Introduction: This is a period piece set during World War II. My father was a gunner on a B-17 with the 381st bomb group of the 8th Air Force flying out of Ridgewell, England Station 167 near Great Yeldham, England. While the story is not about him, he and his mates served as inspiration for the airmen in this tale. The stilted, formal writing style was lifted from letters we found in my aunt's effects after she passed. She apparently corresponded with an American airman who never came home.
This is supposed to be an uplifting, happy story about a tragic time. No sex was necessary to tell the tale, so there's none here.
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“Are you doing what I think you're doing?”
“Buzz off, Jimmy.”
“Hey Lefty! Is Tommy choking the chicken again?”
Lefty reached across the space between the bunks and yanked Tommy's blanket off. “If he is, he don't got a woodie.”
“Are you disappointed, Lefty? Do you want to see me with a woodie?”
“You callin' me queer, city boy?” Lefty stood up, but Tommy's bunk-mate Jimmy smacked him on the head. “Knock if off. Tommy's in love.”
“Will you two can it?” Tommy complained. “You guys have your pin-up girls. I like this picture. I used to deliver papers to the guy who drew it. I helped him build a shed.”
“She's cute, but I like some of the Elvgren girls better,” Jimmy said.
“Betty Grable for me. Them's real photographs, not drawings,” Lefty yawned, getting as comfortable as he could back in his bunk. “Now pipe down. The Krauts are quiet tonight. Let's get some sleep.”
At mail call the next day, the clerk yelled, “A letter for you, Tommy!”
Tommy hurried back to the barracks. The letter was from the artist.
Of course I remember you, young man. You were the only paperboy we ever had who took the time to get off his bicycle and walk to the door. You were a fine handyman in high school. Now you're a man away at war. Time flies.
Normally I refuse requests for information on my models. They are all nice girls from good families, and I will not jeopardize their future. However, as I know who you are, I shall do this for you: I will write to the young lady and tell her about you. She will have your address, so if she feels contact is prudent, she will initiate it.
You were a good lad then, so I assume you're a good man now. God bless you for your service to humanity by fighting this evil.
Regards from a fellow patriot,
Tommy immediately wrote a polite letter of thanks and then daydreamed about his pin-up girl.
A few weeks later at mail call, the clerk pulled an envelope from the satchel. “Whoo-wee! Pink. Must be from a lady. Thomas Hamilton, this is your lucky day.”
Amid catcalls, Tommy retrieved the letter and dashed off to his barracks to read it.
Theodore Baxter wrote me a letter. He included a picture of you from the local newspaper. He says you are an airman stationed in England. You look quite dashing in your uniform.
I refer to Mr. Baxter as my Uncle Ted, although we are not related. He and Father are friends. Mr. Baxter is an artist and, as such, uses what he calls artistic license when he draws. His portrait flatters me. I am an ordinary girl. I work for my father, the doctor in our town, as his nurse. Father knows Mr. Baxter to be a proper gentleman, so when Uncle Ted wanted me to model, Father agreed.
I'm telling you this to try to say I'm a proper young lady. I don't normally write to boys I don't know, but Uncle Ted spoke highly of you. You must be very brave. If you wish, we can become pen pals.
“Diane.” Tommy experimented with the name in his mouth and mind. “Diane. Pretty name.” He pulled out his box of plain white stationery.
It was with great satisfaction and pleasure that I received your letter, and with some embarrassment that I read your comment on my photograph. I wore my dress uniform for the ceremony. Most days, I do not look like that.
Your modesty is refreshing but, I suspect, false. I delivered Mr. Baxter's newspaper every day for years and did work around his property. He allowed me to see some of his models and his drawings of them when he invited me into his studio on Fridays to pay me. His drawings are quite faithful to his subject matter. I trust you are as beautiful as the artwork indicates.
It would be an honor to have you as a pen pal. Mail delivery to the base is fairly regular now, much better than it was a year ago. The tide of the war has turned. If it is God's plan, bravery will not be a problem much longer.
