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The Women: Part 1 – Chapter 2

For the next six months, Frankie wrote to her brother every Sunday after church. In return, she received funny letters about his life on board the ship and the antics of his fellow sailors. He sent postcard pictures of lush green jungles and aqua seas and beaches with sand the color of salt. He told her about parties at the O Club and rooftop bars in Saigon and celebrities who came to entertain the troops.

In his absence, Frankie increased her course load and graduated early, with honors. As a newly registered nurse, she landed her first-ever job, working the night shift at a small hospital in nearby San Diego. She had recently begun to think about moving out of her parents’ home and getting an apartment of her own, a dream she’d shared with Finley in a letter only last week. Think of it, Fin. Us living in a little place near the beach. Maybe in Santa Monica. What fun we could have …

Now, on this cool night in the last week of November, the corridors of the hospital were quiet. Dressed in her starched white uniform, with a nurse cap pinned on her sprayed, bouffant bob, Frankie walked behind the night charge nurse, who led the way into a private room devoid of flowers or visitors, where a young woman lay sleeping. Frankie was being told—yet again—how to do her job.

“High school girl from St. Anne’s,” the night charge nurse said, then mouthed, Baby, as if the word itself were a sin. Frankie knew that St. Anne’s was the local home for unwed mothers, but it was a thing no one ever talked about: the girls who left school suddenly and came back months later, quieter and lonely looking.

“Her IV is low. I could—”

“For goodness’ sake, Miss McGrath, you know you’re not ready for that. How long have you been here? A week?”

“Two, ma’am. And I’m a registered nurse. My grades—”

“Don’t matter. It’s clinical skills I care about, and you have little of those. You are to check bedpans, refill water pitchers, help patients to the toilet. When you’re ready to do more, I’ll let you know.”

Frankie sighed quietly. She hadn’t put in all those long, exhausting hours in study carrels, getting her nursing degree early, so that she could change bedpans and fluff pillows. How was she going to acquire the clinical skills she needed to land a job at a first-rate hospital?

“So please record and monitor all IV meds. I’ll need the information promptly. Go.”

Frankie nodded and began her nightly rounds, going from room to room.

It was almost three in the morning when she came to Room 107.

She opened the door gently, hating to waken the patient if she could help it.

“Have you come to see the freak show?”

Frankie paused, uncertain of what to do. “I could come back…”

“Stay. Please.”

Frankie closed the door behind her and moved toward the bed. The patient was a young man, with long, shaggy blond hair and a pale, narrow face. A weedy patch of blond and brown hair tufted above his upper lip. He looked like a kid you’d find surfing the break at Trestles, except for the wheelchair in the corner.

She could see the outline of his legs, or his one leg, beneath the white blanket.

“You can look,” he said. “It’s impossible not to. Who wouldn’t look at a car wreck?”

“I’m bothering you,” she said, taking a step back, starting to turn.

“Don’t go. They’re sending me to a psych ward for trying to kill myself. Involuntary hold, or some bullshit. Like they would know what I was thinking. Anyway, you might be the last sane person I see for a while.”

Frankie moved forward cautiously, checked his IV, made a notation on his chart.

“I should have used my gun,” he said.

Frankie didn’t know how to respond. She had never met anyone who had tried to commit suicide. It seemed impolite to ask why, but equally impolite to remain silent.

“I made it three hundred and forty days in-country. Thought I was home free. That ain’t good. Bein’ a short-timer.”

At Frankie’s obvious confusion, he said: “Vietnam.” He sighed. “My girl—Jilly—she hung with me, wrote me love letters, right up until I stepped on that damn Bouncing Betty and lost a leg.” He looked down. “She told me I’d adjust and to give it time. I’m trying…”

“Your girl told you that?”

“Hardly. A nurse at the Twelfth Evac Hospital. She got me through, man. Sat with me while I lost my shit.” He looked at Frankie, reached out for her hand. “Will you stay till I fall asleep, ma’am? I have these nightmares…”

“Sure, soldier. I won’t go anywhere.”

Frankie was still holding his hand when he fell asleep. She couldn’t help thinking of Finley, and the letters he wrote to her each week, full of funny stories and the beauty of the countryside. You should see the silk and gems over here, doll. Mom would never stop shopping. And boy, do sailors know how to party. He told her repeatedly that the war was coming to an end. Walter Cronkite said the same thing on the nightly news.

But it was still going on.

