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The Women: Part 1 – Chapter 18

On her last day in-country, March 14, 1969, Frankie woke up well before dawn, listening to Margie’s quiet snores.

She turned on the light beside her bed, reached past the hot plate, picked up the photograph of her and Finley at Disneyland, and stared down at it, thinking of their youth.

Hey, Fin. I’m going home.

She’d joined the Army to find her brother and found herself instead; in war, she’d found out who she really was and who she wanted to be, and as tired as she was of all the death and destruction, she was also more than a little afraid to go home. What would life look like stateside?

She got out of her cot and pulled her footlocker out from underneath. Lifting the lid, she stared down at the belongings she’d be sending home: mementos she’d been given by soldiers, a leather-and-bead bracelet, a small gold elephant charm “for luck,” some silk she’d bought in Saigon, a Kelly clamp and some rubber tubing, the gifts for her friends and family, and her treasured Vietnam photographs, both those she’d taken and others she’d been given, like the one of her and Barb and Ethel, dancing in shorts and T-shirts at the O Club, the one Barb had left her of the three of them standing together, one of Jamie giving her a bright smile and a thumbs-up in front of a deuce and a half, and another of her and Rye. There were at least a dozen photographs of her with soldiers who’d come through her OR. The lucky ones for whom she’d waved goodbye and posed for a picture.

Back in the real world, the so-called Summer of Love had come and gone; in its wake, the protests were getting louder, longer, angrier. Even here, there was anger about the war. Soldiers had begun to draw peace symbols on their helmets, in violation of Army regulations.

At 0600 hours, she packed up her duffel and travel bags and wrote Margie a goodbye note that said in part, I know you’ll wish I’d wakened you for a goodbye. It won’t be long before you’ll know how hard it is. We are professionals at goodbye, and still it hurts. Stay tough. Thanks for sending my footlocker home for me.

She dressed in her Class As, complete with pantyhose and polished black pumps. She didn’t have a full-length mirror, but she imagined she looked nothing like the wide-eyed girl who’d first landed in-country two years ago. And her uniform smelled like mildew.

When she opened her hooch door, she found Rye leaning against a pole, smoking a cigarette.

“Ready?” he said, taking the duffel from her, swinging the big, awkward bag easily over his shoulder.

“Not really.”

They walked through the surprisingly quiet camp, boarded the Huey, and lifted up into the sky.

In Saigon, at the airport, she thanked the pilot, checked her duffel, and let Rye take her to the Freedom Bird that would take her home.

A steady stream of soldiers walked past her on the tarmac at Tan Son Nhut, climbed up the movable stairs, and ducked into the large Braniff jet. They were a quiet bunch; there was no joking or laughing. Not yet, not while they were still in-country.

“Twenty-seven days until you leave, too,” Frankie said, looking up at him. She had to raise her voice to be heard above the rumble of the engines.

Twenty-seven days. An eternity in wartime.

No fear, McGrath.

A jeep rolled past them, full of soldiers with guns, looking for snipers.

More gunfire nearby. Pop-pop-pop. In the distance, a loud explosion. Something burst into flames on one of the runways.

Rye stared down at her. “Frankie … I don’t know how to tell you … I … won’t—”

“I know,” she said, touching his rough, unshaven face. “I love you, too.”

He let out a breath, gazed down at her. “God, I’ll miss you.”

He pulled her into a tight embrace, held her hard against him, and kissed her goodbye. She clung to him for as long as she dared, and then slowly pulled away.

Neither said goodbye. The word carried more than a hint of bad luck.

She straightened her shoulders and forced herself to walk away from him. At the top of the steps, she finally turned back.

Alone, he stood tall and straight in his worn fatigues, with a brimmed Seawolves cap pulled down low on his forehead. From here, he looked solid and steady, the perfect sailor, but she saw the clenched line of his jaw. He raised a single hand, fingers splayed, and held it there, then pressed it to his heart.

Frankie nodded, waved back one last time, and entered the jet. Most of the seats were already filled with men who kept glancing back at the door, as if Charlie might come breaking through any second, rifles drawn. They all knew they weren’t safe in the air until they were out of Vietnamese airspace.

Frankie found a seat on the starboard side, put her travel bag in the overhead bin, and sat at the window, staring out at Rye. She pressed her hand to the glass.

She heard the aircraft door close, clank shut. Moments later, the jet rolled down the runway, bumping over the bomb-pocked ground, and slowly lifted off.

