Basic’s Lessons of Life – Number 5

Airmail Envelope AddressedClaude’s Tool & Die was a busy shop and Paul Brown, the owner, kept a close eye on the workflow. He had just finished the crew’s daily work-in-progress and backlog update when Mary ran in from the office and handed him an envelope trimmed in red and blue dashes and labeled “Airmail.”

“It’s from Joe,” she said, giggling.

“Hurry, Boss. What does he say?” Big John bellowed.

Paul Brown stopped what he was doing and stared at John.

“Sorry, Boss.”

Paul struggled to keep a straight face. He wanted to know what Joe had to say too. He continued to open the fragile paper and then unfolded several pages, cleared his throat and began to read the letter.

“ ‘Dear Paul, I’m sorry I’ve been slow to write. Today is the first chance I’ve had to write a letter in the two weeks I’ve been in this hell-hole. It’s Sunday, and they let us have the afternoon for personal time. What a joke. I just spent two “personal” hours rubbing lacquerer off of brass buckles and putting a spit polish on my combat boots. Then I went to the mess hall.

‘Don’t get me wrong. I like eating, but chow was fried chicken—again. We’ve had fried chicken ten times; I counted. The cook does it well, but I’m getting tired of it.

‘Sgt. Tonga is my DI, and he said that each recruit would serve KP two or three times during basic. I’ve been on KP twice. Senior Drill Sergeant Cocker makes up the weekly duty roster and assigns people alphabetically. I guess he doesn’t know the alphabet very well. I’m not surprised. He’s a first class jerk.

‘I feel sorry for the cooks. There are only two of them, and they feed about 180 men three times a day. The cooks (and KPs) start their day at 4:30 am and quit at 10:00 pm. The rumor mill says additional cooks are coming. I don’t put much trust in the rumor mill; it also says that Jane Fonda will be on base for the 4th of July. After her Hanoi-Jane escapade, that seems unlikely.

‘Sgt. Tonga is a crazy Polynesian from Guam. Did you know Guam is a territory of the US? I didn’t. Anyway, he’s never satisfied and calls us all kinds of names. Dog-turd and rat-breath are two of his favorites, and the only ones I can share because Mary will see this letter. (Hi Mary) He’s sadistic and likes us to suffer. The only time I know what he’s thinking is when he smiles, which means something bad is about to happen to one of us or all of us—you never know which.

‘Last Thursday, Tonga blew up when a guy turned the wrong direction during drill. He stopped the platoon and called the guy to the front and made him do twenty pushups. Then he smiled and made the poor guy duck-walk behind the platoon the two blocks back to the barracks. The next day the poor soul could barely walk.—’ ”

“What’s duck-walking?” Mary asked.

Big John answered. “It’s walking while in a crouch. Your butt is as close to the ground as possible, and you have to waddle like a duck to take a step. It’s tough on your lower body. I can’t image doing two blocks.”

“Thanks, John,” Paul said, “But, I’m almost done with the letter. Please, everyone, don’t interrupt.

‘—As bad as Tonga is, Sgt. Hanner is worse. Saturday, he had the 3rd platoon duck-walking around their barracks over and over again. I felt real bad for those guys, but to be honest, I’m glad Hanner’s not my DI. Maybe Tonga’s not so bad after all.

‘God, I miss California. It’s always hot and humid here. I never know if I should dry-off before or after a shower. There isn’t any difference that I can see. I made a friend, JL, from Long Beach. He’s my age and he’s a good guy, but he’s not family. I’m so lonely. I miss you guys most of all. Say hi to everybody for me. Love Joe. P.S. I got a letter from Julie. She dumped me.’ “

Mary started crying at “God I miss California” and reached a full sob by the time “She dumped me” was read. Big John handed her the cleanest shop rag he could find, and she gladly used it to clear her sinuses and calm herself.

“Poor kid,” Mary said. “Julie must be a real cunt to dump him like that.”

The men were taken aback by Julie’s language, but they had to agree with her.

“He’s not the first man dumped after being drafted,” Paul said. “In World War II it was so common that the letters had a unique name. They were called “Dear John” letters.”

“Thank the Lord I never got one,” Big John said. “Then again I didn’t have a girlfriend to dump me when I got drafted in ’59. But, I’ve got a gal now, and I’m not gonna give her a chance to write me no Dear John letter, ’cause I ain’t never leaving her long enough for her to find another John.”

Everyone smiled at John’s declaration. It broke the tension and the crew instinctively knew it was time to put Joe out of mind and return to their lives. Even Mary regained her perkiness and resumed her duties.

Paul Brown carefully folded the letter and carried back to his desk where he reverently put it an employee file labeled Joe K Appleton and thought about when he’d learned the meaning of homesickness in 1943, just as Joe was learning it now. Paul looked at a painting of Diamond Head that hung across from his desk. It was his personal memorial to the friends he’d lost in the war and prayed that Joe wouldn’t join their number.

To be continued…

(c) 2016 David P. Cantrell a contributor and staff member of Edgewise Words Inn

Want more? You’ll find links to previous episodes at the following site, Basic’s Lessons of Life Series

Little Pink Ridinghood

Mal, the malamute dog, didn’t like the looks of the dirty old man. The ratty clothes and oily hair didn’t bother him much—many poor folks lived in the Ferny Forrest. The piercing yellow eyes were a different matter, they deserved his attention.

“Stop looking at that old man. He’s creepy and I don’t like him,” Mal said.

“You’re such a scaredy-cat Mal,” Amaranth giggled. “I have my protective amulet in my basket, so you’re not in danger.”

“I am not afraid of cats. I just respect their privacy.”

“And, their claws,” Amaranth said.

Mal chortled as only his kind can. “You know how your grandmother frets if you’re late. Let’s get going.”

They walked the road, more of a path actually. It meandered eastward through the forest. The trees became taller and the canopy thicker until they entered a shadowy world more akin to twilight than the late morning. They knew the road well, but still watched their step for the debris that rained from above. Not more than fifty feet from the fork that led to grandmother they came upon a fallen tree.

