The Women: Part 1 – Chapter 8

April 21, 1967

Dear Frances Grace,

I can hardly believe you’ve been there for more than a month.

In your absence, the country has gone mad.

Sit-ins. Protests. Raised fists. Believe you me, more than a few of these free love girls are going to wake up in trouble, and where will their dirty-footed lovers be then? In prison or long gone, I’d say. The world changes for men, Frances. For women, it stays pretty much the same.

The President says the protests are prolonging the war.

Your father and I watch the news every night, hoping for a glimpse of you, however silly that is. The soldiers seem to be in good spirits.

With love,

Your mother

PS. I saw an old friend of yours, I can’t recall her name, the frizzy-haired girl from St. Bernadette’s that played volleyball so poorly—anyway, I saw her in a televised picket line in San Francisco. Her breasts were moving so fast they looked like Sonny Liston’s boxing gloves doing battle under a dirty T-shirt. Can someone please explain to me how bouncing breasts advance the cause of freedom?


As her shift neared its end and night began to fall, Frankie sat in a chair beside one of her patients, a young man from Oklahoma. She’d been promoted to the day shift two weeks ago.

She closed the book from which she’d been reading aloud. Sometimes a Great Notion.

“Well, Trevor,” she said to her patient, “I’m beat. Gotta hit the showers and mess and then bed. It was so dang hot today that the water might be lukewarm.” She touched his hand. “You’re heading out to the Third tomorrow. I’ll miss you.”

She gave his hand a squeeze and then went from bed to bed, saying good night to each of her patients with a touch and a whispered, “You’re safe now. We will get you home.” It was all she could think of to say to men so broken. Then she grabbed her warm can of TaB and headed for her hooch.

It was a hot, dry day in May. The blistering sun had baked the dirt to hardpan and dried out her skin and hair. She was constantly scratching and sweating.

In the hooch, she found Ethel and Barb dressed in civilian clothes—Ethel in a summery dress she’d had made by a Vietnamese woman in Saigon, and Barb in a custom-made black silk ao dai.

Frankie saw her dress laid out on her bed, the one she’d bought at Bullock’s: a pretty blue sheath with a Peter Pan collar and matching belt. Something out of the last decade. Her mother had insisted she take it to war “for parties.”

Frankie pushed the dress aside and plopped onto her bed. “I’m exhausted.”

Ethel looked at Barb. “Are you tired?”

“Dead on my feet.”

“Are you going to sleep or go to Captain Smith’s goodbye party?”

“That’s tonight?” Frankie said, her shoulders slumping. “Darn.”

“Move it, Frank,” Ethel said.

There was no argument to be made. Captain Smith had been an amazing teacher and superior officer. He’d shown Frankie kindness and patience in teaching her the skills needed to care for the patients in Neuro. She had spent countless hours with him in the ward, even shared a Coke with him a time or two in the O Club. She’d oohed and aahed over pictures of his kids back in the world. No way she would miss a chance to say goodbye.


“That’s our ride?” Frankie said, frowning as they approached the helipad. Choppers might be big and maneuverable, but they were targets, too. The enemy loved to shoot them out of the sky, and when a chopper exploded midair, there were often no remains to be found. She knew that too well.

Hot air whooshed from the rotors, whipped up dirt, stung her eyes.

Ethel shoved Frankie forward; a soldier swung her into the chopper. Frankie scrambled for the back, took a seat, and pressed herself against the wall.

Barb and Ethel each sat in one of the open doorframes, their feet swinging over the edge, laughing as the helicopter rose into the air and shot forward, nose down, tail up.

The noise inside the chopper was earsplitting.

As they banked left, Frankie saw Vietnam through the open doorway: The flat green swath of jungle, a brown ribbon of water, dotted with boats. White sand beaches bordered the turquoise waters of the South China Sea. Verdant mountains in the distance reached up into the blue cloud-strewn sky.

There was destruction, too. Concertina wire that caught the light and sent it back in a thousand glints of color. Giant red holes in the earth, trees fallen or cut down. Scrap metal heaps strewn along roads. Helicopters swooping across the landscape, firing at the ground, being fired on. The constant whir of their rotors, the pop-pop-pop of mortar attacks. Tanks rolling on dirt roads, throwing up red clouds of dust. These days, the U.S. constantly bombed the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Up in the mountains near a village called Pleiku, there was fighting.

