August 11, 1944
“Well, it looks as if you girls are in for a rough eight weeks.” The perspiring driver’s words vibrated like the bug-smeared windshield as she peered out at the robust figure standing stiffly ahead. “You’ve drawn the meanest sergeant in the service.” Braking hard enough that Bett’s shoulder briefly brushed the woman next to her as they both swayed along the benches of the converted cattle truck, the uniformed woman turned around to confront the assortment of faces before continuing her explanation. “Her name’s Sergeant Moore, but I’ve heard they call her Sergeant Less, ’cause she grinds her recruits down to a lot less than they start out with.” She chortled as the truck ground to a stop. The damp heat of a late Iowa summer promptly filled in the spaces where the air had been moving.
As if in confirmation of this assessment, the sergeant’s booming voice pierced the flapping back cover of the truck. “Get your asses out of that truck, ladies, and give me a line right here, right now!” Jolted into action, Bett and the other occupants began quickly gathering their possessions. The faces around her showed a variety of reactions: some were clearly terrified, others appeared determined, a few suppressing a smirk at the use of the word ass. Bett had to agree that it was almost funny to hear the words asses and ladies in the same sentence. Judging from the urgency of the sergeant’s tone, it was more important that everyone move the former than the obvious fact that several in the truck didn’t fit into the latter category. Clearly there’s a good reason this isn’t called the Ladies’ Army Corps, she thought.
“Move it, move it, girls!” the voice insisted as the truck lumbered away, leaving a blast of well-worn dust that settled warmly around the young women’s ragged line. Once the movement had subsided, the group silenced as the ruddy, narrow-eyed Sergeant Moore began to speak. “You are officially members of the Women’s Army Corps now. That means you will look Army, act Army, think Army, and be Army! And for right now, I am the Army. So that means you will do what I say, when I say it, how I say it. Are there any questions?” She waved a clipboard threateningly in their direction.
A general shaking of heads followed. Raising her voice a pitch, Moore added, “You are the sorriest bunch of recruits I’ve ever seen. I guess pickings must be getting mighty slim out there. Where did they find you?” She fixed a glare on the fourth girl in line, a stick-thin waif in a shapeless shift dress who, at first glance, looked as though she might blow over in a strong wind. “Skid row?” The girl ducked her head, her short hair not quite hiding the rise of color coming into her cheeks. She clenched her fists, hiding dirty fingernails and causing the wiry muscles in her arms to bunch.
“I am a sergeant,” Moore resumed. “That means you will answer my questions with ‘Yes, Sergeant’ or ‘No, Sergeant.’ Do you understand?”
“Yes, Sergeant,” a few brave souls mumbled.
“What?” Sergeant Moore almost screamed.
“Yes, Sergeant!” they replied together, loudly.
Moore’s skeptical gaze came to rest on a tall, fair-skinned redhead who had been regarding her almost pleadingly. Taking a step closer to the girl, she shouted, “Are you looking at me?” As the redhead shuddered, her eyes moving wildly around for anyone or anything else to look at, the segeant directed, “When you are being address by a superior, you hayseeds will look straight ahead, not at the officer.” Everyone tried to assume this expression as Moore looked down the line. Her critical inspection settled on a brown-complexioned young woman standing toward the end of the line on Bett’s left. The sergeant’s thick brows lowered and her voice was heavy with disgust as she snorted, “I can’t believe they keep letting mutts like you into my Army.”
Although her breath shortened, the girl remained still, looking at nothing.
Widening her contempt to encompass them all, Moore looked down at her clipboard as she barked her next order. “Sound off! For today that means you will give me your first and last name and where you’re from.” Moore stepped to the first girl in line, a young, pleasantly plump girl with streaky brown hair who managed to comply after a quick swallow.
“Charlotte Jackson,” she stated nervously, adding, almost unnecessarily to Bett, who was quite familiar with the soft, drawling notes of the South, “Montgomery, Alabama.” Moore made a notation on the paper.
The next girl in line was shaking visibly with her head bowed, and several of the others dared to glance at each other. Riding just the short distance to the base in the noisy truck, Bett had only heard a few words from the soft-spoken young woman, but she’d detected a significant stammer. She assumed the others had become somewhat better acquainted since they’d all been on the train for some time before she’d joined them at the station in Des Moines. Still, no one seemed to know what to do as Moore stepped in front of the frightened girl and demanded, “Well? Are you waiting for a personal invitation?” The girl’s mouth opened but no sound came out. She seemed unable to breathe. “Are you deaf?” bellowed Moore.
The girl swayed just a bit, as though she might faint. After a few more anguished seconds, Bett took a breath and called out in her most imperious tone. “Wait.”
In unison, the whole line turned toward the sound. Sergeant Moore’s head snapped around angrily, and Bett moved forward a step as she continued in her most pronounced British accent. “I wonder if you might indulge me, Sergeant. I’m an alumna of Oxford University”—she paused to offer a somewhat sheepish grin at her fellow recruits—“which is why I sound a bit like the Queen.”
At that, her fellow recruits began murmuring to each other.
“Like one of those characters on the radio.”
Before Sergeant Moore could recover from the surprise of being interrupted, Bett pushed a strand of blond hair behind her ear and continued. “My degree was in linguistics, but I presented on regional accents and colloquial dialects of the United States, so I was wondering if you might allow me a conjecture as to the geographical location from which each of these young ladies originates? Give my studies a bit of a tryout?” She ended with what she hoped was a winning smile, and the group stirred with relief and anticipation.
“What did she say?” the thin girl wondered in a whisper.
“She wants to guess where we come from,” the Alabama intonation replied quietly.
“Shut the fuck up.” If Sergeant Moore’s face was red before, it was now almost purple. The recruits were shocked and frightened into silence as Moore strode down the line. “What part of doing it my way did you not understand?” she snarled into Bett’s face.
“But aren’t you the least bit curious to see if she can do it, Sergeant Moore?” A new voice, clear and almost melodic somehow, cut through the sweltering tension. No one had noticed her approach, focused as they were on the drama unfolding at the other end of the line. Even Sergeant Moore appeared startled as she whipped around and then nodded briefly in acknowledgment.
“So is it Master Sergeant now, Rains? I was told you might be gone for half a day.” From her vantage point, Bett could clearly see Moore’s thinly veiled hostility as she eyed the stripes on the newcomer’s sleeve. “They’re letting you try out the new uniform, I see.” Though they both wore a stiff-brimmed, rounded khaki hat with the WAC insignia on the front, Rains’s long-sleeved khaki shirt and tucked olive green tie disappeared at her narrow waist into a pair of pressed khaki pants. While Moore’s stomach strained at the straight line of her skirt and the buttons of her top, the cut and drape of the uniform fit Rains’s form flawlessly and complemented the tight lines of her thin figure. In further contrast to Moore’s red-faced, threatening appearance, Bett’s first impression was that Sergeant Rains looked every inch the military model of command—concentrated, competent, and completely in control.
Seemingly unaffected by Moore’s antagonism, Rains’s voice was calm. “Yes, just now. But it’s still First Sergeant. Until we get this group through.” Facing the group, she stiffened to attention. “Good day.” Spontaneously, they all mirrored her position as she continued, “My name is Sergeant Rains and I will be your drill instructor until you graduate from basic training. I had a meeting at headquarters today and Sergeant Moore was kind enough to cover for me.” Turning back to Moore, she gave a curt, dismissive nod. “I know you’re due to rotate out for some R and R today, Sergeant. Thank you for your time.” They saluted each other at the change of command.
“Good luck with this bunch, Rains,” she said unkindly, handing Rains the clipboard as she got off one final comment. “I’ve been trying to teach them the fundamentals, but they’re dumber than a box of rocks. They might even cost you that promotion.” Turning back abruptly, she added, in a low, menacing tone, “And I’ll have my eye on you, Your Highness.”
Bett flinched, but more with distaste than fear.
Sergeant Rains surveyed the group again with a serious expression. As Moore’s retreating back grew smaller, they gave an almost unison sigh of relief. Rains focused her dark eyes on Bett as she began to speak. “So, Private…?”
“Smythe.” Bett filled in after the briefest hesitation.
As Rains gave another quick, almost imperceptible nod, there were some hoots and giggles from the rest of the line, apparently at the distinguished pronunciation the young woman gave to the common name. The sergeant silenced them quickly with a sharp look. “One thing the Army expects us to teach you is how to work as a team. More than that, the women in this squad will become your sisters.” Her tone was firm but pleasant, taking on an almost hypnotic cadence as she moved noiselessly down the line, looking at each girl. “So no matter how things are with your relations on the outside, you have a new family now. One that we will build together. We will look out for each other, learn to count on each other, trust each other, and respect each other. We will be making vital contributions to the war effort, and we will demonstrate something important about the abilities of the American woman. So to the outside world, we present a united front. We are together. We are one. Because your family, and now this Army family, is a big part of who you are and what you will become. Added to whatever else you have been, a daughter, a sister, the youngest, the prettiest”—two or three of the girls giggled slightly at this—“from this moment on, you are also a WAC.” She turned and went down the line. “But we are part of a larger family, too—the Army family. And there are rules for our larger family as well. We do things a certain way, because we know they work. What makes these rules fair to the whole family is that since everyone follows the same procedures and has the same experiences, we can understand each other more easily.”
Ending up again in front of Bett, she continued her lecture to the group. “Doing things differently can be a risk, because new ways may not get the results that we want. But sometimes a new thing is better and its success rewards us for trying it. Private Smythe here has taken a risk by speaking out. She wants to try something that is not the Army way. So we will try, and see if her risk is rewarded. But should she fail, you will all run one lap for each one she gets wrong”—she quickly swept her gaze over Bett—“to help us remember the pitfalls of questioning an officer’s instructions.” She turned to the group again. “Understood?”
The young woman on Bett’s left whispered, “I hope you’re really good at this stuff, girl, cause I hate runnin’.”
The rest were nodding as Sergeant Rains repeated, with slightly more volume, “Understood?”
“Yes, Sergeant,” came the unison, obedient reply.
Satisfied, Rains looked back at Bett, her head cocked slightly with curiosity. “Can you really tell where someone comes from, just from hearing them say their name?”
“Well,” Bett allowed, “since you’ve put such high stakes on it, I would like a little more opportunity to hear each person speak. Perhaps if they could also state, in one sentence, why they volunteered for the WAC?”
“Fair enough.” Rains moved back up the line, and instructed the group, “You will give your name”—she stopped and then added—“and what you prefer to be called, along with your reason for joining up. Private Jackson has already given her origins away, I believe,” the sergeant continued, and Jackson nodded. Rains stopped in front of the second girl, who had stopped shaking, although the long thin curls of her hair were drenched with sweat. The tall sergeant leaned away from her slightly, taking a nonthreatening pose, and said softly to the girl, “You may look at me, Private.” Teary eyes opened but did not look up. The sergeant’s voice gentled. “Can you tell your new family your name and why you volunteered?”
“Te-Te-Te…,” the girl began, in an almost sobbing voice, but kept her eyes open. Bett wondered if anyone else heard Sergeant Rains making a soft hushing sound, almost like what a rider would make to settle a skittish horse, that seemed to draw the frightened girl’s eyes upward. As she met the sergeant’s eyes, she took a breath.
“Teresa Owens,” she abruptly shuddered forth, almost surprising herself. “But everyone j-just calls me Tee, c-c-cause that’s usually all I c-c-can get out.” Then she added, “I volunteered b-b-because…” She trailed off, trying to catch her breath again. “Because we lost the farm and…if I’m not r-running the plow, I’m just another m-mouth to feed. No one in town would hire m-me and there warn’t nowhere else for me t-to go.”
Some of the other girls were looking at the ground, embarrassed, but Bett saw Tee relax a bit when Rains gave an encouraging nod. Then the sergeant turned to her with a questioning look as the rest of the group waited anxiously.
“Oklahoma,” Smythe said with some certainty, thankful that the stutter had not covered up the twanging vowels of the southwest. “Perhaps near Tulsa?”
Owens’s eyes opened wider. “She’s right!” A cheer went up and Bett breathed a sigh of relief.
The third recruit was a pleasant looking auburn-haired woman in her late thirties. “Barbara Ferguson,” she said clearly, “but you can call me Barb.” Her face turned solemn. “My husband got called up last month. He’s going into the Air Force and I thought there must be some way I could do my part, too. I know we all wanna do whatever we can to get our men home soon as possible.”
While the others nodded sympathetically, Bett smiled. Barb’s broad a’s and dropped r’s could only mean one thing. “Massachusetts. Boston, or perhaps Cape Cod,” she announced and the group cheered again as Barb smiled.
“Boston, Hyde Park,” she confirmed.
The thin girl gave her name as Helen Tucker. Still unwilling to look up, she mumbled angrily into the ground, her shoulders slumping. “My daddy was a miner. He got killed last month. My brother’s already in the Army so there wasn’t no one else to work for us. My auntie says the Army’s givin’ three meals and a bed, along with money each month. So I figure I need to learn me a trade.” Her head turned toward Tee and her voice seemed to strengthen. “Maybe just ’cause we’re girls don’t mean we hafta always be dependin’ on somebody else. Maybe not anymore.” Tee managed a small grateful smile, drawing in another shuddering breath.
A few of the other girls murmured in agreement and everyone seemed to stand a little straighter. The sergeant’s expression softened. “My brother is in the Army too, Private,” she said, her voice low. “That means our brothers are brothers, as we will be sisters.”
Helen’s head came up slowly. Her light green eyes met the sergeant’s dark ones defiantly for several seconds. What passed between them, Smythe couldn’t see, but when Rains offered no reprimand, Helen’s gaze finally shifted into the distance. In the silence, Smythe cleared her throat. “Kentucky. Western Kentucky.”
By then, Helen herself had straightened almost to attention. “Damn right,” she said, startling the line into a laughing applause.
Waiting for the enthusiasm to die down, Rains turned to study Smythe. She was surprised to see Smythe looking directly at her, although when their eyes met, Smythe dropped hers at once. Sensing some kind of discomfiture, Rains turned back to the group.
