Before we pulled up camp this morning, I watched the skies for a mail drop. A Christmas card from Ruthie is all I wanted, but no luck. I’ll have to reread the letter she sent several weeks ago. I sure miss her.
At Thanksgiving a bunch of girls went on a hay ride. We even started a bonfire. Only, it wasn’t much fun without our guys. Christmas is still a month away, but I’ve hung a stocking for you. I’d put myself inside it as a gift if that would get you home. Why haven’t I heard from you? Don’t even start thinking I’ll let you go. Every day, I wait for you to come home. When I wake, I listen for your footsteps. At the faintest hint of your voice, I rush down the stairs, ready to throw myself into your arms. I’m not willing to admit what I don’t want to believe. Where are you?
Your Faithful Girl Back Home, Ruthie
So when I wrote last, it was short. I had to let her know I was still alive.
Every day I think about going home, to good cooking, laughs with the guys, and most of all, you. The end feels closer. Pray for me. Have a Happy 1945, and wish us a lucky one.
I love you, Harry
I should feel like I own the world. It hasn’t rained for days, we had real chicken for dinner last night. I finally got rid of that damn athlete’s foot, and I cheated death another year, but I can’t dig my spirits out of the gutter. Today will pass the same as yesterday, slogging another fifteen miles deeper into enemy territory.
Nau steps out of our marching column and into an orchard along the edge of the dirt road.
He repositions his burp gun, then reaches up and pulls down a branch laden with oranges.
Overhead, the sound of whistling wings makes me cringe. I hold my breath, expecting a 150 mm howitzer shell to explode in my face any second. Instead, a hornbill, its large, yellow beak too big for its body, shrieks as it flies where it won’t be disturbed by tromping boots. I let my shoulders relax.
“Try.” Nau offers me a fruit, slipping back in line. “Taste like American ice cream,” he tempts me.
I’m not hungry and haven’t been for some time. Lately, I’d rather drink my meals. “Got any with whiskey flavor?” I ask, but I take the fruit. “Also, how do you know about American ice cream?”
“Missionaries come to village when I child. Tell parents I smart. Take me to capital city, Rangoon, where they teach English. They think I become priest. After six years, I go home to marry. Cannot be priest if married,” he laughs, looking proud that he ended up with an education that didn’t cost him celibacy.
I throw the orange rind into a ditch and tear off a couple of sections, then, surprised, say, “Hey, this I like! Almost as good as American made.” I check to make sure he knows I’m teasing. Sometimes the message comes out wrong in translation.
Nau grins, satisfied, and says, “My land have beautiful mountains, rivers, trees, filled with ancient temples. Your country new, rich, strong. My country better.”
“Well, granted, you probably don’t have to pay taxes, but if things were that great in your country, we wouldn’t be here,” I challenge him with raised eyebrows.
With hands clasped behind his back, he reflects on my words. Then he kicks the pebbles on the road and says, “You right. Burma have many problems. Feuds between tribes and Burmese government start before I was born. Probably end after I die. But we must trust power of Spirit and have faith”
“Nau, I don’t buy that missionary crap.” The syrupy orange citrus scent on my hands attracts an irritating string of bees.
“Harry, believing in Spirit is good. It teach us to ask for what need. Brain only tells us to fight for what we want. So we fight till all dead. That is not answer.”
“So what do you ask for?”
“I ask my people be left alone.” Nau throws his shoulders back defiantly. I’ve never seen this side of him before, but, in the past, we always talked about my war.
“Well, that ain’t going to happen. What’s your next plan?” I ask.
Nau nods in agreement. “No next plan. Not easy to feel sorry for enemy when they put knife in back. How can I see light in man who doesn’t honor light in me?” He looks at the dry ground, clasps his hands behind his back again, and continues to march forward in silence.
We start our climb to the east. I inhale the scent of cypress trees; they smell fresh and clean enough to eat. It’s a sharp contrast to my mind, which has gone from diseased to rotten. Five days ago, we left Mr. Doyer along the side of the road. I was sure I’d see him again.
“Hey, you got me into this mess; otherwise, I’d still be on the road crew. You can’t walk out on me.” I hoisted him under my shoulder from the litter and hauled him over to a shady spot against a smooth tree trunk.
“I ain’t actually walking out on you, Harry. If you notice, I’m flat on my butt.” His fever was so high, he’d drained his own canteen and mine. It had to be mite typhus or malaria.
“I can’t just leave you here. I’ll wait a bit.” I sat down in the dirt, and we watched the leaf-cutter ants parade in front of us for what seemed like hours. The sun rose high in the sky.
Finally, Doyer complained. “Harry, you know the drill. You have no choice. A light plane will fly down from Myitkyina, and I’ll be back to Ledo by nightfall. They’ll probably shoot me up with some sugar water, then, in a couple of weeks, stick a gun in my hand and send me back out. Count on it.”
That’s not what happened. This evening, they radioed the bad news. I didn’t know I could sink any lower, but I did. Soon, those he loved will learn what we already know, and a telegram is no substitute for a son. I’ve pulled out my pen because I need to tell them what Joe meant to us, to me.
Do they know about his nine medals? Or how, in World War I, he was trapped in a cemetery with mortar shells shattering tombstones in all directions, and still led his men to safety? Then, in Lille, he fastened a telephone wire to himself, swam the Canal du Nord, and established the line on the far bank so that his comrades could pull themselves hand-over-hand to the other side. I bet they don’t know that, when he volunteered for the Marauders at age forty-seven, he was told the age limit was thirty-eight but didn’t take no for an answer. Then, at Myitkyina, he received an even dozen slugs of shrapnel in his legs, chest, and elbow. He was never one to brag, and he was always there to help.
Every soldier wants to be a hero, but it takes something exceptional to actually become one. Joseph Doyer was no ordinary man. I remember when I joined the Marauders, Joe immediately asked me how I felt and where I was from, and let me know what to expect. He didn’t snow me or belittle me. After one eighteen-mile hike that made us all glad to hit the ground, Joe built a fire, cooked up some three-day rations, and fed a young soldier sick with Typhus. This war was hard on him, but he died as he wanted to in war times.
He was in the saddle that shaped his entire life, moving forward to protect those he loved. Joe was a model GI and a father when some of us needed it most. I cannot put in words how much we’ll miss him.
As I reread the letter, I know something’s missing. The pen wrote the words, but my heart refuses to accept them. I want to just walk away. Isn’t that what I did five days ago, when I left him on the road? I pushed myself off the ground and said, “I best be going. Can’t be late for war.”
Doyer didn’t answer. He didn’t even call out a glib farewell, pretending all would fine.
And I wouldn’t let myself think it could be any other way. Damn him. Why didn’t I say goodbye?
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