9 A.M., July 4th, and in Downtown Ventura, vendors are already hustling, busy on the quaint city streets, everyone alive and celebrating the single greatest day in American history.

The smell of hot dogs are already grilling the air, mingling with the fresh brewed coffee, soon interrupted by the exhaust of an army truck, pulling up to the west side of Bank of America, just off the corners of California and Main streets.

Children begin piling out from behind the truck’s camouflage canvass. But these are far from your everyday children. These are children in uniform, with big black boots and holding what look to me to be M16 weapons.

Both amazed and frightened by such young people with guns, I go over to the boy with freckles. \”How old are you?\” I ask, taken aback by a youngster.

\”I’m 12,\” he responds, his voice, an unchanged soprano and at odds with holding a gun. He goes back to cleaning the barrel with a cloth.

\”Is that a real weapon? And who gave that to you?\” I ask. \”Yeah. It’s cool. The weapons are real. But we don’t get real ammo.\” I ask him who’s in charge of the group, and he points to a man, possibly in his 60s. \”You’ll have to talk with him. We’re not supposed to be talking to people.\” Before he has remembered to quiet himself, he tells me he learned about the group at his junior high school.

\”We don’t go to junior high schools,\” his commander denies. \”We’re strictly training these kids through The Boy Scouts of America.\” He goes on to tell me, \”Our objective is not to encourage military service. This is all about training young boys in ethics, what’s right and wrong. We don’t train them to kill, just how to use a weapon and protect themselves.\”

I ask the elderly soldier: \”So you don’t train these children for the military? You don’t train them for a Delayed Entry Program? A Delayed Training Program?\”

\”Absolutely not,\” he tells me, handing me a pamphlet of the group entitled, VME or Ventura Military Explorers. \”We work with the Boy Scouts. We’re not in junior high or high schools.\”

I sigh, a little relieved until I start reading the pamphlet. And though it doesn’t say anything about \”Delayed Training,\” I notice CPT, a \”training and education\” officer to contact, and information on scholarships for ROTC. I notice, too, the sponsor of the group, who is directly linked to the military, a Robert Gump, captain in the California National Guard.

Even so, I give the commander the rule of reasonable doubt until I visit the Web site called, \”Ventura Military Explorers, Post 2861.\” On the home page of the Web site, and in the first paragraph, it was clear what the organization was about, and its ultimate goal:

\”The Ventura Military Explorers (VME) is a program for youth between the ages of 12 and 18 years, who believe they are interested in a career or education in the United States Military Service. General goals are to help prepare cadets for all careers in the military. A more specific objective is to help young people prepare for entry into a military service academy, ROTC program or OCS.”

Boys, like green plums, plucked from junior high schools. And how can they already \”believe\” in these preordained convictions?

I thought about my own past experiences with the Boy Scouts of America, when I championed signing with flags at the yearly jamboree, way back in the day when guns never entered my scoutmaster’s mind.

And I had read about such goings-on, or this kind of military exploitation in a magazine called, \”In These Times.\” But their examples were taken from areas like Kansas and Alabama, in what I presumed to be backward little towns in rural states where jobs and education are lacking. I never suspected that such programs existed right here in California and in my home town of Ventura.

Beyond the commander, the boys were huddling, sharing their weapons, and offering suggestions about them, one boy leading the others. Trained in Camarillo, they all looked well equipped, toy miniatures of the real thing. As I am leaving, like a little lord of the flies, one boy cocks his gun, and seems to lead the barrel in my direction. He does so with the promise of youth in his boyish hair and eyes, and with a smile of innocence on his face.