Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Partners

Part 5

Bill Fleet


And then it hit—December, 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 wasn’t too exciting. I wondered why I couldn’t 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 infantryman’s 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.

Often, 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 practiced out.

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 didn’t 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 year—seemed 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 don’t leave like that—but JT did. How could he just up and desert his family? Both families? How could he do that? Family don’t do that, but JT did. I was kinda hurt, kinda mad. JT ought not to have done that.

By 1944 I was in England. I had survived North Africa and Sicily. I don’t know if I had killed any Germans or not. It didn’t 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 survived—no other reason, no big honor in that. I made a little more money, but there wasn’t 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 for that.

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 wasn’t 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 grand—the 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 something—but not a word. I didn’t like that one bit.

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 lines—nothing 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 wasn’t 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 so far.

One night, just as I was going to bed, the phone rang.

“Long distance. Collect call from Mr. JT Langston to Mr. Will Jones.”

“I’ll take it.”

“Mr. Will, it’s JT. I’m stuck in Pontiac, Michigan. I ain’t had a bite to eat in two days. Send me twenty dollars and a bus ticket home.”

“I can use another tractor driver. I’ll wire money for the ticket to the Greyhound station tomorrow.”

I hung up the phone. JT could just go hungry two more days—it wouldn’t kill him.

We weren’t partners any more.

***

Bill 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.

© Bill Fleet

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012