The Empty Chair, drawing by Sandy Morris

A Dud Isn’t Always a Dud

Janet thought she was doing me a favor. She rightly assumed I needed help with my dating life, so she set up the double date—she and her boyfriend Barney, plus me and Barney’s friend Dud. When she said his name I laughed, assuming she was joking. She stared at me, unsmiling, and said, “It’s just his nickname.” I waited to see if she was going to at least acknowledge that the name was not promising, but I got nothing from her. Oh, well, it was either Dud or stay home and watch Lawrence Welk with my parents. So I said yes.


I looked it up in the dictionary hoping “dud” might have another, less awful meaning, but Webster confirmed that it means ineffectual, a failure. 

The day of the date, I spent hours attempting to transform myself into something out of Seventeen magazine. Skinny looked good on Twiggy, but not on me—I was more beanpole than model. Maybe I was also a bit of a dud? 

When the doorbell rang, I said a silent prayer to myself that he’d be tall dark and handsome, and then opened the door. In my inch-and-a-half heels we stood eye-to-eye; cross off tall.  Sandy hair and freckles; cross off dark. Bing Crosby ears framed his acne-scarred face. Good-bye handsome, hello dud.

We shook hands awkwardly and introduced ourselves. He asked me if I was ready to go, said Barney and Janet were in the car. 

McDonald’s, then approaching its one millionth customer, had no indoor seating, so we ate in the car, the greasy aroma permeating our hair and clothes. Janet and Barney laughed and shared inside jokes, while silence filled the air in the back seat. I tried to say something funny, even though my track record with humor at the time was extremely questionable. “I’m so skinny,” I said, stuffing my mouth with fries, “I need to go on a diet to gain weight, not lose it.” 

Dud offered an obliging smile, and I blushed. I should have stayed silent.  

After the movie, we drove up to Rocky Butte, got out and walked around for a while.  Dud was a perfect gentleman the whole evening. He listened with genuine interest to everything I said, and even managed a sincere sounding laugh at some of my subsequent attempts at humor. At the door when he dropped me off he said, “I really enjoyed the evening, Crys. Maybe we can see each other again.”

I gave him a weak smile. “Yeah, sure, maybe.” 

Inside the house, I flopped on the sofa. Live and learn. Some blind dates are blind for a reason. Surely, I could do better than him. 

Monday, Janet approached me in the hallway at school, wide-eyed. “Dud really likes you,” she whispered conspiratorially. “How about we go on another double date this weekend?”

 “Oh!” I said, eyes wide, nodding, “Maybe.” I saw her expression fall, disappointed in me, just like she had when I’d laughed at his name. 

“Well, think about it. He’s a really swell guy.” 

I nodded. He did seem nice. But no.


The following week, after the evening of the nonexistent follow-up date came and went, Janet called to say Barney and Dud had joined the U.S. Marines. The two of them had secretly gone to the recruiting office a couple of months earlier, and they’d just been accepted. They were off to San Diego in a week.

Janet, stricken, begged me to go on another date with Dud. “I know you don’t think much of him, but he’s such a nice guy, and he’s about to go—look at what he’s doing for our country.” 

I agreed reluctantly. 

The four of us watched The Sound of Music, and Dud held my hand throughout the movie. I felt dishonest letting him, but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. 

He dropped me off at my door in the cold December air. With his hands in his pockets, he stood staring at his feet, as though he were embarrassed. Finally, he looked up, his face red from the cold, and smiled wistfully. He cleared his throat. “That was fun. Can I bring something over next week?”

“Uh… yeah, okay. I hope you didn’t get me anything. I don’t have something for you.”

“It’s nothing big. I just want to give you something before I leave for boot camp. Promise you’ll write me while I’m gone.”

“Yeah, sure.”  What else could I say?  “I wish you and Barney lots of luck.”

He turned and ran back to the car. As they drove off, he wiped the fog from the window and waved. I waved back.

Three days later he dropped off a Christmas card and present while I was out. 

The card read, Dear Crys, I’m glad I got to know you. You’re really special. I hope you’ll write me while I’m gone. Merry Christmas! The present was a bottle of Tabu perfume. He had good taste.

I called to thank him and, again, promised to write. I forgot, though, and let it slide until a month later when I got a call from his mother, to whom Janet had given my number. She was worried about Dud. He was extremely homesick, so she asked me to write a letter to cheer him up.

Her request caught me off guard. “Of course. I meant to do it earlier, but just got busy and forgot.”  

I wrote him that night, a short, encouraging letter, and posted it the next day.  

Janet called two weeks later upset that I hadn’t yet written to Dud. I told her that I did write him and it wasn’t my fault if he hadn’t received the letter. I wrote him again.

