by JB Grant
Oh, I know what they say, how the only reason a girl ever joins the service is she wants to get knocked up and get married. But listen, you spend eighteen years in a town like Winner, South Dakota, you’re gonna do anything to get away, and I mean anything. Winner: the name says it all.
Could’ve been a lot worse I’m sure, but senior year in high school I got to feeling so antsy I couldn’t hardly sit still. All that winter and spring this one boy Wayne Halstrom kept saying he wanted to marry me and us have our own house and everything, but I didn’t want to stick around for nobody. Honest, I was ready to run away with the circus or a tractor salesman or almost anybody headin’ someplace else, that’s how sick to death I was of the same old town in the midst of all those endless fields of wheat and corn and milo. Amber waves of grain—forget it.
Anyway, along about April who dropped by at the high school one day but, you guessed it, that friendly Marine Corps recruiter, all the way special from Sioux Falls. Comes on in the auditorium and starts snowing everybody left and right, girls included. “That’s right, ladies, you too can get the benefits. Regular promotions, plenty of exotic duty-stations--California, Hawaii, Japan, the embassy over in Paris. Twenty-to-one ratio your favor, and ladies you can rest assured it’s a hundred-percent he-man outfit.”
So like who could resist?
June 28th, the big day. Five of us, we take a bus down to this navy base in Kansas, they put us up for the night before flying us on over to South Carolina. Where we stayed at the base, this bunch of Waves they’re tellin’ us, “You’re gonna regret it, you’re gonna regret it.” Not me. Only regret I had was everything still looked pretty much the same as around home. That’s when I realized: you wanta get to Paris, do it yourself. Join the Marines and where do you go instead? Parris Island. But hey, it’s only three thousand miles off the coast of France.
Well, no need going into boot camp. Everybody knows what it’s all about. These woman sergeants look like lady cops tell you how to set your hair and shave your legs. Then you get these male D.I.s come over and holler “hup hoop hreep horp”—big bad man he’s gonna yell at the little girls and make ’em cry, big deal, whup ’em into shape. I admit, we weren’t exactly angels, like a couple of these crazy janes they actually tried to get something going with the boys on duty in the mess hall. But still the whole thing was ridiculous, chalk it up to experience.
You know how they call us BAMs, short for broad-ass marines. Pardon the language, but like inside of two days everybody in your whole platoon has heard all about it. Like you were supposed to resent it, or learn to ignore it. Ha! The way the pants of your work uniform are cut, that’s how you look goin’ away: ultra wide, bottomside. So if you want, just buy your utility pants a size too small, and guess what.
Anyway Parris Island was kind of a waste, you consider all they expect out of a lady jarhead is type up leave papers and be a friend and companion to the troops. Oh, I know, they got these programs you can put in for, but the better the program and the longer they send you to school, the more extra time you gotta promise to serve. Ain’t worth it. Might as well just finish out your enlistment and take it as it comes.
So that makes me a clerk-typist like about everybody else, and they send me up to jolly old Magnolia Air Station to start pounding the keys for some potbellied lifer. Sorry, Brenda honey -- not cutesie enough to work for officers.
I guess that sounds like sour grapes. Well, it is. Not saying like I’m no ugly mugly. Just I don’t have all that amounta class to begin with, and I ain’t about to put out for no measly desk job. What difference does it make if your boss wears three stripes or a silver eagle? It’s still eight to 4:30 and you’re still beatin’ on the same lousy typewriter.
So I go to work down at the main hangar, this aircraft repair squadron. Then they went off on a Med Cruise so I got transferred over to Aerology, over at the control tower. That was pretty much okay because the guys were at least halfway mature, and having a tower job they mostly left you alone, not like that crumby repair squadron everybody had to show you what a man they were, use all the dirty words in the language and try to pinch you in the rear end every time you went for a simple drink of water. U.S.M.C. -- Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children. Over at Aerology, the guys talked to you like a person most of the time and you could tell ’em a few things, like they didn’t always hafta make a big ha-ha joke out of it.
So I started going around with this one corporal named Richie Merrill, sort of a strange-o but real nice and he always acted like a gentleman. I don’t mean goody-goody, but you knew you weren’t gonna hafta go to work Monday morning and everybody be lookin’ at you out the corner of their eye. That’s what I mean by gentleman.
