Chapter no 10

The Women

August passed in a series of hot, rain-drenched days; sometimes the air was so humid it was hard to breathe. Everything Frankie put on and took off in this monsoon season smelled like mildew and was splattered with mud. There was no way to fully clean or dry clothes. Like everyone in camp, Frankie had learned not to care.

In September, the rain finally stopped and a soul-sucking heat took its place. At the end of every shift, when she took off her mask and surgical cap, they were soaked through with sweat. The Quonset huts and hooches became oven-like. After some relaxation at the O Club, or a movie under the stars on the beach, or maybe a game of gin rummy with Ethel and Barb, she collapsed onto her cot, praying for sleep.

“Wake up, Frank.”

“No.” Frankie rolled over on her cot, taking her damp sheet with her.

A sharp jab in her shoulder came next. “Wake up. It’s thirteen hundred hours.”

Frankie groaned and rolled over. Her eyes opened slowly, painfully. Last night’s mortar attack had gone on for hours; the explosions had rattled the hooches so hard that drops of red mud splatted down from the flat ceiling and landed in blotches on Frankie’s cheeks.

Frankie threw an arm over her eyes. “Go away, Ethel. We only went to bed an hour ago.”

“Two, actually,” Barb said. “Think for a moment about what day it is.”

Frankie pushed herself to a half sit, anchored up on her elbows. She saw the calendar tacked up on the wall above Ethel’s bed, with all the days Xed off. “Ethel’s DEROS.”

“That’s right, sports fans,” Ethel said, pulling the pink curlers out of her hair. “’Nam is losing the best nurse ever to serve in this man’s Army. I’m going back to the world. And I am not leaving this hellhole after two tours of duty with a pizza party at the O Club. Get your swimsuit on, Sleeping Beauty. I have a bird waiting for us.”


Frankie could hardly believe it. Yesterday, they’d worked for fourteen straight hours, on their feet for all of it; she’d spent most of those hours in surgery. Her back and knees hurt. And now … She glanced at her wristwatch. They were going to go swimming at some Officers’ Club … at 1300 hours on their only day off in two weeks?

Ethel yanked the covers back, revealing Frankie in her T-shirt and panties. She wore socks to bed, even in this heat, to save her toes from bugs and other creepy crawlers. Truth be told, it was why she wore panties, too.

Frankie climbed out of bed. (It took effort; her legs felt like jelly and her feet felt as if wild dogs had chewed on them while she slept.) She put on her two-piece belted red swimsuit, stepped into her sneakers, and headed to the latrines.

The smell hit her halfway there. Human shit and smoke. Some poor FNG was on shit duty. Literally. His job was to empty the latrines and burn the waste in fifty-five-gallon metal barrels.

She followed the plank walkway to the showers. This time of day, the water was almost warm, heated as it was by the sun. Still, she showered quickly and towel-dried her body. Not that she needed to in this heat.

“Finally,” Ethel said when Frankie strolled back into the hooch. “A damn debutante takes less time to get ready.”

“What do you know about debs?” Frankie said, buttoning her cutoffs and bending over to lace up her sneakers. Then she grabbed a pair of scissors and hacked at the hair around her face. There was no mirror in the hooch, which Frankie figured was just as well.

Barb covered her short Afro with a bandanna, tied it in the back, and then took the scissors from Frankie. Without a word, she took over cutting Frankie’s hair. Frankie let her do it, completely trusting. Such was the

nature of the friendships Frankie had formed over here. It wasn’t hyperbole to say that she trusted Barb and Ethel with her life.

“Come on, country club deb,” Barb said to Frankie, tossing the scissors on the dresser. “The boys’ll be waiting.”

“Boys?” Frankie crammed some clothes into her pack and the trio left the hooch.

The Thirty-Sixth was surprisingly quiet today. Oh, there was mortaring going on—explosions in the jungle past the concertina wire—but no red alert siren yet. She could hear men shouting. They were playing football in the open space in front of the empty stage.

At the helipad, an armed helicopter waited—one of the Seawolves’ choppers. The nurses bent forward and ran toward it. The gunner reached out, helped them all aboard. At the last moment before takeoff, Jamie appeared, in gym shorts and a faded Warlocks T-shirt, and jumped into the chopper.

The pilot gave them a thumbs-up and up they went, the rotors picking up speed. The thwop-thwop became a blur of sound. The bird’s nose did a sharp dive, the tail lifted, and they sped forward, flying low. Gunners stood at fixed machine guns at the open doors.

