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The Women: Part 2 – Chapter 25

That night, Frankie slept well.

In the morning, she found a closet full of clothes in her bedroom. Essentials.

Smiling, she dressed in striped corduroy pants and a flowy, embroidered peasant blouse, and drove down to her parents’ house, where Mom stood on the front step, holding on to a walker. “Y’re … late,” she said, looking agitated.

“I’m not late, Mom,” Frankie said, helping her mother into the car.

Mom slid awkwardly into the seat.

“I love the house, Mom,” Frankie said. “Everywhere I look, I see you. I know how hard you worked to make it homey. Thank you for letting me live there.”

Mom nodded jerkily, not quite in control of her movement. Frankie could see how anxious her mother was, how she gripped the console between the seats to steady herself.

“Are you having a little vertigo?” Frankie asked.

Mom nodded, said, “Yes,” in a way that stretched out the word, misshaped it. “Damn it.”

Frankie could count on one hand the times she’d heard her mother curse. “It will take time, Mom. Don’t be too hard on yourself. The physical therapist will help, and the occupational therapist, too.”

Mom gave a little snort that might have been agreement or disagreement; it was hard to tell.

In San Diego, Frankie turned into the medical center entrance and parked. She helped Mom out of the car and steadied her. Using the walker, with her knuckles white from effort, Mom limped slowly from the car to the lobby. Frankie checked her mother in and got them both seated in the waiting area.

“Scared,” Mom muttered.

Frankie had never heard her mother even use that word before. “I’m here, Mom. I’ve got you. You’ll be okay. You’re tough.”


A nurse came out and called, “Elizabeth McGrath?”

Frankie helped her mother to her feet, steadied her as she used the walker to cross the lobby. At the last minute, she turned, looked at Frankie through frightened eyes.

“I’ll be here when you’re finished, Mom,” Frankie said, giving her a gentle smile.

Mom nodded awkwardly.

Frankie returned to her seat and sat down. Reaching sideways, she picked through a stack of magazines, found an article about the POWs still in Vietnam.

It reminded her of the League of Families and their quest to bring the POWs home from Vietnam. They had been looking for an office in San Diego when Frankie and Barb had attended that luncheon in Washington, D.C.

Frankie went in search of a pay phone, found one, and called information. “Is there an office number for the League of Families in San Diego?” she asked the operator.

A moment later, the operator said, “There’s a National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia.”

“That’s it.”

“I’ll connect you.”

“League of Families, this is Sabrina, how may I help you?” a woman said over the phone.

“Hi. Do you accept donations?” Frankie asked.

The woman laughed. “Boy, do we. Would you like to come by the office?”

“Sure. I have a little time.” Frankie wrote down the office address and walked out to her car.

In the glove box, she found the Thomas Guide for the area, looked up the address, and started to drive.

Across town, on a pretty little side street, she parked in front of a small building that looked like it had once been a restaurant. A hand-painted sign over the door read THE LEAGUE OF POW/MIA FAMILIES.

She went to the front door, which was standing open.

The office was small, basically unfurnished except for a single desk that held stacks of flyers. A woman sat behind it. At Frankie’s entrance, she looked up. “Welcome to the League of Families!”

Another woman was on her knees, her face covered by a cascade of blond curls, painting a sign that read DON’T LET THEM BE FORGOTTEN. She waved at Frankie, too. “Hi, there! Welcome.”

The woman at the desk was beautiful in an exotic way, with long black hair and high cheekbones. Beside her, a toddler lay sleeping in a stroller. “I’m Rose Contreras. Come in. Are you a Navy wife?”

“No. I’m Frankie McGrath, former Army nurse.”

“Bless you,” Rose said softly. “Do you know a prisoner of war?”

“No. I’m just here to donate to the cause.”

“We welcome all donations, of course,” Rose said. “As you can see, we are pretty bare-bones at this point.”

Frankie opened her handbag, reached in for her wallet.

“But Frankie…”


“What we really need is help raising awareness. The older ladies—Anne and Melissa and Sheri, the gals married to the mucky-mucks—they do all the public speaking and testifying in front of the Senate. I’m chair of the Letter-Writing Committee. Our goal is to write letters to anyone and everyone we can think of who might be able to help. Bury them in letters. And the same with the newspapers. Would you like to help?”

