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A Tale From the Wall
by Valentina Michelle Smith
It was a hot summer day in Washington D.C., almost as hot as I remembered it had been in Thailand. My wife Molly suggested that we visit DC this summer. She had been there before and still remembered how excited she had been visiting the monuments, museums, and the centers of power. For myself, this was my first trip. And our first stop was a monument that had been erected after Molly's last visit, the Vietnam Memorial.
It took us a while, but I soon found the name I was looking for.
"That's her," I said to Molly, "she's the one I told you about."
I stood silently staring at the name. All around me, people were lost in their own moments of introspection and remembrance, having found the name of a loved one, a friend, a father, a brother, or a comrade in arms.
I started to walk closer, then turned to see Molly standing a short distance away. "Would you like to come with me?" I asked her.
"I don't think I had better," she replied, "I'm still a little, well, nervous about this. Confused. I'm not sure how I feel right now."
I nodded, understanding her hesitance. It was only last year that I had finally revealed my deepest secret to her. She still had a lot to work out. So did I. But first I needed to put an unquiet spirit to rest.
I walked a little closer to the wall, reaching out to touch the name on the black granite. I pulled the paper and crayon I had brought to make the rubbing. As I bent to my task, the tide of memories swelled up and washed over my mental floodgates. I was once again experiencing the exotic smells, sights, and feelings of Ubon Air Base in Thailand.
Thailand was, to be quite blunt, a single man's paradise. As my First Sergeant told me on my first day in country, "You can get any kind of action you want in this town, as long as you can pay for it." He was not kidding. The working girls were available for an all nighter for the lordly price of 100 Baht, which was equal to five bucks in US currency. Other pleasures of the flesh were also available at similar prices. Not that I availed myself of these carnal delights. I had only been married a few weeks when I shipped out, and I took my marriage vows seriously. I still do. This earned me the nickname "Cherry Boy" among the bar girls at the Corsair Club.
I have to admit I wasn't exactly a choir boy. Other pleasures were available. Thai weed was perhaps the finest money could buy, and at the absurd price of a dollar a kilo, as plentiful as mosquitoes. And yes, I did inhale!
Ubon was an altogether pleasant place to be. Except for the fact that I missed my wife so badly that I slept with her picture, I enjoyed my time there. We had all the advantages of being in a war zone with none of the hassles, like being shot at. Okay, there was one mortar attack, but whoever was shooting had such terrible aim that none of the rounds even came close to anybody. It was quite comical, actually.
It was in the third month of my tour that I met Eileen. I had volunteered as a MARS radio operator to help pass the time. MARS was a military extension of Ham Radio. It was supposed to provide an alternative communication scheme if the normal military channels were somehow cut off. What we did in practice was send messages to family and friends back in the USA, and set up free calls home over the radio. Normally you could get a free 3-minute call home every month. The MARS operator in the USA would place a collect call to the family member and patch it through to us in Ubon. I would actually call about once a week, but that was one of the perks an operator got.
I was on duty when Eileen walked into the MARS shack and asked me to patch through a call. She was taller than most women at about 5-foot-9, and was built a bit stocky. Her red hair was wiry and tightly curled. I put the call through to my station in the USA. His answer was surprising, to say the least.
"Lieutenant O'Connell?" I called out.
"I'm here," she answered.
"Ma'am, I'm really sorry, but your party refused the call. Is there anybody else you might like to call?"
She stood silently, looking for all the world like a lost soul. "No, that's all right, Sergeant. There's nobody else I want to talk to tonight." And with that, she walked out of the shack.
A few days later I was in one of my favorite hangouts, the base library. I had picked up a copy of Heinlein's "The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress" and was re-reading it in the smoking lounge, puffing away on a Camel. I was engrossed when I heard somebody say, "Do you enjoy Sci-Fi?"
I looked up. It was Lieutenant O'Connell. "Yes, I do," I answered, "especially Heinlein. How about you?"
"I love Heinlein. 'Starship Troopers.' 'Stranger in A Strange Land.' 'The Puppet Masters.' Have you read 'The Number of the Beast'?"