Soon it will be lights out, so I must close. Thank you for your letter.
Tommy sealed it and put it under his pillow for safe-keeping. He would post the note in the morning. He took one more quick glance at the picture of Diane before darkness in the barracks.
What name shall I use to refer to you? Uncle Ted called you Tommy, but you signed your letter Tom. I don't wish to upset you by using an incorrect name.
A virus bug is going around the local school, so Father and I are busy. We see patients as usual in the morning, but after a hurried lunch we go to the school and examine children the teachers fear may be falling ill. After that we have office hours until people stop coming by.
Uncle Ted said you shoot machine guns from an airplane. That sounds quite dangerous. The reports we get on the radio and in the newspaper say things are going well for the Allies. I do hope that means you and your friends will be safe soon.
“Safe?” Tommy mused. He re-read Diane's letter a few times and studied the drawing once again. He almost understood why a buffoon like Lefty or a ladies' man like Jimmy didn't think she was special. Diane's cheekbones were a bit high for some people's tastes, her blue eyes somewhat large. She appeared to have a modest-sized bosom and small hips. Her long, wavy blond hair and her legs were the features all the guys agreed on. In the drawing her hemline was lifted scandalously high, but her full petticoat preserved her modesty.
She was exquisite. Physically, she was all Tommy could imagine wanting in a woman. The British pub lasses were nice, but a little cheap for his tastes. He was one of the few men on base who didn't spend all his pay and leave time trying to get in their knickers.
Some nights he was tempted. It was anybody's guess if he'd make it back from the next mission, so why worry about the future? His buddies didn't. But Tommy was a quiet one, a good lad, and absolutely deadly when shooting at Nazi airplanes.
Thomas is my proper Christian name. I tried to get my family and friends to call me Tom when I got older, but Tommy stuck. You may use whichever name you prefer.
Being safe now will not keep the world safe. I shoot German planes down before they can shoot us or drop bombs on our Allies. You and your father expose yourselves to disease. Those activities are not safe, but they help to keep people safe.
When the war is over, I want to buy some land, build a house, and start a business. I shall be glad to return to civilian life.
Do you plan to work with your father until he retires?
Please continue to write me. I shall endeavor to answer you promptly.
The two exchanged letters on a regular basis for months. Tommy wrote several times a week, and Diane answered each one immediately. At times, they had two or three different letters and responses going at once, due to the slow travel of international mail.
Two weeks passed since Tommy's last letter. Diane waited for the postman every day. Today was no different. Nothing but things involving the doctor's work. She took the mail into the office. “Father?”
“You were in the Army.”
“What was war like?”
Dr. Miller looked up from the patient charts on his desk. “I prayed a lot.”
“Were you afraid for your life?”
Dr. Miller took his glasses off and rubbed his eyes. “You're worried about that boy.”
Diane blushed. “He seems very nice. Uncle Ted spoke quite highly of him. It's his second tour of duty.”
“He must be brave. One tour of duty as a medic in the trenches was enough for me. When they let me come home, I did. I saw horrors I will never forget. The automobile and farm accidents around here are nothing.”
“Tommy is a belly gunner on a Flying Fortress.”
“That's a big airplane. Much better than the fly boys had in my day. The belly gunner may be the most important man up there. He is the one who keeps the Messerschmidts off them so they can fly home.”
“It sounds horribly dangerous.”
“Sit down, Diane.”
His daughter took the patient chair next to the desk.
“Dear, war is dangerous. In a way, airmen have it better than most. They don't die of gangrene in field hospitals or come home ruined by mustard gas. They either return in one piece or they don't at all. Your Tommy has only seven more missions to fly. Am I correct?”
“When he wrote his last letter it was seven. It should be five now. Father, I'm scared.”
The doctor watched his only child blot a tear. The last time she did that in front of him was when her mother died nine years earlier. She took it hard, but by the time the funeral ended and the family left for the evening, she was changed. At age twelve, she developed the mindset of a determined mature woman. Diane was one of the strongest people he knew. “You think you're in love with him, don't you?”