“That’s Long Binh,” one of the gunners yelled.

Long Binh, Frankie knew, was one of the largest bases in-country. Tens of thousands of people lived and worked there. She’d heard that the PX on base was bigger than any department store back home. From above, it was a sprawling city carved out of the jungle, built on a flat red rectangle of dirt. Bulldozers bit at the edges, constantly making more room. There wasn’t a blade of grass or a tree to be seen, nothing green, no patch of shade left from the jungle they’d torn down to build their temporary city.

They touched down on the helipad just as sunset turned the sky a brilliant, blazing red.

Frankie angled cautiously forward, edged out of the chopper, and followed Ethel and Barb, who knew exactly where they were going in the dirty, smelly confusion of roads and people and tanks and bulldozers. The place was a hive of activity; a huge hospital was being built to house the rising number of wounded.

The Officers’ Club at Long Binh was legendary. Frankie had heard stories of epic parties and fall-down-drunk fests, even of the MPs being called on occasion. Captain Smith—who’d been in Long Binh for most of his first tour—still spoke often of the club, and said he wouldn’t want a going-away party to be held anywhere else.

Barb reached the O Club first and opened the door. Frankie moved in beside her. She felt conspicuous in her ridiculously conservative blue dress, with her nails bitten down to the quick and her black pixie cut grown so shaggy she looked like one of the Beatles. The headscarf she’d tied over it did little to help. At least she had sneakers now, instead of just her boots.

The Officers’ Club was not what she’d expected. But what had she expected? White linen tablecloths and waiters in black, like the country club on Coronado Island?

In fact, it was just a dark, seedy bar. The stifling-hot air smelled of cigarette smoke and spilled booze and sweat.

A wooden bar ran the length of the building; a line of men were bellied up to it. More sat clustered around wooden tables in mismatched chairs. There weren’t many women here, but the few that were here were on the dance floor. She saw Kathy Mohr, one of the surgical nurses from the Thirty-Sixth, dancing with Captain Smith. A banner had been strung above the bar. It read BON VOYAGE, CPT SMITH.

Frankie was reminded suddenly of the catered party her parents had thrown to celebrate Finley going to war.

It felt like another world ago, another time.

Appallingly naive.

Barb dragged Frankie through the clot of men, elbowing her way. At the bar, she ordered a gin and tonic and two sodas, yelling to be heard over the din of voices and music. A soldier stood beside her, smiling wolfishly, thrilled to see two American women. Frankie saw the Big Red One patch on his sleeve, for the First Infantry.

Barb ignored the man and carried the three drinks toward an empty table. The music changed, became sexy. A song Frankie hadn’t heard before. “Come on, baby, light my fire.”

Frankie was about to make her way to the table when someone touched her arm.

Dr. Jamie Callahan stood there, smiling. She remembered how he’d helped her through her first red alert, how steadying his voice had been, the kindness he’d shown her, and the night they’d talked by the latrines. She’d seen him once or twice in the mess hall or the O Club since she’d been promoted to days, but they’d not talked much.

Tonight, in his white T-shirt and fatigues and combat boots, he was Robert Redford in This Property Is Condemned good-looking. And he knew it. Dirty-blond hair, grown longer than regulation allowed, blue eyes, square jaw. Anyone would have called him the American boy next door, and yet there was sadness in his eyes, a slight sag to his shoulders. She sensed a despair in him that lay just below the surface. Grief. Perhaps he saw it in her, too.

“It’s a party now that the nurses have arrived,” he said, giving her a strained smile.

She met his gaze. The weeks she’d spent studying comatose patients had sharpened her observation skills. “Are you okay?”

The music changed. Percy Sledge’s soulful “When a Man Loves a Woman” filled the room.

“Dance with me, McGrath,” he said. It wasn’t a cocky, I’m-so-cool-and-you’ll-be-swept-away request, not what she would have expected. That kind of thing she would have laughed at.

This was a man’s plea, tinged with desperation and loneliness.

She knew that feeling well. She felt it during every shift as she moved among her comatose patients, hoping for miracles.

She reached for his hand. He led her out onto the dance floor. She fit up against him, felt the solid strength of him, and realized suddenly, sharply, how lonely she was, too. And not just here in Vietnam, but ever since Finley’s death.

She rested her cheek on his collarbone. They moved in an easy, familiar rhythm, changing their steps only when the music changed.