I confessed that I hadn't. Then she asked, "Could I have one of your Camels?"
"Sure," I said, proffering the pack. She picked one out and lit it, inhaling the smoke. We chatted about Heinlein and other science fiction for a bit. The minutes became hours.
"Say," she asked, "what's your name?"
"Bill. Bill Smith."
She extended her hand. "I'm Eileen O'Connell. Aren't you the MARS radio fellow?"
"Yes, I work MARS sometimes."
"I thought I recognized you. Say, why don't we continue this over a few brews?"
"Uh, well," I hesitated, "you see, I'm married. And I don't think we're supposed to fraternize. I'm enlisted."
Eileen smiled in amusement. "Don't worry, Bill, I won't seduce you. I can see the wedding ring. That wife of yours is one lucky gal. And as for the fraternization," she said with a mischievous grin, "as your superior officer, I am ordering you to come with me and have a good time." We both laughed as we walked outside to hail a taxi to the Corsair Club.
This was my favorite watering hole in town. The music was solid rock from the late 60's. Hendrix. Cream. Airplane. Joplin. There were two kinds of beer in Thailand, Singhai and Amarit. Amarit was a truly fine brew, and was the only brand served at the Corsair. The less said about Singhai, the better. Eileen and I were now talking about our favorite B-movies, when we noticed the bar girls were staring at us and laughing. "What's so funny?" I asked.
One of the girls, Lek, said, "So, Cherry Boy got a girl friend. Round-eye girl. This mean no more Cherry Boy?"
I smiled. A smile was considered to be good etiquette in Thailand. "No, she is my friend. We are just buddies."
Lek laughed. "Sure, GI, you two just friends." And she rolled her eyes as if to say "I don't believe you!"
I blushed and started to apologize to Eileen, but she just smiled and said she didn't mind. "Let them think we are more than just friends. I don't mind. And as long as we know the truth, it doesn't matter."
Her smile and manner were so warm and genuine that, were I not already spoken for, I could easily fall for this girl. But we were bonding on a different level. We were becoming friends.
I asked her where she was assigned, since there weren't many women in Ubon. "I'm a flight nurse," she answered. "I'm part of a Nightingale crew. Every few days we fly into 'Nam and pick up a fresh load of wounded to med-evac to the Philippines. Then we head back here. How about you, Bill?"
I explained that I was an electronic tech and was assigned to the fire control shop. Basically, I repaired the radar sets on AC130 gunships. Our talk then turned to home. I told her about my wife back in Philly, and how we wrote just about every day. I asked her about her family. She looked a bit sad, then said, "I don't have any. Not anymore." And she said no more.
I think we were talking about "Forbidden Planet" having been adapted from Shakespeare's "The Tempest" when last call sounded. There was a curfew in Ubon. "Wow, where did the night go? I have to get back to base, Eileen."
"You can stay at my place in town," she said. "My roommate isn't due back until tomorrow. You can sleep in her room."
"That's tempting," I said, "but I'm on duty tomorrow."
"That's a shame. I'll be flying out day after tomorrow. Maybe we can get together when I get back."
"Okay, how about Monday night at the chapel?"
Eileen looked at me incredulously. "You don't strike me as particularly religious, Bill. Why the chapel?"
"Monday night is Steak night," I answered. "The chaplain gets steaks, we barbecue them, and there's a movie after dinner. This week's flick is 'The Producers'. And since it's the Catholic chaplain's turn to host, we get beer as well."
This made Eileen laugh. "All right then, Monday night at the chapel."
We hailed a cab. I made sure she got to her bungalow, and then returned to base. It was about 1 AM when I finally crawled under the mosquito netting over my bunk and went to sleep.
The next few days seemed to drag on forever. I pulled my shifts on the flight line, debriefing aircrews and repairing the black boxes that let Spectre gunships see in the dark. Every day I wrote home, and lived for the green flag over the post office that signaled the arrival of mail from home. There was always something from Molly. A letter, a card, an occasional tape. Our correspondence was somewhat on the erotic side, describing just what we would do when I returned home. Like so many other GIs in Southeast Asia, I was wishing a part of my life away so I could return home.
