Chapter no 23

The Women

Part 2

In a country where youth is adored, we lost ours before we were out of our twenties. We learned to accept death there, and it erased our sense of immortality. We met our human frailties, the dark side of ourselves, face-to-face … The war destroyed our faith, betrayed our trust, and dropped us outside the mainstream of our society. We still don’t fully belong. I wonder if we ever will.



Chapter no 23

At twenty-five, Frankie moved with the kind of caution that came with age; she was constantly on guard, aware that something bad could happen at any moment. She trusted neither the ground beneath her feet nor the sky above her head. Since coming home from war, she had learned how fragile she was, how easily upended her emotions could be.

Still, she had learned to hide her outbursts, her crying jags, even from her two best friends, who, for most of their first year in Virginia, had watched her intently, trying constantly to divine her moods, assess her level of self-destruction, her grief and anger. In the beginning, it had been difficult, settling into the time-honored McGrath camouflage of I’m okay.

The nightmares had been terrible when she first arrived here, had still wrenched her out of sleep and sent her careening onto the floor.

But time—and friendship—had done exactly as promised: pain and grief had grown soft in her hands, almost pliable. She found she could form them into something kinder if she was deliberate in thought and action, if she lived a careful, cautious life, if she stayed away from anything that reminded her of the war, of loss, of death.

By Christmas of that first year, she’d felt strong enough to write to her mother, who had promptly written back. In their family’s way, neither spoke of the terrible night that had precipitated Frankie’s flight across the country. They simply merged back onto their familiar road, the ground a little bumpy between them, but both determined to stay the course. Frankie

remembered, and often reread, that first letter from her mother: I am so grateful to your Army girlfriends for being there for you when your father and I were not. We love you, and if we don’t say it often enough, it is because we grew up in families where there was no such vocabulary. About your father and his … reticence about you and the war. All I can say is that something in him was broken by being unable to serve his country. All the men of his generation went to Europe, while he stayed home. Yes, he was proud of Finley and ashamed of you. But perhaps in truth he is ashamed of himself and worries that you judge him harshly, as he feared his friends had done …

Frankie never spoke about her struggles, tried never to say Vietnam out loud. And when she felt a rise in her blood pressure, a flood of grief or anger, she smiled tautly and left whatever room she was in. She’d learned that people noticed a raised voice; quiet was the perfect camouflage for pain.

Initially, it had been almost impossible to sever Vietnam from her life story. The world, it seemed, had conspired against such a healing.

The war was constantly in conversation. In bars, in living rooms, on the television. Everyone had an opinion. Now the majority of Americans seemed to be against the war and the men who fought it. In 1969, the world had learned about the horrifying massacre at My Lai, where American soldiers had killed as many as five hundred unarmed South Vietnamese civilians—men, women, and children—in their village. It had intensified the baby-killer talk about vets, more and more of whom were turning to heroin in-country and coming home addicted.

America was losing the war; that was obvious to everyone except Nixon, who kept lying to the people and sending soldiers off to war, too many of whom came home in body bags.

Each of the women had responded differently to the rising tide of violence that was ripping the country apart, dividing young from old, rich from poor, conservative from liberal. Ethel was in her third year of veterinary school and worked part-time with her father. She and Noah had begun to talk of marriage, kids. The two of them never missed a Sunday at church or a local high school football game. Their fondness for casseroles and cribbage had created long-standing jokes between the women. Ethel had grown up on this farm, among these people, and she intended to be

buried here. So she kept her head down and did her job and said nothing controversial to her friends and neighbors. This war will be over soon, she always said, but I’ll always live here. My kids will be in 4-H, I’ll probably run the damned PTA.

Barb was the opposite in every way. She’d become a vocal, participatory member of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. She went to meetings. She painted signs. She protested. And not just the war. She lobbied for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. She marched for a woman’s right to a safe abortion and basic health care. When she wasn’t trying to change the world, she earned money by bartending. It was, she said, a great job for a woman who hadn’t yet decided where she belonged.

