Picture-Perfect Memories


Clarksville, Tenn. - The photograph Julia Ruble keeps with her is the one she had made into a dog tag for her husband, Pfc. Jacob Ruble, to wear in Kuwait.

It's a picture from their wedding day, Aug. 24. Julia wears a glittering tiara, white satin gloves and a spaghetti-strapped bridal gown that was hastily altered to fit her size-3 frame. Jacob stands inches away, in a white tuxedo, his arm around her waist in a prom-night pose. The look on their faces is blissful, naive, compared to the last picture of them together, taken 18 days ago, on the night before he was deployed.

Julia, who is 18 and new to all it means to be a soldier's wife, loves photographs. They fill the room in her mother's house that was converted into an apartment for the newlyweds. They're tucked around the mirror and set among the stuffed monkeys on the dresser. Some sit atop keepsake albums, still in their sleeves from the Wal-Mart Supercenter photo lab where Julia works after school.

Not a day has gone by since Jake left that Julia has not processed someone else's deployment film and been reminded what a picture is worth. One of Julia's jobs is to scan the prints for quality control. She takes a deep breath as the images flutter by: guys who look like Jake in their sand-colored camouflage; guys hugging their girlfriends and kissing their kids.

A wife dropping off film the other day was so upset that Julia didn't tell the woman she was in the same boat for fear she'd break down in front of the customer. Four of the women in the one-hour lab have a husband who has been deployed. Julia is the youngest, a high school senior and married just seven months. No one minds that she keeps the last photo taken of her and her husband, in a booth at the Santa Fe Cattle Co., in the employees' personal drawer.

Jake had just kissed her when a friend sitting across the table took the photo. Julia and Jake are still cheek-to-cheek in the picture, as close as two people can be. She has a tense smile. She understands this moment together could turn out to be their last.

Of all the photos Julia has, none depicts the time a year ago when she met Jake at the food court at Governor's Square Mall in Clarksville. Julia's mother, Janice Perkins, had warned her eldest daughter to be wary of the infantrymen stationed at Fort Campbell, the massive U.S. Army post that straddles their hometown on the Kentucky-Tennessee line.

Julia's grandfather retired as a soldier from Fort Campbell, so Julia had heard stories of the year-and-a-half during the Vietnam War when her grandmother didn't know if her husband was dead or alive. Yet the night Jake introduced himself to Julia, pretending he needed directions, none of that mattered.

The first photo Julia has of them together was taken at a bowling alley soon after they started dating. They are arm-in-arm, in socked feet and blue jeans, walking from the lanes to the counter to pick up their rented shoes.

Jake is looking up. At the prices? Julia wonders now. She hates the startled look on her own face but loves the memories the picture brings back. She remembers Jake unlocking her side of his pickup first. She remembers him holding the door as they entered the Steak 'n Shake, paying for the meal, telling her he'd been a high school quarterback in a small Arkansas town, and he'd enlisted in the Army because it was a chance to see the world, his ticket to a better life.

The reservations Julia's mother had about her daughter dating a soldier soon disappeared. "They're different from other couples," Janice says. "I think they've got something that will last."

Julia doesn't have a photo of the night last May when Jake and their friends picked her up from her old job waiting tables at Waffle House. She knew something was up when they went for a moonlit walk by the Cumberland River. Jake fished a diamond out of his pocket, and Julia did not think about future deployments or a possible war with Iraq. Without a moment's hesitation, she said yes.

They moved into Julia's mother's house because Julia was still in school and Jake is a private first class and doesn't make much money. They married five months before Jake's orders came, six months before scores of soldiers rushed to the courthouse in Clarksville to get married, or into Kentucky where they didn't have to wait.

On the worst nights now, when Julia gets off work at 9 and has done her homework, she sits in their room and looks at her pictures. Some nights they soothe her, and others all she can do is lay her head on her mother's lap and say she misses him more than she thought possible.

Whatever the build-up in Kuwait brings, Janice thinks her daughter and Jake will survive because of what they have been through already. The photo of Julia on the night of their car accident last year is one Julia doesn't look at often. She is in the kitchen after they brought her home from the emergency room. The blood that has dried on her lips and forehead, where shards of glass are imbedded, is a color darker than wine.

The photo was taken on Mother's Day. Jake was driving and Julia was signing her name on a card when an SUV pulled out in front of them on the 101st Airborne Division Parkway. Julia was thrown against the windshield, Jake was knocked unconscious, and the pickup truck totaled. The last Julia saw of Jake, he lay with his arm across his chest, his eyes closed. This was before they married, so he was taken to Fort Campbell and she to a Clarksville hospital. Hours passed before Jake and Julia knew the other had survived.

Julia doesn't like the images she has of Jake in Kuwait.

She doesn't know the specifics of his job, even what kind of gun he carries, and she doesn't want to know. The picture she has in her mind's eye comes from the windblown images she sees on TV, the things Jake told her the two times he called, and the photos in the local newspaper, The Leaf-Chronicle. One picture in the paper haunts her. Soldiers are gathered in a circle, wearing desert camouflage and dark sunglasses, and in the center is the flag Julia watched them wrap at a closing ceremony on the base before she said goodbye to Jake. The caption tells her these men are in Jake's unit - 3rd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 101st Division - and she knows he is there even though she can't find him.

If Julia were to send Jake a picture of her now, she'd want him to see her looking strong. She wouldn't want him to see her feeling blue, on her loneliest nights when she thinks about the prom he'll miss, her graduation, his 21st birthday, their first anniversary.

If Jake were to see Clarksville, he'd notice the absence of 20,000 men. There are signs on the main roads that offer prayer now instead of dinner specials. At the White Castle in front of the Wal-Mart where Julia works, a sign is taped above snapshots of soldiers taken in the drive-through window. It says, "We Proudly Served Those Who Proudly Serve."

Julia and the other technicians in the photo lab wear a picture of the flag on their white coats. On the other lapel, Julia wears a red-white and-blue ribbon pin. Around her neck, she wears a duplicate of Jake's dog tag and a necklace he got her last Valentine's Day. Every time the clasp slides around front, she kisses it, and before sliding it back, makes a wish for his safe return.

Last summer, when Jake was deployed to West Point to train cadets, they were apart for a month-and-a-half. Jake called Julia every day. She and a girlfriend bought disposable cameras and Julia sent Jake pictures of her posing in different outfits, acting silly. She gave him some of those photos to take to Kuwait. The carefree way she looked then is how she wants him to imagine her now. Certain he'll return. Confident.

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