Monday arrived at last. I left the shop and walked back to the barracks, where I showered a day's worth of sweat off my skin. I changed into some fresh civvies and headed to the chapel. Eileen was there.
The chapel's barbecue pavilion was nicknamed the Burnt Offering Tent. The way some of the guys cooked their meat, it was appropriate. Eileen and I picked out a couple of nice ones and tossed them on the grill. Father Diamond, the chaplain, had gotten a good supply of Michelob for the evening. Eileen and I took our steaks to the table. I grabbed a few brews while she got some baked potatoes and salad. She attracted quite a few stares, being the only woman there.
"The Producers" was funnier than I remembered. We fell out of our chairs laughing when they sang "Springtime for Hitler". I felt a little twinge of guilt, being with another woman when my wife was on the other side of the world. But being with Eileen felt right.
After the movie, we headed over to The Bunker, which was the 8th AMS snack bar. Again, more than a few stares. An American woman was something of a rarity in a war zone. Eileen and I talked sci-fi all night, comparing notes about Asimov, Bradbury, and even Burroughs.
Somehow, I started talking about home, and about Molly. Her last letter was all about her student teaching assignment. I told Eileen about how much Molly loved teaching, and about how she found the school politics difficult. After a while, I noticed that Eileen had gotten a bit somber. "Is it something I said?"
"No, not really," she sighed, "I was just thinking how lucky you are. Molly sure sounds like a nice girl."
"She is," I said, "but don't you have somebody back home?"
"No. Not really. Look, Bill, if it's all the same, I just don't want to talk about it, okay?"
"Sure," I said. "Eileen, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be a downer."
She smiled at me. "You aren't, Bill. You are probably the sweetest guy I ever met. And a true gentleman as well. No, it's my problem. Let's just not dwell on it."
We talked about other things, books and movies and even Shakespeare. We didn't talk about family again for a long time.
We were spending a lot of time together. Whenever Eileen was not flying we would meet. And people noticed. After a few months, though, I got the surprise of my life. It was from our dispatcher, Bud Sedalis.
Bud was a redneck. If you look up the word "redneck" in the dictionary you might just see his picture. Jeff Foxworthy could have gotten most of his material by observing Bud. He had a southern drawl that sounded like he ought to be an extra in "The Beverly Hillbillies". "Hey, Smitty," he said, "I saw you with yer girl friend the other night."
"Look, Bud, she isn't a girl friend. We just talk."
"Y'all mean ta say ya ain't nailed her? Shit, that's a relief. We all thought you were goin' queer on us."
"Huh?" I said, "what's that supposed to mean?"
"You don't know? Hell, Smitty, I thought everybody knew. She's one o' them thar she-males."
"A what? What are you talking about?"
"I mean she used to be a man. She's one of them fairies what got her dick cut off to look like a chick."
"Wait a minute, Bud, you mean she's a transsexual?"
"Yeah, that's the word. And you didn't know? Y'all prob'ly the only guy on base who doesn't!"
I was dumbfounded. Eileen was as feminine a woman as I had ever met. How could this be? I mean, I knew something about transsexuals. Probably more than most people. But I had never met one. Or had I?
I met Eileen at the Corsair club. We started talking as usual, but she could see that something was bothering me. Eventually, we went to her bungalow. Tomorrow was my day off, so we decided to talk late into the night. But something was clearly troubling me.
"Bill, is something wrong? You have been so glum tonight. Is everything all right at home?"
"It's nothing like that, Eileen. It's just something one of the guys in the shop said. About you."
"Oh? What was it? Did he accuse you of sleeping with me?" She giggled.
"No. It's just that, he said,..." It was hard getting the words out. "He said that you had a sex change."
Despite the tropical heat of Thailand, the temperature in Eileen's bungalow approached glacial levels. "And that makes you feel different about me?"
I was on the verge of tears. "Eileen, I wish I could say I just don't care. You have been the best friend I have in this place. No matter what, you are my friend. That will never change. But I can't help thinking about it."