Letter-writing. Something she could do while she sat with her mother and made the family dinner and waited for Mom to finish her various appointments.

Frankie smiled. “I would love to join that effort, Rose.”

Writing letters on behalf of the League of Families and the Vietnam prisoners of war quickly became an obsession.

Frankie wrote when she felt lonely, when she couldn’t sleep, when she felt anxious, when her mother was in physical or occupational therapy, while she sat in the waiting room at the medical center. She wrote sitting on the beach after dinner. She wrote to everyone she could think of—Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, Bob Dole, Harry Reasoner, Gloria Steinem, Walter Cronkite, Barbara Walters. Anyone who might listen and help or talk to someone who might. Dear Dr. Kissinger, I am writing on behalf of our American heroes, the men who have been left behind. As an Army nurse who served in Vietnam, I know the horrors these men will have endured. They went to war for their country, to do the right thing, and now our country must do the right thing in return. We cannot leave any man—or woman—behind …

When she wasn’t writing, she was with her mother, helping her to walk, encouraging her to eat enough to get her weight back up, driving her to and from appointments. It was slow going, recovery from a stroke, but her mother exerted her considerable will and pushed forward, sometimes to the point of exhaustion. The doctors were amazed at the speed of her recovery; Frankie and her father were not. Bette McGrath had always had a will of steel.

All in all, Frankie thought she was doing well; her mood swings had diminished and she hadn’t suffered through a Vietnam nightmare in weeks, had never yet wakened on her bungalow’s bedroom floor. Every other Sunday, she wrote to Barb and Ethel, and she received regular letters in return. With long-distance phone charges so exorbitant, they had to make do with letters.

It didn’t bother her (although it bothered her mother) that she had no real social life and hadn’t been on a date since … well, before Vietnam. Love was the last thing on her mind. All she wanted was peace and quiet.

By late June 1971, nearly two months after she’d moved home, Frankie had settled into a steady routine. Helping her mother’s recovery gave her satisfaction, and writing letters on behalf of the prisoners of war gave her purpose. But today—finally—she had been invited to do more than just write letters.

In midafternoon, she parked her car at the Chula Vista Outdoor Shopping Center and headed for the escalators. The shopping center was decorated in red, white, and blue bunting for the upcoming holiday weekend and most of the storefronts were advertising a SALE! of some kind.

In the courtyard, beneath a palm tree, a table had been set up. Behind it sat a pert, pretty young woman who wore her teased blond hair in two low ponytails; she was writing a letter. To her left was a crude bamboo cage, not nearly big enough for a man to stand upright in. A banner around the cage read DON’T LET THEM BE FORGOTTEN.

Frankie smiled and slid into the empty seat. “I’m Frankie,” she said, extending her hand.

The woman shook it. “Joan.”

“How is it going today?”

“Slow. People are getting ready for the holiday.”

Frankie straightened the stack of flyers in front of her. In the center of the table was a box of POW bracelets that sold for five dollars apiece.

Joan went back to her letter. “Do you think Live up to your damn promise, President Nixon is too aggressive for the first sentence?” she asked Frankie, poising her pen tip just above the paper.

“I don’t think you can be too aggressive,” Frankie said, taking out a piece of paper and a pen.

A young man with long hair and a bushy beard walked past their table, muttered, “Warmongers,” under his breath, and kept walking.

“Freedom isn’t free, asshole,” Frankie yelled. “How come you aren’t in Canada?”

“We aren’t supposed to yell at the peaceniks,” Joan said, grinning. “But what a stupid rule.”

“It’s more of a guideline,” Frankie said.

Joan laughed. “How long has your husband been a POW?”

“I’m not married. My brother and … several friends died over there. Your husband?”

“Shot down in ’69. He’s in Hoa Lo.”

“I’m sorry, Joan. Kids?”

“Just one. A girl. Charlotte. She doesn’t remember her dad.”

Frankie touched the woman’s hand. They were about the same age, living very different lives, but the war connected them. “He’ll come home, Joan.”

A dark-haired woman in a black-and-white plaid pantsuit neared the table. “They put our soldiers in cages like that? Really? Where they don’t have enough room to stand up?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“What did they do?”

“Do?” Joan asked.

“To end up in cages. Are they like that Lieutenant Calley from My Lai?”

