Dear john, p.2
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       Dear John, p.2

           Nicholas Sparks
 
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  My dad sensed that something was changing, but he was at a loss as to what to do about us. He tried, though, in the only way he knew how, the only way his father knew. He talked about coins--it was the one topic he could discuss with ease--and continued to cook my breakfasts and dinners; but our estrangement grew worse over time. At the same time, I pulled away from the friends I'd always known. They were breaking into cliques, based primarily on what movies they were going to see or the latest shirts they bought from the mall, and I found myself on the outside looking in. Screw them, I thought. In high school, there's always a place for everyone, and I began falling in with the wrong sort of crowd, a crowd that didn't give a damn about anything, which left me not giving a damn, either. I began to cut classes and smoke and was suspended for fighting on three occasions.

  I gave up sports, too. I'd played football and basketball and run track until I was a sophomore, and though my dad sometimes asked how I did when I got home, he seemed uncomfortable if I went into detail, since it was obvious he didn't know a thing about sports. He'd never been on a team in his life. He showed up for a single basketball game during my sophomore year. He sat in the stands, an odd balding guy wearing a worn sport jacket and socks that didn't match. Though he wasn't obese, his pants nipped at the waist, making him look as if he were three months pregnant, and I knew I wanted nothing to do with him. I was embarrassed by the sight of him, and after the game, I avoided him. I'm not proud of myself for that, but that's who I was.

  Things got worse. During my senior year, my rebellion reached a high point. My grades had been slipping for two years, more from laziness and lack of care than intelligence (I like to think), and more than once my dad caught me sneaking in late at night with booze on my breath. I was escorted home by the police after being found at a party where drugs and drinking were evident, and when my dad grounded me, I stayed at a friend's house for a couple of weeks after raging at him to mind his own business. He said nothing upon my return; instead, scrambled eggs, toast, and bacon were on the table in the mornings as usual. I barely passed my classes, and I suspect the school let me graduate simply because it wanted me out of there. I know my dad was worried, and he would sometimes, in his own shy way, broach the subject of college, but by then I'd made up my mind not to go. I wanted a job, I wanted a car, I wanted those material things I'd lived eighteen years without.

  I said nothing to him about it one way or the other until the summer after graduation, but when he realized I hadn't even applied to junior college, he locked himself in his den for the rest of the night and said nothing to me over our eggs and bacon the next morning. Later that evening, he tried to engage me in another discussion about coins, as if grasping for the companionship that had somehow been lost between us.

  "Do you remember when we went to Atlanta and you were the one who found that buffalo head nickel we'd been looking for for years?" he started. "The one where we had our picture taken? I'll never forget how excited you were. It reminded me of my father and me."

  I shook my head, all the frustration of life with my dad coming to the surface. "I'm sick and tired of hearing about coins!" I shouted at him. "I never want to hear about them again! You should sell the damn collection and do something else. Anything else."

  My dad said nothing, but to this day I'll never forget his pained expression when at last he turned and trudged back to his den. I'd hurt him, and though I told myself I hadn't wanted to, deep down I knew I was lying to myself. From then on my dad rarely brought up the subject of coins again. Nor did I. It became a yawning gulf between us, and it left us with nothing to say to each other. A few days later, I realized that the only photograph of us was gone as well, as if he believed that even the slightest reminder of coins would offend me. At the time, it probably would have, and even though I assumed that he'd thrown it away, the realization didn't bother me at all.

  Growing up, I'd never considered entering the military. Despite the fact that eastern North Carolina is one of the most militarily dense areas of the country--there are seven bases within a few hours' driving time from Wilmington--I used to think that military life was for losers. Who wanted to spend his life getting ordered around by a bunch of crew-cut flunkies? Not me, and aside from the ROTC guys, not many people in my high school, either. Instead, most of the kids who'd been good students headed off to the University of North Carolina or North Carolina State, while the kids who hadn't been good students stayed behind, bumming around from one lousy job to the next, drinking beer and hanging out, and pretty much avoiding anything that might require a shred of responsibility.