Eileen was quiet for a minute. Then she said, "It's true. I'm a transsexual."
In my stunned silence, Eileen continued her tale. "I was born Kevin O'Connell. A boy. I knew I was different from when I was a kid. I never liked being a boy. I would always rather play with dolls than play baseball.
"My father was career Navy. He's a Chief Petty Officer in Groton. He got my mom pregnant and married her to do the right thing. We spent a lot of years moving from base to base. Then my mom died.
"I was eight. My old man didn't want to raise me by himself, so his sister raised me. Aunt Maeve. She was a feisty woman. She had a terrific head for business. Made a fortune in the Stock Market.
"Anyway, I kept getting in trouble at school. Mostly getting beat up. Aunt Maeve took me to a bunch of therapists. One of them finally figured out what was wrong.
"Aunt Maeve got me the help I needed. She got me started on hormones when I was still young. She put me in a private school. For two years I lived full time as a girl.
I listened silently as she continued. "It was a happy time for me. My body finally resembled what I knew I really was. Aunt Maeve arranged for me to have the sex change operation after I turned seventeen. Then she paid for me to go to nursing school."
"What did your father say to this?" I asked."
"He didn't know until it was too late. He had no time for me. Once he found out he nearly killed Aunt Maeve. But she had him by the legal short hairs. He had signed over my custody to her years ago."
I spoke up. "Eileen, that night at the MARS shack, were you trying to call your Aunt?"
"No," she answered, "Aunt Maeve died in a car accident soon after I got my R.N. She was smart about a lot of things, but not smart enough to have a will. Her brother, my father, got all of her money.
"The last time I saw him was at Aunt Maeve's funeral. He let me know in no uncertain terms that he was cutting me off without a cent. I remember crying."
"So who were you calling?"
I was stunned again. "But why? Why call him?"
Eileen was now in tears. "Because I wanted to have him hug me, call me Daddy's little girl! Because I wanted him to bounce me on his knee! Because I wanted to be his little princess! Because I want him to walk me down the aisle on my wedding day! Because I want him to acknowledge his goddam daughter!" She collapsed in my arms, sobbing.
I held her tenderly, telling her it was all right. I let her sob into my chest, her tears soaking my shirt. She was like a lost child, a helpless little baby. Somehow I managed to summon a latent nurturing instinct and held her close to protect her.
After some time, she regained her composure. She said, "I'm sorry. I guess this changes everything."
I thought for a minute. "No, not really. You shared something with me. You trust me. I promise you I won't ever betray your trust."
I remember her smiling at me as we held each other. For a long time we were silent. Then she asked me about my family. "You talk a lot about your wife, Bill. But what about your parents? Are you close to them?"
"Sort of," I said. "I write to my mom often. Dad was my buddy when I was a kid. He loved taking me to ball games. We both lived and died with the Phillies. Even when I became a teen-ager and went through my rebellious phase, we could always talk baseball."
I paused for a moment. "Dad couldn't understand why I was such a rebel. He hated rock-and-roll, and thought I was too much of a bookworm. Especially science fiction. He thought it was foolishness to read about space travel and that sort of thing."
"Do you ever write to him?" she asked."
"Dad passed away a few years ago," I replied. "He had a massive heart attack."
"Oh, Bill, I'm so sorry!" Eileen said.
"Don't be, Eileen. When I was home on leave after tech school, I could tell he was proud of me. So I guess we got to be friends again."
Eileen was quiet. Then she said, "How old was he?"
"He was 47," I answered. "I think it was the smoking that killed him."
Eileen looked at me. "Bill, let's both quit smoking. I want you to live for a long time."
I thought about it for a few minutes. "Yes, that's not a bad idea. I'll help you if you help me."
She grinned. It was good to see her smile. "Done!" she said. And with that we tossed our smokes in the trash.
It was too late to get a taxi, so I agreed to stay in her bungalow that night. Her roommate was away and tomorrow was my day off. I fell asleep as soon as I stretched out on the futon.