I didn’t want it to get too serious, though. Like I told Richie, the trouble with the Marine Corps is everybody’s basically lonely; you take a couple lonely people, ain’t much chance it’s gonna last. But I hafta admit I did kinda love him in a way. He used to listen to me like what I had to say was important. That was nice. I’m no dope, but I sure ain’t no brain, and it’s nice when somebody makes you feel intelligent. Anyhow, maybe if things had worked out different, me and Richie would’ve ended up together instead of Jerry, but you can always tell when a guy don’t really have it for you. Thing was, I could talk to Richie okay, but some stuff he just couldn’t air it out in front of me. He’d get into these faraway kind of moods, and you could see he was gettin’ restless, I’m not that dumb. So anyway it was probably best all around when--surprise, surprise--they transferred me from Aerology over to Wing Schools.
Wing Schools: it’s this place you wouldn’t believe. They got about six rooms up on the second floor of this ugly white building, and I guess they teach a few actual classes to the troops, but the main thing they do is set around all day and yaddayadda. That’s what they do. They cram into this squinchy little office, about ten instructors, big old coffee machine against the wall, two or three boxes of doughnuts, they cram in there and drink coffee and eat doughnuts and yada yada yada all day long. You would not believe it. I don’t see how they ever instructed nobody, honest to God, all the time they used to run off at the mouth.
Even the head honcho, Master Gunnery Sergeant Conner. Sorta handsome for an old guy, and he never tried to get wise with me or anything, so I guess for a boss you couldn’t complain, but boy was he unefficient. Supposedly he had a license to fly planes even though he wasn’t an officer, used to fly the major general up to D.C. and like that. I always thought it was a big fat story and he just wanted some reason to sneak away, but it might’ve been true, although I can’t imagine no major general trusting that guy at the wheel, what a boozehound. You could smell it on his breath half the time. Anyway if he really did fly a plane that was all he ever did, let me tellya, ’cause he never hardly worked a lick at Wing Schools, only gave intros and signed diplomas and talked on the phone now and then.
The thing about Wing Schools, everybody was pretty much the sneaky type: Sergeant Billings, Sergeant McBride, Gunny Boehm, Corporal Whatsisname, I can’t remember. They had this special cozy kinda racket goin’ and they each took advantage--like around fourteen-thirty telling their students to field-day the classroom, then going home and watching TV with the kiddies. Or like saying they were too busy with teaching to go to Wednesday afternoon training, and then taking off to play golf, stuff like that. They all snuck around in their own cute little way. And they could all disappear zippity-zip…that is when they weren’t hangin’ around drinking coffee and yapping and arguing. Sort of hilarious, except you got tired of it pretty quick.
The main reason was this one jerk, Gunnery Sergeant Blunt, he worked down below in electronics and always used to come upstairs and try to start another stupid argument. A real jerk. Like he thought it was just dandy fun to pick on whoever was new. That’s why I got transferred over there: he ran off about ten clerk-typists in a row pickin’ on ’em and sayin’ all this nasty stuff they shoulda had him courtmartialed for it. Anyway he really knew how to get on your back--Brenda this, Brenda that--but I wasn’t about to put up with it, give him the satisfaction. This one time I threw down a whole jar of rubber cement, it broke all over the floor and some of it splashed on his shoe. That shocked him all right; I guess he used to spend about all night long shining his stupid shoes. But where he really got on my back was Jerry.
Like Jerry was one of the electronics peons, they’d come up topside every so often and buy a cup of coffee and a doughnut, fifty cents. So one morning Jerry comes up, for once there’s nobody else in the office. He says something, I say something back. I ask him where he works and he says electronics, so we naturally get on the subject of Gunny Blunt, what a jerk, and one thing leads to another. Ever since Richie I been feeling kinda out of it, and I d’know, Jerry’s real friendly and a lotta laughs, and I just plain liked his personality. And that was how the whole thing got started.