Finally, she looked up, found him looking down at her. She reached up slowly, eased the hair out of his eyes. “You look tired.”

“Rough day.”

He tried to smile, and the effort touched her. She knew how hard that particular camouflage could be.

“They’re so young,” he said.

“Tell me something good,” she said.

He thought for a minute, smiled. “My seven-year-old niece, Kaylee, lost a tooth. The tooth fairy left her fifty cents and she bought a goldfish. Her brother, Braden, made the soccer team.”

Frankie smiled at the sweetness of it. She was about to ask him something about his life back in the world when the door to the O Club burst open, letting in the sound of a distant mortar attack. A trio of men walked in.

Strode, really. They were noticeable, loud, laughing. They didn’t look military, let alone like officers. All three had hair that was too long to be regulation. Two had mustaches. One wore a cowboy hat and a Warlocks T-shirt. Only one wore the blue fatigues of the Navy. They had their arms around each other’s shoulders and were singing what sounded like a fight song.

They pushed through the crowd and sat at a table that bore a RESERVED sign. One of them raised a hand and a Vietnamese waitress wearing an ao dai rushed over with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and three shot glasses on a tray. A smaller guy with reddish hair and a sparse mustache threw his head back and howled like a wolf.

“Who are they?” Frankie asked. They looked more like Berkeley students or cowboys than naval officers.

“New squadron. The Seawolves. Naval helicopter combat support. The Navy needed bird pilots, so last year they chose a few jet jockeys, asked for volunteers, and taught them to fly choppers. They may look arrogant and unchecked with their hair and clothing, but they’re workhorses. They’ve flown a lot of medevacs for us in their off-hours. You call on one of the Seawolves, and if they aren’t fighting Victor Charlie, they show up.” He fell silent for a moment, then said, “I’ve been thinking about you, McGrath.”

Now he sounded and looked like any other on-the-make surgeon. This man she could laugh at. “Really?”

“You’ve been hiding long enough.”

“Hiding?”

“In Neuro. Your girl squad—Ethel and Barb—tell me you’re ready to move up.”

“Oh.”

“Captain Smith says you did exceptional work. Fastest learner he’s ever had, he said.”

Frankie didn’t quite know how to respond. Captain Smith had never said that to her.

“He also says you are compassionate, which I already knew.”

“Well…”

“The point is this. Did you come to this hellhole to change bandages or to save lives?”

“Well. I don’t think that’s quite fair, sir.”

“Jamie,” he said. “For God’s sake, McGrath. Jamie.”

“So. Jamie. I don’t think that’s quite fair. An opportunistic infection can—”

“Come work in surgery with me. Patty Perkins is a short-timer. I need someone good to replace her.”

“I’m not good enough,” she said. “Take Sara from the burn unit.”

“I want you, McGrath.”

She heard more in that sentence than belonged there, enough heat to set off warning bells. “If this is just a way to sleep with me—”

He gave her an easy smile. “Oh, I’d love to sleep with you, McGrath, but that’s not what this is about.”

“I’m not good enough. Honestly.”

“You will be when I get done with you. Scout’s honor.”

“Were you ever a Scout?”

“Hell, no. I still can’t figure out what I’m doing here. Too much debt and too many war stories, I think. My dad told me I was a fool. But here I am and here I’ll be for another seven months. I need a kick-ass nurse at my side.”

Frankie was afraid of all of it—mass casualties, failing at her job, keeping Jamie at bay—but she’d been here almost two months and, as bad as it was, time was moving fast. She’d learned what she could from Neuro. If she really loved nursing and wanted to be even better, it was time to take the next step.

“Okay, Captain Callahan. I’ll put in for a transfer to surgery.”

“Excellent.” He looked very pleased with himself. There was a glimmer in his eyes that Frankie assumed had seduced plenty of women. She did not intend to fall prey; but the truth was that he tempted her. And she was pretty sure he knew it.


On the day of her first shift in the OR, Frankie paused at the stacked sandbags outside the door, took a deep breath, and walked into the Quonset hut.

Chaos.

Bright lights, music blaring, doctors and medics and nurses shouting instructions, casualties screaming. She saw Jamie, dressed in a bloody gown and masked up, coming toward her. There was blood everywhere, on walls, the floor, faces—dripping, geysering, pooling. Patty Perkins, in bloody fatigues, yelled, “You’re in the way, McGrath,” and pushed Frankie aside; she stumbled and hit the wall as two medics carried a litter into the OR. On it, a soldier—a kid—was sitting up, yelling, “Where are my legs?”