Frankie, on the other hand, had found her way back through nursing. She’d put up with the initial prejudice and disregard for her Vietnam training and become determined to show her skills. She’d worked harder and longer than most of the other nurses, put in the hours, and had taken specialized classes. In time, she’d become a surgical nurse; now she was working toward a specialization in trauma surgery.

On this cool April morning, she woke well before the dawn and dressed for riding. It would be cold out, a spring crispness in the air.

She had come to love the sweet-smelling air of the South, the way mist clung to the grass in the morning. It calmed the tumult in her soul. Today, the cherry trees along the driveway were in full pink bloom. Ethel had been right, all those years ago, when she’d said that riding horses was restorative to one’s sense of peace.

Frankie loved the undulating green fields, the black four-rail fencing, the trees that changed their color with the weather. Now the leaves were the bright lime hue of new growth, and full of pink blossoms. But mostly it was being around the horses that calmed Frankie. Ethel had been right about that. Riding had steadied Frankie as much as friendship had.

Frankie ducked through the empty space between fence rails and headed into the barn; she could barely see her boots, the mist was so thick and gray. Inside, the barn smelled of manure and fresh bales of hay and the grain they stored in large metal garbage cans. The horses nickered at her as she


At the last stall on the left, she paused and lifted the latch. Silver Birch walked toward her, lips moving, looking for treats, breath snorting.

“Hey, girl,” Frankie said, holding out her gloved hand.

Silver ate the grain messily, more falling to the ground than getting in her mouth. Frankie led the mare out into the aisle and saddled her quickly, pressing a knee to the mare’s belly to aid her in tightening the girth.

In no time, Frankie and Silver were out on the trails, galloping through the mist. When Silver started to sound winded, Frankie slowed the mare to a trot, then a walk. They walked home slowly, clomping at a steady, calming pace.

Back in the barn, she fed and watered the horses, turned Silver out, and headed back to the small bunkhouse. Early morning sunlight drenched the fields. Off to the left was the main house, with its steeply pitched roof, large and welcoming porch, and whitewashed wooden sides, where Ethel lived with her father. Well off to the right was the bunkhouse that had once boarded farmworkers. Over the past eighteen months, it had been remodeled into a two-bedroom cottage where Frankie and Barb lived. The three women had learned how to paint, demolish, rebuild, and do rudimentary plumbing. They’d spent hours haunting garage sales and hauling other people’s junk to be their treasures. Many evenings were spent sitting around the sooty river-rock fireplace, talking. They never ran out of things to say.

Frankie climbed the few steps and went into the bunkhouse’s only bathroom, where she showered, changed, and dressed for work.

She was out of the house and on her way to work before Barb was even out of bed.



At the end of a twelve-hour shift in the OR, Frankie waved goodbye to her coworkers and headed out to her car—a dented old Ford Falcon that she and Barb shared—and jumped in. On the way out of town, she popped a John Denver tape into the eight-track and sang along.

She drove to the tavern where Barb currently worked and parked among the battered old trucks of the regulars who were there this time of day. Barb’s bicycle stood slanted against the rough exterior plank wall.

Inside, the place was dark and musty-smelling, with sawdust on the floors and barstools worn to a velvet feel by one hundred years of faithful


Barb had worked here for the past few months; it was not a job she intended to keep much longer. Or so she often said. Soon she’d look for something higher-end, nearer to the city, where the tips were better. But this was close to the farm and gave her lots of time to volunteer for her causes.

Now she stood behind the bar, a soggy bar rag over one shoulder, a red- white-and-blue cotton kerchief over her Afro. Huge gold hoop earrings caught the light.

Frankie sidled up onto a barstool. “Hey, there.”

“Jed! I’m taking a break,” Barb called out. A moment later her boss, Jed, shuffled out from the office and took his place behind the bar.

Barb grabbed a pair of cold beers and led the way out back, to one of the picnic tables. Come summer, the bar would sell house-smoked barbecue on red plastic plates, but not till the weather warmed up.