“You must think I'm silly.”
“Diane, the last thing I would ever call you is silly. You're a fine young woman and an excellent nurse. Since Mother passed, you're the only reason I keep my sanity. Everyone says you're the prettiest girl around here. Our patients love you. You are intelligent. You need to think.”
“But what if he doesn't come home?”
“I will not lie to you. He may not, but you can't change that, so there is no point in thinking about it. Instead, you should think about what may happen when he does come back. This young man is lonely now, thousands of miles from home, facing death. When he's back home, he'll be re-united with his family and his old friends. Things will be different for him.”
“He hasn't written a word in any of his letters about the drawing Uncle Ted made.”
“I suppose that means he's polite, Diane. I wouldn't want my daughter meeting him if he behaved inappropriately.”
“You intend to, don't you, regardless of what I say?” Dr. Miller chuckled.
The mail service is quite frustrating. I feared the worst when your last letters were delayed. I am glad to know you are safe and well.
By the time this letter reaches you, you should have only three or four missions left. I do hope they go well for you.
Have you had an opportunity to think about your future as a civilian? You mentioned starting a business. What would you like to do?
Things are going much better here. Father and I survived another round of the flu, and so did our patients. We delivered twins this morning, the first babies in town fathered by a veteran of the Pacific Theater.
I pray daily for this awful war to end.
Write to me when you can.
Tommy read Diane's letter again after he finished packing Lefty's and Jimmy's things to send home to their parents. Everything but the pin-ups. Someone in the barracks would want them. He polished his dress shoes again. He would be in no mood to deal with them in the morning before the memorial service.
I also pray for this terrible war to end. A bomber and a fighter airplane did not return from the last mission. We suffered casualties on some that could fly home, and there is considerable flak damage on much of our squadron. We took out the landing strips on two German airbases, so many of their fighter airplanes probably ran out of gas. It was a horrible day for both sides.
God willing, I'll be stateside six weeks from the date I write this. Your town is not far from my parent's home, which is where I will live for the short term. When I am established, would you allow me to call on you?
“Father? I don't know what to do.” Diane poured the doctor a second cup of coffee.
“Tommy will be home in about a month.”
She sat at the table and fidgeted while her father read his newspaper. Eventually he folded it and set it aside. “You want to go, don't you?”
“To meet him?”
“Why yes, of course, to meet him. I've been around the block a few times, young lady. I know you quite well. You will always question yourself if you don't go.”
“But what if the things you said are true? What if he's lonely now, but won't be when he returns? He may have a girl waiting for him.”
“Perhaps you should ask him. It won't do for you to get your heart broken, child.”
It was with great sadness that I learned of your losses. Doing what you do must be even harder when you grieve for friends. I did not know them, of course, but I shall pray for them as I do for you.
You asked in one of your letters if you might call on me when you return. I indicated that you may, but I must ask you a question: Is there a young lady waiting at home for you? It would be improper for me to see you under those circumstances. I trust you understand.
Tommy read Diane's latest letter with concern. He quickly replied.
You do not know me, but I am a man of honor. I would never have written you, and quite possibly would not have saved your picture, if someone were waiting for me at home. There was a girl of whom I was quite fond in school. However, she refused to see me after I enlisted. She felt, as I now do, that war is an abomination. I have had no contact with her since I left for basic training.
Shall I assume that you have no suitors? From your letters, it seems as though you would barely have time, being so devoted to your father's work.
When I return, I should like to call on you, if that is acceptable. It may take some time to arrange transportation, but if you would allow it, I shall make plans.
Hopefully your friend,
“Father, may I be excused from work two Saturdays from now? It would be the twenty-third.”
“I suppose, but why?”
Color rose in Diane's cheeks.
Dr. Miller grinned. “Oh, I know why, don't I? That's the day Tommy comes home.”
“Yes. I thought I would go to the bus station in the city. He's supposed to arrive at two in the afternoon.”
