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The Women: Part 1 – Chapter 5

Hours later, Frankie was still lying on her cot, trying not to cry or vomit, wishing she’d never joined the Army, when the door to the hooch banged open. In walked a pair of women in blood-splattered clothes: a Black woman with closely cropped hair who wore shorts, a T-shirt, and combat boots, and a tall, Olive Oyl–thin redhead in stained fatigues. Frankie figured they were both older than she was, but not by much.

“Look at that, Babs. New blood,” Olive Oyl said, unbuttoning her olive-green blouse, tossing it aside.

There was blood on the woman’s bra. She walked forward, clomping her boots, unconcerned about her state of undress. “I’m Ethel Flint from Virginia. ER nurse.” She reached for Frankie’s hand, shook it aggressively, like cocking a rifle. “This here is Barb Johnson, surgical nurse, from some one-stoplight town in Georgia. She’s mean as a dang snake. She made the last girl cry on a regular basis.”

“That isn’t true, Ethel, and you know it,” the Black woman said, pulling the damp T-shirt away from her chest. “Good God, it’s hot.”

Frankie stared at Barb. Honestly, she didn’t know many Black people. Something about the way Barb stared back, her eyes narrowed and assessing, made Frankie feel like a kid who’d wandered into the wrong classroom.

“I’m Frankie McGrath,” she said. Her voice gave out halfway through the introduction and she had to start over.

“Well, Frankie, ditch the uniform,” Ethel said, stripping off her bra and putting on a V-necked olive-drab T-shirt that revealed the silver beaded chain of dog tags around her neck. “There’s a turtle party in your honor—”

Barb snorted. “Hardly, Ethel. Don’t give the kid a false impression.”

“Well, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch, but we have two turtles in today and one guy going home.”

“What’s a turtle?” Frankie asked.

“You are, kid,” Ethel said, sounding old and tired and worn-out. “Now move your behind. I’m thirsty as hell. It’s been a long day, and I surely could use a Coca-Cola.”

Frankie wasn’t used to stripping in front of strangers, but she didn’t want her roommates to think she was a prude, so she began to undress.

It wasn’t until she was down to her undergarments that she realized she had nothing in her duffel or overnight bag to put on except her crisply folded, new green fatigues, which she’d been told to wear for work, or her pajamas, or a pale blue summer dress that her mother had convinced her would be perfect for her days off, or her white nurse uniform.

“A girdle,” Ethel said with a sigh. She opened a drawer and rifled through it, pulling out a pair of cutoff shorts and an Army T-shirt, and tossed them to Frankie. “Don’t worry, it’s not just you. They don’t tell us the truth about what to wear over here.”

“Or anything else,” Barb said.

Frankie peeled off the girdle and rolled down her cinnamon-hued stockings. She stood there for a second, feeling her roommates’ scrutiny, then quickly put on the borrowed clothes. The T-shirt was huge and hung to the top of her thighs, almost covering the cutoff jean shorts once Frankie rolled over the waistband to make them fit.

Opening her duffel, she found her flak jacket and Army-issued steel pot helmet and slipped into the sleeveless jacket, immediately felt its weight. The helmet fell down and covered her eyes.

“It’s a party,” Barb said. “Not a John Wayne movie. Take that shit off.”

“But—” Frankie turned too fast; the helmet clanked hard onto the bridge of her nose, hurt. “Regulations state—”

Barb walked out of the hooch. The door banged shut behind her.

Ethel gently took Frankie’s helmet off, tossed it on the bed. “Look, I know today is a lot. We will help you fit in, I promise. But not now, okay? And as for the flak jacket, just no, okay?”

Frankie undid the flak jacket and tossed it aside. It landed on the helmet on her cot. She felt exposed and ridiculous in an oversized T-shirt that hid her shorts and showed her bare legs and shiny, brand-new combat boots that she’d polished obsessively. Why hadn’t she packed sneakers? Had the men who wrote the “What to Bring” section of the information packet even been to Vietnam? She’d had her hair cut in a Twiggy-inspired pixie for her tour, and now, after thirty-eight hours of travel and this hellish humidity, God knew she must look like she was wearing a black swim cap. Or like she was twelve years old.

Ethel walked fast, talking as she went. “Welcome to the Thirty-Sixth, Frank. Can I call you Frank? This is technically a mobile hospital, but we haven’t gone anywhere in a while; instead, we keep getting bigger. We have several doctors and four surgeons—you’ll know them instantly. They think they’re gods. There are nine of us women nurses and a couple of male nurses and lots of medics. In most wards, the hours are oh-seven-hundred to nineteen hundred hours, six days a week, but we are short-staffed right now, so really, we go until the last casualty is taken care of. If it sounds like a lot, it is, but you’ll get used to it. Hurry up. You’re lagging.”

In the falling darkness, Frankie couldn’t see much of the place: a row of shacks—the hooches—a large wooden building that housed the mess, the nurses’ latrines, a chapel, a row of Quonset huts that were weakly illuminated, the hospital insignia painted on their exterior walls.

Ethel rounded the corner of a Quonset hut and suddenly they were in a wide-open space, a patch of red dirt surrounded by shadowy structures. All of it looked hastily constructed, temporary. Not far away—close enough to hear the whoosh of the tides—lay the South China Sea.

