History class was over, the last class of the day, and the
students dived for their backpacks.
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
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 persons place in history.
make this harder than it is, said Mr. Johnson. Im
not looking for famous peoplealthough I wouldnt
mind turning one up. Grinning, he paused for the inevitable
laughter. No, Im 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 thatd
be about your great-great-great-great-great grandmother.
level in the room declined noticeably.
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.
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.
I dont think so, thanks anyway, said the boy.
He started to leave.
sure? Mr. Johnsons tone made clear his skepticism.
Jeremy stopped. He paused. Finally, he turned back to the
he said, I dont have any family, see, just me
an my mom, an I dont know what to do about
this project thing.
Mr. Johnson thought a moment. Well, lets see here.
Your mom had a father and a mother, right?
A shy smile
accompanied Jeremys nod.
look. You ask her if she can tell you anything about her father.
Anything at all. Thatll be a start, and you can go from
there. If you cant get anything at all, come back, and
well see what we can do.
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?
looked up. After a moment, she said, Why do you want
to talk about Grandpa? Tell me about your day at school, now
thats something to talk about.
I have to talk about Grandpa! Jeremys words came
out in a rush; he was well acquainted with his mothers
reticence about her father. Mr. Johnson said we have
to write a paper about one of our grandparents, its
our major project, and we have to tell about their place in
history, and hes even gonna grade on spelling!
he almost wailed.
countenance assumed an air of sadness. Okay, she
said. Theres not a lot to say, really. Your grandfather
hasnt kept in touch with us. He doesnt 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
down, expectation mingled in his eyes with puzzlement.
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 didnt
want to be part of anything anymore. Then your father died,
and I just didnt have the strength to deal with Grandpa.
I guess its as much my fault as it is his, that we dont...
She stopped again, seemingly having run down.
on the hard wooden chair. Go on, Mom, he pleaded.
tell you when he was born, she continued, and
where he grew up, and when he married Grandma, and all that
kind of stuff, Ive 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 hell help you with your
assignment. She paused. Yes, thats it. You
write to him. Ill get you his address.
cool, Ill send him email! Whats his address?
said Jeremy, unaware as only the young can be of the obstacles
he was about to face. Uh, whats Pearl Harbor?
you cant, Celeste replied. Grandpa doesnt
have a computer. Youll have to write him a real letter.
And Pearl Harbor is in Hawaii. The Japanese bombed it in 1941,
and thats what got us into the war.
he have a computer? Jeremy pouted. Everybodys
got computers! Pearl Harbor was forgotten in the midst
of this new technological crisis.
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, didnt keep them. Anyway, you write with
this. Hell be able to tell its not a ballpoint.
He always hated ballpoints, and Ill bet he wouldnt
even read a letter if he knew youd written
it with a gel pen. At that, she couldnt
help smiling. Her fathers irascibility in the face of
newfangled contraptions had always been a family joke, and
the thought stirred other happy memories for her.
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 wouldnt budge. Mom, I cant
use this pen, I cant even get the cap off, he
complained. He pushed the pen back at his mother.
screws off, she said. Try it. And to Jeremys
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.
it under the faucet, Celeste replied.
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.
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 its 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 Jeremys
hand until the nib was facing upward. But we have to
fill it first, she added. Heres the ink.
the cap off the bottle shed brought, and made a face.
Oh, D She stopped without completing the
word. Its all dried up, theres nothing here.
okay, Mom, Jeremy ventured, Ill just use
a ballpoint. Grandpall never know.
know, Celeste replied. Ill get some ink
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.
said Jeremy. Thats a funny name.
at the store said its very good, said Celeste.
Lets fill the pen. She uncapped the new
inkbottle and then screwed a small cap off the back end of
the pen, revealing a plunger. Inserting the nib into the ink,
she pressed and released the plunger. Nothing happened. She
tried again. Still no results.
she said in a pained voice. Now the pens broken.
Ill have to get it fixed.
its okay, Jeremy said, Really. Ill
just use a He stopped. The determined look in
his mothers eyes made clear her unalterable intention
that he would use this pen, and no other, to write to his
So she took
the pen to the store where shed bought the ink. The
proprietor was an older gentleman with charming salt-and-pepper
hair and an equally charming manner. Im 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
you? pleaded Celeste. This is for my son.
I dont even have the tools anymore, was the response.
See, this pen needs a special tool to take it apart,
and I dont even think they make that kind of tool anymore.
can I do?
is for your son? Put him on the case. Get him to do a Web
search. Ill bet there are people out there who still
do that kind of work, Im just not one of them.
search, eh? That, thought Celeste, is Jeremys
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 shed been too ambitious?
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?
down, she said. Well 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!
Jeremys 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.
all right, Celeste said. Be patient, it takes
practice. You cant write as fast with a fountain pen.
Wash your hand off and try some more.
later, Jeremy mailed his first real handwritten letter (not
counting thank-you notes for gifts). It read,
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.
