from Saturday Evening Post
Letters from the Back
by Ellis Parker Butler
To PRIVATE WILLIAM J. BIGLOW,
X Company, 107th Regiment,
Camp Wadsworth, Spartanburg, S. C.
DEAR MR. BIGLOW: Well, I guess you'll drop dead when you get this letter from me, Mr. Biglow, because I guess you don't know me from Adam, and maybe I got a lot of nerve, but I seen in the paper how we girls ought to write to you boys at the front to cheer them up because there ain't anything they like to get so much as a letter. I guess I got the nerve and the three cent stamp to cheer you up with, if it comes to that, and I ain't going to let you die of the droops for want of no letter from the back while you are at the front. I ain't the kind of a girl to let no United States army bawl its eyes out if I can help it. So, cheer up, Billy!
When I read in the paper that us girls ought to cheer up the Army and Navy it got my goat, because none of the soldier gentlemen hadn't left his address with me and I thought I'd have to write to General Pershing, because I know where he is. That would have been going some, wouldn't it, Mr. Biglow? But the minute I seen your letter in the Flushing newspaper I was on Easy Street, because it had your name and address on it. Only Willie, I didn't want to start in cheering you up when maybe you had a wife and six kids and she would come down here to the cafe and grab me bald-headed because I had wrote to you.
So when Big Mike come back into the kitchen for an order of corned beef hash browned and one poached egg on top I says to him "Who is this guy here that's writing all these letters to the paper? Who is this William Biglow that thinks he's got to tell all he knows about the army? He's a swell writer, I don't think! Who is he?"
You see, Willie, I didn't want Big Mike to get wise I was thinking of writing to you, so I cammyflooged it that way.
"Don't you worry about no William Biglow and he won't worry about you, Mame," Big Mike says. "You hustle that hash!"
The big stiff! Talking to a lady that way!
"You hustle it yourself if you want it in such a hurry, you big brute!" I says to him. "That's a nice way to answer a lady. You must have been raised in a barn!"
That's the way we scrap, me and him, but we don't mean nothing by it. We ain't in love or nothing. So he gives me a pinch on the arm and grabs the paper and starts to read it. Believe me, Mr. Biglow, he read your article all through before he stopped, and the guy out in front knocking on his plate with his knife because the hash was delayed. He must of thought he was in a hurry, that guy! He must of thought he was as hungry as Rip Van Winkler that was cast away on a desert island and had to eat all them sailors from the cook to the office boy. But it didn't jar Big Mike none.
"Oh, this guy!" he says when he come to the name. "This is that sawed-off, little, red-headed runt that used to work at the garage across the street there. You ought to know who he is, because he's the gink that sent his eggs back nine times out of ten. He's the guy you sent word out to one day that if he didn't like the way you done his eggs he could go chase himself."
Well, Mr. Biglow, I remembered right away who you were, because if anybody was ever bug-house in this world it was you on the subject of eggs. Believe me, I pity your wife unless the hens all go on strike before you get married. If ever anybody got my goat it was the time you sent them eggs back three times and wanted to know was there a cook back here or did the boss keep a German spy that was paid by the Kaiser to spoil good food.
You can believe me, Mr. Biglow, that when the rush hour is on here I don't hardly have time to turn my back to the range a second, but when Big Mike handed me that message from you that day I went to the swing door and looked through the glass in it and had a good squint at what kind of a sour pickle would send a message like that to a lady, and if looks would have killed you you wouldn't be filling no khaki clothes now. You'd be dead. I was so mad I could have bit you. But I got even with you, Mr. Biglow, because I just went and turned them eggs onto another plate and sent them back to you, and you ate them like you had got what you'd been scrapping for ever since you was a baby.
Well, Mr. Biglow, you see I feel sort of as if I was acquainted with you. We might almost as well be man and wife, me cooking eggs for you, and you kicking about them that way, but I give you my word that the way you looked that day when I seen you I wouldn't have you for a husband if I had to die an old maid. Only I didn't see nothing but your back. Maybe you don't look like a rough-neck from in front.
