UNTIL THE ONE TIME HE CAN DO NOTHING.
When twelve-year-old Jamie Dexter's brother joins the Army and is sent to Vietnam, Jamie is plum thrilled. She can't wait to get letters from the front lines describing the excitement of real-life combat: the sound of helicopters, the smell of gunpowder, the exhilaration of being right in the thick of it. After all, they've both dreamed of following in the footsteps of their father, the Colonel.
But TJ's first letter isn't a letter at all. It's a roll of undeveloped film, the first of many. What Jamie sees when she develops TJ's photographs reveals a whole new side of the war. Slowly the shine begins to fade off of Army life - and the Colonel. How can someone she's worshipped her entire life be just as helpless to save her brother as she is?
From the author of the Edgar Award-winning Dovey Coe comes a novel, both timely and timeless, about the sacrifices we make for what we believe and the people we love.
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The day after my brother left for Vietnam, me and Private Hollister played thirty-seven hands of gin rummy, and I won twenty-one. They were speedball games, the cards slapped down on the table fast and furious. My brother, TJ, was going to war, and I was fired up hotter than a volcano. TJ and I had grown up in the Army, we were the Colonel's children, but that was not the same as being a soldier in the very heart of combat.
"Whoa, hoss, slow down," was the first thing Private Hollister said when I'd charged into the rec center that morning, ready for action, but not exactly knowing what to do with myself. I'd been a rec center volunteer for three whole days, which had mostly involved picking up crumpled Coke cans from under the pool tables and handing out Ping-Pong paddles to soldiers. But now I couldn't settle myself down enough to go check the chore list on the clipboard Private Hollister kept on his desk. I wanted to spin around in circles, do jumping jacks, drop to the floor for a hundred push-ups. Big things were happening, and the excitement of it all was running through my veins and winding me up tight.
"Here. Sit." Private Hollister pulled out his desk chair and motioned for me to take a seat. "You got the look of a girl who don't know whether she's coming or going."
He sat down across the desk from me. "You ever play cards? 'Cause back home in Kentucky when we'd get too rowdy, my mom would get out the cards and get us playing poker or Hearts, just anything to make us sit down for a few minutes and relax."
I nodded. All at once my excitement had found a place to land. I took a deep breath to calm myself and tried to look innocent, like a girl who maybe played Old Maid or Crazy Eights from time to time.
"Well, then, reach into that top desk drawer and pull out a deck of cards. You know how to play gin rummy?"
I nodded again. "I think so," I said, sounding doubtful. As a matter of fact, the Colonel had taught me how to play gin when I was six and there was no one alive who could beat me two games in a row. But I kept a straight face as Private Hollister explained the rules to me, told me about runs and knocks and how to keep score.
Private Hollister leaned forward and picked up the cards. "I'll go ahead and deal first, just to get us started. You think you understand how to play?" "I'm pretty sure," I said. "Just tell me if I mess up."
He smiled. Private Hollister had the face of a ten-year-old, about a thousand freckles across his nose, sticking-out ears, eyelashes like a girl's. It was hard to believe he was a grown man. But looking around at the soldiers playing pool and pinball, it was hard to believe any of them were full-fledged adults. They all looked like TJ, barely five minutes out of high school.
"So what's got you so full of beans today, anyway?" Private Hollister asked, shuffling the cards. "Or are you always this way and I just ain't noticed it yet?"
I swayed in my seat, the excitement rearing up in me again. "My brother just left for Vietnam. He's going to be a combat medic for the 51st Medical Company. He's the third generation in my family to join the Army. I'd join too, if they'd let me."
"How old are you, anyway? Eleven? You think they let many eleven-year-olds enlist?"
"I'll be thirteen in December," I told him, sitting up as straight as I could so maybe I would look old and mature. Not that I cared what people thought about my appearance. But even if I wasn't pretty in an obvious way, if my hair was just-barely-blond instead of a golden yellow, if my eyes were gray instead of blue, even if I was as scrawny as a bundle of twigs, there was no doubt in my mind I looked at least twelve and a half. "In fact," I said to Private Hollister, "my mom's due date was in November, only I came later than they thought I would. So I'm closer to thirteen than my birthday would have you believe."
"Oh. Well, you look eleven. I got a sister back home in Kentucky who's eleven, so that's how I know." Private Hollister began dealing. "You really a colonel's daughter?"
"Yep." I didn't want to sound snobbish about it, but I didn't want to sound so friendly that he thought it was okay to mistake me for an eleven-year-old.
"Man, oh man." Private Hollister shook his head. "I better not mess up around you. I might find myself in-country too."
"In what country?"
"Vietnam. That's what they call it when you're there. They say you're in-country. But me, I want to be way, way out of country, if you know what I mean."
I shook my head in sheer disbelief. "You're a soldier. You're supposed to fight."
Private Hollister put down the deck, picked up his hand. "Maybe," he said. "But from what I've heard, I'd rather be here than there. No offense to your brother."
"Actually, he wasn't planning on going," I said, fanning out my cards to see what hand I'd been dealt. "He was supposed to go to college. But then he changed his mind. You want me to start?"
"Yeah, go ahead." Then Private Hollister cocked his head to one side and raised an eyebrow, like what I'd said just hit him. "Your brother could've gone to college, but he went to 'Nam instead?"
I discarded, picked up a card from the top of the deck. "I guess he got his priorities straight."
"Man, oh man, giving up college for a chance to dance with a Bouncing Betty. One of them things falls at your feet, whammo! It blows right up in your face." Private Hollister shook his head sorrowfully, discarded, drew a card.
I picked up his card, discarded, rapped my knuckles against the desktop. "Knock."
Private Hollister practically fell out of his chair. "You're knocking? How can you be knocking already?"
"Beginner's luck, I guess." I spread out my cards on the desk, a run of five, seven of diamonds through the jack, plus a pair of threes and a pair of queens.
"You scammed me!"
"I don't know what you're talking about. Just give me your cards and let me deal."
Then it was one hand after another, cards slapping, knuckles knocking, and me staying ahead the whole way through.
"All right," Private Hollister said when game thirty-seven was over. He looked at his watch. "I think I've gotten you calmed down enough. You ready to do a little work?"
"Combat ready," I told him.
Private Hollister laughed. "You're Army all the way, ain't you?"
"I'm Army through and through," I told him. "I mean it, if they'd let me go to Vietnam tomorrow, I'd go. I could be an ambulance driver or something like that."
"You even know how to drive a car?"
"Of course I know how to drive a car," I lied. "I've been driving since I was eight. We were stationed in Germany then, and in Germany they let anybody drive who can see over a steering wheel."
Private Hollister stood up. "Now I know you're lying. You gotta be eighteen to drive over there. That's a fact."
I shrugged. "Must be a new law."
"Well, you might want to go to Vietnam, and you might be happy about your brother going to Vietnam," Private Hollister said, walking to the supply closet. "But I know your mom ain't happy about it."
"My mother is an Army mom," I said. I took the broom he handed me from the closet. "She knows that wars have to be fought and we need soldiers to fight them."
"What you're talking about is philosophy," Private Hollister said. "I'm talking about feelings. Ain't no mother happy about her son going to war."
"She'll be happy when we win," I told him.
Private Hollister looked skeptical. "If you say so."
"I don't just say so. I know so."
And I did know so. I knew it like I knew my name: Jamie Dexter. I knew it like I knew my birthday: December 10. I knew it like I knew the flag: fifty stars, thirteen stripes, red, white, and blue, all in all a piece of cloth worth going to war for.
I was six months away from turning thirteen and I thought I knew everything.
Copyright © 2008 by Frances O'Roark Dowell