Palm trees in a storm.


Copyright WRBJr Living Trust

During the Vietnam unpleasantness my grandmother who raised me was more traumatized than I was when the Army drafted me at age 22. And that’s saying a lot. She’d been just as afraid during my Florida swamp-running years, eluding gators, water moccasins, coral snakes and lethal moonshiners while out hunting.

Unlike her, I figured I was just as at home in humid jungles as any black-pajama ghost with an AK-47. But by 22 I was well-started on my career as a newspaperman and author, known for my maverick ways and for not suffering fools gladly. Military regimentation and the Army’s demand for conformity and subservience, kowtowing to so-called “superiors,” non-coms and officers, was not going to be a good fit.

The day I was inducted, my grandfather counseled me to hold my temper because I might hurt somebody bad. Heartfelt advice from a former Able Bodied Seaman in the coal-burning Navy. He’d been “sent out” on a BCD after nearly killing a Chief Petty Officer with his fists for calling him a lazy nigger. Friends and co-workers were laying bets how soon I’d rebel, punch out some asshole, and wind up in Leavenworth.

My grandmother didn’t think it funny. On top of her worry about foreign swamps and dangerous spiders and snakes and lethal little men in conical hats, she worried I was too soft and sensitive to face a wide cruel world, personified by hard-bitten drill sergeants. I’d never been away from home more than overnight before and she always “worried me home” until I showed up. She couldn’t follow me to Basic Combat Training to watch over me — but her letters could.

She resolved to write daily, giving all the everyday home details to keep me grounded. During my two years she wrote so many letters she numbered them just in case I couldn’t read postmarks: June Number 1, 2, 3 and so forth. A lot of months the total letters numbered thirty. When the mail caught up with me wherever the Army sent me, I could read home news in sequence, almost like being there. Invariably she opened each letter describing how the weather was. From my “Letters from Home” Rubbermaid tub:

The rain beats a dreary singsong tune against the windowpanes and the trees stand quiet and still, silvery drops of water clinging to their leaves like teardrops in the eyes of a woman trying hard not to cry….

Outside the birds are gaily singing and the sun plays peekaboo with some soft white clouds, very beautiful, but you know pessimistic old Ma, it reminds me of the way the man described the last day in “Alas Babylon,” watching the woman putter around in her flowers and the boy riding down the street on a bicycle….

Pat Frank had been a reporter on the Jacksonville Journal before I was. His novel about nuclear apocalypse was a favorite of hers. She took it as a cautionary tale of how the Cold War would end — with a bang, not a whimper.

Just another day, the fog was so thick over the ocean this morning until a big aircraft carrier out there looked like a ghost ship, right now it’s partly cloudy and cool, with a vagrant breeze, scattering the dead palm fronds around, more reminiscent of fall than spring….

Somewhere in there she fell and broke her right arm badly. The next letter was my mother’s about the break, and with her free-style spelling she gave me the title for this tale of a grandmother’s love:

I’m sure Mama gave you the Whether Report and outside of that there’s nothing new, and that’s not newMama says she can’t wear her teeth because she could get them in with her left hand but she’s afraid she couldn’t get them out. Brake your (right) arm and you can’t wear your teeth…Mama says she had plenty of broken dreams but she had to wait 63 years to get a broken bone, and she’ll write you about it when she can master the typewriter with her left hand. She tried a little today but says her mind goes faster than her hunt and peck system. But anyway, she says, the broken bone will heal but the broken dreams won’t….

My grandmother with right arm in cast, teaching herself to type left-handed in my “office,” the corner of the living room where I wrote my first published novel before I was drafted. Yes in fact I did use an old wicker bottom “sewing rocker” long after she got rid of her Singer.

Everywhere I went in the Army (as luck would have it, never to Vietnam) mail call was almost a sacred ritual for soldiers. The Army earned my grudging respect by doing a very good job to keep the mail from home coming. Every unit I was in had a soldier designated mail clerk whose only responsibility was to find and bring us our mail from a central Army post office (APO). I don’t think I ever lost a letter or package of goodies from home.

