The Women: Part 2 – Chapter 28

December 20, 1972

Dear Barb,

Thanks for the birthday card!

I’m writing an identical letter to Ethel. Should I call? Yeah. Sure. Of course.

I just can’t. Maybe I’m becoming a coward in my old age, I’m not sure.

Anyway, I’ll cut to the chase. I’m pregnant.

Who saw that coming, right? Although I do recall you mentioning birth control a million years ago when I lost my virginity.

Henry and I are getting married. I know, it’s a lot, and fast, and I’m a modern woman, I can raise a child on my own, but, well, there’s something special about Henry. I think I’ll learn to love him. More importantly, it seems impossible, but I’m already in love with the baby in my womb. How can that be? Sometimes I’m giddy and embarrassed by how much I want this. (Her, I think.)

The wedding won’t be much, probably something small in our backyard or on the beach.

You’ll come? Be my maid of honor? Ethel can be the matron of honor. She’ll love how old that makes her sound.

Love ya—

F


Henry slipped his grandmother’s diamond ring on Frankie’s finger on Christmas morning, saying, “Forever, Frankie, and longer.” They decided on Saturday, February 17, for the wedding, and sent out a small number of casual, handwritten invitations.

Henry taught Frankie how to spin a dream into something tangible: a nursery. They started with furniture—bought a crib and a changing table—and then went to the hardware store together early on a Saturday morning and picked out a sunny shade of yellow for the walls. They spent the next two weekends and several weekday evenings readying the small bedroom at the end of the hallway.

A yellow room, with big windows and new gingham drapes.

Henry was sitting on the floor now, with white crib pieces scattered all around, counting out screws, swearing under his breath. “Why in the hell do they give you more screws than there are holes?”

Smiling, Frankie left him with the incomprehensible instructions and headed to the kitchen. It took forever to wash the yellow paint off of her hands and cheeks. It was even in her hair, and she’d worn a kerchief. At last, she started dinner and made an apple pie for dessert.

“Something smells good,” Henry said an hour later, when he walked into the kitchen.

“That’s me,” Frankie said.

He took her in his arms, pulled her close. “I love a woman who smells like apples and cinnamon. You made a pie?”

“From scratch, I might add. It’s Ethel’s family recipe.” She smiled. Pregnancy had calmed her. For the first time in years, she was sleeping well. Her moods had evened out; finally, she thought, she was becoming herself again.

“I assume you’ll start knitting booties. Or making your own baby food.”

Frankie smiled. “Are you suggesting I’m going overboard on the whole nesting thing?”

“Never.”

He kissed her, then led her down the hallway to the nursery. In the soft yellow room with bright white trim, the new crib stood against one wall.

She went to the crib, touched the rocket-and-stars mobile that hung over it, remembering the disagreement they’d had about this mobile: Should it be rockets or princess castles? I want our daughter to know she can fly to the moon if she wants to, had been Henry’s winning argument.

A new rocker sat in the corner, next to an empty bookcase that she would soon fill with her favorite childhood stories. She sat down in it, pushed off with her feet. The chair made a creaking, clacking sound on the floor. She bumped the bookcase and a stuffed blue octopus fell into her lap. Idly, she stroked its soft fake fur.

Henry moved closer, gazed down at her, his clothes splattered with yellow, his graying hair a ragged mess.

“I love you,” she said, and just then, as he pulled her up for a kiss, she thought it was true. Or at least that it could be true.

She wanted it to be true.


In the first week of the new year, 1973, they started a tradition of weekly dinners with Frankie’s parents. Dad and Henry never seemed to run out of topics to talk about, even though their political views differed. The clinic Henry and his colleagues had worked so hard to create was months away from opening, and he could wax poetic about their big plans to help addicts and alcoholics heal. Mom had offered to spearhead another fundraising campaign with other Junior League wives. She was already shopping for a gown for the opening.

Dad seemed thrilled that his daughter had finally stepped onto the accepted female life path: marriage and motherhood. Mom talked excitedly about the wedding, pressed for a small reception at the club after the backyard ceremony, a request that Frankie politely denied.

Now they were in the living room, gathered in comfortable chairs around the fireplace, with a fire roaring. The television in the corner was on. Cronkite was reporting on the Watergate scandal. The aroma of pot roast wafted in from the kitchen.

In the middle of the broadcast, Frankie got up from her chair and headed to the bathroom. She was back in the hallway, heading for the living room, when Henry appeared, looking worried.

“Are you okay? You look pale.”

“I’m Irish,” she said. “And I currently have a bladder the size of a pea, which I’m pretty sure our daughter is sitting on.”

He put a hand on her belly, leaned down to say, “Hey, baby. Daddy’s here.”

Frankie’s pregnancy was barely showing. There was just the tiniest bump in her belly, which she touched often, stroked, imagining her baby (a daughter, she still thought) like a little fish in there, swimming around, doing effortless somersaults.