It was hot when I woke up. I was sweaty. I needed a shower. Eileen lent me some soap and shampoo. I scrubbed the sweat off my body. The shampoo smelled of peaches, which made me hungry.
I emerged and toweled off. With the towel wrapped around my waist, I walked to the room I had borrowed to find my clothes.
They were gone.
"Eileen," I called, "my mind must be slipping. I can't find my clothes."
"I had my houseboy wash them. You should have them back in a few hours. Sorry, but they smelled pretty rank!"
I was embarrassed! "So do I have to wear a towel until he brings them back?" I said.
"You can wear my kimono for a few hours," she said. She handed me the silk robe with a very feminine floral design. I hesitated, then said What the hell! I put the kimono on and tied the sash, enjoying the soft feel of Thai silk against my skin.
All at once I began to experience some very familiar feelings. Something I hoped was in my past for good, but also secretly wished would never go away.
"You look good in my robe," she said to me. "Why don't you get one for yourself?"
"Maybe I will," I said. But my pretence at nonchalance was transparent. I was enjoying this!
The cacophony of emotions I felt at that moment was overwhelming. Suddenly, I needed to share something. A secret I had held inside my soul for years. It would not hold back! But could I trust her? The caution that had served me so well almost held the day. But Eileen had just laid her soul bare to me last night. Surely of all people on earth, I could share it with her!
I decided against caution. "Eileen," I said, "can you keep a secret?"
"I have a security clearance, if that makes you feel any better."
I laughed nervously. Then I started. "I need to tell you something. About me." I hesitated, trying to find the right words. "You see, well, umm,..."
"Go ahead and tell me, Bill."
"It's something I haven't even told Molly. I, umm, uh, well, I like wearing women's clothes."
Eileen began to laugh. "That's rich, Bill! That's the funniest joke I ever heard!"
My cheeks reddened as my eyes welled up with tears. Not very many. I was still too nervous to cry. "It's no joke. It's true! So help me God it's true!"
The laughter stopped. "You mean it," she said, almost as a question. "This is for real!"
"Yes." I said, choking back a sob, "I'm a, well, I guess I'm a closet queen."
I sat down. In truth I was close to fainting, and I was shaking like a leaf in a hurricane. But the words came out, taking on a life of their own.
"I guess I started when I was about nine. I wore a dress to go trick-or-treat. I always had fantasies about my mom or somebody making me wear a dress and act like a girl. Then one day when I was about twelve, I was home alone. I borrowed some of my Mom's things to try on.
"I remember standing in front of her mirror as I put on panties, a bra, and a dress. I stared at myself, but it didn't look right. Then I realized what was wrong. I stuffed some socks in the bra to make it look like I had boobs.
"When I saw myself with breasts," I continued, "it was like nothing I ever felt before! I had never been so excited! Then I just lost control."
"Lost control?" she asked.
"Yes. I had my first orgasm."
The redness was fading from my cheeks as my story unfolded. "After that, I was dressing up at any chance I had. Whenever I was by myself, I put on some of mom's things and masturbated. For a long time it was the only way I knew how to get myself off."
"How did it make you feel?" she asked. "Other than the orgasm, I mean."
I drew a long breath. "I felt guilty. My Catholic education had me convinced that I was going to hell. I wondered if I was a queer or something. Then when I read about Christine Jorgenson, I thought I might be like her. A woman trapped in a man's body."
Eileen winced. "God, I hate that phrase! It's nothing like that! I always knew I was female! I hated being born male!"
Then she stopped. "I'm sorry, Bill. I didn't mean to interrupt."
"It's okay. I hope you don't take this the wrong way, Eileen, but I like my male body. I mean, there are times I wish I could transform for just a little while, but I never want it to be permanent."
"Anyway, when I started dating, my need to dress up kind of faded. I really thought it was out of my system. But I was wrong. I started trying on Molly's things when she wasn't home."
"Did it get you excited again?" she asked.
"No. I mean, it's still a kick seeing myself with breasts and all, but I didn't get a sexual thrill. It just felt good. It felt right."