Frankie took the beer, snapped the cap, and took a long drink, leaning back against the table, stretching her legs out. She glanced at Barb, frowned, and said, “What’s wrong?”

“You can read my thoughts now?”

“This is not a new skill, Barbara. What’s up?”

“Damn it, I was going to ease my way into it.” She sighed. “I have a favor to ask.”

“Anything. You know that.”

“It’s for all of them,” Barb said. “Finley and Jamie and Rye, and all the fallen.”

Frankie flinched. The names were rarely mentioned between them. Barb and Ethel still worried that Frankie was fragile and could slide too easily back into grief, and they were right to be concerned. Frankie still sometimes woke up and, for a split second, forgot that Rye was gone and reached for him.

“The VVAW are meeting in Washington next week to protest. Guerrilla theater, they’re calling it.”

Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

“You know I’m not interested. You’ve asked before,” Frankie said. “I’m not a marcher.”

“This is special. Trust me. We aren’t the only group that will march. We want to create a media event so big Nixon has to notice.” Barb looked at

her. “Come with me.”

“Barb, you know I try not to think about … over there.”

“I know, and I respect the effort. I know how hard it’s been for you, but they’re still dying in the jungle, Frankie. Dying for a lost war. And, well … you told me to do something for Will. This is what I’m doing.”

“Not fair, throwing my words back at me.”

“I know, I know. It’s shitty, but we’re believers, you and me,” Barb said. “As banged-around as we’ve been and as much as we’ve seen, we’re patriots.”

“No one wants patriots anymore,” Frankie said. “I can’t wear an Army T-shirt off the property or I’ll be spit on. The country thinks we’re monsters. But I won’t disrespect the troops.”

“It’s not disrespectful to protest, Frankie. We had that wrong. It takes guts to stand up and demand a change. We’re vets. Shouldn’t our voices be heard in protest, too? Shouldn’t they be loud?

Barb pulled a folded-up magazine page out of her back pocket, smoothed out the wrinkles, and laid it out on the table. It was a full-page ad in Playboy for the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The picture was of a solitary coffin, draped in an American flag. The headline read IN THE LAST


IT. In the bottom corner of the ad was a plea to JOIN US.

Frankie stared at the advertisement. Since the tide of public opinion had turned so clearly against the war, more and more numbers of the wounded and fallen were being reported. It was tough to see in print. So many young men killed, while others were still being shipped over, spun up.

The press wasn’t blindly reporting what Nixon wanted them to anymore. Journalists had been granted access to the troops; they witnessed the battles, reported on the dead. This week a female journalist from Australia had been among a group captured by the People’s Army of Vietnam and taken prisoner. Kate Webb. Everyone should now know that women were in Vietnam, too. Frankie took a deep breath, exhaled.

Barb said, “Slim told me once that the average life expectancy of a helicopter pilot in Vietnam is thirty days.”

“I know. I’ve heard that, too. I don’t know if it’s true.”

“We have to stop it,” Barb said. “Us. The ones who paid the price.”

It was wrong. Criminal, the way the U.S. government was failing the military. But what could a handful of veterans do to stop a war? People like Barb had been marching for years, and what good had it done?

Protest seemed futile. Maybe even unpatriotic.

But men were dying over there, crashing in helicopters and stepping on land mines and getting shot by an enemy they never saw.

How could she not protest that, at least? “We could be arrested,” Frankie said.

“They could call in the National Guard. We could be tear-gassed or shot at,” Barb said solemnly, then added, “Like at Kent State and Jackson.”

“Way to look at the bright side.”

“This isn’t a joke,” Barb said. “The old white men who run this country are scared. And people do stupid, ugly things when they’re scared.” She leaned close. “But they’re counting on their power and our fear. And every minute, some woman’s son is being killed over there. Some girl’s brother.”

Frankie didn’t want to march. She didn’t want to think about Vietnam and what it had cost her. She wanted to do what she’d been trying to do for more than two years: forget.

