I was standing on the train platform with nothing but the clothes on my back, the papers they’d said to bring with me, and the kind of anger you have to be eighteen and stupid to hold on to. I was staring out at the tracks, trying to will the train to come even though I knew it wasn’t due for while, when I looked over and saw this girl from my high school, Shannon Fielding. I knew who she was—Stillwater was about the size of a postage stamp—but we’d never spoken: she was beautiful, smart, way the hell out of my delinquent league. She was standing there with her hair in a braid down her back and two suitcases next to her, wearing a scarf around her neck like a movie star, looking like she knew right where she was going and nobody could tell her different.
I was pretty much all balls and no brains at that age, but even I knew a girl like that would turn me down flat—except she looked straight at me and said, “Are you going to college?” She sounded a little less confident than she looked, like she was hoping I’d say yes.
“No,” I said, “Marines. Have to report to Parris Island.”
She nodded and didn’t say anything, and I had enough brains to know that I didn’t want to just stand there like a moron when a girl like that had talked to me, so I asked her if she was going to college. She nodded.
“Penn State?” I asked, because where we lived, if you went at all, that was where you went. And her family didn’t have a lot of money—my dad and hers had worked in the mine together, but Mr. Fielding lost one of his legs and part of his mind in an accident on the job—but she was so smart, I was sure she could have gotten a scholarship or something to Penn State.
“No,” she said. “Radcliffe.” I probably looked blank, because she sighed a little and added, “Harvard.”
“Shit,” I said, even though I knew you weren’t supposed to say things like that around a girl, but even I’d heard of Harvard. “That’s in Boston, right?”
She nodded again. “Well, Cambridge, actually. It’s next to Boston, or maybe part of it. I’m not really sure.”
“You’ve never been there?” I realized later that it was a pretty stupid question—people in Stillwater weren’t the travelling kind, and her family didn’t have the money to do it anyway.
She shook her head. “No.”
“What do you want to study there?” I asked.
She said, “Italian literature,” like it was the name of the most delicious food in the world, just let it roll off her tongue, and I won’t lie, it made me want to study Italian literature a little bit, too. Or maybe just study her—I was eighteen, like I said.
So of course I busted out with, “You’re going off to someplace you’ve never seen to study Italian?”
She gave me a look that made me want to wither into the ground. “Have you ever been where you’re going?”
I had to admit that I hadn’t.
“So you’re going off to someplace you’ve never seen to maybe get in a war?”
“The war’s over,” I pointed out.
“There’s always going to be another one,” she said.
“Then I’ll serve with distinction,” I said—I didn’t even know I was saying it until it was out of my mouth, and then I realized that I really meant it.
She smiled at me then, a real smile, and said, “I know you will,” and I felt my ears turn red.
It occurred to me that I was by myself because I’d told my father to go fuck himself and stormed out, but Shannon probably hadn’t done something like that. “Where are your parents?” I asked.
Her eyes flickered away, towards the train tracks, like maybe the train would show up and she wouldn’t have to answer. “Daddy doesn’t go out much these days, and Mama doesn’t like to leave him alone.”
I didn't know a lot about girls, but I was pretty sure there was a whole planet in that sentence that Shannon wasn’t talking about.
We were both going to Philadelphia, about four hours away, but from there she’d go north to Boston and I’d go south to Beaufort, South Carolina. I sat next to her on the train because a young lady should have an escort when travelling alone—my mom had been a stickler for things like that, and she’d have risen from the grave and had my head if I’d done anything else. Plus it wasn’t exactly a chore to spend four hours with a beautiful girl, even if I didn’t expect to ever see her again. I sure as hell wasn’t coming back to Stillwater, and what would a Harvard girl want with a jarhead like me?
But when we were getting close to Philadelphia, I said, “Listen, uh, would you…when you get to Boston…just so that I know you got there safely and everything.”
Shannon looked kind of confused, probably because I hadn’t managed a complete sentence out of that entire endeavor.
I tried again. “I mean…would you write me and let me know you got there safe?”
She smiled again, and if I hadn’t been sitting, I probably would have fallen on my ass. “Of course, Jethro.” She paused, like she was thinking about something. “Do they let you have letters when you’re in basic training?”
