Picture-Perfect Memories

At work, Julia Ruble processes photographs. At home, she holds tight to snapshots of Jacob, and tries to process their separation.

Over Here

March 17, 2003|By Larry Bingham

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.

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