“Now, ladies.” Her tone was sterner now. “Tell me the truth and we will stop this now with no laps to run. Did you make this up as a prank on the train on the way here?”
Rains listened closely for signs of deceit, but the group denials were instantaneous and sincere.
The tough-looking dark-haired girl standing to the right of Smythe joined in, jerking her thumb in Smythe’s direction as she spoke. “Queenie here wasn’t even on the train with us, Sarge. She got in the truck from some big fancy car. I saw it.”
When one or two of the others began nodding in agreement, Rains jumped in quickly. “You’re out of line, Private.”
“Yeah, but, I’m just tryin’ to explain how this couldn’t be no setup, see?” insisted the speaker, turning back to Smythe. “Go on, Queenie, do your magic. Jo Archer. Here to defend the good ole US of A. From…?”
Getting the slightest affirmative motion from Rains, Bett finished in a fair imitation of Jo’s strong accent. “New York, New York.” More laughter and cheers followed as Archer shook her fists triumphantly, and Bett thought she might have seen the corners of Rains’s severe mouth turn up just a bit.
After Norwegian-looking Phyllis Kendrick, who had a nephew in the Navy and wanted to do something positive while waiting for a teaching job to open up, was correctly identified as being from Minnesota, the brown-haired, brown-eyed girl on Bett’s left introduced herself as Maria Rangel who was following the example of her cousin, a nurse who was already stationed in the Pacific. “Texas,” Smythe said after a few seconds’ thought. “South Texas?”
“No,” Maria said, a bit sadly. “I live in New Mexico.” A chorus of groans cut off when Rangel brightened as she added, “But I was born in Texas.”
Private Smythe turned to her sergeant. “Once a Texan, always a Texan?” she tried, her eyebrows raised persuasively. Rains folded her arms across her chest and responded with a kind of grunt that everyone seemed to take as a yes, and the cheering resumed.
In the entire row, Bett’s only miss came on Irene Dodd, a tired-looking older woman who rejected Bett’s guess of Illinois as incorrect but declined to give a specific right answer, only saying, “I’m from all over. We moved a lot.”
“And why are you here?” asked Rains, over the girls’ sighs of disappointment. Dodd had not volunteered this information either.
“I don’t know,” Dodd replied, almost disinterestedly. “Some guy give me a paper to sign outside the grocery where I worked. Said it would help end the war faster. A couple of weeks later, I get a notice in the mail to report here.”
There were a few seconds of silence, as if no one knew how to respond to this.
“Okay, Queenie, it’s your turn, anyway,” crowed Jo, flushed with their success. “And I’ll do the guessing,” she added with certainty, puffing her chest a bit.
“Well, my name is Elizabeth Frances Pratt…Smythe,” she began, her clipped British accent bringing the group to a courteous silence. “My friends at boarding school used to call me Pratt, because it sounds so much like brat, I think.” The group laughed easily. “But my family calls me Bett. My mother wanted it to be Beth, you know, from Elizabeth, but my little sister couldn’t say the h, so she called me Bett, and it just stuck.” She looked imploring at Jo and then took in the rest of the group. “But please, not Queenie. I admire Her Majesty, of course, but in spite of my accent I am an American—a proud American.”
Her patriotic assertion was met with scattered applause and some ragged cheers. “And your reason for being here?” prodded Rains.
Pushing her wavy blond hair back behind her ears, Smythe replied, “I had just left England when the war broke out there. I still have many friends and colleagues who are suffering through this terrible struggle.” She sobered as she added, “My father sent me away to school so I would learn to think for myself. When I came back to the US five years ago and begin doing just that, he was horrified. I was briefly employed as a teaching assistant at a local college, but enrollment dropped so dramatically once we entered the war that I was let go. So my father began trying to introduce me to polite society through endless boring parties, but I was able to dodge most of that drudgery, partly by volunteering in at the Red Cross and with the USO.” She looked down for a moment, and her voice softened. “I—I actually know…knew…someone who was killed recently in one of those horrible rocket attacks on London, so the war has become more than just news to me.” There were some sympathetic murmurs and nodding of heads. Her voice strengthened. “Shortly after that news I was taking a different route to the USO, trying to avoid a terrible traffic jam, and I saw the WAC recruiting office. It just seemed to call to me. I guess my family still thinks I’ve lost my mind, but there it is. And here I am,” she added, with the slightest curtsey.
Most of the group was smiling as they turned to Jo for her assessment, but Jo looked completely lost. “How do you do this again?” she asked Bett, who only smiled and put a finger to her lips. Jo turned to the rest of the company. “I give up. Youse guys go figure it.”
Names of numerous cities were suggested, but to each Bett only shook her head. “Why don’t you guess, Sarge?” Jo asked, when the calls had died out.
Rains shook her head slightly at Jo. “Here is one important thing for you to understand, Private Archer. Your sergeant will never guess. Your sergeant will always know. Los Angeles, California.”
She shifted her eyes to Smythe, whose expression had turned to one of complete surprise, and the group applauded at her reaction. Before the blonde could recover, Rains spoke again. “All right ladies, it’s time to get your gear and get you settled into your barracks. Let’s move.”
Rains formed them into two columns and began leading them across the compound at a brisk walk. Trying to keep her mind off the effort of breathing in the heat, Smythe focused on the sergeant’s lean form ahead of her. She walked with a graceful stride, but her long legs covered ground almost as if she were at a run. Bett had already seen that the sergeant had very black hair by the almost too-long bangs that draped above her eyes. From the back, a thin line of straight hair barely covered her neck. Bett was glad that she’d gone to her own beauty salon for a new shorter hairdo after she’d enlisted. She had no intention of letting some Army barber create some severe style with her hair as they seemed to have done to Sergeant Rains.
Bett heard the soft vowels of the Kentucky accent—Helen, wasn’t it?—whispering behind her. “Look at this place, Tee. It’s really somethin’. We’re gonna have us a time here!” She supposed that Tee, with her stutter, wouldn’t make much of a response, but she thought she heard a soft “uh-huh.” She took a quick glance at her new surroundings and was pleasantly surprised. The stately buildings on either side of the roadway stretched ahead almost as far as she could see. An intersecting street not far away stretched out to her left and right, with more of the deep red-brick and white-trimmed structures on either side. The Fort Des Moines grounds were much larger than she had expected and much more attractive. With its large shade trees and expanses of well-maintained grassy areas and numerous buildings in a pleasant neoclassical style, it almost resembled a college campus or even the business district of a town. Lines of women marched smartly in one of the fields; in another area, small groups were gathered in circles for what looked like some kind of instruction. The distant strains of a military band drifted across the warm air. She glanced to her right where Barb was wiping the perspiration off her brow.
“This place could use a visit from one of our nor’easters,” she whispered to Bett, who nodded agreeably.
Sergeant Rains halted at a large, low building and the squad fell in behind her, most of them breathing hard and wiping their faces. Dozens of other young women were in lines or milling about. “This is where you will get your gear and be directed to your barracks,” she called over the noise. Bett joined the group clustered tightly around their sergeant, wondering if her expression was as apprehensive as some of the other squad members’. Sergeant Rains looked over the scene around her and nodded thoughtfully, as if seeing it through their eyes. She raised one arm to shoulder height, almost as if safeguarding them from the surrounding chaos and gestured with her other hand, palm up. “Don’t be concerned about this process. The people inside have done it thousands of times and they will walk you through each step. We all want you to be the best soldier you can be, and this is just the beginning. I will meet you at your barracks when you are finished.” Bett felt herself relax at the clear confidence in Rains’s tone, and she exchanged quick smiles with Barb and Jo who were closest to her.
As the new recruits began to press up the stairs and into the building, the sergeant positioned herself near Bett. “A word please, Private.” They stepped into a shady spot on the side of the building. “Very impressive magic back there,” Rains began, not unkindly.
Bett tilted her head up to meet the officer’s eyes, wishing for her sunglasses. “Really, Sergeant, I’m sure you’re aware it was not magic at all. It was years of study, hours and hours of recordings, poring over US maps. It was my university degree, after all. And the girls gave me marvelous clues with their explanations of why they joined.”
“Hmm.” Rains made her little grunting sound again and looked away, across the compound. In the silence Bett felt compelled to go on. “But I would never have even thought of attempting such a thing if it hadn’t been for that horrible Sergeant Moore, screaming at little Teresa. What a brute.”
“Sergeant Moore was in the first officers’ class ever here at Fort Des Moines, back when we were the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and not eligible for protections or benefit of the regular Army,” answered Rains, sounding somewhat defensive as she focused on a stand of trees in the distance. “She has guided hundreds of women through this program, including me.” She hesitated. “But she’s tired. And I believe she recently got some bad news from home.”
“That may be, Sergeant, but being a bully will not make things better for her,” Bett replied, determined to make her point.
“This is not what I wanted to speak to you about.” Sergeant Rains tried to begin again. She turned her eyes back to Private Smythe. “I know who you are. Details of your enlistment were discussed in the meeting I had at headquarters today.”
“Oh,” Bett said and shifted her train of thought. She smiled approvingly. “So that’s how you knew where I was from.”
“It was my understanding that you were to avoid drawing unnecessary attention to yourself,” Rains continued, with a slight accusation in her voice. “If this is your idea of how to accomplish that—”
Bett cut her off. “No, of course not. But you didn’t hear how awfully Sergeant Moore was talking to everyone.”
“And were you not going to do anything about it?” Bett demanded, an accusation of her own.
Rains crossed her arms. “Hasn’t anyone told you that you are not supposed to argue with your sergeant?”
Bett duplicated her gesture. “Hasn’t anyone told you that changing the subject does not win an argument?”
The two women stared at each other for a few seconds. Bett had the thought that she had never seen eyes as bottomlessly black as Rains’s. Finally, she thought that ghost of a smile might have flitted across the sergeant’s mouth again.
“Get your gear, Private. And try to keep in mind that is what you now are,” she said, turning sharply and striding away.
Bett almost called out a sarcastic, “Thank you for the advice,” before remembering that this was a place where she was probably not going to have the last word. At least not with Sergeant Rains.
By the time she got into the building, the crush of bodies had thinned out a bit, and the girls from her squad were being combined with three other newly arrived squads into what would become their platoon. This group was separated into two lines—those whose hairstyle already fit the Army’s requirements, and those who would have to have their hair cut. Bett was able to move into the line where she was issued her supplies: two skirts, one olive and one khaki, with a matching hip-length jacket for each, five shirts, or waists, as the WACs called them, two neckties, service and athletic shoes as well as overshoes, cotton and wool hose—no silk was available, as “there’s a war on, you know,” a purse, gloves, underclothes, an exercise suit, pajamas and a bathrobe, a raincoat, a winter coat, a toothbrush, comb, a hat, and the Pallas Athena insignia of the Women’s Army Corps. They had also been told that certain supplies could be brought from home, so naturally Bett had brought all of those as well: her grooming and personal supplies, along with a sewing kit, pen and pencil and stationery, a bathing suit, a mirror, several selected pieces of her jewelry and, of course, her books. When they reached the barracks and she saw the small wall unit and footlocker in which her possessions were to be stored, Bett wondered if she had the spatial skills to organize everything. She began making some progress, but quite a few items were still piled on her bunk when Jo Archer interrupted her sorting process.
“Better get dressed, Queenie,” she said with a grin, modeling her uniform. “You can’t be out of that uniform for the next seven weeks, except at bedtime.” She held up her plain cotton WAC pajamas and added, “And even then, we’re all Army now.”
Ten minutes later, Elizabeth Smythe examined herself in the mirror and sighed. What have I gotten myself into? Army khaki wasn’t exactly the type of fabric she was accustomed to wearing, and although the various measurements that had been taken ensured that the uniform fit her fairly well, it wasn’t anything that anyone she knew would consider stylish. And the shoes were even worse. She opened her mouth to complain to the person next to her, but before she made a sound she saw that it was Helen, the girl from Kentucky. Helen was looking at herself in the mirror also, but her expression was one of pride and great satisfaction. I wonder how long it’s been since she’s had a new outfit of any kind, Bett thought, and instead of complaining, she smiled. “You look very nice, Helen.”
Helen’s smile was just a bit shy as she took a breath. “Uh, Bett, I got some room in my footlocker if you need a place to put some of your things.” Bett realized that her packing dilemma must have been obvious to everyone. I guess most everything in our lives will be common knowledge for the next few weeks. It also occurred to her that Helen had room to offer because she probably hadn’t been able to bring as many items from home.
“Thank you, Helen,” she responded gratefully. “And do let me know if you need anything.” She gestured at her suitcase. “As you can see, I always seem to overpack, so—”
Bett’s offer was interrupted as those who had gotten their new Army haircuts began to trickle in, some making faces and moaning and some jostling for position among the remaining narrow bunks. Among them was Tee, the girl with the stutter. Bett was pleased to note that Helen had saved the little Oklahoman a space on the bunk next to hers. Helen whistled playfully at Tee’s new haircut, making Tee blush. The company had pretty much finished unpacking their bags and making their beds when Sergeant Rains entered the barracks.
Bett’s bed was closest to the door, and Jo Archer had claimed the bunk below her where she was stretched out, filing her nails. “Hey, Sarge,” Jo said companionably.
“When a noncommissioned officer enters,” Rains began patiently, “you are to call out Attention! so that your squad knows to stand at the foot of their beds and be prepared for instructions.”
“Okay,” Jo acknowledged pleasantly.
Sergeant Rains waited.
“I mean, yes, Sergeant,” Jo tried again.
A small sigh escaped Rains.
“Oh—you mean, like, now?” Jo asked. Rains nodded. “Attention!” Jo tried to stand as she spoke, the top of her head narrowly missing the top bunk rail. That, and perhaps her sudden responsibility, made her so jumpy that only a squeak came out.
Hopping down from the bunk across the aisle, Minnesotan Phyllis Kendrick came to her rescue. “Attention on deck!” she called out loudly. “Officer on board.”
Rains paced quietly down the length of the barracks as the girls scrambled into position and held their poses of attention. Returning to Phyllis, she said, “Very good, Private Kendrick, but this is not the Navy. A simple Attention will do.”
“Yes, Sergeant,” Phyllis replied, and was rewarded with a slight nod.
