Novels and Short Stories

by John F. Dillon

letterThe Letter

John F. Dillon

The summer semester was nearing completion. The end of term details caused the men to delay their customary afternoon walk about the campus.

It was typical for South Florida weather. The day had begun with a clear blue sky that stretched from horizon to horizon. White puffs appeared in the early afternoon. By the time the men set out on their walk, the setting sun was dispersing scattered bands of turquoise, blue, salmon, and indigo as it peered from above thunderheads moving over the Everglades.

The younger man, Steve Vann was concluding the final month of his first teaching assignment at the college. His companion, a tenured professor, was nearing the final months of a long career. They had met at the Deans Introduction Luncheon, and again a chance encounter in an off-campus pub where they talked and discovered mutual interests. Their association soon progressed into end of day walks about the campus where the novice paid strict attentions to the words of the elder and the elder, thankful for an appreciative listener, executed the role of mentor.

Steve, whose questions were usually in the form of a statement, expressed a concern about the upcoming Fall Semester.  "This summer session was a lot easier than I thought it would be...but...uh....come the fall.  Well, you know. The students are younger and they tend to be more spirited and...and, well you know...there's the problem of...uh...maintaining discipline."

The professor didn't answer. He usually responded to such statements with a simple parable and let the listener arrive at a conclusion but today he remained quiet.

Steve pressed. "I guess the best thing to do is wait until someone acts up, and then jump on him with all fours;  you know as a lesson to the others."

Age and experience still did not provide the younger man a response and the men concluded their walk in silence. After a hurried goodbye, Steve departed for home without an answer.

The professor sat alone in his office for a long time before reaching into his pocket and extracting a soiled envelope. He closed his eyes and unconsciously slid his fingers along the outer edge while mulling about its contents. At last, he opened his eyes and sat upright.

"Ill talk to him tomorrow."

The following day the men began another delayed walk as the hot August afternoon advanced into early evening. Before departing, they discussed the ominous displays of an impending thunderstorm and concluded the far off flashers and muffled booms would not reach the area until after their return.

As usual, their walk began in the Administration Buildings parking lot. Neither had taken the time to change from their lightweight summer suit although Steve removed his tie and undid the top buttons of his light blue, colored shirt. He folded the tie into his jacket pocket before draping the garment over his arm. The professors concession to the weather was the slight loosing of his tie.

They had reached the far end of the campus when Steve asked if the professor had ever married.

"No, Steven," the professor smiled. "No, I never did. You might say I'm married to my job. I love teaching and.... " he paused, frowned than added, "I've also learned many a lesson."

Steve's mouth expanded to a curious grin. "Lessons you learned? What lesson could you learn? You're the teacher-the expert."

The professor acknowledged the compliment with a chuckle and replied, "I learned the biggest lesson of my life during the first fifteen minutes of the very first class I taught." He noted Steve's puzzled expression and was about to explain when he was interrupted by a not so distant thunderclap that caused the professor to recoil and involuntary reach for his breast pocket.

Sensing, rather than seeing, the movement, Steve expressed concern. "You okay?"

"I'm fine," the professor assured the younger man.

"I saw you reach for your heart."

"No-not my heart...this,...this letter. I don't want it to get wet!"  The professor withdrew a carefully folded envelope from his pocket. The combination of time and handling had turned the once white grain to a greenish brown.  "I always keep this with me," he said weighing his words.  "Its a reminder of another summer afternoon- like today-hot and sticky with thunderstorms." He shook his head from side to side then placed his right hand to a faded scar below his right eye.  "Never did like thunderstorms bad things seem to happen. I lost my eye when my father's car skidded during a thunderstorm. I was just a kid a teenager." He grimaced, remembering. "I was in the hospital for over a four months undergoing reconstructive surgery on my face." He paused before adding, "I had to wear a patch for almost three years before I could be fitted with the prosthetic eye. The socket had to be rebuilt and the nerves made to accept it. Even today, so many years later, my good eye gets strained and my eyesight becomes blurred."

"It must have been awful."

A moderating breeze caused the men to quicken their pace.

"The accident prevented me from joining the Army," the professor told Steve.  He tilted his neck slightly and inhaled causing his mouth to form a sneer. "I was real gung-ho in those days." He stopped, looked in Steve's direction, then  blurted, " Instead, I finished school and became a teacher."

"Who knows? You could have been sent overseas-to war."

The professor stroked the envelope. He took a deep breath. "I guess so," he replied, then silently murmured to himself, 'Lucky me.'

The men increased their pace after another gust of cool air. Once the wind passed, the professor continued his censure, "But that didn't prevent me from being a super patriot," he sarcastically whispered. "On the other hand, maybe I became one because of it. I even gave a talk once on the advisability of military action." He shook his head and glanced at his younger companion. "That was before the war."

Steve didn't reply and the professor continued,  "Despite my patriotism, when the war came, I had a problem justifying our reasons.  I slowly developed a sense of guilt.  I felt guilty knowing that that I was exempt while some of the young men sitting before me would have to obtain a deferment or they'd be called into service. Some wouldn't be coming back.I never expressed my feeling.I could not. I tried to hide...even from myself. I even stooped so low that sometimes I wore a black eye patch. I didn't need to. I had the glass eye. But I didn't want anyone to think I was avoiding the draft. No one ever said anything. No one would dare question a man with a handicap."

The disclosure caused Steve to flinch. It was the first time he had heard the professor speak of his personal life.

The professor scoffed at his young friends reaction.  "I know we never discussed...and you must think. "

Both men paused when another gust of cool air, stronger then the first, bid them to quicken their pace.

The professor would not permit the wind to daunt the recounting he so carefully avoided for so many years. After a few quick steps, he said,  "Were cloistered in this profession. Everything happens around us but we do not see. All we hear is the rhetoric. Its funny how clear the rhetoric seems when you have nothing to lose. Its easy to believe what they tell you.  It sounds good-simple-easy to accept-not necessarily true but easy to accept.  Moreover, you justify your doubts by telling yourself that those in authority know more than you do.  And, we hide beliefs behind it."  He hesitated, and than said, "How blurred the truth becomes like my eyesight when I'm tired."  He raised the envelope; took a deep breath, during which he stared at the faded lettering. At last, he removed its contents-a single sheet of notepaper. "I've spent hours looking at this when my good eye permitted. I've handled this so often it's become blurred the words so faint you couldn't read them.  Nevertheless....I still see them. In my mind the words are as clear as the day I received this letter."

Another gust of wind caused the paper to flutter. It was obvious they had underestimated the storms advance as the early heat of the day was acceding to a noticeable reduction in temperature and an even more turbulent conclusion.

"Tell me about it later!"  Steve implored. "If we don't get a move on-we're going to get soaked."

A slow jog became an exhausting sprint as the advancing storm dogged their retreat to the building. Steve arrived first and held one of the huge double doors as the drained professor passed through. The storm, seemingly irate about losing its prey, beat upon the converted ninetieth century mansions closed wooden panels to the accompaniment of flashes of light followed by deafening clashes of thunder.

Sheltered within the vestibule, the men stood gasping for breath. The recent addition of a central air-conditioning system that appeared to always be undergoing repair did little to ease their discomfort. Eventually, they made their way to the professors second floor office. Small and cramped, the musty smell of yesteryear permeated the walls. The office was sparsely furnished, a paper cluttered wooden desk on which the gray case of a personal computer with a fifteen-inch CRT monitor occupied most of the area, one guest chair, and a coat rack. Two shelves of reference books filled the cheap bookcase adjacent to the wall.

Despite the hammering rain, the professor moved to the single window and adjusted a small opening to compensate for the closeness and heat. Almost immediately, the cool air from the rainwater splashing against the windowsill circulated about his fingers.

Returning to his desk, the professor adjusted his seat before removing the timeworn envelope from his pocket.  He looked at Steve and said, "There's a story behind this."

"I got time," Steve replied, and stretched his legs before him. The motion caused the guest chair to slide backward until it rested against the side of the bookshelf.

