As I drove past the old water purification plant heading out of town this Memorial Day eve, I caught sight of a small boy flying a kite and playing with his dog. The scene took me back to the games my gang used to play on that same site long ago.

"Let's play Pork Chop Hill," someone would yell -- the call to arms that sent everybody scurrying into their houses to collect cap pistols, guns made of sticks and rubber bands, guns made of clothespins and bicycle spokes and bazookas made of drainage pipe.

There was no game quite like war, which had a peculiar tendency to escalate, even when it was child's play. For instance, when the game bogged down in disputes over who had shot first with a cap gun, we tried to solve the problem by deploying BB guns so there'd be no doubt. When water balloons proved ineffective as grenades, we fired off rocks and bottles with impressive results.

Why this game was so much fun is hard to recall, although I still remember the joyous suspense of waiting to ambush and "kill" the enemy.

And every so often, there would be a window-rattling, ear-busting sonic boom from Barksdale Air Force Base, a few miles away. All eyes would turn skyward for a glimpse of that white smoky trail gushing from behind a pinpoint moving faster than the speed of sound. This sight gave us all such a rush of adrenaline that we would resume our battle play with renewed ferocity, going at each other like cats and dogs.

Maybe it was because there was nothing else to do in this Godforsaken city during the 1950s and early '60s -- or perhaps simply that the country was still on a high over the aftermath of World War II.

As some of the players got older, they eagerly enlisted in the armed forces to make a career out of this war business. They strutted around proudly in their fatigues before being shipped off to basic training in small towns far away, with some going on to that mystical place called Overseas.

It wasn't until later when they began returning home -- well before their business abroad began making the six o'clock news -- that some of us who were left behind began getting a queasy feeling about this thing called war.

One fellow who had watched us play came back from his stint in the Army and wouldn't tell anybody where he'd been. Then he stopped coming outdoors. The word around the neighborhood was that he just sat in his room staring and talking to no one.

Somebody said he had been to Vietnam and what he had seen made him go crazy.

Little by little, the stories started trickling down to us, and what we heard about war bore no resemblance to the way we played it. Back then, it was not uncommon for a kid to play cowboys and Indians or "war" until he was 12 or 13 years old. And five years later, some of us were playing for real -- playing it for our very lives.

Some came back from the war as if they had aged two lifetimes. Some could only mutter, "Man, you just wouldn't believe it."

But television made believers of us all. And that was just the beginning. I remember how one guy from here who had returned from Vietnam pulled a gun and killed his wife and a neighbor because he thought they were Viet Cong sneaking up on him. At his trial defense, lawyers contended that he was suffering from what they called "delayed stress syndrome" and said he was just one of thousands that had been affected by it.

This war of my youth was a phenomenon of mind-reeling proportions, and its effect on my neighborhood was devastating. One of the jobs available to young men who didn't go to war back then was as a messenger for Western Union, going door-to-door telling mothers that their sons had been killed in action.

Those childish war games and the war that rushed our coming of age are what fill my recollections this Memorial Day.

Still, there's some consolation in knowing that kids play with dogs and fly kites where once we played like war was fun.