germans.

At some point, another TV job will come along, and I will have to box up this army as well. Their sprawl fills my office and would make an unsightly, and embarrassing, Zoom background. But I’ll be putting everything safely in storage. You never know when I’ll be forced to deploy my army men again.

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