The professor reached into the lower desk drawer and removed a half-full bottle of liquor and two teacups. "Drink?" he asked. "Canadian Club?"

"Sure."

After settling in his seat and sampling from the cup, the professor was ready. He looked across the crammed desk and began.

"I guess I'm still trying to make excuses for myself." he said and took a deep breath while lifting his eyes from the letter to Steve. "What I'm trying to do is answer your question of yesterday. Do what's necessary to maintain control but don't ever make an example of someone." He stopped and waited to insure Steve understood. His eyes remained on Steve when he resumed. "Like you, my first position was teaching a summer class at a small community college on Long Island."  His voice softened and his eyelids lowered as he reflected.  "So many years ago.  I was so full of myself so eager to implant wisdom on young minds. ...That's what I told myself. And, it was half true.

Anyway, one of the students assigned to my class of eighteen freshmen-I believe it was eighteen-was a young man almost my age-maybe a few years younger. He caught my attention as soon as he walked into the classroom. He seemed to have everything wealth, or so I thought expensive clothes, looks, personality, and...and..." The professor paused and looked to the window. His eyes fixed on a far off spot and he continued. "The young man's name was Jason Martin and from the moment he entered the classroom, I disliked Mister Martin. He was so full of life, laughing and carrying on , so self-assured, so... "

The professor stopped and brought the cup to his lips. His eyes misted and he murmured so low that Steve had to strain to hear, "Jason was so unlike me."

There followed an extended period as the professor eyes brimmed with moisture; at last he took a deep breath, swallowed turned from the window, and continued.  "I was envious and the envy consumed me.  I attempted to force it inside while issuing instructions to the students on preparing an information sheet a short paragraph stating why they choose my course and what they expected to achieve."  He stopped again and took another deep breath. Exhaling slowly, the air made a slight sigh as it passed his lips.

"Right away Jason tweaked my emotions when he asked if he should sign the paper when he finished. A simple question... But, coming from him, I took it as testing my authority.  Just print your name on the top of the page, I told him while fighting to control my voice.  Then he asked, In the middle or at the side?

The side will do, I told him. I thought I heard a snicker from one of the other students. I'm really not sure if I heard anything but I imagined Jason to be playing with me for the benefit of the others. I took another deep breath in my effort to maintain composure. Jason then asked, 'Right or left ?'

'Doesn't matter," I told him.

"I was right on the edge when he said, 'One last question'.

I lost it. And, for what reason I don't recall,  I approached his desk. "

Steve was dumbfounded and sputtered, "To..., To hit him"

"No! No! I was not that stupid." The edges of the professors lips shifted into a slight grin. "Hell! The boy must have out weighed me by forty pounds or so. No. I think I was just trying to get in a position over him, him sitting and me standing. Anyway, as I neared, something caused a sheet of paper to fly from his desk. It landed beneath my foot just as I stepped."

Jason became upset and, when I did not immediately bend and retrieve the paper, which was now solidly fixed beneath the ball of my right foot.   He jumped to his feet and physically pushed me. Well,  that resolved my dilemma. You don't get physical with a teacher."

The professor stopped and took another sip from his cup. He let the liquid wash about his tongue before saying,  "I remember how I felt. The anger was gone. It was replaced with a diabolical coolness. I was about to bring him to his knees. Got him now, I told myself as I picked up the paper and it in my pocket. I immediately ordered him to accompany me to the Dean's Office.  My self-assurance faded only slightly when we arrived at the administrative center. It was one of those modern workplaces with the secretary's station behind a small island and two windowed offices, of the Assistant Dean of Men and the Dean of Men. To my dismay the assistant dean, a man I felt to be lax on discipline issues, was talking with the secretary. My resolve disappeared completely when he recognized Jason with a cheerful first name hello and inquired on the purpose of our visit.

Were it not for the secretary's interruption, I'm certain Jason would have received little more than a slight scolding and a possible warning. I might have even felt the sting of a reprimand for losing control. As it was, the secretary did interrupt, informing the Assistance Dean of Men of a telephone call. When he turned to take the call, the Dean of Men emerged from his office.