Frankie stared out the window, saw clouds as they flew over the war-torn land, toward the safety of home.

The passengers applauded; someone shouted, “We’re outta there!”

Frankie was surprised to feel a version of sorrow.

As bad as it had been in ’Nam, as frightened and angry and betrayed as she’d often felt by her government and the war, she’d also felt alive. Competent and important. A woman who made a difference in the world.

This place would forever hold a piece of her heart. Here, she had found her place in the world, and she was afraid that “home” was no longer the place she wanted it to be.

Thirty-four hours later, after a six-hour layover at Travis Air Force Base in Northern California, Frankie stared out the oval window at the busy runways of Los Angeles International Airport.

Full daylight. A sun so bright it hurt one’s eyes. A blue and cloudless sky.


The Golden State.


She had intended to call her parents from Travis, but when she’d finally made it to her turn in the pay phone line, she had turned away. She didn’t really know why.

The gate area at LAX was crowded. She saw military personnel sleeping on benches, sprawled on the dirty floor, using their duffel bags as pillows. Passing time on their way home. It didn’t seem right: Men who’d been shot at, and in some cases been patched up and sent back into harm’s way, sleeping on the floor between flights. The military paid your way to a base airport; once there, you had to buy your own ticket home. A real thank-you for serving your country.


They saw her, coming their way in her skirted Army uniform, and thrust their signs at her, as if to convince her.

Someone spat at her.

“Nazi bitch,” one of the protesters yelled.

Frankie stumbled to a halt in shock. “What the—”

A pair of Marines appeared and flanked Frankie, one on each side of her.

“Don’t listen to those assholes,” one of them said. Bookending her, they made their way to the carousel. “We got nothing to be ashamed of.”

Frankie didn’t understand. Why would someone spit at her?

“Go back to Vietnam!” someone yelled. “We don’t want you baby killers here.”

Baby killers?

Frankie’s duffel bag thumped onto the carousel. She started to reach for it, but one of the Marines beat her to it. “I’ll get that for you, Lieutenant.”

“Let the bitch get her own bag,” someone yelled. Others laughed.

“Thank you,” Frankie said to the Marine. “I mean … I heard about the protests, but this?”

She looked at the people crowded around the carousel, men in suits and women in dresses, who’d said nothing to help her. Did they think it was okay to spit at an Army nurse coming home from war? She expected it from hippies and protesters, but from ordinary people?

“Ain’t no World War Two victory parade,” one of the Marines said.

“Guess losing a war isn’t something people cheer for,” said the other.

Frankie looked at the two men, saw the ghosts that lived behind their eyes. The ghosts that lived in her, too. “We’re home,” she said, needing to believe that was what mattered.

She saw that they needed to believe it, too.

Outside, she thanked the Marines for their help and looked for a cab. Alone out here, she saw the way people stared at her. First there was a widening of the eyes—surprise at seeing a woman in uniform—and then the narrowing of mistrust or outright disgust. A few looked right through her, as if she weren’t there. She considered changing her clothes, but decided against it.

Screw them. She wasn’t going to let them shame her.

At the curb, she put out one arm to hail a cab.

The nearest yellow taxi veered out of the middle lane, headed toward her, and slowed. She stepped off the curb and the cabbie yelled something and flipped her the bird and sped away, stopping not far away for a man in a suit.

One after another, taxis slowed for her just enough to get her hopes up and then sped away.

Finally, she gave up, bought a bus ticket, and ignored the veiled looks thrown her way as she lugged her heavy bags onto the bus.

What was wrong with the world?

It took four hours and three bus changes for her to reach Coronado Island. By then, she had been spat on four times, flipped off more times than she could count, and become used to—or at least immune to—the way people looked at her. No one had offered to help her carry her heavy duffel bag.

At the ferry terminal on Coronado, she was finally able to hail a cab. A dour-looking driver didn’t make eye contact, but picked her up and stopped outside the gate at her house, for which she was extremely grateful.

She hauled her heavy duffel out of the vehicle and dropped it on the sidewalk and stood there, soaking in the sense of coming home. The air smelled of the sea, of lemons and oranges, of her childhood.

She looked over at the mighty Pacific Ocean. She could hear the surf from here; the familiar sound soothed her anxiety. A group of kids on bicycles, with playing cards in the spokes, sped past her, laughing. She couldn’t help thinking of Finley, of the forts they’d once built among the eucalyptus, of the sandcastles they’d built, of the hours spent on bicycles. Come nightfall, the porch lights would start coming on up and down the street—beacons used by mothers to guide their children home for dinner.