“Ladies, your next activity will be to dress in your exercise clothes and meet me on the parade ground in fifteen minutes.” As they started to move, Rains froze them with the sharpness of her single word, “Not”—everyone waited and she continued—“until you are dismissed. And before you do that, your first order of business is to elect your squad leader. This private will be the spokesperson for your group, and the person to whom I will sometimes give orders for your behalf.”
“Queenie!” Jo called out, and a murmur of assent swelled in the room.
“Oh no,” Bett said, barely daring to sneak a glance at her sergeant whose message of discretion had been clearly delivered only a short time before.
“I’ll leave you to your democratic process,” Rains remarked, not meeting Smythe’s eyes as she left the room. As she stood outside, Rains tried to figure out which was the best solution. She could already tell that Smythe was going to be augmentative and problematic. Spoiled, Rains thought, or willful. Or both. Whatever it is that too much money does to people. Whatever the case, she would be hard to manage as she was probably accustomed to giving orders, not taking them.
Just then, Jo appeared. “Sergeant Rains, we need to know what other duties the squad leader has,” she requested. Rains gathered that the election was not going smoothly. Perhaps Smythe was attempting to remain inconspicuous after all.
“This is the private who will meet with me weekly or as needed,” explained Rains, “to discuss the problems and progress of your squad. There is also talk of possibly forming a kind of council, on which she would be your squad’s representative.”
“Got it,” Jo nodded. Rains cleared her throat. “I mean, thank you, Sergeant,” Jo amended, and turned to leave.
“Private Archer?” The firmness of Rains’s tone held no criticism. Archer turned back immediately. “We haven’t gone over this yet, but when your conversation with an officer has ended, you are to salute before withdrawing.” As Archer’s shoulders slumped a bit at this latest gaffe, the sergeant added reassuringly, “If you wouldn’t mind demonstrating with me when I show the rest of your squad, I’ll teach you the procedure now.” Steadily, Rains taught her the correct form for saluting and they practiced twice. Then she drew herself to attention and announced, “Dismissed, Private.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Archer said saluting proudly. “Thank you, ma’am.”
A good one, that, Rains thought as she watched Archer return to the barracks. Kindness inside, and willing to be taught. We’ll see if she has the ability to teach others. With that and a little more confidence, she could become a good leader. She had met several recruits from New York, and most of them had a proud kind of boldness that she appreciated. She felt it in Archer as well and thought that the young private would only need a bit of reassurance to make a good way for herself in the WAC.
Sergeant Rains turned her thoughts back to the matter of her new squad’s leader. Should the recruits select Smythe, those weekly meetings would give Rains a chance to make sure that Smythe’s cover was holding and to try to handle any problems before they got bucked up the line. When Colonel Issacson had given her this assignment, her contemptuous tone for this incoming private had not led the sergeant to expect the very attractive, confident woman whose image now came fully into her mind: a genuine smile and those amazing eyes—a blend of blue and green that Rains didn’t think she had ever seen before. Did they show her true spirit? In that moment Rains could hear her mother’s voice: Certain things may catch your eye, but pursue only those that capture your heart. Then Rains shook her head briskly. This was the Army. They didn’t care about spirit. And there was no place for her heart here. Why were her thoughts wandering this way? She began pacing, trying to refocus. She had a feeling that these were going to be the hardest eight weeks of her career.
Inside the barracks, Jo was in full election mode. “Yes, Queenie,” Jo insisted. “You can talk better than the rest of us put together.” Others chimed in with shouts of agreement.
“No, Jo,” Bett objected. “I simply can’t do it.”
“Well for one thing, I don’t think Sergeant Rains likes me,” Bett suggested, groping for a plausible excuse.
“Oh, come on. You don’t know that,” Jo countered. “She let you play that game of figuring out where we were from. Can you imagine Sergeant Moore letting that go on?”
The room filled with various moans and shudders at the mention of Moore’s name. “We sure were lucky to get Sergeant Rains instead,” Maria commented and there was agreement all around. After a few seconds she added, almost in a whisper, “But Sergeant Rains is kinda scary too, only in a different way. Not ’cause she’s harsh and mean like Sergeant Moore, but she just seems so…” She groped for a word while several of them supplied their own description for the tall, dark-haired woman who would control much of their lives for the next seven weeks—intimidating, forceful, commanding, decisive, strong—but Maria finished for herself, nodding slowly. “Like—like a superhero.” There was an almost equal reaction of agreement and laughter to Maria’s musings and she blushed and smiled, her hand measuring with descending heights as she added, “What can I say? I have three little brothers who read those crazy comics all the time.”
Archer jumped in again. “Well, hey, Queenie has her own superpower. She can see…well, hear where people come from, so she’s the right one to meet with our Super Sergeant.”
Bett tried to speak over the sounds of approval. “But she told me after you all went in to get your gear that I’d better not try any stunts like that again.”
“Oh, really?” questioned Phyllis. “I wondered what she was talking to you about.”
“Well that’s okay. You won’t be doing anything like that anyway,” Jo persisted. “You’ll just be speaking for us and meeting with her sometimes. And you can do whatever she wants then.”
Looking at the faces around her, it seemed obvious to Bett that no one else wanted the responsibility of facing their formidable sergeant on a regular basis. She threw up her hands in defeat and the room cheered.
On her first Sunday afternoon in camp, Bett spent her free time writing to her friends. Her decision to enlist had been so spontaneous that no one outside of her immediate family knew she had signed up for the WAC. The idea of their friend Bett in the military service was so absurd that none of her friends were likely to believe it without hearing the news directly from her. She couldn’t begin to predict the responses she would get by return mail.
As she was finishing her outgoing letters, faint shouting drifted in the windows from the parade grounds. Bett had noticed that there weren’t many people in the barracks, but she had been enjoying the relative quiet. Standing to stretch, she decided to walk over to see what was happening after finding her way to the PX where she could drop off her correspondence. On a grassy section of the field, an impromptu baseball game was under way between two groups of officers, and fans of each team were cheering from the reviewing stands. Bett scanned the faces and found Jo Archer sitting in the second row. She squeezed in next to her and asked, “Who’s playing?”
Just then Sergeant Rains came up to bat. Like the other women, she was wearing her exercise clothes, but unlike some who were playing bareheaded, Rains still wore her khaki uniform hat. Jo pointed at her and said, “I don’t know if these are official teams, but we’re rooting for Rains’s group. She stood and yelled, “Smack it, Sarge!” The noise level all around increased. “Notice how the outfield has faded back?” Jo pointed out as she sat back down. “Sarge must be a good hitter.”
Bett had no idea what Jo was talking about, but she was interested in watching her new drill instructor in such a different environment. After taking a couple of practice swings, Rains did not move as the first pitch came in very low. “Good eye, Sarge,” Jo yelled.
“Is there a score?” Bett asked as Rains stepped back into the batter’s box.
Jo shook her head. “This is the bottom of the first with two outs. Rains is the cleanup hitter,” she added as Rains’s bat cracked against the ball. Bett followed the long arc of it with her mouth open. But the ball seemed to be curving away from the field and bounced well away from the left field player who was running to get it. The player who’d been on first trotted back to her base.
“Foul ball,” the umpire yelled.
“Does that mean she’s out?” Bett asked.
Archer looked at her with disbelief. “Don’t you know anything about baseball?”
“No, not much, actually.”
Indulgently, Archer began to explain. “Well, a foul ball counts as a strike until the third one. Then it would have to be a swing and a miss or a tip that the catcher gets.”
“So she gets another chance?” Bett asked.
“Yeah. That’s only one strike and one ball. It sure traveled though, didn’t it?” Jo added, admiringly.
On the next pitch, Rains adjusted her swing and connected with another solid hit that went well over the head of the center outfielder and almost into the road. Rains circled the bases quickly, but without much effort. Archer and at least half of the bleachers were on their feet cheering. “Home run!” she yelled to Bett, who stood, too. “And an RBI.” After Rains crossed home plate, Bett saw her glance into the stands. Archer was pumping the air with her fists and yelling. Without fully turning in their direction, Rains touched the bill of her hat very briefly and went to sit with her team. One more run was scored and then the inning was over.
When they took the field, Jo pointed out Rains’s position and explained to Bett, “Some people think you can’t win a baseball game without a good shortstop.”
“How do you know so much about this game, Jo?” Bett asked.
Again, Archer appeared astonished as she looked Bett full in the face. “Are you kidding me, Queenie? Haven’t you ever heard of the New York Yankees?”
Bett smiled. “Yes, I suppose I have.”
“Well, there you go.” Archer returned to watching the game while keeping up a running commentary on the players and their skills for Bett’s benefit.
Bett had never been a big fan of sports but she did appreciate grace and form, and watching Sergeant Rains move around the infield was more than enough to keep her entertained. She was amazed by the way the sergeant seemed to have absolute control of her body, leaping to catch a ball hit in the air, charging a ground ball and pivoting in midair to make a throw, or sprinting into the outfield for a cutoff. Rains was clearly the leader of her team, and she showed uncanny accuracy at repositioning the outfielders to make an easy play on the ball as each new batter came up.
There were two outs in the top of the second inning when Sergeant Moore came up to bat. Bett suppressed the desire to boo, although she heard some rumbles from her squad mates. Clearly some of Moore’s friends or previous squad members were sitting on the other side of the bleachers, as they cheered and yelled encouragement for a hit.
“Those are all veterans,” Jo murmured to Bett, glancing admiringly at the group opposite them. “We talked a little as the teams were warming up. They all made it through basic and are working on the base.”
Bett looked over at the uniformed women, reflecting on whether anyone would ever point to her and say the same. Thinking of the eight long weeks stretching ahead of her in this place, she asked herself, Will I be able to do this? She’d always asserted her independence, fought for it—even against her own family members at times—and now her impulsive decision to join the WAC had led her back to a situation where her life was not her own, where she was subject to the commands and control of others. She looked for Rains on the field, watching as her sergeant signaled to the outfield players, all of whom then moved back a few steps. Sergeant Rains was very much the unknown element in this equation, but Bett felt quite sure that had Moore remained as their sergeant, her chances of making it through basic training would have been greatly reduced. But it was also true that once genuinely committed to something, she’d always followed through, even if she did make a point of putting her own stamp on things as she’d done when they arrived for their squad formation. So is this really what I want?
She swept her eyes past the players, across the well-manicured field, to a line of elegant, two-story Colonial structures with wide verandas. “That’s Officers’ Row.” Jo had followed her gaze. “Those houses have upper and lower apartments. Some of the male officers and their families live there and the rest are for WAC officers.”
Bett tried to imagine herself as an officer, living in one of those apartments, working on the base. Her ambivalence wasn’t due to the unfamiliarity of it all. She’d lived away from home for more than half her life, starting new courses each year, classmates coming and going, and at her all-girls boarding school they’d worn uniforms, too. She sighed pensively. And what if I don’t make it? Even though her family’s wealth gave her more opportunities than most other young women had, her options were still quite limited. Besides, her country was at war. In fact, the whole world was at war. If she did indeed want a part to play, then perhaps this was the place for her.
Jo sensed her mood and patted her shoulder a bit awkwardly. “Don’t worry, Queenie. That’s gonna be you and me in just a few short weeks.”
They both looked back over at the other group, and one sergeant, whose nameplate said Edwards, caught the serious expressions on their faces. Boisterously, she chided, “What’s wrong, rookies? Worried you’re rooting for the wrong team?”
Unaccustomed to sports banter, Bett looked to Jo. She needn’t have worried. Jo had already turned to face the big talker on the other side of the bleachers. “Nah, we’re just thinking how boring it’s going to be when Sergeant Moore strikes out.” Thinking of one last taunt she added, “As usual.”
The sergeant leaned toward Jo. “I don’t suppose you wanna put your money where your mouth is?”
Her friends laughed, and one commented, “Oh no, Mae. You know these babies won’t have anything to bet with, other than some nasty cotton stockings.”
Bett tugged on Jo’s sleeve. “Go ahead, Jo. I’ll cover whatever you think is right,” she whispered.
After studying Sergeant Moore for just a few seconds, Jo turned back to their antagonists. “Whatcha got in mind?” she asked coolly.
Edwards’s friend hooted. “You got a live one here, Mae. Don’t hurt ’em. Just make ’em pay.”
The sergeant looked around cautiously, then huddled with her fellow veterans. Several offers and counteroffers were made before the two sides settled on their wager. If Sergeant Moore got on base, the recruits would pay for the veterans’ drinks at Sweetie’s, a local club in town that was famous for its hospitality toward WACs. Of course, they wouldn’t be able to accompany them, since they wouldn’t be allowed off the base for another eight weeks. But if Moore stuck out or was thrown out, the veterans would spring for an equal number of drinks at the NCO club on base—and provide escorts so the recruits could get in.
“Good.” Bett turned back to Jo after they’d sealed the deal with a handshake. “Feel like doing some drinking tonight?”
Jo grinned. “Now you’re talking.”
Rains had been speaking to the third baseman while Moore took a few more practice swings. The umpire called, “Batter up!” and Moore stepped in.
“She’s a power hitter, Queenie,” Jo explained. “Just look at her swing and her stance. But power hitters strike out more often, too, so we’ve got a good chance here.”
Bett didn’t particularly want to look at Sergeant Moore, but she did notice that the catcher for Rains’s team had a wrap on her right ankle.
After Bett pointed it out to Archer, the New Yorker commented, “Oh yeah, I wondered why she had such a weird stance. She probably won’t make any plays at the plate.”
After taking two balls, Moore got off a long hit to right field, which dropped in just over the glove of the right fielder. The first baseman went out to be the cutoff and Rains headed to home, waving the injured catcher aside. As Moore came charging around third, Rains got the throw. Bett watched things happen as if in slow motion. Moore continued coming hard and Rains braced for a collision. At the last moment, Moore went down to slide in, but Rains dropped in time to tag her leading foot before it hit the base. They were both engulfed in a ragged screen of dust as the umpire yelled, “Out.”