Frankie sat in a canvas seat in the back of the chopper with Jamie beside


Through the open doors, she saw the world flash by: white beaches,

turquoise water, red dirt roads that cut like veins through it all as they sped south, toward Saigon. As they neared the capital city, Frankie saw a verdant green landscape, shot through with silver strands; the Mekong Delta appeared like a lace overlay. Far away, flashes of orange flared in the jungle, explosions in the bush.

A few minutes later, the chopper touched down in a flat, treeless field.

The pilot powered down, then took off his flight helmet and turned around. “Another perfect landing for the Seawolves. Ladies, please note it in your diaries.”

Ethel laughed. “Frankie, meet Slim. Smile, but don’t believe a word he says. He thinks he’s James Bond. That’s what happens when a guy can fly jets and choppers. He thinks he’s a god.”

Slim was tall and lanky, with broad shoulders. A bushy mustache and ragged beard somehow enhanced the pretty-boy face underneath, giving

him a rakish look. He immediately put on a battered cowboy hat to go with his camo T-shirt and short swim trunks.

“James Bond wishes he was me,” Slim said, touching up his non- regulation mustache. He was a good-looking man. Beyond good-looking, actually, and he knew it. “Howdy, ma’am,” he said to Frankie, who couldn’t help smiling at his southern charm.

“And Slim wishes he was me,” said the copilot, a thin, sinewy guy with red hair and a scraggly mustache. He grinned at Frankie and the other women, showing off a set of crooked teeth. “Call me Coyote,” he said, and let out a wolf howl to go along with his introduction.

He helped the ladies out of the chopper and held on to Frankie’s hand a moment longer than was necessary. She felt him staring at her as he said, in a slow Texas drawl, “Ladies, welcome to Seawolves’ summer camp.”

It was so ridiculous, so back-home, that Frankie couldn’t help laughing.

In front of them, a wide brown river arced lazily past, lapping against a reedy, marshy shore. The skyscape of Saigon rose in the distance, across the opposite shore. A banged-up speedboat hugged the bank, empty but for a man with a machine gun, sitting in the back, eyeing every movement on land and water and in the air.

The land between the helicopter and the river had been turned into Beach Party Central. A banner that read WE WILL MISS YOU, ETHEL, was strung between two bamboo poles. Beneath it, a stocky man in a Rolling Stones T-shirt stood at a barbecue, grilling burgers. A portable generator powered a stereo and “Purple Haze” blared through the speakers, loud enough to drown out the distant whine of the war.

At least thirty people were here—nurses from the Thirty-Sixth and Long Binh and Vung Tau, medics and doctors and corpsmen. Frankie recognized several Dust Off pilots, as well as several Seawolves, and more than a few of the Donut Dollies from the Thirty-Sixth. They all stopped what they were doing at Ethel’s arrival and turned to face the nurse and began clapping and whooping.

“Speech, speech!” someone cried out.

Ethel grinned. “Nurses don’t give speeches,” she said. “We party!”

A roar of approval rose through the crowd. The music changed to “Good Lovin’” and several people started dancing.

Ethel looked up at Slim. “Cool flying, cowboy.”

He put an arm around her, drew her close. Frankie knew that Slim and Ethel had developed a solid friendship over here; they’d bonded over their shared love of southern barbecue and western dancing and horses.

“My boys will miss you,” Slim said.

“I’m one of many, Slim. Barb and Frankie put me to shame.”

He kissed her cheek. “Glad you’re leaving this shithole, pissed you’re leaving us behind.”

“Ha. Like you Seawolves didn’t claw all over each other to join the unit.

You’d rather be here than on that farm you grew up on.” “Some days,” he said.

“Yeah,” Ethel said. “Ain’t that the God’s truth. Best of times, worst of times.”

“If you two get any more philosophical or mushy, I’m gonna puke right on your boots,” Barb said. “We didn’t haul our asses here to watch you feel things. We’re here to say bon voyage to the best damn nurse at the Thirty- Sixth. So, where’s the booze?”

Coyote ducked over to a pyramid of coolers and opened the top one, pulling out four cold beers and bringing them back.

Frankie snapped the cap and took a hesitant sip. Almost before she’d swallowed, Ethel grabbed her hand and said, “Come on, California girl,” and dragged her across the party and onto the speedboat moored at the river bank. How in the hell had they come up with a speedboat?

A tall man with a shaggy mustache and a Rainier Beer T-shirt stood at the wheel. He tipped his ratty straw cowboy hat at her. “Howdy, ma’am.”

Coyote jumped on board, gave another howl, and put an arm around Frankie. “What d’ya say, Frankie McGrath? You game?”