I hope this letter will cheer you up, but I guess you are pretty sick of the U. S. Army by this time and wish you was back in Flushing where you could get some of them good eggs I cooked for you. I hope this letter will make you forget your troubles so the army won't get discouraged, but if you want me to keep on cheering you up you had better drop me a post card or something, because I guess I know enough not to butt in where I ain't wanted.
Your well-wishing friend,
PRIVATE WILLIAM J. BIGLOW,
My DEAR FRIEND MR. BIGLOW: Is that so? Well, I guess if they got such swell cooks at Wadsworth you'd better stay there! I guess maybe if I had the stuff to cook I could get up swell feed too, but if I was a cook down there and you kicked about eggs the way you used to up here I'd have you took out and shot at sunrise.
Well, Mr. Willie Biglow, I guess you are some josher, all right! Writing about you feel as if you knowed me of old because of seeing my blond hair so often in the hash! Because my hair ain't blond, smarty! If there was a blond hair in your hash it was Big Mike's wife's that runs the cash register and hands out the toothpicks, because she used to come into the kitchen and help out sometimes, but I don't remember that she ever chopped hash. I guess that was just a josh, hey, Willie? Because I always gave the hash a look-over before I sent it front, after a guy made such a howl because he found a piece of towel in it. Honest, Willie, did you ever find hairs in the hash? If you did and they was sort of dark brown you've got some idea what I look like.
Say, Willie, do you remember me, honest? Maybe you do, because on a hot day I used to stand out front sometimes to cool off after the noon rush was over and you could of saw me easy from the garage, but don't think I've got a complexion like scarlet fever, because standing over a hot range is what made it red like that. If I looked like I had been wrestling with a tub of grease that was too much for me to throw, you got to remember that the way I have to hustle in this cafe don't give me no chance to doll up, but if you ever saw me about five o'clock maybe, when I come into the front room to rest under the electric fan you wouldn't know me. When I got a clean apron on and my hair smoothed up I bet I could get a job in Childs' or any of them swell places.
Believe me, you got some nerve to ask for a photograph! I bet if you got one you would use it to scare the Dutchies when you get to the other side, hey? Well, I guess I know better than to hand 'round my photograph to every smarty that asks for it and, anyway, you'll have to wait until I get some better ones took, because all I've got now is a tintype that I got took at Clason's Point and it makes me look like one of these newlyweds from Jayville.
Please, Willie, if you do get leave to come home, don't do like you say and come butting right into Big Mike's kitchen to have a look at me. I don't say I'm a queen like some of the girls, but you'd ought to give me a fair show and a chance to doll up. Please, Willie, if you come back on leave write me to let me know or I'll be nervous every time the door opens for fear it is you coming in. Have a heart! I've got so already that I pretty near throw a faint every time I look through the swing door and see a khaki kid come in.
Well, Willie, try to keep cheered up, because that is why I am writing letters to you, so you won't think the folks back here at home are forgetting about you. Like the newspaper said, we don't want you khaki kids to think we shipped you off and then forgot you was alive. But there ain't no fear of that, I guess, because this town is bug-house about the war and if somebody hadn't got an injunction I guess Flushing would have bought all the Liberty Bonds there was and then bawled for some more. Honest, I went and bought one myself and, God knows, Big Mike don't pay me no fancy wages, but I says to the guy that come selling them "Sure I'll take one; ain't I got a gentleman in the army what's corresponding with me?" What do you know about that for the nerve of me, Willie? "If he can go to war," I says, "and be a hero, I guess I can be a shero and back him up." Ain't that the limit, me letting on you was my private property like that, when I bet you've got a dozen and a half skirts you used to rush when you was here at home!
Well, cheer up, Willie! I should worry about what girls you've got.