For a moment, the noise from the stands drowned out almost everything else. Sergeant Moore’s fans were voicing their objections to the call as Rains’s squad and the others cheered loudly. Moore jumped up and began to argue the call with the umpire as Rains started away with the ball in her hand. As the noise from the bleachers was dying down, Moore continued her protest with a gesture at Rains’s departing back, yelling something that ended with “that motherless half-breed.”
Rains stopped walking. After about five seconds, she turned slowly and started back toward Moore. The stands got very quiet. The umpire stepped back, out of the way. When Rains and Moore were face to face—Rains a good four or five inches taller—Bett could see that the color had drained from Moore’s face. Unable to meet Rains’s eyes, Moore dropped her head and muttered something that might have included the word sorry.
Rains put the ball in her chest, perhaps a tiny bit harder than necessary and repeated, “You were out.” One of Moore’s teammates came up with her glove and pulled her out into the field. Rains went back toward her team’s bench. Bett began to clap and the rest of the spectators joined in.
By the time Rains was up to bat again, the other team had changed pitchers and was trying a lefty. The sergeant approached from the other side of the plate.
“And Sarge is a switch-hitter, too,” Archer said in an almost reverent tone. Then she grinned at Bett. “Just what you’d expect from a superhero.”
“Isn’t she supposed to be on the other side?” Bett asked, confused.
Archer began to explain about batting positions, but Rains hammered the first pitch into another home run.
Rains’s team won the game, 14–4.
“Don’t run off, ladies,” Jo teased Moore’s fans as the game ended. “Our throats are dry from all the cheering. We’ll be expecting our escort to the NCO club real soon.”
Good-natured grumbling sounded from Sergeant Edwards’s group as they gathered on their side of the stands, checking purses and pockets for extra change.
Bett was still absorbed in watching Rains as she joined her team to shake hands with the other players. When she got to Sergeant Moore, Bett could tell that Moore was still conscious of her outburst, but Rains simply nodded a bit and shook her hand like everyone else. Apparently she doesn’t hold a grudge. That’s good to know, Bett thought, wondering if they were allowed to speak to the players now. She gestured to Jo. “I’d like to congratulate the sergeant on her play.”
“Oh yeah. Good idea. I’ll go with you,” Jo said.
Rains was standing near home base, helping to collect the equipment, but she turned as they approached, several bats tucked in the crook of her left elbow. “Great game, Sarge,” Jo extended her hand for a congratulatory shake. “You bat like DiMaggio and field like Rizzuto.”
Their sergeant seemed relaxed and was as close to smiling as Bett had yet seen. “Thank you, Private Archer, but I think you must be missing your Yankees a lot to make those comparisons.” They shook hands. Rains’s face was a bit darker with exertion, her skin glistened with sweat, and her exercise clothes were quite dirty. Bett had never really been attracted to the athletic type, but something about having watched Rains’s body all day made her interested in knowing more. To her surprise, Rains turned to her, making eye contact. “Did you enjoy the game, Private Smythe?” There was something adorably cocky in her tone.
She knows how good she is, Bett thought, and she’s proud of it. Bett knew something about these sporting types. At Kent and at Oxford they all hung together, acting superior, but it was a different story when their prowess on the grounds or the court didn’t always translate to the classroom. And those field hockey players were the worst, Bett recalled, usually confident that their physical skills on the field would translate into something desirable off it. And she did seem to recall that one… Somewhat self-conscious as she dismissed the memory, Bett leaned slightly toward Rains, whose dark eyes drew her quickly back to the present. “I’m afraid I had to ask Jo for a lot of explanation about what was going on, but even I could tell you were the best player out there.”
Rains’s color heightened, and Bett detected some surprise in her response. “That’s very kind of you, Private.”
Bett thought she’d see how Sergeant Rains responded to more of a verbal challenge. “But then, you didn’t need me to tell you that, I’m sure. Your ability so clearly surpassed some of the other girls’ that it made the game somewhat unfair, really. I mean, look at the score.”
“We were born to succeed, not to fail,” Rains quoted calmly. “If you don’t bring your best to whatever you do, there is little point in doing it. A contest such as this one appears to pit one group’s effort against another’s and for some, that’s all it does. But as I see it, the true challenge is to improve oneself at each attempt. To strive for a personal goal, not merely to be superior to one’s opponent. Can I hit farther the next time? Can I throw more accurately?” Rains brushed her arm across her face, clearing away a glint of perspiration before leaning down to pick up another bat. “By your argument, should I assume that you sometimes deliberately missed questions on your school exams, just so your level of intellect wouldn’t be unfair to the other students?”
Bett was taken aback, quickly realizing that she had completely underestimated Rains’s intelligence and embarrassed that she had taken such a weak position. She shifted her stance slightly and tried again. “Of course, I’ve always felt that sports are overly glorified. There’s really not much contribution to society in sweating and heaving a ball around, wouldn’t you agree?”
Archer’s mouth dropped open and she leaned back, apparently trying to distance herself from her squad leader. Rains set the bats down and straightened, ticking off points on her fingers as she took up the argument. “At this level of play, Private Smythe, I think participation in certain games can teach us a great deal about sportsmanship and teamwork, as well as about ourselves. The hand-eye coordination required in batting and fielding is good preparation for some of our specialized jobs. Many of our women are unfamiliar with the intensity of competition and they need to learn how to perform successfully under such pressure, as well as learning how to work well with others, which is also an important facet of sport.” The sergeant moved her hands apart and stood with her palms out, softening her expression. “I was taught to view someone more skilled than myself as a role model, not as a competitor. Wouldn’t you agree that a community such as this functions better when the achievement of one becomes the possession of all?”
Rains paused for her reply, but Bett’s thoughts were too unsettled for a quick comeback. The idea that a community would benefit more from accomplishment by many instead of by the benevolent domination and informed control of a few was the exact opposite of what her father had preached at her for her entire life. Yet in this environment, it seemed to make sense. Jo was nodding in agreement.
Seeing that Bett had no ready response, Sergeant Rains added, “Plus, for some of the officers, the physical release of sweating and heaving a ball around helps us rechannel energies that otherwise might be misdirected at our more difficult recruits.” Her gaze sharpened on Bett, and Archer let out a short laugh.
“Okay, Queenie. I think that’s your third strike.” She put her arm around Bett’s shoulder as if to lead her away. “Let’s go celebrate”—she gave Bett a little shake—“or drown our sorrows.”
Seeing that Rains was again retrieving the equipment, Bett stepped away from Archer and deliberately slid her arm along Rains’s, reaching for the bats. “May I help you carry these?” she asked sweetly. The contact of their skin seemed to shock Rains and she took a step back as the bats spilled out of her arms. “Oops,” Bett said. Should I consider that a foul ball or a home run? She wondered if Rains had detected the same electricity that she had in their touch.
“No, Private,” the sergeant’s voice was almost harsh. “But thank you anyway.”
Archer jumped in, helping Rains pick up the bats. “Hey, Sarge, some of us are going over to the NCO club for a little liquid refreshment. Wanna join us?”
Rains did not look at Bett. “Thank you, Archer, but no. I’m not allowed to fraternize with enlisted personnel under my command and I…” Her voice trailed off for a few seconds. “I need to get cleaned up.”
Bett thought she detected something else in that hesitation but decided not to press it. “Well, thank you for providing the afternoon’s entertainment, Sergeant Rains.”
Rains made a funny little bow. “Glad to be of service, Private Smythe.” She turned back to Archer with a caution in her tone. “Watch your time. You must be back in the barracks before lights out. And”—she glanced at the veterans who were waiting—“leave no one behind, Archer.”
Archer straightened to attention. “You can count on me, Sarge.”
Rains mirrored her position as best she could without dropping the bats again. “I am counting on you, Private.”
Sergeant Edwards led the way over to the NCO club. There was no problem finding a table, and Sergeant Riley, another member of Edwards’s group, explained why. Sweetie’s, the bar in town, was the place to go. “Some of the local establishments aren’t particularly welcoming,” a corporal named Davis told them. Another veteran, Sergeant Patterson, added how she’d been deliberately ignored by the saleswomen in a downtown department. The antagonism apparently stemmed from the locals’ fear that the WACs were going to take their jobs, their men, and generally take over their town. Some places, the other veterans admitted, were okay. But Sweetie’s was the preferred hangout, where the owner always made them feel at home, and the food and drinks were as good as it got. Sergeant Riley went on at great length about how the walls were covered with pictures from all over the world where soldiers had renamed their commissary Sweetie’s or had constructed signposts with mileages to various hometowns, with Sweetie’s included.
Bett understood. Sweetie’s was a reference point, a touchstone for all those who came through Fort Des Moines, and it was probably one of those shared experiences to which Sergeant Rains had referred. Being there was common ground that gave them all a way to relate to each other a little better.
After they were served, the baseball game, and by extension Rains, was the next topic of conversation. Once the complaining about Sergeant Moore’s being called out at the plate had subsided, Corporal Davis informed the group that Sergeant Rains had never played baseball before she signed up with the Army.
“No way,” Jo said authoritatively. “No one could have her instincts for the game unless they’d been coached for years.”
“It’s true,” Riley joined in. “Sergeant Moore told us she taught her everything. Said Rains didn’t even know which end of the bat to hold or which hand to put the glove on at first.”
“Sergeant Moore strikes me as the type who would claim credit for teaching the sky to be blue,” Bett observed, bringing equal parts laughter and grumbling from the assortment of WACs at the table.
“Well, according to Moore, Rains could hardly write her own name when she upped,” another of the veteran WACs chimed in, turning to one of her squad mates. “Remember that girl—I think her name was Cindy—who got transferred from Rains’s squad to ours because she was so obsessed with Rains? The base shrink said it was unhealthy.” A few of the girls at the table laughed uncomfortably at this. The speaker didn’t seem to notice and went on. “Sergeant Moore spent a full week telling her every bad thing about Rains she could think of. None of it helped, though. One night Rains came back to her quarters and found Cindy in her bed. Moore said Rains came out of that room as if it was on fire. In the end they discharged Cindy with other-than-honorable.”
A quiet moment of drinking followed this story. That kind of discharge was every WAC’s nightmare. Besides the indignity of having to explain why you were suddenly out of the service, a blue ticket often meant difficulty in finding other work after being considered undesirable by the Army. Then Bett broke the silence by asking what she had really wanted to know. “So is Sergeant Rains married or dating or anything?”
Everyone looked at her for a second. Then one of the veterans said, “She’s MTTS.”
Bett and Jo looked at each other. They were already learning a lot of acronyms but hadn’t heard that one. Finally they both shook their heads and all the veterans laughed. “Married to the service!” They toasted each other.
Bett and Jo joined in the laughter, and Sergeant Patterson went to get the next round. Soon they were all the best of friends, swapping life stories and tall tales about basic training. Bett had to explain again about her accent. Jo made her guess where their new friends were from and Bett got four out of six right, causing Patterson to assure her that with a skill like that she could significantly supplement her pay once she could go off base to Sweetie’s or could make appearances at the NCO club if she got promoted.
After the fourth round of drinks, Bett began to notice that one of the veterans was making prolonged eye contact with her more frequently. She noted that the woman was wearing a pinkie ring on her right hand. In Bett’s experience in the scene, that meant someone who was looking. Looking for another woman. Bett felt fairly sure that the veteran, whose name tag said PFC Covington, was only window-shopping. Even though Bett also wore a pinkie ring, she was wearing several other rings as well, which seemed to confuse the issue for most women. Bett’s appearance was such that she was always assumed to be heterosexual, even by those who might know that not all women were. It wasn’t a deliberate cover-up on her part; she dressed the way she’d been brought up to dress since that was how she felt most comfortable. In her experiences among lesbians in London and in Los Angeles, she had noticed that there was much more role-playing among the working-class types. The trend among those women was to look extremely masculine or extremely girly—butch or femme. The butches acted tough and stoic; the femmes were flirtatious and solicitous. Having slept with both types, Bett knew that once the lights were out these roles didn’t necessarily hold true at all.
Bett was what those girls sometimes called kiki. They seemed to find it confusing or even offensive that girls like Bett didn’t identify as either butch or femme. Since she was often shorter than her partner, Bett was often led around the dance floor, but was more than willing to ask a woman to dance, in which case she could lead quite well. And in bed? Well, she didn’t believe in roles there either, although if she was with a woman who did, Bett was fine to oblige her companion for the night.
By the time they left the NCO club, Bett hadn’t yet had enough to drink to make Private First Class Covington her type. She was stocky and somewhat masculine looking, although she had a nice smile. As they began walking back to the barracks, Covington positioned herself close enough to Bett that she reached out to steady Bett when she stumbled over a curb. Yes, those hands definitely lingered just a bit longer than necessary, Bett acknowledged to herself. Hope springs eternal, I suppose. This was a sport she knew very well. All it would take would be some meaningful eye contact in return, along with a few smiles and carefully worded innuendoes on her part. As a veteran, Covington would certainly know a place to go. She gave it a moment’s thought and then decided she really wasn’t interested just now.
Leaving nothing to chance, in the event that Archer had trouble getting everyone back, Sergeant Rains waited in the guardhouse, having showered and changed, when the group came giggling along the sidewalk that ran past the gate. She ended her conversation with the MP on duty and trailed them unseen as they made their way to the barracks. The veterans were teaching Charlotte and Phyllis one of the WAC songs, singing its newly rewritten and amusing lyrics to the tune of “The Marine’s Hymn.”
She could hear Smythe laughing at the ending and she appeared to be the slightest bit unsteady. PFC Covington, who worked in the mail room, seemed to be unnecessarily close by, but she was not singled out in the good-byes that were exchanged when the two groups made their way to their separate barracks, so Rains dropped back from the group.
Charlotte and Phyllis were also a bit wobbly as the squad stood at the foot of their beds for Rains’s inspection, but she moved through quickly before announcing, “Lights out,” and leaving without any other comment.
For a time after they were all in bed, Bett’s mind was still working, proof that she really hadn’t had that much to drink. The veterans had turned out to be quite pleasant, almost gracious, once they’d accepted their loss. After replaying some of the more interesting conversation from the NCO club, Bett decided she was glad that she hadn’t tried to make any further arrangements with Covington. There was no reason to start that up again. Not yet, anyway. She ran over her losing argument with Rains, almost ready to laugh at herself for being so soundly overcome. She was intrigued by the sergeant’s comments about competition and success, so opposite of her own upbringing. But she kept coming back to how Rains had reacted to her touch. As if it was on fire, the veteran WAC had said of the other incident. Maybe officers were trained to be like that.
