Julia once told me, “Dreams are the stars and only come out at night. There are so many stars from which to choose. I wish I knew which one is right for me. Just so many stars, so many stars.” Wistful dreaming of a young woman, I suppose, but as good an analogy as any these days. Our need for the ‘right’ dream is a part of human nature, the part that seeks hope in the futures. I say futures because for the most part our lives intertwine with the lives of others. When one is fourteen one rarely acknowledges such an occurrence. Such is the twilight zone of youth.
I went off to war, such as it was then, while Julia went off to college. Perhaps if I had actually liked school and bothered to study and obtain good grades that would be acceptable to a number of colleges and universities I would have had a different dream in life. She was accepted to a small liberal arts college in upstate New York. Her dreams were different. “Jack, I want to study literature and art. Maybe learn French and spend a year in Paris. And maybe I’ll find a man I can love and who loves me. I want to share his life, see him become successful.” My dream was much simplier. Get through my service commitment, find a job, and buy a decent used car. I never could see as many stars in the heavens as Julia. True, I had fantasies but I knew these were not common dreams that would ever come true. And her dreams always left me feeling wistful and I envied her ability in school and her imagination. “Jack, I know my dreams will come true, i feel it in my heart.”
That first summer I spent in boot camp and advanced training before I was posted to Ft Benning for three months. Julia and I exchanged a few letters, about one a month. Army life is a drag, dull and dreary for the private with little money and little time to spend it. But she had her first full time summer job and was able to save a tidy sum for her first year at college. Freshmen were put upon then, all the rules and the on campus dorms, each with its wicked witch guarding the door to paradise. “Jack, the upperclassmen ignore us and the lowerclassmen are such immature jerks. I thought it would be different when I came here. Got a paper due, have to cut this short.” I was looking forward to Christmas break and seeing her again but no such luck. My dream just turned into a nightmare. End of November we headed to the far east and jungle warfare school, often referred to as the course on how to survive K-rations. Christmas I received a card from Julia with a few scrawls inside. “Hi Jack, back here of break and so many parties to attend. Hope you are well.”
Into the second half of her freshman year I was into my year of hell. My dream was survival, count off each day on my reverse calendar and make it through the year. Her letters were shorter and fewer during that time. Towards the end of my tour she started writing about the new stars in the night sky, the new possible dreams. “Dear Jack, I must tell you that I found out I have little talent for art. I’m good at drawing but poor at composition. It’s time for me to change my major. Besides, all those old dead white men and their stories are boring me. I want to read the exciting fiction of the future authors. I want to see and feel the other cultures that our own culture has suppressed for so long. I’m leaving at the end of my spring session. I want to take the time off and find myself.” I had about a month to go when I got hit. It wasn’t a bad wound but it was inconvenient.
The question became, what was my next dream? I was now a corporal recovering from my wound. Another year to go before that my big decision. Do I stay or do I go, and if I go, to what? The only skill I had at the moment was carrying a rifle. The captain said I should re-enlist. He would promise to get me into some sort of job training. What would I like to be? Take a week or two and think about, go visit some of the specialist groups and talk to them. “I’ll arrange it.” he said. I became a heavy equipment operator in the Engineers, seemed safe enough. One day I found a letter in my box. “Dear Jack, I’ve been living in a commune. Everyone is so understanding. We spend our time growing our own food and sharing the chores. Some of the men are jerks but the women are very supportive of one another. We’re on our way to a peace rally, we are fighting to war in Vietnam. Have you left yet? You must get out and stop supporting the government’s war against women and children. You could come and join us.” There was more about a few of the people in her commune. David was so brave because he opposed the war and wouldn’t register for the draft. And Paul have been arrested for leading a sit-in held in the local draft office. all these heroes were so brave, at least to her. And she was going to have Paul’s child. Meanwhile, Paul had been arrested for the arson of an Army recruiter station. He would face ten years in the federal penitentiary. But she would wait and they would then live their dream.
Finally the day came when I would have to pay for my training again. We were shipped out to Vietnam where we were needed to do all manner of work. I found myself being dropped onto small hill tops so I could grade landing strips for helicopters and observation planes. A platoon of us would be ferried into the new area where firebases were to be established and an infantry company was assigned to protect us. You’d think I’d be safe. Four months later own hill top was over run. Several companies came to our rescue, if you can call it that. Half our engineer platoon were killed, most of the rest of us were wounded to one degree or another. The original company assigned to us took very heavy casualties. During the night I lay concealed in the brush i looked up. Most of the stars were gone. The next day they evacuated what was left of us. The return to semi normal began but the road would be long. Some officer decided that I deserved a couple of medals and I didn’t dispute that point. I already had a new dream. I dreamed that I would recover sufficiently to start civilian life. I dreamed I could put these hard years past me. I had not heard from Julia for over a year. I figured she was busy raising a child and doing what she needed to wait for Paul. Besides, I didn’t have her address and her father wasn’t speaking to her. Her mother would have given it to me but I couldn’t see the need.
A year after I left the service my mother forwarded a letter from Julia. She had addressed it to me at the base where I had last served and thanks to the slow efficiency of the service and post office it had been sent to my “official” address, my parents’ house. I was working for the gas and electric company operating a backhoe and occasionally articulated loader. The boom in housing tracks assured work for many of us returning veterans for the next decade or two. Not exactly my dream job but it would do. Julia wrote, “I’ve had a miscarriage and Paul was angry. Said I wasn’t taking proper care of myself. He will be released from prison but I really don’t want to be around him. Paul has become bitter, he feels his sacrifice was in vain and no one really cares. I left the commune, the once friendly and hopeful people have become selfish and greedy. They are more worried about their future now. I’m not sure what to do now. All my dreams never turned out the way they should. I can’t go home, Dad is still angry with me and Mom is of no help. Oh sure, she manages to send me a little money now and again and I have a drudge of a job. I get by but that is about all. All those dreams, what happened? The sky is black at night. Maybe it’s just the big city lights that have killed all the stars, I don’t know. Think of me sometime.”
I had a week of vacation left so I talked to my boss and the following Friday I was in my pickup heading for the city. There wasn’t much to go on. Not sure about the address, it was almost six months old. But maybe I could find her. Heavens knows what I could do for Julia. We had never been sweethearts. she was the dreamer and I was the realist, not much in common for more than a friendship. Hell, I almost forgot what she looked like, funny how time does that to people. But I tried to figure which neighborhood would fit her circumstances. It was Wednesday the next week when I stopped in at a cafe for lunch near the local university. Julia was waiting tables. She looked at least five years older than her age. I only recognized her because of the name tag she wore. I asked for coffee and a a sandwich. I don’t think she ever really looked at me. The bright light in her eyes had gone out and she was going through the motions of taking orders and ferrying plates from the counter to the tables. I asked her when her shift ended and she gave me that irritated look of don’t bother me, you jerk. “Julia, it me. Jack. Your old friend from the neighborhood.” She stood quite still for several minutes looking at my face with that quizzical look of non belief and surprise. I thought she was about to flood the room with tears.
“Jack. Is it really you? My god. You look so different.”
“Yes, it’s me. So when do you get off?”
We spent half the night catching up on old times and all the water over the dam. Gradually I could detect the old light come back into her eyes, life started to blossom again. “So what do you want, Julia?”
She turned her face away from mine and stared deeply into the wall. Maybe five minutes passed before she turned to look directly into my eyes. “I want to dream again. Do you think there’s a chance?”
I wished I had an answer.