“It’s the Marines, not prison,” I said, and she laughed. “And I think even in prison you can get mail.”
“OK,” she said. “As long as you’ll write me too and let me know you got there safely?” I was a little offended—I was going to be a Marine, and I was sure I could take on any dirtbag who got in my way—but she just said, “It’s a longer trip for you, after all.” And I was still a little offended, but she wasn’t somebody you could stay offended at for very long.
I’d only been to Philadelphia once—my parents took me for a Phillies game for my tenth birthday. We drove, so I’d never been in the train station, which looked like the kind of building where Congress should meet or something—it had these huge windows, and ceilings like a church, and even columns and statutes. Shannon breathed out, “Wow.” We probably looked like a couple of hicks standing there staring—Stillwater didn’t have anything like this.
It turned out her train wasn’t for an hour, and mine wasn’t for almost two. I was going to find a place that sold sandwiches, but Shannon said she’d brought food with her. So I bought us some Cokes and we sat on one of the long benches—they looked just like church pews.
When it came time for her train to board, she kissed me on the cheek and said, “Semper fi.”
Because I didn’t take Italian in high school, I had to talk the department head into even letting me sit for the placement test. I placed into a third-year course—the same as the juniors and even some seniors!—except then the department head made me talk to him in Italian, and he said my pronunciation and accent were really bad. Well, what does he expect when I had to teach it to myself from library books! He’s letting me stay in the class, but I have to have a special tutor so that I can learn to say everything correctly. I said that I wasn’t sure I could afford that (translation: I know I can’t afford that), but he said there was a department discretionary fund or something. I hate the idea of being a charity case…but I guess I am one no matter what, being a scholarship kid. So I hate the idea of being more of a charity case—but I hate even more the idea of being shunted into a class lower than what I can do.
My roommate is a Kennedy. Like an honest-to-God, one-of-them-was-the-president Kennedy. Her name is Maryrose. She’s deaf, but she reads lips and she talks pretty normally. I thought she’d be a snob because she has so much money, but so far she seems really nice—she asked me about my family, and wanted to see all our pictures from home, and our yearbook. I showed her your class picture and also the football team picture, and she said you were cute. So now you know that a Kennedy thinks you’re cute. ☺ (can’t draw a wink, so I drew a smiley face instead)
I have never been this tired in my whole life.
And that includes when Bob McGehern and I stayed up for three days drinking beer, smoking weed, and setting off bottle rockets. Forget I wrote that, OK? Guys do dumb things when school lets out.
This week is swim qualification, and I think I’m going to smell like chlorine for the rest of my life. Some of the recruits came in not even knowing how to swim, but my dad taught me in the river and I used to go swimming pretty often during the summer, so I was able to pass the minimum CWS (that means Combat Water Survival) and try for a higher level…which they didn’t tell me would mean swimming in full combat gear. Which is a rifle, helmet, flak jacket, and pack. At least I know nobody will ever drown me—assuming I don’t drown myself doing this stupid qualification.
How are your classes? Don’t take this the wrong way, but “The History of Modern Moral Philosophy” sounds like the most boring thing I can think of. How is your Italian tutor? I wouldn’t want to feel like a charity case either, but look at it this way: Probably everybody else at Harvard went to schools where they taught Italian and stuff like that, and you shouldn’t have to take a class you’d be bored in (except for “The History of Modern Moral Philosophy,” but apparently you want to take that for some reason beyond my comprehension) and where you wouldn’t be learning very much just because
shitty Stillwater High was all we had. If you’re going to Harvard (or Radcliffe, whatever), you should be learning as much as you can. Plus, if I can swim with a damn rifle and pack on my back, you can go to an Italian tutor.
I found out something really weird today: Maryrose prefers sign language. (She went to a boarding school in Connecticut that taught it as well as speaking and lip-reading.) That’s not the weird thing—the weird thing is that Maryrose’s family wouldn’t learn it. They said it was too hard, and that she would have to read lips and talk everywhere anyway, so she “might as well start at home” (her dad’s exact words). So I asked if she would rather I use sign language. She asked if I knew it, and I said no but that I could learn. I checked with our RA, and there are classes on campus! They’re only an hour a week (not for credit), but if I don’t feel like I’m learning enough, I can always get some books from the library, and Maryrose said she’d help me too. They’re $5 for the semester for undergraduates, and I should be able to pick up a few extra hours at the library to pay for it. I’m so excited!