For me, the morale boost made it less difficult to endure the rest of the routine Army chickenshit about haircuts, having to shave twice a day, and making bunks tight enough to bounce a coin. In the hiatus as she fought my typewriter, my grandmother got my grandfather who never finished grade school and was essentially illiterate to write:

Will answer your letter. This leaves us all about the same we have good weather. The M-14 won’t come home with you so shoot the .45 for you have one here at home. And for the gals these over here are all right and they have everything that they have over there and then some. I was talking to one the other day and she asked me what I would do if I had a live rattlesnake in one pocket and a rubber with a hole in it in the other pocket. I looked at her and she said I wouldn’t f,,, with either one of them, so you see they give good advice over here. Take good care of yourself and keep writing to mama….

Before long her correspondence resumed, no longer in her flowing handwriting but awkwardly typed pages. The “hunt-and-peck” sentences reported her difficulties:

Well the dr. cut the cast in half, length-wise and says I am to start soaking, and massage, but of course it’s agony to move it, Frances said to type with it but I can’t, not yet. I know I have got to use this arm, and I will don’t ever doubt that….

The day has been warm, even people swimming, they look unreal to me, I feel like most of the time I’m looking at a science-fiction movie. Well it’s passed twilight now, “fust dark” as the colored folks used to say down in South Georgia, the time when smoke from the supper fires floated lazily from the crooked chimneys to mingle its odor with that of frying home-cured bacon, buttermilk biscuits and boiling coffee, the end of a hard day’s work. I think that’s the trouble with the world today, no end of the day….

It’s cloudy and warm this morning, a sullen cloudiness. The trees stand silent and still, not even a dead frond moving. Damp and cloudy makes my fingers stiff. I had a migraine yesterday and so didn’t get this letter finished…

After Georgia and Germany I was assigned to a NATO command in France. Le Gran Charles was getting headlines threatening to kick us down the road to Belgium. She noticed:

I’ve been uneasy ever since DeGaulle started about pulling out of NATO. Do you know if it will affect you? If you know anything about it that isn’t classified, tell me about it….

When DeGaulle made good his threat I wound up not in Belgium but Washington State, cadre at a post training still more troops for Vietnam.

Today was dark and dismal, and the twilight fell quickly, under dark and stormy skies. It reminded me of Hurricane Dora when you drove up, it was just beginning to rain hard, and said you had just become a registered voter in Duval County and I replied by saying I had just made reservations at the George Washington Hotel….

Then news the car I drove that day had given up the ghost:

The Chevrolet made its last run the other night, the crank shaft. Earl had gone to get R. to take her to a track meet. I told him to take the Barracuda but R. preferred the Chevrolet. He broke down on Atlantic Boulevard. Ode had to go get him and pull him in. I haven’t got room to bury it so I’m just going to let that Carl have it to get what he can out of the tires and get rid of the rest of it. I won’t shed any tears because you could no longer depend on it….

She mentioned burial because she already had told me, when the Cushman motor scooter died that served my brother and me for many teen adventures, she and my mother buried it in the backyard rather than let a stranger have it. You had to know my grandmother to believe her. I never asked my mother if it was true, when she took up some of the writing slack as her mother fought my old typewriter A lifelong calorie counter, my mother wrote about food of course, and about my brother’s trying lose weight to get in the Navy to avoid the draft:

The Roman Catholics have been given permission to eat this Lent except on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. They’ll end up like Episcopals, we eat all the time…Earl has to go to the Navy recruiter to weigh again tomorrow. He was to 215 last week but he wants to go down to 200. I want him to start eating a little more. He could eat over 400 calories a day than he does and still lose two pounds a week but he says I cheat on calories. Well if I’m going to count as many calories for a teaspoon as the book says, I make sure, real sure, I have a good teaspoon. He says that is why I am still fat. But I’ve been fighting the Battle of the Budge longer than him. I guess you could call me a lifer in this army, and he’s just in training….

Then more (one-hand-typed) Whether Reports:

The weather changed here today, almost cold, cloudy, dark and grey, but it suits my mood better than the sunshine in all its glory. An early dusk settles over the Beaches, the rain is beating a dreary singsong tune against the side of the house. A threatening twilight, even the birds have hushed their night songs….