It was dangerous, what Barb was asking of Frankie, an upsetting of an already precariously balanced peace in Frankie’s mind.

No fear, McGrath. Jamie’s voice in her head. Barb was right.

Frankie needed to do this. As a veteran of Vietnam, and for Finley and Jamie and Rye; she had to add her voice to the rising scream of dissent. She had to say: No more.

“Just this once,” Frankie said.

She regretted it almost instantly.



On the day before the march, Frankie had trouble concentrating at work. In between surgeries, she worried about what lay ahead, her mind obsessively scrolled through the violence that had marked so many rallies and protests. Nixon had sent the National Guard in to stop a peaceful protest at Kent State less than a year ago. When the smoke cleared, four students were dead

and dozens wounded. Only eleven days later, the police had shot students at a Jackson State College war protest.

But the truth was that although she worried about violence at the march, she worried more about standing there with other veterans, saying, I was there. For the past two years, she’d hidden that fact at every opportunity, changed the conversation when Vietnam came up. Even Barb and Ethel rarely mentioned Vietnam; Frankie knew their silence was to protect her, and on good days, she knew it helped. On bad days, she worried that she couldn’t forget because there was something wrong with her, something broken. In time, hiding her service and not talking about it had allowed shame to take root. She was never exactly sure what she was ashamed of, just that she was weak, or had somehow done something bad, been a part of something bad, something no one wanted to talk about. Maybe it was simply being a part of the apparent breakdown of American honor. She didn’t know.

On the way home, she tried to figure out what the hell one should wear to a protest meeting. She decided on hip-hugger jeans with a wide western- style belt and a ribbed white turtleneck. She dried her hair down straight from a center part. At the last minute, she went in search of her ANC pin—a brass caduceus with its wings behind a bold N—and pinned it on her sweater.

Leaving her bedroom, she shut the door behind her.

In the kitchen, Barb and Ethel were talking quietly. Barb wore her old, stained fatigue pants with a black turtleneck and a Levi’s jacket with the sleeves cut off. Dozens of the pins and patches she’d collected from friends and patients in Vietnam decorated the front of the vest. She’d drawn a big black peace symbol on the back. She’d painted a BRING THEM HOME! sign and stapled it to a yardstick.

Ethel, wearing her blue lab coat, poured herself a cup of coffee. “I don’t know how Barb talked you into this, Frank. The VVAW is as sexist as the SDS,” she added. “If you girls show up, they’ll ask you to make coffee and do snack runs.”

“Those who stay behind don’t get to bitch,” Barb said. “Disappointingly,” Frankie said glumly.

The three of them had spent at least an hour last night sitting around the firepit in the backyard, wrapped in woolen blankets, discussing today’s

march. Barb had said that more than a dozen anti-war groups were scheduled to arrive in D.C. in the next few days. The VVAW wanted to separate themselves by marching first. They had big plans to draw attention to themselves. Make the news broadcasts.

“Just be careful,” Ethel said. “Be home on time, or I’m calling the police.”

Barb laughed. “If we get into trouble, it will be with the police.” Frankie stared at her friend. “Comments like that are not helpful.”

“Come on, kid,” Barb said. “We’re making like the wind and blowing.” Ethel hugged Frankie and said, “Go with God, girls. Change the world.” Frankie followed Barb out to the car and got into the passenger seat.

Barb started the car and cranked up the music on Creedence. Barb turned, smiling. “You ready?”

Frankie sighed. Her nerves were strung taut. This whole thing was a mistake. “Just drive, Barbara.”



It was nearing midnight when they pulled into D.C.

Their destination, Potomac Park, was a black expanse in the middle of the brightly lit city; in the darkness, Frankie could make out tents here and there. The VVAW had occupied the park, turned it into a campground.

“Let’s find a spot off to ourselves,” Frankie said.

Barb parked the car on the side of the street. “Get the tent out of the trunk.”

Across the street, a long line of policemen in riot gear stood shoulder to shoulder.