That gas-chamber thing sounded really scary. Was it? It’s good that you’ll know how to use a gas mask, but I hope you never have to in real life. It’s weird—I read your letters where you tell me all the things that you’re doing, and they sound difficult and intense but also sometimes fun (I used to like target shooting with my dad before he got hurt)—but then I think about the situations in which you might need those skills. I know you didn’t join the Marines to sit behind a desk, and I try to be realistic about wars and politics (Vietnam’s over, but what’s the next one going to be?), but I’ve also started praying that every country in the world will magically decide to declare peace and put flowers in their hair. (Shut up, they’re my prayers, I can ask for whatever I want.)
You were right about the tutor: My pronunciation is improving a lot. Rule #47: Don’t let your stupid pride get in the way, especially after you hear an actual Italian person speak Italian and realize that your accent is, objectively, embarrassing.
I’ve moved from night hikes and the firing range to washing dishes. It’s part of Team Week: everybody in the company gets various (menial) jobs around the depot. Honestly, it’s a nice break, and I never thought I’d say that about scrubbing pots. We’re now “senior” recruits, which just means that a new class is in so there are people even greener than we are wandering around. I wonder if I looked that miserable my first week.
My buddy from New Hampshire got a letter from his family and they said it was snowing there. Is it snowing in Boston? It’s definitely not snowing here; it’s still hot
as fuck. I really hope it cools down some, because next week is A-line, aka field training, aka practice war. Basically, put together everything we’ve learned and use it. I think it’s actually going to be cool, although it’d be nice if we weren’t dying of humidity (and if the DIs weren’t screaming at us the entire time, but that’s even less likely than the temperature deciding to drop 30 degrees because I want it to).
The gas chamber was
fucking terrifying. Sorry if I sound like a wimp, but I can’t put it any nicer than that. We learned in class how to use the masks, but it’s a whole different ballgame when you’re in there and the gas is all around you and the other recruits are freaking out and the DIs are telling you to take your mask off. A few guys just couldn’t (or didn’t) do it and got dropped. I got through it, but it was a close thing. And you have to do it again every year. Count me not excited for that.
How is sign language going? It’s not everybody who would decide to learn a whole new language because it’s what their friend speaks (or signs). It takes a pretty great person to do that.
We read this poem for Italian class today. It’s by Francesco Petrarca, or Petrarch—he was a great writer and thinker who lived in the 14th century. The professor made me read it out loud, and I sounded so much less embarrassing than I did the first week of the semester! Still not as good as the group of girls who actually went to Italy for an entire year (Harvard has a lot of study-abroad programs; I would love to do that so much, but I don’t know if my scholarship will cover it—I’m going to find out, though), but not bad for a miner’s daughter from Bumfuck, Pennsylvania. (Look, Jethro, I used the word “fuck” in a letter! In fact, I have actually heard it before, and it will not pierce my delicate ears or eyes and cause them to bleed, and so you can stop crossing out the swearing.) Anyway, here’s the poem:
Mille fïate, o dolce mia guerrera,
per aver co’ begli occhi vostri pace
v’aggio proferto il cor; mâ voi non piace
mirar sí basso colla mente altera.
Et se di lui fors’altra donna spera,
vive in speranza debile et fallace:
mio, perché sdegno ciò ch’a voi dispiace,
esser non può già mai cosí com’era.
Or s’io lo scaccio, et e’ non trova in voi
ne l’exilio infelice alcun soccorso,
né sa star sol, né gire ov’altri il chiama,
poria smarrire il suo natural corso:
che grave colpa fia d’ambeduo noi,
et tanto piú de voi, quanto piú v’ama.
That’s the Italian; it’s so beautiful that I just had to write it out. Here’s the English, not my translation. (I tried translating it myself, but didn’t do a very good job.)
A thousand times to make my peace I sought
With your fair eyes, O my sweet warrior foe,
And offer you my heart; but little thought
Had your proud spirit to look down so low.
