The Women: Part 1 – Chapter 14

December had been a hell of a month in the Highlands. The NVA had killed hundreds of South Vietnamese civilians at Dak To. The OR and the wards had been filled with kids who’d lost their parents, old men who’d lost their daughters, mothers who’d lost their sons.

Now, on Christmas Eve, after hours on her feet in the OR, Frankie was exhausted. They were finally done treating the last of the casualties. Hopefully, the remainder of the night would be quiet.

“Go,” Hap said. “This is the last one. Go have some eggnog.”

“You sure?”

“Sure as gonorrhea itches. Go.”

Frankie peeled off her gloves and tossed them, along with her cap and gown, into the barrel by the door. “Merry Christmas Eve,” she said to the corpsman stationed at the desk by the door.

“Ain’t it lovely?” he said. “You, too, ma’am.”

She left the OR and emerged into unexpected sunlight. She found Barb in the triage staging area, standing beside a dead Black man on a stretcher. An exploding mortar shell had blown off most of his uniform. One side of his face was ripped and charred. It looked like both of his arms and legs were shattered.

“Explosion blew the dog tags right off him. No name,” Barb said. “On Christmas Eve.”

“Someone will know him. His platoon is in Post-Op.”

“Yeah,” Barb said, carefully placing the soldier’s hand on his chest. She kept her hand atop his.

Frankie knew Barb was thinking of her brother, Will, who’d come home from Vietnam two years ago a different man. Angry. Radical. Bound for trouble.

Frankie found a white sheet and covered the dead soldier, whispering, “God bless and keep you, soldier.”

Barb didn’t look up. “The Stars and Stripes reported no American casualties yesterday. Seven men died in OR One alone.”

Frankie nodded.

Whatever doubt—or hope—she’d once held was gone now: the American government was lying about the war. There was no way to avoid that simple truth anymore. LBJ and his generals were lying to the American people, to reporters, to everyone. Maybe even to each other.

The betrayal was as shocking as the assassination of Kennedy had been, an upheaval of right and wrong. The America Frankie believed in, the shining Camelot of her youth, was gone, or lost. Or maybe it had always been a lie. All she knew was that they were here in this faraway country, soldiers and sailors and airmen and Marines and volunteers, risking their lives, and their government could no longer be trusted to tell them the truth about why.

Men were still arriving in Vietnam by the thousands, and contrary to what the hippies and the protesters suggested, the majority of them were volunteers, believers in their country. How could the government—and, worse, how could the American people—not care about that?

Frankie and Barb walked past the morgue, where a pair of corpsmen were processing last night’s corpses.

Frankie was the first to hear the chopper. She turned and tented a hand over her eyes. “Damn.”

The sound of the rotors grew louder.

“Just one.”

They rushed to the helipad to help offload the wounded and saw a Huey gunship touch down.

Coyote sat in the left seat; he leaned toward Frankie, grinning. “Just the nurses we hoped to see on Christmas Eve,” he said. “Want to have some fun?”

“You don’t have to ask us twice.” Barb jumped up into the chopper, and Frankie followed.

Once inside, Frankie saw that Rye was in the right seat, wearing his comms helmet with RIOT written across the front. Mirrored aviator sunglasses hid his eyes. He gave her a smile; she answered with a thumbs-up.

Coyote handed them headsets.

Frankie put her headset on and sat on the floor, next to the gunner positioned at the open door, and behind Rye. She let her legs dangle over the side as they took off.

They flew over the flat, treeless red swath of the evac hospital, and over the leafless, empty jungle, where dead orange leaves lay on the ground beside dying trees.

Up. Up. High into the mountains, where the world was impossibly green.

A few minutes later, Rye said into his mic, “There,” and the Huey descended sharply, lowered to about six feet above the ground. Hovered there. “Two minutes, Coyote. I don’t like being a target.”

Coyote grabbed a rifle and an ax and jumped to the ground. Weapon out, he ran for a stand of trees.

Frankie surveyed the open area. Charlie could be anywhere, hiding in the lush green jungle … they could have planted Bouncing Betties or punji stakes—sharpened sticks, stabbed deep in the ground and coated with human feces to assure both a deep wound and infection when stepped on.

“This is crazy,” Frankie said. “What’s he doing?”

Moments later (it felt like an eternity), Coyote came back, carrying a straggly tree. He tossed it into the back of the chopper and climbed up into the left seat.

“All that for a tree?” Frankie yelled into her microphone. “You two are crazy.”

“A Christmas tree,” Coyote said, laughing as the helicopter spun and arced back up toward the clouds.

Twenty minutes later, they landed back at the Seventy-First.

Coyote turned and pulled off his helmet and smiled. “Riot and I figured you gals needed a Christmas tree.”

Barb laughed. Frankie thought it might be the truest laugh she’d ever heard from her friend.

“You Seawolves sure live up to your crazy-as-shit reputation, I gotta say,” Barb said. “I just hope you have a turkey to go along with it or my mama would whoop your ass for playing with a girl’s tender heart.”

Coyote grinned. “And a pecan pie, all the way from my mama’s kitchen in San Antonio.”