So one day Jerry comes up to say hi and all that stuff, and right outa the blue he says, “Let’s get married.” I say, ‘‘What? You gotta be kiddin’ around.” He says, ‘‘I’m serious. Figure it out.” He hates the barracks, I hate the BAM shack, why not join forces and be able to move into married quarters, almost like living in a decent house. He says, “Think it over.” So next weekend after the movies I tell him I been thinking it over and sounds like it might be a pretty good idea, but no kids.
So you know, we have to go see our C.O.s and get permission. Anyway, Gunny Blunt hears about it and talk about giving somebody a hard time, he’s got Jerry down there screamin’ at him, “How can you wanta marry that W.M. pig?” Then he comes up and screams at me, “You bitches are all alike!”--on and on, totally insane. Sergeant Conner’s supposed to be over at the admin building, but luckily he all of a sudden walks in with this G-3 colonel, they catch Gunny Blunt in the act and the colonel really chews him out somethin’ fierce. Then Sergeant Conner calls up Jerry’s C.O. and old Captain Lou Ellen, tells ’em what a good girl I am and all that, and I guess he really does have some influence because before you know it everything’s all set. Captain Lou Ellen has me in for this little heart-to-heart chat: “You owe it to your country to stay on the job” and so forth--meaning, “We paid for all that training, so don’t get pregnant.” I said, “Unh-unh, no way.”
So we get married in the base chapel on Jerry’s duty-section weekend. Couple weeks after that, they let us move on out to M.E.M.Q., the married enlisted men’s quarters, our own little place. We both start drawing comrats and I also rated this small allotment, we split it up fair and square. Everything looks like it’s gonna be real peachy, and the hospital’s there to help out if you don’t want dependents.
I guess the first mistake we made was who we picked to move in with. See, M.E.M.Q.’s a whole buncha these two-family deals, you share a little house with somebody else. So there was this one boy Bobby DiGrazia that Jerry worked with down below, I guess Gunny Blunt used to really get onto him too, maybe even worse. Anyway Bobby had gotten married a few months before, not a BAM but some girl from back home, and the other half of their place happened to be vacant, so we requested to move in there. Thing is, Bobby’s basically what you’d call a not very optimistic person, and his wife Marianne is this intense little jane--super intense, and super serious. I honest to God never once heard her laugh. We tried being social, invite ’em over for hamburgers and so on, but these two were a real sad pair, just a couple of sad kids, there wasn’t a thing you could do to cheer ’em up. They’d come over and just sit there, thank goodness we picked up a secondhand TV. Or like maybe I’d get off work early and Marianne would knock on the door and say, “You mind if I come in?” Then she’d just hang around, all intense and miserable, make me more and more nervous. So I’d start asking her questions about what’s buggin’ her.
That’s what she wanted. Marianne’s gone halfway through college and she’s always got her nose in a book, but guess who she picks out to lay all her problems on? Bobby’s, too. I’m not saying they didn’t have some real trouble, but seemed to me like Marianne was only makin’ everything harder on herself. Anyway I’m no psychologist, what are you supposed to do--this sad intense little jane comes in the house and says, “I realize that I’m an unfulfilled woman.” Or, “Bob loves me more than I deserve and I think I resent it.” I mean what do you say back to them? Stand there like a dope, maybe come out with some advice you got out of a magazine, hope they’ll start to talk about something else or go on home.
Actually that part wasn’t so bad. But what takes the cake, one day I’m home alone and Marianne comes over and says, “I gotta talk to you”--makes me sit down and the whole bit. Then she says, “I know this isn’t easy to hear, but your personal habits are going to ruin our marriage.” I say, “What?” She says, “Used to be Bob and I would eat lunch together every day, and it was real private and quiet, like our own little world between us.” Yeah, okay, so? “So,” she says, “then you people moved in. I don’t like to bring it up but some of your habits are disgusting to us both.” I just look at her. “I’m sorry,” she says, “but the idea of coming back here at lunch hour merely for the sake of having sex is like…perverted. They even have a dirty name for it.” So that really ticks me off. Shouldn’t of, I know, but it did. I don’t care how sad she is, I don’t care she’s got two years of college, I tell her, “Looky here, sister, we could pop a nooner five days a week, Monday through Friday, and we still wouldn’t be half as weird off as you guys, never even hardly get near each other. Don’t think it ain’t a two-way wall.”