She had begun recently to touch her belly frequently, saying, Come on, baby, do a little twirl for Mama, let me feel you, but she knew it was too early.

“Mama wants a little attention, too,” Frankie said, taking Henry by the hand, leading him down the hallway. She opened her father’s office door, pulled him inside.

Henry kissed her, then said, “Okay, we’ve hidden out long enough. Your mom’s going to send a SWAT team in after us.”

He pulled back.

Frankie realized her mistake; in the past few weeks—since the night of their engagement—she’d taken great care not to show Henry this room, to bypass the closed door. Now he’d seen the heroes’ wall.

She tried to pull him away.

“Wow.” He let go of her hand, moved toward the wall, staring at the photographs and mementos.

Frankie moved to his side, kept one arm around his narrow waist. She hadn’t been in this room for years. The last thing she wanted to see was Finley’s American flag, folded into a neat triangle, protected behind glass, framed in wood.

“Where’s your picture?” Henry asked, and she loved him for noticing the absence and not being afraid to remark upon it. Before she could answer, the door behind them opened.

Dad strode into the room, moving as he always did, with authority.

“We are so proud of our family’s service,” Dad said.

“The men’s service,” Frankie remarked.

Mom arrived a second later, a martini in hand. “I hope you haven’t told them without me,” she said.

“Of course not,” Dad said. He reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a fat, sealed manila envelope. “This is the deed to the cottage on Ocean Boulevard. It’s our wedding gift to you.”

“That’s very generous,” Henry said with a frown.

“I say a toast is in order,” Mom said. “Henry, please, come help me choose a bottle of champagne.”

Mom tucked her arm through Henry’s and pulled him away.

That left Frankie alone at the heroes’ wall with her father. They stood there a long moment, staring up at the pictures and memorabilia. “Why isn’t there a picture of me up there, Dad?”

“We’ll put your wedding photo up. That’s what we do for the women in this family. You’re a hero for putting up with the men.”

How many times had he made that joke? “Nurses died in Vietnam, Dad.”

“I’m uncomfortable with this conversation. Your fiancé is here. You’re expecting a child. Your pride should come from caring for your husband and child. Women going to war…” He shook his head.

“If I’d been a son who went to Vietnam and came home in one piece, would my photograph be on the wall, Dad?”

“You’re upsetting me with this jabble, Frankie. You’re my daughter. You had no business going to war and I told you so at the time. Now we find out we shouldn’t even have been fighting the damn war in the first place and we are losing. America. Losing a war. Who wants that reminder? Let it go, Frankie. Forget and move on.”

He was right. She needed to forget it.

She was engaged to be married. Pregnant. Why should she care if no one—including her own family—valued her service to her country? Why should she care that no one remembered the women?

She remembered.

Why wasn’t that enough?

Suddenly the door to the office banged open. Henry stood there, holding a bottle of champagne. “It’s over,” he said.

“Over?” Frankie said.

“The war,” Henry said. “Nixon signed the Peace Accord.”


Two weeks after President Nixon signed the Peace Accord, it was announced on the television news that the first wave of POWs would be coming home from Vietnam. Operation Homecoming, it was called, and, overnight, the League of Families’ efforts changed from advocacy to preparing for the POWs’ return, some of whom had been gone for nearly a decade. Letters and postcards began to arrive at the League of Families’ San Diego and D.C. offices, letters from all over the country from people who had worn a POW bracelet; glowing welcome-home letters that thanked the men. Strangers sent gifts of gratitude, donations. A public that couldn’t wait to get past the war embraced the return of the heroes released from the Hoa Lo Prison, a place that was just beginning to be written about as hell on earth, just beginning to be known by the public as the “Hanoi Hilton.”

The wives launched their own Operation Homecoming by readying their homes, going to the beauty salon, gathering families close, painting welcome-home banners. Children were lined up and spit-polished; many were told stories of the fathers they’d never met.


On this February afternoon, the League of Families San Diego office was decorated for a party, with banners hung on the walls, painted with slogans like NEVER FORGOTTEN and WE DID IT. There was a buzzing, nervous energy in the room.

Frankie felt the women’s pride and fear. She overheard several of them talking about the preparedness briefing the Navy had given the POW wives, who had been told not to expect too much from their husbands. They’d been given a flyer: We don’t know what shape the men will be in, physically or emotionally. As you know, there have been reports of torture. For these reasons, we suggest you plan your reunions carefully, keep your husband in a quiet setting until he tells you he’s ready for more. No big parties, no magazine or television interviews, no loud noises or big expectations. Some of these men, as you well know, have lived in captivity, in harsh conditions, for up to eight years. This will have taken an extreme toll on their minds and bodies. Do not expect them to be themselves right away. We expect them to be sexually impotent and prone to hostility toward those they love.