Not exactly homesick but not completely comfortable in her surroundings either, Bett drifted through thoughts of England, of home, of her friends and what they would be doing right now. She was almost asleep when she felt a brush of air as the barracks door opened. Her anxiety level jumped. Who could it be, coming in at this late hour? Her father’s relentless warnings about threats to her safety began playing in her mind like a broken record until they stilled as Sergeant Rains’s form moved soundlessly past. Relief flooding through her, Bett pretended to be asleep as her sergeant walked through the barracks. Will she check up on us so late like this every night?
She peeked ever so slightly as Rains slowly made her way to the far end of the barracks, retrieving Tee’s ragged teddy bear from the floor and returning it to her arms and taking a book out of Barb’s sleeping hands and setting it on the floor nearby. She’s not really so tough. Bett smiled to herself, quickly closing her eyes and holding very still as Rains began moving back toward the door. The sergeant paused at her bunk and said softly, “You had better get some sleep, Private Smythe. I’ll be running you tomorrow.” Bett was so stunned that she didn’t know what to do, so she just lay there with her eyes shut. Maybe Rains did have superpowers. She thought she heard her sergeant breathing out a chuckle as she went through the door.
True to her word, Sergeant Rains started her squad out with a morning trot after a stretching routine, taking them on a course which helped familiarize them with certain locations on the base. Along the same road where the quartermasters were located, she ran them past the theater, a chapel, tennis courts, various administrative offices, classrooms, and the PX which, in addition to a well-stocked store for toiletries and cosmetics and magazines, also housed a beauty salon, soda fountain and grill, and a dry cleaners. It was also the place to send and receive mail, so there was always a crowd there. This was only a small portion of the base, but Bett suspected that Rains had chosen to point out the places that would be most visited by the new recruits. While they recovered from their exercise, sitting on the bleachers of the reviewing stand, the sergeant went over various aspects of military courtesy, including where, when, and how to salute an officer. She called on a well-prepared Private Archer to help demonstrate, which obviously pleased the New Yorker, and appeared satisfied when most of the girls already demonstrated the correct form. The lecture continued with information such as where and when smoking was permitted and how to get special leave to go beyond the fifty-mile radius of the fort once off-base privileges were approved. They would have one of these lectures on the Army way everyday for the first few weeks. Although some of the girls listened with rapt attention, Bett just managed to resist rolling her eyes and yawning with boredom. I just can’t wait until we go over the Army way of tying your shoes and brushing your teeth, she thought irritably.
Then it was time for their first class, which was on food preparation. Bett was probably only expressing the views of some other participants in the class when she blurted out, “Aren’t we supposed to be getting women out of the kitchen?”
Helen, who was apparently ready to come out of her shell, chimed in, “Damn right. I didn’t join the Army to cook. I could do that at home.”
A rebellious mood was created and the presentation was not particularly successful. At lunch, Bett noted the lieutenant in charge speaking to Rains while gesturing in the direction of her squad’s table.
At the exercise session before the next class, Rains walked among them as they were stretching. “Being in the Army is not an exercise in personal privilege. It is about learning to contribute your individual skills toward the advancement of the group.” She stopped near Bett and continued. “Just because you don’t find a particular class to your liking, you must allow for the fact that someone else in your squad may have been waiting for just that opportunity. We are here to build each other up and encourage every member of our family, not to let our own preferences negatively influence our sisters’ interests.”
At this Bett had a flash of regret, remembering Barb talking about how much she liked to cook.
Unfortunately, the afternoon class was on secretarial skills. Bett tried not to let the presentation of traditional roles bother her, but when the lieutenant presenting the material referred to the boss as he for the tenth time, Bett raised her hand. “When can we expect the boss to become a she?” The class roared with laughter and applause.
This time it was a private conversation with Sergeant Rains held in the hall after the rest of the squad had been dismissed. “I’m sorry, but at university we were expected to challenge pre-existing notions like that,” Bett tried to explain.
“In case you haven’t noticed, Private Smythe, you are no longer at Oxford,” Rains said in what Bett had come to think of as her patient teaching voice. “And you must admit that the odds are considerable that most of these women will be working for a male boss at some point in their lives.”
“Of course, Sergeant,” Bett said, feigning agreement, “especially if we don’t take advantage of this historic opportunity to try to change that.”
“Do you intend for your stay in the Army to be a personal crusade for improbable causes or are you here to do something for your country?” Rains countered. Not waiting for Bett to reply she went on, “Because I must warn you, Private, if you continue on this path of disruption in your classes there will be consequences that you will not enjoy.”
“Are you threatening me with some kind of retaliation simply for asking questions or giving my opinion?” Bett was incensed.
“I’m only trying to make you aware that in the Army there are measures which are designed to help mold recruits into part of a whole. On your next outburst, you will find yourself subjected to those measures.” Sergeant Rains paused and rubbed her hand across her forehead, under her bangs. Adjusting her hat slightly, she continued, “I know you are an intelligent person, Private Smythe. You can understand that at some point I will have no choice. You must find the self-discipline to hold your tongue. Especially to these superior officers.”
“Superior?” Bett muttered, loud enough for Rains to hear.
The sergeant sighed. “Dismissed.”
Bett did manage to remain quiet during the next morning’s munitions class, which was not a topic of particular interest to her but was well-presented by a dark-haired, thick-waisted lieutenant with an interesting accent. Cajun? Bett wondered. It seemed that the lieutenant’s eyes came back to her frequently. At lunch, Bett noticed the same lieutenant talking to Rains but felt it couldn’t have anything to do with her behavior. Sergeant Rains does look displeased somehow, Bett thought, but nothing came of it.
The afternoon class was about the Quartermaster Corps. As the major in charge droned on about facilities and labor, shop systems, excessive stockages, packing materials, and inventory control, Bett found it so boring that she fell asleep. She might have gotten away with it, except that she had a vivid dream in which Sergeant Rains was trying to wake her. She jerked herself upright, saying, “Oh, shite,” loudly enough that everyone in the room heard, including the base commander, who was observing the squad. Colonel Janet Issacson was a no-nonsense woman with streaks of gray invading her wavy brown hair. Once the class was over, Bett was ordered to wait in an empty classroom next door, where she could hear Issacson questioning Rains on her disciplinary tactics to date. They then discussed her punishment.
“KP for a month and ten extra laps every day for a week.” Colonel Issacson’s somewhat muffled order didn’t hide the brusqueness in her tone. “You said yourself that she’s been warned. Maybe we can get rid of her after all.”
Bett bristled at the words until she heard Rains’s answer.
“Yes, ma’am,” Sergeant Rains replied, her voice sounding more pensive. “In most cases I would agree with you. But I believe Private Smythe could become a good soldier if she wanted to. I’m not sure that KP for a month and extra laps for a week will make her want to.”
There was a pause and then an almost-sad sigh. “Well, something is going to have to be done, Sergeant. Our enrollment is still down after that ridiculous slander campaign last year. This is bad for the morale of her whole platoon and her instructors, something we certainly can’t afford.”
“KP and laps for a week, but I’d like to assign her to do some additional tutoring with some of the squad members who are struggling,” Rains suggested. “I think that would be a more productive use of her abilities.”
Issacson cleared her throat, sounding as if she was ready to be done with the matter. “Very well, Sergeant. See to it and make it stick. If she slacks this, she’s out. Sergeant Webber will take your people for the afternoon exercise.”
Well, at least she stood up for me…somewhat. Bett expected her sergeant to come through the door right away, but she didn’t. Time stretched out. Half an hour passed, then forty-five minutes. Bett knew better than to leave the room without permission, but she needed to go to the bathroom. Finally, just when she was about to give in to her bladder, Sergeant Rains appeared in the doorway.
Bett opened her mouth to ask, Where the bloody hell have you been? but the sergeant spoke first. “This is your first chance to practice the self-discipline that I spoke of, Private, unless you’d like me to come back later.” Bett closed her mouth and crossed her legs. Rains waited a beat and then nodded. “Good.”
After a stop at the restroom, they went to the parade grounds. Rains stretched out on the bleachers and watched the sky as her recruit ran. By the last lap, Bett’s pace had slowed considerably.
The sergeant was standing as Bett panted to a stop. “You’re not injured, are you, Private?”
“No, but I need to eat.”
Sergeant Rains crossed her arms and raised her eyebrows. “Kindly address me as your officer, Private Smythe.”
Bett breathed an exaggerated sigh. “No, Sergeant Rains, I am not injured. But since you asked, I am hungry.”
“I think that you will miss dinner tonight, Private. But I will bring you something while you are doing your KP.”
They began walking toward the mess hall. “How long is this KP going to take?” Bett asked.
Rains didn’t answer.
Bett rolled her eyes and emphasized the name at the end of her question. “How long is this KP going to take, Sergeant Rains?”
“That depends on how fast you are at peeling potatoes, Private Smythe,” Rains replied evenly.
They went in the side door of the mess hall, into a small area in the back of the kitchen. There were two buckets, a stool, and mounds of potatoes everywhere.
“You must be joking!” Bett sputtered. “There is no way I am peeling this many potatoes.” Rains waited silently. “I’m serious, Sergeant Rains. This is too much, really.” Bett was shaking her head.
“You may think so, Private, but you’ve been given an order. This is your evening duty.”
“Well, thank you very much, but no thank you.” Bett turned and started back out the door.
“Halt!” Rains’s voice was knife’s edge sharp. The tone made Bett stop immediately. Two MPs appeared in the doorway. “Escort Private Smythe to the stockade,” Rains ordered.
The MPs came alongside Bett and maneuvered her out the door. Rains accompanied them across the grounds and up the steps of a small, squat building. They climbed five steps and went through the door into a hallway, which opened into an anteroom. Another MP, who was sitting at a small desk, rose as they entered. Beyond him, four very small jail cells—two on each side of the hallway—were visible. All were empty. Bett had been moving automatically, but she stopped abruptly when she saw the cells. The MPs stopped behind her, but Bett was trying to back up.
Rains spoke from behind the MPs. “Private Smythe, you disobeyed an order and you were deserting your duty. The punishment for that is a night in the stockade.”
“Oh no, no, I can’t,” Bett said in a haunted tone of panic. As one of the MPs held her arms, the other took a set of keys from the MP at the desk and opened one of the doors. Bett began to struggle fiercely. There was pure hysteria in her voice. “No! No! No!” She turned enough to see Rains standing there. Pleading now, she cried, “Sergeant Rains, I can’t stay in there. I can’t. Oh my God! Oh God, no.” She was beginning to hyperventilate. “Please, no. I can’t. Oh God, please.”
Sergeant Rains looked at Bett closely and saw her eyes rolling wildly, almost as though she were a spooked horse. She is definitely not faking, Rains realized. “Let her go,” she ordered and Bett stumbled away from the open cell. Rains caught her arms carefully and the top of Bett’s head butted against Rains’s chest. Bett’s eyes were closed and her breathing was still very fast and ragged. She was making whimpering sounds of fear. “You are claustrophobic?” Rains asked. In her NCO training, she had learned of various psychological ailments like this, most of which would disqualify someone from the service. Bett managed a slight unsteady nod.
Rains dismissed the MPs and walked Bett back outside into the fresh evening air. She was shaking badly and Rains was worried that her rapid breathing might cause her to faint. On the steps, she made Bett bend over and kept her head down for a count of five. Then Rains had her sit on the end of one of the low cement sidings along the steps, so that Bett’s legs dangled off the front edge. “I’m going to loosen your collar, Private,” she said, working down Bett’s tie and undoing the top two buttons. Smythe was still gasping for air, her chest heaving. Rains knelt behind her and put her right arm around Smythe, resting her fingers on the breastbone, just below the opening of her throat. “Slow,” she said softly. “Slow your breathing.” Still ragged, but a bit slower, she judged. “Now try just one deep breath—breathe in…slowly…fully.” Rains breathed with her. It took Bett two tries, but she finally matched Rains’s respiration rate. “Easy…good. Now out slowly. Again. Good.”
Less than fifteen seconds later, Bett’s breathing was coming under control. Rains removed her fingers from Smythe’s front, laying them briefly on her temple. Her pulse and temperature seemed to be returning to normal as well. Rains started to get up but felt Smythe begin to shudder again. This time it felt more like normal crying. Rains spoke gently, close to her ear, her hands very lightly on Smythe’s shoulders. “Sh. It’s all right. You won’t have to stay in there. Come. We’ll go back over to the mess hall.”
Bett took in another shaky breath before giving a slight nod. Rains helped her up. Wiping her eyes as they walked slowly, Smythe was still shivering occasionally, even though the night was warm. Rains thought it was probably the last of the panic leaving her body, but she wanted to make sure there was no chance of shock. Unbuttoning her jacket, she slipped it onto Bett’s shoulders. “There is nothing in your file about claustrophobia, Private.”
Looking gratefully at Rains, Bett pulled the jacket close around her. “Thank you, Sergeant.” She ran her hands over her face and her voice was small. “I lied. I didn’t want anything to interfere with my enlistment going through. Are you going to run me off now?”
“No, not just yet. But is there anything else you need to tell me about?”
Bett sighed and stretched her neck.
Good, Rains thought. She’s moving more normally.
Looking down at her hands, Bett had a little shyness in her voice. “Yes. I’ve never peeled a potato in my life.”
Sergeant Rains looked away so quickly that Bett wondered if she was trying to cover her reaction. When she looked back at Bett, her face was serious as usual, though as they passed under a light, Bett thought she might have seen a little amusement in Rains’s eyes. “Well, we are going to remedy that inexcusable gap in your education tonight, Private.”
Rains settled Bett into the small potato-filled room with a plate of cold chicken, some fruit, and a roll along with a small glass of milk that she rustled from somewhere in the kitchen. While Bett ate, the sergeant carried in another stool, peeler, and two more barrels. She took her jacket back from Bett and hung it on a nail that was sticking out slightly from a window frame. Gesturing to it, she added, “The Private Rains Commemorative Coat Rack.”