“Don’t say anything,” Frankie warned as they passed the policemen on their way to the park. “I mean it. I am not getting arrested before the march.”

Barb gave a curt nod. They came to the edge of the large park. Saying nothing—not to each other and not to the other VVAW campers—they pitched their tent, then set up two chairs out front. As they sat in the dark, listening to the din of tent spikes being pounded into the ground, more and more cars drove up, headlights spearing through the night. They heard music in the distance and the quiet buzz of conversations.

“I wonder if we are the only women,” Frankie said, drinking coffee from a thermos.

Barb sighed. “Aren’t we always?”



In the morning, when Frankie stepped out of the tent, she found herself standing amid a veritable sea of male veterans—thousands—most of them about her age, wearing worn, stained fatigues and jeans and boonie hats; some wore peace symbols and carried flags from their states, their units. Hundreds of cars were parked near the park, their doors emblazoned with slogans, convoys from California and Colorado. More had parked on the grass.

As she stood there, a battered, beaten-up school bus drove up onto the grass, stopped, and opened its doors. Veterans exited the bus, singing, “What’s it good for? Absolutely nothing!”

In the center of the park, a bushy-haired man with a bullhorn jumped up into the back of a pickup truck onto which someone had spray-painted NO MORE! “My brothers-in-arms, it’s time. We’re marching to be heard today, we’re raising our voices—but not our fists, not our guns—to say, Enough. Bring our soldiers home! Line up behind Ron in the wheelchair. A single, unbroken column. Be peaceful. Don’t give the Man any reason to stop us. Let’s go!”

The men slowly formed a column, led by several veterans in wheelchairs who held flags. Behind them were men on crutches, men with burned faces and missing arms, blind men being led by their friends.

Barb and Frankie were the only two women in the park that they could see. They held hands and joined their brothers on the march across the Lincoln Memorial Bridge.

Vietnam veterans: a river of them, marching and chanting, holding signs in the air.

More men joined them, rushed forward, yelling out slogans, signs raised.

Someone bumped into Frankie so hard that she stumbled sideways, lost her hold on Barb’s hand, and fell to the ground. She yelled “Barb!” and heard “Frankie!” but men swarmed in between them.

Frankie couldn’t see her friend in the crowd. “Meet back at the tent!” she yelled, hoping Barb could hear.

“You okay, ma’am?” A man helped her to her feet.

He was young, blond, with a scraggly reddish-blond beard and mustache. He held on to her upper arm, steadied her. He wore torn, stained jungle fatigues, with the sleeves cut off. He’d drawn a huge peace symbol on his helmet. In his other hand, he held a sign that read VIETNAM VETERANS AGAINST THE WAR.

The protesters kept moving, shoving the two of them forward. “Stop the war! Bring them home! Stop the war! Bring them home!” “You should move to the side, ma’am,” he said.

Someone jostled Frankie again. She stumbled. “I’m here to march.” “Sorry, lady. This march is for vets. We’re trying to make a statement.

Hopefully that asshole in the White House will listen to us and stop lying to the country.”

“I’m a veteran,” she said.

“Of Vietnam,” he said impatiently, looking ahead. “I was there.”

“There weren’t women in ’Nam.”

The chanting grew louder. “Stop the war! Bring them home.”

“If you didn’t meet someone like me, you were lucky. It means—”

“Just move to the side, ma’am. This is for the men who were fighting. In combat, you know?” He disappeared into the moving crowd full of military shirts and bare chests and fatigues. Long hair and Afros and helmets.

What the hell?

So she didn’t belong here, either? “I WAS THERE,” she screamed in frustration.

She muscled her way forward, melded into the throng of protesters as they crossed the bridge. “Stop the war!” she said, raising her fist. “Bring them home!” Her voice was nothing amid the yelling, but she kept shouting, saying it louder and louder until she was screaming it, screaming at Nixon, at the administration, at the North Vietnamese. The more she shouted, the angrier she became; by the time they reached Arlington National Cemetery with all those white crosses planted in the trimmed green grass, she was furious.

