by Kate Christie
Fort Bliss—it’s anything but. Caroline “CJ” Jamieson gave up studying history and joined the Women’s Army Corps to live it instead. Along with her new WAC friends, she is ready to do her part to help boys like her brothers, fighting in the European and Pacific theaters, make it home sooner.
The Army, however, has derailed her plans. Instead of the California post she anticipated, west Texas cacti and an artillery training base are the unexpected sights on her new horizons. Not one to question orders, she’s not sure how her skills in airplane engine maintenance will be of use in this desolate region.
But when CJ meets fellow WAC enlistee Brady Buchanan, Fort Bliss might live up to its name.
GCLS Goldie Awards
In the Company of Women — Winner, Lesbian Historical Fiction.
Rainbow Book Reviews
This book is a definite treat…I tip my hat to the author for this resplendent book which I totally recommend. It opened my eyes with an in-depth presentation of this historical period and enveloped my heart with an expansive love story that blew me away.
Caroline Jamieson stood at the back of the train, watching the tracks recede into dusky brown hills that stretched as far as she could see. She’d left Chicago two days earlier and crossed through four states in the first twenty-four hours: Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas and the northwest corner of Louisiana. Sometime during the second night, while she failed to sleep in her upright seat—notthe Pullman overnighters they’d been promised, the GIs around her griped—the train had crossed into Texas, another state she’d only ever visited on maps and in history books, a vast, sprawling landscape that made her native Michigan feel puny, insubstantial. Now each mile that slipped away beneath her represented the farthest she’d ever been from home.
“We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto,” she murmured, drawing on her cigarette as sunrise lightened the browns and tans of the surrounding desert.
Not Iowa, either, where she’d completed a month of basic training, nor Illinois where she’d spent a dozen weeks learning how to be an airplane mechanic for the Army Air Forces. Definitely not California, where her initial orders had placed her along with a sizable contingent of her training class. Shari and Denise and the others were on their way home for two weeks of leave before they would journey west to work at airfields affiliated with the Douglas, Martin or Boeing factories, spending their days off at the Pacific Ocean and the Presidio, their nights out in Chinatown and on Market Street. Meanwhile CJ, chosen to serve as a replacement soldier at Fort Bliss in El Paso, had seen her leave revoked. Still smarting from the sudden change in assignment, she’d been hustled onto the train in Chicago and shuttled off to the farthest western edge of Texas. Lucky her.
Would there be cowboys and sagebrush, Indians and prong-armed cacti? She couldn’t imagine what waited at the end of the line, but at least her real life in the Women’s Army Corps was about to begin. She was tired of training, weary of temporary friendships and tenuous homes. She was ready to put down roots and dig into GI life. Even if that meant living in Texas.
Grinding out her cigarette, she pocketed the butt and returned to the car where she’d settled in with a handful of civilians and a larger group of servicemen. The boys were playing cards again, but Edith, the middle-aged Arkansan on her way to meet her new baby granddaughter in San Diego, looked up and waved her over.
“Pound cake?” she asked, holding out yet another tin lined with wax paper.
CJ helped herself to the cake she had a feeling would be delicious despite current shortages in sugar and butter. “At this rate, I’m not going to fit into my uniform.”
“Don’t be silly. You’re built like my older boy, Chet. I’ll bet you have to work to put on weight.”
A bite of cake saved her from the need to respond. In 1943, curves were all the rage—curves she most certainly had not been blessed with. Or cursed with, as the case may be. Unlike some of her fellow WAC AAF trainees, she had managed to avoid anything more than passing interest from the men stationed at Chanute Field. Likewise, the boys on the train had treated her more like a little sister than a “dame.” The big brother attitude didn’t bother her. Since her recent split with her college boyfriend, she had resolved to keep her head down on the dating front. Besides, the WAC had strict rules about fraternization, probably for good reason.
The boys in the seat across the aisle batted their eyes at Edith, and she sighed good-naturedly. “Take it. I’ve got more.”
The one nicknamed Dorsey, presumably for his musical talents, winked at CJ as he held the tin out to his buddies. “Let them eat cake!”
He, like the others, seemed to flirt almost automatically. But more than once she’d caught him staring at a girl’s photo when he thought no one was looking. They were all from somewhere—hayseeds straight from the Kansas plains; Polish kids from Chicago; Jersey boys with tough accents; Mainers who’d joined the Army because they were tired of the sea; ’Bama boys riled up about the War Between the States. They each had a home and family and girl they had left behind, thanks to the draft or their sense of duty. The sheer number of young men—and women—who now found themselves in Uncle Sam’s service was staggering. In her own family, the three who were of an age to do so had joined up, and they were hardly uncommon among their friends and neighbors.