“Would you like me to drive you there? I'll stay in the shadows, but I should like to see this young man of yours myself.”
She blushed more. “I suppose that's only proper, isn't it? Perhaps I would be more comfortable with you there. You can swap war stories with him.”
“There won't be much of that, I imagine. Men don't always like to talk about what they saw and did in war. You must be sensitive to that. Do not press him to tell you about it. There are many things I cannot bear to think about even today, although it's been over a quarter century since I last wore a uniform.”
“Do you think I should go, Father? Am I being foolish for wanting to meet him?”
Dr. Miller thought for a moment. Then he picked up the receiver of the telephone on his desk. “Mabel? Dr. Miller here.... I'm fine, thank you. Mabel, could you connect me to Theodore Baxter in the city? His number is Melrose 4251.... Yes, I know there's a charge.... Thank you, dear.”
“Baxter residence. Who is calling?”
“Stan Miller. How are you, Ted?”
“Stan? Good to hear from you. I'm well, thank you. How is that dear daughter of yours?”
“She has a dilemma. That's why I rang you.”
“You're the culprit, you old dog. Diane is in love.”
“Father!” Diane whispered urgently.
He waved her away. “Your old paperboy has stolen my daughter's heart. Her face lights up every time she gets a letter from him. She perfumes her stationery. I believe this is serious,” he chuckled.
Baxter said, “Tommy is a fine young man. If Diane were my daughter, I would be pleased for her to have him as a suitor. Trust me on this, Stan.”
“What of his family?” Dr. Miller asked.
“Hard-working people. Tommy's father was wounded at Verdun. His mother volunteered at the hospital they sent him to when he returned to the States. When he recovered from his injuries, he married her and moved here. They own a hardware store. Tommy is their only child. The father wanted Tommy to work for him when he was a lad. Tommy refused to take the easy way, so he got a paper route. He knew his father would pay him more than he was worth.”
“A good boy, then,” Miller remarked.
“I would be proud if he were my son,” Baxter answered. “He's a sensitive young man, very polite, but very driven. He was good at delivering papers, he's smart and good with his hands, he's won medals as a gunner, and I imagine he'll be successful when he returns home. He knows how to work to get what he wants. If he sets his sights on your Diane, well, I hope you learn to like him.”
“Diane has set her sights on him. She's cross with me now for saying it, but it's true. Do you think she should meet him?”
Baxter laughed. “Tommy has been writing to me. He's quite anxious to meet her. I think it's a splendid idea.”
“She wants to greet his bus when it arrives,” Miller said. “I agreed to drive her there, be introduced, and then take a powder if things seem proper.”
“I have a better idea,” Baxter laughed. “Mr. Hamilton, Tommy's father, already invited me to join him and his wife at the bus station. Why don't you two come to my house for lunch? Then we can join Tommy's parents.”
“You never did fool me, Baxter. You pretend to be a hard, critical, academic type, but you're an old softie,” Miller chuckled.
“Stan, Diane is like my favorite niece. I would let Tommy live in my house if he needed to. He and Diane would make a lovely couple.”
“Then it's settled. Diane and I will see you for lunch on the twenty-third. I should ring off now. Small-town doctors don't earn the money you artists do.”
“You're right about me being a romantic, but very wrong about the money. So long, Stan.”
Dr. Miller put the receiver back on its base and turned to his daughter. “You and I shall have lunch with Ted and then join the Hamiltons to welcome Tommy home.”
“I never thought of his family. I don't know that I'm ready to meet them. Now I'm not sure this is wise.”
“Theodore Baxter would not steer us wrong, darling. He says Tommy is like a son to him. You now your Uncle Ted loves you. It's time you had a life of your own.”
“What are you saying, Father?”
“I'm saying it's been years since you've passed time with a man who wasn't ill other than me or Ted. I think you would be foolish to pass up the opportunity to meet this boy and learn if you have real feelings for each other.”
This note will most likely not reach you. If it does not, you will be in for a surprise.
I had a lovely talk with Father tonight. He telephoned Uncle Ted in my presence to inquire about you. I could not hear what Mr. Baxter said, but apparently it was quite positive.
To make a long story short, Father, Uncle Ted, and I will join your parents at the bus station to greet you upon your arrival.
If you do not receive this letter, our meeting will be a big surprise. If you do get to read it, look for the excited girl.
Your dearest friend,
“Father, shall I start your eggs?”
“Good heavens, child, I haven't even finished my first cup of coffee. Why are you in such a rush? This is the first Saturday we've taken off for months. We have plenty of time to get to the city.”
“I'm sorry. I'm just so excited.”
“Put the eggs back in the icebox, and sit down.”
Diane brought her coffee cup to the table and sat opposite her father.
“Dear, Ted and I spoke on the telephone last night while you were in the bath. The Hamiltons are very anxious to meet you. Apparently Tommy sings your praises in his letters to them. Ted says they're good people, and I can imagine what he tells them about you, so you have nothing to worry about.”
“I have everything to worry about, Father! You yourself told me he may be different when he gets home than he was during the war. Four years have passed, so he may be different than he was when Uncle Ted knew him. He may not like me at all.”
“Then he's a fool,” Dr. Miller said. “Get dressed. We'll have breakfast at the diner.”
When Dr. Miller steered his old Buick into Baxter's driveway, Ted was waiting for them. “Stan, you old goat! How are you?” He shook his old friend's hand warmly. “Diane, you look more lovely every time I see you. You must let me draw you again.” He hugged his “niece” and accepted her kiss on his cheek with a smile.
“Uncle Ted, please tell me I'm not making a fool of myself,” she said.
“It's never foolish to follow your heart. Now come inside, you two. Lunch will be ready in a few minutes.”
The bus was late. Dr. Miller, Baxter, and Phillip Hamilton discussed hunting to pass the time. Diane chatted nervously with Mrs. Hamilton.
“Please, call me Thelma. My son is a gentleman, dear. He spoke of you often in his letters, but it was Mr. Baxter who told us you were a pin-up girl. I think it's wonderful. Your image probably brought happiness to many brave young men.”
Diane blushed furiously. “Have you and Mr. Hamilton seen the drawing? It's really nothing naughty.”
“We sell calendars at the store. The drawing of you is in a frame near the cash register. My husband liked it anyway, and when Mr. Baxter told us you were Tommy's girl, we had to have it.”
“Tommy's girl,” Diane repeated quietly. She liked the sound of it.
The bus station loudspeaker crackled to life. “We have received a telephone call from the station ten miles down the road. The bus had a flat tire, but they are underway again. Estimated arrival in five minutes.”
“Five minutes till I see my boy,” Phillip said. “It's been much too long.”
“I know I'm going to cry,” Thelma confided to her new young friend. “Phillip hates that, but you watch. He'll have his handkerchief out too.”
Diane hung back with her father and Uncle Ted when families swarmed the bus. She thought she recognized Tommy from the newspaper picture when he came down the step, and was certain when she heard Thelma shriek.
Tommy eventually worked free of his parents' embrace long enough to look around. That's when he saw her. “Diane?”
She ran to him.
“I didn't expect to see you here.”
“I couldn't wait,” Diane replied. “I wrote you to tell you I was coming, but I was certain you would be on your way home before the letter got to England.”
Tommy dropped his bag on the ground and fished in his uniform coat pocket. “I wrote a letter too. If I hadn't come home it would have been sent to you.”
“What does it say?”
“Something I was afraid I'd never get to say to you in person.” He pulled her to him and kissed her. “Open it.”
[INDENT]My dearest Diane,
If you receive this letter by post, I am gone. My soul will not rest until I say how I feel about you. Your sweet words have given me comfort when my spirits were low. Your smile has been my light. Had I survived, I would have come home and attempted to persuade you to be my wife.
I will always love you.
Tears flowed freely down Diane's cheeks. She kissed him, long and full. “I can be persuaded.”