The Saturday morning dawned clear and cold. November, 1974, I think, but it's been a long time now and I can't be sure. The war had been scheduled for some time now, plotted on the playground of Jefferson Elementary School. The young men of the neighborhood were ready to battle through the ravines and open fields that were on the southern fringes of Pierce Park. The generals were ready, foot soldiers at the ready. It was time to settle this thing. Who had the better army? Was it the forces of light and goodness, or was it the infidels from the other side of the park, led by the ruthless and mysterious Frank Wettengel?
I was a bit young for a soldier, of course - my 11th birthday was coming up, but by now I was a wizened veteran of battles against the heathen Ebben boys, the scourges of Douglas Street. I had been pelted with apples from the tree in their back yard for the crime of simply walking in front of their house. Even though one of my beloved aunts was an Ebben, it hadn't protected us from the wrath of these apple chucking weasels. But we'd survived the attack and now it was time to face the beast that lurked beyond the park, the forces of evil on the other side of Prospect Avenue.
Our leader was General Wayne Oenes. For a period of a few years, Wayne was one of my best friends, even though my father didn't approve of him and for good reason. Wayne was smart, daring and a punk. He was generally in the middle of all the trouble in the neighborhood, but he had taken me under his wing when I moved across town the previous year. And I was his lieutenant. In the Oenes Army, we were pretty generous with handing out ranks. I was promoted on nearly a daily basis and as the battle against the dread Wettengel approached, I was a five-star general in the army. My younger brothers were enlisted men. In fact, the four of us were pretty much the entirety of the Oenes Army, although there were a few other kids who would periodically join our crusade, as long as it didn't conflict with the Sid and Marty Krofft Supershow or whatever else was on television in those days. Wayne and the hated Frank Wettengel had been jawing on the playground for weeks now. Both had promised that they would kick each other's butts. And on this cold, clear November morning, it was time.
We assembled in Alicia Park, near the field where we played wiffle ball. We would go down the hill toward the river, to Lutz Park, then slowly climb up through the ravines and over Pea Creek until we approached the southern ramparts of Pierce Park. From there, we would find Wettengel and give him what for. It was a brilliant plan and we all gave ourselves promotions. We had more brass than the UCLA marching band as we climbed the hill.
But where was our quarry, the fearsome Wettengel Army? This was the appointed hour but the enemy was nowhere to be found. Could he be hiding in the woods? Might he have fashioned a pillbox in the hillside? We were ready for battle, but the battle was nowhere to be found. Since it was November, the swingsets were bereft of swings and the slides were cold. We couldn't amuse ourselves in the normal way. It was time for the war. But where was the war?
General Oenes and I, his trusted lieutenant/six star general, had to confer. How would we fight this Wettengel menace? What would we do? "I know, General Mark," Field Marshal and Supreme Allied Commander Wayne said. "Let us go to his headquarters."
"You mean, attack his home base," I asked, incredulously.
"That's right. Are you ready to fight?"
"Of course I am. What do you say, soldiers?"
My brothers, 9 and 8, looked at us with a combination of dread and excitement. "Yes, generals, we are ready," Sergeant Patrick said.
So we crossed Prospect Avenue, avoiding the steady parade of Buicks that filled the avenue on Saturday mornings. We would walk up Summit Street and face the monster in his lair.
We approached the entrance of Wettengel's house with dread. What would happen? A woman answered.
"Where's Frank?" we demanded.
"He's eating his lunch right now. Did you want to play with him later?" the woman replied.
Play? This wasn't play! This was war. And the leader of the Wettengel Army was more interested in tucking into a bowl of mac and cheese than in fighting the battle that had been planned for months?
"Nah," Field Marshal Wayne replied. "Maybe some other time."
"I'll tell him you stopped by," the woman replied.
Sometimes in life, you have to pick your battles. But all these years later, I think I'd rather have lunch, too.