She trained her gaze again on the landscape beyond the train’s window. Still flat, still brown, still utterly foreign. Her family’s farm would be beautiful right about now. But then, it was always beautiful, except maybe in the heart of summer when the black flies would rather die than leave you in peace. She loved autumn in Southwest Michigan—the cool, dewy mornings, the rattling bugle cries of sandhill cranes, the rose-cheeked apples that all but begged to be picked with a twist and flick of the wrist. Soon cooler nights would settle over the farm, and the leaves would begin to color and dry out, the horses’ coats would thicken, and the furrowed fields would lay empty, waiting for snow. But for now, the land and forests would be green, pumpkins plumping on the vine, potato leaves plentiful.
The thought of home was like a missing tooth—she couldn’t help but poke the gaping hole with her tongue, testing the raw emptiness of the space left behind. But at the same time, she knew she was fortunate to live where she did. Protected on either coast by the world’s largest oceans, America’s cities and its people had remained largely untouched, except for those who had volunteered—or been chosen—to “do their part.”
As she was doing now. Soon the train would reach El Paso, and then it would be time to say more goodbyes, to greet a new set of pals whose company may or may not prove to be brief. Why did the military see fit to keep its constituents in constant flux? Although, she supposed she could see the value in teaching soldiers not to grow too attached to a place or to individual people. They were insignificant parts of a great machine erected to defeat the fascist forces currently clawing their way across the planet, blackening each nation, state, city and village they touched.
Ours is not to reason why; ours is but to do and die. She shivered at the thought.
Beside her, the clack of Edith’s knitting needles paused. “Goose walk over your grave?”
“If by goose you mean the German Army, then yes.”
Edith’s gaze sharpened. “Don’t give them the satisfaction. Now that our boys are over there, those Nasties will be running home with their tails between their legs, you mark my words.”
CJ nodded politely. But she doubted that battle-hardened Wehrmacht soldiers would find much reason to run from green American boys like the ones across the aisle, bickering over whose mother made the best chocolate chip cookies.
* * *
The train arrived at El Paso’s Union Depot shortly before nine that night. CJ had barely retrieved her GI rucksack from an overhead rack near the car’s entrance when one of the boys liberated her of its heft.
“I’ve got it, Private,” he said. “Lead away.”
She could fix a 2,500 horsepower engine but she couldn’t carry her own luggage? She faked a gracious nod. “Thank you, Sergeant.”
His friends whistled, but he ignored them. “Are you riding out to Bliss with us?”
“I don’t know.”
She’d checked in at the Dallas USO to let the Fort Bliss WAC command know her arrival plans, but she had no way of knowing if they’d received her communique. As they stepped onto the platform, she noticed a WAC sergeant and private watching passengers stream from the train. Message received, obviously. She freed her bag from the helpful non-com and made her way to the two women in uniform.
“Private Jamieson?” the sergeant asked, her sweet voice an odd match for her military bearing and slightly squarer than average jaw.
“Welcome to Bliss,” the private said, smiling as she reached for CJ’s rucksack. “Let me. You must be tired after your trip.”
Giving up her bag to a Wac didn’t have nearly the same connotations as to a GI, especially when the woman in question was nearly a half foot shorter.
They introduced themselves on the way out to the Jeep—Toby Peterson, the private, hailed from New York City, while Staff Sergeant Velta Welch was an Okie, which explained the twang. That was as far as they got before Welch turned the ignition and put the Jeep in gear. Open cars weren’t conducive to conversation.
The autumn night was cold and dark, and CJ barely got an impression of brick buildings and arched streetlights before they were pulling up to the post gate. El Paso didn’t seem to be much of an urban center, that was for sure. But Fort Bliss was an antiaircraft artillery, or AA, training post. Probably it was better not to have your ack-ack guns and tow target planes careening close to human population centers. Soon they passed through another gate into a separate compound signed “WAC Personnel Only” and guarded by MPs and barbed wire. The exaggerated security might have alarmed her if the WAC compound at Chanute hadn’t been similarly circumscribed from the rest of the airfield.
Friday night was GI night the country over, CJ realized as the sarge went off to park the Jeep and Toby led her to an empty bunk in her new barracks. The other women in her assigned squad room paused to introduce themselves, mostly young women like her with hair pinned up off their shoulders and the same shade of red lipstick fading after a long work day. Then they returned to scrubbing floors, untangling the contents of lockers and trunks and disposing of clothes, civilian suitcases and shoes piled every which way. In the morning, company officers would stroll through the barracks opening this locker, checking that bunk, examining the latrine, day room and orderly room for even the minutest speck of dust. Friday night detail and Saturday morning inspection always reminded CJ of the saying she’d learned in basic training: “If it moves, salute it. If it doesn’t, clean it.”