“You know it.” She took a sip of the ice-cold beer. It tasted surprisingly good on this hot day. How long had it been since she’d felt this free and young?

“We got a taker!” Coyote said, untying the mooring line. “Take us out, Renegade.”

The guy at the controls grinned and hit the gas. Frankie stumbled into Ethel, who gave her a raised eyebrow. “What is the most important rule in ’Nam, Frank?”

“Don’t drink the water?”

“That’s number one. Number two: never volunteer.”

The boat sped through the water, a thrilling, heart-stopping ride.

Suddenly they slowed. The boat stopped in the middle of a wide expanse of the river and rolled from side to side.

Coyote tented a hand over his eyes, his gaze scouring both shores. “Don’t see anything to worry about.”

“What, us worry?” Renegade said. Leaning sideways, he pulled up a pair of old, battered wooden water skis.

Frankie laughed.

Then he produced a ratty flotation belt, upon which someone had written KEEP IT UP, BOYS. He tossed the belt to Frankie.

She stopped laughing. “When I said I was game—”

“I knew you were my kind of girl.” Coyote lit a cigarette and gave her a wicked smile.

“I … I’ve never skied before.”

“You will dig it, trust me. Put on the belt.”

Frankie glanced out at the river. She’d heard about bodies floating in this brown water, swollen from death and rigged with explosives. And this was the tropics. Were there poisonous snakes and alligators? What about the VC? Could Charlie be underwater with a plant on his head for camouflage, waiting for an American stupid enough to water-ski in the Saigon River?

Frankie took a deep breath and remembered Jamie’s words.

No fear, McGrath.

She exhaled and stripped down to her two-piece bathing suit and fastened the belt around her waist.

“So,” Ethel said, touching her shoulder. “I started water-skiing when I was a kid at Bible camp. A fun life story for another time. Anyway, hold on and lean back and keep the skis perpendicular to the boat. Let us pull you up, just like getting out of a chair. The rope goes between the skis. If— when—you fall, let go immediately.”

“In case I die, I’ll say goodbye now.”

Ethel laughed. “Goodbye, Frank. It’s been great knowing you.”

Frankie slipped over the side of the boat into the brown, murky river water. Clutching the skis in one hand, she swam out behind the boat and spent more than five minutes trying to put her bare feet into the rubber bindings. At least three times she got the skis on and immediately flipped onto her face and had to fight to right herself, all the while keeping her

mouth clamped shut. The idea of drinking this water scared her more than getting bit by a snake.

Finally, she got herself into position. She sat back, put the rope between her skis, held on to the bar, and nodded.

The boat started, dragged her. She fought to keep her skis steady. They hit the gas, sped up.

Frankie got halfway up and face-planted.

The boat turned sharply, swung back around.

Ethel threw her the rope. “Let us drag you. We’ll hit it when you look steady.”

Frankie nodded, her mouth squeezed shut, trying not to think of the water getting into her eyes and nose.

It took four more tries, and by then Frankie was too tired to fight the rope or the speed. She just leaned back and held on and thought, How many times do I have to try?, and then, quick as an indrawn breath, she was up, skiing behind the boat, struggling to keep her skis steady and her weight equally distributed.

She saw the people on the boat clapping for her. She held herself in the calmer water between the white vee of the wake, her skis thumping and falling on the water. Wind lifted her hair and the hot sun shone down on her, and for a beautiful, heart-stopping moment she was just a girl at a beach party with her friends. She thought of Finley, teaching her to surf in the rolling waves. Catching a wave, Fin. Look at me.

She was overcome by a joy so strong and sweet and pure that there was only one thing to do.

She let out a wolf howl.



That evening, sunset turned the world purple and red. In the distance, across the ribbon of river, the lights of downtown Saigon shimmered.

The group on the beach had faded along with the daylight. Stuffed with cheeseburgers and potato chips and American beer, half-drunk, they sat around a roaring campfire.

Frankie, pleasantly buzzed on three beers, leaned against Ethel. Holding hands seemed like the most natural thing in the world. “Tell me about it

again,” she murmured.

“The grass is so green it hurts your eyes,” Ethel said. “My grandfather found the land and saved every dollar he made blacksmithing to buy it. There’s nothing I love better than riding on autumn roads at a full gallop. You’ll come someday, you and Barb. We’ll eat barbecue and ride horses and forget everything we saw over here.”

Frankie loved Ethel’s stories about Virginia: the county fairs, the 4-H competitions, the church socials. It sounded like a world that didn’t exist anymore.

“I won’t let you go back without me,” Frankie said. Before Ethel could answer, Jamie stumbled over and stood in front of Frankie.