Torture. Captivity. Prone to hostility.

How could men come home after years of such treatment and be anything but hostile? Frankie listened to the wives as they expressed their nervousness—I’ve gained weight, lost my spark, not as young—and wondered aloud if the men they’d married would still love them. She listened to their plans to attend the return of the first group arriving in San Diego—on Valentine’s Day—and felt a strong sense of pride.

But, as proud as she was of her service to the league, it was over now. She didn’t belong in this room full of wives. She put down her empty cake plate and headed for the door.

“Frankie!”

She stopped, turned to see Joan moving toward her. The two women hadn’t seen each other in months, but there was no mistaking the joy in the woman’s eyes.

“I just wanted to say thank you,” Joan said, touching her arm. “Your help meant so much.”

Frankie smiled. “Thanks, Joanie. I’m glad your husband is coming home.”

It was the perfect goodbye.

One chapter in her life closing—Vietnam—and another opening up. Marriage and motherhood.


On the day the first group of POWs was scheduled to land in Manila, Frankie poured herself an iced tea and sat on the sofa watching TV. Walter Cronkite was saying: There have been stories of torture, as we know. The men in the Hanoi Hilton, mostly pilots, devised an ingenious way of communicating with each other. Today, one hundred and eight of them will land in Manila, the first stop on their way home …

“Hey, babe,” Henry said, scooting in beside her.

“It’s starting.” Frankie felt almost as anxious as the wives must be right now. This was really it, the end of the war.

Grainy color images of the war filled the screen, then changed to images of Navy wife Sybil Stockdale speaking to the Senate, to audiences, to Henry Kissinger. Walter Cronkite narrated it all: The League of Families worked tirelessly to bring these American heroes home from their ordeal. Moments from now, a plane full of POWs will touch down at Clark Air Force Base. In two days, they will step on American soil for the first time in years.

And then: It’s here. The jet has landed at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, ladies and gentlemen.

Frankie leaned forward.

On-screen, a jet rolled down the runway. Lights blared on the scene. The jet came to a slow, bumping stop. Images of a cheering, jostling crowd: men and women, straining at a barricade to keep them back. The camera focused on a sign that read HOMECOMING 1973. WE LOVE YOU, JOHN!

The jet door opened.

All but one of these men who flew to freedom were shot down during some of the fiercest fighting of the war. Here is Navy Commander Benjamin E. Strahan, shot down in September of 1967 … and Air Force Major Jorge Alvarez, shot down in October 1968 

Men emerged one at a time from the plane, saluted, and walked down the ramp. They looked skinny, but their hair was regulation-short and they stood tall. A few limped.

A man stepped out of the plane, saluted to the crowd gathered on the tarmac.

Navy Lieutenant Commander Joseph Ryerson Walsh, shot down in March of 1969, presumed dead until a year ago …

Frankie straightened.

Rye shuffled down the ramp, holding on tightly to the yellow railing. The way he walked was uneven, a limp maybe, and he held one arm in close to his body.

At the bottom of the ramp, he saluted again.

The camera closed in on Rye’s gaunt, smiling face.

Frankie stood up, stared at the television, at Rye. The thudding of her heart was so loud she couldn’t hear anything else.

“Babe?” Henry said. “Frankie? What’s wrong?”

“I’m not feeling well. Nausea.” An excuse that always worked for a pregnant woman. “I’m going to take a bath.”

Henry stood. “I’ll start it for—”

“No.”

Had she shouted it? Was she crying? She wiped her eyes, felt tears. She looked at him. “No,” she said more gently, as gently as she could, anyway, when all she wanted to do was get away. “Stay. Watch the broadcast. I’ll go … calm down and relax in a nice hot bath.” She gave him a quick peck on the cheek—almost a headbutt, because she was off-balance—and lurched toward the kitchen.

He’s alive.

Those two words shifted the world off its axis, upset the precarious balance she’d found in the last year.

The phone on the kitchen counter rang.

“I’ll get it,” Henry said.

“I’ve got it,” Frankie shouted, diving forward to pick up the phone. “Hello?”

Barb said, “Frankie?”

“You saw him?” Frankie whispered.

“I saw him,” Barb said. “Are you okay?”

“Okay?” Frankie said, dragging the phone as far as she could, lowering her voice to a whisper. “I’m pregnant, my wedding is this weekend, and the love of my life just came back from the dead. How could I be okay?”

She heard Barb’s sigh slip through the line. “What the hell are you supposed to do now? I mean, engaged is one thing. Pregnant is another.”

“I know, but … it’s Rye,” she said quietly.

“I know.”

“I have to see him, at least,” Frankie said. As she said the words, she knew they were a half-truth. She wanted more than just to see him. She wanted the future that belonged to them. “I have to be on the airfield in San Diego when he lands.”

