Fort Knox, Kentucky
The irksome sound of a trumpet blasting reveille over a loudspeaker came too fast for Tommie’s taste. He sprang out of bed and prepared for Friday morning inspection.
He took extra care to ensure a smooth shave with no nicks. The pungent smell of match-heated shoe polish soon filled the air. When the dim light in the barracks tent reflected back at him from the toes of his shoes, he knew they were ready, but he gave them an added buff for good measure. Stepping in front of the mirror, he saluted the meticulous image: hair shaved to within a quarter-inch of his scalp, military hat sitting at the correct angle atop his head, shirt pressed and tucked into pants with a perfect crease down the center. He studied his image one last time to determine any oversights as his father’s words echoed in his mind: Give to the world the best you have, and the best will come back to you.
One last detail remained: making his bed with military precision. “I don’t get military corners,” he complained out loud.
“I’ll make the bed if you’ll help me with this damned tie. That’s what I don’t get.” Grant, Tommie’s buddy since the day they arrived at Fort Knox six weeks earlier, was struggling to make a Windsor knot.
“It’s a deal. Here, let me do your tie first. Jesus, Grant, did you even iron your shirt?”
“I tried, but I always sorta look like this, no matter what I do.” His large frame waged a constant battle with his clothes: shirt half-tucked, pants two inches too short and wrinkled in spite of ironing, and shoes with eternal scuff marks across the toes.
Tommie finished tying the Windsor. “It’s just gonna have to do.”
Just then, their sergeant made his entrance. Tommie stood at attention. “Chin up, chest out, shoulders back, and stomach in,” he repeated to himself in an attempt to remember proper form. The sergeant began his rounds, scrutinizing each man with an eye on pointing out shortcomings rather than praising correctness. He spent extra time on Grant.
Tommie stood next in line. The sergeant dissected every aspect of his uniform, shoes, and stance. Tommie strained to maintain his military bearing and expressionless face, focusing on the wall in front of him. The sergeant gave a nod of approval and moved on. Two hours work for a ten-second glance at me, Tommie mused. It’s not worth it.
With inspection completed, Tommie and Grant walked to class. They arrived right on time and corralled chairs closest to the door. Tommie chewed on his pencil, bounced his knee, yawned—anything to stay awake while the instructor droned on about the finer points of repairing a radio. Hell, I’d just as soon milk a damned cow as sit here and do this—at least that’s real work. He squirmed in his chair, and his stomach growled. Noon ain’t gonna come any too soon for my liking.
TOMMIE VAULTED FROM his chair and made it halfway to the door before the instructor finished saying, “Class dismissed.” He pulled a Camel cigarette out of his pocket, lit it, and took a deep drag, enjoying the calming sensation of the nicotine as it entered his bloodstream. His stomach growled again at the sight of the mess hall. I hope there ain’t much of a crowd today. I hate the noise and everybody bumpin’ into ya, reachin’ over ya to get more food. I’d rather wait and eat later than eat with a bunch like that. He took another deep drag on his cigarette, crushed it against his heel, and tossed it into the butt-can at the entrance of the mess hall.
“Over there.” Grant pointed across the room. Tommie cringed at the cacophony of silverware clanking, dishes clattering, and a hundred young men talking, yelling, and laughing. Sounds like a bunch of mad cattle milling around in here. He worked his way across the room, clenching his jaw as soldiers bumped his shoulder or shoved in front of him. He sat down beside Grant, who was already half finished with his lunch. The soldier sitting on the other side of Tommie reached in front of him for the salt. “Ever heard the phrase ‘pass the salt,’ asshole?” Tommie snapped.
The soldier jumped to his feet. “Who you callin’ an asshole, jerk?”
Tommie snatched the apple off his tray, mashed his sandwich into his napkin, and steamed toward the door. “I can’t eat in here, Grant. I’ll see you later.”
SATURDAY BROUGHT A new kind of tension. Tommie opened his eyes and with a heavy sigh sat up on the edge of his cot. Another sigh emanated from deep inside his lungs, and he flopped himself back on his cot. He checked the time: three in the afternoon. He pulled out his wallet. Nothin’ in here but mothballs and memories. Two long empty days stretched before him. I’ll write to Dorothy. That’ll fill up some time.
He removed the ink bottle and pen from his footlocker and arranged the paper in preparation.
“Dearest Dorothy…” What do I write? What do I say that’s interesting? He commenced a tedious
recounting of his week as a private in the Headquarters Company, Nineteenth Ordinance Battalion.
When he finished, he read through his letter. That’ll do. Must be gettin’ late by now. He glanced at his watch. Three thirty? Maybe one more page. He pulled out another sheet of paper. Several minutes passed. The paper that lay on his makeshift desk taunted him.
I wish my year was over. It’s kinda fun to lay around and build air castles and then let them burst. I still have hopes of not having to go over the pond and blow Hitler off the map. But maby I can be lucky. Who knows?
We are sure going to have fun when I get out, ain’t we? I’ve got it all figured out; where, when and how.
He paused. We’ll take the Airstream trailer and hitch it to my Ford. I hope Dad’s taking good care of that Ford. We’ll start early in the morning and take Highway 34 to Denver…
TOMMIE OPENED THE door to the Airstream trailer and stepped out into the warm Colorado sun. The sky matched the color of a robin’s egg.
He found Dorothy lying under an aspen tree, staring at the sky. Her green sweater clung to her just enough to hint at the enticing body underneath. “Whatcha up to, honey?” he asked.
“Good morning, sleepyhead. It’s about time you got yourself up. I’m just looking at the clouds. Don’t you just love clouds? Look at that one. It looks like a rabbit. Can you see its ears?”
“Well, I’m more interested in breakfast, honey.”
“Don’t worry. Breakfast is all ready. I made eggs and bacon, nice and crispy, just the way you like it. Want some coffee?”
“Sure, honey.” He sat down under the tree. The crisp mountain air filled his lungs. The roaring sound of the Big Thompson River made hearing anything else impossible.
Dorothy arrived with his coffee. He took a sip. “Honey, you make the best coffee. Nice and strong, just the way I like it.”
“Thanks, sweetie.” She took in the magnificent canyon walls and the raging river next to their campsite. “Ya know, we could settle here. Big Thompson Canyon is a gorgeous place, don’t you think?”
“I thought you wanted to go to California.”
“No, I want whatever you want, Tommie.”
“Whatever I want, huh? Well then, get over here.”
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