So Marianne about has this fit, gets all hysterical, crying and coughing and everything. I hafta spend the whole afternoon trying to apologize and straighten her out. Pretty bad, but it worked out for the best because after that she didn’t hang around quite as much, or act so intense. Besides, near about that same time Jerry made E-4 and it wasn’t long before we got moved outside the gate to this much fancier apartment in N.C.O. housing. Would you believe those poor kids, they were actually all sad and miserable to see us packing our stuff.
One reason I blew up at Marianne, I’m afraid it’s because what she said was partway true. Seemed like right around then I had a case of sex on the brain--kinda surprised me about myself. I mean when Jerry and me first started out, we were gonna put one over on the Corps, have a decent place to live, somebody to cuddle up with, that was that. Only trouble is, Jerry’s like what you hafta call a pretty good man in the sack, real easygoing and he don’t mind takin’ his sweet time about it, which a girl tends to appreciate. Used to be I’d mainly enjoy the closeness and friendliness, even with Richie. But with Jerry I was really starting to get this thing for him, I don’t mean it vulgar but like it got to where I’d go to work in the morning, up there in the Wing Schools office, and almost right away I’d be thinkin’ about him--my man, down below in electronics--wow! Some days the clock would crawl along so slow, until finally 11:30 would come and I’d about fly out the door and down the stairs, me and Jerry both running for the car so we can beat the traffic home. How crazy can you get? Anyway, dummy that I am, next thing I wanted was a baby.
Part of it I guess was I was getting sick of life behind a desk, type up all this silly garbage like fifty letters of completion for N.B.C. warfare class, letters of incompletion, letters of commendation, whole bunch of other blahblah, not to mention putting up with jerks like Gunny Blunt and stupid arguments all day long. Anyway, Jerry and me had this pretty good deal going, I wanted to have his baby, and it was all legal and everything.
And so easy. Pick the right day, leave the seven-eighty-two gear in the medicine cabinet. And I really loved Jerry. Afterwards I shook his hand, I said, “Congratulations, corporal, you’re a father.”
Jerry wasn’t so sure, but me, I didn’t have no doubt in my mind. Missed my period right on schedule, yay me. Then I decided maybe I oughta go in and talk to Captain Lou Ellen, just be honest about it. But she was out. Only one there is Master Sergeant Vera Netto, who I don’t exactly care for. But I figure oh well, guess I’ll hafta confess to the old bag. So I end up telling her and Netto says, “Too bad, we tried to warn you.” She says, “No need to stick around and see the captain, you might as well go down to the dispensary and get started with a doctor.” So like a total birdbrain I romp on down to the hospital, all wrapped up in me and my wonderful baby. I get examined by this handsome young doctor and he gives me this ration of pills--“to relieve the symptoms of nausea,” what it said on the bottle.
You were supposed to take two in the evening before retiring, so that’s what I did. Who am I to ask questions? I just wanted to get past that morning-sickness stuff.
Next day I got out of bed around 5 a.m. all funny feeling. Talk about morning sickness, I just couldn’t stop throwin’ up. Jerry slept right through it. Breakfast time he says, “How you feel, Brenda?” I tell him, “Lousy.” Naturally he thinks I’m just makin’ a mountain outa nothin’, except next morning after that it’s even worse, these terrible cramps, staggering around, finally I musta fainted for a little while. This time Jerry wakes up and comes in the bathroom--first time I ever seen him really worried. He’s got my head in his lap, there I am turning inside out and he’s patting me on the head, trying to help me relax, but I can’t. So then he calls up the night doctor. Doc just says, “Take it easy, an upset stomach is perfectly normal in the second month of pregnancy.”
Middle of the next night though, same identical scene--suddenly wake up feelin’ like I’m gonna die. But I’m also kinda nervous about calling down to the hospital again so soon. Jerry says, “Hell with that noise,” and he goes for the phone. It’s a different doctor this time but he gives Jerry the same routine about perfectly normal Jerry yells at him, “Whatta you mean, normal? My wife is blue in the face and she can’t stand up for stomach cramps. I’m bringin’ her in.” So we race on over to emergency. I guess I look pretty bad ’cause they start to act very concerned and they put me to bed and the handsome doctor comes around and checks me over. But then along about noon hour I’m feeling better, so he says it’s okay to go. “Just take the rest of the day off, and don’t forget your prescription tonight.”