At Arlington Cemetery, policemen moved in to stop a group of black- clad women who carried wreaths.

“They’re Gold Star Mothers,” someone yelled. “Let them through.” “Let them through, let them through, let them through,” the crowd


The Gold Star Mothers stood outside the entrance to the cemetery in a small clot, all in black, their movements blocked. It seemed they didn’t know where to go. None dropped their floral wreaths.

Gold Star Mothers, women who had lost their sons in Vietnam, being denied the opportunity to put wreaths on their sons’ graves. One of the mothers looked up, her cheeks lined with tears, and met Frankie’s gaze.

It made her think of her mother and the loss of her brother. Losing Finley had destroyed their family.

How dare the cops haul Gold Star Mothers away from their sons’ graves?

The mood of the marchers changed. Frankie felt the outrage, the anger.

Frankie joined her voice in the chanting. “Let them in.” “Hell, no, we don’t want your war!”

A helicopter flew threateningly over the crowd. Frankie heard the familiar thwop-thwop-thwop and thought of all the men who’d died. And she knew that helicopters had guns.

“Bring them home!” she screamed. “End the war!”



Two days later, Frankie and Barb were back in D.C. as hundreds of thousands of protesters poured into the city, coming together from side streets, from parks, from across the bridge; not just veterans anymore. College kids, professors, men and women from all across the country. Women pushing strollers, men with small children on their shoulders.

The denial of the Gold Star Mothers to mourn their sons on the day of the VVAW march had been shown on every news show across America. It had become the perfect visual reminder of how far wrong America had gone on Vietnam: Mothers not allowed to visit their sons’ graves. Men decimated by the war, torn apart on the battlefield, and forgotten at home.

It was wrong.

Frankie had been told often enough by her girlfriends, by Finley, by Jamie, that she was unyielding in her morality, and it was true. Deep down, she was still the good Catholic girl she’d been in her youth. She believed in good and evil, right and wrong, the dream of America. Who would she be if she chose to look away from the wrongness of this war?

Today, she stood again with Barb on Constitution Avenue, a part of this larger, angrier crowd, two women in a vast sea of people carrying signs, veterans in wheelchairs, raising their fists in anger. This second march on Washington in a week had drawn dozens of anti-war groups; it was to be a massive protest, to last for days, a tidal wave of anti-war sentiment to flood the White House and the Capitol. All of it would be captured by news crews and broadcast into every living room in America.

Barb raised her sign. It read BRING THE TROOPS HOME NOW!

The Vietnam Veterans Against the War were easily recognizable in their fatigues and patched-up jean jackets and boonie hats, but there were thousands of other protesters: hippies and college kids stood with men in suits and women in dresses. Nuns, priests, doctors, teachers. Anyone with a voice who wanted to demand that Nixon stop the war.

Frankie and Barb held hands as they marched, but this time they understood the risks better and had agreed to meet at a local hotel if they got separated. Barb stuck her sign in the air, yelled, “Bring them home, bring them home!”

The marchers came to a stop at the Capitol steps, pressed in together, shoulder to shoulder. Men raised their voices and their signs, yelling, “Stop the war! Bring them home!” while television news crews filmed it all.

A man with long hair, wearing fatigues, stepped forward, stood alone for a moment. The crowd fell silent.

A wave of anticipation swept through the VVAW group, and then something flew through the air from the protest crowd, sailed over the barricade, and landed on the Capitol steps with a clink, glinted in a ray of sunlight.

A war medal.

One by one, veterans stepped forward, stood alone, ripped medals off of their chests, and threw them, clanging, onto the steps. Purple Hearts, Bronze Stars, Good Conduct Medals, dog tags. Some hit the steps and clanked against the sudden silence of the crowd. Barb let go of Frankie,

pushed her way to the front of the crowd, and threw her first lieutenant’s bars onto the steps.

