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Love Letters from a Doughboy
A World War I Love Story
By Margie Howd, Melissa Watkins Starr
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2013 Margie Howd, with Melissa Watkins Starr
All rights reserved.
August 28, 1916
From the side yard, Juliette heard someone whistling John McCormack's "Somewhere a Voice Is Calling," but instead of George Alston, her father's hired man, it was Spencer Davenport, the best-looking boy in town, in her opinion. She stood and waved to him.
"What are you doing here?" she asked.
"Looking for a lovely lady," he said. "Have you seen any?" he asked, when he reached the porch.
She punched his arm playfully. "What are you really doing here?"
"I came with my dad to see about some acreage your father wants to sell."
"Are you going to buy it?" Juliette asked.
"I'm not. I don't know about Dad." Spencer stepped closer. "My, you look pretty. Mind if I steal a kiss?" She touched the red tie on her navy dress with the sailor collar and smiled as Spencer slipped his hands around her tiny waist and pulled her close to him. At that moment, Nattie, George's wife and the Wilcox family's cook, came onto the porch.
"I thought I smelled trouble when I saw you slipping through the yard," Nattie said. "Miss Juliette, go in the house and wait for George."
Juliette bristled. "Why don't you mind your own business? You can't run my life."
Nattie smiled and took a pencil and a small notebook from the pocket of her apron and made a mark on one of the pages. "Just keep on sassing me. Your daddy knows I charge more to work with sassy girls. What you just said cost him a quarter. I reckon he'll have a talk with you when my bill gets real high." She tucked the notebook away and wiped her coppery forehead with a handkerchief. "As for my business, he said not to leave you without a chaperone when young men come calling. Your sisters will be out here shortly."
Spencer started to say something, but Nattie warned, "That goes for sassy guests too. Now, what was you about to say?"
"I think it's time for me to get going. Nice talking to you, Juliette." He walked around toward the backyard.
Nattie took a pinch of snuff from a small tin and placed it in her cheek. "Mmm hmm. See how quick he leave when he know there won't be no kissing involved?"
"Who'd want to stay with an old colored woman hanging around anyway?" Juliette asked, feeling a sting in her conscience as she said it. Nattie wasn't old, and her skin color shouldn't matter.
Nattie calmly took out her notebook and made another mark. "You still got a few things to learn, girl. That boy thinks you pretty, but down deep, he don't care about nothing but one thing."
"How would you know?" Juliette expected Nattie to make another mark in her notebook, but she didn't.
Instead, Nattie spat a stream of tobacco juice into the bushes and said, "I know a lot of things you'll never know." It struck Juliette that Nattie would look almost regal standing on the porch in her yellow floral-print dress if she would stop spitting.
A moment later, Juliette's sisters, Mary and Kate, came out to the porch. Kate glanced about and asked, "Where did he go, Nattie? I wanted to see Spencer!" She had an urgent look, as if she'd missed an interview with the prince of Wales or something. Juliette noted that Kate was wearing one of her prettiest dresses, a blue chemise with a bow at the waist. Her hair was pulled back with tortoise shell combs. She glanced over at Mary and rolled her eyes.
"Who knows?" Mary said. "Perhaps he'll fall for a thirteen- year-old girl."
"He likes me. He will want to see me," Kate said.
"He'll want to see you make yourself scarce!" Juliette said.
"Nattie, she's being mean."
Nattie, who was taking another pinch of snuff, said, "Why don't you go around back and find him?" Kate took off running down the steps, and Nattie yelled, "Kate! Walk like a lady!" Mary looked at Juliette and said, "What a great way to get rid of her. Why didn't I think of that?"
Juliette shook her head and said, "Poor Spencer!" and they laughed.
Their mother stepped outside, and when she found out why they were laughing, she laughed with them. "Always trying to steal your beaus," she said. She turned to Nattie and asked, "Are you up to making a crown roast for dinner tonight?" Nattie nodded and followed their mother back into the house. George drove Mr. Wilcox's Studebaker Touring Car around, parked, and opened the back passenger door for Juliette.
As they neared the downtown area, they drove by rows of lovely Victorian homes along a street paved with oaks draped with Spanish moss, and Juliette started singing, "Dusk and the shadows falling o'er land and sea; somewhere a voice is calling, calling for me. Dearest, my heart is dreaming, dreaming of you," and she stopped to ponder whom her heart was dreaming of because she wasn't sure. It struck her that Nattie was probably right about Spencer. He'd likely whistle that song for any pretty girl.
"Mighty pretty song. Why'd you stop singing?" George asked.
"George, do you think there's one perfect person for everyone, and when you find that person you just know it?" George glanced over his shoulder and smiled. "Absolutely—I knew it the first time I saw Nattie," he said. "Why do you ask?"