“Just breathe, McGrath,” Jamie said, touching her shoulder gently with his gowned elbow. She looked up at him, saw his tired eyes above his mask.

A gurney wheeled past them, a young man with his guts hanging out. Barb was running alongside the gurney. “Coming in from Pre-Op.”

Frankie stared at the trail of blood behind the gurney, feeling sickness rise into her throat.

“Okay, McGrath. You know what a DPC is, yes?” Jamie said.

She couldn’t remember.

McGrath. Focus.”

She knew, of course she did. She’d been tending to them for weeks. “Delayed primary closure. Dirty wounds need to be cleaned. We close them later to prevent infection.”

“Right. Come with me.”

Frankie moved through the OR, realizing halfway across that Jamie was close enough to keep her moving forward. He led her to a young man who lay on a gurney.

“This is a D and I. Debride and irrigate. That’s a frag wound. We need to stop the bleeding and remove the metal fragments and cut away the dead skin. Then we irrigate with saline. We make little holes out of big ones. Can you help me?”

She shook her head.

He stared down at her, said softly, “Look at me.”

She exhaled slowly and looked up at him.

“No fear, McGrath. You can do this.”

No fear.

“Right. Yes,” she lied. “Yes, of course.”


For the next six hours, the doors to Ward Six banged open repeatedly, with medics and corpsmen bringing in the wounded from Pre-Op. Frankie learned that it was called a push.

Now she stood across an operating table from Jamie, both of them capped, gowned, and gloved. Between them lay a young sergeant, whose chest had taken a close-range gunshot. To Frankie’s right was the tray of surgical instruments and supplies.

“Hemostat,” Jamie said. He gave Frankie a moment to study the tray of instruments, and then, “It’s next to the retractor. See it?”

Frankie nodded, picked up the forceps, and handed them to him. She watched, mesmerized, as he repaired the wound, stitched a vein deep inside the man’s chest.

“Allen clamp.” He took the clamp she handed him and went back to work.

By 2200 hours, Frankie was dead on her feet and covered in blood.

“All done,” Jamie said at last, stepping back.

“Last patient!” Barb said, cranking up the radio on a Van Morrison song. Singing along, she crossed the OR and approached Frankie and Jamie. “How did my girl do?” Barb asked Jamie.

Jamie looked at Frankie. “She was great.”

“I told you you could cut it,” Barb said to Frankie, giving her a hip bump.

Patty skidded into place beside Barb. “Good job, Frankie. You’ll be a star in no time.” She slung an arm around Barb. “O Club?”

Barb pulled down her mask. “You got it. See you there, Frankie?”

Frankie was so tired she could barely nod.

Barb and Patty put arms around each other’s shoulders, kept each other standing as they headed for the doors.

Jamie pulled off his surgical cap and called for a medic to take the patient to Post-Op. When the gurney was wheeled away, Jamie and Frankie were left alone in the OR, facing each other.

“Well?” he said, giving her a steady look. She knew somehow that it mattered to him, how she felt about tonight.

“I have a long way to go,” she said. Then she smiled at him. “But, yeah.”

“There are men going home to their families because of us. That’s about all we can hope for.” He moved closer. “Come on, I’ll buy you a drink.”

“I don’t really drink.”

“Then you can buy me one.”

After they discarded their scrubs and caps and gloves, he took her hand and led her out of the OR.

She found herself leaning into him as they walked. She’d never had a serious boyfriend, never made love. Back in the world, it had seemed important to be a good girl, to make her parents proud, but honestly, the horror she saw here every day made the rules of polite society seem unimportant.

Not surprisingly, the O Club was packed with people, all of whom looked exhausted and beaten up after tonight’s push. But they were done now and needed to unwind. Ethel was seated at a table alone, smoking a cigarette; Barb was on the makeshift dance floor in some man’s arms, barely moving to the music. It looked more like they were holding each other upright than dancing. Some guy in the corner was strumming a ukulele.

Jamie led Frankie to Ethel’s table and pulled out a chair for her. Frankie practically fell into it. Then he headed to the bar for drinks. “Well?” Ethel asked, offering Frankie a cigarette.

Frankie took it, lit it off of Ethel’s. “I didn’t kill anyone.”

