As a part of the writer’s group I work with, aptly titled “Writer’s Bloc” — the “k” omitted on purpose — I set out to put something down out of a long distant memory. The subject of the assignment was “a piece of mail.” The memory I eventually picked was not entirely accurate or truthful perhaps, but in spirit one of my favorites. The time I chose was WWII. The experiences are still vivid to me and it was a period of history I was curiously fond of, in spite of the “seriousness” of it all.
My young friends and I eagerly played at War, and relished seeing movies reflecting the time. We all had friends, family, and loved ones off fighting for real in that conflagration. It was never considered a subject to be ignored, as if it were some great taboo, except maybe in our mother’s thoughts. My heroes of the time were John Wayne, and William Bendix, etc… even though he was usually dead by the final act. We took turns fighting in various theaters, from Italy to France, Africa to the Philippines from Guadalcanal to Iwo Jima. We fought with great vigor and heroism and seldom remained “dead” for long.
There was, of course, great argument over how long one could remain dead, only to come back unexpectedly and shoot somebody in the back. I remember those days fondly. It was a time of great adventure and we were all anxious to live it to the hilt. However, my older brother was not so fond of them the memories. I mean, he had been left with our father’s strict orders to take charge of the family since he was the oldest. To this day he will not talk about it in any way. He had been given far more responsibility than any ten year old would have wished for. But for almost three years he did his job, and it aged him cruelly.
The memory I chose specifically took place one afternoon in the Fall of nineteen forty-three. It appears here in the form of a ten minute drama. As I have pointed out above, it may be slightly exaggerated. But I meant well, and seventy years will warp even the best of memories.
It’s October something, 1943 in Peru, Nebraska. Little Stevy (my father’s name was Stephen, so mine would remain Stevy for another ten years or so.) is sitting at the curb in front of his house. He is contemplating nothing in particular. The mailman comes by with the day’s mail.
Mailman: Can I give you this mail Stevy?
Stevy: Sure. Is any of it for me?
Mailman: (he pretends to look) Nope. But this one is really important so don’t forget to give it to your mom or dad right away. Okay?
Stevy: You bet! (going into the house) Mom!
Mom: What have you got Stevy?
Stevy: The mail. It’s real important the mailman says. (he hands it to her.)
Mom: (Looking quickly at the stack of letters and turning rather pale.) Oh my. Oh my.
Stevy: What’s the matter mom? Is it bad news?
Mom: (Saying nothing right away, but sitting down with a blank look on her face…then)… Oh my!
Stevy: You said that three times mom. What is it? You look sad. Are you sad?
Mom: Oh Stevy, it’s a letter for dad. Something he’s been waiting for. Something I didn’t want to come at all.
Stevy: Something you didn’t want? What do you mean mom? If it’s for daddy I mean? Why don’t you want it?
Mom: (she goes to the phone and makes a call.) Hello, is professor Gaines there? (a pause and then) Steve…it’s here. (pause) Yes. Can you come home? (pause) I mean right now…please. (pause) Thank you.
(Stevy is back on the curb when Dad shows up walking very slowly.)
Dad: Hi bub.
Stevy: Hi dad. You got some sad mail in the house.
Dad: What do you mean Stevy? Why do you think its sad?
Stevy: Because mom’s crying in the chair. It must be sad.
Dad: (on his way into the house.) Don’t worry about it Stevy. It’ll be okay.
Stevy: You suppose someone is dead? That would be really sad wouldn’t it?
Dad: Yeah. That would really be sad.
Stevy: I mean like grandma or somebody?
Dad: Don’t worry Stevy. Nobody is dead. I know what it is so don’t worry…okay? Grandma is just fine.
Stevy: I hope so.
(the scene moves inside where mom is still slumped in the chair.)
Dad: It’s alright Coleata. (attempts rather poorly to comfort her with a reluctant embrace at which he is uncomfortable and not at all effective.) It’s alright. We knew it was coming. It’s come. (as he opens the letter in question and reads quickly.) Yeah, this is it. I’ve got three days to report.
Mom: Three days? (looking hopelessly into her lap.) Three days?
Dad: The sooner we all go the sooner we’ll all be back. Don’t you see?
Mom: Why Steve? Why do you have to go at all?
Dad: You know the answer to that Coleata. It’s not something I can ignore.
Mom: You’re thirty years old. You have four children and a wife and the job you’ve always wanted. They would never have made you do this. So why…why?