It’s 6:30 now and the sun is shining but it rained all night and then, at exactly 12 noon, the sky grew black with a terrific roaring like a dozen low-flying planes accompanied by rolling thunder and weird flashes of lightning. It made me sure there was going to be a tornado. It did a lot of damage in Jacksonville and North Jacksonville is still without power. Arthritis from the wet weather is giving both arms fits and across the ocean it’s clouding up again though the sun is high in the sky as though determined not to let the night have its appointed hours….

After the hottest sweltering day I think I have ever seen (or felt) the thunder rolled across the Beaches like bowling balls in a vaulted stadium. The clouds moved in from across the St. John’s, like a curtain shrouding the earth in sudden darkness. As ominous as it looked it brought only a little shower of rain. Most things that look so fierce and threatening turn out like that. I wish I could believe that….

My mother weighed in, having read my letter about being in a fancy Seattle hotel on a three-day pass, not sure I had enough money to check out:

Well I’ve been waiting in that hotel room in Seattle for a week now. Don’t know if you are still there (washing dishes, yet) or not. I was sick in Paris for over two weeks before I found out what had become of you. There are certainly some long blanks in your communications. Everything is the same here, absolutely the same. People will be paying to get in to see us, it is worse than a monkey show now. Mama throws away an empty wax-paper box, then I come along and get out another one, then Daddy shows up, wants to know if the old one was really empty, so begins the search for the empty wax-paper box….

Everyday stuff; it was like being there. Then my grandmother wrote about a visit from a woman I was quite sure I was in love with — to my grandmother’s disgust:

Well it is 5:40 C. has come and gone…She stayed a long time, when she left the twilight shadows were already casting long fingers down the lane and tho this was a different twist to an often-lived story, the ghosts of all yesterdays came back unbidden to haunt me. My one finger on my left hand will not keep up with my thoughts so I will have to wait to tell you all the thoughts and emotions that I felt, you can rest assured the unsaid things screamed louder than the said things….

Later though she was happy a favorite niece of hers found love:

Well the sky is grey and dull and a soft gentle breeze with a hint of fall in it cools the Beaches. Khole’s new husband said he was discharged from the Army ten years ago and went to Augusta. He never worked until he married Khole, he doesn’t smoke or drink, had no girlfriends, doesn’t read much, no hobbies, doesn’t care for movies, no family there or anywhere. I’ve been idly wondering what he done in Augusta for ten years, any ideas?

Khole looks better than I ever saw her, and he makes Melvin bathe and go to church regular, wonders never cease. Maybe all Khole needed was someone to love her. He rides shotgun guard for a Wells Fargo truck now. I told him he should get a cowboy hat and boots if he was going to ride for Wells Fargo. Well I had to say something, didn’t I?

Melvin was Khole’s steeplejack brother (commercial chimney-sweep for factory smokestacks) who went on the road as a carny hand in season, and notoriously soap-averse. I still was smiling at the image of a scrubbed-clean Melvin when news from home turned grim. My brother’s girlfriend had been killed in a rollover car crash while he served on an aircraft carrier on Yankee Station. The rest of the story: she was with another boy, a known rake.

Got a letter today from Earl, first one in answer to the news of R.’s death, I can’t exactly tell whether it completely threw him or not. He wrote a beautiful poem (as I told him to do) about it. He writes very despondent about it, but I can’t tell if that is his poetic nature or deep despair, and only time can tell that….

The Northeaster blew itself out as it usually does and last night the weatherman said gale warnings were up in Seattle. I wondered if you even knew it or paid any mind at all. You would notice if it was snowing, but gales, Northeasters and hurricanes are just commonplace to you. I am sort of worried about how Earl still feels about R.s death. Looking up a word in the old dictionary, I found a piece of paper folded over a flower on which I had written Earl’s Girl, R. for Remembrance, March 1965. I added Black March. I remember that he was very unhappy about that dance, I think it was at her church, and he had come in and threw the flower down by the record player. I picked it up half in jest thinking someday he might want a souvenir. I wasn’t in a very good mood on account of you having to go away, but all that is how memories get recorded in the dictionary, all woven together….

