Dear John the fourth, or fifth…

1 Aug

– from the dread letters society.

 We observed Thanksgiving Day, 1944 in a tent city near Buna, The war was mostly won in the South Pacific, but was boiling fiercely up North. The Aussie nurses cavorted in the surf, sans culottes, like Rubens water nymphs. Though we lusted, we dared not speak across or look across the Navy hawser which partitioned us. We would sail for Hollandia and Leyte right after our turkey dinner with beer … and a swim.

In shallows up to her rusting decks, a cargo ship lay sunk by an errant mine. My Christmas box survived with my salt soaked fruit cake, wool socks and laundry soap. Among the newspapers. was a letter from “my betrothed,” the author of my first “Dear John.” Though no surprise it stung like a bee. I revered her: regal, virginal and shaped to die for. Also, hard and haughty as Aphrodite’s marble butt.

Many recall those dreaded stingers: “I would never, ever” … “faithful and loving … think of you every day” … “I’ll walk alone” and not sit under the apple tree. They were playful, poignant and painful; the girls were lonely, vulnerable and young. While most wartime couples thrived and multiplied, my own eternal loves left me in the dirt. Their letters were sad, dutiful, cheery, funny and some were overdue. The Princess and I were pals, always there except “Sunday, Monday and Always.”

Our high school romance made a fine show. We had an understanding I didn’t understand. I had a car and that may have been part of it. She said, often, she was five years more mature than I. No this, no that, no pictures to carry off to war, no letters, affections or connections. No tears, parting kiss or handshake.

Her Thanksgiving letter lived in infamy. “It was an interesting experience. You are a nice boy.” Her family invented something better for her: wealthy, aristocratic and a proper idiot. “I told you so” moaned her girlfriends soon after. Cats. The end.

Frannie was buoyant, angular, brunette and a friend’s sister, a song that wouldn’t quit. We had a fine few weeks and parted with honest affection. She was embarrassingly outspoken and genuine, so different from my perpetually exasperated other. She spread joy in an Army hospital and wrote every week as promised, then came “Dear John.” She said, “he was badly hurt and so much like you; she wouldn’t have fallen for him otherwise.” She wrote, “There is a special place for you…” That was nice, I already had a special place on a mountain top starving for water for the fourth day. An L-4 dropped mail but no water. I treasured her note and sent a wedding card. After the war I learned that she didn’t marry the guy, he died. Her last letter came just as grenade pieces were being removed from my head..

Margarete and I knew each other from the seventh grade. We did the kid things. If we needed a shoulder or an ice cream a phone call would do it. I watched Margie grow up laughing. She was the little sister and I couldn’t be what she wanted: an escape from a rigid family. Her mother picked me for the job just as the Army solved my problem, but not hers. She got a government job and sent me an occasional cool letter. The last one, while I was on Luzon detailed her romance with a guy I detested in school. Their baby, now sixty, was untimely. Her letter said that I was a rat. Her mother agreed and would like it if I dropped dead. Margie, my buddy, I couldn’t marry your mother.

Regarding my “Dear John” letters, you are saying, “So what? Big deal.” You’ve heard horror stories. Right? Me, too. A fine officer I knew shot himself. How can you torture two loving, lusting young people for twelve months and expect them to hold hands over the waves, much less their virginity?

I was in the field hospital near Santo Tomas getting my face fixed when Sgt. Akers, dropped off some letters. I honor the Army mail system. This one had gone through hoops to get to me, re-stamped, water stained and patched with tape. It had my exact name, rank and APO, but it wasn’t mine. No one else had a name like mine. That letter was for a guy with a wife, mom or girlfriend. I read it.

Well, I’ve asked forgiveness and still do. The “Dear John” was to an infantry buck  fighting somewhere North who had my name. What it said was that “she” had moved in with a factory guy. Working night and day for the war effort. “You couldn’t never imagine” how awful lonely. I worked up a seething anger as she lathered the guilt on him. They should not have married so young, she said. That was his fault. All he wanted was you know what. This new factory guy was nice to her, and older, but she had remained faithful. He couldn’t know what she had to put up with, all alone and still so young. Anyway, she was, you know, pregnant, so the father was going to marry her when his wife settled things like property and child care.

I did not give that envelope back for forwarding to Okinawa where that guy was maybe getting his ass shot off? No. I put it into my pack and went back to my outfit in the morning. I figured: that guy with my name was already living through hell, with a heart crying out for a girl he never knew, or maybe he was dead. Either way, that letter wouldn’t do him any good. Maybe he’d come through it and that would be time enough to work it out in his mind. You can say that letter was none of my damned business and you’re right. But, I’d gotten some “Dear Johns.” I know how it feels to be tossed into the can, as if everything you dreamed about at night, never was real. And there is nothing you can do except cry your guts out. All those hugs and laughs, all the anxieties, all the pictures of how it would be when you came back “. I drew dozens of them. At night I’d look at the blackness and act out the scene. It was fantasy and confused and nobody hurt anybody. Then the people on that stage sent letters, one with bitterness, one with gentle sweetness and one who didn’t care one way or another. My “Dear Johns” were bruises. Have I been married for sixty years?

My friend deserved to sit in his foxhole, smoke a soggy butt, dream of living and read ragged love letters. He deserved not to know but probably suspected. My friend, I kept your letter and examined my conscience. When I figured time had solved your problem, I burned it. I prayed for you to come through.


Takeouts from an article on “LEADERSHIP PRESENCE.”

The jury at Officer Candidate School cut me – deeply. The notice, for all to see, said I lacked leadership presence. It was a critical judgment. They had judged my attitude, my posture and my haircut. In truth, I might disgrace the officer Corp. However, I had no need to look mean, roar or strut. I could not abandon my integrity, irreverence, and distrust of anyone smarter than me. In six weeks we received no meaningful guidance on leadership, officer-ship, or any other ship that we had not learned better in Mississippi. The Committee in Charge of being in charge displayed honest self-righteousness. Returning to my Division was a true home-coming. I was again elected leader of my tribe.

In fifty years of Leader Watching I’ve noted that most had the essential look of the leader aka Wayne, Scott, Heston, Douglas, and MacArthur. I would not follow them across a cow path nor would they follow me, because -like them, I was a stage performer, acting an identity I didn’t fit, didn’t want and did not merit.

My act at the quarter final “Marching Review” was magnificent. In the manner of Groucho Marx I waved to the Review Board as I marched past, alone, having failed to turn at the pennant. My Company went West and I went South. Marching Through Georgia was our Company song.

I’ve studied Corporate-Kind leadership for fifty years. I read Dale Carnegie’s books, studied leader dynamics, did field training and helped those who had the essentials: Honesty, a base of knowledge, respect for those he leads, a desire to learn and teach and a sense of humor. I have no idea of what constitutes a leader. A leader should ask questions.


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