I guess that’s when I started to be a little suspicious. Anyway, soon as Jerry came home I told him what the doctor said, and what I thought. Jerry said, “Uh-huh, well then I think you best snag that pill bottle and get in the car.” So I did, and we drove all the way up to Wilmington. Jerry asked a cop where’s the most reliable drugstore in town and that’s where we went. We walk in there, Jerry says to the pharmacist, he says, “My wife got given these pills down at Magnolia, and I’d appreciate it if you could analyze ’em for us, chop-chop.” Jerry’s smart, like he realizes most of the Wilmington people don’t care for the base, bar owners might get fat off it but meanwhile everyone else has to deal with a buncha drunken jarheads. So we wait around, wait around, an hour or so later the man comes back out and says, “According to the label, somebody prescribed this as an antidote to morning sickness. That so?” Jerry says, “Yes, sir.” The man says, “Well, I’ll have to send it out to a lab to know for sure, but offhand I’d say it’s a good thing you folks came up to see me because less’n I’m mistaken this here’s a compound designed to induce miscarriage, not only that but it contains an illegal substance. Lucky your wife seems to be a strong healthy girl.”
Well, you can bet I wrote all that down. My baby! Those sneaky sidewinders were trying to kill my baby!
So anyway this pharmacist, turns out he’s a real randy old buzzard. He says, “I expect you’ll be wanting to prosecute.” Jerry says, “Damn straight.” The man says, “Look here, I’m in business to help stamp out this kind of nonsense. First thing tomorrow I’ll get ahold of this friend of mine, he’s a lawyer and a good one. He’ll tell you what to do and won’t charge you an arm and a leg.” So that’s how we met Mr. Melcher, and if it wasn’t for him we’d probably both be in jail right now.
Anyhow they had this big giant stink and everything, no point going into it all, besides it ain’t nice to rub it in. Those creeps really got it, though. Investigators dug up a whole stash of the miscarriage stuff down at the hospital, and everybody’s sweatin’ buckets. Quick as a wink they give me a discharge, honorable type. But Jerry still wanted to nail ’em to the wall. His C.O. tried to talk him out of it, the navy captain at the hospital said, “You wanta get out on a medical?” Good ol’ Jerry, he says, “Not a chance!”
What a mess. Jerry and I both had to get up in front of this military courtroom and point out all these people and testify about the whole rotten thing. Pretty rough all the way around. Captain Lou Ellen got relieved of her command, the handsome doctor got booted out of the service, the navy captain got transferred, Vera Netto got busted to E-5--I guess that’s about it but seemed like a lot at the time.
Anyway, looking back at everything that’s happened since then, I kinda wish Jerry’d taken that medical when they offered it to him. Soon as the trial was over, you just know they gobbled him up. They couldn’t do too much, I suppose they were afraid he might take it back to court or notify his congressman or something, but they sure did a job on him. What they did was they kept losing his shot record. Every time they lost it they’d call him down to the dispensary, get about four big guys and hold him down and give him the whole battery. Next couple days he’d be all sick and sore, and like he missed work one minute they were ready to hang him for unauthorized absence.
It was pretty awful. Jerry used to come home so he couldn’t hardly walk, he’d say, “Well, they got me again.” I tried to tell him, “Jerry, they can’t do that. Call Mr. Melcher and he’ll make ’em stop.” But Jerry said, “ ’Fraid not, all they gotta say is I’m a liar.” So I kept saying, “I’ll go down and be a witness, like you did for me.” But Jerry’d say, “Forget it, some things you just hafta pay the price.” He’d say, “I don’t wanna talk about it anymore.”
But anyway, my tummy. It started to get so big, and I started knitting all these crazy little sweaters and buying stuff--totally insane. Naturally I was seeing this civilian doctor up in Wilmington. I guess it was costing a bundle, but Jerry said, “It’s the only way,” and he never complained about the bills, one thing I’ll always remember. So I kept getting bigger and bigger.