Dad: Because the world is crazy right now. I can’t explain it but I know I’ve got to do my part. If I don’t I’d never be able to live with myself.
Mom: And if you don’t come back? How do we live… without you?
Dad: I will be coming back. Don’t even think I won’t.
Mom: Easy for you to say. How many people do we know who have said just as much and aren’t coming home… ever?
Dad: Trust me. I’m coming back! And I don’t want to talk about it any more. Like I said, the world is going crazy right now and I just can’t sit it out and call myself a man.
Mom: I see. A man! What kind of man leaves his family when he doesn’t have to. I always thought it was man’s duty to protect his family first and save the world later. You just don’t make sense.
Dad: Can we just leave it for now? I’ve got to get back to my classroom. The world isn’t going to stop just so I can solve this problem and satisfy you this afternoon. Let’s just think about it and talk so more tonight.
Mom: You think I’ll change my mind later? You think I’m going to think about it and come around tonight in the face of your iron clad logic don’t you?
Dad: Enough. I’ve got to go now… I really do!
Mom: So go. (and he does.)
(Stevy is still sitting at the curb playing with nothing in particular. (He looks up at Dad.)
Stevy: Was it really important Dad? Did someone die? I hope not.
Dad: No Stevy. Nobody died, and nothing really sad is going on.
Stevy: You don’t look like it Dad. You look like something is really sad. What is it?
Dad: I haven’t got a lot of time Stevy. We’ll all sit down tonight and talk about itl
Stevy: Why can’t you tell me now? If it’s not important or sad why can’t you tell me. Did you tell Gary? Did you tell Gary because he’s older?
Dad: No! You’re mom is the only ones who know. You’ll all know tonight.
Stevy: Tell me now…at least a little. Otherwise It’s going to make me sad.
Dad: Stevy, I’ve got to get back to school. I just don’t have the time. Tonight. We’ll all sit down and talk about it tonight.
Stevy: (Getting a tad petulant) I want to know now Dad. Can I go ask Mom?
Dad: No! Mom’s not feeling very well right now. Please don’t bother her. You’ve go to do as I say. We’ll talk tonight.
Stevy: I’ll bet you would tell Gary if he was here right now. I bet you wouldn’t say no to him. Why am I always just a little kid? I’m almost eight dad…I’m old enough to know stuff now. But all you ever say is “just wait…you’ll know when you’re older. How much older do I have to be?
Dad: (relenting just a little and trying to placate Stevy.) Okay, but you’ve got to promise me that you won’t bother mom about it. Okay?
Stevy: You bet dad…not a word to anyone. What is it?
Dad: Stevy, do you understand what war means…what it’s all about?
Stevy: Sure dad. It’s in all the movies. All those guys shooting at each other, bombs, and airplanes and stuff. My favorite guy is John Wayne. He’s really a tough guy.
Dad: That’s right Stevy. But it’s a lot more than that. And those guys in the movies aren’t really having a real war. All that is just make believe. They don’t get shot at for real. The bombs aren’t really going off. It’s all pretend.
Stevy: Oh, I know that. I’m not just a little kid remember? But it’s like real stuff isn’t?
Dad: I suppose. Anyway, do you understand where the real war guys come from?
Stevy: What do you mean come from?
Dad: I mean where all the soldiers that really fight the war come from?
Stevy: I guess from everywhere? I think Bobby’s dad went away. He told me it was to fight in the war. He’s going to show me his gun when he comes home. Dad, do you think John Wayne might come here?
Dad: What? (confused pause) No Stevy. Forget about John Wayne. Just be still and let me explain just a little about the way things really are. A little while back I wrote a letter to some people saying I would like to be able to help fight the war.
Stevy: Are you going to fight? Will you bring home your gun? Could I shoot it?
Dad: Stevy, just let me explain…okay?
Dad: Anyway, for the last couple of weeks I’ve been waiting to hear from them. And that letter I got this morning was answering my letter. The war people have asked me to come and help. What I want you to know is that I’ll be gone for a pretty long time. It means I’ll be far away from you and mom and Gary and Fred and Gretchen.
Stevy: How long dad? More than when you went to Omaha last month?
Dad: Maybe a very long time longer. Maybe for a year or more. What’s really important is that you and your brother’s will need to really be big guys. You’ll really need to help mom take care of the house and your little sister and the dog and cat…all kinds of stuff. Okay? And when I say you have to be big guys I mean really big guys.
Do you understand?
Stevy: I guess…you won’t get killed will you?
