Claude’s Tool & Die was a busy shop and Paul Brown, the owner, kept a close eye on the workflow. He had just finished the crew’s daily work-in-progress and backlog update when Mary ran in from the office and handed him an envelope trimmed in red and blue dashes and labeled “Airmail.”
“It’s from Joe,” she said, giggling.
“Hurry, Boss. What does he say?” Big John bellowed.
Paul Brown stopped what he was doing and stared at John.
Paul struggled to keep a straight face. He wanted to know what Joe had to say too. He continued to open the fragile paper and then unfolded several pages, cleared his throat and began to read the letter.
“ ‘Dear Paul, I’m sorry I’ve been slow to write. Today is the first chance I’ve had to write a letter in the two weeks I’ve been in this hell-hole. It’s Sunday, and they let us have the afternoon for personal time. What a joke. I just spent two “personal” hours rubbing lacquerer off of brass buckles and putting a spit polish on my combat boots. Then I went to the mess hall.
‘Don’t get me wrong. I like eating, but chow was fried chicken—again. We’ve had fried chicken ten times; I counted. The cook does it well, but I’m getting tired of it.
‘Sgt. Tonga is my DI, and he said that each recruit would serve KP two or three times during basic. I’ve been on KP twice. Senior Drill Sergeant Cocker makes up the weekly duty roster and assigns people alphabetically. I guess he doesn’t know the alphabet very well. I’m not surprised. He’s a first class jerk.
‘I feel sorry for the cooks. There are only two of them, and they feed about 180 men three times a day. The cooks (and KPs) start their day at 4:30 am and quit at 10:00 pm. The rumor mill says additional cooks are coming. I don’t put much trust in the rumor mill; it also says that Jane Fonda will be on base for the 4th of July. After her Hanoi-Jane escapade, that seems unlikely.
‘Sgt. Tonga is a crazy Polynesian from Guam. Did you know Guam is a territory of the US? I didn’t. Anyway, he’s never satisfied and calls us all kinds of names. Dog-turd and rat-breath are two of his favorites, and the only ones I can share because Mary will see this letter. (Hi Mary) He’s sadistic and likes us to suffer. The only time I know what he’s thinking is when he smiles, which means something bad is about to happen to one of us or all of us—you never know which.
‘Last Thursday, Tonga blew up when a guy turned the wrong direction during drill. He stopped the platoon and called the guy to the front and made him do twenty pushups. Then he smiled and made the poor guy duck-walk behind the platoon the two blocks back to the barracks. The next day the poor soul could barely walk.—’ ”
“What’s duck-walking?” Mary asked.
Big John answered. “It’s walking while in a crouch. Your butt is as close to the ground as possible, and you have to waddle like a duck to take a step. It’s tough on your lower body. I can’t image doing two blocks.”
“Thanks, John,” Paul said, “But, I’m almost done with the letter. Please, everyone, don’t interrupt.
‘—As bad as Tonga is, Sgt. Hanner is worse. Saturday, he had the 3rd platoon duck-walking around their barracks over and over again. I felt real bad for those guys, but to be honest, I’m glad Hanner’s not my DI. Maybe Tonga’s not so bad after all.
‘God, I miss California. It’s always hot and humid here. I never know if I should dry-off before or after a shower. There isn’t any difference that I can see. I made a friend, JL, from Long Beach. He’s my age and he’s a good guy, but he’s not family. I’m so lonely. I miss you guys most of all. Say hi to everybody for me. Love Joe. P.S. I got a letter from Julie. She dumped me.’ “
Mary started crying at “God I miss California” and reached a full sob by the time “She dumped me” was read. Big John handed her the cleanest shop rag he could find, and she gladly used it to clear her sinuses and calm herself.
“Poor kid,” Mary said. “Julie must be a real cunt to dump him like that.”
The men were taken aback by Julie’s language, but they had to agree with her.
“He’s not the first man dumped after being drafted,” Paul said. “In World War II it was so common that the letters had a unique name. They were called “Dear John” letters.”
“Thank the Lord I never got one,” Big John said. “Then again I didn’t have a girlfriend to dump me when I got drafted in ’59. But, I’ve got a gal now, and I’m not gonna give her a chance to write me no Dear John letter, ’cause I ain’t never leaving her long enough for her to find another John.”
Everyone smiled at John’s declaration. It broke the tension and the crew instinctively knew it was time to put Joe out of mind and return to their lives. Even Mary regained her perkiness and resumed her duties.
Paul Brown carefully folded the letter and carried back to his desk where he reverently put it an employee file labeled Joe K Appleton and thought about when he’d learned the meaning of homesickness in 1943, just as Joe was learning it now. Paul looked at a painting of Diamond Head that hung across from his desk. It was his personal memorial to the friends he’d lost in the war and prayed that Joe wouldn’t join their number.
To be continued…
(c) 2016 David P. Cantrell a contributor and staff member of Edgewise Words Inn
Want more? You’ll find links to previous episodes at the following site, Basic’s Lessons of Life Series