One day Jerry came home with shots again and he was hurting so bad he even cried. That kinda kicked off the first real trouble between us, then it was all these picky little squabbles. I guess we got into some pretty major stuff later on, but that wasn’t till at least a couple months after the baby came.
She was a girl. Jerry said, “Name her anything you like.” I was all set on Tammy, then I changed my mind to Janice because it’s a name you can grow old with--that’s important. She was so small! And I was so proud! These people underneath they had a camera, right away I made ’em take all these pictures. Blew half my allotment on copies, sent ’em around to everybody. Real surprise: Mother writes back and says how happy she is for me and when’s she gonna get to see the granddaughter. All this chummy stuff, and I hadn’t even gotten a word from her in over a year. All of a sudden though, we start writing each other these long talky letters, like I’d have those urges to tell her every last little detail.
Well, I ain’t about to go into the whole sad rundown with Jerry and whatnot. You could sorta see his point of view, I mean like you get together with this jane supposedly for your mutual benefit, next thing she has a kid, then after that she don’t even seem like she’s interested in you anymore. So I really couldn’t blame Jerry. Sometimes I’d see him sittin’ there and I’d want to love him up so bad, but we’d get started and everything, and I just couldn’t keep my mind on it. Janice would make some little sound or I’d think maybe I heard a funny noise comin’ from the crib, and it was like the telephone ringing, only worse. So I’d try and fake it. Forget that scene.
One thing I’ll say for Jerry, he never held a grudge in his life I don’t think. Like we’d have these fights, but afterwards it’d be pretty much all over, not like some people, they stay mad a week at a time. I guess he still appreciated having a decent place to come home to. Also they were starting to let up on the shots and the all-around harassment. But he was definitely steppin’ out a lot more, gone all night sometimes. Anyway, one thing and another, we moved outa the apartment in N.C.O. housing and into this trailer park halfway to the beach. Jerry’s idea.
Jerry was counting days by that time. I don’t know what he was looking forward to more, gettin’ outa the Corps or gettin’ away from me. I tried to tell him, “Take off, go ahead,” but I guess he had this feeling like he had to stick it out for the duration, maybe it made him feel better. Anyway it never got all that bad between us, just nothin’ much left to fool around with. I had Janice and Jerry had the beach right nearby.
But I sure did start missing him sometimes, like the way he used to hog all the blankets in bed, or like I’d want to show him some new thing that Janice could do and he wouldn’t be there. Face it, I’m the kinda girl that likes to have her guy in the close vicinity, that’s me.
Anyway I guess the word started gettin’ around, didn’t take long before this one boy from electronics, one night he shows up at the door to say hello. Then, couple weeks later, this guy two trailers over, with a wife and three kids. Then the manager of the trailer park, who also happened to be a staff sergeant and single. But I wasn’t about to have anything to do with none of ’em. Guys in the Marines, they do a lotta talk about gettin’ some, always wanta score with the women, but I swear they’d score a heck of a lot better if they first of all learned to treat a girl like a regular person, and that’s the truth.
So…looks like I’m gonna be headin’ back to good ol’ Winner, least for a while.
Last month just before Jerry got out we had this farewell picnic, went to the beach with Janice, spent the whole day. Good day, real good day. Dropped us off back here at the trailer, he was already packed up, seabag and one little suitcase. “Well, g’bye, Brenda,” he says, “And g’bye, kid. If you turn out half as solid as the old lady, you’ll do okay.” “G’bye, corporal,” I tell him, “You’re a darn good man and I’ll always love ya.”
So Jerry left me the trailer as a going-away present, said I could probably pick up quite a bit on it. Hope he’s right. I got signs up all over the place, but so far not even a nibble hardly, just a buncha crazy phone calls from all these weird men. I sure could stand the dough. Mother writes and tells me that Wayne Halstrom’s been by a couple times, says he wants to marry me as bad as ever, also adopt the kid. I don’t know, though. I might decide to go someplace with a college, get some education on the side. Or maybe I’ll head out to California and just find some kinda crazy job. They say California’s different, I wonder.
So last chance, who wants to pick up payments on a real nice trailer, lotsa room, I mean it.