The trunk was, at least, five feet in diameter. No wagon would use the road until a team of foresters cleared it. Grandmother would be glad to hear of it because her forestry business depended on fallen trees. Sane people didn’t cut down trees in the Ferny Forest.

Mal reached the top of the trunk easily, but Amaranth had to climb using crinkles in the bark as finger and toe holds. She stood on the crest and felt like a giant looking down on a puny world. Mal stared at the darkness and growled.

A man’s silhouette stood before them, only his eyes clearly visible.

“My. What big yellow eyes you have.” Amaranth said.

“All the better to see you with, my sweet child,” said the stranger as he moved nearer. “I am Lou Pine a vagabond exploring our marvelous world. It is a pleasure to meet you.”

His gallant bow impressed her, but not Mal. He growled again and jumped onto the path. Amaranth quickly joined him.

“I too, am pleased sir. This is my good, but suspicious, friend Mal. I am Amaranth Pink. Tell me sir, from where do you hail?”

“Oh, from far and wide. I’m always looking for new and delicious experiences. Where are you two off to?”

“My grandmother’s house, it is but a short distance down the left fork in the road not far behind you. I’m sorry, but we must hurry along. I carry things of importance to her.”

With that said they parted. Not more than fifteen minutes later she arrived at grandmother’s house. Mal felt it safe to excuse himself and headed into the woods. Amaranth entered the house and found the strange man from the trail in the parlor.

“Sir, you surprise me. Why are you here and where is my grandmother?”

“Your grandmother offered refreshments and will return momentarily.”

Grandmother entered the room pushing a serving cart topped with a tray of sandwiches and a pitcher of apple cider. Seeing her granddaughter she stopped.

“I’m glad you’re here dear. This young man showed up unannounced and wouldn’t be put off. I felt I had to admit him. Did you bring my supplies?”

“I did grandmother, but please don’t run low of them again. It worries me.”

“I know dear and I’m sorry. It snuck up on me. All of a sudden I—”

“Silence! You blabbering fools,” bellowed Lou Pine.

Startled the females turned towards him. Through some strange metamorphosis, his shape changed from a handsome young man into a dirty old man and finally into a fearsome werewolf with long fangs and horrific claw-like fingers.

The rapidity of it all caught Amaranth off guard and she almost dropped her basket. She recovered quickly though and withdrew a large caliber amulet from it. The silver bullet entered three millimeters above but centered between Lou Pine’s bushy eyebrows. He instantly became a plasma that evaporated in an instant.

Amaranth put her large caliber amulet away and withdrew two boxes of Lone Ranger 45’s from her basket which she offered to her grandmother.

“Thank you, dear. Any news from the village?”

“Nothing much. Mal and I found a large downed tree, though. I bet your crew could get ten thousand board feet out of it, maybe more. I couldn’t see its length.”

“Wonderful. Where is it?”

“What’s my finder’s fee?” Amaranth asked.

Her grandmother smiled at her redheaded progeny dressed in a pretty pink cape. “Ten percent of net, twelve percent if the tree produces more than fifteen thousand board feet.”


By David P. Cantrell. This is a revision of a story posted on EWI in March 2015.


Basic Lessons of Life – Number Three

The trashcan cymbals had rung at 5:00 am. All Joe could think about was Big John’s warning to stay off the DI’s radar. He was sure Tonga was going to ruin his life after the alarm clock fiasco.WWII Barracks

Sgt. Tonga, fully dressed in a starched uniform, stood by the latrine door and yelled, “Drain your lizards, shave your chins and get your asses dressed! Stow your gear in you duffels.” Then he climbed the stairs to share his greeting with the second floor, clanging his cymbals all the way to the refrain, “Get up. Get up.”

Joe wasn’t going to be the last guy dressed. He grabbed his shaving kit and ran to the latrine at the rear of the building.

The latrine’s overall dimensions were about fifteen feet deep by thirty feet wide. However, the second story stairwell and a mechanical room took up large chunks of the floor space. Access was through a three foot doorway that abutted the right-hand exterior wall. A large window divided the rear wall. Six antique sinks below six mottled mirrors plus a utility sink covered the right half of the real wall. A narrow room formed by the encroachment of the mechanical room on the left side of the building served as a communal shower with six showerheads for forty men.

Joe wanted to get his shave done, but his bladder vetoed the idea. To his left and opposite the sinks was a trough style urinal that could accommodate five men. Beyond the urinal were five stall-less commodes. Joe smiled at them and thought, private is a rank, not a right, in the Army.

Joe kept his eyes to himself but couldn’t help noticing that everyone’s urine was the color of over-ripe oranges and smelled worse. He promised himself to drink more fluids.

The latrine filled with guys as the upstairs recruits reacted to Sgt. Tonga’s drum beat. Lines formed behind the sinks while teeth were bushed and chins denuded. Joe had to wait for Samsonite at the sink, the guy took forever. He brushed every tooth like it was fine silver after which he shaved as if he was going to kiss the Queen of England’s butt. He lathered on shaving foam, made a stroke with his expensive Gillette Techmatic razor and then thoroughly rinsed the blade before the next stroke. Joe would have cut the little guy’s throat with the razor, but he feared making another blip on Tonga’s radar.

JL had landed upstairs when the sergeants divvied everybody up the night before. He saw Joe sitting on his duffle bag and did the same next to him.

“Hi Joe. How you doing?”

“I’m not sure. Tonga jumped down my throat. I’m worried he’s going to make my life miserable.”

“Better you than me, white boy.” JL slapped Joe on the back. “Besides, he might not be your permanent DI. They’re supposed to assign our platoons today.”

“From your mouth, to God’s ear. Tonga’s a madman.” Joe said.

Five minutes later, Tonga ordered everyone to exit the building through the two rear doors on the right side of the barracks. They lined up in four rows of ten on the dirt yard between their building and the next barracks.

