This is from my new novel, A Spent Bullet. It details an emotional day for Louisiana schoolteacher Elizabeth Reed and her family. Enjoy!
To help you get in place: Elizabeth Reed, a 20 year old single schoolteacher lives with her family in Bundick, La. The start of school has been delayed due to the ongoing Louisiana Army Maneuvers. Her younger brother, Jimmy Earl, has joined the Army against his parent’s wishes. Sept. 1st is a traumatic day for the family as they travel to the train depot in DeRidder.
Monday, September 1, 1941
It was the day Elizabeth had come to dread. September 1st. What made it even worse was that she couldn’t tell anyone why. Last year—1940—the first of September had fallen on Sunday. She’d skipped church and spent the day in bed, saying that she had a stomach virus. But that wasn’t the truth. It wasn’t a virus—it was a broken heart. She carried the pain inside everyday, but it seemed to erupt anew when September rolled around.
After today, she’d have an additional reason to cringe: Jimmy Earl was catching the train to Shreveport and to boot camp at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri. He’d been accepted into the Air Corps and couldn’t wait to get away. Elizabeth fully understood. She’d had her own chance just two weeks ago.
She’d intended to be on this same train for Shreveport, but when it came time to grab the opportunity, she’d hesitated, and now it was out of reach. She reminded herself: I did the right thing in staying. But this morning, it didn’t feel as if she had. She sat on the edge of the bed, looking out the window at a flock of noisy crows hopping around in the yard. Suddenly one flew off and she thought of the words of David in one of the Psalms, “If only I had wings like a bird, I’d fly away.”
If only they drafted women. It would be her no-choice way out of Bundick. But she knew better. No matter where she was today, it would still be September 1st and she would still be lugging her broken heart.
It had been broken two years ago today: Sept. 1, 1939. The anniversary—or more accurately, the birthday—was something she’d deal with the rest of her life. Ironically this year’s September 1st would fall on Labor Day.
She’d gone into labor on this day two years ago. Once her pregnancy began to show toward the end of the spring semester of 1939, she’d moved to Shreveport to live with her best friend at college, Dora Jo Cook. Her own family in Bundick believed she was working a summer job in Shreveport. When the fall semester began, she told her family she had scarlet fever and needed to stay in Shreveport.
The labor pains began on the morning of September 1st. During her long day of labor at Charity Hospital, the first news arrived about Germany’s invasion of Poland. A nurse moved a radio into the hall as they listened to sobering updates of a new European war.
She’dsigned all of the papers weeks before so she wouldn’t change her mind. After they returned her to the hospital room after the baby’s delivery, the nurse said, “Would you like to hold the baby before . . .?” She’d planned not to, but at that moment said, “Yes.”
She held him for about ten minutes, amazed that what she’d carried inside her body for nine months was in her arms. He was a part of her as she was of him. His tiny hand grasped her finger. Elizabeth knew life would never be the same after today, but it had to be done. She reminded herself that her decision wasn’t a selfish one, but the best for the baby. The door opened and the stone-faced nurse came to the bed. Elizabeth kissed him before carefully handing him to her and turning her face to the wall.
The door opened again, it closed, and he was gone. The walls closed in on her like a vise and she’d never been so lonely in her life.
Two years later, she still wasn’t convinced she’d done the right thing. On this new September morning, the old self-accusations flew about in her mind just like the cawing crows in the yard. She rubbed her eyes. You’re going to drive yourself crazy if you don’t let it go.
Her mother knocked lightly at her door. “Baby, are you all right?”
“Yes, Momma. I’m just not feeling too fresh this morning.”
“Well, if you’re going with us to the train, you’ll need to get moving.”
“Yes Ma’am. I’ll be right out.”
After a quick breakfast, the Reed family loaded up in Rob Lindsey’s Model A for the trip to DeRidder. Elizabeth, sitting in the back, watched Jimmy Earl slowly circling the yard as if it might be a long time before he stood there again. Jimmy Earl, you can’t stand by the same river twice.
Ben leaned out the window. “You’re not bringing a suitcase?”
“Nope. I won’t need it where I’m going.” As he climbed into the car, quietness settled over the family; even Ben didn’t say a word. The silence said it all: nothing would be the same after today. It wasn’t just a change for Jimmy Earl; it would affect everyone in this car.
The DeRidder train depot was a mass of activity. Soldiers were milling about, waiting for the northbound train’s arrival. Jimmy entered the depot to finalize his ticket. Momma, stifling tears, scanned the crowd of soldiers. “Lord, don’t they all look young.”
The soldiers parted as a black car backed up to the depot landing. A hush fell and Elizabeth saw why. It was a hearse. Four soldiers unloaded a flag-draped wooden coffin. Soldiers and civilians alike removed their hats as the coffin was carried from the vehicle to the train.
Elizabeth grabbed Ben’s hand as he said, “What is it, sister?”
As the coffin was deposited into the baggage car, a civilian approached the funeral director. “Mr. Roberts, what happened?”
“It’s a soldier. He drowned in the Sabine River over the weekend. He’s on his way back home.”
“And where’s that?”
“South Dakota.” He glanced at the paper in his hand. “Sturgis, South Dakota.”
“Never heard of it.”
“It’s in the Black Hills.”
Jimmy Earl, ticket in hand, walked up. “What’s going on?”
“A soldier drowned in the Sabine,” Elizabeth said.
Jimmy Earl shook his head. “That’s a wicked river.”
“He’s going home to South Dakota.”
Elizabeth’s parents were on the other side of the hearse. Poppa stood bareheaded, his arm around Momma, who was dabbing at her eyes. They looked much older. Older and sadder.
The conductor leaned from the train car. “All aboard.” The travelers formed a line and began loading. The soldiers among them seemed delighted to be boarding a train leaving Louisiana. Jimmy Earl hugged each family member one by one. He knelt, putting his hands on his younger brother’s shoulders. “Now, you’re going to have to take good care of things while I’m gone.”
“When will I see you again, Jim?”
“I don’t rightly know . . . but I’ll be back.” The whistle blew and the engine began powering up. Jimmy Earl turned at the top step and waved before stepping into the first journey of his new life. Elizabeth put her arm around Peg. “You can’t stand at the same river twice.”
Her twin looked away. “Ain’t it so?”
Ben ran up and down the platform until he found where Jimmy Earl was seated. He ran alongside as the train inched northward. Elizabeth’s last view was of Jimmy Earl’s face and palm pressed against the glass.
The few well-wishers scattered, leaving only the Reed family—Poppa and Momma, Ben, Peg, and she—alone on the platform. They seemed frozen in time, afraid or unable to move. She knew where the icy tightness in her stomach came from. It was September first. Labor Day, 1941. Now that date would mean something else: the date she lost another family member. A nurse didn’t take him away—he left on a northbound train.
It was the same train taking a Northern soldier on his final ride home. Elizabeth didn’t believe in omens and wasn’t superstitious, but shuddered as the train’s whistle echoed at the North Street crossing.
Author’s notes: My mother told of being at the DeRidder depot (where her father worked) during World War II. A forlorn family waited for the train carrying the body of their son killed in the war. She described it as one of the saddest moments of her life. I tried to “channel her story” into this chapter.
A Spent Bullet should be here in late September. Stay connected to the Creekbank to learn more.