A pair of Navy jets screamed overhead. She couldn’t help wondering if they were piloted by men who would soon be flying combat missions on the other side of the world.

She opened the gate and stared at the home she’d grown up in, feeling a rush of emotion. She couldn’t wait to be welcomed home at last, to be admired for her service instead of reviled.

How often had she dreamed of this moment, of safety and love and comfort, of hot baths and fresh coffee and long, slow walks along the beach without an armed guard standing by?

She stepped into the beautifully manicured backyard, drinking it all in: the whispering of the oak leaves, the scent of chlorine and ripening lemons, the soft clatter of her mother’s wind chimes.

Struggling with her heavy duffel and her overnight bag, she walked around the pool and up to the glass-paned doors. Opening them, she stepped back in time. For a second, she was a girl again, following her wild brother wherever he went.


She dropped her duffel bag on the polished hardwood floor. “Hey, you guys!” she said at the same time her father came around the corner, dressed in a lime-green turtleneck with checkered slacks, holding a folded newspaper. His hair was a little longer, as were his sideburns, which held a few strands of gray.

At the sight of her, he stopped, frowned briefly. “Frankie. Did we know you were coming home?”

She couldn’t hold back a smile. “I wanted to surprise you.”

He moved forward woodenly, confusion on his face. She knew her father didn’t like surprises; he liked to always be in control. He gave her a brief, hard hug.

He released her so quickly that Frankie stumbled back. “I … should have called,” she said.

“No,” he said, shook his head. “Of course not. We are glad you’re home.”

Frankie realized suddenly what she looked like after so many hours of travel—hair a mess, poorly cut, no makeup on, uniform wrinkled. No wonder her dad was frowning. She reached into her purse and pulled out her favorite picture of her and Ethel and Barb, arms around each other, standing in front of the O Club. “I brought this one just for you.”

He glanced at the photograph. “Oh.”

“For the heroes’ wall,” she said.

Mom came around the corner, dressed in bright red ankle pants and a white top, her hair covered by a silk scarf. “Frances!”

She rushed forward and pulled Frankie into a fierce hug. “My girl,” she said, easing back, touching Frankie’s face. “Why didn’t you call?”

“She wanted to surprise us,” Dad said. “Apparently it wasn’t enough of a surprise when she joined the Army. I’m sorry, but I have a meeting.”

Frankie watched her father leave the house, heard the door shut behind him. It unsettled her, his leaving so abruptly.

“Don’t take it to heart,” Mom said lightly. “Ever since Finley’s … passing, and your leaving, he isn’t himself.”

“Oh,” Frankie said. Had her mother just equated her war service to her brother’s death?

“Frances, I…” Mom’s hand slid down Frankie’s arm, as if maybe she couldn’t quite let her daughter go, couldn’t quite believe that she was here again. “I’ve missed you so.”

“Me, too,” Frankie said.

“You must be exhausted,” Mom said.

“I am.”

“Why don’t you take a nice, hot bath and perhaps a nap?”

Frankie nodded, confused; she felt battered by hours of travel and the way she’d been treated by strangers. And now by her parents. What was wrong?

She left her mother in the living room and headed for her childhood bedroom, with its canopy bed and pink ruffles. Most kids had posters in their rooms, but Mom hadn’t allowed tacks to be stuck into her expensive wallpaper, so Frankie had framed art on her walls. A row of old stuffed animals sat along the top of her bookshelf. A pink ballerina jewelry box on the bedside table held junior and high school trinkets, probably a stack of senior pictures and prom memorabilia. You knew what was expected of a girl who slept in a room like this.

Only Frankie wasn’t that girl anymore.

At the end of the bed stood a hope chest, which was filled with perfectly folded and pressed tablecloths and Italian linens, and embroidered sheets. Mom had started filling this chest when Frankie was eight years old. Every birthday and Christmas, Frankie had received something for her hope chest. The message then—and now—was clear: marriage made a woman whole and happy.

Again. It was for the girl who’d left for Vietnam, not for the woman who’d come home, whoever that woman turned out to be.

Frankie peeled out of her uniform and left it in a heap on the floor.

Crawling between the soft, lavender-scented sheets, she lay her head on the silk-cased pillow.

She shouldn’t have surprised her parents. She’d caught them off guard.

Tomorrow would be better.


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