Dad: No! I will not get killed.
Stevy: Larry Smith’s dad got killed. He was in the Army wasn’t he? How do you know you won’t get killed?
Dad: I won’t! Just believe me. And whatever you do don’t talk to mom about people getting killed…not ever!! Alright?
Dad: Okay, that’s about it. We’ll talk a lot more about it tonight, but not about the killing thing remember.
Stevy: I won’t say a word dad…promise.
Dad: Okay. I’ve got to get back to school. But before I go I need to say just one thing more. Like I said, you big guys have really got to pitch in and help. And most importantly you’ve got to help your big brother.
Stevy: Why him the most?
Dad: Because he’s going to have to take my place as the dad. He’s got to do all the stuff I would do if I were here, and he’ll need a lot of help to do that..
Stevy: You mean he’s going to get to drive the car and all that stuff?
Dad: Not that, but most everything else. He’s got to be the “boss”. If he tells you or Fred to hop, I want you to hop. And I don’t want any back talk. While I’m gone when he says something it’s exactly the same as if I said it. Now, do you understand that? And will you promise me to do everything I’ve asked you to do?
Stevy: (a contemplative pause.) Okay. Can I be the dad sometime…I mean if you go away again?
Dad: I hope I never go away again…but we’ll see. Now I’ve got to go. Before you do anything else will you go inside and see if mom needs for you to do something. And remember, nothing about all this talk and war and stuff. Just see if she needs the dishes washed or something.
Stevy: You bet dad. (turning back to Dad.)I can’t wait to see your gun.
A simple postscript…
After my father went away to the war our family situation became somewhat more “dire.” When he left we were comfortably ensconced in a perfectly middle class house with all the amenities of that sort of small college town might provide. Each of us kids had an adequate bedroom and there was a nice space for outdoor playing. The kitchen was adequate if not over the tip. We ate well and wore mostly this seasons clothes.
However, soon after his meager military pay scale kicked in and his college salary went away things got a little grim. Before long we were forced to move down the poverty slope and into a small, much less palatial home. There was no central heating and no indoor plumbing. We had an outdoor toilet facility which I recall was less than commodious. There was a single coal fueled pot-bellied stove in the tiny living room and only a small gas burning stove in the kitchen.
A kitchen which had only an ice box for keeping what small amount of refrigerated food we infrequently had. My younger brother and I shared what could only be considered a walk-in closet sporting a pair of bunk beds. I had the top bunk due to my brother’s fear of heights. Our older brother slept in a cot set up in one end of the already miniscule living room. Mom slept with baby Gretchen in the only real bed room. Things indeed might have been qualified low rent. How sad, how unfortunate, how wonderful. I could not possibly have asked for anything better.
I was Tom Sawyer! I was a pioneer living on the raw edge on his way west. These were days of adventure no less than what I imagined my heroes might be involved in. I was John Wayne as I have mentioned before. I was Davy Crockett, and Billy the Kid. I was the good guy and the bad guy. At no time was I ever the poor little kid sleeping in a closet with his brother.
We existed moment to moment on the newsreels reporting on the war and we kept careful track of the “wins and loses.” But in truth we never had a doubt about the eventual outcome. We heard only rarely from our far away father who it turned out was with George Patton’s Third Army. Of course we did not know that at the time. The most exciting event was training out mutt White Collar to attack vicious German spies that might happen by. It was a great adventure and we lived it in the blind ignorance of what it really was. I still think of it with a smile and the absurd comparison with the “perpetual” wars we live with today. It was, of course, a “good war.”
I thank you for sharing your writing process with us, Steve. The plan and the creation are incredible — the “play” within the story is a delight! WWII is such a rich topic that still has deep reverberations within us today — in our friends and in our history as a people — whether we realize it or not!
Steve – thank you again for sharing both your rich writing process and your thoughtful and beautifully written memories . As David says – your writting is a delight !
What a powerful and potent story, Steve. Thank you for sharing it! I love the dialogue particularly.
I can not imagine what it would be like to receive that kind of letter, but I do know what it was like to hear my son say he was enlisting before the 1st Gulf War started. But, I wasn’t a child and you made it pretty clear what it was like for you. Great post.
This is very well written. It helps bring out emotion in the reader and I really enjoyed you ability to describe everything the way you did. I felt like I was standing right there while everyone was having this conversation.
Beautiful writing, Steve. It is great to read a lengthly article these days. I miss that long form because I find it richer than a brief article.