Over the next few weeks, my friendship with Janet faded—she was upset that I wasn’t being kind to Dud. 

A year later, after I’d mostly forgotten about him, I came home one day to find The Oregonian newspaper on our doorstep with a full-page picture of Dud in his Marine uniform on the front page. The headline read, “He gave it all—his life.”

Dud had died saving the lives of his fellow marines. The article described how, in his spare time, he wrote letters to his little sister’s Girl Scout troop telling them about Vietnam and how beautiful it was. It included a poem he’d written one day after a battle. The poem revealed his deep insight into the ravages of war and his love of mankind.

At his funeral, the church was packed. Janet and Barney were in the front, so I stayed in the back, avoiding her. Weeping silent tears, I followed the procession to the Willamette National Cemetery. On an immaculate emerald hillside, rows and rows of white tombstones stood like sentinels, the names of so many acne-scared heroes written on them. The sky was clear that day and the air crisp. In solemn silence the twenty-one marines lined up to give their final salute to Dud. The command rang out, and the rifles cracked. 

I still wonder if he was hurt because I wasn’t more interested. Apparently, my letters never reached him, so he must have died thinking me cruel, or at best, superficial. And I suppose that would be fair—I was superficial. 

I think of him often, though. One spring, forty years after he died, I took my elementary students on a field trip to the Portland Arboretum. As they lunched in the sun near the Vietnam Memorial there, I walked up the incline and read the names etched in black stone. At the top in the very center of the memorial I found Bradley A. Nelson, his given name. 



Author's Comment

The Vietnam war was controversial, but as a teenager I was oblivious to the political and personal ramifications of war. After Dud was killed, I became painfully aware of the huge loss of life on both sides. The inscription at the Oregon Memorial reads, “So Long as we are not forgotten, we do not die, and thus this garden is a place of life.” You are not forgotten, Dud.



Mother Tongue
by Joyce Kornblatt
"Mother Tongue is not only dramatic and engrossing, it is also insightful and wise. Read it! Read it! You will never forget it!"
— Jane Smiley, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist

"Joyce Kornblatt’s voice is lyrical and powerful, and this lovely novel is about being lost and being found, in the deepest, most primal sense. A beautiful, beautiful book.”
— Roxana Robinson, author of Dawson's Fall, Cost, Sparta, and more

"This author's worthy return is full of grace . . ."
Publishers Weekly Starred Review

Mother Tongue begins with a shocking discovery.  In a powerful fiction that reads like a true story, the details of the crime and its aftermath unfold. In mid-life, Australian fiction-writer Nella Pine learns that she was kidnapped as an infant from a hospital in the United States, taken to Australia, and raised there by the woman she knew as her mother, but who was actually her abductor.  “When I was three days old, a nurse named Ruth Miller stole me from the obstetrics ward in Mercy Hospital and raised me as her own.” In four voices of those whose lives were changed forever by the abduction, the mystery of Nella’s kidnapping emerges. Why was she taken?  How was the secret kept for so long?  What became of the family she was stolen from? Mother Tongue invites the reader to participate with these memorable characters as they unfold the impact on them of a terrible crime. Published by $17.95 wherever books are sold. Available from Amazon,, or your local bookstore.


Crystal Pillifant is a retired bilingual teacher with a master’s degree in education. Since retiring she’s been writing memoirs and working on an autobiographical novel about experiences in her bilingual classroom.  She enjoys reading, gardening, hiking, and sailing, and lives with her husband in Port Townsend, Washington, on the Olympic Peninsula.

Sandy Morris, a native New Yorker, moved to Greenwich Village in the 1960s. With recognition and support from other artists, her work was shown in New York galleries, and since she moved to California, has been featured in galleries and shows in San Francisco, Marin, Sonoma, Alameda Counties, and has won awards in juried exhibitions. Her pen, ink, and pencil drawings usually start with no preconceived idea — just drawing a straight or curved line or two.  From there, her imagination takes over as she builds upon the piece. Her works range from the whimsical to the political, to depictions of the emotions, and everything in between.

2 Comments on “A Dud Isn’t Always a Dud

  1. Crystal Pillifant’s story is a gem. She writes with both delightful self-deprecating wit and profound wisdom. Wonderful work.

  2. Having grown up with Uncle Dud — for Dudley — I found this poignant. And yes, I heard occasional gossip that he was a “dud” – he was a kind soul, loquacious and at times tedious, not very successful in business. He tended to assume too much familiarity. In my adult years, I came to love him and he was deeply kind to me. He must have suffered for his name. Thinking about your piece, I feel that we are sometimes rather hard on our earlier selves; you write honestly, and sometimes I think people just don’t make that deep or full an impression on us, and that perhaps you reproach yourself too much. Thank you for the heartfelt and honest essay.

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