Note: Sometimes my posts are directly connected to what I’m working on or games I’m playing. This one is different and intensely personal. It’s part of my story. Maybe it’s for you and maybe it’s not. It’s something I’ve been working on for about a month. Just thought you should know, and thanks for reading.
I know I’ve told my tale of how my high school buddies turned me on to miniature gaming. Honestly, there are many I could name who have helped with my slavish love of this hobby. Dave Demick, Dave Schueler, David Sullivan (all the Daves) and so many more have had a role in this.
I always had interest in military history. I was a not-very-good model builder, but I built them anyway. I used to play these sort of proto-games with my neighbor Ray Powers, who was a couple years older than I and a really good model-builder, and we’d fly our planes and bomb stuff in each others yard, quite randomly.
By the time I was twelve or thirteen two things had captured my attention. I purchased the Strombecker miniature set of George Washington bombarding Yorktown. There were four 54mmish figures and a cannon for three bucks. Three dollars was a lot of money for me, but I carefully painted the figures using basic Testors and Pactra enamels I could buy at my local dime store. I don’t think I primed them. I loved it.
My friend Greg bought a different Strombecker set from WWI–the bombardment of Verdun or something like that. But when I went to the hobby shop in the Northgate Bon Marche–a going concern in 1968-I discovered something even better. The Bon had the complete range of Monogram Merite 54mm figures. I drooled. Also three bucks. For. One. Figure. I bought the French Horse Artillery of the Guard Figure. Of course I did. Why? Because my grandfather was in the artillery of course. I didn’t know French Napoleonics. Didn’t know the Guard. It could have been the Lunar Guard Horse Artillery for all I knew. The Pactras and Testors came out and I carefully made a mess of the un-primed mini. Of course Greg thought I was crazy. Three bucks for one figure when I could get four and an artifact for the same price?
Note: To give an idea of just how immersed in nostalgia I am, I have since re-acquired the Monogram Horse Artillery of the Guard figure as well as the Monogram Berdan’s Sharpshooter figure. They remain very nice miniatures, though they cost me somewhat more (but not ridiculously more) than three bucks each. I have yet to paint either one, said every miniature wargamer ever.
By 1968 painting figures was in my blood, even if I wasn’t very good at it and used the crudest of tools.
The gateway drug into historical miniature gaming was sort of historical board games. I’d love to tell you I was an early adopter of Tactics II and Blitzkrieg, but that would be a lie. When those games came out I was like eight years old. No, my path forward was definitely Milton Bradley’s American Heritage games. I loved Broadside and Dogfight, but I also played Battle Cry and Hit the Beach. The mechanics were simple. It was move/counter-move and easy to learn. Mostly I got clobbered and learned how to be a good loser, but it was fun and I had a blast.
By the time I was eleven or twelve (1966-68ish) interesting games began popping up at my local Frederick and Nelson department store at Aurora Village. Frederick’s wasn’t as interesting as The Bon, but they had sort of a book department and they had interesting adult-style games. They had the 3M bookshelf games, but these famous World War II battles began showing up: Midway, Battle of the Bulge, Stalingrad and others by Avalon Hill appeared. I was really interested, but the $12.00 price tag was well beyond my reach. I began reading a little bit about them too, and they sure seemed cool. Unfortunately other things like records and plastic models competed for my tiny allowance dollars at a time when a monaural record was less than three bucks and a quality Revell model was fifty cents. Pleas to my parents went unheard, and my entry into hex-based wargames was . . . delayed.
I moved on. My grandparents moved to Edmonds from San Francisco. They were in their seventies and my mother and her sister worried about them being so far away. They convinced them to move back to the Seattle area where family would be able to help them a bit. They managed an apartment complex just a couple of blocks from my cousins who lived close to the wonderful downtown area.
I was blessed with two amazing sets of grandparents. They were always happy to see me, always kind. My two grandfathers were similar but different. My mother’s father, Jerry Casey was older than my father’s father, Jim Smyth. Both were terrific story tellers. Jim, born in Tacoma in 1907 never hesitated to tell about the family, was embarrassingly proud of the family. Jerry, born in 1894 in Ireland, orphaned at age three, was vague, elusive, almost silent about his youth and his family. They were both incredibly good to me, and there isn’t a day I don’t think about them. And I don’t mean to undersell the importance of my two grandmothers Ann Casey and Margaret (Mike) Smyth, who were sweet and supportive, and somehow didn’t wring the necks of their spouses who could be insufferable–much like me.