Every barracks looked the same. They’d been built as temporary structures during World War II, however three decades later they were still in use. The old oil heaters had been replaced with natural gas but everything else had remained original. The wooden buildings had been designed for function and quick construction, not for beauty or safety. Lapped board siding formed an exterior over tarpapered plywood nailed to exposed two by four studs. Green asphalt tiles topped the shallow-sloped roofs. They were fire traps.

Tonga did his best to keep his forty men together as they trudged to the parade ground in front of their barracks. Three other buildings emptied at the same time and lined up near Joe’s group. One hundred and sixty men formed a rectangle that was sixteen wide by ten deep that stood quietly behind four rigid DIs.

Between the parade ground and the two buildings that made up the company headquarters a flagpole stood, surrounded by a circle of white stones. Four men exited the largest headquarters building and walked toward the flagpole. Joe recognized Senior Drill Sergeant Cocker and thought one of the men was an officer. The other two were enlisted men, one of which, a corporal, carried a bundle. Joe realized the bundle was an American flag when the corporal and the private with him unfolded it and hooked it to a halyard. The corporal manned the halyard but didn’t raise the flag.

At exactly 6:00 am a bugle played reveille over loudspeakers that could be heard all over Fort Bragg. The officer yelled, “Present arms.” And, immediately he saluted as did the DIs. The corporal slowly raised the flag and when his end wouldn’t touch the ground the private let go and saluted too.

One hundred and sixty scared young men raised their right hands and saluted their flag. A chilled ran down Joe’s spine. The energetic reveille tune continued for twenty seconds and ended just as the flag reached the pole’s brass finial. The officer yelled, “Order arms.”

All hands dropped to their sides in unison like a flock of birds changing direction and yet no one had explained the order. Joe didn’t consider himself spiritual, but he felt something happen that didn’t conform to his sense of logic.

Captain Halbeck introduced himself and welcomed the recruits to Company B, 8th Battalion of the 2nd Brigade. He said, “I leave you in the capable hands of Senior Drill Sergeant Cocker,” and then walked back to his office followed by the flag attendants. Joe saw him twice after that.

Cocker surveyed the crowd until the captain was out of earshot. “Today you’re maggots not worth the time it would take me to step on you and end your miserable lives. But, as much as I’d like to grind your fat-filled bodies into sausage, I can’t, ‘cause the Army needs your bodies to fertilize the rice paddies of Viet Nam. So, it’s my job to make you soldiers.”

The DIs moved out of view as Cocker droned on a bit longer before taking rollcall. If someone didn’t respond to their name quickly Cocker would scream and badger them. He reminded Joe of his uncle, a bully with a big ego. Finally he ordered, “Attention,” followed by, “About face.”

Most of the recruits turned around, but a few didn’t, which gave Cocker his chance. Joe had turned and couldn’t see what was happening, but he could hear it.

“Give me fifty,” Cocker bellowed.

“Yes Senior Drill Sergeant…ah…fifty what?” the kid said. His voice cracked at what.

“Pushups, you piece of dog turd.”

“Yes Senior Drill Sergeant.”

“Are you counting dog breath? I can’t hear you,” Cocker yelled.

Joe pictured his uncle’s gloating face as he listened. He had seen the four DIs move to the front of their respective barracks while Cocker’s drama played out and thought the platoon assignments must be next.

“Nineteen, twenty….twenty-one…uh twenty-two,” the kid said. His struggle was obvious as the time between numbers grew longer. Then he collapsed with “oomph.”

Joe noticed Bliss and Tonga glance at each other. Bliss shrugged. Tonga shook his head and spit as if to rid his mouth of a bad taste. At least, that’s what Joe thought.

“You’re weaker than my little sister and she’s disabled. Get in formation, dog crap. Sergeant Bliss, take over,” Cocker said.

Sergeant Bliss explained that each DI would take turns calling out names. The recruits were supposed to line up in the assembly area to the right of the barracks until the platoon assignments were done.

One after another, last names were called with no discernable logic. Joe heard Tonga call Washington and heard JL answer. Poor guy, Joe thought and trusted his three to one odds would hold up because there were about twenty guys left. Two rounds later, Tonga called Samson and beyond belief, Samsonite answered. Joe damn near choked holding back a laugh at the odd turn of events until Tonga called his name.

Joe joined the 2nd platoon’s assembly area with an incredible sense of disappointment. Once again, his desires had been ignored by the fates, or God, or whatever.

The recruits had learned enough to get into a rough four by ten formation. Most of them were sitting on their duffel bags looking away from the parade ground, but not JL, he was watching and waiting. When he saw Joe approach, he stood and gave him a smile that beamed from his dark skinned face and a thumbs-up gesture to reinforce his point—he was glad Joe was with him.

Joe’s eyes met JL’s and knew he hadn’t been let down after all. If he was going to face the unknown, he’d rather do it with JL and besides the California guys had to stick together.

Once the assignments were done, they were told to leave their duffels in the assembly area and were walked to breakfast. The mess hall was a single story building built in the forties like everything else. It could accommodate a hundred and seventy, but rarely had to.

A long line formed at the entrance. Men entered, took a divided tray, grabbed flatware and moved on. The tray was filled with scrambled eggs, fried potatoes and greasy bacon. At the end of the food line the men turned and could serve themselves coffee or a large glass of milk: white or chocolate. The coffee urn was gigantic in Joe’s mind, but the milk dispensers were more impressive. Joe took coffee and realized he hadn’t drunk milk of any kind since his parents had died—it was kid food.

He made his way to a seat and dug in, but he was nowhere near done when he was forced to give up his spot for another recruit. As they exited the mess hall, the flag-raising corporal told them to sit on their duffel bags by the barracks until their sergeants told them what to do.


After breakfast, Tonga assigned each man to a bunk and showed the group how to make a bed and organize their gear. He gave them a half hour to get ready for their first inspection.

