A Spent Bullet
Wednesday, August 13, 1941
The shiny bullet bounced on the sidewalk at Elizabeth Reed’s feet. As she bent to examine it, a blond soldier leaned out of the crowded Army truck. “You’re beautiful. Write me.” Pointing at her feet, he yelled, “The bullet—write me.”
Hearing a chorus of wolf whistles, she flinched, refusing to pick up the empty shell cartridge. There was no way she’d give the truckload of soldiers the satisfaction of stooping to retrieve it. She smoothed her dress and shyly nodded at the laughing men.
The truck rattled across the tracks and disappeared in a cloud of dust and smoke. The whistling and yelling had grated on her like fingernails across the slate board in her classroom. Fanning the dust away, Elizabeth coughed and mumbled, “Stupid soldiers.”
She’d watched DeRidder’s population double with soldiers, construction workers, and outsiders looking for a quick buck, and was sick of it all.
She saw that her ten-year-old brother Ben, standing beside her, hadn’t seen the tossed object, being preoccupied pumping his arm for each truck to blow its air horn.
One driver tooted four quick notes followed by two more and Ben took a step forward. “Shave and a haircut… two bits.”
Elizabeth grinned at her brother. He loved town trips, especially with military vehicles, cavalry horses, and soldiers filling the streets.
He whistled at a passing cavalry column. “Sister, this is better than the Beauregard Parish Fair Parade.”
It was then he spied the shell on the sidewalk. She tried to cover it with her shoe, but Ben was too quick, kicking the bullet with his bare foot. “What’s that, Bethie?”
“One of the soldiers threw it. It’s a spent bullet with a slip of paper in it.”
He knelt to pick it up, but Elizabeth pulled him away. He protested, “Hey, if we—” His words were drowned out by the shrill whistle and shrieking brakes of the three o’clock train.
Ben jumped up and down. “Our train’s here.”
As the whistle faded, the caterwauling from the convoy’s last truck took its place. She clamped her hands over Ben’s ears. “Sometimes what they say isn’t for fresh ears.”
“My ears ain’t fresh.” He twisted loose from her grip.
“Benjamin Franklin Reed, you’re impossible. It’s aren’t—not ain’t.”
“Well, either way, my ears ain’t fresh.”
A soldier yelled, “Miss, Miss, are we in my hometown of Detroit yet?”
The truckload of soldiers laughed at his joke. Ben, who was allergic to silence, said, “Nope, this is DeRidder, Louisianer.”
The train whistled again, silencing further conversation. The Detroit soldier cupped his hands, trying to be heard above the train. Ben waved, as Elizabeth shook her head. “Not just a Yankee, but a city slicker Yankee, and a smart aleck one to boot.”
Then she turned her attention to her little brother. “Ben, we live in Louisiana. It’s not Louisianer.”
“Ain’t that what I said?” He winked. “Is this the way you’re gonna treat me in your classroom all year?”
She grabbed him in a headlock and goosed him, as he flailed his arms yelling like a scalded dog. She stopped and looked up into the grinning faces of a dozen soldiers watching from their truck. One soldier, with a deep west Texas drawl, said, “I’ll wrassle you next when you’re through with him.”
Heat filled her face, and she turned away. “Come on Ben, our train’s here. Let’s go.”
He pointed toward the sidewalk. “But what about the bullet?”
She started across the street, then looked back to find Ben kneeling, rolling up the cuff of his overalls. “Come on, Ben—a dollar’s waiting on a dime. If you’re coming to town with me, you have to keep up.”
Ben scampered forward. “Bethie, are you mad at me or those soldiers?”
She froze. “What do you mean?”
“I just want to know if you’re mad at me.”
She regretted her earlier harsh tone. “I’m not mad at you.” She licked her fingers and tried to tame the unruly cowlick in her brother’s dark hair.
“So, it’s the soldiers?”
“I’m not mad at them, just tired of them.”
“Is it ’cause they’re men?”
“What do you mean? Who’s been talking to you?”
“Well, Momma said…” He stopped. “She said you got hurt by some soldier up in Natchitoches, and ain’t got over it.”
“Listen, our mother doesn’t know everything.” Holding firmly to her brother’s arm, she marched across the street toward the depot. “watch closely for those army trucks.”
“I will, I will.” He seemed more concerned with digging around in his pocket than listening to her.
Her mother’s words, just quoted by her brother, hung like the dust in the air. Hurt by a soldier. She bit her lip, holding back the tears. It would not happen again.