Bett giggled, but Rains kept her face neutral as Bett teased, “You can’t mean that the fabulous Sergeant Rains was once a lowly potato-peeling private.”
“Private Smythe, if you started now and really worked at it, I still don’t think you could ever match the number of potatoes I’ve peeled in this very room. Now, this is how it’s done…” She rolled up her sleeves and began the demonstration.
Bett had not noticed the size of Rains’s hands before, but it was nothing for her to palm even the largest of the potatoes. The sergeant deftly swiped the peeler around and after a few quick strokes she tossed the potato into one of the barrels. “I think we’d better stick with the basic peeling technique for now. If you were more skilled, I’d recommend the difficult and technically advanced peeling, where you’ll be able to trash the peel without letting it drop. This can save a good twenty-five minutes off your total time.” She shook the peels from her hand into the other barrel. “Try it.”
“I had no idea that potato-peeling could be such an art form,” Bett mused, picking one up uncertainly.
“Henry David Thoreau said that the highest condition of art is artlessness,” Rains replied. “I’m sure he must have peeled quite a few potatoes.”
Bett laughed again but in her mind she was moving into a new level of appreciation for Sergeant Rains. Not only is she smarter than I expected, she can be rather amusing and…unexpectedly kind. She could have left me screaming in that dungeon. I’m sure Sergeant Moore would have. She watched Rains’s hands work another potato and thought of how the touch of Rains’s fingers had calmed her panic. Or was it that voice? Low and almost lilting in its cadence sometimes. Where is she from?
Rains’s voice broke into her musing. “Come now, Private. I’ve done five potatoes and you haven’t finished that one. Take off your jewelry and get busy. I’m not going to play Huckleberry Finn to your Tom Sawyer.” She sounded adamant, but not angry.
“Yes, ma’am.” Bett smiled to herself as she put her watch and rings into her pocket. She tried to work faster, but her mind kept interfering. What had that other WAC said? That Sergeant Rains couldn’t even write her name when she joined up? Well, she was obviously able to read, since there had been two literary references in her last two sentences. Wearing just the shirt from under her WAC jacket, Rains looked thinner, although the muscles in her forearms flexed nicely as she worked. Just then Bett noticed that Rains was switching hands about every third potato and operating the peeler just as efficiently with her left hand. She was about to ask the sergeant if she was truly ambidextrous when Colonel Issacson came through the door. Rains dropped the potato and peeler and quickly stood at attention, saluting. Bett joined her a second later, but not before she detected an embarrassed grimace on Rains’s face.
The colonel’s perceptive brown eyes surveyed the scene: Sergeant Rains with her jacket off and sleeves rolled, obviously helping with Private Smythe’s KP duties, Smythe’s empty plate from the mess hall. “I understand there was a problem at the stockade?”
“Yes, Colonel. Apparently some information in Private Smythe’s file was…incomplete,” Sergeant Rains responded, sounding very formal.
Issacson’s gaze lingered on Bett for a moment. Keeping her eyes fixed on the wall, Bett tried not to squirm. “I see. But things are resolved now?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Rains stated firmly.
Bett wondered if she should say something and then decided that it would be better not to. She gave just the slightest nod of affirmation.
Colonel Issacson looked back at Rains. “Very well, Sergeant. Carry on.”
Rains saluted again. Bett copied her. After Issacson left, Rains let out a breath as she turned and picked up her jacket.
“Have I gotten you into trouble, Sergeant?” Bett asked, genuinely worried.
“I shouldn’t be here helping,” Rains said, almost to herself, rolling down her sleeves briskly. “I should have reported in as soon as we left the stockade.” She glanced briefly at Bett. “I’ll be back to check on you later, Private.”
Grabbing her jacket, she was gone before Bett could say another word. Bett resumed peeling, despite feeling somewhat forsaken. She thought about how Sergeant Rains had defended her to Issacson earlier and now had covered for her lie to the admissions board. Of course I could become a good soldier if I wanted to, she thought, somewhat crossly, but then checked herself. Perhaps she owed Rains’s Army some benefit of the doubt. It was certainly a better option than going back to her family with her tail between her legs, admitting that she couldn’t get through eight weeks of Army basic training.
It was well after midnight when the sergeant came back. Bett had fallen asleep leaning against the wall with a potato in her hand. She had finished about three-fourths of the job. By the time Bett awoke, Rains had almost completed the chore. When she heard Bett yawn and stretch she said, “Sleeping on your post is a serious infraction, Private. You’ll have another week of this if it happens again. In the future, you finish your duty assignment first and then you rest. You are dismissed.”
Bett had made up her mind to try and be better about Army protocol. She cleared her throat and replied, “Understood, Sergeant. But aren’t I supposed to complete this task myself?”
“Ordinarily yes, Private. But your emotional evening has taken its toll, I’m sure. For tonight only, I will finish your work. I don’t want you thinking that you have an excuse for sleeping in class tomorrow. Dismissed.”
Bett knew she shouldn’t argue but she didn’t want to leave things on a bad note. She nodded, but then bent and rested her hand carefully on Rains’s forearm. It was lean and hard with muscle. She resisted the sudden urge to run her hand along the length of it. “I still want to say thank you. I appreciate the way you handled…well, everything.”
Whether Rains turned to the touch or to the sound of her voice nearby, Bett wasn’t sure. But for a moment their faces were close, and Rains’s dark eyes searched hers with an unexpected intensity. Unable to venture even a guess as to what she was thinking, Bett wondered if Sergeant Rains always had her guard up, if there was a reason why she always seemed to maintain such distance. Then for one second, she thought she saw a change, a gentling of Rains’s expression. Almost immediately, it was gone. Rains turned back to the potato in her hand and said, “Good night, Private.”
Everything was quiet when Bett got to the barracks. She got ready for bed as carefully as possible, so as not to disturb her squad mates. Almost without meaning to, she touched the place below her throat where Rains’s fingers had been before she fell asleep.
As she finished the last potatoes and swept the little room, Rains went over the roller coaster of events that the night had produced. She had anticipated that Smythe would be difficult about her KP assignment and had the MPs standing by for just that reason. She had been prepared to let a night in the stockade make the significance of Army orders a little more imperative to a spoiled rich girl. But when the severity of Smythe’s claustrophobia became evident, Rains had been fine with changing that plan. It was not in her character to injure someone without good cause, and the private’s initial failure to peel potatoes didn’t warrant serious psychological damage. Once Smythe had recovered sufficiently to admit that she had lied about her claustrophobia, the way she had challenged her situation with, Are you going to run me off now? told Rains that she really wanted to stay in the Army.
Sergeant Rains’s experiences with difficult recruits in the past had taught her that these types often said the very opposite of what they wanted. Those who would yell at her, Why don’t you just send me home, then? really meant, Please don’t sent me home. This place is very different for me and I just need a little more time. By her own manner even more than with her words, Sergeant Rains always managed to convey the same answer: We want you here. There is time for you to learn. But you must show respect if you wish to be respected. Then the absurdity in the way Little Miss Rich Girl had timidly acknowledged that she had never peeled potatoes had made Rains want to laugh. It had been quite some time since she’d had that reaction. Apparently Smythe had what some of the other sergeants called a quick trigger. She would lash out suddenly when upset, but she was quite manageable once that had passed. After the simple acts of getting Smythe some dinner and teaching her the most efficient way to peel a potato had created a familiar, almost friendly relationship between them, Rains had found herself relaxing, confident that she was getting Smythe on the right track. It was most unlike her not to think about reporting in, though, especially considering the critical nature of Smythe’s presence here. Her report for Colonel Issacson tomorrow had better be thorough, but she felt that it could be mostly positive.
As she walked slowly toward her room, Rains considered that last moment when Smythe had moved to touch her arm. Instead of the crackling heat of their last contact, this was gentle, almost tender, and surprisingly…nice. And as Smythe bent to speak, her face was so close that Rains had let herself look, really look, into those blue-green eyes. There was almost always a time when Sergeant Rains took the measure of each of her recruits—where she would sense the proportion of their willingness or their cunning, whether there was fortitude or intelligence or deception or fear within them. These moments would come in their own unforced time and Rains knew how to wait. She’d already had that opportunity with Helen Tucker during their initial meeting. In those seconds of eye contact, Rains had seen Tucker’s anger waiting just below the surface, ready to loose itself on a target. Beyond that, though, was pain. For the recent loss of her father or something more, Rains wasn’t quite sure, but she understood both of those emotions all too well and had readied herself to absorb either. But Tucker had chosen to capitulate—that time—to what was being asked of her in this new environment. Rains was glad and felt hopeful that Private Tucker would find her place here, especially if she could find an outlet for those things that troubled her. She’d had a similar moment of assessment with Archer as well, and had been pleased by it.
In Smythe’s eyes she had seen surprising depth of character, both a goodness of heart and an unexpected yearning, almost sadness over something lost or absent, which Rains would not have expected from the daughter of the forty-second richest man in America. And as Smythe had met her eyes willingly, had searched her in return, a warmth had kindled between them for a few seconds. Rains believed she knew why that had happened. Because while helping Smythe recover on the steps outside the stockade, in trying to model breathing more slowly for the shaky private, Rains had fully breathed in a scent—the mix of Smythe’s skin, tinged with her soap, shampoo, and what must be a hint of some exotic perfume. The chemical blend that made Bett’s own particular aroma was now lodged in her memory. Even Rains’s jacket, after the short time that Bett had worn it, had enough traces of it to call her to mind. Enough of that, Rains ordered herself, so now you know her. The rest of her thoughts matched the timing of her footsteps as she mounted the stairs to her room. Clear your head. Cool down. Tighten up.
That morning everyone in the barracks wanted to ask about Bett’s KP. Bett only told them about the laps and the potato peeling. She didn’t mention the incident at the stockade.
“Was Sergeant Rains really mean?” asked Maria.
“Well, not too much,” Bett admitted. “She was tough on me about acting up in the classes and she’s right, really. She made sure I had dinner, even though it was late, but then she left me with enough potatoes to sink a battleship.”
“Do you think she’s still mad at you?” Phyllis wondered.
“I’m not sure,” Bett began slowly. “She’s so difficult to read, and of course I couldn’t just ask her. She’s not cold exactly, but not approachable that way.” She smiled at her squad mates. “You know, I haven’t even been able to tell where she’s from. Her accent isn’t like anything I’ve ever studied and her cadence is so unusual.”
“That’s b-because she’s an Indian,” Teresa said softly. “Or at l-least half.”
Silence filled the room. “What?” Bett said faintly. Her mind was picturing Rains’s coloring. From the first day she had noticed that the sergeant’s skin was the burnished shade of someone who spent a great deal of time outdoors, and she had such dark hair and eyes. After the time they’d spent together last evening, Bett was able to envision the finer points of Rains’s appearance. Her nose and the shape of her face seemed more refined—well, more typically Anglo—and she had those marvelous cheekbones that made her face look almost chiseled. In the few Western movies she’d seen, American Indians were little more than caricatures. She was fairly certain that Sergeant Rains’s solemn demeanor was based on the seriousness with which she approached her duty, not because of any cultural disposition. Then she recalled Moore’s insult during the game—motherless half-breed. At the time, Bett had thought it was just something to say, but maybe it was true.
Teresa nodded. “There’s lots of ’em in Oklahoma,” she confirmed. “B-but she don’t look the same as them. Must be another t-tribe.”
“I think Tee’s right.” Maria’s voice stopped everyone. “When I was little, some cousins of mine came to see us. They had moved somewhere up north, near Canada. Now that I think of it, one of the boys married a woman who looked somewhat like Sergeant Rains, black eyes with very long, dark, straight hair. They said she was a Sioux.”
“Ooh, better hold on to your scalps, girls,” warned Jo. “I remember reading about them in school. The Sioux were warriors, very fierce fighters. Other Indians were afraid of them.”
“Good thing she’s on our side,” suggested Barb with a smile.
“Yes, but joking about scalps and other such rubbish is probably exactly why she doesn’t go around talking about it,” Bett said somewhat sharply. Jo dipped her head apologetically. “I’m sure she doesn’t want to be called Chief or be asked where her feathers are.”
Maria gestured angrily. “Yeah, or be called a mutt.”
“Yes, just so,” Bett concurred, looking fondly at Maria. “So we’re not going to do any of that and we’re not going to say anything about it to her unless she says something to us. Agreed?” Her gaze took in every member of the squad. They all nodded solemnly.
Bett tried not to be obvious about studying Rains at the officers’ table after she marched them to breakfast. Her sergeant always sat on the end, facing the tables where the squad ate. From their first day, Bett had chosen a seat facing Rains and had observed that she appeared to listen, but almost never joined in the other officers’ banter. Suddenly Rains dark eyes were on her, and almost reflexively, Bett smiled. Rains’s eyes narrowed in puzzlement, and Bett became aware that the whole squad was looking at Rains. She cleared her throat loudly and all heads went back down to their meals, as if they’d all realized the same thing at the same time. Sergeant Rains rose and started toward them. “Uh-oh,” Bett heard Jo murmur.
“Ladies.” The sergeant was standing at the table. “Is there a problem?” Rains’s eyes moved over the group. No one spoke. Her eyes moved back to Bett. “Squad leader, is there a problem here?” she repeated.
“No, Sergeant,” Bett said. Rains did not move. She was obviously waiting for an explanation of the group stare. “We were just wondering…um…” Bett’s normally agile mind deserted her. It must have been the late night. Rains’s eyes moved over the group again. Not one head came up. Her squad mates were eating as if it was their last meal. Bett cast about for something that was different about Rains, other than her heritage. Suddenly she realized that Rains was one of the officers who was still wearing the old-style WAC hat, the rounded one with the stiff brim. Several of the others had on the newer, softer garrison style. “We were just wondering why you wear that particular kind of hat, Sergeant. Don’t you think the other one is more comfortable?” Bett managed, at last.
Rains didn’t answer for a few seconds. Bett worried that perhaps the sergeant did not believe her last-minute question was sincere.
“My hat, Private, is worn to cover my hair, in accordance with Army regulations,” Rains finally spoke, her tone somewhat strained.
