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Pen Pals

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Pen Pals

January 1968

The other guys all looked forward to it. Well sure they did, they all got letters from home. From their folks and their buddies and their sisters and their girlfriends. But he hated mail call, he never got a letter from anyone.

He didn't have anyone, just Merle. Merle was serving in the DMZ in Korea. Everyone thought the U.S. had left Korea years before but there was a huge U.S. military presence still there, and Merle had been deployed there for quite a long while. Anyway, it wasn't like he and Merle were going to be writing each other letters. They weren't that kind.

But shit, it did sort of get to him. He'd never admit it to anyone, he hardly admitted it to himself, but he was lonely. He wished he had someone who gave enough of a fuck about him to write him a letter once in a while.

The worst was Sarge made everyone go to mail call, it was an order, so he'd just sit there and act like he didn't give a fuck. And he tried hard not to.

Then one day Sarge called his name and damn if he didn't have a letter. He almost didn't know what to do with it. He stared at it until his buddy Grimes teased, "Shit Dixon, ya gonna open that letter or are ya just gonna admire the postage stamp?"

"Fuck you Grimes." And his buddy just laughed. The truth was Grimes was damn glad to see Dixon finally get a letter from someone.

What neither of them knew was that the Sarge had sent Daryl Dixon's name and service address to the Georgia Chapter of the American Red Cross. They had a program where they matched up soldiers who never received mail with folks who were willing to write letters to those soldiers.

Sarge liked the idea of the program and thought it was good for morale.

The letter was written on real pretty pink paper and there were little flowers up in the corner of it. The handwriting was small, delicate, perfect. She said her name was Beth Greene and that she'd gotten his name from her church as a soldier who was serving in Viet Nam, a soldier that might like to receive a letter from home.

She went on to tell him about herself. She lived on the family farm, she was 18 and in her senior year of high school. She liked music and horses and she liked fishing. She had an older brother Shawn and an older sister Maggie, both were away at college.

She said she didn't have any plans yet for after high school and that she liked living in a small town and on the farm. She just had no idea of what else she might want to try. She told him about the classes she was taking and about the music she liked and about playing the piano and guitar.

She said she sure would be happy if he would write her back, and she said she hoped they could write each other every week and be pen pals. She signed the letter: Your New Friend, Beth. And she'd drawn a little butterfly there next to her name.

The soldier was touched by the letter from this young woman he didn't know. She had taken the time to send him such a nice letter and tell him all about herself and ask if he'd please write her back. He couldn't recall that he'd ever written a letter to anyone but he wanted to write to her.

He got what he needed at the PX and he sat down and started to write his letter to Beth Greene. He just followed along with the way she'd written hers.

He told her his name was Daryl Dixon and that he was a private. He was nearly 20 and he'd graduated from high school when he was 18. He got his draft notice a week later.

He told her the Army offered a pretty cool deal if a soldier would extend their Viet Nam tour an additional 6 months. A guy got extra leave of 30 days in between the two tours. The Army would fly the soldier anywhere he wanted to spend those days off, free of charge. Even the flight time didn't count towards that time off.

He told her he didn't have any big plans and so it had sounded like a pretty fine deal to him, because the other thing was a guy got paid more money when he was serving in the war zone and Uncle Sam didn't take taxes from war zone soldiers. So even though he already had six months into his 12 month Viet Nam tour, he still had a year to go.

He told her his parents had both died but he sure didn't tell her how. He told her his only other relation was a brother, Merle, who was also in the army serving in Korea.

All the guys seemed to have snapshots of a girl in their wallet and he always had wished he had one too. So he included a Polaroid picture of himself another soldier had taken of him standing next to a jeep. He told her he'd like to be her pen pal, and he asked her could she please send him a wallet size picture of herself if she still wanted to write. He signed the letter: Your Friend in Viet Nam, Daryl Dixon. And he drew a little picture of an arrow next to his name.

He didn't know why he was so nervous mailing that letter but he was. And he found himself wondering if Beth Greene would ever even write him a letter back. Shit, maybe she'd see his picture and his crappy handwriting and tear up his letter.

She found herself checking the mailbox every day as soon as she got off the school bus. Finally one day it was there, a letter from the soldier.

She was so excited she sat right down there on the ground next to mailbox and opened it as fast as she could without tearing it. It was written on some kind of paper that was Army stationary from his base. His handwriting was big and manly. She liked it.

He told her a little about himself and he even included a picture, and my gosh he was so handsome. She hadn't expected that. And he wanted a picture of her for his wallet. Luckily she'd just gotten her senior pictures back and there were plenty of wallet-sized ones.

She ran in the house and yelled, "Hi Mama, I'm home," as she bounded up the stairs to her bedroom just as fast as she could.

She put her new Beatles 8-track tape in the player she'd gotten for Christmas, and sat down to write Private Daryl Dixon a letter. Homework could wait. She told him about the farm, what their crops were and the kinds of animals they raised and she told him all about her horse, Nellie.

She read that back to herself and she hoped he wouldn't think she was boring.

She told him about being on the intermural Volleyball team and she admitted to him she wasn't very good at sports but she did like playing the game. Besides she thought, boys didn't really expect girls to be good at sports.

She told him more about school and how much she hated math because it was just so gosh darn hard. But she was going to pass all of her classes and graduate from high school, that's all that concerned her about it. She was getting her diploma.

She ended the letter with: Your friend, Beth. And this time she put a little "x" next to her name. She hoped her soldier didn't think that was too forward. But friends kiss don't they?

He was kind of surprised how excited he was when the Sarge called his name. He'd prepared himself to never receive another letter from the farm girl.

He couldn't wait to get outside to read it, but not in front of everyone else. He slipped behind the building and opened it. There was that pretty pink paper with the flowers and the small delicate handwriting, but there was also a picture and he had to look at that before he even read a word.

He didn't expect her to be so pretty but she was, and not just everyday pretty, she was beautiful. Even though the picture was black and white he was sure her hair was blond and those eyes of hers blue, and she had the sweetest smile he'd ever seen.

He enjoyed reading all about the farm and her horse, and he almost laughed out loud when he read that no one could calm that horse down but her. He'd love it if he could see her play a game of volleyball and he would just bet she was a whole lot better at it than she thought.

He wasn't sure what that little "x" meant, he was going to have to try and find out from someone.

As soon as he could he sat down and wrote her a letter back. He told her he'd like to see her playing volleyball and he said maybe someday he could meet her and her horse. Then he had second thoughts, maybe he shouldn't say that. Maybe she'd think he was overstepping. Well she could probably tell he didn't know the first damn thing about writing letters anyway, or about girls, or much of anything for that matter. So what the hell? He'd just leave that part in there, yeah she'd probably never write him again anyway.

Since she'd asked and all he told her what he did over there in Viet Nam. He was one of the lucky ones he figured, he wasn't a combat soldier, he was a mechanic. He worked on the tanks and the other military vehicles of war and so he pretty much stayed there on base. The truth was he'd wanted to be a combat soldier like his brother Merle. Merle was an Army marksman. His brother was several years older and he'd already been in the military for 10 years when Daryl was drafted.

But Merle threatened Daryl, telling him he was not to volunteer for combat duty under any circumstance. "Ya flaunt them mechanic skills ya got or I'ma petition the army not ta let ya serve in Nam at all. We're the only two survivin' members of our family. Since world war two they take that shit real serious. You're the last a our bloodline and they'll keep ya stateside. Ya won't be gettin' that sweet combat pay ya want so bad."

So Daryl did what Merle said because the truth was he did want that sweet combat pay. He planned to try and open his own auto garage someday soon and he was saving every penny he could. He told pretty Miss Beth Greene all that. He hoped she understood and didn't think he was a coward for not fighting.

He signed the letter: Your soldier friend, Daryl Dixon x. He'd find out what that "x" meant later. For right now he was anxious to send the letter so maybe, just maybe, she'd send him one back.

After school she'd confided in her friend Amy about her pen pal Daryl. Amy suggested she send him cookies. "Soldiers love to get care packages Beth. You get one or two of your Mama's empty coffee cans. Wash them out real good so they don't smell like coffee, it'll flavor your cookies. Pop popcorn with nothing on it. You bake the cookies, cool them, and then wrap each one individually. Pack them in the coffee can between layers of the popcorn. The popcorn makes good packing and keeps moisture away from the cookies. The sealed can helps protect them and keep the cookies fresh. They have a long way to go."

"How do you know all that Amy?"

Amy couldn't keep from giggling, "I have a soldier pen pal too!"

And they told each other everything about their soldiers.

When she got home there was a letter from Private Dixon in the mailbox and she actually squealed. Again she sat right down by the mailbox and opened his letter, and read it three times. She kept running her finger over the little "x" next to his name and she could just swear her tummy was full of butterflies. She rushed up to her room and read the letter three more times, stopping every couple of sentences to stare at his picture and rub her finger over that little "x".

Then she ran down the stairs and into the kitchen where Mama was fixing dinner. She was talking a 100 miles an hour, begging Mama to let her make cookies and send them in coffee cans to the soldier.

Mama kept saying, "Calm down Bethie and talk a little slower. I can't understand half of what you're saying."

Finally it connected and to her surprise her Mama said, "Well that sounds like a wonderful idea. I can't imagine a young soldier never receiving a letter or a package. I'll tell you what, tomorrow while you're at school I'll get the cans ready and the corn popped. You come right home and make the cookies, you'll have to make an extra couple of dozen for Daddy. When they're cooled I'll help you pack them. The next day on your lunch break you can take the package to the post office and mail them."

Beth was jumping up and down with excitement, "Thank you Mama you're the best Mom in the whole world! This is so exciting I can't wait! What kind should I make?"

Mama laughed and said, "I have no idea, but a person can hardly go wrong with chocolate chip or a good old-fashion oatmeal cookie."

She didn't wait to just mail a letter with the cookies. As soon as she was done with the dinner dishes she ran right back up to her room and wrote him a nice long letter. She added the tiniest dab of perfume on the pink stationary with the flowers in the corner. Another little something she'd learned from Amy. This time she signed it: Your Special Friend, Beth xx. The next morning she dropped it in the mailbox on the corner by her school.

In the meantime he'd found out what that "x" meant from Grimes and then threatened to kill his buddy if he ever brought it up again.

When Sarge called his name at mail call he held on tight to her letter until he could get outside with it. He went behind the building and he carefully opened the letter and it smelled so pretty he couldn't help but wonder if that's what Beth Greene smelled like.

She didn't tell him about the cookies she was going to make and send to him, that was a surprise. But pretty Beth Greene, who smelled real pretty too, told him more about school and about the school play and about the small town where she lived. It all sounded real nice to him.

To his surprise she said she wished he could come meet her and her horse too. She said if he ever did come maybe they could go fishing together and have a picnic by the river. That made his heart catch just a little, she really did want to meet him.

This time she'd signed the letter: Your Special friend, Beth xx. Wow. He rubbed his finger over those "x's" and then he opened his wallet and he looked at her picture. He couldn't believe this pretty girl would want to meet him and that she'd sent him two kisses.

He wondered if she'd ever really want him to go there and if she ever really would kiss him. Because if she would, he'd go and he sure would be willing to give Beth Greene all the kisses she wanted.

As soon as he was able he rushed back and wrote her a letter. He reminded her about that 30 days off he had coming. He asked if she really would be willing to meet him because if she would, he'd be more than willing to travel there. He told her how nice the letter had smelled and he got bold and he asked her if that was how she smelled. And he wasn't sure what had come over him or when he got so brave, but he told her he liked those kisses and he signed his letter: A soldier who's thinking about you, Daryl xxx.

Four days later a big cardboard box came for the soldier. He couldn't imagine what it was going to be. He knew it had to be from Beth Greene, she was the only person who ever sent him anything in the mail. He took it behind the building and opened it with his pocket knife. In the box were two Maxwell House coffee cans, scotch tapped to the top of one was a letter.

It smelled real pretty like the other one and he just held it for a minute. Then he saw on the back that where the envelop sealed she'd drawn a tiny heart. That's when his own heart felt like it went right up in his throat.

He was real careful when he opened the letter so as not to tear the part where that little heart was. And this time he found he went right to the end of the letter first, just to see how she'd signed it. And he was real glad he was sitting down because it said: Love from your special friend, Beth xoxo.

He took a deep breath, he opened his wallet and looked at her picture, and then he read the letter.

He closed his eyes and he leaned his head back against the building and he couldn't believe she'd written him such a nice letter, and the letter had mentioned the cans were full of cookies she baked him. She said she hoped they wouldn't spoil or get too broken. As he read her concerns he knew it didn't matter, he would eat them no matter what. They were cookies from her and she'd made them just for him. But what really caused his heart to skip a beat was that she'd written that word to him, that word he couldn't recall anyone ever having spoken to him much less written to him, that "love" word.

The jungle heat wasn't the only thing making him feel so warm.

He took one of the cans from the cardboard box and he opened it so carefully, like it would surely break at any moment. He pulled the little plastic top from the can and he saw the popcorn there. He thought what the hell, and he ate the popcorn until he reached the first layer of cookies.

He took one out and he just held it there in his hand for a minute. His mind was blown by this gesture and he had to take a deep breath. He unwrapped the cookie and it was broken into four pieces and the chocolate chips were a little melted. He put a piece of the broken cookie in his mouth and he knew beyond a doubt, it was the best damn thing he'd ever tasted.

Mama had her baking before she ever even started kindergarten but never had she put so much care and so much feeling into anything she'd made. She thought maybe it was a little bit mean of her, but any cookies she didn't think were just perfect she put on the plate for Daddy. Daddy wouldn't notice anyway.

She even said a little prayer that he liked chocolate chip and that he'd be happy to receive the cookies from her. She'd been so careful when she packed them and she hoped he could tell by the care she took how much it meant to her to send him these cookies. She couldn't believe she got so daring in her letter as to invite him again to come see her, but mostly she couldn't believe she'd signed it "love." She hoped that didn't "scare him off." Maggie always said boys got nervous when girls started mentioning "love" in any way, shape or form.

Six days later she received a letter he'd sent before he got the cookies. Even though she was all by herself when she read it she felt herself blush when she read his words, "Your letter smelled so pretty, and you're so pretty. Is that what you smell like? Because I liked it a lot." And then he told her that yes, he wanted very much to travel there to see her. He reminded her he had those days off coming but if she changed her mind he'd understand.

That made her feel sad. Didn't he know that if she asked him to come it was because she was sure she wanted him to? She wrote him right back and she told him that of course she meant it, that yes she wanted very much for him to come. She told him she was graduating June 7th. If he could come after that she'd have lots of free time.

Ten days later a letter came he'd written the day he received the cookies. He told her they were the best cookies he ever tasted and that he'd had to hide them from his buddies. Everyone was always trying to get him to share. He said he'd share most anything but he'd never share something she'd given him. She was so flattered and again, even though she was alone she felt herself blush at his words.

He also wrote that he was going to start filling out his paperwork for his 30 days off. He told her all she had to do was give him a date she'd like him there and he'd try real hard to get that time off to come. But he was going to come anyway just as soon as he could get there. Those butterflies in her tummy would not be still.

They continued to exchange letters with increasing frequency. As the time drew closer for his 30 days they were both becoming more and more nervous ,and also more and more impatient for the day to arrive.

She talked to Mama first. "Mama he doesn't really have a regular home. His Mama and Daddy passed away and his older brother is serving in Korea, isn't there any way he could stay with us while he's here? Please Mama."

"Beth, Sweetheart, no matter how nice this young soldier is I don't think Daddy would ever agree to let him stay two bedroom doors down from yours. But you know what I could do? I could ask Otis and Patricia. They have a nice guest room and I don't think they ever use it. He'd be less than a mile away. Let me talk to them."

She was so excited when Otis and Patricia said yes, they'd be happy and proud to open their home to a soldier. It was so hard to believe this was all coming together and she was finally going to meet Private Daryl Dixon. It seemed like a dream she'd surely wake up from real soon.

When she got a letter from him saying he'd be there on the 5th of June, in time to attend her graduation ceremony and the graduation dance, she thought she'd shake right apart from the excitement. And he was so funny and cute, in his letter he said he didn't know one single dance step but if she was willing to try and teach him he'd be willing to try and learn.

He had all his plans laid out. He'd be coming in on a big military transport plane and he'd figure a way to get himself a shower on the base. He'd hitch a ride or whatever to get to his pickup truck he kept in a storage lot, then he'd drive the three hours to her house.

All he had was his army clothes so he thought maybe he'd wear his fatigues to her house, but he was definitely bringing his dress uniform for her graduation and the dance.

He couldn't believe all the thinking and the planning he'd done about this trip. But every time he looked at the stack of letters with the x's and the o's on them, and that word "love," and he looked at her pretty face in his wallet, he knew it would all be worth it and then some.