Every so often I write songs about letters and should someone want their story put to music, I’m not hard to find. I read and answer every letter, if not with a song then with a handwritten thank you and thoughts about the sender’s story.
A worn package with frayed seams waits patiently, mostly because when I first look inside I see a photocopied image of some impossibly colorful flower blanketing the top page… But the impossibly colorful flower unexpectedly gives way to an army-green-hued photograph of a young soldier in fatigues, which gives way to a beautiful letter sent forty years into the past. The letter gives way to more photographs and then more letters, letters that will send me on a journey deep into the heart of a soldier, letters of love and war, service and sacrifice, annihilation and redemption, compassion and gratitude, and perhaps most of all, forgiveness.
Sgt. John K. Fuller
366 AEMS DR. 43, Box 620
APO San Francisco 96337
Dear Sgt. Fuller,
The current year is 2008. However, I am mailing you this letter in hopes it will float back in time to 1968 to where you were then—Da Nang, Vietnam.
My name is Jennifer Fuller. You won’t know me for another two years, but I am your daughter.
I know to another who may be reading this, it may seem unusual—yet I know you understand. I have been reading the letters you wrote to your wife, Rebecca, during your tour in Vietnam and I am sad I only have a small portion of them. It seems you wrote her two to three times a day.
This one I found especially sweet. I will always cherish the timeless love story of my dear parents. The letters you wrote my mother have bridged a gap in my heart and have allowed me to understand a tiny piece of the place I came from.
I was sitting here missing the hell out of you so I just had to write. There should be a law against a woman who has a hold on a man like you have on me. I think of you every minute of the day, and the memory of your love tortures my old body all day long. On top of that, I won’t accept any substitutes for you. I came here and cut myself off, and only you can turn me on again. What I am trying to say to you is that I love you with all my body as well as my heart. (I am proud to say it too.)
Darling, when you send me my trumpet, include some valve oil in it. I am anxious to get my horn, so please rush it along. By the time you get this, I will know about Hawaii for sure. I am going to call you on the 5th, give or take a day. What a great time we are going to have on my R&R. Me and you together for six days.
Sweetie, I will close for now. By the way, I call you Rebecca (instead of Becky) because it’s your real
name and I think it’s pretty. I love you and that
name is music to my ears.
I love you too much, Rebecca.
I won’t tell you how it all ends, for you have an entire life ahead of you. I can tell you this much: I turn out pretty good. You would be proud to know I have inherited many of your traits. Some of those traits I had no idea came from you until now. My passion came from you and it is something I will cherish from this day forward so long as I live.
I also want you to know I have all of your musical instruments in the room I’m currently writing in (your trumpet, saxophone, bass guitar). I had no idea that you played in a band during your Vietnam tour. I know you hated it there and made the best you could out of things. I never heard you talk about this part of your life and was never even curious about it until now.
You complain a lot about how hot it is there and how Charlie is always making you run to the bunkers for cover because of the incoming rockets. (I had to look up what
Charlie means and you guys apparently call the Viet Cong “Charlie.”) Your son (or baby boy as you now call him) explained to me why you didn’t like talking about your tour there. Everything about war is brutal and you feel it is so unfair to be away from the one you love.
I can’t lie and say you didn’t make a lot of mistakes in your life after you returned home. The letters you wrote to Rebecca, however, were so loving and sweet, maybe a little too steamy for your daughter to read! I learned a lot about you and I know this to be the truth: You loved three things with all your heart, for all your life—Rebecca, your kid, and your music…
I let out the breath I’ve been holding since I read the words I am your daughter… and mutter am I that ignorant? I have no idea what the world Charlie means, except as a faint attachment to a scene from some movie that has also given me a cursory awareness of other words on the page like Viet Cong and Vietnam. These words must still echo from the past battlefields of soldiers at war to the minefields they walk here at home, but they are words I don’t understand.
Acknowledging my ignorance makes me realize that I hardly know what any words from any of our wars mean because I’ve been so sheltered by the very freedom fought for and protected by the soldiers who said them.
So I am ignorant and sheltered.
Sometimes life’s timing is suspicious. The first notes of the national anthem spill from the tinny television speakers on my kitchen counter in the opening moments of a preseason football game. I drop the letter on the counter for a ritual that happens every time I’m alone and football is on TV. I put my hand over my heart and sing along under my breath to the national anthem and feel the familiar air catch under my throat.
Because as I watch these images of men and women in uniform carrying the flag and jets flying overhead and fireworks going off and players crossing themselves, somewhere in my heart the uniforms and jets and flag and fireworks and players crossing themselves become something else.
The uniforms become those who fight, the jets become how they fight and the fireworks become the fight. And the flag becomes the freedom they fight for.
The fire of gratitude, reignited by the spark of this letter on the counter, shines a light on a certain kind of shame I feel for not having a better understanding of those artifacts of war. I should know deeper the words, the motives, the people, the context, the cost.
I can’t go back in time… But I can read and listen and learn more about the war, and how that turbulent era unfolded in the decade before I was born. And maybe for now I can somehow honor this gratitude by closing my eyes and wrapping my fingers around my old guitar and imagining myself singing from a soldier’s heart.
Copyright © 2015 by Alex Woodard. Adapted from “For the Sender: Letters From Vietnam.” (Hay House, 2015). Reprinted with permission.