LETTERS TO JULIA
by Sara Cummings
It felt like it had been decades since I’d last been home and driving down the same roads that I’d driven for the first 18 years of my life. It felt completely surreal. Soy fields zoomed by on my left and alfalfa fields spanned for miles on my right. Taking my hand off the wheel, I gripped the crank attached to the frame of the door to roll down my driver’s side window. As soon as the seal between window and frame was broken, a rush of cool, late-summer breeze forced it’s way in and the earthy, clean smell of manure filled by nose, sending a warm feeling dancing through my body. For most people its freshly cut lawns or ocean salt but manure is the smell that says home to me. This was proof that you really don’t know what you’re missing until it’s gone, or, at least in my case, until you leave it for a while.
Momentarily, I closed my eyes and breathed deeply. I had forgotten what a treasure clean air really was after living in the city for six years. As soon as I graduated from high school, I went away to continue my schooling in Chicago against my mother’s wishes and to spite my father. There were a lot of things that planted the desire to move from my tiny, crowded hometown in my mind- lack of opportunity, lack of privacy, lack of vibrancy- but the drunken habits of my father are what pushed me away the most. For a moment, just a quick moment, I wanted to know what living without the heavy burden of alcoholism was like but I ended up staying away for longer than I had originally planned.
The breeze twisted and turned through my hair, teasing my scalp gently, and it was everything I needed to wash the doubts of adult life away. I didn’t remember the patch of highway I was driving being so long but just as I began to think that I had missed the turn I needed to take, I saw my old friend. The red barn with peels in his paint and creaks in his hinges was standing faithfully around the next bend in the road; I smiled upon seeing him. That warm feeling I got when I felt the summer air hit my face came back as I drove up to my old friend, the barn. We held endless memories together and they all came flooding back as my car brought me up the drive.
I remember when I first met the barn and came running through the tall grass that took over the gravel driveway at the time to stand beneath him. I thought he needed a patch job and a fresh coat of paint. There were places where some boards were missing and some were rotting away and I’ll bet every window in that barn was cracked or broken in some way. I wanted to fix him up but he wasn’t to be like any other old barn, though. I wanted to paint him purple or possibly orange, I don’t remember, but it was one of the many grand plans I had when I was young. My dad had plans to fix him up too- they just weren’t as creative (or outstandingly brilliant) as mine. He took me through every area of that barn, showing me the dust-covered concrete floors, the barn stalls that had been abandoned long ago by their cattle, and explained all of his ideas for renovation. We were going to install lights, put new gates on the stalls and “get that place in working order.” But no purple paint, he had told me.
After I had pulled up past the front side of the barn, dust clouds dragging behind me, I parked my car next to the lean-to where my dad’s green John Deere and red Allis-Chalmers were always parked after a day of work. The big, black tires of the tractors reminded me of the rumbling sound the machines made and how gargantuan those tires really used to look in my eyes. I got out and walked around my car to lean against them, looking out at the herd of cattle behind the fence line 20 meters away.
My dad would get in his (then brand-new) John Deere and with the fork lift, stab a bale of hay to feed to our cows. The job my younger brother, Tyler, and I were always assigned was to carefully follow the tractor ruts into the pasture with a pair of shears, cut the twine from the bales he brought out there, and collect the strands before he plunked them into the hay feeders. Dad always told us that the worst mistakes you could make while on the farm are forgetting to remove the twine from a soon-to-be-eaten bale of hay and failing to remember that the electric fence is turned on. I learned that second lesson the hard way.
Ty and I would race around those bales of hay that were hoisted in the air by the fork lift and pull as many strings of twine as we could to see who could gather the most; everything had to be a competition. Now, standing and looking at the tires of the tractor that were for sure bigger than both of us at the time, it was a miracle neither one of us were run over. I looked up into the cab of the John Deere and memories of riding along on the pop-down passenger seat while my dad cut and raked hay ran through my mind. Those were the days when my father was the most hard-working and genuine man I knew, which most fathers are to their little girls anyway. All I knew was that I was with my father, my hero.
It was a bright August day when I had gone to visit the farm and so, having had forgotten my sunglasses back on top of my dresser in my apartment in Chicago, I sought shelter from the sun’s rays underneath the now empty hay shed that stood boldly next to the old barn. It looked like a skeleton, no longer housing bales upon bales of hay. Leaning against one of its supporting poles, I sat down in the dirt and grabbed a stray piece of hay to fiddle with. I could still remember what the shed looked like, filled to the rafters.
In the fall, when all the hay had been cut, raked, and baled up to be brought off the fields and stacked underneath, my brother and I would sneak off from doing our chores to climb the mountains of bales. We would play one game where we’d race on top of them, hopping from one bale to the next, to see who could scale across them the fastest and another game where one of us would hide somewhere between all the bales and it was the job of the other person to find them. I always won the races because I was older and my legs were longer but he won hide-and-seek because he was smaller. Once, as I was counting to 15 while Ty hid, I heard an ear-piercing screech. He had fallen between a cluster of loose bales and was stuck between them at least two bales down.
I ran as quickly as my scrawny, scratched up 11-year-old legs could take me to where I heard the scream and peered down between the bales to meet my little brothers frightened gaze. His brow was furrowed and his eyes glistened with tears. His arms were reaching upward, body pressed against the hay, and he was trying to grab onto something to pull himself out.
Panic filled my body and I slammed down onto my stomach to reach for his hands. I stretched and I strained but my fingertips were still a few feet away from his.
“Ty… I-I’ll go get dad.”
“O-,” he hiccupped as tears spilled from his baby blue eyes that now projected worry, “Okay, hurry.”
Since that day, I have never seen so much anger and fear spew from my dad’s gaze at the same time. When I breathlessly told him what had happened to Ty after running across our entire cow pasture, he immediately dropped the tools he was using to repair the barbed-wire fence, wiped sweat from his brow, and began sprinting toward the hay shed. I had never seen him sprint like that and tried desperately to keep up with him. We reached the shed, climbed up the mountain of bales, and made our way to where Ty was. My dad reached one strong, fatherly arm down into the hole and hoisted him out. That afternoon, my brother and I received one of the sternest talking-tos we had ever been given and were never allowed to climb in the hay shed again.
I eventually learned that Ty could’ve been crushed by those hale bales if they would’ve shifted in the slightest way and as the two of us grew up and entered high school, that farm became less of a magical place. We began to see it as the place where we’d only go if dad couldn’t handle a task on his own, where we’d only go if we were asked. After the hay bale incident and learning what could’ve been my brothers fate, I swore that I’d never let him be in any kind of danger again if I could help it.
After finishing four years of medical school and working as a surgical assistant for three years, Ty joined up as a combat medic. He said that he had always wanted to join the military, just never wanted to go through basic training. He entered with a captain’s rank and after a few short months of training, him and the men he had learned how to help were shipped off to Vietnam. The night before he left, he stopped over at my apartment with a few beers and we sat at my kitchen table, reminiscing on many parts of our childhood together and also talking about the adventure he was about to embark on. I could remember a sizable lump forming in my throat and looking down so he wouldn’t see me begin to cry. I was afraid of him leaving but didn’t want him to know. That’s when he reached over and placed a warm, comforting hand on my shoulder.
“Jules, I’ll be okay.”
I looked up at him with wet eyes just like the ones he looked up at me with when he had fallen between the hay bales.
He continued, “I’ll try my best to write whenever I can… say, once every two weeks or something.” He then smiled a cheeky smile.
“Deal,” I replied, smiling back, wiping my face with the back of my hand.
Jules, May 25th, 1966
I’ve been in Vietnam for a little over 2 weeks… really just beginning to settle in and get used to the fact that this will kind of be my home for a while. It’s very different from the U.S. but alike in many ways too; they have their bustling cities- Ho Chi Minh, think New York City but in Asia. The only English-speaking people are my buddies. I guess that was to be expected though. Weather is decent…but it IS May.
I know you’d rather hear all about my adventures over here but I miss you. How’re you doing, how’s mom? And dad? I hope everything is okay and Chicago is still treating you well. Are you going to be moving home anytime soon? Maybe when I get back?
Oh, and did you know that I love you?
Ty! June 2nd, 1966
It’s so great to hear from you, you wouldn’t even believe. Waiting to receive this letter felt like waiting for ages! It’s crazy to think that you’re all the way across the world- I’m not sure if I’ll be able to handle my little brother being so far away but I’m really glad to hear that you’re trying to get used to living there at least. Vietnam isn’t an English-speaking country, what did you expect?
I miss you too, Ty. I’m doing okay. The firm is keeping my schedule busier than ever so I don’t have as much time to think about how much I miss you. Mom is well. She came and visited last weekend. Dad? I haven’t heard from Dad… I’m not sure when I’ll be moving back, if at all. Maybe you could come live with me?
But did you know that I love you more?
Thinking of you,
I dropped the now limp straw of hay from my sweaty hands and looked up to examine my surroundings. While I was remembering the hide-and-seek incident and the events leading up to my brother’s departure from home, it had grown dark around me and was now dusk, the sun barely winking at me from behind the trees across the hay field. Pushing off from the ground, I stood up, brushed the dirt from off of my backside, and began to make my way towards my parked car next to the tractors. I’d always associated our family farm with happy memories but this visit, the first visit I had made in years, brought me to the realization that it held much more than blissful childhood recollections.
Julia, February 10th, 1968
It’s bad. I’ve never experienced this much violence and blood and hate in my life. I thank God every day that I’m putting good out into this world by saving lives and not taking them but it’s hard, you know? Seeing my friends, the people I’ve spent months… years with, in so much pain and even dying… soon, though. Soon it’ll all be over. My birthday was recently, I can’t remember which day. 4 days ago? Maybe a week… I spent it praying.
I miss you and I miss home and I miss the cold weather, believe it or not. I miss not having to sleep with one eye open and I miss being able to have dreams not nightmares. I miss not having to see red every day. Tell me you’re okay. Tell me what Chicago is like.
Oh, and did you know that I love you?
Usually my parents and I each get a letter from Ty every two to three weeks- it’s almost always like clockwork- but we hadn’t received anything in months. My parents continuously try to convince me that it’s no big deal and even that he’s simply forgotten but I worry that something’s gone wrong. He wouldn’t forget to write me. Two nights ago, I had a dream that he was killed by a ricocheted bullet and they just ‘accidentally’ forgot to write my family to tell us that he was gone. When we did get a letter, the words on the page spelled out nothing but gibberish. Somehow, in my mind, it translated to, “We regret to inform you…” I can remember, in my dream, wishing that I had never gotten any letter at all. The waiting, the anticipation was better than those words jumping off the page to attack me. I couldn’t imagine losing the person who I swore I’d keep out of danger for as long as I lived
When I woke up from that nightmare of a dream, I was shaken by violent cold sweats and shivers, my tee shirt stuck to my clammy neck, and tears streamed down my hot face. I secretly and guiltily began to wish that we wouldn’t ever receive a letter. It somehow brought me comfort to imagine that he was okay, safely living out his life in another part of the world, keeping other people safe. He wasn’t meant for war but he was made to save. Selfishly, I found myself wanting him to come save me- to bring me back to the childhood where everything about our farm was magical and to relieve the worry that rattled my bones every day when I remembered that there wasn’t anything a big sister could do to ensure that he brother was out of harm’s way.
I needed to know where he was and if he was okay; I grew tired of waiting and wondering. After reaching my car, opening the door and plopping down into the driver’s seat, I began digging and rummaging around in the backseat and found an old notebook with pages that were yellowed from time and exposure and scribbled all over from random use. I shakily flipped through the written-on pages and finally found one that was blank on the front and back. Grabbing a pen from my center console, I began to quickly scrawl on the page, “To Whom it May Concern.” Who even was this letter going to be sent to? Maybe I was crazy. Ty was okay, right? I stopped writing momentarily.
“I’m writing in regard to my brother, Tyler Christopher Hamline,” my hand continued on.
We were always Ty and Jules, Jules and Ty- the siblings so inseparable that you’d swear they came out of the womb attached at the hip.
“My family and I have not heard from him in two months, usually he writes us every two or three weeks, and we are very concerned for his safety and request to know his status and/or whereabouts.
Thank you very much in advance. Please reply in a timely manner, it would be greatly appreciated.
Do I sign it as being from just me?
“Julia N. Hamline.”
About the Author:
Sara Cummings is an undergraduate college student at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities who has been writing all her life. While she’s had small essays and papers recognized in contests in high school, has produced works that she is proud of, and has received many compliments on her writing, this is her first submission to a literary magazine. Even though she’s just begun to take creative and fiction writing courses at the University, writing has always been an enjoyable hobby for her.