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?”
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.