We both fell silent. I wondered what Eileen was thinking. I hoped she didn't think I was trying to mock her. Then she broke the silence. "Bill, I know how hard it must have been keeping this a secret. I know that means you must trust me. I promise that I'll keep it safe."
Then her mischievous grin emerged again. "Don't go anywhere," she said, dashing off to her room.
"Where could I go?"
A few minutes later, she emerged with a handful of clothes. A pair of panties, a bra, and a silk dress. "Go ahead, put them on!"
I hesitated. Then I took them into the other room. I removed the robe and pulled on her panties. They were silky, with a pretty lace trim. The bra was a soft beige, almost pink. And the dress! It was a red silk oriental style dress with a skirt that came up to the middle of my thigh. It was lovely! I emerged, a little nervous. "I hope I don't look too ridiculous," I said.
She looked me over. "Not bad. You look kind of cute. But we have to do something about your boobs." She handed me some wash cloths. "Stuff these into the cups."
It was a strange, almost surreal feeling, having those bulges on my chest again. "That's great!" she said. "That's a 36C and you fill it quite nicely. Now sit here while I do your face."
I sat patiently, my excitement growing while Eileen applied makeup to my face. Some foundation, a bit of blush, eye shadow, and lipstick. "You know, you have pretty eyes. These lashes are so long and thick! Too pretty for a guy!"
The last touch was a wig she had bought in the Philippines. "I love having big hair," she explained, "but it isn't regulation. Why don't you take a look at yourself?"
I walked over to the mirror, hoping I didn't look totally foolish. And I gasped. The person looking back at me was a woman. And it was me!
"I don't believe it! How could I look so good?"
Eileen replied, "I have a lot of practice. I was born male, so I had to learn how to look female with makeup. It's not that hard if you know how."
I stared at the feminine image in the mirror. It felt like hours, but was only a few moments. That face! So different, but at the same time so familiar! Then it struck me! "My God, I've become my mother! I look just like her!"
Eileen was beaming. "So how does it feel, Bill? Wait, we can't call you Bill when you look like that. How about Billie? Like Billie Holiday, the singer."
"Wow, it's a good thing the guys at the shop can't see me now," I said.
"They never will. Billie is our secret, just between us girls."
Well, I can't tell you how great that day was. Eileen and I spent the day trying on clothes, trying different makeup, just like a couple of college girls trading things in a dorm room. It was the most insane sort of irony, a transsexual and a transvestite becoming friends in the middle of a war.
Eventually I had to wash off the makeup and take off Eileen's clothes. Her houseboy had dropped off my stuff at her door. I got dressed and we went to one of the local restaurants to get some fried rice and dumplings.
"Eileen," I said, "this has been one of the craziest days of my life. And one of the best. Thank you."
It was Eileen's turn to blush. "Actually, I ought to thank you, Bill. I never had a real girl friend when I was growing up. And I guess you might have liked one too."
"Yes. I often fantasized about a day like this, when I could let that part of myself out without fear of being ridiculed. It finally happened."
Then I began to panic. "Oh, no, how can I tell Molly about this!"
Eileen said, "Wait until you get home. This is something you should do in person. If she loves you as much as you seem to love her, you two will be able to work it out."
"Yeah, I guess you're right. Hopefully she won't want to divorce me over it."
Eileen just laughed. "I don't think you have anything to worry about. Have you told her anything about me?"
"Yes. I told her about how we enjoy the same books and movies. Molly says she would like to meet you some time."
"I think I'd like that, Bill. Maybe we can meet for dinner or something."
"Maybe," I replied. Actually, we both knew that this was unlikely. The military being what it was, we would probably draw assignments on the opposite ends of the country. But it was nice to think about.
In the next few months, Eileen and I spent a lot more time at her bungalow. I was getting a chance to explore my feminine side with the help of a woman. She had me try on a lot of different outfits and makeup, and we would still talk about books, music, and movies. But now we were calling it "girl talk."
I noticed something was happening to me whenever I would dress up. I tended to giggle a bit more, and it was easier to cry about things. