Stories, etc.: Pen Pals

Stories, etc. Index  ]


Rrrrrinnnnnnggg! History class was over, the last class of the day, and the students dived for their backpacks.

“Hold it! Class, listen up.” The stuffing of backpacks came to a sudden halt, and heads swiveled around. When Mr. Johnson said it that way, he meant it. “For your major project—”

Groans erupted.

Mr. Johnson held up his hands, and silence gradually fell. “For your major project,” he repeated, “I want you to research one of your grandparents, you choose which one, and write a paper describing that person’s place in history.”

ClassroomMore groans.

“Don’t make this harder than it is,” said Mr. Johnson. “I’m not looking for famous people—although I wouldn’t mind turning one up.” Grinning, he paused for the inevitable laughter. “No, I’m just looking for ordinary people, who may have done extraordinary things. A woman who attended the Seneca Falls conference would be a good example, but that’d be about your great-great-great-great-great grandmother.”

The tension level in the room declined noticeably.

“Now, I want at least two thousand words, and you will be graded on spelling, grammar, and general composition. You have until the end of the year, so you might start thinking about it over the Christmas break.”

After that round of groans, Mr. Johnson dismissed the students, and bare seconds later the room was empty. Except for Jeremy Willson, who was standing by the door, looking bewildered. “Something wrong, Jeremy?” asked Mr. Johnson.

“Uh, no, I don’t think so, thanks anyway,” said the boy. He started to leave.

“You’re sure?” Mr. Johnson’s tone made clear his skepticism. Jeremy stopped. He paused. Finally, he turned back to the teacher.

“Uh, well,” he said, “I don’t have any family, see, just me an’ my mom, an’ I don’t know what to do about this project thing.”

“I see.” Mr. Johnson thought a moment. “Well, let’s see here. Your mom had a father and a mother, right?”

A shy smile accompanied Jeremy’s nod.

“Okay, look. You ask her if she can tell you anything about her father. Anything at all. That’ll be a start, and you can go from there. If you can’t get anything at all, come back, and we’ll see what we can do.”

“Okay, thanks, Mr. Johnson.” And Jeremy was off to join his classmates in their after-school pursuits.

As he cleared away his dinner dishes that evening, he asked his mother, “Mom, how come you never talk about Grandpa?”

Celeste Willson looked up. After a moment, she said, “Why do you want to talk about Grandpa? Tell me about your day at school, now that’s something to talk about.”

“But Mom, I have to talk about Grandpa!” Jeremy’s words came out in a rush; he was well acquainted with his mother’s reticence about her father. “Mr. Johnson said we have to write a paper about one of our grandparents, it’s our major project, and we have to tell about their place in history, and he’s even gonna grade on spelling!” he almost wailed.

Celeste’s countenance assumed an air of sadness. “Okay,” she said. “There’s not a lot to say, really. Your grandfather hasn’t kept in touch with us. He doesn’t phone or send mail, not even to exchange cards at Christmas.” She stopped, put down her dishtowel, and sat down at the kitchen table. “Come sit here,” she said, indicating the other chair.

Jeremy sat down, expectation mingled in his eyes with puzzlement.

“You know Grandma died a long time ago,” Celeste said. Jeremy nodded. “We used to visit Grandma and Grandpa, your father and I, before—” She paused, drew a deep breath, and plunged on. “Before Grandma died. After that, Grandpa kind of folded in on himself, he closed down and didn’t want to be part of anything anymore. Then your father died, and I just didn’t have the strength to deal with Grandpa. I guess it’s as much my fault as it is his, that we don’t…” She stopped again, seemingly having run down.

Jeremy wriggled on the hard wooden chair. “Go on, Mom,” he pleaded.

“I can tell you when he was born,” she continued, “and where he grew up, and when he married Grandma, and all that kind of stuff, I’ve got the dates written down, but you really need to talk to him. He was in the Second World War, you know, he enlisted the day after Pearl Harbor, and they put him in a bomber squadron and sent him to Europe. You should write to him and ask him if he’ll help you with your assignment.” She paused. “Yes, that’s it. You write to him. I’ll get you his address.”

“Okay, cool, I’ll send him email! What’s his address?” said Jeremy, unaware as only the young can be of the obstacles he was about to face. “Uh, what’s Pearl Harbor?”

“No, Honey, you can’t,” Celeste replied. “Grandpa doesn’t have a computer. You’ll have to write him a real letter. And Pearl Harbor is in Hawaii. The Japanese bombed it in 1941, and that’s what got us into the war.”

“Why doesn’t he have a computer?” Jeremy pouted. “Everybody’s got computers!” Pearl Harbor was forgotten in the midst of this new technological crisis.

“Well, not everybody,” Celeste said. “Wait here a minute.” She rose and went into her bedroom. Jeremy could hear her rummaging around in her dresser drawer.

When she returned, she was holding a small case, which she opened to reveal a fountain pen, and a bottle. “Here,” she said, holding out the pen. “Write your letter with this. Grandpa might like that. This was his pen when he was in the war. He wrote home every week. I wish I still had his letters, but his mother, my grandmother, didn’t keep them. Anyway, you write with this. He’ll be able to tell it’s not a ballpoint. He always hated ballpoints, and I’ll bet he wouldn’t even read a letter if he knew you’d written it with a gel pen.” At that, she couldn’t help smiling. Her father’s irascibility in the face of newfangled contraptions had always been a family joke, and the thought stirred other happy memories for her.

Fountain pen

Jeremy took the pen and examined it. He found it an odd beast. It was made of plastic, with funny narrow speckledy-looking bands of alternating black and gold color running all around it like a big stack of rings glued together. The cap had an arrow-shaped clip, with feathers even! Engraved faintly on the barrel was the name WALTER A. FRIESSE. He tried to pull the cap off, but it wouldn’t budge. “Mom, I can’t use this pen, I can’t even get the cap off,” he complained. He pushed the pen back at his mother.

“The cap screws off,” she said. “Try it.” And to Jeremy’s surprise, it did. It screwed off easily, revealing a point that looked like gold with dirty spots of dried ink all over it. “Ick!” said Jeremy, holding it up to view.

“Wash it under the faucet,” Celeste replied.

When Jeremy washed the pen, the spots came off the point. He dried it with the dishtowel, giving the point a little polish as he did so. It gleamed.

He brought the pen back to the table, grabbed a page of the newspaper, still there from the morning, and applied the pen to it. Nothing happened. “You have to hold it right, and it’s not filled,” his mother said. “Here, let me show you. The point is called a nib, and you write with the pen turned this way.” She gently turned the pen in Jeremy’s hand until the nib was facing upward. “But we have to fill it first,” she added. “Here’s the ink.”

Celeste took the cap off the bottle she’d brought, and made a face. “Oh, D—” She stopped without completing the word. “It’s all dried up, there’s nothing here.”

“It’s okay, Mom,” Jeremy ventured, “I’ll just use a ballpoint. Grandpa’ll never know.”

“He’ll know,” Celeste replied. “I’ll get some ink tomorrow.”

When Jeremy got home the next day, a shiny new bottle of ink was sitting on the kitchen table. The label on the bottle read “Parker Quink.” Celeste had also found some stationery, and several sheets lay near the ink.

“Quink,” said Jeremy. “That’s a funny name.”

“The man at the store said it’s very good,” said Celeste. “Let’s fill the pen.” She uncapped the new ink bottle and then screwed a small cap off the back end of the pen, revealing a plunger. Immersing the nib in the ink, she pressed and released the plunger. Nothing happened. She tried again. Still no results.

“Oh, no!” she said in a pained voice. “Now the pen’s broken. I’ll have to get it fixed.”

“Mom, it’s okay,” Jeremy said, “Really. I’ll just use a—” He stopped. The determined look in his mother’s eyes made clear her unalterable intention that he would use this pen, and no other, to write to his grandfather.

So she took the pen to the store where she’d bought the ink. The proprietor was an older gentleman with charming salt-and-pepper hair and an equally charming manner. “I’m really sorry, Mrs. Willson,” he said, spreading his hands helplessly. “I used to repair pens, but that was over forty years ago. These days, I sell a few fountain pens, but most people just buy cheap throwaway ballpoints at one of the big office supply stores.”

“But couldn’t you—?” pleaded Celeste. “This is for my son.”

“I can’t. I don’t even have the tools anymore,” was the response. “See, this pen needs a special tool to take it apart, and I don’t know if they even make that kind of tool anymore.”

“But what can I do?”

“This is for your son? Put him on the case. Get him to do a Web search. I’ll bet there are people out there who still do that kind of work, I’m just not one of them.”

A Web search, eh? That, thought Celeste, is Jeremy’s job! She thanked the man and returned home, not crestfallen but concerned. Was this opportunity to reestablish communication with her father going to be lost just because she’d been too ambitious?

Jeremy being Jeremy, it took him almost no time at all to track down half a dozen fountain pen sites on the Web and, by following links, to locate several places where they might get the pen repaired. After some further searching and comparison shopping, he turned to a newsgroup for pen collectors “to get the real dirt,” as he expressed it. Before bedtime that evening, he gave his mother the name of an individual several states away. “Try this guy,” he said confidently. “He looks good.” Celeste telephoned the man Jeremy had chosen, and the outcome of their conversation was that she bundled the pen up and sent it away to be fixed.

When the pen came back a few weeks later, Jeremy was on pins and needles. “Does it work, Mom?” he asked, bouncing all around as Celeste unpacked it. “Does it work?”

“Calm down,” she said. “We’ll have to try it and see.” She found a paring knife and carefully slit the white corrugated box open. The pen, in its case, rested inside. Opening the case, she took out the pen. It had been polished, and it looked brand new. The barrel was transparent, a fact that had escaped her notice before.

There was a slip of paper in the shipping box, on which the repairman had used the newly repaired pen to write a note that included filling instructions. This time, when she filled the pen, Celeste could see the ink flooding in. “Here,” she smiled, handing Jeremy the pen, “Now try it!”

This time, Jeremy’s first attempt produced a vivid blue line on his paper. “Cool!” he enthused as he continued writing. Three or four signatures later, he discovered one of the dangers of using a fountain pen, as his hand slid through wet ink and left behind a huge smear. “Hey!” he yelled.

“It’s all right,” Celeste said. “Be patient, it takes practice. You can’t write as fast with a fountain pen. Wash your hand off and try some more.”

Three days later, Jeremy mailed his first real handwritten letter (not counting thank-you notes for gifts). It read,

  February 2, 20—
Dear Grandpa,

         Mom told me you have been kind of lonely since Grandma died. I was sorry to hear that. I have a cool school project, can you help me with it? My history teacher wants us to write a paper about one of our grandparents, and Mom said you were in the Second World War and you would be great to write about. Please write back soon and tell me what it was like in the war.
  Your grandson,
Jeremy

Every day, Jeremy pestered Celeste, asking whether his letter from Grandpa had come yet. Finally, the day after Washington’s birthday, it came.

  February 19, 20—
Jeremy,

         Do you have my old Parker fountain pen? I told your mother to throw that pen away after your grandmother died. Get rid of it.

The letter wasn’t even signed. Poor Jeremy was crushed. The bitterness in his grandfather’s words stung. He showed the letter to Celeste. She wasn’t surprised. “That’s about what I expected,” she soothed. “Let’s try again. Tell him you have his pen, and tell him that we got it fixed just so you could write to him. Did you notice that he used a fountain pen, too?” Jeremy hadn’t noticed, but he wasn’t about to admit it.

Jeremy sat down and began composing a second letter.

  February 24, 20—
Dear Grandpa,

         Yes, I am using your old Parker pen. I had to look at the name on the clip to know it was a Parker, I never saw a pen like it before. Mom got it fixed for me just so I could write a letter to you. It’s really a cool pen, you have to fill it with ink out of a bottle instead of a refill. I like it a lot and I’m glad Mom kept it. Especially because it was yours. I can’t take it to school, Mom says she’s afraid it might get lost.
         Please, Grandpa, I really need your help with this project, I’ll flunk if I don’t do it. And please don’t make me get rid of this pen. I see you used a fountain pen, too.
  Your grandson,
Jeremy

The second reply came back much more quickly than had the first one.

  February 28, 20—
Jeremy,

         I will look around and see if I still have anything I can send you. Don’t get your hopes up. You won’t really find it very interesting, I think. The war happened a very long time ago.
  Grandpa

A few days after that, a small box arrived for Jeremy. It contained a few papers and a note:

  March 2, 20—
Jeremy,

         Here are some papers about the war. I was in the 95th Bombardment Group, in the Army Air Forces. That was before there was a separate Air Force.
  Grandpa

Jeremy’s grandfather’s enlistment and discharge papers were in the box, along with a photograph of a two-engined airplane with its crew standing in front of it. The airplane had a rather risqué pinup girl painted on its nose, with the name “My Little Chickadee” underneath. Celeste looked at the picture with Jeremy, and she recognized her father. “This one is Grandpa,” she said, pointing at the second man from the left. The man was wearing a leather jacket and sunglasses. He had a big grin on his face, and he was holding a little American flag.

“Aw, Mom, this isn’t enough,” cried Jeremy, downcast. “I need lots more stuff before I can write a report.”

“Maybe you can find out more on the Web,” suggested Celeste. “If you send him some information you’ve found out by yourself, maybe he’ll be more willing to write about himself.” But she was much less hopeful than she sounded to Jeremy.

“Mom, what are all these little bombs for?” asked Jeremy, pointing to three rows of bombs painted neatly next to the pinup girl.

“Well, now, there you are, you have something to research!”

Jeremy grimaced. But he transferred his attention to his computer, and in short order he had learned that each of the little bombs signified a mission the airplane had flown. “My Little Chickadee” had flown twenty-seven missions when Jeremy’s picture was taken. Jeremy also learned that the 95th Bombardment Group had flown B-26 airplanes and had served in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. He decided he had enough information to pique his grandfather’s interest in the school project, so he wrote a third letter.

  March 11, 20—
Dear Grandpa,

Martin B-26 Marauder         Thank you for sending me some of your old papers. I hope you can find more. I’ve been reading about the war, and I really want to know all about what you did. I learned that you flew in B-26 bombers. They were called Marauders, and they went close to the ground where it was very dangerous. I learned that your plane went on 27 missions, at least before the picture you sent me. Did you go on more missions after that? Were you famous in the war? Mr. Johnson says we don’t have to write about somebody famous but it would be OK if you were famous. Did you get shot down? Did you get wounded?
         I started to read Catch-22 because it’s about bombers and stuff, but Mom took it away and said I’m not old enough. The bombers in Catch-22 are B-25s, what were they like?
         Besides writing to you, I’ve been using your pen to do my homework. It’s really great. I told my teachers about it and they all wanted to know where I got it. Mrs. Edwards says that when she was in school, they had to write with a fountain pen. That was probably pretty hard. And she says I write pretty nicely, too. I think I write better with your pen because it makes me write slower so I won’t make a mess. Did they make you use a fountain pen in school? Nowadays we just use crummy old ballpoints or computers. But I’m going to write my whole report with this pen instead of a word processor, and I bet Mr. Johnson will think it’s cool, too.
  Your grandson,
Jeremy

Grandpa’s next reply came back very quickly.

  March 14, 20—
Dear Jeremy,
         You know, my boy, you’ve surprised me. It looks as if you really are interested in your old Grandpa’s ancient history. I’d be honored to help you with your school project. You’re right on the money; my unit flew B-26s over North Africa and Italy. I was young then, not quite as young as you are, but it was exciting and, as you say, dangerous. We were all very proud to be serving our country. I hope you won’t be too disappointed, but I didn’t get shot down, and I wasn’t famous. You’ll just have to do with an ordinary old boring Grandpa.
         B-25s were called Mitchells, after General Billy Mitchell. He changed the way naval wars were fought by proving that airplanes could sink a ship by bombing it.
         I’m sending you another box of my papers. This one is much bigger; I’ve gone up into the attic and gotten all covered with dust. My enlistment papers and my discharge you already have, but there is lots of other material, and you’ll find a whole pile of photographs, too. There might even be one or two more of me. After you’ve looked through the box, write me again with any questions you may have about things you didn’t find in there.
         We’ll make this a great project.
         One last thing. I told you to get rid of that old pen, but I think now that that was a mistake. Your enthusiasm for that old piece of “junk” and for your project has reminded me of something I tried to forget. It’s reminded me that I have a family. You keep that pen; I hope you’ll enjoy using it for a long time. You’re probably too young to understand this now, but maybe you’ll accept an apology anyway, from a grumpy old man who ought to know better.
  Your grandfather,
Walter A. Friesse, 1Lt, USAAF Ret.
P. S. Your mother is right. You should save Catch-22 for when you’re older.