She was afraid to look up at him. She’d kept her distance all day because her defenses felt weakened by the beer she’d drunk and today’s camaraderie and the strange sense that these were good days, maybe— impossibly—the best of their lives.

Jamie was now officially a short-timer. His DEROS had come in and he had less than three months left on his tour. Like all short-timers, as his leave date neared, he’d begun to worry that nothing would work out for him, that Vietnam had somehow ruined him and he wouldn’t get out alive. And every day Frankie confronted the reality that he was one day closer to leaving.

“Dance with me,” he said, holding out his hand.

He wouldn’t have done it sober, not here in front of everyone, on a night when the longing in his eyes was obvious, and she wouldn’t have agreed on another night, either. But just now, with three beers in her system and Ethel leaving, Frankie didn’t have the strength to say no to him. She let him pull her to her feet.

He led her away, took her in his arms.

His hand slipped down her back, past the curve of her waist. She felt his fingers slip under the waistband of her baggy shorts.

She reached back, moved his hand to the small of her back. “Be a good Scout.”

“You want me, McGrath,” he said. “And God knows I want you.”

She looked up at him. “It doesn’t matter what either one of us wants.” “Come to Maui for R and R with me tomorrow.”

“Sarah would not appreciate that,” Frankie said. She knew Jamie was meeting his wife for R and R. “Once you see her, you’ll forget all about


He leaned forward so slowly she knew he expected her to stop him, but she couldn’t. He kissed the side of her neck.

She let it go on longer than was smart and then pushed him away, immediately missing the feel of him. “Don’t. Please.”

“Why not?”

“You know why,” she said in a quiet voice. “Could you have loved me?” he asked quietly.

She wanted to say I already do so badly it took every bit of willpower she possessed to smile. She touched his face, let her hand linger on his skin for a moment, letting it be the words she didn’t dare say. Then she walked away from him while she still had the strength to do so, and sat back down by Ethel.

“That man loves you,” Ethel said quietly.

Her feelings for Jamie were not something Frankie could talk about, even with Ethel. She leaned against her friend. “How can I do this without you?”

“I love you, too, Frank. And you’re going to be okay without me.”

Without me.

Maybe it was the three beers she’d drunk, or the eerie, falling darkness, pocked by the sounds of a distant war, but a wave of homesickness assailed her, made her think of Finley. No remains. She was tired of losing people.

“I must be cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs,” Ethel said. “Certifiable. Because I don’t want to leave.”

“I’m crazy, too, because I don’t want to see you go.”

The fire crackled and popped. Slim roasted a marshmallow over one of the licking red flames. The music had been turned down.

Suddenly the night erupted in noise and color. Red explosions, tracers through the dark sky. A machine gun’s ra-ta-ta-tat not far away.

The gunner from the bird ran over. “Sorry, gang. Riot just called in. The Seawolves are needed at Rocket City. Party’s over.”

Frankie looked at Ethel. “Rocket City?”

“Pleiku. It’s up in the Highlands. Dangerous place.”

The party dispersed; people ran for the chopper, for the boat, for the three jeeps hidden in the brush. Frankie and her friends boarded the helicopter, which lifted up into the air quickly.

The land below was pocked by explosions. In the Huey, up in the air, bombs and rockets and gunfire burst all around them, bright orange stars in the dark. The smell of smoke.

The chopper veered sharply, climbed fast.

“They’re shooting at us,” Slim yelled into the comm headset. “Damn rude on a beach day.”

The bird veered so sharply that Frankie cried out. Jamie put an arm around her, held her close. “It’s okay, McGrath,” he whispered into her ear. “I’ve got you.”

Frankie let it be, just for a moment, then pulled away. The gunner shot back. Pop-pop-pop.

Another sharp turn, an evasion. A fighter jet streaked past; below, a piece of the jungle exploded in red flames. Frankie felt the heat of it on her face.


The machine gun at the door rattled in response, spent casings clattered to the floor.

All it would take was one good hit and the bird would go up in flames. She couldn’t help but think of Finley. Was this what it had been like for him?

It was over as quickly as it began. The helicopter swooped sideways, lowered over the smoldering canopy of the jungle, and dropped down onto the helipad at the Thirty-Sixth.



At 0300 hours, a red alert siren blared through camp. Then came the sound of incoming choppers. A swarm of them. One Dust Off after another landed in the pouring rain, full of wounded. Frankie and Barb and Ethel stumbled out of bed and ran to the helipad, helping to offload them. Frankie spent the next eight hours at Jamie’s side, going from one surgery to the next, until she was so tired she could barely stand.