  I fell into the latter category. In the couple of years after graduation, I went through a succession of jobs, working as a busboy at Outback Steakhouse, tearing ticket stubs at the local movie theater, loading and unloading boxes at Staples, cooking pancakes at Waffle House, and working as a cashier at a couple of tourist places that sold crap to the out-of-towners. I spent every dime I earned, had zero illusions about eventually working my way up the ladder to management, and ended up getting fired from every job I had. For a while, I didn't care. I was living my life. I was big into surfing late and sleeping in, and since I was still living at home, none of my income was needed for things like rent or food or insurance or preparing for a future. Besides, none of my friends was doing any better than I was. I don't remember being particularly unhappy, but after a while I just got tired of my life. Not the surfing part--in 1996, Hurricanes Bertha and Fran slammed into the coast, and those were some of the best waves in years--but hanging out at Leroy's bar afterward. I began to realize that every night was the same. I'd be drinking beers and bump into someone I'd known from high school, and they'd ask what I was doing and I'd tell them, and they'd tell me what they were doing, and it didn't take a genius to figure out we were both on the fast track to nowhere. Even if they had their own place, which I didn't, I never believed them when they told me they liked their job as ditch digger or window washer or Porta Potti hauler, because I knew full well that none of those were the kinds of occupations they'd grown up dreaming about. I might have been lazy in the classroom, but I wasn't stupid.

  I dated dozens of women during that period. At Leroy's, there were always women. Most were forgettable relationships. I used women and allowed myself to be used and always kept my feelings to myself. Only my relationship with a girl named Lucy lasted more than a few months, and for a short time before we inevitably drifted apart, I thought I was in love with her. She was a student at UNC Wilmington, a year older than me, and wanted to work in New York after she graduated. "I care about you," she told me on our last night together, "but you and I want different things. You could do so much more with your life, but for some reason, you're content to simply float along." She'd hesitated before going on. "But more than that, I never know how you really feel about me." I knew she was right. Soon after, she left on a plane without bothering to say good-bye. A year later, after getting her number from her parents, I called her and we talked for twenty minutes. She was engaged to an attorney, she told me, and would be married the following June.

  The phone call affected me more than I thought it would. It came on a day when I'd just been fired--again--and I went to console myself at Leroy's, as always. The same crowd of losers was there, and I suddenly realized that I didn't want to spend another pointless evening pretending that everything in my life was okay. Instead, I bought a six-pack of beer and went to sit on the beach. It was the first time in years that I actually thought about what I was doing with my life, and I wondered whether I should take my dad's advice and get a college degree. I'd been out of school for so long, though, that the idea felt foreign and ridiculous. Call it luck or bad luck, but right then two marines jogged by. Young and fit, they radiated easy confidence. If they could do it, I told myself, I could do it, too.

  I mulled it over for a couple of days, and in the end, my dad had something to do with my decision. Not that I talked to him about it, of course--we weren't talking at al
l by then. I was walking toward the kitchen one night and saw him sitting at his desk, as always. But this time, I really studied him. His hair was mostly gone, and the little that was left had turned completely silver by his ears. He was nearing retirement, and I was struck by the notion that I had no right to keep letting him down after all he'd done for me.

  So I joined the military. My first thought was that I'd join the marines, since they were the guys I was most familiar with. Wrightsville Beach was always packed with jarheads from Camp Lejeune or Cherry Point, but when the time came, I picked the army. I figured I'd be handed a rifle either way, but what really closed the deal was that the marines recruiter was having lunch when I swung by and wasn't immediately available, while the army recruiter--whose office was right across the street--was. In the end, the decision felt more spontaneous than planned, but I signed on the dotted line for a four-year enlistment, and when the recruiter slapped my back and congratulated me as I went out the door, I found myself wondering what I'd gotten myself into. That was in late 1997, and I was twenty years old.

  Boot camp at Fort Benning was just as miserable as I thought it would be. The whole thing seemed designed to humiliate and brainwash us into following orders without question, no matter how stupid they might be, but I adapted more quickly than a lot of the guys. Once I got through it, I chose the infantry. We spent the next few months doing a lot of simulations in places like Louisiana and good old Fort Bragg, where we basically learned the best ways to kill people and break things; and after a while, my unit, as part of the First Infantry Division--aka the Big Red One--was sent to Germany. I didn't speak a word of German, but it didn't matter, since pretty much everyone I dealt with spoke English. It was easy at first, then army life set in. I spent seven lousy months in the Balkans--first in Macedonia in 1999, then in Kosovo, where I stayed until the late spring of 2000. Life in the army didn't pay much, but considering there was no rent, no food expenses, and really nothing to spend my paychecks on even when I got them, I had money in the bank for the first time. Not a lot, but enough.

