This is chapter 5 from my latest novel, A Spent Bullet. I’ll be adding author notes throughout the week.
Melted Ice Cream
CAMP POLK, LOUISIANA
13 AUGUST 1941
EXTREME HEAT AND HUMIDITY WILL BE IN EFFECT FOR BLUE ARMY AREAS. ALL PERSONNEL SHOULD MAKE MAXIMUM USE OF SALT TABLETS AND WATER.
Harry looked at Shorty Johnson in the light of dawn. “Why in the world would anyone volunteer for this Army?” Their pine-knot fire blazed up when Shorty piled bitterweeds on it, causing Harry to ask, “Does that really keep mosquitoes away?”
Shorty held both palms up. “See any?”
“No, I don’t. You actually enjoy being in the field, don’t you?”
Shorty shrugged. “It ain’t much different from a Louisiana logging camp, ‘cept the pay’s better and the army’s a lot safer. Figured it’d extend my life expectancy.”
“If lumbering is worse than this, remind me never to sign up.”
“Don’t worry buddy, you wouldn’t last two days. You got too many citified ways.”
Shorty was proud to be a third generation woodsman. This seemed strange since both a brother and grandfather had died in logging accidents.
As a pot of coffee brewed over the fire, a bugle blew “chow call.” Shorty stood. “The ice cream boys are back.” He brushed past Harry. “Come on, how ‘bout an ice cream sandwich for breakfast?” Dozens of soldiers grappled around an old car from which two teenagers busily exchanged ice cream for coins and bills. The feeding frenzy was soon over, and Shorty came out of the pile holding up two sandwiches, tossing one to Harry. Grasping his treat, Harry strolled to the teens. “It looks like the Great Depression isn’t as great as it used to be for you boys.”
The taller of the two, folding a wad of money into his wallet, answered. “The Army has sure helped us.”
Harry took a bite of his sandwich. “Where’d you get the ice cream?”
“Borden’s in Lake Charles.”
Suddenly, the circle of happy ice cream eaters parted as a jeep skidded to a halt and a second lieutenant scampered out. “Who blew that bugle?” The younger teen tried to hide the bugle behind his back, which only further infuriated the officer. “No one blows a bugle around here without my official clearance. If I see you again, I’ll have the MPs impound your vehicle.”
The boys climbed into the car and, as soon as it sputtered to life, roared off in a cloud of dust. Harry walked over to the jeep where a corporal sat in the driver’s seat. Harry held out his ice cream. “Want a bite?”
The driver laughed. “No thanks.” Harry quickly finished his dust-covered, melting ice cream sandwich, scanning the cloudless sky. As cool ice cream ran down his arm, he shook his head. “Any place hot enough at daylight to melt ice cream isn’t fit for human habitation.”
The driver laughed. “It’s sure different than Illinois. Where’re you from?”
“Milwaukee.” Harry nodded toward the still-fuming officer. “You carry around idiots like him?”
“I see it all in my job.” He held out his hand. “My name’s Lawrence.”
“Harry Miller.” He studied the jeep. “You like driving this thing?”
“It sure beats marching.”
The Lieutenant climbed in. “Let’s go, Corporal.”
Lawrence winked at Harry. “Hi-Yo, Silver, away!”
The jeep spun out coating Harry with more dust as the driver called over his shoulder, “See you later, Kemo-Sabe.”
Another bugle call sounded, and it was chow call. Another day began for Company K in their temporary home at Fulton, Louisiana. Harry walked toward the mess tent as soldiers were jostling for the few shady spots. Carrying his meal toward their tent, he was followed by the three Company K soldiers who loved tormenting him as much as any biting insect. To his dismay, these three—Halverson, Nickels, and Shep—sat beside him.
Company K was primarily comprised of National Guard soldiers from the central Wisconsin town of Monitowoc. All of them, as well as Sarge and their officers, had grown up together and formed a tight-knit clan that excluded outsiders like Shorty, Cohen, and Harry. Especially Harry.
“Well, how’s old lover boy doing this morning?” Shep said.
When Harry didn’t answer, Shep continued, “Listen. You’re going to have to give up this sad-sack business and get on with life. There’s plenty of beautiful women in these Louisiana woods prettier than that gal Harriet.”
Harry winced. “Her name’s Helen.”
“Well, either way, the best way of getting over her is finding you a Louisiana woman, hey?”
Harry scoffed, “The last thing I’d ever want is a Louisiana woman.”
“Well, we have been working on getting you a Louisiana broad.”
“Thanks, but no tha—”
Shep cut him off. “It may be a little late for you to say no. We’ve been working hard to help you, haven’t we, Hal?”
Halverson pulled out an empty M-1 cartridge. “On our way down here, we threw out a bunch of these.”
Harry shot back quickly. “I already heard about it. Tossing bullets—yoo-hooing—is prohibited. Captain read the new regulation to us last week—something about an MP being hit in the eye by a tossed rock.”
Halverson rubbed his head. “Ouch, did the MP write that soldier back?” Everyone but Harry found this hilarious.
Sarge passed by and stopped, putting his hands on his hips. “Miller, the front of your tent is leaning. Get it straight before roll call.”
Harry nodded. “Yes Sir.”
Once Sarge was out of earshot, Shep said, “He hates you even worse than me, and that’s saying a lot.” He lowered his voice. “On our ride down here from Camp Livingston, we tossed out a bunch of those bullets. Miller, your name was on a bunch of them.”
“If I get in trouble because of you guys . . . .”
“It’ll be worth it, if you get a woman, hey?”
“How many had my name?”
“Oh, I don’t remember—five, maybe six.” Shep made a throwing motion. “I threw three of them myself. First one was to a bucktoothed-bowlegged farm-girl outside Leesville. The second one was near Rosepine, but she wasn’t buck-toothed; as far as I could see, she didn’t have any teeth at all.”
Nickels corrected him. “No, the second girl was the one with the moustache.”
Shep slapped his forehead. “How could I ever forget her?” He put his hand by his mouth. “Now, the last bullet I threw was to a real beaut—a fine-looking long-legged gal near the tracks in DeRidder. I don’t think she picked it up, but if she writes, send her my way.”
“Fat chance of what—you not turning her over to a real man?”
“No, fat chance of her writing. I’m sure you scared her off.”
“Well, I did yell that she was beautiful, and every woman loves hearing that. She was a dark-haired looker. If she writes, I want her address.”
Harry glanced away. “The way my luck’s been, it’ll be the bucktooth or the toothless one.”
These tormenters, who called themselves “The Three Musketeers,” snickered as Shep said, “Oh, I forgot about the fat, old-maid schoolteacher I saw in front of the DeRidder Schoolhouse. I threw one to her, too.”
Harry’d heard enough. “Well, thanks a lot, guys. I really do appreciate your help.”
“No problem. We’d do anything for a friend and fellow soldier.” Shep patted Harry on the shoulder. “One day you’ll probably thank me for this.” He handed him an empty cartridge. “This souvenir is for you.”
Harry bit his tongue. I doubt if I’ll ever thank you for anything, Shep. With that, he flung the cartridge into the weeds. He visualized the old-maid schoolteacher and wasn’t sure if she was buck-toothed or toothless—but she definitely had a moustache.
He nearly gagged on his next bite of scrambled eggs. It would be just his luck.