They put the tree up in their hooch and decorated the scrawny branches with anything they could find. Paper clips, strips of aluminum foil, empty C-ration can lids, lengths of tubing, Kelly clamps. It stood in the corner in all its Charlie Brown glory. Barb made a tinfoil star for the top. Rye and Coyote sat on Frankie’s cot, watching the decorations accumulate. “White Christmas” played through the speakers of Barb’s transistor radio.

Frankie was on her knees in front of the tree, stringing a loop of paper clips from one branch to another, when Coyote said, “We need drinks.”

“Hot damn, flyboy, you’re right!” Barb said, and the two of them left the hooch.

Frankie heard the metal frame of her cot squeak as Rye got to his feet. She heard him coming closer, felt him standing behind her. Every cell in her body seemed attuned to his presence. Slowly, she stood up, but didn’t turn around. “Thanks for this,” she said. “It was crazy and stupid and dangerous … and lovely.”

“I didn’t want to think about you,” he said.

She turned to him at last.

Their gazes met, held.

She felt her breathing speed up. Lust, Barb had said. Was it that simple?

There was no reason to pretend she didn’t feel it. If she’d learned anything during her tour it was this: say what you meant while you could. “You’re engaged,” she said. “And I know it’s old-fashioned, but I can’t be the other woman. I couldn’t live with myself.”

“You do know we’re at war,” he said.

“Please tell me you aren’t going to try the we-could-die-tomorrow line on me.”

He stepped back. “You’re right. I’m wrong. Merry Christmas Eve, Frankie. I won’t bother you again.”

“You don’t need to go.”

“Yes, I do. You … do something to me.”

Long after he and Coyote had gone, while Barb and Frankie drank eggnog and listened to Christmas music and opened their gifts from home, the echo of those words remained.

You do something to me.

The Christmas cease-fire held, giving everyone at the Seventy-First time to enjoy a real holiday meal in the mess hall. Turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, sausage stuffing, and sweet potato casserole. Pecan and pumpkin pies. Afterward, a group walked over to the Park, where Frankie had hung up a banner: BON VOYAGE, LT JOHNSON. WE WILL MISS YOUR SORRY ASS.

Barb’s send-off party.

Now Frankie and Barb sat in beach chairs tucked in close to the stand of banana trees. A party raged beside them; music blared. A sorry-looking tinsel tree, decorated with red bows, leaned brokenly against the tiki bar.

“I guess we’d better talk about it now, Frankie,” Barb said, handing Frankie a lighter.

Frankie lit her cigarette. “About you leaving? I’d rather not.”

“You’re the only thing I don’t want to leave behind.”

Frankie turned to her friend. In this light, Barb’s Afro looked like a dark halo. If you didn’t look in her eyes, you might think she was an ordinary twenty-five-year-old. Frankie couldn’t calculate all that her friendship with Barb had given her. Barb had shown Frankie glimpses of a world she’d not been exposed to or taught much about. Frankie had thought the passage of the Civil Rights Act was a triumphant end. Barb had shown her that it was a fragile beginning. She knew that Barb was scared for her brother, Will, and his Black Panther affiliation, but she was proud of it, too. She knew about fighting for things; even though she had a master’s degree in nursing, she’d had to fight to get sent to Vietnam, and then she’d had to fight again to get assigned to an evac hospital. Black officers were few and far between over here, but Barb had been determined that Black soldiers should see a Black nurse in the hospital.

Barb leaned back, sighed. She took a drag, exhaled smoke slowly. “I can’t take another tour,” she said at last.

“I know that. I just…”

“I’ll miss you, too, Frankie.”

The next morning, when Frankie woke, the first thing she saw was Barb’s empty cot. The posters above the bed—Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King, Jr.—had been removed; all that was left were tufts of paper on thumbtacks pushed into the wooden walls. Things ripped away, pieces left behind. A metaphor for life in Vietnam.

Frankie saw a folded-up note on the dresser beside her cot. She unfolded it slowly.

December 26, 1967

Dearest Frankie,

Call me a coward. I should have wakened you when my bird showed up, but you were actually sleeping, and we both know how rare that is over here. I didn’t want you to see me crying.

I love you.

You know that, and I know that you love me, and when that’s in place, we don’t need a goodbye.

So, I’ll say, “See you.”

Come visit me in Georgia. I’ll teach you about grits and collard greens and you can meet my mama. It’s a whole different world from your little island, trust me.

Until then, sister. Keep your head down.

And now. I know losing Jamie hurt like hell, but you’re still young. Don’t let this damn war take that, too.

I saw the way your Mr. Cool looks at you. Lord, I’d kill for a man to look at me like that.

Life over here is short and regret lasts forever.

Maybe happy now, happy for a moment, is all we really get. Happy forever seems a shitload to ask in a world on fire.

Be cool.


Beside Frankie, on the dresser, was a Polaroid picture of Barb, Ethel, and Frankie, all of them in shorts and T-shirts and combat boots, arms around each other, smiles so big and bold it seemed impossible that this was a wartime photograph. The beaded door of the O Club was behind them. Frankie could almost hear the multicolor beads clattering together, pushed by rain or wind. For all of it, they’d had good times.

She hoped they remembered that.


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