Billy Boy

Private Billy Gustavson was sitting on his M1 combat helmet, watching the moon over Italy with a Lucky Strike hanging from the corner of his mouth. Thanksgiving was on its way.

The distant gunfire sounded vaguely like a typewriter. Crickets screamed. A dog barked. Meanwhile, a few of the soldiers nearby were playing poker, laughing loudly, listening to a Bud Freeman record.

Just a few of the strange sounds of Hitler’s War.

Billy’s cigarette was lit, even though smoking outdoors was expressly forbidden. A glowing ember could be seen by snipers from a mile away in the dark. A fella smoking in the open-air darkness usually ended up in the obituaries.

But tonight, Billy was preoccupied, busy dreaming of home the way all privates do. The way all officers do. The way all boys from Billy’s Minnesota hometown did whenever they crossed the Goodhue county line.

“What’cha daydreaming about?” asked Billy’s friend, Chappy.

Chappy was not an official military chaplain, but all the guys viewed him as one, hence the name. He was a lay minister back in his hometown in Georgia. Chappy was thirty-one. In military years that made him a granddaddy.

“I kinda miss my mom tonight,” said Billy.

“And where is your mom right now?”

Billy blew smoke. “Died when I was fifteen. Bled to death when she had my little sister.”

“And your dad?”

“He’s back in Red Wing. Remarried. His new old lady’s a nightmare.”

Chappy said nothing.

They listened to the nightscape. The insects, distant shells exploding, a corporal screaming about a straight flush, and Bud Freeman tearing up his tenor horn.

“You shouldn’t be smoking outside,” said Chappy. “You know the rules. Snipers would love to grease another one of us.”

“Nah, they don’t care about a peon like me.”

Chappy pulled rank and yanked the cigarette from the boy’s lips. He stabbed it out, and to his surprise, Billy started crying.

Chappy scooted closer and slung an arm around the boy’s shoulder. Sometimes that’s all a kid needed out here. Just to be held. They don’t teach you stuff like that in basic.

After a few moments, Chappy said, “What if I told you that your mother sees you, Billy?”

“Oh, c’mon, Chappy. I ain’t in the mood.”

“I mean it.”

“I don’t go in for all that holy bunk.”

Billy quit believing in heavenly things after his mother’s funeral. It was a choice, really. Which meant that on some level, he hadn’t quit believing at all. He just didn’t want to believe. Big difference.

“What if I told you that your mom not only can see you right now, but she can send you a sign?”


“I’m serious.”

Billy’s eyes rolled so hard they made a rattling sound.

“Let’s ask her, Billy. Let’s ask your mama for a sign.”

Billy laughed at him. “Gee wiz, preacher, is this the part where we pray and you make me promise not to drink or say ‘hell’ and ‘damn’ no more?”

“No,” said Chappy. “This is the part where I say, ‘Be a man, Billy, and believe in something bigger than yourself for a change.’ But yes, after that should definitely stop cussing.”

You had to love Chappy.

He told Billy to ask heaven for something outrageous. Something gutsy. Something that would remove doubt. So Billy agreed. Just to humor the elderly thirty-some-year-old man. He prayed for an irrefutable sign that his mother was watching over him.

They waited for several minutes for something to happen—a warm feeling, maybe a shooting star. But nothing occurred. Billy felt foolish.

“This is stupid,” said Billy. “God is a crock, Chappy. So is heaven. We’re born and then we die. The end.” Billy was crying again. “And odds are I’m probably not gonna live much longer, either.”

On Billy’s way back to his tent, he heard something. It was the sound of a Ford GPW motor, cutting its tires through the mud and inky blackness. From the Ford’s jumpseat bounded a man carrying a large mailbag.

All the baby-faced soldiers swarmed the mail guy like chickens around a junebug. GIs lived for the mail bag. This might have been a global war, but it was November. And a soldier’s holiday revolved around simple things like a fruitcake shipped from Abilene, knit socks from Grand Rapids, a perfumed letter from Sacramento, or a jar of peanut butter from Dothan, Alabama. This was how a soldier kept going.

One of the last packages to be doled out was addressed to Billy Gustavson.

Billy thumbed open the parcel and read the letter. It was from Billy’s older sister. She’d been digging through the family attic one day when she found a diary. The diary had belonged to Billy’s late mother. So his sister sent it to the frontlines.

Billy removed the faded diary from the package. He saw his mother’s penmanship and completely lost it. He collapsed on his cot and had a veritable breakdown until he couldn’t breathe.

Chappy was there, standing in the doorway of the young man’s tent. Smiling.

Billy noticed him. He sat straight, wiped his slick cheeks, and clutched his mother’s book tightly. “Well, Chappy,” he said. “Guess this means I’ll have to give up cussing now.”

It’s amazing the stories you hear at nursing homes.


  1. Joe Dorough - November 19, 2021 9:48 am


  2. Christine - November 19, 2021 10:33 am

    Wow, God is good🥰

  3. mary phillips - November 19, 2021 11:21 am

    Wow. You got me with this one, Sean! Beautiful.

  4. Susan - November 19, 2021 11:23 am

    Great story!!

  5. Sonya Tuttle - November 19, 2021 11:36 am

    God answers!

  6. Lisa K Riley - November 19, 2021 11:40 am

    Signs and wonders….keep us believing when we feel like we’ve lost all hope. This story was a sign as well…thanks, Sean.

  7. Steve Winfield (Lifer) - November 19, 2021 11:53 am

    40+ yrs ago I spent 2 years on the USS John F Kennedy. Boy do I know about mail call & how much it means to lonely kids on the other side of the world.
    Dad would send me big boxes of junk food. He used whole pecans from our yard as packing material. All the guys swarmed me when I got a box from home.