  I spent my first leave at home completely bored out of my mind. I spent my second leave in Las Vegas. One of my buddies had grown up there, and three of us crashed at his parents' place. I blew through pretty much everything I'd saved. On my third leave, after coming back from Kosovo, I was desperately in need of a break and decided to head back home, hoping the boredom of the visit would be enough to calm my mind. Because of the distance, my dad and I seldom talked on the phone, but he wrote me letters that were always postmarked on the first of every month. They weren't like the ones my buddies got from their moms or sisters or wives. Nothing too personal, nothing mushy, and never a word that suggested he missed me. Nor did he ever mention coins. Instead, he wrote about changes in the neighborhood and a lot about the weather; when I wrote to tell him about a pretty hairy firefight I'd been in in the Balkans, he wrote back to say that he was glad I survived, but said no more about it. I knew by the way he phrased his response that he didn't want to hear about the dangerous things I did. The fact that I was in peril frightened him, so I started omitting the scary stuff. Instead, I sent him letters about how guard duty was without a doubt the most boring job ever invented and that the only exciting thing to happen to me in weeks was trying to guess how many cigarettes the other guard would actually smoke in a single evening. My dad ended every letter with the promise that he would write again soon, and once again, the man didn't let me down. He was, I've long since come to believe, a far better man than I'll ever be.

  But I'd grown up in the previous three years. Yeah, I know, I'm a walking cliche--go in as a boy, come out as a man and all that. But everyone in the army is forced to grow up, especially if you're in the infantry like me. You're entrusted with equipment that costs a fortune, others put their trust in you, and if you screw up, the penalty is a lot more serious than being sent to bed without supper. Sure, there's too much paperwork and boredom, and everyone smokes and can't complete a sentence without cursing and has boxes of dirty magazines under his bed, and you have to answer to ROTC guys fresh out of college who think grunts like me have the IQs of Neanderthals; but you're forced to learn the most important lesson in life, and that's the fact that you have to live up to your responsibilities, and you'd better do it right. When given an order, you can't say no. It's no exaggeration to say that lives are on the line. One wrong decision, and your buddy might die. It's this fact that makes the army work. That's the big mistake a lot of people make when they wonder how soldiers can put their lives on the line day after day or how they can fight for something they may not believe in. Not everyone does. I've worked with soldiers on all sides of the political spectrum; I've met some who hated the army and others who wanted to make it a career. I've met geniuses and idiots, but when all is said and done, we do what we do for one another. For friendship. Not for country, not for patriotism, not because we're programmed killing machines, but because of the guy next to you. You fight for your friend, to keep him alive, and he fights for you, and everything about the army is built on this simple premise.

  But like I said, I had changed. I went into the army as a smoker and almost coughed up a lung during boot camp, but unlike practically everyone else in my unit, I quit and hadn't touched the things in over two years. I moderated my drinking to the point that one or two beers a week was sufficient, and I might go a month without having any at all. My record was spotless. I'd been promoted from private to corporal and then, six months later, to sergeant, and I learned that I had an ability to lead. I'd led men in firefights, and my squad was involved in capturing one of the most notorious war criminals in the Balkans. My commanding officer recommended me for Officer Candidate School (OCS), and I was debating whether or not to become an officer, but that sometimes meant a desk job and even more paperwork, and I wasn't sure I wanted that. Aside from surfing, I hadn't exercised in years before I joined the service; by the time I took my third leave, I'd put on twenty pounds of muscle and cut the flab from my belly. I spent most of my free time running, boxing, and weight lifting with Tony, a musclehead from New York who always shouted when he talked, swore that tequila was an aphrodisiac, and was far and away my best friend in the unit. He talked me into getting tattoos on both arms just like him, and with every passing day, the memory of who I once had been became more and more distant.

  I read a lot, too. In the army, you have a lot of time to read, and people trade books back and forth or sign them out from the library until the covers are practically worn away. I don't want you to get the impression that I became a scholar, because I didn't. I wasn't into Chaucer or Proust or Dostoevsky or any of those other dead guys; I read mainly mysteries and thrillers and books by Stephen King, and I took a particular liking to Carl Hiaasen because his words flowed easily and he always made me laugh. I couldn't help but think that if schools had assigned these books in English class, we'd have a lot more readers in the world.

  Unlike my buddies, I shied away from any prospect of female companionship. Sounds weird, right? Prime of life, testosterone-filled job--what could be more natural than searching for a little release with the help of a female? It wasn't for me. Although some of the guys I knew dated and even married the locals while stationed in Wurzburg, I'd heard enough stories to know that those marriages seldom worked out. The military was hard on relationships in general--I'd seen enough divorces to know that--and while I wouldn't have minded the company of someone special, it just never happened. Tony couldn't understand it.

  "You gotta come with me," he'd plead. "You never come."

  "I'm not in the mood."

  "How can you not be in the mood? Sabine swears her friend is gorgeous. Tall and blond, and she loves tequila."

  "Bring Don. I'm sure he'd like to go."

  "Castelow? No way. Sabine can't stand him."

  I said nothing.

  "We're just going to have a little fun."

  I shook my head, thinking that I'd rather be alone than revert to th
e kind of person I'd been, but I found myself wondering whether I would end up being as monkish as my dad.

 
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NICHOLAS SPARKS SERIES:

Jeremy Marsh
The Notebook