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The Beantown Girls
Author:Jane Healey

The Beantown Girls by Jane Healey

You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

—Eleanor Roosevelt

Chapter One

July 14, 1944

New York City

Dottie, Viv, and I stood together on the deck of the Queen Elizabeth, surrounded by a couple dozen other Red Cross workers and hundreds of US soldiers. The once-glamorous cruise ship, now painted a bland battleship gray for its current role as troop transporter, was making its final preparations for departure to Europe.

The three of us were enjoying the festive atmosphere as the people on the dock below waved up at the passengers shouting their final farewells to loved ones on board. We had said our good-byes to our families in Boston six weeks ago, but we waved and smiled back at the strangers wishing us well.

“I have to say, we all look pretty smart in these new uniforms,” Dottie said, adjusting her light-blue Red Cross cap and nodding at Viv and me with approval. “Fiona, the color brings out the gray in your eyes.”

“Thanks, Dottie,” I said. “I agree, they aren’t too bad.”

“Not too bad except for these sensible black shoes they recommended that we buy,” said Viv, looking down with a sour face. “They’re horrible. Zero fashion. But yes, the uniforms are surprisingly spiffy.”

“Sweetheart, you all look better than spiffy,” a soldier next to us said, staring at Dottie as he gave a whistle. His two friends nodded in agreement. They had to be fresh out of high school. So many of these newly minted GIs looked like they were playing dress-up in their fathers’ uniforms. Still, Dottie flushed a deep shade of pink and turned away.

“Oh, for God’s sake, Dottie, at least say thank you,” Viv whispered to her with a nudge. “She thanks you, honey,” Viv said to the soldier with a smile, and now he was the one blushing.

“She’s right,” I said. “That’s definitely not the last compliment you’re going to get from a soldier. You better get used to it.”

Dottie was about to reply, but an army band on the docks below struck up a raucous rendition of “Over There,” and a rowdy group on the other side of us started singing along so loudly that it was difficult to talk over the noise.

I looked up at the decks above ours, at the hundreds of men pressed against railings like we were, waving good-bye to the crowds. Jostling and laughing with each other, they were all hiding their nerves beneath bravado.

And that’s when I spotted my fiancé, Second Lieutenant Danny Barker, among the men on the deck above ours. My arms broke out in goose pimples despite the heat, and I felt a little faint. Tall and blond, he looked incredibly handsome in his US Army Air Force uniform. He was smiling and waving at the crowds below too, and it was all I could do not to scream his name and go running upstairs to him. I wanted to do it so badly my heart ached. But I held back calling to him, because deep down I knew. It wasn’t him. It couldn’t be. Danny Barker had been declared missing in action more than eight months ago, shot down in the skies over Germany.

The ship’s horn blasted our departure from the dock, and more soldiers joined in the singing. Dottie and Viv didn’t notice me gripping the rail of the ship with white knuckles as I tried to tether myself to reality. I was desperate to quell the feeling of panic that was bubbling up inside me. I shook my head back and forth, blinking a few times. When I looked up again, I realized that the soldier I could have sworn was Danny bore only a passing resemblance to him. He was tall and blond like Danny, but with sharp, angular features that were nothing like my fiancé’s.

It was a hot July day in New York City, and the ocean air was tainted with the smell of diesel, cigarettes, and cheap cologne. I don’t know if it was the humidity that made the atmosphere feel heavy or the emotions of the hundreds of soldiers on the ship with us, jumping up and down, yelling their final good-byes before heading off to war.

Some of the women in the crowds below had started to cry, clutching their handkerchiefs and straining to capture these last glimpses of their beloved sons, brothers, and sweethearts so they could remember them in the months to come. I felt grief in the pit of my stomach, grief that I had managed to push down for the past few months. But now that we were bound for Europe, it all came bubbling to the surface. Oh God, I thought. What if this whole thing is an enormous mistake?

I felt my face flush and thought I might throw up. I tugged on Dottie’s arm. Viv was charming some of the men standing next to us with a story about learning to play Ping-Pong during our recent training in DC.

“I’ve got to find a bathroom,” I said into Dottie’s ear. “I’m feeling a little ill.”

“Sheesh, it’s kind of early to be seasick, Fiona,” Dottie said. “We haven’t even left the harbor yet. Fiona? Fiona!” Dottie called after me as I moved as fast as I could through the throngs of GIs, my hand over my mouth.

I heard greetings of “Hey, doll!” and “What’s the matter, freckles?” from the dozens of men I pushed past. A couple of them graciously asked if I was okay.

I finally found a bathroom tucked into the space underneath the stairs to an upper deck. I slammed the door behind me and locked it, taking another deep breath as I splashed water on my face. In the small round mirror, I looked even paler than usual, making the freckles across my nose more prominent. I adjusted the pins on my new cap and smoothed down my newly shorn, shoulder-length hair. It was only then I noticed that my hands were shaking. I opened the tiny porthole above the toilet to let in some air and sank to the floor. I didn’t throw up, but for the first time in many months, I began to cry.

In March, I had let Viv and Dottie drag me to see the Saturday matinee of Jane Eyre starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine. It had always been one of my favorite novels, so I reluctantly agreed to go. Before the movie started, we watched a short newsreel. The words Now more than ever, your Red Cross is at his side flashed across the screen with a familiar picture of a soldier standing next to a woman in a Red Cross uniform, the same one I was wearing today. It was followed by footage of Red Cross Clubmobile girls serving the troops all over Europe. There was a trio of these girls in Italy and then more footage of them in North Africa, happily serving coffee and doughnuts to soldiers out of a converted truck. There were other scenes of these women playing records and dancing the jitterbug with GIs against the backdrop of blown-out buildings. A voice-over began:

Our Red Cross Clubmobile girls must be single, college graduates, and over the age of twenty-five. They are handpicked for their looks, education, and personality. They are hardy physically and have a sociable, friendly manner.

Seeing those women—traveling, directly helping the war effort—had stirred something in me that I hadn’t felt since Danny had gone missing. It was a combination of hope and exhilaration. That feeling you have before the first day of college or when starting a new job. The newsreel had seemed like a sign from above. Maybe I could do something real in the war effort other than assemble care packages at the local USO. Volunteering for the Red Cross could be a way to honor Danny. And more than anything, it was a plan, a way forward—a way to try to find out what had happened to him the day his plane was shot down. Right after seeing that reel, I decided to apply to become a Red Cross Clubmobile girl.

I got up, looked at myself in the mirror, and said out loud to my reflection, “Nice job, Fiona. Did you think these soldiers wouldn’t remind you of your missing fiancé? Did you think going to war was going to be a walk in the park? Get a grip.”

I jumped at the sound of someone banging on the bathroom door.

“Fiona! Fi? Are you talking to yourself? Open up.” I recognized Viv’s raspy voice coming from outside.

“Fiona, we know you’re in there,” Dottie said in her high-pitched tone. “Open the door.”

I wiped my tears and unlatched the door to see my best friends standing on the other side. Viviana was frowning at me, her violet-blue eyes studying my face. Dottie stood next to her, peering over her red horn-rimmed glasses, unable to hide her worry.

“Oh Jesus, Fiona, look at you,” Viv said as she barged in with Dottie, locking the door behind them. “We’ve got to clean you up; no soldiers need to see you all swollen and tear-stained. We’re supposed to be boosting their morale, not making them feel worse.”

“Um, yeah, no kidding, Viv. Why do you think I’m hiding in the bathroom?” I answered as she started blotting my face with powder.