Jeremy was ecstatic. This was going to be great! Now if only that box would come! He didn’t know how he could possibly keep from going crazy waiting for it.

It finally did come. It was a big box, just as Grandpa had said, and it contained a veritable treasure trove. There were piles of papers and photographs, and a few other things, items Grandpa hadn’t mentioned. Among the last group was a garrison cap bearing a single silver bar. Pinned to the cap, apparently as an afterthought, was a ribbon. “Mom, what’s this ribbon for?” asked Jeremy, holding the cap up for her to see.

“I don’t know, but we can probably find out,” replied Celeste. “Why don’t you search the Web?”

It was a Distinguished Flying Cross.

With that piece of information in hand, Jeremy dug even deeper into the information Grandpa had sent. He found what he was looking for. Down at the bottom of the box was a small case in which he found the medal itself, together with the citation. First Lieutenant Walter Friesse was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for conspicuous bravery under fire. His flight had encountered heavy resistance over a target in southern Italy. Most of the bombers were shot down, and the fighters were scattered. Friesse’s plane was shot almost to pieces, the pilot killed, and copilot Friesse severely wounded. Bleeding badly, blinded in one eye, and partially crippled, Friesse had flown the plane, without fighter cover, almost down the barrels of an antiaircraft battery so that the bombardier could deliver their payload to the munitions dump that was their target. That mission was his last; in addition to his citation, it earned him a medical retirement.

It also earned him another letter from Jeremy, in which the word “Wow!” featured prominently.

Over the next three months, an astonishing number of letters flew back and forth between Jeremy and his grandfather. The old man was a gold mine of stories and facts about the war, and the boy dug out every nugget of information he could get. The two developed a real camaraderie, a tie bound by something much stronger than blood. Neither ever wrote a letter with anything except a fountain pen. Jeremy wondered from time to time whether his mother had been right. Would Grandpa have refused to respond to a letter written with a ballpoint? He never worked up the courage to ask, but it really didn’t matter anymore. He had found his milieu, and his family as well.

Having decided to use his grandfather’s pen to write his report, Jeremy went one step further. Taking his cue from the few remaining letters in his grandfather’s box, he did some more research and wrote the report as if it were a series of letters from his grandfather, written at the times and from the places he’d learned about in his grandfather’s papers. The report earned an A+. Mr. Johnson wrote at the top of the first page that it was one of the best reports he’d seen in all his years of teaching. He also wrote that his own father had served in the Marines and been killed on the island of Bougainville, in the Pacific.

Jeremy sat down and wrote a long letter telling Grandpa the good news. “I couldn’t have done it without you,” he finished. “Thanks, Grandpa. You’re the greatest.” He enclosed a copy of his report.

A couple of weeks later, another box came for Jeremy. This one was smaller than either of its predecessors. Inside, Jeremy found a letter:

  June 19, 20—
Dear Jeremy,

         You have done well. I’ll bet your mother is pleased as Punch, and well she should be. Your grandfather is proud of you, too, and very grateful. Thank you for waking me up, and thank you for putting up with me. And thank you, most of all, for taking me back to the best years of my life.
         You said back in February that your mother wouldn’t let you take my old pen to school for fear it might be lost. Well, she’s an old wet blanket, but you have to do what she says because she is, after all, your mother—and because that old pen is a family heirloom of sorts. (It’s called a Vacumatic, by the way, and it was my high-school graduation present from my parents.) But the pen in this box isn’t a family heirloom, not yet anyway. It’s just from me to you. And you are to use it as you see fit. Think of me when you write with it, and maybe even write to me once in a while.
         Do you think it would be all right if I sent your mother a Christmas card this year?
  Grandpa

Under the letter, the box contained a pen case in whose depths glistened a brand new Pearl and Black Parker Duofold International fountain pen. Engraved on the barrel was the name JEREMY K. WILLSON.

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