As the grandchildren sat wide-eyed round his feet, a Civil War veteran with a talent for embellishment used to roar: ''Let the battle begin!'' It was, he insisted with a wink, what a relieved General Meade had bellowed upon spying him - a lowly private - riding to the Gettysburg front as a one-man reinforcement.
The children, of course, took it for gospel, the turn of the century being a simpler time when war was glorified.
But times are more complex today, and even children are skeptical. War is no longer widely lauded, and should not be. Better to applaud the start of a peaceable contest such as the Olympics, which opens this weekend. Olympic taproots run deep - to ancient Greece, where the quadrennial festival was so important that even wars temporarily ceased so the games could be held.
As an article on these pages yesterday pointed out, the Olympics - like the tales of the Greeks - have attracted their own myths. To deal with two: Amateurism in ancient Greece was far from pure, and Olympian pageantry dates only from Hitler's Germany.
Today's Olympics are far from perfect. There's persistent quibbling over sites. They're used for political purposes, boycotted this year by the Soviet bloc. Athletes from many countries are amateurs by no stretch of the imagination , supported by their government or earning staggering fees while performing as nonprofessionals.
Others, in the less glamorous sports, are in effect the poor relatives of their professional colleagues, sacrificing careers and family time to train and compete.
Some athletes now appear trained from the cradle, their careers sadly past their zenith before the athletes are out of their teens.
But we are more taken with the growing numbers of ''older'' athletes, who are demonstrating that performance has less to do with time than with patience, intelligence, and love of the sport.
Every Olympics generates its own heroic performances, recalled for later generations. This is the Olympic tradition - images of transcendent effort, discipline, desire, which rouse us from the humdrum pace of everyday life and lift our aspirations.
Unlike war, sport is a peaceable competition.
The 1984 Olympic competition, which begins Sunday in Los Angeles, will be watched in the world's living rooms.
Let the Olympics begin!