At 1100 hours, when the last patient was rolled out of the OR, Frankie reached numbly for a mop and began cleaning the floor until Jamie stopped her. “We’re done,” he said. “Someone else can mop up the blood. Let’s go.”

Nodding, she put on her green poncho, flipped up her hood, and followed Jamie out of the OR. The wooden walkway was underwater. Rain pounded the roof overhead. He put an arm around her, steadied her as they walked through the compound.

At Jamie’s quarters, he came to a stop; Frankie realized suddenly that she was too close to him, touching his body with her own as they stood beneath the overhang, barely out of the rain. A tiny drizzle of someone else’s blood streaked down Jamie’s neck. She reached up to wipe it away.

Jamie almost smiled, but not quite. “You want to kiss me before I go,” he said. “I knew it.”

“Have fun in Maui,” she said, embarrassed by the jealousy she felt at the idea of him being with his wife. “Bring me back something fun.”

There was more love in his eyes than should be there, and probably too much in hers. “I love you, McGrath. I know I’m not supposed to…”

She longed to say it in return, but how could she? Words were creators of worlds; you had to be careful with them. He was going to meet his wife, see pictures of his son. “I’ll miss you,” she said instead.

He stepped back. “See you in a week.”

As she watched him leave, the moment played over in her mind: I love you, McGrath.

Maybe she should have said it, too. But what good could come of her love for him? He wasn’t hers to love. When she couldn’t stand the regret anymore, she flipped her hood up and headed for her hooch.

She opened the door and realized instantly what she’d forgotten during the push.

Barb sat on Ethel’s empty cot. “She’s gone.”

Frankie sat down beside Barb, not even bothering to pull off her wet poncho. “We didn’t get to say goodbye.”

“She didn’t want us to. Probably slipped out while we were looking the other way. Bitch.”

It was the way of Vietnam; people came, they did their tour, and they left. The lucky ones, like Ethel, flew home in one piece. Some wanted parties for their send-off and some wanted to slip away in silence. Some wanted both. Either way, you woke up one day and your friend was just gone.

War was full of goodbyes, and most of them never really happened; you were always too early or too late.

Like with Finley.

She had said goodbye to her brother long after the words could have mattered to him. That was one thing this war had taught her; there was never enough time with the people who mattered.



It rained for the next week. Not a drenching, monsoon rain, just a thumping, ever-present drip-drip-drip that demoralized everyone. Even gatherings at the O Club had all but ended. No one felt like partying in this weather.

Now, as midnight neared, Frankie stood in the OR, in mask and cap and gloves and gown, closing an incision. Not far away, the new doctor, Rob Aldean, from Kentucky, was trying to save a young Vietnamese woman’s leg. While Jamie was on R and R in Maui with his wife, they were down to two surgeons, and that wasn’t enough to keep up with the casualties. To make matters worse, they hadn’t replaced Ethel yet, so they were understaffed in nurses, too. Four patients lay on tables awaiting surgery, with more in triage and Pre-Op.

A bright light shone down on the patch of brown-washed skin of the soldier who lay anesthetized before Frankie.

After her last stitch, she dropped her bloody instruments on her tray and peeled off her gloves. “I’ll get Sammy to take you to Post-Op, Private Morrison,” she said aloud, even though the patient couldn’t hear her.

She heard the distant sound of a helicopter coming in. Dr. Rob looked up, his worried gaze meeting Frankie’s. They were at their ragged end.

Just one chopper. “Thank God,” Frankie said. Rob went back to work.

The OR doors banged open and a gowned and masked Barb came in with a pair of medics carrying a bloody patient on a litter. “We need a surgeon. And you, Frankie. Stat.”

Frankie could tell it was bad by the look in Barb’s eyes.

Frankie washed her hands and picked up a new pair of gloves, snapping them on.

The soldier on the litter wore a blood-soaked T-shirt and fatigues that had been cut off at the thigh. He’d lost his left leg at the knee, a medic had field-wrapped the bloody stump, but that injury was nothing compared to his chest wound.

A thick layer of black-red blood covered his face. She picked up his dog tags. “Hey, Captain C—”



She looked up at Barb, saw the grief in her friend’s eyes. I’m sorry,

Barb mouthed.

“His bird was shot down, ma’am,” one of the medics said.

Frankie wiped the blood from Jamie’s face and saw the grievous injury to his skull.

“Rob!” she shouted. “Get over here. Now!”

The doctor came over, looked down at Jamie, and then at Frankie. “He won’t make it, Frankie, you know that, and we have—”

“Save him, Doc. At least try.” She reached for Jamie’s cold, limp hand, held it. “Please. Please.”

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