Your well-wishing friend,
PRIVATE WM. J. BIGLOW,
YOU POOR KID: Honest, Mr. Biglow, I ain't hardly had the spunk to sass Big Mike when he sassed me since I got your letter saying you was in the hospital with pneumonia and the reason I ain't wrote you was that I just says to myself "Well, Mame, that's your luck! Just when you get friends with a nice gentleman soldier he goes and dies on you!"
It's the honest truth, Willie, I didn't have the heart to write to you, because I thought you wouldn't be nothing but a corpse to get the letter. I must have been bug-house to feel that way, but I did. I thought that whenever a soldier got the pneumonia or anything he went and died like flies and was buried in groups-like, in rows like sardines. Ain't I the limit! I guess what I don't know about the army would fill a book. I must have been misinformed. So that's why I didn't write, Willie. I was feeling too bad. I couldn't hardly believe my eyes when I got your second letter saying you was almost well.
That's a nice piece of dope you try to hand me about them Red Cross nurses being like angels! I should worry, but I guess if you peeled off those white towels they wear on their heads they wouldn't be no more angels than anybody else. It's nothing in my young life one way or the other, and if you want to get stuck on a Red Cross nurse it means nothing to me, but if a Red Cross nurse don't treat you white when you're sick what would she do, I'd like to know? What have they got to do but treat you white. I'd like to see them in this kitchen trying to satisfy you with the way you want your eggs cooked and then see whether you'd call them an angel or what! You men is all alike when you're sick. If a nurse don't get up on the bed and walk up and down on you with French heels you think she's an angel and go dippy over her. If a nurse hands you a drink of water every week or so you think Heaven is too good for her and she ought to be handed a medal. I should worry! It's nothing in my young life, Mr. Biglow, and you can't get my goat, not if you get stuck on one hundred thousand of your angel nurses. I guess maybe your angel nurses ain't such a much!
Well, Willie, I don't want you to think I care what you write about nurses, because I'm only writing to you to cheer you up and I can do that, nurses or no nurses. I went and had my photograph taken but I don't think I'll send you one, because what's the use if every nurse that don't put sand in your bread and butter is an angel?
The photograph ain't as good as it had ought to be, because the shirt waist took kind of light. It is dark blue in real life and the white thing in my hand is one of the letters you wrote me, but I don't want you to think it means nothing, because I just happened to have it when I went to get photographed and I didn't have time to put it down or anything. If my face looks kind of tired it's because I had to wait so long before my turn came. I had to wait nearly an hour, and Big Mike's wife was as sore as a pup when I got back, because she had burnt the side of her hand on the range.
She says, "This is a nice way to act, when you said you wouldn't be gone but half an hour, and look how I burned my hand on the range!" The nerve of her! I gave her a look up and down that showed her I knew she was too fat to talk like that to me.
"Indeed!" I says. "Well, it's a good thing it only got scorched and didn't catch afire or it would have burned like a tallow candle!" The look she gave me! The fat thing!
Now, don't you go showing my photograph to all the rest of the United States army and laughing at it, because if I thought you would I wouldn't have sent it. I know how you fellows are, Mr. Biglow, and you don't care about a girl's feelings as long as you can have your laugh.
Well, laugh if you want to! You can't say I've got a crush on you, because I haven't. All I'm writing to you for is to cheer you up, and if you wasn't sick in the hospital I wouldn't write, because I'm onto them angel nurses and the minute you're well they don't care whether you are alive or dead. Not that I care, because it is nothing in my young life, and I should worry how you get took in by a white towel around some old thing's head, but I feel like it is my duty to put you wise that a lot of this angel business is just part of their job that they have to learn like out of a book and pass an examination in, and when they hold your hand and you think they're an angel all it means is she will go into the next room and hold the next man's hand the same way, and if you think even a boob of a nurse would shout at you and swear like a truckman when you are flat on your back you're pretty soft. A lot them angel nurses care for you, Mr. Biglow, and maybe if you could hear what they say about you when they go out in the hall or somewhere you would change your mind, because a woman don't change just because she puts on a white dress and ties a towel around her head.