Tonga had a private room at the front of the building. He stepped out of his quarters and into the aisle that divided the barracks in half. He stood perfectly straight with his hands behind his back. At five foot six he wasn’t tall, but his width and Polynesian build made him intimidating. The room quieted quickly.

Sgt. Tonga shouted, “Attention!”

The recruits had seen enough John Wayne movies to know that attention meant to standup straight and salute, so they did.

“Don’t you candy-assed excuses for soldiers dare salute me. I’m a non-commissioned officer. I don’t need your floppy hand gestures to make me important—I own your asses.” Tonga pointed to a group by the stairs. “Get your lazy butts upstairs and stand at attention at your foot lockers. That goes for this floor too, move!”

Joe scrambled to find his place at the foot of his bunk, as did everyone.

Tonga gave them their first standing order: keep you area squared away. He didn’t vocalize the order as much as demonstrate it. He overturned every bed on the floor except one. When he came to Samsonite’s bed he pulled a quarter from his pocket and flipped it into the air. It bounced off of the taut green blanket and landed heads up. He nodded to Samsonite.

“That’s how you make a bed. The rest of you better have yours looking like it when I get back.”

Samsonite’s chest puffed like a crowing rooster. Tonga moved on to terrorize the second floor and left nineteen sets of eyes focused on the little guy with criminal intent. As much as Joe had wanted to do him in at the sink not long before, he felt sorry for Samsonite now. The guy didn’t have a clue how damned he was.

Joe had learned another lesson. It was better to face the devil with a friend than by yourself.

To be continued…

© 2015 David P. Cantrell He is a contributing member of the EWI staff.

Links to prior episodes:

Basic Lessons of Life – Number One

Basic Lessons of Life – Number Two



Basic Lessons of Life – Number Two

The train of buses rolled through the main gate like young bulls in a squeeze-chute about to be de-horned and neutered. A wooden sign announced “Fort Bragg Home of the Airborne.” Smartly dressed soldiers manned the gate and watched the procession go by. Joe noticed one of them turn away and shake his head—a bad omen to Joe. Sweat dripped from his arm pits; it was 8:00 AM—another bad omen.

Fort Bragg sig

The eight busses pulled into a large parking lot. The drivers commenced a dance of sorts that ended with the busses perfectly aligned, eight abreast, in front of a large multi-floor brick building. A six foot border of neatly trimmed grass fronted the building to the left and right of the entrance. A 2’ by 10’ sign above the double doors identified it as “Reception Center – Fort Bragg.”

Joe laughed when a big black guy sitting next to him said, “Like we’d think it was Fort Knox’s reception center.”

“Hello, I’m Jefferson Lincoln Washington. Call me JL,” the black guy said.

“Hey man, I’m Joe Appleton. Nice to meet you. Where’re you from?” Joe asked

“Long Beach California. You heard of it?”

“Shit yeah man. I’m from Huntington Beach.”

“No shit? You play ball?”

“Football. Linebacker—Go Oilers.”

“Hot damn. I played tight-end for Long Beach Poly. I bet we busted heads once or twice.”

“Could be JL, but I thought you Jackrabbits always ran from trouble.”

“No way white boy. We just couldn’t hang on to your oily bodies so we had to run around your slippery dicks.”

Joe laughed. “Call me Joe.”

The budding friendship was nipped when the driver yelled, “Get out of my bus. I’ve got better things to do than watch your sorry asses sweat.”

Everyone milled around the front of the bus hanging on to their one piece of luggage like it was a lifesaver. Most guys carried gym bags or small carry-on bags, a few guys had grocery bags, but one guy carried a new Samsonite suitcase.

The guy wore polished dress shoes, black slacks and a white shirt and tie. A black and gray plaid sport coat hung over his shoulder as if he was Frank Sinatra. Joe nudged JL. “Pretty fancy dude. Huh.”

“My ten year old sister is bigger than that little bug. Hell, my six year old brother could blow him over. That boy ain’t never gonna make it. But, he’ll look good at the funeral. Maybe Sammy Davis Jr. will sing for him.”

“Are you laughing at me surfer boy?” Joe stopped laughing when he realized he was the target of the question. A tall, trim and very black man stood in front of the group. His Dudley Do-Right hat sat perfectly parallel to the ground above an impeccably pressed uniform. Everything in its place, even his perspiration stayed out of view.

“No sir.”

“What did you say? I’m not sure I heard you clearly.”

“I said, No sir. Sir,” Joe said louder.

“You just called me sir three times in less than one minute bird-brain. I work for a living. I’m not a sir. You and the rest of your flock can call me Drill Sergeant, Sergeant Davis or Sergeant, but you better not call me sir again.”

Joe fidgeted.

“Did you hear me bird-brain?”

“Yes s…ergeant Davis.”

Sergeant Davis organized the group into four rows of ten. It took longer than he liked apparently, because he screamed finally when he was satisfied with the formation. Forty tired young men stared at Sgt. Davis and awaited the unknown. His forehead wrinkled as he glanced at his watch. Joe assumed a decision had been made, “Everyone, turn to your right,” Sgt. Davis said.

Samsonite and two others turned left, but quickly corrected themselves. The sergeant shook his head and told them to stay together and follow him. They didn’t enter the Reception Center as they’d expected but instead walked a few blocks to a little clapboard white building with a red roof. A row of painted white rocks formed a curb in front of the building. Sgt. Davis lined up the formation, four abreast behind the curb and sent the first four guys into the building.

JL whispered, “What’s happening?” Joe cautiously pointed to a diminutive red blue and white barber pole hanging by the door. A few minutes later, the guys exited the shop shorn of their locks. Sgt. Davis pointed to a grassy area nearby and told them to relax, smoke if they wanted to and to be quiet. Joe waited in line.

“Oscar, looky what’s I got here—a blond beach boy,” the barber said and held Joe’s tresses up with both hands like a lions’ main.

“James. You may be today’s winner with that one,” Oscar said as he carved a deep furrow through JL’s afro. “But, if I straightened these curls the decision could be in doubt.”