Her new barracks were a step up from her previous GI accommodations. Here each Wac had her own cot, an individual wall locker and a private trunk, and every two girls shared a dressing table that doubled as a desk. The latrine impressed as well: two bathtubs, six showers and actual doors on the stalls, for a change. Beside it lay a large laundry room with multiple sinks, indoor drying lines and wood clothing pins. But best of all was the day room, decked out in comfortable, early American furniture and decorated with painted murals of famous women warriors: Boadicea, Joan of Arc, Deborah Sampson, Molly Pitcher, a nameless Amazon and the WAC patron saint Pallas Athene.
Once Toby had given her the barracks tour, there wasn’t much for CJ to do but unpack, shine her shoes and iron her travel-wrinkled clothes in the laundry room before stowing them away. No latrine detail yet, and no chance to socialize with the women who whirl-wound past in their hurry to get the squad room as clean as was soldierly possible.
Soon three nights of train travel caught up, and she dropped off without intending to in the brightly lit barracks, women murmuring and laughing around her.
* * *
The next morning CJ stood at attention in front of her bunk as three WAC officers paraded through the barracks. She wondered what they were like—rigid and by-the-book like the officers at Chanute Field or intelligent leaders like the non-coms at Fort Des Moines, where she’d completed basic?
Lieutenant Fiona Kelly paused before her. “How are you settling in, Private Jamieson?”
“Fine, ma’am.” She was careful not to meet the lieutenant’s gaze.
“Good. Let me know if you have any questions or concerns, soldier.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
She risked a glance at the lieutenant’s face as she moved on to the next bunk. With gray streaks showing in neat auburn hair cut above the collar of her “A” uniform, she was older than most of the other women in the company and exuded a confidence borne not solely of age and rank. Gym teacher? College administrator? The WAC officer ranks were filled with executive secretaries and university instructors and even a dean and college president, if the rumors were correct.
Inspection didn’t last long, and by the end of it she had her answer—the enlisted women had worked hard the night before to put their barracks in order, and the officers recognized their efforts. No gigs on Company D, which meant no restrictions for the week ahead. Intelligent leaders by the look of it.
After inspection she went outside to survey the multitude of white wooden and adobe buildings that made up the WAC area, the brown, rocky mountains that hulked in the near distance. Somehow she doubted California would have felt quite so alien. Lit cigarette in hand, she sat on the front steps of the barracks and watched women hang laundry on lines that stretched between low-slung buildings. The coolness of the desert night had faded soon after morning mess, and now the Texas sun was strong in the cloudless sky. Another regional quirk—she wasn’t used to such warmth in mid-October.
“Mind if I join you?” Toby, the private who had met her at the train station the night before, paused beside the steps.
“Not at all.”
Toby, CJ noted, had changed from her formal “A” uniform into the same one-piece coveralls the WAC trainees at Chanute Field had worn on duty. Both uniforms bore the blue and yellow Army Air Forces shoulder sleeve insignia.
“So, Jamieson, do you like sports?” she asked, lighting a cigarette.
“Good. There’s a basketball hoop in back of the officers’ quarters, and a group of us get together on the weekends for softball. We’re playing today, in fact, after noon mess. You’re welcome to join us.”
“Thanks. I will.”
She’d played softball, basketball and tennis on the weekends in Illinois too. Sports were second nature to her. She’d grown up shadowing her two older brothers around the farm and assorted playing fields. Only now Joe, a Marine officer in the Pacific, and Alec, a B-17 flight engineer in Italy, probably didn’t get much opportunity to play games.
“Lieutenant Kelly’s our ump.” Toby blew a cloud of smoke into the air and watched it dissipate. “I thought you looked like the sporting type.”
Just then another Wac dropped onto the steps. “Hiya, girls.”
“Hi yourself,” Toby said, smiling at the newcomer. “Kate, this is CJ, our newest grease monkey. CJ, this is Kate Delaney. She’s with Personnel.”
“Welcome to Bliss,” Kate said, proffering the same greeting Toby and the staff sergeant had given the night before.
Other than the greeting, however, she seemed to have little in common with Toby or the sarge, both of whom were short-haired, narrow-hipped women who looked more natural in coveralls than in the WAC summer uniform that Kate filled out so well. Unlike them, she managed to look curvy and pretty even in a shirt and tie.
“Hiya, kids,” another woman said, snagging Toby’s cigarette and taking a deep draw.
“Antonelli,” Toby mock-growled, “you better watch it.”
“Gee, I’m shaking in my GI shoes,” the dark-haired newcomer returned as she handed back the smoke. Like Toby, she was wearing coveralls.
Between them, Kate rolled her eyes. “Reggie, have you met CJ?”
“Sure did, last night.” Reggie offered CJ a nod. “Hey.”
“Hey.” CJ waved a little and tapped ash from the end of her cigarette. Was being a replacement soldier always this awkward? No doubt it was worse trying to join a tight-knit combat team during an offensive. Count your lucky stars, she reminded herself for the umpteenth time since joining up.