“But wouldn’t the other hat do that just as well, Sergeant?” Bett was almost genuinely curious now. Then she felt Jo kick her under the table.
“No, it wouldn’t,” Sergeant Rains replied firmly. “Not my hair.” She looked over the group again. “Parade grounds in one hour, ladies,” she added, leaving the mess hall.
For the second night of Bett’s KP, Sergeant Rains let her eat dinner with her squad before meeting her at the door of the mess hall.
“You’ll need to report to your KP duty now, Private Smythe.”
Bett saluted smartly, with a touch of her own command in the answer. “Lead on, Sergeant.”
Rains seemed to ignore the minor infraction and they walked back toward the kitchen. Once inside the little room, Bett sighed. “Will it always be potatoes?” Perhaps it was her imagination, but the unpeeled mounds seemed even larger than they had been the night before.
“That’s not up to me, Private,” Rains clarified. “The kitchen staff just sets out whatever they need done. Before the week is over, you may get to wipe tables and mop or just police the grounds and take out the trash. But don’t get your hopes up.”
“Yes, I don’t see you as the type to lead a girl on with false promises, Sergeant.” Bett grinned.
There was no answering smile from Rains. “I’ll check on you later, Private.”
“I was rather hoping you would,” Bett said, inclining her head as she took off her jacket and put it on the nail that Rains had used before. “You don’t even have to help this time, but I would love to have your company.” Bett saw Rains draw back a bit, so she quickly added, “It just makes the time go so much faster.” She heard Rains make the little grunting sound and wondered if it was something from her Indian background. They nodded briefly at each other and Rains went out.
Bett had taken off her jewelry and had stopped herself from looking at her watch at least ten times before her sergeant came back. Even though she had been listening for her footsteps, she heard nothing until the door opened.
Rains seemed satisfied to see that she was awake and working. “You’re making good progress, Private.”
“Well, Sergeant, I had an excellent teacher.” Bett gestured toward the second stool that she had brought in and was pleased when Rains leaned against it without comment. “So I was thinking of your reference to Tom Sawyer last night. Is that your favorite of Mr. Twain’s works?” She held her breath and worked diligently while Rains seemed to be debating whether or not to answer.
When Rains took her jacket off and laid it on the table which Bett had already cleared of potatoes, Bett just managed to hide her smile. “Where is the other peeler?” Rains asked.
“No, no. I told you that you don’t have to help me this time,” Bett assured her.
“I cannot sit idly by while you work, Private.”
“Why not?” Bett asked. “That’s what officers usually do anyway.” As soon as the words were out of her mouth, Bett wanted to take them back. After a quick glance confirmed that Rains was not happy with her comment, Bett kept peeling without looking up again.
Finally Rains said, “Private Smythe, it is not your place to judge what most officers do or don’t do.”
Bett stopped working and dropped her head a bit. “Of course you’re right, Sergeant. I apologize.”
The sergeant rose and went out the door. Bett would have thought she was leaving except that Rains’s jacket was still on the table. She was relieved when the sergeant came back with another peeler. They worked in silence for a moment, until Rains ventured, “Actually, I prefer Huckleberry Finn for content, although Tom Sawyer is an enjoyable adventure.”
A wide-ranging conversation followed, from character analysis to historical context. Although Rains clearly had opinions and positions on whatever aspect of the novels they were discussing, she was a very careful listener, and there was usually a pause of up to a minute during which she peeled thoughtfully as she considered Bett’s comments. Bett, who enjoyed lightning-fast verbal play that sometimes valued wit over substance, found that waiting for Sergeant Rains’s reply forced her to slow her own thinking and listen better as well. Much more quickly than the night before, the potatoes were done. They were still talking as they left the mess hall, walking toward the barracks.
“So did you major in American Literature in college, Sergeant?” Bett asked, her most personal question of the night.
She watched as Rains’s face took on a wary, more focused expression. “No, I didn’t.” Her drill instructor stopped walking, looking around as if just becoming conscious of where she was. “That will be all, Private.”
“Sergeant Rains.” Bett smiled and stepped closer, putting her hand on Rains’s arm again. Rains stood very still. “I feel that I’m indebted to you again, for your time and your most stimulating conversation.”
The sergeant stepped back, away from Bett’s touch. “I have done you a disservice, Private. KP is not supposed to be enjoyed. You are supposed to be learning from your mistakes.”
Rains’s face was so serious that Bett couldn’t help laughing. “But I have learned, Sergeant. I’ll never think of Huckleberry Finn in quite the same way again.”
Rains shook her head, turned abruptly, and walked away without another word.
Rains was annoyed with herself. At the parade grounds she began running laps, trying to think through what had happened. You were supposed to tighten up, not spend all evening talking to her, Rains scolded. You are not her classmate, you are her sergeant. She knew the blame lay with herself and not with Private Smythe. Smythe just wanted to pass the time. What Rains could not understand was how she could have let the whole evening go by in conversation and never once have thought about leaving. Perhaps they were developing a level of mutual respect between them; she had readily acknowledged Smythe’s intelligence, but now Smythe seemed to be genuinely interested in her thoughts and opinions as well. Rains wasn’t usually swayed by such attentiveness, though in this case it seemed to be paying off in Smythe’s improved attitude toward Army protocol.
In the years that she had been a sergeant, Rains had learned the importance of dividing herself evenly among her recruits. It was important to be fair, to be objective, and to be impartial. Even though Smythe was the squad leader, if any of the other girls suspected favoritism or that she was getting any special treatment, it could destroy the balance of camaraderie Rains always strove for with her groups. She thought about having Webber take Private Smythe to her duty tomorrow, but what reason would she give? You’ll just take her to her KP and leave, Rains told herself. Don’t come back to check on her. She knows the routine now. She ran two more laps, trying to get the sound of Smythe’s voice out of her mind. She wasn’t particularly successful.
Bett was having trouble falling asleep, even though she was tired from KP and the long day. She kept thinking of things Sergeant Rains had said, finding little hints of her personality from their conversation. Clearly she favored the underdog in any situation. Several times Bett had started to bring up Rains’s supposed Indian background thinking that it might lead to more discussion, but after the way Rains had reacted to her question about college, she was glad she hadn’t been any more personal. Bett wondered if it was the Army that had made her sergeant so closed off, or if it was just her character. She speculated whether Rains’s apparent aversion to being touched was part of that character as well.
The door to the barracks opened quietly. Bett’s heart accelerated to an unexpected tempo. She was facing away from the door, so Rains didn’t appear in her vision until after she had passed her bunk. She watched as the sergeant looked briefly over the sleeping forms and made her way back. Bett kept her eyes open, and when Rains made eye contact, Bett smiled. Rains didn’t, but then she never did.
“You should already be asleep, Private,” she said softly.
The sergeant was carrying her shirt; she was only wearing a sleeveless undershirt which clung tightly to her trim form and there was a sheen on her face and arms. When Bett raised herself on her elbow, she could clearly detect the outline of Rains’s small breasts. After swallowing that observation away as quietly as possible, she whispered, “Why are you all sweaty? Don’t tell me you have potato fever or some such.”
There might have been another brief turning at the corner of Rains’s mouth, but her voice was quiet. “I’ve been running. Now lie down before you wake everyone else up.”
“Why are you running in the middle of the night?” Bett asked, lying back obediently.
“Go to sleep, Private Smythe.” Rain walked toward the door.
Bett turned over to follow her, still whispering. “Can we talk about transcendentalism tomorrow night?”
Rains stopped and turned back. “No, Private. Our literary salon will give way to your solo KP duty from now on.”
Bett stopped smiling. “Is that what you decided on your run?”
Sergeant Rains leaned closer to her bed, her whisper a little more severe. “That is the way it’s supposed to be, Private. It was my error to let our mutual interests lure me into excessive conversation with you. It won’t happen again.”
They both looked down as Jo muttered something in her sleep and turned over on the bunk below Bett. When Bett looked back up, Rains was going out the door.
Bett didn’t say a word the next night as Sergeant Rains escorted her to the door of the mess hall. Good, Rains thought, this would be easier than arguing with her. There were no potatoes in the little room in the back. “Wait here, Private,” Rains said.
Bett stood at ease.
“Trash only tonight,” Rains said when she returned, leading Bett back into the main hall. She pointed at the various overflowing barrels. “Just police the tables, then dump these in the container outside, and you’re done.” Bett acknowledged the information with a short nod, but didn’t answer. “Private Smythe,” Rains said tersely, tiring of the silent treatment, “you should understand that I meant nothing personal last night. But I have a job to do and so do you. That is the reason we are here.”
Bett’s eyes flashed. “Oh yes, Sergeant. I understand completely. Another round of excessive conversation from you could cost us the war.” She began dragging one of the heavy barrels toward the door.
Once again, Bett’s sharp wit made Rains want to smile. Instead, she stepped over and took the other side of the barrel.
Bett’s head snapped up. “I don’t need your help, Sergeant.”
“I know, I know,” Rains answered, her voice somewhat more sociable than usual. “What you need is a conversation about transcendentalism.”
“Don’t flatter yourself, Sergeant. What I need is to finish this stupid KP and for my training on wireless coding to come up so I can get on with my life away from this bloody place.”
They dumped the barrel in silence. “I’ll leave you to it then, Private,” Rains said, her voice flat as she walked away.
Five minutes later, Bett wasn’t sure who she was more upset with, Rains or herself. She hadn’t meant to be so ill-tempered but the sergeant’s presumption and her self-possessed manner had just rubbed her the wrong way at that moment. She wondered if anything ever ruffled Rains’s calm. She wasn’t surprised when the sergeant wasn’t around the mess hall as she walked back toward the barracks after finishing her duty, so she detoured by the track on the parade grounds, in case Rains was out running. She wasn’t. When Bett arrived at the barracks, Sergeant Rains was there, talking with Helen and Tee. As their eyes met, Rains stood and signaled her over.
“Private Smythe, I believe Private Tucker and Private Owens would appreciate some assistance with the assignments from their classes.” Helen and Tee were both nodding. “There may be others who will join you. This will be your duty for the next two weeks, understood?”
Bett looked up at Rains doubtfully. “You mean instead of KP?”
“Yes, Private. I believe your skills could be put to better use here.” Rains had been nodding at Owens and Tucker, and now she looked down at Bett. “Unless you have some objection.”
Bett tried, but Rains’s expression was impossible to read. “None that come to mind, Sergeant.”
“Good. I’ll alert the kitchen.” Rains started out and then stopped. “And your wireless class will be coming up in two weeks, Private Smythe.”
Bett dropped her eyes. “Thank you, Sergeant.” When will I ever learn to mind my mouth?
As Rains walked by, Jo called out from her bunk, “What’s the play, Sarge?” The two of them often spoke in some kind of baseball language that Bett kept trying to understand.
“Turning two, Archer,” Rains responded. Archer laughed as she always did.
Their days settled into routine, the framework for Army life. After a few days, Bett no longer panicked when bright lights shone into the barracks windows and the first bugle call sounded at five forty-five a.m. Some days she would actually drowse until the cannon went off at six, when the flag went up and the band began to play. Like the rest of her squad mates, she learned how to be fully dressed in the fifteen minutes they had before reporting for roll call. After breakfast, they had another hour to clean up and organize themselves and their belongings before beginning a variety of exercises, drills, classes, and lectures that lasted the rest of the day. There was another company muster before dinner for a ceremony called Retreat, where the flag was lowered and the WAC band played the national anthem, followed by evening mess at five p.m. Undoubtedly, their new schedule was quite an adjustment for everyone, whether it was dealing with the ten-to-one bathroom ratio for only child Phyllis or the novelty of eating dinner at five p.m.
Sometimes there were additional lectures or meetings after the evening meal, but frequently they had that time to themselves, unless there were assignments from the day’s classes or drills that needed to be practiced, which was often the case. Lights had to be out by nine thirty, but Bett, like many others, procured a good flashlight and would often continue to write letters, study, or read well after that time. At ten forty-five, Sergeant Rains, or occasionally one of the other sergeants, would come through for the last official bed check of the evening. If someone was not in their bunk, it was stressed, the MPs would be called.
Sergeant Rains conducted the morning exercises for the entire base, along with physical drills for each platoon. By the end of their basic training, all recruits had to demonstrate a certain level of fitness, which she would evaluate. The morning and afternoon classes were conducted by other specialists and were designed to help inform the recruits about different jobs that were available to them and to determine the ones for which they were best suited.
Since Bett had already made up her mind to work on the new wireless encoding machine, she was just biding her time. When she had expressed her interest in the recruiting office before signing up, she had been warned that her choice of specialty was the most difficult to get into. According to Maria, who had a distant cousin in the administrative office, the cryptography division hadn’t taken anyone new for the last three rotations. Even so, Bett wasn’t worried. From Kent Prep to Oxford, she had never failed to be chosen for something that she’d worked for. As much as she hated to admit it, she knew this drive for success was something she had gotten from her father.
Partly out of respect for Sergeant Rains and partly to avoid jeopardizing her chance at the wireless group by being labeled an agitator, she did manage to keep her opinions to herself and found that some of the lectures, like those on meteorology and photography, were actually quite enlightening. She felt herself settling in and began to feel sure she would be able to stick it out—to complete her basic training and prove to her family, if not herself, that she could do it. And she still had a score to settle with Herr Hitler.
In many ways, Army life reminded Bett of her boarding school days. Helen and Tee continued to struggle with some of the lessons and Bett was genuinely glad that Sergeant Rains had assigned her to help them. Bett enjoyed the process of education, although she had to work not to show her dismay at how far behind the girls were sometimes. She quickly determined that their deficiencies were not caused by lack of intellect, but because each of them had regularly missed long stretches of school when they were needed at home. Occasionally some of the other girls would sit in, usually Maria or even Jo. Bett kept the sessions informal enough that anyone felt welcome.