Jeremy pestered Celeste, asking whether his letter from Grandpa
had come yet. Finally, the day after Washingtons birthday,
you have my old Parker fountain pen? I told your mother
to throw that pen away after your grandmother died. Get
rid of it.
wasnt even signed. Poor Jeremy was crushed. The bitterness
in his grandfathers words stung. He showed the letter
to Celeste. She wasnt surprised. Thats about
what I expected, she soothed. Lets try again.
Tell him you have his pen, and tell him that we got it fixed
just you could write to him. Did you notice that he used a
fountain pen, too? Jeremy hadnt noticed, but he
wasnt about to admit it.
down and began composing a second letter.
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. Its 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 Im glad Mom kept it. Especially
because it was yours. I cant take it to school, Mom
says shes afraid it might get lost.
Grandpa, I really need your help with this project, Ill
flunk if I dont do it. And please dont make
me get rid of this pen. I see you used a fountain pen, too.
reply came back much more quickly than had the first one.
will look around and see if I still have anything I can
send you. Dont get your hopes up. You wont really
find it very interesting, I think. The war happened a very
long time ago.
A few days
after that, a small box arrived for Jeremy. It contained a
few papers and a note:
March 2, 20
are some papers about the war. I was in the 95th Bombardment
Group, in the Army Air Force. That was before there was
a separate Air Force.
grandfathers 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.
this isnt enough, cried Jeremy, downcast. I
need lots more stuff before I can write a report.
you can find out more on the Web, suggested Celeste.
If you send him some information youve found out
by yourself, maybe hell be more willing to write about
himself. But she was much less hopeful than she sounded
what are all these little bombs for? asked Jeremy, pointing
to three rows of bombs painted neatly next to the pinup girl.
now, there you are, you have something to research!
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 Jeremys picture
was taken. Jeremy also learned that the 95th Bombardment Group
had flown A-26 airplanes and had served in North Africa, Sicily,
and Italy. He decided he had enough information to pique his
grandfathers interest in the school project, so he wrote
a third letter.
March 11, 20
you for sending me some of your old papers. I hope you can
find more. Ive been reading about the war, and I really
want to know all about what you did. I learned that you
flew in A-26 bombers. They were called Invaders, 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 dont
have to write about somebody famous but it would be OK if
you were famous. Did you get shot down? Were you wounded?
started to read Catch-22 because its about
bombers and stuff, but Mom took it away and said Im
not old enough. The bombers in Catch-22 are B-25s,
what were they like?
writing to you, Ive been using your pen to do my homework.
Its 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 wont make a
mess. Did they make you use a fountain pen in school? Nowadays
we just use crummy old ballpoints or computers. But Im
going to write my whole report with this pen instead of
a word processor, and I bet Mr. Johnson will think its
next reply came back very quickly.
March 14, 20
know, my boy, youve surprised me. It looks as if you
really are interested in your old Grandpas
ancient history. Id be honored to help you with your
school project. Youre right on the money; my unit
flew A-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 wont be too disappointed,
but I didnt get shot down, and I wasnt famous.
Youll just have to do with an ordinary old boring
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.
sending you another box of my papers. This one is much bigger;
Ive 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 youll
find a whole pile of photographs, too. There might even
be one or two more of me. After youve looked through
the box, write me again with any questions you may have
about things you didnt find in there.
make this a great project.
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. Its reminded me
that I have a family. You keep that pen; I hope youll
enjoy using it for a long time. Youre probably too
young to understand this now, but maybe youll accept
an apology anyway, from a grumpy old man who ought to know
Walter A. Friesse, 1Lt, USAAF Ret.
P. S. Your
mother is right. You should save Catch-22 for when
ecstatic. This was going to be great! Now if only that box
would come! He didnt know how he could possibly keep
from going crazy waiting for it.
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
hadnt 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, whats this
ribbon for? asked Jeremy, holding the cap up for her
know, but we can probably find out, replied Celeste.
Why dont you search the Web?
It was a Distinguished
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.
Friesses 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!
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 didnt matter anymore.
He had found his milieu, and his family as well.
to use his grandfathers pen to write his report, Jeremy
went one step further. Taking his cue from the few remaining
letters in his grandfathers 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
hed learned about in his grandfathers papers.
The report earned an A+. Mr. Johnson wrote at the top of the
first page that it was one of the best reports hed 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.
down and wrote a long letter telling Grandpa the good news.
I couldnt have done it without you, he finished.
Thanks, Grandpa. Youre 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
have done well. Ill 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
said back in February that your mother wouldnt let
you take my old pen to school for fear it might be lost.
Well, shes an old wet blanket, but you have to do
what she says because she is, after all, your motherand
because that old pen is a family heirloom of sorts. (Its
called a Vacumatic, by the way, and it was my high-school
graduation present from my parents.) But the pen in this
box isnt a family heirloom, not yet anyway. Its
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.
you think it would be all right if I sent your mother a
Christmas card this year?
Under the letter,
the box contained a pen case in whose depths glistened a brand
new Pearl and Black Parker Duofold fountain pen. Engraved
on the barrel was the name JEREMY K. WILLSON.
© 2001 Richard