The Whether Reports kept coming as news from home got darker and darker:

The wind howls like a banshee around this house, I’m sitting at the dining room, shades of yesterday when you wrote “The Man on The High Wire” while the backlash of Hurricane Dora howled across the Beaches. They operated on your Daddy Wednesday but Dr. C. said he would have to go back and have those toes took off, possibly more. After a long boring day the darkness finally pushed the long lingering twilight into eternity and if I ever go back in the time tunnel I sure hope I skip this period. Ode will not accept the fact that life has changed direction, that he is handicapped, a cripple, and sick besides that.

You know I actually believe this old house is haunted. When things get quiet the weirdest noises begin and right this minute without any apparent reason a can of candy sitting here on a table just moved. Oh I know there is a logical explanation but it gets hard to explain. Sure glad I’m not afraid of ghosts, but sometimes my pulse will quicken….

Not ghosts, but diabetes and gangrene came to haunt the beach house where I grew up:

Florida is in the grip of a record-breaking freeze, down to 21 this morning. If spring ever comes this year, maybe before hurricane season…Ode said he would have to get out of your office when you came home, and that is impossible. Of course he can’t go up and down the stairs with his leg cut off. Of course you could write up in his room, so don’t worry about the changes until you are home and then we shall see what we shall see…everybody knows the setup here with two floors just won’t do. The man who makes the artificial legs will make it on time payments. I’m not sure he is ready for it, they told me it was only a matter of time until his other one went too….

I got out of the Army, went home briefly, discovered my old newspaper had become chickenshit as the Army while I was away — or maybe I just noticed it more — and moved to a new job in another state. My grandfather had adjusted amazingly well to a pair of prosthetic legs and my grandmother had the typing down pat now, both hands. She kept writing about the weather as if I still was overseas:

Cold and raining, a stiff Northeast wind spanks the high grass covering those ghastly old rocks and sending showers of foam-laden spray across Glickstein’s lawn. It has been terrible across the nation so they say, sort of like 1917. A fast dusk is falling, no twilight tonight….Earl got out of the Navy yesterday, it was exactly four years from the night he took me to see “The Cincinnati Kid” and your Daddy cooked the first nut cake to send to you in Germany, and I made him cook another one to send you for Christmas….

My brother enrolled in a Central Florida university and got married. She grew more and more melancholy:

Monday morning after a gloomy rainy Sunday the sun came out and it was a beautiful afternoon, now it’s grey and overcast again. Sort of a wishy-washy day, the Christmas season doesn’t do anything for me but make me more miserable…I’m sure the world as we know it will be destroyed, very probably as in “Alas Babylon” when a mistake set off the fireworks….

World War Two was much on her mind that year. So was my long-absent father, the young “sweet-natured” GI my mother married at age 16:

I feel very something-or-other today, Pearl Harbor Day, and the dramatic things that was said after all the this’s and that’s, when they rationed the sugar, and was going to draft the women. Inez (my sister) called and said, Don’t let that soldier get away, that was Bill. Oh well there’s no use to dwell on the past, but it does make the future, doesn’t it?

My father survived combat from Normandy to Hurtgen physically sound, but came home traumatized and “acting out.” My mother did not tolerate his bad behavior long; she sent him packing before I was four years old and married a high-school boyfriend home from his own war in the Pacific. He lasted just long enough to make me a brother before he worked her last nerve and was gone too.

My grandparents raised us while she worked to “put money at the house.” My grandmother wasn’t thrilled how her own sons turned out and had seen us as a second chance to get it right. When we were teenagers she often expressed a wistful dream about having her old rocking chair by the fire of a snug hunting cabin while Earl and I left for hunting adventures or work, but always came home. Now she was lonely for her wandering grandsons:

As Bill said in Atlanta you had all the material you needed in your own family for the greatest human emotion story ever told. Can you write it? Well enough of that. You got married and there won’t be no hunting lodge with the dogs sleeping before an open fire….

There never was. She never wrote the novel she always was going to write, called “Held to Answer.” As she approached eighty she began to complain she’d lost all the sense she ever had. She wanted me to come home, take dictation, and write it for her. But I was living on the other side of the country by then, raising kids of my own.

By the time I went home for a visit she had descended into the shadows of Alzheimer’s Disease. There were days she didn’t even recognize me. Her “greatest human emotion story ever” remained untold.

All that remains are the Whether Reports.



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Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.