then it hitDecember, 1941. War. JT and I were twenty-four,
prime targets for the draft. I was drafted. JT was not. He was
black, not good enough for the army. Army rules said blacks were
too cowardly to serve, so he stayed right here on our farm. I
knew JT was no coward, but I thought he was getting kind of wild,
like staying out weekends with women and drinking moonshine. I
think his daddy made the moonshine. Mike had made moonshine as
long as I could remember.
At least JT had fun on weekends; mine were right tame. Church
on Sunday morning and Sunday night wasnt too exciting. I
wondered why I couldnt find a willing woman. JT always did.
I was sent to Camp Shelby in the Mississippi piney woods, not
far from the Gulf of Mexico. Basic training was hard and hot in
the early spring, but not too bad. I was used to hard work. Rifle
practice was easy. When I finished the eight weeks of basic training,
I became a BAR man. Only the best riflemen could carry this heavy
automatic rifle. I found out later that even though my BAR was
almost twice as heavy as an infantrymans rifle, it had its
good points. It was about the safest weapon in the infantry. I
was the guy who hunkered down to the side or behind a wall to
give covering fire to the poor devils advancing across open fields
with nothing to protect them but a cotton shirt.
I daydreamed about the farm, the flat fields, the green sluggish
bayous, the low places full of cypress trees and oaks and poplars
and palmettos and snakes, the long rows of cotton that looked
like acres of popcorn when all the bolls were open, the cotton
gins that spewed a nasty smoke in the fall that stung my eyes
and choked my nose. I loved that smell. It was the smell of money,
the smell of Christmas, the smell of presents for Mamma and the
girls, for a few things for Daddy and me. The U. S. army might
have owned me then, but I could still dream about life at home
in a better time.
We trained and trained and trained some more. We spent days in
the field living rough; we hiked for miles; we practiced small
group tactics; we even practiced loading into small boats and
assaulting beaches. How could they train us any more? We were
Everyone had furlough before shipping out. I stood on crowded
trains for two days to get home for a week. It was worth it. Mamma
and the girls seemed fine. Daddy had lost weight, seemed pale
and listless and short of breath. I hugged Mamma, Daddy, Baby
Sis, and Ruthie, and then JT, Betty, and Mike too.
I lazed around the farm, ate mighty good and fished with JT, even
though it was picking time. Picking could just do without JT that
week. I didnt shoot doves. I had enough of shooting.
JT stayed on the farm for almost three years after the war started.
Finally, big money in the defense plants up North pulled him away.
Mamma wrote that JT had been kind of sorry around the place for
about a yearseemed more interested in women than working.
We had been born on the same day, had played together, had worked
together, had shared most everything we had. Partners dont
leave like thatbut JT did. How could he just up and desert
his family? Both families? How could he do that? Family dont
do that, but JT did. I was kinda hurt, kinda mad. JT ought not
to have done that.
1944 I was in England. I had survived North Africa and Sicily.
I dont know if I had killed any Germans or not. It didnt
matter. I had done my job, and I was alive. I was now a buck sergeant.
The only reason I was a sergeant was that I had survivedno
other reason, no big honor in that. I made a little more money,
but there wasnt much to spend it on except for the short
time we were in England. Cigarettes and chocolates were more valuable
than money everywhere else I went.
At Normandy, I was lucky. Our squad landed in support, three days
after the first landings. We fought across France and Belgium
and into Germany. I missed the big battle in Belgium. Thank God
I led a squad for over a year. We took our turn going on patrol,
leading the point on advances, setting up the first line of defense,
being the canary in the mine. Who cared about us? Nobody.
It wasnt long after the Germans surrendered that I got orders
for home. I had been in the army for almost four years; I had
fought in North Africa, in Sicily, in France, in Belgium, in Germany.
I deserved to go home. Let the young ones finish it.
I mustered out in December, 1945. Home was grandthe best
Christmas I ever had. I ate ham and eggs and grits and roast pork
and fried chicken and greens and beans and rice and buttermilk
and cornbread and blackberry cobbler. Who could ask for anything
better than that? Betty still cooked the best food I ever ate.
It felt strange without JT. Nobody had heard from him for over
a year. He had never been one to write; Betty and Mike had not
been ones to read much either. But still, someone should have
heard somethingbut not a word. I didnt like that one
Daddy was poorly. He coughed a lot, could barely walk from his
chair to the table, had pains in his back and in his legs. There
was no way he could put in a crop this year. It seemed it would
be up to me. It would be a whole lot easier than leading a patrol
behind German linesnothing could be harder than that. This
would be a snap. Even if we had a crop failure, nobody would die.
But Daddy did. The doctor wasnt sure just what was wrong
until he sent Daddy to Greenville for x-rays. They found a big
tumor in his lung and places where it had spread to his bones.
Nothing to do but go home to die. He got weaker and weaker and
just seemed to fade away.
I took over the farm. Somebody had to. I was born here. Daddy
would die here. Uncle Floyd was buried here. There was no way
I could ever leave.
We got the planting done and spent hot summer days plowing and
hoeing. The cotton was coming right along. It was a good crop
One night, just as I was going to bed, the phone rang.
Long distance. Collect call from Mr. JT Langston to Mr.
Ill take it.
Mr. Will, its JT. Im stuck in Pontiac, Michigan.
I aint had a bite to eat in two days. Send me twenty dollars
and a bus ticket home.
I can use another tractor driver. Ill wire money for
the ticket to the Greyhound station tomorrow.
I hung up the phone. JT could just go hungry two more daysit
wouldnt kill him.
We werent partners any more.
Fleet grew up in rural Mississippi. He earned BA and MD degrees
from Vanderbilt University. He was a faculty member in the Vanderbilt
Department of Pediatrics for nine years before entering private
practice in the Nashville, Tennessee, area. He began creative
writing shortly after retiring in 1998 and published his first
book in 2000.