“Hell, Frank, that’s a great first day in the OR.” She sighed. “Triage was brutal. Charlie really tore the shit out of those boys. Every single expectant died.”

Ethel held Frankie’s hand for a moment, both giving and receiving comfort. Then she stood up. “I can’t stand it in here tonight. I’m going to the hooch for quiet, maybe write my dad a letter. You?”

Frankie glanced at Jamie, who was headed back from the bar. “Jamie’s—”

“Married.”

Frankie looked up at Ethel. “Married? What? He never said…”

Ethel touched her shoulder. “Be careful, Frank. Not everything the world teaches women is a lie. You don’t want to get a reputation over here. I know I’m a good Baptist girl and far from cool, but some things are simply true, no matter how much the world changes. Think carefully who you climb into a cot with.”

Frankie watched Ethel walk out of the O Club.

Moments later, Jamie sat down beside Frankie, scooted in close, offered her a Fresca. “I got you this, but I seriously recommend the whiskey.”

“Do you?” She sipped the lukewarm soda.

“There’s a hotel in Saigon,” he said. “The Caravelle. It has a great rooftop bar. You’d love it. Soft beds. Clean sheets.”

Frankie turned to him. “You should wear a ring, you know.”

His smile faded. “McGrath—”

“When were you going to tell me?”

“I figured you knew. Everyone knows.”

“What’s your wife’s name?”

He sighed. “Sarah.”

“Do you have children?”

“One,” he said after a pause. “Davy.”

Frankie closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them. “Do you have a picture?”

He took out his wallet, pulled out a photograph of a tall, slender woman with bouffant hair, holding a towheaded boy with plump cheeks and marshmallow arms and legs.

He put the photograph away. There was a silence between them now, a quiet steeped in Frankie’s disappointment. “It … doesn’t have to have anything to do with … this. Us. Here.”

“You disappoint me,” she said.

“I…”

“Don’t tell me lies, Jamie. Respect me, please. I believe in old-fashioned things. Like love and honesty. And vows.” She downed her soda so fast it burned her throat. Then she stood up. “Good night.”

“Don’t run off, McGrath. I’ll be a gentleman. Scout’s honor.”

“I believe we’ve already determined that you were never a Scout.”

“Yeah,” he said. “But I could use a friend tonight.”

She knew how that felt. She wondered if it had been the photograph of his child that stole his smile and made him sad. Slowly, she sat down beside him. The truth was she liked him; too much, maybe, and she needed a friend tonight as much as he did. “How long have you been married?”

“Four years.” He looked down at his drink. “But…”

“But what?” she asked, knowing it was a dangerous question. They were a long way from home here, in a world that felt impossibly fragile. Lonely.

“Sarah got pregnant the first time we had sex. At a dorm party in her senior year. I was in med school. It never occurred to either one of us not to get married.”

“And…”

“I’m a good guy, McGrath.”

She stared at him, feeling strangely bereft. As if a chance had been lost before she’d even known of its existence. “And I’m a good girl.”

“I know that.”

Between them, a silence fell. Then Frankie forced a smile.

“Sarah must be a saint to put up with your sorry ass.”

“That she is, McGrath,” he said, looking at her sadly. “That she is.”


May 16, 1967

Dear Mom and Dad,

I am training to be a surgical nurse now.

I want to be good at this more than I’ve ever wanted anything.

It’s a good feeling to love what you do.

The countryside is beautiful here. A kind of green I’ve never seen before, and the water is a stunning turquoise. We are in the monsoon season now, but so far that just means flashes of hard rain that come and go, leaving sunshine behind. No wonder everything is so green.

I’m taking lots of pictures and can’t wait to share this all with you. Then you’ll understand.

How’s life back in the world?

Love you,

F

PS. Please send hand lotion and crème rinse and perfume. And a new St. Christopher medal.


May 31, 1967

Dear Frances Grace,

I think about you all the time. I light a candle for you every Sunday, and I know your father sometimes sits in your Bug, with his hands on the steering wheel, staring at the garage wall. What he is thinking, I can only guess.

It is a strange world we are all in. Volatile and uncertain. We—Americans, I mean—can’t seem to talk to each other anymore, our disagreements seem insurmountable.

I imagine it would feel wonderful to be good at something that mattered. That is something that too many of the women of my generation didn’t consider.

With love,

Your mother

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