I would occasionally spend the night with my Edmonds Bentler cousins, and once in a while with my grandparents. Though Jerry was closed-mouthed about his childhood, he spoke often and freely of his experience in the British army. He joined at age 16 as a boy soldier. Originally he served in the infantry, 2nd Battalion Royal Munster Fusiliers. But as the Great War approached he changed branches of service and served with the 47th Battery, 44th Brigade of the Royal Artillery. My grandfather was a proud Old-Contemptible and went to France with Sir John French in 1914, and served in France and became an instructor at the artillery school at Woolwich throughout the war. He was discharged in 1920.
At Grandpa’s house we’d often talk about his war experiences and other things. We might listen to a Sir Harry Lauder record or Irish/American pub classics by Ruby Murray Grandma would fix an awesome dinner and sometimes Grandpa would pull out a bottle of Guinness Stout and pour me a half a juice glass. At age 12, it tasted nasty, a position I’ve only recently managed to recant. He watched the evening news about the war in Vietnam. He wasn’t afraid to call politicians “Bums.” He read westerns by Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey.
My grandfather never drove as long as I knew him. He was a terrific walker until the day he died at age 89. Whether it was in San Francisco, Edmonds or the foot of Queen Anne Hill, where ever he lived, if I was going to visit with my Grandpa Casey I was going to walk.
And that was fine. We had great talks. My favorite memory was walking in Seattle in 1969. He was remembering his experience as an infantryman and said, “Kevin, if you couldn’t shoot, you weren’t worth shit.” I was shocked. I was barely beginning to experiment with interesting language and here was my grandfather just blurting it out. God, I loved him.
Often we would walk in Edmonds which had some wonderful shops including a hobby shop and toy store. Sometimes I would come home with treasures my Grandfather bought me. My mother would fuss at me and tell me I shouldn’t let my grandpa buy me ANYTHING.
One sunny spring day we’d gone for a walk and the local hobby store had its doors open. However, just inside in a rack, instead of the latest Tamiya models of Japanese dive bombers, there was a rack of Avalon Hill games. The sign on the rack said 50% off. Midway, Guadalcanal, Bismark, D-Day and others were there for six bucks. My grandfather looked at me. Then he looked at me looking at the games with all the interest of a hungry dog staring in a butcher’s window, and he asked if I would like one. My jaw dropped. I remembered, but then rapidly forgot my mother’s admonition. It was like a tiny bit of code being wiped from my hard drive.
Of course I said yes, and I thanked him very much. The real problem wasn’t getting to yes, it was choosing from the pile. Midway was intriguing, but I think I made the right choice in Jutland. In the end, Jutland is the Avalon Hill game most like miniatures. I didn’t know a lot about the battle, but I had heard of it and loved the box art.
The story could end here, but it doesn’t. Grandfather buys 12 year old grandson Avalon Hill game, he goes on to greater gaming glory. No, I took the game back to my grandparents’ apartment and immediately began looking it over. The basic rules. Ugh.
All those fleet organizations and search rules. Yikes.
My grandfather saw me poring over all this and pretty much said screw it, let’s just put some ships on the floor and have at it. So we lay out equal numbers of cardboard counters representing German and British battleships and shot at each other using the basic rules. It was easy and fun, not so unlike the Milton Bradley games I’d been playing.
So let’s get this straight, my grandfather bought me this mysterious game, sees me struggling with the rules, excises the hard, and to the 12-year old, difficult parts, adopts some simple house rules and then gets his 75-year old knees on the floor and helps me give them a try. Today I’m ten years younger than he was, and I’m not sure how good I’d be at crawling around on the floor with my grandson (if I had one, sigh.)
Jutland was my first Avalon Hill game. Later that summer my father’s cousin would gift me a copy of Afrika Korps. For Christmas my parents gave me a copy of Bismark. I was on my way. We played the heck out of Jutland, with all its search intricacies and we played the advanced rules. . Greg got a copy of Gettysburg, which I always seemed to lose. But it was that spring gift from my grandfather that really set me on the road to becoming a miniature wargamer.
By the following year, my grandparents were on their way back to the Bay Area. We would be close behind them. Jerry was an active and proud member and several times Commander of his American and Canadian Legion posts. He was one of the few remaining members of the The Old Contemptible Association which commemorated those surviving veterans of the 1914 campaign. My grandmother passed away in 1974. Jerry continued on until 1982 when he died at the age of 89. they are much appreciated and much missed.