Stay calm. Educate, don’t annihilate. “They served their country,” Frankie said. “Just like their fathers and grandfathers, they did as the country asked in wartime, and they were taken prisoner by the enemy.”

The woman frowned, picked a nickel-plated bracelet out of the box, read the name on it.

“That’s someone’s son, ma’am. Someone’s husband,” Frankie said. “And they’re waiting for him to come home.” She paused. “This woman’s husband is in their prison.”

The woman pulled a five-dollar bill out of her worn billfold and handed it to Frankie, and then put the bracelet back in the box.

“The idea is that you wear the bracelet until he comes home,” Joan said. “To keep his memory alive.”

The woman retrieved the bracelet, fit it on her wrist, stared down at it.

“Thank you,” Frankie said.

The woman nodded and walked away.

For the next half an hour, Frankie and Joan handed out flyers, sold bracelets, and wrote letters. Frankie was halfway through her latest letter to Ben Bradlee when she felt Joan poke her elbow into her side.

“Incoming,” Joan whispered.

Frankie looked up, saw two men walking toward their table.

No. Not two men, or not really. A man and a boy. Father and son, maybe; the man was tall and thin, with graying shoulder-length hair and a mustache. He wore a black Grateful Dead T-shirt and ragged jeans and sandals. The boy beside him—sixteen, maybe seventeen—was pumped up with muscles and wore an ANNAPOLIS sweatshirt. He was clean-shaven and his hair was 1950s-short. They stopped in front of the table, beneath the DON’T LET THEM BE FORGOTTEN banner.

The older man stepped closer. “Still fighting for the cause, I see. Frankie McGrath, right? Coronado girl?”

It took a moment for Frankie to recognize the man she’d met at the protest in Washington, D.C. “The surfer psychiatrist.”

“Henry Acevedo,” he said, smiling. “This is my nephew, Arturo.” He turned to the young man. “You see those cages, Art? Take a good, long look.”

Arturo rolled his eyes, gave his uncle a good-natured nudge in the side. “My uncle is pissed I’m going to the Naval Academy in September. But my dad is thrilled.”

“My brother went to the academy,” Frankie said. “He loved it.”

“My husband, too,” Joan added. “It’s a great school.”

“I’m not in favor of a college that pumps out warriors and then sends them into harm’s way,” Henry said.

“Just be proud of him, Henry,” Frankie said quietly. “He’s making an honorable choice even if you don’t agree with it.” She pushed the box of bracelets toward the young man. “Five dollars if you’d like to help bring a hero home.”

Arturo stepped forward, looked through the bracelets. “Groovy. Do you know any POWs?” he asked Joan.

“My husband,” she said, showing Arturo her bracelet. He leaned in to read it.

“Nineteen sixty-nine,” Arturo said. “Whoa. He’s been there a long time…”

Frankie felt Henry’s gaze on her, but he didn’t speak. After a moment, he put an arm around his nephew. “Come on, future flyboy. Let’s let these beautiful women save their husbands.”

“I’m not married,” Frankie said, surprised to hear herself say the words.

“Will wonders never cease?” Henry said as he tossed two twenty-dollar bills on the table. “Keep up the good work, ladies. See you soon, Frankie.”

He led Arturo away, who pulled out from beneath his uncle’s arm, obviously thinking he was too old for it.

“Was that … you know, the guy who always plays a cowboy on TV?”

Frankie shook her head. “He’s a doctor.”

“I don’t know why you’re still here,” Joan said, pulling out a nail file, filing a broken nail.

“What do you mean?”

“If a man that foxy looked at me the way he just looked at you, I wouldn’t let him walk away.”

“What? You think … no. It’s not … I mean, he’s old.”

“Time doesn’t mean what it used to,” she said.

Frankie couldn’t disagree with that.

July 27, 1971

Dear Frank,

Greetings from blazingly hot Captiva Island. That’s in Florida. Land of leathery people who drive yacht-sized cars and start cocktail hour at breakfast.

I know you are going to scream, as is Babs, who is getting the same letter. Noah and I eloped! I know you girls wanted to be at my wedding, but I just couldn’t wait. We couldn’t wait. When push came to shove, I didn’t want a day that smelled like flowers and tasted like cake. When your mom isn’t around … I don’t know. I just didn’t want that. But we will celebrate, and soon!

Love you, girlfriend,

Mrs. Noah Ellsworth


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