Joe and JL grabbed their bags with one hand and rubbed their heads with the other as they left the shop. They sat on the lawn and sighed in unison. Joe held out a pack of Marlboros to JL, “Want a smoke?”

“Nah, I choke on them things something terrible,” JL said. “My aunt Sadie…she’s a nurse. Anyway, she told me that if I smoked, my pretty pink lungs would become as black as my big ass. I don’t know why, but the image of my lungs looking like my ass turned me off to those things forever.”

Joe took a deep draw and blew out circles within circles of blue-gray smoke and said, “Good, more for me. Hey, with your afro gone and my hair buzzed, we kind of look alike, well not twins, but more alike than before.”

When the last four shaved heads exited the barber shop, Sgt. Davis lined the four up in the roadway and yelled, “Get off of my grass you maggots and form up on me.” A chorus of moans rose from the flock as they stood and stretched. “Get your butts in line behind these guys or you’ll never see your loved ones again.”

No one doubted him.

The group headed toward the Reception center and walked right past it. Two blocks later, Sgt. Davis halted them before a windowless single story brick building. Joe guessed it was 40’ by 40’ and couldn’t figure out why an AT&T bell sign hung by the only entrance.

“Alright maggots, this is your one and only opportunity to call your family and let them know you haven’t died yet. Line up here.”

Joe waited in line behind JL and thought about who to call. His folks had died when he was fourteen. His uncle Robert, who’d raised him until he graduated high school, was serving six months for petty theft so he wasn’t a candidate and he wouldn’t give a shit anyway. His head said to call Julie, but his sense of self-preservation said let it go for now, so he planned to call Paul at Claude’s Tool & Die.

Paul Brown, Claude’s son and now the business’ owner, had been a big booster for the Oilers football team. For reasons Joe never knew, Paul had taken a liking to him and had offered him a part-time job during his sophomore year. It had changed Joe’s life in many ways, not least of which was his being able to buy food when Uncle Robert was strung-out or in jail.

The guys at the shop had become his family in a way. Paul taught him the importance of keeping your word and doing your best. Big John, the shop lead, forced him to accept responsibility for his fuck-ups. John once said, “If you screw up and hide it, the die you made could kill babies on an airplane. If you admitted your fuck-up, you’d save those babies.” Even at eighteen, Joe had known Big John was being dramatic, but the lesson stuck just the same.

He looked forward to talking to Paul, but by the time Joe got to a phone, the heat and humidity in the building was oppressive. He fed quarters into the phone. Mary, the receptionist, answered, “May I help you?”

“This is Joe. Please get Paul.”

“Oh. Hi sweetie. How are you?”

“Hot. Please get Paul.”

“Hey, Joe what’s up?”

‘Hi Paul, I’m safe. Say hi to the guys. I’m sorry but I’ve got to hang up.”

Joe staggered out of the phone barn and collapsed on the lawn. His Levi’s darkened with sweat and his eyes stinging from salt laden perspiration. He glanced at his watch; it was 11:15 AM.

The line to eat wrapped half way around the building. Joe hadn’t eaten since a bag of peanuts the night before. The mess hall looked like a school cafeteria with four food lines. Grab a tray, move down the line, take what you’re given, don’t talk, hurry, hurry. He consumed the food as fast as he could, but it wasn’t Army fast—perfectly good mash potatoes joined soggy lima beans in a trashcan on his way out.

Reception Center seemed like a misnomer to Joe when medics started poking and prodding after the paperwork was done. It wasn’t as bad as his physical in L.A. a few months before, but it wasn’t fun either. He stood in line to use the toilet. He stood in line to get boots. He stood in line to get pants and shirts and underwear. The heavy canvas duffle bag he’d been given early on filled with his civilian clothes and military gear as the day wore on and it became quite heavy.

Samsonite had a hell of a time. He couldn’t force his suitcase into the duffle bag so he had to carry both of them. An officer noticed him dragging the bag and read him the riot act for abusing government property. From then on everyone carried the bag over their shoulders.

The recruit assembly line moved in spurts. It would stop suddenly for no apparent reason and then everyone would be jogging to catch up to the guy in front of them. During one of the stops Joe watched Samsonite sneak out of line and shove his suitcase into a janitorial closet. Gutsy, Joe thought.

Joe finally exited the Reception Center and joined dozens of other recruits sitting in a field behind the building, waiting for the next unknown. Forty minutes later the building stopped producing recruits.

“On your feet,” yelled a drill sergeant that Joe hadn’t seen before. Four other drill sergeants stood next to him. “Quiet down. I’m Senior Drill Sergeant Cocker these are Sergeants Bliss, Hanner, Tonga and Edwards.” Each stepped forward as their name was called. “They will be your platoon sergeants. We don’t have time to get your platoons squared away ‘cause we got to feed you and march you to the Company barracks so’s you can get some rack time. Therefore, I want you all to line up in front of me.” He pointed to JL. “What’s your name?”

“Jefferson Lincoln Washington, sergeant.”

“That’s senior drill sergeant, Washington. Stand in front of me.”

“Yes senior drill sergeant.”

“All righty then, I want you ladies to form up on Washington.”

Joe had no idea what Cocker wanted, but he was afraid to do nothing so he stood behind JL. The other recruits followed suit and stood behind him. Within a minute, the line grew until it encroached on a busy road. Cocker’s face turned so red his freckles disappeared.

“Stop. What are you pissants doing? Form up damn you.” Cocker shook so badly that Joe though he’d collapse. Cocker forced himself to calm down and turned toward Sergeant Bliss and said, “Bliss, take over here. I’ll make sure the mess hall is ready.” He didn’t wait for a reply and walked away.

At 8:00 PM Joe lay in the bottom bunk of a bed manufactured before he’d been born, on a dilapidated mattress. He didn’t care. He was fed, showered and dead tired, yet he had trouble sleeping. His mid bounced around from his parents to Julie then to Uncle Robert and eventually settled on a conversation he’d had with Big John before he left L.A.