The dean was from the old school-totally opposite than the assistant dean.  He refused to even hear the young mans explanations-would not even allow him to speak but immediately expelled Jason Martin from the summer secession for striking an instructor."

A nearby power line transformer suffered a lighting strike and exploded with a loud boom throwing the room into semidarkness. The noise caused both men to bolt upright and turn to the window. When they collected their composure, Steve was the first to speak exclaiming,  "Boy.... That was close!"

The professor nodded.

Steve slouched back in his seat. "Tell me," he asked, "Did you ever see Jason Martin again? Did he return for the fall term?"

The professor hesitated; then, averting Steve's eyes, told him, "No. No, I never saw him again. However, you might say I see him every day. You see he was in the National Guard and his unit had been activated. I received this letter a few months later...from Jason." The professor looked at Steve and raised the faded envelope. "A few days after he mailed this Jason's sparsely fortified vehicle was blown up by a road side bomb. He was killed."

Steve's eyes widened. The room silenced to the fading sound of the storm. Eventually he asked the professor, "And that letter? What did it say? "

The professor nodded. He glared at the faded sheet before closing his eyes and softly reciting the hand written words engraved in his mind.

"Dear Professor."  he started, and then stopped. He raised his eyes to Steve and snickered.  "I wasn't a professor then...couldn't have been more than a few years older than he was and he called me professor." His eyes returned momentarily to the paper before once again closing. And the words followed.

"Dear Professor,

I would like to tell you where I am; but you know the Army. So, for security purposes suffice to say the Middle East. Anyway, it is dusty, hot, and boring. And, a lot of sand.

The purpose of this letter is to apologize for pushing you against the desk and for disrupting the class. I really do not have a good excuse except one of my youth. I've been preparing for college since grammar school and yours was my first class. I was so excited in getting everything right, I just over did it. I apologize.

One sure matures, if you can say that, in the Army. I have no one to blame but myself. As they say, if I only knew what I know now. A recruiter came to our high school and a bunch of us signed up. It was done more as a lark. We were promised a monthly check for doing practically nothing but showing up. The Cold War had ended and it seemed like we were going to be paid for going to camp once a year and marching around looked like we had nothing to lose. The joke was sure on us.

So far the only action I saw was when the Amtrak in front of us was damage from a roadside bomb. what they call an improvised explosive device an IED. No one was hurt but it sure made us think.

We hear that we are doing our patriotic duty. That are fighting for a just and good cause but most of my buddies feel like I do. Were not wanted and shouldn't be here. I wouldn't want a stranger coming into my town and forcing me to do their bidding. But, I am here. And, I am scared. No matter what anyone tells you about fighting for democracy and how grateful the residents are that we are here.  It just does not feel right. I can't wait to get home again.

As soon as I get out I intend to reapply for admission to college. It would please me no end to see you again in a classroom. And, I promise to keep my big mouth shut.

Professor, I have access to a computer so if you could send me your e-mail address I would be more than happy to e-mail some pictures of some of the ancient sites (while they're still standing).

Hope to be hearing from you soon.

Best regards,

Your future student,

Jason Martin

The professor slowly lowered the letter to his lap. He  looked at Steve through mist eyes.

Steve appeared stunned.

 The professor toke a deep breath and whispered, "Jason apologized said he didn't mean to push me. It was just...it was just that he was considering college full time and wanted to get a jump on it. He was just over anxious and wanted to get everything right." The professor grimaced; his eyes remained locked to Steve's as he moved his head slowly from side to side. "He said he hoped to see me when he returned...to sit in my class? Moreover, do you know what his question was?....the one that led to my march on his desk? "

Before Steve could reply the professor, told him,  "He wanted to know if he should print his name in capital letters or toggle case. "

"And, the sheet of paper...the one you stepped on?" Steve asked.

The professor took a deep breath and lowered his eyes. "The sheet was an application to exclude him from deployment while he attended college. "

The end

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