Yet if another would that heart enchain,
She lives in fickle hopes and dreams untrue;
Since I despise all things that you disdain,
It is no longer mine when scorned by you.
If driven forth, it cannot find at all
Harbor with you upon its wandering way,
Nor stand alone, nor go where others call,
Far from its natural pathway must it stray.
On both our souls this heavy sin will rest,
But most on yours, for you my heart loves best.
I had absolutely no idea what to make of that.
Girls had made moves on me before, but never by letter after we met in a train station and never using Italian poetry from the fourteenth century. Look, I’m not a poet; I went to school to shoot guns, not analyze words. But the poem seemed to be saying that she wanted me, but that I would never stoop so low as to want her back. Which was flat-out ridiculous, but one thing I did know was that girls could be ridiculous. But on the other hand, maybe she was just showing me something interesting that she learned in her class, and I did know that when it came to poetry and art, sometimes how you said something was more important than what you actually said. Maybe she was just trying to show me something pretty.
Graduation was in early December, and then we had ten days of leave before we had to report to Camp Lejeune. I didn’t know what to do with the leave: My grandmother on my mother’s side had written and invited me to stay with them, but I’d be damned if I was going back to Stillwater. I thought maybe I’d just report early and save the leave, but my buddy Ben, the one from New Hampshire, invited me up to stay with him and his folks. I’d never been to New Hampshire before, and it seemed like a shame to get through boot camp and then just go right back for more training without a break, so I took him up on it.
At some point I looked at a map and realized that Exeter, New Hampshire, and Boston, Massachusetts, aren’t that far apart. I asked Ben, and he said you could get there by bus or train in about an hour and a half. Then he said, “So you’re going to see your girlfriend?”
I said that Shannon wasn’t my girlfriend.
“Whatever you say, man, but I don’t know anybody else getting letters every day from a girl who wasn’t his girlfriend.”
I’m pretty sure I told him to go fuck himself, and he punched me in the shoulder.
I wrote to Shannon and said that I was going to be close by to Boston and it’d be nice to see her if she was free.
It would be so great to see you! I have a paper to write on Petrarch, but for you, Jethro, I will give up my Italian boyfriend for a day. I’m sure he won’t mind, since he’s been dead for 600 years.
I’d ask why you’re going to be in New Hampshire instead of Stillwater, but I have a feeling it’s the same reason your dad wasn't with you on the train platform the day you left for the Marines.
I live in Massachusetts Hall (in the same room as John Adams, allegedly). If you walk in Johnston Gate (on Peabody Street; it’s big), it’s the first building to your right. Hard to miss.
We read this today in my American lit class. It’s by Muriel Rukeyser, a woman poet who lives in New York City. Someday I want to go to New York City and sit in a cafe in Greenwich Village and smoke a cigarette in a holder and look extraordinarily cool.
This has nothing
to do with
as so many are
(among the smaller creatures)
(and this species
is very small
next in order to
the amoeba, the beginning one)
strength another joy
this is what
the paramecium does:
lies down beside
of the nucleus of each
for some bits
of the nucleus
of the other
This is called
the conjugation of the paramecium.
I really had no idea what to make of that.
I had to ask the other guys what a paramecium was—we were in the mess hall, and the question got passed about halfway down the table before somebody had an answer. Of course, then everybody wanted to know why I was asking about a microscopic thing with hair on it, which led to the type of jokes you’d expect. I told the guys that Shannon had talked about them because of her science class. By this time everybody knew who Shannon was, and there was some oohing and some commentary that I ignored, since it was better to get made fun of for a few minutes than to say that I thought she was making a move on me using poetry about science. Or that maybe she just thought it was a cool poem and wanted me to read it, since it wasn’t like I was getting exposure to great works of literature in basic training. I decided, again, that girls were ridiculous.
The Friday we graduated, I flew up to New Hampshire with Ben’s family. It was the first time I’d ever been on an airplane, and apart from a few minutes when I thought my eardrums were going to explode, it wasn’t too bad. I’d left Stillwater with basically nothing, so all I had when I got to Ben’s place were my military-issues and the clothes I’d been wearing the day I’d reported to Parris Island. I had a little bit of money—my pay had kicked in on the first day—and it occurred to me that if I was going to show up at Harvard University (or Radcliffe College, I wasn’t really sure what the difference was since they seemed to be more or less the same place) and take a girl out, I should be wearing something other than my combat fatigues or the clothes I’d happened to be wearing when I walked out on my dad. I didn’t want to look like a jarhead grunt, but I was never going to look like a university man, and I wasn’t sure whether this was something where she showed me around Boston and we caught up in person, or whether it was something a little more, let’s say, formal.