‘You’re a good kid. You’ll do okay in basic, but I’ll give this advice. Keep a low profile, don’t volunteer for anything and keep your eyes and ears open. Don’t get on a DI’s radar. If you do, he’ll ride you like a mustang until he breaks you. I’ve seen it happen and another….’ Fatigue took over.


Bang! Bang! Bang! The crushing sound of galvanized trashcan lids being used as cymbals shattered Joe’s dream about Julie’s thighs. Groggy and unaware of his surroundings he rolled onto his back and said to no one in particular, “What time is it?”

He opened his eyes and stared into the bloodshot whites of another human being whose nose hovered a fraction of an inch from his own.

“I ain’t no fucking alarm clock! Get up!” Sgt. Tonga screamed.

Joe’s heart stopped for an instant then he jumped out of bed. He’d been in the Army for less than twenty-four hours and had learned another lesson. He belonged to the Army and he’d better get used to it.

To be continued.


© 2015 David P. Cantrell He is a contributing member of the EWI staff.

Prior chapters:

Basic Lessons of Life – # 1

Thomas the Thankful Turkey

By: David P. Cantrell

Thomas is a very special bird.

He was hatched like millions of turkeys are each year, but he didn’t have a father like most. He had the research department of FowlTech, Inc. to thank for his paternal DNA.  Wild turkey

FowlTech’s consumer research group had anticipated the Cage Free movement years before the press had coined the phrase.  Consumers living in fancy East Coast lofts and West Coast Mc-Mansions had decided animals slaughtered for their gastric pleasure should live the good life before being consumed. The irony hadn’t been lost on those living between the coasts, but their lack of purchasing power couldn’t stem the sea change that was coming.

The cage-free concept had scared the hell out of the company’s CEO and Board of Directors. They’d spent millions developing the big, immobile domestic turkeys that consumers loved to eat at a low price, but the birds were so stupid they’d starve in a cage free environment unless hand fed. Hand feeding and profits were mutually exclusive in their minds.

FowlTech’s genetic engineers worked on the problem for three years looking for the combination that would produce marketable turkeys in a cage free environment. Thomas and his 99 brothers were the Company’s hope for the future. The birds were loaded on an environmentally controlled trailer and departed the Virginia research center six months after they’d been hatched. It happened to be the third Thursday of November when they left for the Company’s Georgia production farm and a new life.

Thomas never got there.


Thomas was a very clever turkey.

Somewhere near Alcolu, South Carolina, on the south bound I-95, the front left tire of the Kenworth T660 hauling Thomas to his new home blew out. The driver did his best to control the big rig but momentum and a two lane bridge left him with few options. His cab made a U-turn when it hit the guardrail and his trailer broke its connection as it rolled into the Pocotaligo River.

Thomas was not only clever, he was very lucky, at least on that day, because the trailer’s roof landed on a boulder that caused the right rear door to fly open. But, that wasn’t the luckiest thing. Thomas’ travel cage flew clear of the trailer and broke open when it hit a partially submerged oak trunk that lay on the bank, which was very lucky, but not the luckiest thing. The luckiest thing was that Thomas understood his peril and escaped the cage before it disappeared in a rush of water.

He scrambled up the trunk and perched on a branch to survey the situation. The trailer sank before his eyes and as far as he could tell none of his travel mates had escaped.

He chose to go upstream. Two hours later he was glad that he had.

The narrow river opened into a five mile wide forest populated by confers and hardwoods. He continued until the stream meandered through a glen surrounded by trees and shrubs. Instinct told him to stop his trek and rest.

The next morning a flock of turkeys led by an impressive gobbler fed on the far side of the glen. Thomas watched the group carefully. He wanted to join them but fear held him back for a while. The big gobbler saw Thomas, just a jake and not a true threat, crossing the glen and halfheartedly challenged him, but let him join the group.

Thomas had a home.


Thomas grew to be a spectacular specimen. He looked like most wild turkeys except for his snood, which became iridescent pink when he was excited. The geneticists at FowlTech had suspected the Raven genes added to his genome had done more than increase his heart and lung capacity as intended. They’d been correct. However, a much more significant by product of their manipulations, had been his intelligence.

Thomas found it easy to defeat the other males when the old gobbler died, but it took more to become the alpha male—the hens had the real power in the flock. They found his snood and brains quite attractive and accepted him. He had plans to grab more hens from a neighboring gobbler next spring, however he felt fall was a time to take stock of life, not pester neighbors.

Thomas, perched on a gnarled oak, surveyed his realm and thought of all he had to be thankful for, but more than anything else he gave thanks for bad truck tires, large boulders, fallen oaks, and the intelligence to make a life with his loved ones.

Happy Thanksgiving.

© 2015 David P. Cantrell is a contributing member of the Edgewise Words Inn staff

Photo credit: “Gall-dindi” by Riki7 – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –






Scales L-HI’ve been writing a lot of short fiction since I joined Edgewise Words Inn. It’s been a good learning experience partly because of feedback from my co-contributors but also from the act of writing itself.

I like writing, it stimulates my mind. I hate writing, it taxes my brain. Let me explain.

I’m forced to one-finger type because of an old injury. I start writing and thoughts come to mind much faster than my brain can direct my index finger. My mind is a battering ram, breaking through gates to reach the damsel of creativity, but my brain misses keys or hits abd instead of and, as a result I see a red underline which raises a battlement to thwart my efforts.

More times than not, the damsel dies from neglect—she’s a fragile creature.

I often find myself staring at my keyboard, but not the keys. I’m in the zone, formulating an idea. The idea bubbles and boils for a time before my finger is put to work. Once the thought is typed I read it, maybe switch things around and reread it. Too often the thought is crap, I delete it and ask myself: what were you thinking?

Still I plug away and now and then a story gets completed, typically after a few glasses of wine. It’s a great story in my mind, actually perfect, so I give up and go to bed.