"Because I want to find whoever my heart is dreaming of and marry my perfect match. Then, when I get married, it will be a joyful event, and the whole church will be packed with people watching a real live fairy tale unfold before their eyes." She sighed.
George chuckled and said, "I hope you get your wish." He glanced back and asked, "How come your folks let you take this job? Your daddy's got plenty of money."
"I wanted it, but Mom didn't like the idea. Then Daddy said it would teach me some valuable lessons. In the end, Mom gave in, saying it couldn't hurt since only the finest, most upstanding people visit the museum."
George parked in front of the museum, got out, opened the door for her, and then walked with her to open the museum door for her. She knew he didn't have to do all that, but George was nice. "Good day, Miss Juliette. I'll be back at two o'clock." Juliette lingered in the doorway long enough to hear George pick up her song in his rich, clear voice, "Dearest, my heart is dreaming, dreaming of you. Somewhere a voice is calling for me ..." She listened until he pulled away from the curb, and then she hurried to open the museum's gift shop.
Thomas Fletcher got out of bed carefully before dawn to avoid waking his younger brothers. He knew his mother would call them to help her soon enough. Moreover, he enjoyed the stillness of early morning without Ralph and Edward's chatter. Thomas went to the kitchen and lit an oil lantern. His back and shoulder muscles were still sore from the day before, when he'd helped his father get in the last of their peanut crop, an early Spanish variety. They had been delighted with the yield of seventy bushels per acre, but the result of harvesting is always the same: sheer exhaustion at the end of each day. He figured Jess and Mike, his father's hired hands, were at least a third of the way to Birmingham by now with the wagons of peanuts. Of course, they had first gathered the peanut vines to cure for hay to sell to livestock farmers. Thomas put on his boots, which he kept near the door, and stepped outside, heading for the outhouse by the back pond behind the house, following a wide path his father had cut through a stand of bamboo before he came to the clearing. As always, he had to keep an eye out for snakes and gators. He felt pleased to be the first one up until he heard the outhouse door creak on its hinges in the darkness ahead. He father came out and said, "I was about to come and wake you. Finish your business here and bring in some wood for your mother. I'm going to have Ralph clean the henhouse today."
"Yes, sir." Thomas had learned very early that "yes, sir" was the only appropriate answer when his father told him to do something.
His mother was up when he got back to the house and was reading her Bible at the kitchen table. He quietly went about putting wood in the stove and starting the fire so his mother could bake biscuits. His father came in with two buckets of water from their well and started a pot of coffee. A few moments later, his mother said, "Listen to this," and she read, "'O Lord, thou hast searched me, and known me. Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising, thou understandest my thought afar off. Thou compassest my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways. For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether. Thou hast beset me behind and before, and laid thine hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it.' That's from Psalm 139. Isn't it marvelous?"
His father smiled and said, "It is, indeed."
When his mother finished her devotions, she called for his brothers and sisters to get up, and Thomas realized how precious those quiet, early-morning moments must be to her. The house quickly filled with voices, his brothers arguing because Edward wanted to clean the henhouse while Ralph collected the eggs and fed the chickens, his father settling their dispute, and his sisters talking about their friends from school.
An hour later, the family gathered around the table and said grace over breakfast. His mother had prepared fried apples, fatback, biscuits, gravy, and eggs. Steam rose from the apples, filling the kitchen with the blended scent of apples and vanilla.
"Why can't we have bacon or ham?" Edward asked, earning a stern look from their father.
"Son, we eat what's set before us, and if I ever hear you ask that sort of question again at this table or anyone else's, you'll be sorry." For some reason, this was enough to send the twins, Margaret and Rose, into giggles.
"In other words, he's going to tan your hide," Rose said, when she regained her composure, and this sent Margaret into another fit of giggles.
"Girls, that's enough," their mother said.
The girls were sixteen now, but Thomas thought they were acting as if they were only eleven, like Ralph.
"Can I go fishing today?" Ralph asked.
"Me too!" Edward yelled.
"Not until you finish weeding the vegetable garden," their father said. "And I want it done right, or you won't go fishing again for a long time." He looked at Thomas and said, "We need to make sure the car's ready for our trip to Birmingham tomorrow. I want you to ride into town and buy some motor oil and new spark plugs for the Model T. Then come back here, change the oil, and fill the radiator with water. Don't install the new spark plugs; just put 'em in the car where we'll have 'em if we need 'em."
Margaret asked, "Can we ride with him?" She and Rose were giving their father a pleading look. Thomas knew she'd asked their dad instead of him because he would have said no.
"I reckon so, as long as it's okay with your mother."