Police in riot gear—helmeted, with plastic shields up—arrived in a blare of whistles. They charged the crowd, began hauling the protesters away.

The crowd broke up; pandemonium filled the streets.

Frankie was knocked off her feet, fell hard. In the confusion, she curled into a small ball and rolled away, trying to protect herself from both protesters and police. She edged toward the chain-link fence barricade and lay there, panting, feeling bruised. Tear gas floated through the air, stung Frankie’s eyes, and blurred her vision until she could barely see.

How long did she lie there, blinking, her eyes on fire? She didn’t know.

Slowly, she got to her feet, trying to focus. The street was full of police in riot gear, hauling protesters away, cars honking, driving away, news vans following.

Half-blind, Frankie stumbled forward, unable to quite comprehend everything she’d just seen, the deep and utter wrongness of it. The street was littered with cigarette butts, protest brochures, broken signs, ripped-up draft cards.

On the steps of the Capitol, behind the temporary chain-link fencing, hundreds of medals glittered in the sunlight. Medals that had cost each recipient so much, thrown away in protest.

A lone policeman began picking them up. What would happen to them, the medals men had sacrificed and bled for?

Frankie grabbed the chain-link fence, shook it hard. “Don’t you touch those!”

A man grabbed her by the arm. “Don’t,” he said. “They’ll arrest you.”

She tried to pull free. “I don’t care.” Suddenly she was furious. How dare the American government do these things to her own citizens; stop mothers from honoring their fallen sons, ignore the meaning of a medal thrown through the air? She wiped her eyes again, tried to clear her vision. “They shouldn’t be allowed to touch those medals.”

“The vets made their point. A damn good one,” the man said. “That image will stay with people: a vet in a wheelchair throwing his Purple Heart away? Powerful, man.”

Frankie pulled back, wrenched her arm free. The man who’d stopped her wasn’t what she expected. In the first place, he was older than most of

the protesters, certainly older than most of the Vietnam vets. Long dark hair fell in feathery layers almost to his shoulders and was threaded through with gray. A thick mustache covered his upper lip. He wore round John Lennon sunglasses, but even so she could see how green his eyes were.

“You’re a Vietnam vet?” she said, trying to find her calm again. All of this had upset her, dredged up emotions she didn’t want to feel. She had to dial it back. And fast. Loosing her Vietnam emotions was never good.

“No. Just someone who’s against the war. Henry Acevedo.” He held out his hand.

She shook it distractedly. “Frankie McGrath. Did you have a son in Vietnam?”

He laughed. “I’m not that old. I’m here for the same reason you are: to say enough is goddamn enough.”

“Yeah. Well. Thanks, Henry.” Frankie walked away. Henry fell into step beside her.

“Do you think these protests will do any good?” she asked. “We have to try,” was his answer.

Yeah, Frankie thought, it’s true. She’d seen people hauled away by the police today, risking their freedom to protest a war many of them hadn’t even fought. Civilians were being arrested for exercising the fundamental American right to protest their government; at Kent State and in Jackson, they’d been shot for it.

She didn’t know if protesting and marching and making signs could actually effect change, but she damn sure knew that America wasn’t preserving democracy or fighting communism in Vietnam, and it certainly wasn’t winning. Ultimately too many lives would be lost in pursuit of nothing.

“Can I buy you a drink?” Henry asked.

Frankie had almost forgotten the older man was with her; she’d been lost in the wilds of her own past. They’d walked almost two blocks together. She stopped, looked at him.

Long, wild hair, bright green eyes, lines that hinted at sorrow, a nose that looked as if it had been broken more than once. Worn, faded Levi’s, a Rolling Stones T-shirt. Sandals. He looked like a Berkeley philosophy professor.


He shrugged. “Why not? I feel … bereft, I guess. That was tough to watch.”

What man used the word bereft?

“Are you a philosophy professor? Or a surfer, maybe?”

“Good guess. Psychiatrist. And yeah, I surf. Grew up in La Jolla. That’s in Southern California.”