Daylight and sobriety reveal many flaws that weren’t visible the night before. Incomplete thoughts and other missteps standout like a scarecrow in a plowed field. So, the first rewrite starts. One rewrite is never enough. Ten rewrites seem to be a minimum unless I work with an editor; even then I need at least five rewrites.

The process goes something like this:
1. Write story,
2. First rewrite,
3. Wait a day or two,
4. Second rewrite
5. Submit to editor,
6. Third rewrite,
7. Re-submit to editor,
8. Fourth rewrite.
9. Want to re-submit to editor, but afraid they’ll never work with me again, so I wait a day or two.
10. Fifth and final rewrite because I’m out of time.

Still, I like writing—no I love writing. I love the stimulus and the people I’ve met along the way among other things. I also love and appreciate reader feedback.

Good or bad, feedback is mother’s milk to a writer. It nourishes our inner muse and keeps us at it. If you golf, you know what I mean, it’s the one shot of the day that makes it all worthwhile. If you’re a seamstress, it’s the garment that blends fit, style and skill perfectly. Enough of the strained metaphors you might be thinking and if you shared that thought with me in a comment field, I’d be as happy as guacamole on a corn chip.

I don’t know—stop asking

By: David P. CantrellA_Colorful_Cartoon_Woman_Falling_Into_a_Toilet_Bowl_Royalty_Free_Clipart_Picture_110102-144827-481053

Life is full of unknowns, such as why a women would ask, “Why don’t you put the seat down?” Some mysteries aren’t meant to be resolved by measly humans, but some are. So, here’s a new set of etymological challenges for your consideration.

  1. Slush Fund, as in money set aside for bribery or other nefarious purposes owes its existence to:
    1. A bucket used to clean pig sties in 14th century Scotland called a skush,
    2. The Teapot Dome scandal during the Presidency of Warren G. Harding in the early 1920’s, because of a bookkeeper named Albert Slosh that testified before Congress about the scandal.
    3. Rendered animal fat, known as slush, sold by British sailors in the 1700’s to benefit the crew.
  2. By and Large, as in: on the whole, in general, for the most part, can be traced to:
    1. Rolland Bye and John Large, English stage entertainers that could do it all: sing, dance, act dramatic scenes and perform comedy.
    2. A nautical term to describe a ship that could sail into the wind (by), as well as with the wind (large).
    3. The Greek word bi meaning half, and the Latin word largus meaning copious, literally “half and all.”
  3. Which of the following phrases IS NOT attributed to William Shakespeare:
    1. A sea change,
    2. A green-eyed monster,
    3. In a pickle,
    4. Labor of love.
  4. Which of the following phrases IS attributed to William Shakespeare:
    1. You’re a better man than I am,
    2. A good man is hard to find,
    3. The game is afoot,
    4. Warts and all.


  1. (c) In the 17th century, the word slush was coined to describe melting snow, by the 18th century it was also used to describe the semisolid fats accumulated from boiling meats. Ship’s cooks saved the slush while at sea and sold it to candle markers and such when in port. The resulting funds were used to purchase items for the benefit of the crew.   (
    Answers (a) and (b) are fictions of my imagination.
  2. (b) To sailors “by” means in the direction of, thus “by the wind” is sailing into the wind. Large describes a strong following wind, which allows freedom of movement, as in “at large.” Thus it might be said of a ship. “She handles well, by and large.”  (
    Answer (a) is complete balderdash. Answer (c) is partially true. Bi does mean half in Greek and Largus means copious in old Latin, but the rest is bull-pucky. Um, balderdash and bull-pucky, I wonder where they came from?
  3. (d) The phrase “labor of love” is from the 1611 King James Version of the Bible. It actually appears twice, once in Thessalonians 1:3, and again in Hebrews 6:10, and was used in the context of working for pleasure. Shakespeare never used the phrase, although he wrote his comedy, Love’s Labor’s Lost, before the Bible was printed. The Bard had a more carnal concept of love in mind, me thinks.
  4. (c) From Shakespeare’s King Henry IV Part I, 1597:
    “Before the game is afoot, thou still let’st slip.”Here’s how the other phrases arose:
    (a) You’re a better man than I am— Rudyard Kipling in the poem Gunga Din.
    (b) A good man is hard to find—Eddie Green 1918 song, A Good Man is Hard to Find.
    (d) Warts and all—The phrase has been attributed to Oliver Cromwell, the would-be dictator, or savior to some, of England in the early-1600’s. Presumably he instructed his portrait painter to give an honest account of his likeness, warts and all. Unfortunately, the first use of the phrase appeared nearly two hundred years later, in 1824 Massachusetts, when a lecturer, Alpheus Cary, claimed Cromwell said it, but there is no evidence that he actually did.

    David P. Cantrell is an author and member of the Edgewise Words Inns staff.

The Spirit of the Well and the Gingerbread House

By David P. Cantrell
This story is my response to a Picture Prompt Challenge. The image was contributed by Deann Powell.Deann Powell Ginger

A Seneca tribe had lived on the land they called Ta-Num-Ga-O (Home of Hickory Bark) for generations before Whites arrived. The area included the modern cities of Clarence, Buffalo and Lancaster, in Erie County, New York. The tribe understood the land and how to appease its spirits. They lived prosperous lives until the Whiteman’s wars and diseases decimated their numbers. Most of the survivors moved north to join their brethren in Canada. Whites tried to fill the void, but each attempt failed.

On the first winter day in 1798, Asa Ransom would have died from exposure had he not stumbled upon a cave. The cave sloped downwards for forty feet before it opened into a large cavern. A tinderbox and pinch of gunpowder allowed him to light a candle. Its flicker revealed an ancient Seneca medicine man, nearly dead, mumbling strange incantations. Three flat stones lay equidistant around the lip of a natural limestone well, and crude structures made of tree bark sat on each stone. The structures reminded Asa of Seneca Longhouses.

