Pvt. Landon Pickett
Base Hospital No. 15
July 24, 1918
RR 2, Box 27
Smithfield, Pennsylvania, USA
I got a letter from Mom today. She says you graduated third in your class and went 9-0 pitching for the Chargers, way better than I ever managed. She tells me you’ve been accepted at Penn State, and says you and Lynette Samuels make a cute couple, happy as two pups. It warms my heart to hear such good news, and to think about the bright future waiting for you. Seems like only yesterday I had that, too.
Mom told me Rufus died. I’m sure going to miss that old dog. I could have used a friend like that when I get home. I’m glad you buried him in the orchard, under the winesap tree. That was always his place on a hot summer day, lying in that cool grass.
I never know these days how long my strength will hold, so I’ll move on to what I want to say. Mom gave me some bad news about you, too. She says you’re ready to turn your back on Lynette and Penn State because you’re all on fire to sign up for this war next month when you turn eighteen. I’m writing to ask you, little brother — no, to beg you — not to do that. Oh, I know those recruiters, the things they tell you: how the girls will love you in your uniform, how your country needs you now. Well, let me tell you a few things.
First of all, there aren’t any girls like Lynette Samuels here to love you, and anyway, after a day or two on the battlefield that uniform won’t look so good, covered with mud, maybe spattered with somebody’s brains, or all wet with your own blood. It won’t feel so good after a few weeks, when it’s crawling with lice and you have mustard gas soaked into every fiber. As for your country needing you, that won’t make a bit of sense after you’ve spent weeks fighting over a few miles of mud and tree stumps, watching thousands of men die. I have no idea now why I came over here to France, thinking to kill men who’ve never done me any harm. I shot at some of them, at first. But listen to this — not long before I got hit I laid my sights on a German soldier, right square on his chest. Then I lowered my rifle and let him live. I could find no reason in my heart, Rory, why I should kill that man, who looked as filthy and exhausted and frightened as I was.
My right leg’s gone below the knee, as I’m sure Mom told you. That’s a lot to lose, but the plain truth is I’m pretty lucky. Lucky I’m still alive, of course. But I see men here with both legs completely gone, men with two stumps for arms, men missing limbs in all kinds of combinations. And thousands of boys like you and me are lying buried in the earth over here, and that’s where they’ll sleep till the world ends.
So that’s what’s really happening in this war, little brother. No girls, no bands, no glory. The band stops playing and the glory ends as soon as they ship you off to training camp. As for me, a doctor here says they’ll soon fix me up with a wooden leg that will have me up and about and will look just fine. We’ll see.
I’m sure you know too that Maggie Winston broke off our engagement. She wrote to say she was sorry about my leg, but she’s marrying Johnny Dickerson and they’re moving to Ohio. So she won’t be there when I get home, just like the old dance hall where I courted her. Mom says they’re tearing it down to build a bigger, fancier one where they can show moving pictures. That’s progress, I guess.
I made a terrible mistake, Rory, when I put off marrying Maggie until after I got back from this war. I thought it would give us more time to grow up, and I never doubted our love would endure across a couple of years and the distance of an ocean. It’s hard to describe the joy of loving that girl, how being with her was better than any dream, those blue eyes lighting up big and bright when she looked at me, the tickle of her hair against my cheek, the softness of her body against mine, the wet warmth of her lips. I’m sorry if your cheeks are burning to read that sort of thing. But I’m talking to you like a grown man now. When I left, I told Maggie “The day I marry you will be the luckiest day of my life.” My own cheeks burn now when I think of that. What a fool I was!
So I know I’m not the best person to be giving advice, lying here with my strength gone, my sweetheart gone, half a leg gone. But I feel qualified to give one piece, and here it is: Rory, your luckiest day, your luckiest hour, your luckiest minute is the one you’re living right now, the one you’re holding in the palm of your hand. Don’t you dare do what I did. Don’t toss happiness aside and go off chasing a pack of blood-soaked lies, thinking everything will be the same when you come back. If you’ve got happiness right there in front of you right now, for heaven’s sake, grab it. Grab it with both your hands and hold on tight. Because it can disappear quick as a rainbow.
That’s the only thing I know for sure so far, Rory. The rest you’ll have to figure out for yourself, as will I.
Let’s you and me find ourselves a lively fishing hole when I get home, okay?
Your loving brother,
Douglas Campbell‘s fiction has appeared online and in print, in publications such as Many Mountains Moving, Every Day Fiction, The Northville Review, Vestal Review, and Short Story America. Douglas lives and writes in southwestern Pennsylvania.