Frankie smiled. “I’m a Coronado Island girl. My brother and I used to surf Trestles and Black’s Beach.”

“Small world.”

Frankie felt a kinship with him. She liked that he was a surfer, that he knew Trestles, and that he was here, standing against a war he’d had no part in. “I could use a drink. I’m supposed to meet my girlfriend at the Hay Adams. We got separated.”

They turned in tandem, heading toward the hotel.

Across the street, a small table had been positioned beneath a banner that read DON’T LET THEM BE FORGOTTEN.

At the table, behind stacks of anti-war flyers, two long-haired men with unruly sideburns sat in folding chairs. “Hey, lady, want to buy a bracelet and help bring a POW home?”

Frankie walked over to the table, looked down at a cardboard box full of silver metal bracelets.

“They’re five bucks apiece,” the guy behind the table said.

Frankie pulled one of the bracelets out. It was a thin silver cuff, with

MAJ ROBERT WELCH 1–16–1967 engraved on it.

“We’re a student organization,” one of the kids said. “We’re raising money. We work with the League of POW/MIA Families. It’s a new organization.”

“League of Families?” Frankie asked.

“Navy wives, mostly, fighting to bring their husbands home. There’s a fundraiser in town next week, if you’d like to join the effort. Here’s a flyer. They need donations.”

Frankie took the flyer, handed the guy ten dollars, and put the bracelet


She and Henry walked to the hotel, passed a worried-looking doorman

who seemed ready to stop them, but didn’t. They went downstairs, into the sexy basement bar where it was rumored that much of the country’s

governing decisions were made by men drinking martinis. They chose a booth in the back; he ordered a beer, she a gin martini. On the table in front of them, a pair of coasters showed a caricature of President Nixon. Frankie realized her hands were shaking so she lit up a cigarette.

The bartender brought over a small bowl full of homemade potato chips.

She sipped her drink, which helped to ease the slight tremor in her hands. Her eyes still stung, but her vision had cleared. Cigarette smoke wafted between them. Someone in here was smoking a cigar, too.

“Who did you lose to Vietnam?” Henry asked.

She put down her glass. There was something in the way he looked at her, a quiet compassion, maybe, a depth of caring she was unused to. “It’s a long list.”

“A brother?”

“He was the first. Yeah. But … there were … others.”

He said nothing more but didn’t look away. She had a feeling he saw more than most people. The silence became unnerving.

“I was there,” she said in a soft voice, surprising herself with the admission.

“I see the pin,” he said. “Your caduceus. Wings. You’re a nurse. I’ve heard stories about women like you.”

“How? No one talks about the war. No one who was there, anyway.”

“I treat a few vets in my practice. Alcoholics, addicts, mostly. Do you have nightmares, Frankie? Trouble sleeping?”

Before Frankie could answer—deflect—Barb showed up, panting and out of breath. She slid into the booth, bumped Frankie hard. “Did you see us throw the medals? That will make the news.” She raised a hand to the bartender, yelled, “Rum and Coke.”

Henry was already sliding out of the booth, standing. He looked down at Frankie. “It was nice to meet you, Frankie. How do I find you?” he asked too quietly for Barb to hear.

“Sorry, Henry. I don’t think I’m ready to be found.”

He touched her shoulder gently. “Take care of yourself.” Did he give those words a weight?

“Who was that?” Barb asked, reaching for a potato chip. “One of your dad’s friends?”

“He’s not that old,” Frankie said, staring down at the new silver bracelet she wore. With a fingertip, she traced the engraving. The major had gone missing three months before Frankie landed in Vietnam. While she was at Fort Sam Houston, not learning enough to deploy.

How many prisoners of war were there? And why were they never in the news?

“Frankie?” Barb said, finishing her drink. “What is it? Memories? Do you need to talk?”

Frankie looked up. “I’m glad we marched. You were right.”

Barb smiled. “Girlfriend, I am always right. You know that by now.” “But I think we can do more.”

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