There was a long silence. Then Barb said, “I’m calling Ethel. We’ll catch a red-eye.”


All the next day, Frankie was so nervous, she couldn’t sit still, not even when Barb and Ethel showed up to rally around her. All she could think about was Rye … landing in San Diego … being alive.

“You should tell Henry,” Barb said. They were in the bungalow’s living room, she and Frankie and Ethel. Frankie’s new wedding dress—a lacy white prairie-style gown—hung from a hanger on a kitchen cupboard hook, reminding them all of the wedding scheduled for Saturday.

“I can’t,” Frankie said. She knew it would break Henry’s heart to learn that Joseph Ryerson Walsh, recently returned POW, was the Rye whom Frankie had loved.

Still loved.

She glanced nervously at the kitchen clock. It was 8:10 A.M. The plane full of POWs was scheduled to land in San Diego at 9:28. Frankie had called Anne Jenkins and gotten permission to be there. It had been easy to do on a day when Anne was busy with a thousand other details. “Sure,” she’d said. “Of course. Thanks again for all your help, Frankie.”

Frankie twirled her engagement ring on her finger, staring down at it, and then slowly took it off. She didn’t want Rye to see it until she had time to explain.

“If we’re going, we should go,” Ethel said.

They piled into Frankie’s Mustang and drove off the island and onto the mainland and arrived at the gates of the Air Station Miramar at 8:45.

There was already a crowd of people and reporters on the tarmac. Women, children, men, all holding up welcome-home signs. Wives and family and reporters were in front, friends and service personnel in the back.

“I forgot to make a sign,” Frankie said. She was so nervous, she couldn’t think straight, couldn’t stand still. In the front of the line, reporters held out microphones, threw out questions. Barb and Ethel stood on either side of her like bodyguards, giving her time to collect herself.

Would Rye forgive her for Henry, for being weak enough to say yes? For carrying another man’s child? While he’d been held and tortured, she’d been having a relationship with someone else. How could she make him believe she’d never stopped loving him?

“It’s landing,” Barb said.

Frankie glanced up, felt fear and joy in equal measure.

Would he still love her—a different version of him meeting a different version of her?

The C-141 medical evacuation jet descended, touched down on the runway, came to a stop.

Reporters ran forward, stretching out microphones and video cameras, clamoring with questions, but were stopped by a barrier from getting too close to the plane.

The three women were jostled by the crowd; a yellow line held all of the families back, but the wives and children strained against it, signs upheld, each jockeying to be in front.

At the plane, sailors moved the exit ramp into place. A naval officer stood at the bottom of the ramp, holding the reporters and families at bay.

The jet door opened and the first POW emerged, wearing khakis that were too big for him. Commander James, shot down in 1967. He paused at the top of the ramp, blinked in the harsh sunlight, and made his way down to the tarmac. At the bottom, he saluted the officer in front of him and was helped to a podium, set up in front of a phalanx of reporters.

He looked out at the crowd, searching for his family. “Thank you, America. We are grateful to have had the opportunity to serve our country, and grateful that our country has brought us home.”

His wife broke free, pushed past the reporters, ducked under the yellow tape, and rushed toward her husband, throwing herself into his arms. The crowd spread out, families clumped together. Frankie saw Anne Jenkins, standing with her children, and Joan and her daughter, and several of the other wives she’d met along the way. They all looked anxious, didn’t even wave to each other.

A commander emerged from the jet next. His wife and sons—and a man who was probably his father—moved forward to greet him.

And then there he was—Rye—standing at the top of the ramp, blinking as the others had, wearing freshly pressed khakis that were too big, a belt cinched tight at his waist. He limped down the ramp, clutching the rail with one hand.

Everything else fell away; the world around him blurred. Frankie saw the smear of camouflage-colored paint that was the jet, and a blob of reporters vying for comments, and heard the sound of sobbing all around her. She needed to push her way through the people in front of her, to get to the yellow tape, but she could hardly move. She was crying too hard to see. “Rye,” she whispered.

He limped forward, searching the crowd. Not seeing her, he veered left, toward the group of waiting wives.

“Rye!” she yelled, but her voice was lost in the sound of cheering. “I’m here!”

He headed for a tall, curvy woman with a cascade of curly blond hair who stood to one side, holding on to a little girl’s hand. The child held up a sign that read WELCOME HOME, DADDY!

He ran the last few steps forward, pulled the woman into his arms, and kissed her. Deeply.

Then he bent down to kiss the little girl with the WELCOME HOME, DADDY! sign. He swept her up into his arms. The woman wrapped her arms around both of them; all three were crying.

“He’s married,” Ethel said softly. “Son of a bitch.”

“Oh my God,” Frankie whispered, feeling everything inside of her start to crumble.

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