May 18, 1942
Well, boot camp sure didn’t last long. I’m already halfway across the world, and I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe. Somebody warned me to look out for flying foxes. I thought he was pulling my leg or that it was an army term I hadn’t learned yet, but when we were in the Black Forest an animal swooped down out of the tree. Looked mostly like a bat, but it was the size of a fox. Sent us all scattering in ten different directions, screaming like a bunch of girls.
He’d been called a girl a lot lately, mostly by the sergeant whose favorite activity was yelling in their ears like they were deaf old men. Dave hadn’t expected to like anything about the army, but he hated it even more than he thought he would. He came because it was the right thing to do, but the sooner he could end this and get home, the better. The flying fox was the least of the terrors he’d seen, but it was the only one that was going to make it into his letter.
The cooking is awful here. But I’ve learned to make a mean pot of coffee. Dad, it would wire even you for a week.
It wasn’t doing much for him, though. Dave knuckled an eye, glancing at Jason sleeping with his mouth hanging open. Edward was already twitching. He’d probably wake soon, screaming until they calmed him down. Dave should sleep, too, but the guy on watch looked like he might doze off any minute, so he’d probably volunteer to swap places. He wasn’t sure he could stay awake either — but his dreams were turning out scarier than the actual fights.
He chewed his tongue and eyed the letter. There were so many things he should have asked his dad before he left. He couldn’t pen any of his thoughts in the letter. Any number of eyes might see it before it reached home and even if it arrived with no peeps, his little brother would be reading it.
The guys and I are pretty tight already. We look out for each other. I can’t tell you where we’re going next, but
But what? Some extra prayers from his mother wouldn’t hurt? The idea of where they were going made him want to wet his pants?
Trey would be horrified if he’d seen how many times Dave had gone from paralyzed with terror to shooting like a maniac. He’d nearly shot the flying fox.
Then again, if Trey were here, the kid would be hiding somewhere. The idea of his little brother here was horrible, but Dave snagged it like it was a canteen of fresh water. If he didn’t stay here and fight, this would be going over to his home and Trey really could be facing war like the children here. That was enough to get his finger on the gun and pull the trigger over and over, without thinking too much about who he was shooting. The Nazis were getting so desperate they were having kids fight their battles. The first time he’d seen a boy behind a gun, he’d frozen up. The kid had nearly shot him, too, missing only because Edward had blasted him first.
Dave still couldn’t think about it. Forced or no, every person he shot was a person that wouldn’t kill anybody else. Every guy he let live might shoot him and go on to shoot a hundred other people – even Trey if this war lasted that long. He didn’t have a choice.
I can’t tell you where we’re going, but don’t worry if you don’t hear from me. Not sure when I’ll get to write again. The sarge said I was such a good shot that he thought I must have been a hunter before I came. I let the guys think that I’m from some little farm in Texas and feed my family on squirrels and deer or something. Honestly, Dad, I swear when I get back, I will never complain about shucking corn or cleaning out a stall again. Unless it’s Saturday night. Then I might.
He’d played the memories of his last Saturday night with Lucy so many times that if it was a film reel, he’d have worn it out by now. He’d finally gotten his first car. He’d graduated. He’d even gotten an acceptance letter from a college. And Lucy had promised to marry him when he returned.
How is Lucy, really? She sounds alright in the letters, but it’s hard to tell. Heard from any of the other guys? I saw Luke three days ago, riding by on a tank. He waved, but we didn’t get to talk. Trey, you’d like the big tanks here. They’re huge and they can roll over brush like its grass.
They could roll over a lot of other things, too. Dave gagged and swallowed, setting down the pencil to rub his mouth. He’d jogged behind them, careful not to look too closely at the flattened mud he’d stepped in.
He glanced at Sam, who lay propped against a tree trunk. “What do you say when you write home?”
Sam pushed to his feet, stepping to the fire to pour himself another cup of coffee.
“Lot of sweet nothings, to my girl,” he said. “Hope she’ll get the point and sent a bunch of ’em back.”
Dave’s mouth perked. Lucy’s letter had come smelling like her perfume.
`“What about your folks?”
“Aw, you know. The normal stuff. Don’t worry about me. I’m fine. My handwriting’s so bad, they probably can’t read it anyway.”
Dave glanced over his short paragraphs, jumping from topic to topic and dancing around everything he really wanted to say. His handwriting wasn’t bad at all. Neither was his grammar, though his mother might get onto him for some of the short lines.
So far, his letters hadn’t caught up to him since boot camp. He had two from Lucy and one that his father had sent with him before he even stepped on the train.
“I’m proud of you, Son. I know that the decision wasn’t easy.”
Mr. Cunningham had said the words as he slid the letter into Dave’s hand. His eyes had misted as he clasped Dave’s shoulder.
“I love you.”
And what had Dave said back?
He closed his eyes, replaying the memory that he hadn’t let himself review until now. It was the tarnish on what would otherwise be something that would strengthen him.
His father had scared him. Mr. Cunningham had never been a man afraid of showing a softer side, but he wasn’t usually that upfront either. He’d spoken the words, quickly and quietly and almost brokenly like he was afraid he’d never have another chance.
And Dave, with the brashness of a guy more worried about covering fear than regretting unspoken sentiment had backed away from the man’s grasp. He’d grinned, like a youthful idiot.
“Aw, come on, Dad. I’m coming back.”
Then he’d swung onto the train, and he hadn’t had the guts to open whatever else the man had decided he’d better say while he had the chance. He should have — because the letter had gotten soaked with blood the blood of a friend he’d dragged to safety. When the guy had died anyway, Dave had burned the letter, and now he couldn’t bring himself to ask his father to rewrite it.
He’d ask what it had said when he got home.
Guns crackled in the distance and something boomed, shaking the ground. Jason woke with a yell as both Dave and Sam jumped.
“Too far to fight,” Dave said.
“But it’s getting closer,” Sam replied. “They’ll reach us by morning if not before.”
Dave’s stomach clenched, envisioning staying awake all night in anticipation and being too groggy to fight by the time the firing started. But how was he supposed to sleep?
He glanced at the stars and blew out a breath.
Sam settled back down, setting his gun across his knees. “Better get some sleep boys. Hell’s coming.”
“Hell’s already here,” Jason muttered.
Dave forced himself to sit back down.
He should have read that letter. He flipped open his own to sign while he could. He didn’t want it to arrive half-finished.
Sorry, it’s short. Mail’s going out soon and if I don’t get it in, it won’t go.
He folded the letter and clenched his fingers lightly, closing his eyes.
I’m proud of you, Son. I love you.
Aw, Dad, I’m coming back.
Dave gritted his teeth and reopened the letter. His last two sentences had changed from neat to a shaky line that probably gave away his lie, but he forced his hand to hold steady as he laboriously penned the last bit.
P. S. I love you, too.