Well, it is nothing in my young life, and I feel like I've done my duty anyway, nurse or no nurse, because the paper said to cheer up the army, but I wish you could hear one of them angel nurses when she was maybe trying to cook some eggs to suit some crank of a red-headed rough-neck from some bum garage, so if you don't want the photograph I enclose you can send it back, because I ain't got time to waste cheering up nobody that don't want to be cheered up.
Your well-wishing friend,
CORPORAL WILLIAM J. BIGLOW,
Camp Wadsworth, Spartanburg, S. C.
DEAR WILLIE: Well, I haven't got over seeing you walk into the kitchen here at Big Mike's yet, because you could have knocked me down with a feather when you pushed open the swing door and says "Hello, Miss Hodgers!" and me looking like the dickens! Honest, Willie, I was so surprised my mouth must have looked like a subway entrance. "Gee!" I thought. "It's Mr. Biglow!" But I never thought you would look like an Apollus so soon after telling me you was sick with the pneumonia. I'll hand it to them Red Cross nurses, Willie; they must have treated you like a king. I forgot to tell you before you went back to camp to hunt up the one that was so white to you and ask her to come and visit us when the war is over and we are married.
Oh, Willie! I can't seem to get wise to the fact that you and me are engaged, and one hundred times a day I have to look at this genuine Brazilian diamond on my finger and say "Gee! it's so, you lucky kid!" To think of me being engaged to you, Willie, and you a real corporal in the U. S. army! Ain't it grand!
Say, Willie, I wake up in the middle of the night and I have to get up and look at your photograph or I can't believe it! Ain't I the limit?
If you live to be a thousand years old, Billy, you'll never half guess how scared I was when you took me up to see your mother. Of course I joshed about it and pushed you off the sidewalk on the way up there, and all that, but it had me going, you bet! Ain't she a peach, though? Believe me, Billy, she's some real dame the way she treats me. It's just like I was one of the family already. I was up there yesterday morning and come in on her when she was at the washtub doing Mrs. Catterton's wash, and she just laid off and sat down for a good talk with me.
"Go on with your wash, Mrs. Biglow; don't mind me," I says, and she just says, "To the devil with the wash, sweetheart, when my own boy's girl comes to see me!" The wash wasn't anything to her when I was there, Billy.
We had a lovely talk and she told me all about what an imp you was when you was a kid, and the time you got in jail for smashing the lamp on the switch of the Long Island Railroad, but the Grand Jury let you off because you was such a kid and your old man had a pull with the boss. I'm glad you had some go to you, Billy, because I don't care for them mollycoddle kids that as like as not turn out to be pacifists. Well, I guess if you get a chance you can smash one of the Kaiser's lamps and no Grand Jury in this country will need any letter from any boss. They'll hand you a medal.
Well, Billy, your mother has taught me how to knit and I'm knitting you a pair of socks, but I've had to rip them all out again, and when I get them done I'm going to knit you a hood-like and a sweater and a scarf. You'd laugh to see me knit, Billy; I'm a lemon when it comes to knitting. Your ma says that when I throw the thread over the needle I got a motion like a Swede cook grinding coffee. I guess I could do it better if I wasn't always getting my fingers burned on that range down at Big Mike's.
Well, Billy, I guess I don't have to tell you how much I love you, because you know it, so take care of yourself and think of me all you can. I don't mean I want you to think of me when you ought to be taking care of your squad, because now that you're a corporal you've got to look out for your squad, because you're their corporal and they depend on you, like you told me.
Please, Billy, don't feel too blue because we can't be married right away, because I know it is best that we should wait until the war is over, because I can keep right on here at Big Mike's, and your mother needs your pay, but when you come back we can all live together, and if her and me scrap once in awhile I'd like to know who don't.
