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War Games : Children Still Frolic and Play, but Conflict Is on Their Minds--and There Is a Lot More Praying

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For the kids on La Verne Avenue, things seem normal enough. Ten-year-old Kristal Olvera and her cousin, Kimberly Amaya, 7, still tear around the neighborhood on their well-decorated bikes. Back in the alley, Rudy and his buddies still stage their version of the Super Bowl. The jingling arrival of an ice cream truck is still a neighborhood event.

But the war has brought new dimensions to the daily routine of kids on La Verne Avenue. For one thing, they now pray, every day.

“I don’t want anybody to die over there,” Kimberly explained. Her cousin who lives across the street--Navy SEAL member Timothy Reyes--is one of four residents in a two-block stretch of La Verne Avenue who are stationed in the Persian Gulf.

Children up and down the street in East Los Angeles speak fervently of praying for their relatives in the gulf every morning, of praying for them before each meal, and then praying for them again at bedtime. They all agree that it is a lot more praying than they have ever done before.

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Kids are kids, and the seeming swarm of little children who inhabit La Verne Avenue still chase and are chased by the neighborhood dogs. They still wrestle with one another on front yards. They still make funny faces in front of the television cameras that have started to visit the street with increasingly regularity. Most of the youngsters are elementary school-age children. Military fatigues have not replaced Raiders caps and T-shirts as the neighborhood uniform.

Yet, it is clear that these children are never far away from the war. Rudy, 11, took time out from a football game in the growing darkness to describe how the war has come to dominate conversation at nearby Winter Gardens Elementary School.

“Some of the kids ask if the war is coming over here,” he said. “The teachers say, ‘No, it’s not.’ I pray that it won’t.”

One of his buddies, Marcos Villa, quickly interjected: “It’s already here, man. The helicopters come over every night looking for the vatos locos (crazy dudes).”

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Ask them what the war is about and the range of answers varies little from those given by the best-paid television analysts: Everything from Saddam Hussein--"and his evilness,” said one child--to oil, to this honest acknowledgment from 15-year-old Steven Sandoval: “I really don’t know why we are there. We’re just there.”

There is not much room for dissent on the block. At a block party Sunday, about 80 residents left the Super Bowl game on TV to stand outside and sing a round of “God Bless America.”

Antoinette Sanchez, 13, caught the fever, saying that she now wants to enlist in the Marines “for a little while, to help out my country.”

For Kristal and Kimberly, the two cousins who live in a large wood-framed house that has a U.S. flag hanging over the porch, their interest in the war is concentrated on one concern: They want their cousin Tim to come home safe.

“I pray for him,” Kristal said, “and I know that God will bring him back to us.”

The two youngsters, who attend Ford Boulevard Elementary School, are part of an extended family that has called La Verne Avenue home since World War II. It is not unusual for cousins to mingle in the flag-festooned home of Aunt Rachel Reyes, Tim’s mother. The house is an informal child-care center for various neighborhood relatives.

Without prompting, Kristal shows off a a wooden musical pipe from Turkey sent to her by Tim Reyes, who is stationed aboard the Saratoga.

There is also the treasured letter he wrote to her late last year.

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Kristal, a shy girl who wants to be a pediatrician, readily showed off the letter the other day. She seemed to sense that Tim’s cheerful letter would be good medicine for anyone who read it:

“It’s hard for me,” he wrote, “to put into words the way Kimmy, Jeramy (an infant brother) and yourself make me feel. All I (know is) that it’s a good feeling I could never live without. It’s a feeling that makes me wanna swim back home just to give you guys a big . . . kiss.”


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