After breakfast, their father had Ralph get a bucket of water for the girls so they could wash the dishes. Then Ralph and Edward went to the shed to get their hoes and start weeding before it got any hotter. "Don't forget to water the tomato plants," their father called after them.
* * *
By eight o'clock, Thomas, Margaret, and Rose were heading into the tiny strip called "downtown" in Twin Pines. It was a fabulous morning, with a breeze coming in from the south. Thomas looked at the palmetto trees and scrub pines along the way and tried to block the voices of Margaret and Rose from his mind. They'd argued over who would sit up from with him, so he'd made them both ride in the backseat. When he turned on the road toward town, he felt a hand on his shoulder and glanced back. "What?" he asked.
"Do you think you'll eventually marry Molly Baker?" Rose asked.
"No, I don't!" How he wished his mother had made the girls stay at home. He also wished he hadn't yelled because now the girls would see that he still had feelings for Molly, who had hurt his pride a little bit. He'd been in love with her, or he thought he had, last year, but she had been so full of dreams of living in a big city and having the finer things in life that he sensed it would never work out. Eventually, he'd given up on courting her. And now, the thought of Molly's green eyes and lithe figure caused a sense of longing in him.
To his great irritation, Margaret and Rose climbed over into the front seat, as Rose declared that there was room up front for all of them since she and Margaret were skinny. "We have a story to tell you," Rose announced, and she and Margaret started prattling about a book they'd read in which a man saw a woman at a county fair and fell in love at first sight. Thomas found it easy to stop listening after a few minutes because he didn't want to hear the story in the first place. He felt Rose pat his arm. "Don't be sad about Molly, Thomas. Maybe that sort of thing will happen to you."
"No, it won't," he said, "because that's hogwash, the sort of fodder people make up to sell books to silly girls like you."
"Who are you going to marry, then?" Margaret asked.
"I'm going to find me a practical farm woman who doesn't have her head in the clouds and who doesn't chatter all the time like you two." And a beautiful one, he thought.
It was a relief to him to pull into the lot of the general supply store because it brought the conversation to an end. The girls took off to look at buttons, fabric, and patterns for dresses while he bought the spark plugs and motor oil. He walked to the back of the store, enjoying the smells of everything from a barrel of dill pickles to smoked hams, wrapped in cloth and hung from the ceiling. Mr. Stuart Harris and his wife, Jenny, ran the store, and their home was on the second floor of the building. Thomas found Mr. Harris stocking canned goods and told him what he needed.
* * *
Back at the farm, Thomas washed the car and gave the engine time to cool off, and then he crawled under the car with his back against the sand to empty the oil into an old dishpan. It was aggravating work, especially when a couple of insects found him, and he felt them crawling on his neck. He swatted at them as best he could in close quarters, until he didn't feel them crawling on him anymore. When he came out, he found two dead red ants in his collar and was very glad he had killed them before they bit him. He replaced the oil and filled the radiator with water, all the while wondering why a girl like Molly Baker couldn't be happy with a guy like himself and the type of lifestyle he could offer. He reckoned he still loved Molly and figured he always would. That stuff about love at first sight didn't apply in his case because he couldn't remember the first time he'd seen Molly. He'd known her all his life, and he'd never seen a girl he liked even half as well. He knew Molly had grown enchanted with the idea of life in a big city when her dad had taken her with him to the market in Birmingham one year. Tomorrow, I'll get to see that city for myself. He wondered if it would make him long for a different life as well. However, he couldn't see how it could possibly matter much if it did. As he cleaned his hands with a bit of gasoline before going inside to wash them with soap and water, one thought brightened his mood: Molly's ideas could change. He determined to try to make that happen, once school started. Suddenly, he felt a new sense of purpose.
Thomas and his father, Ronald, stepped out of Birmingham's Gallant Theater into the bright sunlight and August heat. This had been a good day. They had enjoyed an early-morning drive from Twin Pines, Florida, into Birmingham, Alabama, sold their peanuts at a good price and, in short order, had seen Charlie Chapman's new movie, The Vagabond. Thomas saw his father check his silver pocket watch. "It's two o'clock. Let's go over to the lunch counter in the dime store and see what they've got on the menu," his dad suggested.
Thomas quickly agreed, and they crossed the street. After settling into the corner booth, they ordered grilled cheese sandwiches and malted milks. "I reckon Edward and Ralph will be jealous when they find out I got to see a movie," Thomas said.
"Probably so, but they'll get their chance later. I've heard talk they might build a theater in Twin Pines before long."
Excerpted from Love Letters from a Doughboy by Margie Howd, Melissa Watkins Starr. Copyright © 2013 Margie Howd, with Melissa Watkins Starr. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc..
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