Pale light glazed a coil of concertina wire that created a perimeter for the camp. Off to the left was a sandbagged bunker, its entrance a gaping black square beneath a wooden arch, upon which someone had spray-painted OFFICERS’ CLUB on the crossbeam. A curtain of multicolored beads shielded the interior from view.

Ethel pushed through the curtains. The beads made a soft clattering sound.

The place was bigger inside than it looked. Against the back there was a plywood bar, with stools in front. A bartender stood behind it, busily making drinks. A Vietnamese woman in pajama-like pants and a long tunic top carried a tray from table to table. A stereo system boasted huge speakers; beside it, there were hundreds of eight track tapes. “Like a Rolling Stone” blared into the space, so loud people had to shout in conversation. A trio of men threw darts at a dartboard on the wall.

Smoke filled the air, stung Frankie’s eyes.

Men and a few women filled the room—sitting at tables, standing along the walls. One guy was standing on his head with his bare legs crossed. Most were smoking and drinking.

When the song ended, there was a beat of silence. In it, Frankie heard snippets of conversation, bits of laughter, someone yelling, No love lost there, man.

Ethel clapped her hands to get attention. “Hey, all, this is Frankie McGrath. She’s from…” Ethel turned. “Where are you from?”


“Sunny California!” Ethel said. She pulled Frankie forward, introducing her to the other officers. Patty was near the bar, smoking a cigarette, playing cards with a captain. She smiled and waved.

Suddenly the music changed. Out came “East Coast girls are hip…”

People clapped, yelled out, “Welcome, Frankie!”

A man pulled her into his arms, started dancing with her.

He was tall and lanky, good-looking, in a white T-shirt and worn Levi’s. His beach-sand-blond hair was regulation short, but the smile on his face—and the marijuana cigarette in his mouth—told her that he was the kind of guy her father had told her to stay away from. Well, really, that was all men. (“War bachelors, Frankie. Married men who think love’s a free-for-all when bombs are falling. Don’t you go all that way and shame us.”)

He exhaled the sweet smoke in a rush and offered her the joint. “You want a hit?”

Frankie’s eyes widened. It wasn’t the first time she’d been offered marijuana (she had gone to college, albeit a Catholic one), but this was Vietnam. War. Serious times. She hadn’t smoked marijuana at the San Diego College for Women and she sure as heck wouldn’t do drugs here.

“No, thanks, but I’ll take a—”

Before she could say Coke, an explosion rocked the O Club. The walls rattled, dirt rained down from the ceiling, a footlocker crashed to the floor, someone shouted, Not now, Charlie! I’m drinking—

Another explosion. Red light flashed through the beaded curtain. A red-alert siren blared across camp.

A voice came out over the loudspeaker: Attention all personnel, take cover. Security Alert condition red. We are under rocket attack. Repeat: condition red. Take cover.

Rocket attack?

Another explosion. Closer. The beads swayed and clattered.

Frankie wrenched out of whoever-he-was’s arms and headed for the door.

He grabbed her, pulled her back.

She panicked, screamed, tried to wrench free. He held her close.

Someone cranked up the music as dirt rained down on them all.

“You’re safe, McGrath,” the man whispered in her ear. She felt his breath on her neck. “At least as safe as anywhere in the damned country. Just breathe. I’ve got you.”

She heard the rockets flare and explode, felt the ground shimmy under her feet.

Frankie flinched at every explosion. Oh God. What have I done? She thought of Finley.

Regret to inform you …

No remains.

“I’ve got you,” the man said again as her breathing sped up. He tightened his hold. “Don’t worry.”

The siren sounded again.

She felt the man’s hold on her ease, felt his tension soften.

“That’s the all clear,” he said. And when another explosion sounded, he laughed and said, “That’s us. Giving it back to them.”

She looked up, embarrassed by her fear. What kind of soldier was she? Standing here, shaking and ready to cry on her first day? “But … the bunkers … shouldn’t we go…”

“What kind of host would I be if I shoved you out of your own party because of a little mortar attack? I’m Jamie Callahan. Chest cutter. From Jackson Hole. Just look at me, McGrath. Close out the rest.”

Frankie tried to focus on her breathing, on his kind, sad blue eyes, tried to pretend she wasn’t terrified. “You’re a d-doctor?” she made herself say.

He smiled, and it showed her at last that he was young, or at least not old. Maybe thirty. “Yep. Ward Five. Surgical.” He leaned close. “Maybe you’ll work under me.”

She heard the sexy slur of his voice and smelled the alcohol and marijuana on his breath and the strange, shifting, exploding world righted for a moment, became as familiar as a doctor hitting on a nurse. “My dad warned me about guys like you.”

The explosions stopped.

“That’s it,” Jamie said with a smile, but something about it was wrong, as if maybe he’d been scared, too.

Someone cranked up the music. “These boots are made for walkin’…”

The crowd joined in, sang along, paired up and started dancing.

Just like that, the party was back in full swing, with people smoking and drinking and laughing as if they hadn’t just been bombed.

Jamie smiled. “How about a shot of whiskey, California girl?”

Frankie had trouble finding her voice. “I don’t know…” She’d turned twenty-one a few months before, but she’d never drunk hard alcohol.

He leaned close. “It’ll stop the trembling.”

Frankie doubted that. “Will it?”

He gave her a sad look. “For tonight, it will.”


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