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From the Night Factory

44. Letters to a Marine

Excerpt One:

Greetings, Recruit Beckles:

No one else wanted to give you the bad news. Once again they are leaving that upsetting task to me. You must brace yourself. Are you sitting down? Your pet cow has died. Hildegard did not suffer. Your beloved Holstein passed in her sleep. We found her in your bed, as usual. We had the veterinarian examine her, not that we had a choice. You know how they worry about hoof and mouth disease and Barbara [Ms Keogh, my more significant other] was concerned it could be Brucellosis, or as they call it in the Marines, Bang's disease. Your grandmother worried that maybe this was why you were ill. Don't worry. The vet said your sweet, sweet Hildegard died of a broken heart. She certainly did miss you. Her plaintive mooing was keeping the household awake.

Since you went away, Hildegard has refused to leave your room. Admittedly, your mother was annoyed with the [cow pats] piling up. But now that dear Hildegard has moved on to higher pastures, your mother is concerned about what are they going to do without milk.

Of course, we couldn't wait for you to come back to bury Hildegard. Your room is not cold enough, she wouldn't keep. I thought we might eat her, but Barbara said absolutely not, that Hildegard was just like family. Vincent was keen on trying out his new backhoe. So, Hildegard was buried in the backyard. Remi brushed Hildegard's black and white coat one last time. A large enough coffin would have had to been custom made. It would be too expensive. We took the seats out of the '95 Integra and put your darling inside. She looked so natural! It was easy to roll the car into the pit, a royal sepulchre on wheels. I know how much you will miss her. Don't cry too much, you're a Marine now.

Of course, living with his mother in a three-bedroom house planted on a quarter acre plot in suburbia, Mr Beckles never owned a cow, pet or otherwise.

My grandson, Mr Beckles, completed his eighteenth orbit of the sun last May 2014. He was in his last semester at Neshaminy High School. Indecisive and about to be set adrift, he pondered his options. Having not shown the academic prowess for a college pursuit and there being no money to finance his further education, it was unclear to all of us what he had in mind. It was a surprise when he announced he was considering military service. True, he would look handsome in a uniform being tall and svelte, but he has such a gentle personality, is so exceptionally kind, and displays a casual disregard for authority. Sweet and considerate, is such a person disposed to the aggression expected of a soldier? It was a shock when he chose the Marines.

Ms Keogh and I discussed this news with each other. Our grandson a Marine? Well, we thought, the discipline might be good for him, an injection of seriousness and responsibility, it might make him more appreciative of the importance of things, make him more independent. It would give him training that he might later apply towards a job with a brighter future than serving fries and flipping burgers at McDonald’s, which was as far as his ambitions carried him. Most important of all, if he happened to have an epiphany, should he become enlightened, the Marines would later help pay for his college education.

Excerpt Two:

... By the way, have you asked your drill sergeant for a kiss? I understand they will be nicer if they know you like them. Yeah, a couple of kisses on his cheeks and he will likely let you sleep late. A kiss on the lips and I bet he will give you the day off. I have it on good authority that Marine drill sergeants just want to be loved. Give it a try and let me know how it worked out....

There is, of course, no ignoring the risks. We won’t discuss the risks here. But that isn’t to say I didn’t discuss the risks in private conversations with Mr Beckles. In conclusion, I told Mr Beckles I would support him in his decision, whether it was to escape his enlistment or pursue this inexplicable quest of his. He never explained his desire to my satisfaction. The best he could put forward was that he wanted to test himself. I suspect even he doesn’t entirely understand what is driving him, but this was something and he could not imagine anything else within his scope that would be as significant.

Mr Beckles is off in boot camp on Parris Island. On Wednesdays, Remi visits with Ms Keogh and me. This is Mr Beckles’ girlfriend, a charming young woman with an impressive mind, a sensitive nature, and hair dyed the color of polished copper. This generation that Mr Beckles and Remi represent, is not practiced in the art of “snail” mail, but where Mr Beckles is, there is no other access to friends and family, no Skype, no email, no phone calls. He is allotted time to write letters.

Excerpt Three:

Since you thought the obstacle course was fun, we are preparing an obstacle course for you here at home. It will be a lot simpler than the ordeal you had at Parris Island. It won't require any special gear; you won't be expected to even carry a backpack. The course I have in mind will begin at the base of Bowman's Hill. You remember Bowman's Hill, don't ya? I had you drive up it for one of your [driving] lessons. It's not like it's a mountain! All you'll have to do is run up the hill. How hard can that be? Then, when you get to the top, you'll be required to climb the outside of Bowman's Tower [125 feet]. You've seen the tower. The stones are so uneven, it should be a cinch. And if it happens to be a windy day, you'll be allowed to climb the down-wind side. Then, when you get to the top, all you will be expected to do is jump off. How hard can that be? I mean really, most of the work will be done by gravity and we'll build a pile of gravel to break your fall. What could be easier for a real Marine?

Ms Keogh did not think he would write at all. He showed no inclination to write the entire time he was in school. Ms Keogh went so far as to bet me ten dollars. “This is a kid who tested well in almost all of his subjects,” she wrote a mutual friend, “but would take a cut in his grade rather than write anything! Essay questions. Term papers. Research papers.” I won the bet. She wrote our friend, “I guess not having the distraction of television, video games or the computer has opened up a whole new world!” Luckily, she didn’t bet ten dollars for each time he wrote. (He was probably given the free time to either write letters or perform latrine duty.) But I knew he would at least write Remi. And he did, signing his letters “Robert Beckles” as if Remi might have other beaus named Robert writing from Parris Island. When he wrote to us, he concluded by reminding us that he is our grandson.

Mr Beckles letters arrive on small sheets, six inches wide, nine inches high, U.S. Marine Corps letterhead smudged from too frequent reproduction and a narrow column of photographs filling the left margin showing Marines training. I have seen to it that Remi has fine stationery, a fountain pen, and plenty of stamps to write him. She writes him every day. However, the first letter he would have received at Parris Island would have come from me. I wrote to him the night he departed for camp.

Excerpt Four:

"Your most recent letter concludes, "Well, I'm running out of room on paper so ta ta for now." How curious? I can understand you running out of time or running out of ideas or getting tired, all good excuses for concluding your letter, but running out of room on your paper? At the risk of expanding your mind, perhaps even exploding it, here are three suggestions to consider: 1. Get a second sheet of paper. 2. Write smaller. And 3. (this one's my favorite) turn the sheet over and write on the back. With a mind like yours, I daresay you will be an officer in no time.

I don’t write to Mr Beckles often; maybe once a week. The poor lad, growing up in the luxury of suburbia, exerting himself to play basketball or mow the lawn, boot camp is bound to be a jolt, yet I am confident that he will manage the ordeal. The last letter Recruit Beckles wrote to me included a request for more stamps. I was happy to oblige.

Mr Bentzman will continue to report here regularly about the events and concerns of his life. If you've any comments or suggestions, he would be pleased to hear from you. 

Selected Suburban Soliloquies, the best of Mr Bentzman's earlier series of Snakeskin essays, is available as a book or as an ebook, from Amazon and elsewhere.