And men were dying. Losing their legs, apparently.

A nurse at the Twelfth Evac Hospital. She got me through, man.

Frankie had never thought about nurses in Vietnam; the newspapers never mentioned any women. Certainly no one talked about any women at war.

Women can be heroes.

At that, Frankie felt a kind of reawakening, the emergence of a bold new ambition.

“I could serve my country,” she said to the man whose hand she held. It was a revolutionary, frightening, exhilarating thought.

But could she? Really?

How did you know if you had the strength and courage for a thing like that? Especially as a woman, raised to be a lady, whose courage had been untested.

She let the idea soar, closed her eyes, imagined telling her parents that she’d joined the Navy and would be going to Vietnam, writing a letter to Finley: Drumroll, please, I’ve joined the Navy and will be shipping out to Vietnam! See you soon!

If she did it now, they could be over there together. In-country.

She could earn her place on the heroes’ wall, and not for marrying well. For saving lives in wartime.

Her parents would be so proud of her, as proud as they’d been of Finley. All her life she’d been taught that military service was a family duty.


Think about it, Frankie. It could be dangerous.

But the danger didn’t resonate. She’d be on a hospital ship, far from the fighting.

By the time she let go of the soldier’s hand, she had decided.

In the past week, Frankie had planned her day off obsessively, saying nothing to anyone about her intentions, seeking no counsel. She’d repeatedly told herself to slow down, think it through, and she’d tried to do it, but the truth was that she knew what she wanted to do and she didn’t want anyone to dissuade her.

After a quick shower, she returned to her bedroom, which had been designed for a young girl years ago, with its frilly canopy bed and shag rug and striped, cabbage-rose-print wallpaper. She chose one of the conservative dresses her mother so often purchased for her. Quality pieces, Frances; that’s how a woman distinguishes herself at first glance.

As expected, this time of day, the house was empty. Mom was playing bridge at the country club and Dad was at work.

At 1:25, Frankie drove to the nearest Navy recruitment office, where a small clot of war protesters stood outside, yelling slogans and holding up signs that read WAR IS NOT HEALTHY FOR CHILDREN AND OTHER LIVING THINGS and BOMBING FOR PEACE IS LIKE SCREWING FOR VIRGINITY.

Two men with long hair were burning their draft cards—which was illegal—while the crowd cheered them on. Frankie had never understood these protests. Did they really think that a few posters would convince LBJ to stop the war? Did they not understand that if Vietnam fell to communism, so would all of Southeast Asia? Did they not read about how vicious such regimes could be?

Frankie felt acutely conspicuous as she got out of her car. She clutched her expensive navy calfskin purse close to her side as she approached the crowd, who chanted, “Hell, no, we won’t go.”

The crowd turned toward her, stilled for a moment.

“It’s a damn Young Republican!” someone shouted.

Frankie forced herself to keep walking.

“Oh man,” someone else said. “This chick is crazy.”

“Don’t go in there, man!”

Frankie opened the recruiting station’s doors. Inside she saw a desk beneath a sign that read: BE A PATRIOT. JOIN THE NAVY. A sailor in uniform stood at the end of the table.

Frankie closed the door behind her and went to the recruiting desk.

Protesters banged on the window. Frankie tried not to flinch or appear nervous or afraid.

“I’m a nurse,” she said, ignoring the sounds coming from outside. “I’d like to join the Navy and volunteer for Vietnam.”

The sailor glanced nervously at the crowd outside. “How old are you?”

“Twenty, sir. Twenty-one next week.”

“The Navy requires two years of service before they send you to Vietnam, ma’am. You’ll need to do two years stateside, in a hospital, before you ship out.”

Two years. The war would be over by then. “You don’t need nurses in Vietnam?”

“Oh, we need them.”

“My brother is in Vietnam. I … want to help.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am. Rules are rules. It’s for your own safety, believe me.”

Dispirited but not discouraged, Frankie left the recruiting office—hurried past the protesters, who yelled obscenities at her—and found a nearby phone booth, where she consulted the Los Angeles yellow pages and found the address for the nearest Air Force recruiting station.

Once there, she was told the same thing, that she needed more stateside experience before shipping out to Vietnam.

At the Army recruiting station, she finally heard what she wanted to hear: Sure, ma’am. The Army Nurse Corps needs nurses. We could ship you right out after Basic.

Frankie signed her name on the dotted line, and just like that, she was Second Lieutenant Frances McGrath.


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