Ben rolled his eyes and said, “Oh, for fuck’s sake,” a lot, but he did help me get some clothes. As it happened, there was a girl in Exeter that he wanted to impress, so he knew how it went. Then we declared that you did what you had to do for a fellow Marine, and we swore to never speak of it again.
I rode the train into Boston on Sunday morning. Then I had to decipher their public-transportation system, and I stared at the map for probably ten minutes before I figured out that I was at North Station, and I had to take either the Green or Orange line and then transfer at Park Street for the Red line, towards Alewife, to Harvard. (Who the hell names a place Alewife?)
Cambridge was crowded and loud to somebody who’d grown up in a small town. The streets were narrow, and some of them were even still made of cobblestone. And after three months in South Carolina, the wind was cutting and the cold was brutal, but luckily the university was right across the street. The gate was big, just like Shannon had said, and it looked like the kind of thing that could swing shut and close you out if it felt like you didn’t belong there. I sure didn’t feel like I belonged there, in the middle of all these kids with their money and their education and their bell-bottoms and their long hair, and it made me wonder how Shannon must feel, being there all the time.
Massachusetts Hall, home to both John Adams and Shannon Fielding, had a doorbell just like a regular house. I rang it, and Shannon ran out the door and into my arms.
I’m the only person alive who remembers the course of that day. Sometimes I think I want to tell it, so that it’s not forgotten—so that Shannon’s not forgotten—but most of the time I want those memories to die with me, something so precious that no one else will own them when I go to the grave.
Here’s one thing. I’m not telling you this because I want you to remember it, but because I want to remember it better myself.
Much later, Shannon and I were twisted up together in her bed—yeah, it was like that, and no, I’m not going into detail—and I was almost asleep when I heard her saying something. Whispering, more like. It definitely wasn’t in English, and when I asked her what it was, she said, “Spanish.”
“Woman,” I said, “how many languages do you know?”
“I took it in high school,” she told me.
“So what were you saying?” I asked.
“I’ll tell you in the morning,” Shannon said, but of course, with one thing and another, and trying to pull ourselves together to be presentable for Maryrose, who had kindly decided to stay over with another friend that night, I forgot.
On the train back to New Hampshire, I reached into my coat pocket for my ticket, and another piece of paper came out with it. The handwriting was Shannon’s—I would have recognized it anywhere by that time.
This is by Pablo Neruda. He was a Chilean poet and social activist who died just a couple of years ago. People in his country loved him so much that they defied a dictator and mourned in the streets when he died.
Al golpe de la ola contra la piedra indócil
la claridad estalla y establece su rosa
y el círculo del mar se reduce a un racimo,
a una sola gota de sal azul que cae.
Oh radiante magnolia desatada en la espuma,
magnética viajera cuya muerte florece
y eternamente vuelve a ser y a no ser nada:
sal rota, deslumbrante movimiento marino.
Juntos tú y yo, amor mío, sellamos el silencio,
mientras destruye el mar sus constantes estatuas
y derrumba sus torres de arrebato y blancura,
porque en la trama de estos tejidos invisibles
del agua desbocada, de la incesante arena,
sostenemos la única y acosada ternura.
I didn’t translate this, either: I could never have done it so beautifully.
There where the waves shatter on the restless rocks
the clear light bursts and enacts its rose,
and the sea-circle shrinks to a cluster of buds,
to one drop of blue salt, falling.
O bright magnolia bursting in the foam,
magnetic transient whose death blooms
and vanishes--being, nothingness--forever:
broken salt, dazzling lurch of the sea.
You and I, Love, together we ratify the silence,
while the sea destroys its perpetual statues,
collapses its towers of wild speed and whiteness:
because in the weavings of those invisible fabrics,
galloping water, incessant sand,
we make the only permanent tenderness.
I loved her, too.