Your well-wishing sweetheart,
CORPORAL WM. J. BIGLOW,
MY DEAR, DEAR BILLY BOY: Ain't it the worst of being a poor mutt of a hired cook, that I can't go down and see you before you go across, honey Billy? I would come if I could, Billy, but you know how it is with me, and you don't expect me to come, but oh, I wish I could. But I'm glad I can't, Billy, because if I seen you when I knew you was going across so soon nothing would do but we would get married and we oughtn't to do that until you come back.
Me and your ma we had a good cry when I got your letter, and we're going to be a lot of help to each other, cheering each other up, because we can have a good cry together whenever we want to, and it is a good thing we got engaged, Billy, for it wouldn't be no fun for her or for me to be crying alone.
I don't cry much, Billy, except when I go to see your ma, and you don't want to fret if we cry, because we don't mean nothing by it. We just do it for company. It is sort of easier to get along together when we are both crying over the same thing, whether it is you or a cat or a canary.
Honest, Billy, when I got your letter saying you were there at Norfolk and would maybe sail any day that a ship was ready I just took one long breath and that was all over! I knowed you would be going over some day, so it wasn't much of a shock, but I do wish I could have got anyway one sock ready for you, so you could be wearing something I had made for you with my own hands, but I guess I've ripped out about three times as much sock as I've knit. About the only thing I could knit would be a wheat biscuit.
Billy, it was real sweet of your squad to adopt you and me for their pa and ma, and I've got their photograph right alongside of yours in my room here at Big Mike's. I showed it to Big Mike and he says "Gee! What a tough lot of mugs!" So you can see he thinks they'll give the Kaiser all that's coming to him when they get over there.
Your ma wants me to come up and live with her, but I ain't going to, because there's no use taking a chance of us scrapping before you and me are married. There'll be plenty of time after. Anyway, she lives so far from Big Mike's, and I have to have the range hot and things reddy at half past four in the morning, and in the winter when the snow is deep it would be tough walking all the way down there.
Be as careful of yourself as you can, Billy, but I don't want you to be backward if you get into the fighting, because your squad will kind of look to you to show them the way, and I don't want it to be said that you held back because I told you to. Only, Billy, always be sure you've got your gas mask snug around your face, and don't go out into no Dead Man's Land unless you got your bayonet on the end of your gun. And, Billy, don't get promoted into a General if you can help it, because God knows I ain't got no education to fit me to be the wife of a General, and I don't want you should ever be ashamed of me.
Billy, I've quit chewing gum, because that's about all the expense I have got that I can quit, but I'm saving the money to buy these Thrift Stamps with, because I got to do what I can for my boy in the army and the socks I try to knit is the limit!
Well, Billy, maybe by the time this gets to Norfolk you will be on a ship and on the way over there, so goodby Billy, dear, and I'll write you a letter as often as I can to cheer you up. Write to me, too, Billy, because that's all I've got of you now, but I wish you would write to your ma once in a while too, and not all to me, because she's your ma, and I know how she feels about it. And anyway, Billy, the reporter from the Flushing paper says he wants to print some more of your letters and, Billy, I don't want you to write me the kind of letters he can print in the Flushing papers. I want you to write me the kind of letter that last one was, Billy, because you and me are engaged and I love you, and what is the Flushing paper in our young life, anyway? It ain't nothing, Billy.
Well, Billy, I guess I won't have to write you no more letters to cheer you up, because since I know you I know you've got the cheer up right in you, like most all of the U. S. army I see come into Big Mike's, but I should stop on that account, Billy! I guess you will want to get my letters more than ever; how about it, Billy? So don't you be afraid, because I'll write every chance I get, and you don't need to be afraid of me anyway, Billy, you old sweetheart, because if you don't come back there won't be nothing doing with any other fellow. So cheer up, Billy, because nobody but you will ever call me down for bum eggs across a breakfast table.
Your well-wishing sweetheart,