He shared his rum and food with the medicine man, Ta-Na, a long winter kindled their friendship. He learned the secret of the water spirit from his Seneca friend, which he shared with his partner, Joseph Ellicott, after Ta-Na’s death. The partners built a tavern and saw mill on the well site. A successful community grew from their efforts.

The Ransom and Ellicott families keep Ta-Na’s secret, even now.


As soon as the door closed, AJ could smell it. His mom was baking gingerbread. He vaguely remembered when he liked the aroma, probably long ago, when he was thirteen or so, but now, on the cusp of his eighteenth birthday, it stunk and hung in the air like LA smog. “I’m home mom.”

“Oh, good. We’re in the kitchen, Asa.”

Duh, he thought and moved to the kitchen doorway.  “Mom, call me AJ. I don’t like Asa. It’s a dumb name.”

“You should be proud of your name, son.” Mary Jo rolled her eyes. “But, I’ll try.”

His grumpiness vanished at the sight of his twelve year old sister, Julie Belle. Her tongue protruded from the side of her mouth like a giant zipper tang while she carefully poured gooey molasses into a measuring cup.  “Hey! Jelly Bean, don’t spill any,” AJ barked.

Julie Belle jumped ten feet, but managed to spill only a drop or two. With hands on hips, she turned to her six foot brother and said. “Asa Joseph Ransom-Ellicott, sometimes you act like a child, and don’t call me Jelly Bean.”

Mary Jo watched her son tussle his sister’s hair and kiss the crown of her head. “Mom, make him stop. His spit’s in my hair.” Julie’s eyes revealed truer feelings.

Julie’s mannerisms mirrored Grandma Belle’s to a tee, and AJ’s laughter could have been Daniel’s, the children’s late father. It supported her conviction that more than hair cowlicks and eye color passed from generation to generation.

The winter solstice would reveal how much more.

Mary Jo Ransom-Ellicott was the second child of Belle and Robert Ransom. Their first daughter, Pauline, had a happy marriage by all accounts, but she’d never been blessed with children. The Ransom family’s gift would die out with Mary Jo, if her children weren’t blessed. She shuddered at the thought.

“I want you to assemble the gingerbread house this year AJ. Your sister and I will make the components, but I expect you to assemble them into a spectacular example of your creativity.”

“What’s the point Mom? You always out do Grandma Belle and Aunt Pauline. You don’t need me to win the winter festival contest.”

Mary Jo couldn’t tell him the real reason—not yet. She thought about using the “I’m-your-mother card” but knew she’d used it too often. So, she did what most parents do, she bribed him. “If you produce an acceptable gingerbread house, I’ll find a way to get you a car for your eighteenth birthday.”


AJ made the effort and worked right up to the solstice. Initially the promise of a car drove him, but something more powerful took over during the process. His three story mansion had four chimneys, numerous windows and a snow covered roof with crystallized sugar icicles on the eaves. He was very proud of it and told his mother so on the way to the Winter solstice festival at the old Ransom House Museum built over the original saw mill. “It’s very nice son, but the true judging will be made by someone you haven’t met. Be patient.”

Two dozen entries had been submitted to the ladies of the Erie County Historical Society. AJ’s was the unanimous winner. Grandma Belle and Aunt Pauline didn’t even get an honorable mention. Ashamed that he felt so good about beating them, AJ tried to complement their efforts. His Grandma laughed in his face. “Boy. I wouldn’t give a varicose vein for the approval of those old bats. Our family’s judgement will come tonight.” AJ had no idea what she meant and was afraid to ask.

At one a.m., on AJ’s eighteenth birthday, and not long before the solstice, he awoke to find his mother holding an old Bible. She quietly told him to get dressed, read the Bible’s dedication page and then join her in the kitchen.

He did as he was told and learned Asa Ransom’s tale about an old Seneca and O-Ne-Ka, a water spirit, which required an annual sacrifice of a home to protect him from the winter. The spirit’s dissatisfaction would bring misery to the community. The old Seneca had shown Asa how to build miniature hickory-bark longhouses and explained that O-Ne-Ka wouldn’t be satisfied unless three were offered.

Joseph Ellicott and Asa Ransom continued the tradition, until a longhouse was destroyed on the way to the well on the 1801 winter solstice. Asa panicked and replaced it with a gingerbread house made by his wife for the upcoming Christmas holiday. The next morning the gingerbread house was taken and all was well.

Asa Ransom’s Bible entry finished with: ‘Forget not what thou hast learned. Fail not in thy task, for great suffering shall befall thy male children if thou dost.’

AJ joined his mother, grandmother and aunt in the kitchen. “I can’t believe that you three buy into this crap. This is the 21st century. You can’t possibly believe it.”

The women understood his reaction. They’d reacted much the same at first, but they had to convince him to complete the ceremony. Mary Jo said, “Son, we know how you feel, but there are things you don’t know.”

She explained that the year after Asa wrote his Bible entry, he and Joseph had used hickory bark houses, because they feared changing the Seneca ceremony. But, O-Ne-Ka refused to accept any of them. All male children under three had died the following year. Gingerbread houses had been offered ever since, but in 1863, during the Civil War, a terrible snow storm blocked the well entrance and it couldn’t be cleared. All male children under four died the ensuing year. In 1944, a similar event occurred and males under five died.

AJ had his doubts, but didn’t argue. His mother led the way through a door hidden under the Ransom House Museum. It exposed the cave that led to the old well. AJ’s headlamp revealed the soot covered ceiling and pictographs on the wall. He shivered, but not from the cold.

Mary Jo stopped at the cavern entrance and watched as AJ, Grandma Belle and Aunt Pauline laid their houses on the three rocks. “The solstice is almost here, we must leave quickly,” she said.

The door was closing when they heard an eerie screech that chilled AJ’s bones. “What was that?” he asked.

Grandma Belle spoke up. “That was O-Ne-Ka. He must have liked your offering boy; we haven’t heard his pleasure screech since your father made his first gingerbread house. You’ve got the gift, boy. Thank the Lord.”

David P. Cantrell is an author and a member of the Edgewise Words Inn staff.