  8. Bev - November 19, 2021 12:01 pm

    Yes! Those nursing homes stories are the best!

  9. missusmux - November 19, 2021 12:05 pm

    Bless your heart! That’s an amazing story and wowsa of a punchline. So few recognize or take the time to draw out miracles and treasured stories of lives lived, bound in the confines of nursing homes. Thank you, Sean.

    • Alice - November 19, 2021 1:09 pm

      It is a wonderful story, Sean. Thank you for bring it to us. Did you talk to Billy? Did he tell you himself? God is powerful to answer us in the most amazing ways. I am talking by experience. He listens us.
      Thank you again.

  10. Hawk - November 19, 2021 12:08 pm

    The schematics of the wheel {and life} is in the minds of our elderly. Great literary creations are locked away in their mind vaults (just ask them for the combination). Their work ethic is measured by the thickness of their calluses and the depth of their wrinkles caused by years of selfless housework or tool use. The joys and heartaches of love is the scar tissue on their hearts. Ask them. They will share it all. You may need to prod to get to the depth of the heartaches.

    • CherylW. - November 19, 2021 1:25 pm

      Beautifully said, Hawk. Beautiful stories live in nursing home residents if folks would take the time to chat and listen. Sadly, my mother is in a nursing home. I am unable to care for her due to my physical limitations, and it breaks my heart to see her there. My 18 yo granddaughter loves to visit her, and also loves talking with the other residents. Thankfully, she understands they have beauiful stories and a wealth of wisdom.

  11. Susan - November 19, 2021 12:32 pm


  12. Nancy Crews - November 19, 2021 1:02 pm

    ❤your writing!

  13. Paul McCutchen - November 19, 2021 1:04 pm

    Out of the park this time Sean, This one was a home run.

  14. Josie Retan - November 19, 2021 1:28 pm

    When I read a story like this one, sometimes I have to pause before I read the ending and think about the story. This ending punched me in the heart,

  15. Debi Walter - November 19, 2021 1:59 pm

    This is powerfully written, as always, Sean. Thank you for saving that line for the end. It was read with the realization of how many stories die with those who lived them. My Mom always said, “A library of information dies when someone takes their last breath.” I’m so glad you heard Billy’s story.

  16. Debbie - November 19, 2021 2:12 pm

    Dear Sean, every time I read your your post I’m either crying or laughing, but mostly crying. You have a special way with your words that just cut through the heart! Thank you for always reminding us that there is good in the world and that God lives us no matter what. Blessings to you and your family this Thanksgiving season! Know it won’t be the same without your mother-in-law, but nothing is anymore 😢

  17. Pamela Williams - November 19, 2021 2:22 pm


  18. Stacey Wallace - November 19, 2021 2:34 pm

    Thank you, Sean. Happy Thanksgiving!

  19. Pete Black - November 19, 2021 2:37 pm

    Hey Sean – absolutely beautiful story! One of your best!

  20. Jan - November 19, 2021 2:44 pm

    What a beautiful story. As always it brought me to tears. God is so good. Thank you for sharing this story and opening my eyes yet again to His power and His love. Wishing you and yours a beautiful Thanksgiving. I am so thankful for you and the powerful stories you share.

  21. Patricia Gibson - November 19, 2021 3:03 pm


  22. Ruth Mitchell - November 19, 2021 3:05 pm

    This one brought me to a sobbing cry! Please keep talking to those in nursing homes. Their stories are too great to be lost. Thank you for listening and sharing.

  23. Gayle - November 19, 2021 3:15 pm

    Another one from God

  24. BEX - November 19, 2021 3:16 pm

    GOD BLESS YOU AND JAMIE! 🙏🏻🙏🏻🙏🏻 You bring true stories of faith, hope and inspiration to us when all the MEDIA(sic) brings us down with gloom and doom! God is still in charge! PTL! Keep writing, please…..I read you every morning——coffee, Bible, Sean and then prayer! GOD BLESS!

  25. Beverly Wynn Bua - November 19, 2021 6:19 pm

    When I was in second grade ( Tallahassee, FL, ‘42) each student wrote or printed a short note to be sent to the boys on the front line during WWII… many wrote back during the following school years & our Principal always came around to the classes & read the answers…….!I remember feeling so proud………
    That’s why I love this story……… It was such an important time in our history & my memories..

  26. Karen Snyder - November 19, 2021 7:31 pm


  27. brendafrancisart - November 19, 2021 7:38 pm

    This is such a beautiful story! Thank you for your stories Sean. They mean more to me than you know.

  28. Patricia Schmaltz - November 19, 2021 8:50 pm

    Love it. No one tells these stories better. Thank you Sean.

  29. Linda Moon - November 19, 2021 11:30 pm

    It’s amazing…the stories you share with us, Sean Dietrich. Thank you for this. My day was pretty amazing, too, telling stories here at my home. You just seem like one of us sometimes!

  30. Suellen - November 20, 2021 1:49 am

    I should have known not to open this up tonight. You always get me in the feels. I’ve spent half the day at the Emergency Vet Clinic. Our dachshund is struggling to breathe. Blood work and xrays and they told us he has congestive heart failure. If this happens to a person they would suggest a heart transplant but there isn’t anything like that for a dog. So they sent us home with 3 medications and told us he might have 6 to 12 months unless he throws a clot which would mean sudden death. I’ve been holding it together for everybody including the pups but now I feel like big old ugly sobbing.


Leave a Comment