Bett thought that most of the members of her new family were really quite charming. There was none of the snobbishness and competition that there had been at Kent or Oxford. Only Irene Dodd remained aloof. She seemed unwilling or unable to find her place in the squad. The rest of them all seemed to take Rains’s comments from that first day to heart, and they quickly learned how to steer clear of someone who was grumpy in the morning (Charlotte), how to keep their voices quieter after the first one went to bed (Jo), and who wrote letters home every day (Barb). Bett often saw Rains talking individually after drills with Tee, who was homesick, or running laps with Helen, to help her control her temper. And Bett acknowledged that Rains appealed to her intellect to help her fall into line. But not exclusively so, she thought, remembering Rains’s calming touch and soothing voice when Bett had been in the throes of her claustrophobia.
Their sergeant’s firm, even presence was a steadying influence on them all. Rains was the type who led by example, Bett concluded, watching her sergeant during morning exercise as their first full week was coming to a close. Sergeant Moore had returned to the base earlier than expected and her new squad had followed them onto the parade grounds that day, most of them cringing at her words and her tone. I believe Rains genuinely wants us to be successful here, Bett mused, and not just because it looks good for her. Her leadership is not based on fear; it works because she respects us as much as we respect her.
That mutual respect grew even more the next Friday night as most of the girls were dressing for a trip to the NCO club for a special dinner. It was Maria’s birthday and they were ready for an excuse to celebrate, or at least blow off some steam from the demands of their second week in basic training. Escorts had been arranged and even though Bett was scheduled to have her first squad leader meeting with Sergeant Rains that afternoon, she had promised to meet everyone there as soon as she was free. As the squad members were getting into their dress uniforms, Maria suddenly gave a sharp cry. “My grandmother’s brooch. It’s missing! My mother let me bring it for good luck and now it’s gone.”
Barb and Charlotte reacted first, gathering at Maria’s footlocker. “Where did you have it? When did you see it last?” Their help with the search turned up nothing. In the meantime, Bett checked her locker. One of her rings was also missing, but Maria’s tears made her wait to say anything.
“I’ll go get Sergeant Rains,” Irene Dodd offered, starting toward the door. Both Jo and Bett looked at her in surprise, as she had never volunteered for anything before. Then Jo turned a worried eye back to Bett.
Catching Jo’s meaning, Bett acted instinctively as their squad leader. “No,” she said firmly, and then added, “thank you, Irene, but I think Maria should go. She’s the one who has suffered the loss so it would be less suspicious than if any of us left.”
Irene frowned but couldn’t seem to think of a reply. She slouched back to her bunk. Bett looked at Jo and then shifted her eyes in Dodd’s direction, and Archer nodded, moving to a position where she could watch the older woman without being obvious. Irene looked around and then made a show of looking through her locker like most of the other girls were doing, as if checking to see if anything of hers was missing. When Maria returned with Sergeant Rains, the squad was shocked into silence upon seeing Sergeant Moore accompanying them.
The two sergeants stood stiffly at the doorway. “The Army takes matters like this very seriously,” Rains stated, her expression grim. “Someone who steals from one of her sisters is not welcome in the WAC. We are going to make sure that the thief is no one from this squad before we expand our investigation.” She glanced at Sergeant Moore who barked out, “Get out your bathrobes, ladies. Strip and put them on. You’ll assemble in the latrine under Sergeant Rains’s guard while I search your belongings for the missing item.” The squad members stood in shock until Moore yelled, “Now!” Then everyone began to move at once as Sergeant Rains walked toward the rear of the barracks, where the bathroom was located. She faced away from the girls as they changed, listening to Moore as she moved among them, insisting, “Move it. I said strip, ladies. That means naked, understand? Come on, honey, we don’t have all night. Hurry up, hurry up—don’t be so modest, you. Nobody cares what you’ve got under that robe. Let’s go.”
Rains turned back to face them as they began walking past her in single file into the lavatory area. Her eyes swept carefully over each one, as if gauging their responses. As Irene Dodd approached, Rains ordered, “Halt.”
Bett, who was behind Dodd, winced, remembering when she had heard that tone before. Dodd’s eyes didn’t seem to settle.
“You need to empty your robe pocket, Private Dodd,” the sergeant demanded, holding out the palm of her hand.
Private Dodd’s hand moved as if to comply but instead she swung a clenched fist in the direction of Rains’s head. Rains’s movement was so quick it was almost imperceptible. In one motion she dodged the punch and maneuvered behind Dodd, her own forearm pushing Irene’s head against the barracks wall hard enough that the woman’s face was distorted. The arm that had been swinging at Rains’s face was caught in the grasp of Rain’s other hand, twisted so tightly behind her back that she screamed out in pain. The whole squad gasped, and Bett caught a glimpse of something very fierce in Rains’s eyes before Sergeant Moore ordered them all back to their bunks, out of the way.
As Moore retrieved a brooch and a ring from Dodd’s pocket, she advised, “You’d best apologize to your sergeant, Dodd, unless you want to go home with a other-than-honorable discharge and a broken arm.”
“Fuck you, bitch,” Irene Dodd managed to squeeze out from her pursed lips, followed by a groan of pain as she continued to struggle.
Oh God, Sergeant Rains, don’t do it, Bett thought, fearing that Dodd’s profanity would push Rains over the edge. The tension in the room was almost tangible.
But Rains’s voice was dangerously calm. “It’s not me you need to apologize to,” she said as she pushed Dodd’s arm just a little farther up her back and the struggling stopped. “It is your squad mates. You have violated their trust in you. You have disgraced yourself and failed your country. You have lost your place here and the chance to be something better than what you are.” She turned the angry woman to face her fellow recruits, but Dodd’s comment was directed at her sergeant.
“You can’t do nothing to me,” Irene Dodd insisted, breathing heavily as she looked back over her shoulder. “You can’t prove nothing.”
A sharp intake of breath was clearly audible as Rains released Dodd’s arm abruptly and roughly turned her captive back to face her. Rains’s fists were clenched at her waist. “You don’t want to even think about what I could do to you.” Her voice dropped to an intimidating whisper as she stepped very close and looked down into Dodd’s face. The room was so quiet that everyone could hear the words she growled. “But you are a thief and therefore a liar as well, so I won’t soil my hands by dealing with you any further. What has been proven is you are unworthy of being a part of this fine squad or of the distinguished Women’s Army Corps.”
Dodd couldn’t maintain her defiance in the glare of Rains’s eyes. Her gaze dropped, but her voice still tried for an indifferent tone. “So what?”
Rains’s body tightened again but Moore nudged Rains lightly with her shoulder. “Stand down, Rains. Let’s get this piece of trash into her uniform for the last time and move her out of here.” Their sergeant took in a long, deep breath and stepped away as Sergeant Moore put the confiscated items in her hand.
The anxiety in the room went down a few degrees, but no one moved except Irene Dodd as she reached for the khaki skirt and blouse she had laid out on the bed. After she dressed, Dodd quickly threw a few extra things into her suitcase, but as she stood, Sergeant Moore grabbed it from her hand and threw it back on the bunk. “Nope. Not until we’ve had a chance to search it for anything else that doesn’t belong to you.” Dodd slumped, turned without a word, and kept her eyes on the floor as Moore escorted her out.
Barb acted first. She was closest to the disgraced woman’s bunk, and as Irene Dodd passed where she was standing, she turned her back. There was no command, no order given, but each girl along the rows of bunks did the same. Rains watched with her jaw tight. Once Moore and Dodd had exited the building, Rains collected the suitcase and followed them.
Bett had been watching Rains very carefully and as soon as her sergeant began to move she called the squad to attention without a second thought. She wanted Rains to know that she approved of her handling of Irene Dodd. To Bett’s thinking, Sergeant Rains had shown the proper combination of righteous anger and controlled contempt for someone who would take the value of something stolen over the opportunity for freely given, genuine comradeship and the chance to make a meaningful contribution to the war effort. Everyone quickly turned back to face the front and stood immobile.
As Sergeant Rains walked between the bunks, she could feel a change. She thought she might sense fear or at least apprehension toward her from the women in the room. When she reached Maria’s bunk, she stopped and cleared her throat, eyes sweeping around the room, glancing briefly on each face. “I want to apologize to you for my…my overly aggressive handling of Private—former Private Dodd.”
A few of the girls looked at each other at her correction of Dodd’s name and there were some murmurs of denial to Rains’s declaration, but she held up her hand and it was instantly quiet again. “In the past I’ve had some…difficulty controlling my emotions, particularly anger. Sometimes in the heat of the moment, I still don’t do as well as I would like. Even among the most enlightened of us, reaction sometimes triumphs reason, yes? But it is my promise to each of you to continue to strive for improvement in this area and to be very conscious of my responsibility to never bring shame to this squad, our platoon, or the WAC.” She had come to attention as well and for a moment it was very quiet in the barracks.
The stillness was broken as Helen called out, “I think you did all right, Sergeant. If it had been me, I woulda decked her.”
Some applause along with a widespread buzz of agreement followed this remark. Sergeant Rains turned to place the brooch in Maria’s waiting hands, stiffening slightly as Maria grabbed hers and gushed, “Thank you, Sergeant. Thank you so much. You just—you don’t know what this means to me.”
Rains quickly extracted her hand from Maria’s grasp, but her shoulders relaxed a bit. “You can thank me by not letting this incident cause you to lose faith in the rest of your squad or the WAC and what we are here to accomplish.” Seeing Maria close to tears again, Rains moved a bit closer and her voice softened. “You are a very important part of who we are. Your sisters need to know that you are still with us. Can we count on you, Private Rangel?”
Maria looked around and her squad mates chimed in, unbidden, with words of encouragement. She took in a breath and straightened, wiping her eyes. “Of course you can count on me, Sergeant.” She looked around and smiled, adding, “Why would I give this up? All I have at home is my grubby little brothers.”
Everyone laughed and the mood lightened immediately. Jo took it from there. “All right, then let’s get moving, ladies. We’ve got places to go and people to see!” And the noise level rose quickly as they all launched back into their preparations for the evening.
Rains inclined her head toward Jo and Bett as she opened the barracks door. Archer had said just the right thing at the right time—a trait of good leadership. And Smythe had shown initiative by calling the squad to attention, her first command as far as Rains knew.
“Good evening, Squad.”
“Good evening, Sergeant,” they chorused as Rains went out the door. She heard the movement and conversation rising behind her and nodded to herself. This was a very good group and they would be all right. Then she paused on the top step and looked at the ring in her hand, having forgotten it until that moment.
Private Smythe came through the door and stopped behind her, speaking quietly. “It’s mine, Sergeant. I only discovered it was missing when Maria noticed that her brooch was gone. I didn’t say anything before because I”—she glanced back briefly—“I thought her loss was more significant.”
Rains looked more carefully at the centered diamond stone, surrounded by smaller emeralds. It was not a garish piece but she couldn’t begin to calculate its worth. Considerably more than I have made the last three years in the WAC, she was certain. Smythe was waiting at ease, her eyes focused elsewhere. Rains was impressed that Private Smythe would put the sentimental value of someone else’s property above the actual price of her own.
“Very good, Private,” she said warmly, and Smythe lifted her chin a little, obviously pleased. Then another thought occurred to Rains. Although no one else had mentioned the disappearance of any jewelry, and there probably wasn’t another person in the entire platoon who would be wearing a ring like this, she had no proof that the piece actually belonged to Smythe. It was always her goal to be fair and impartial. How would she react if circumstances were different and Irene Dodd had claimed the ring? The sergeant knew she had to ask. “But how can I know that this is yours?”
Bett shifted her position and her gaze as she lifted her palm to the level of Rains’s eyes, fingers up, wiggling them slightly, her eyes alight with amusement. “Think of me as Cinderella, if you like.” Rains didn’t understand the reference, but she could see what Smythe was suggesting. Carefully, she slid the ring onto Bett’s finger. As Bett tilted her hand forward to show the perfect fit of the golden band, her fingers closed lightly around Rains’s thumb which had come to rest in her palm, effectively capturing her hand. Their eyes met and a slow smile crossed Bett’s lips. “Well, Sergeant? Does the glass slipper fit? Am I the one you’ve been looking for?”
Bett had expected a snappy comeback about not being a prince or some such, but Sergeant Rains blushed deeply as she freed her hand, stepped back, and cleared her throat. “We’ll have our first meeting next week instead, Private. Spend tonight with your squad. I think they will benefit more from your presence.” She inclined her head in the direction of the administration building, where the forms of Sergeant Moore and Irene Dodd could be seen in the distance. “I have some other matters to attend to, anyway.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Although Bett was glad to be released from her duty, she also felt vaguely disappointed, realizing that she had been looking forward to the one-on-one meeting with her intriguing sergeant. She even felt oddly protective, as though she wanted to make sure that Rains was all right with everything that had happened. She had hoped that her joking comment about the ring would help the sergeant unwind a little, but she hadn’t expected such a vividly uncomfortable reaction. Bett loved to tease and the stern Sergeant Rains had just revealed herself to be a very easy target. I’ll bet anger isn’t the only emotion she has trouble with.
Before Bett could think of anything else to say, Rains reached around her and opened the door to the barracks, motioning Bett back inside with the suitcase just as two male officers were coming into view. “Enjoy your evening, Private. Only be sure to change into more appropriate attire first.”
Bett crossed her arms over herself and felt her cheeks flush as she recalled that she was totally nude underneath the short robe. Venturing a last glance, she thought there was just the slightest amusement on the sergeant’s face.
“And please wish Private Rangel a happy birthday for me,” Rains added, turning away into the evening.
Walking toward the base administration office, Sergeant Rains became aware that in place of the rage that Irene Dodd had sparked in her were thoughts of the very delicate touch of Elizabeth Smythe’s hand and the way her mouth moved into a smile. Several hours later, after arranging for the MPs to escort Irene Dodd to the stockade where she would await her court-martial, Rains was finishing the accompanying paperwork when it occurred to her to ask Sergeant Moore about Cinderella.
“My God, Rains, you must be even dumber than I thought,” scoffed the older woman. Even though Rains now outranked her and they had worked well together on solving the theft, Moore never passed up the chance to put her in her place. Rains had long since become accustomed to Moore’s attitude; it had never been anything different. “How can anyone get out of kindergarten without knowing that stupid fairy tale?”
In spite of Sergeant Moore’s scornful tone as she told it, Rains liked the story very much.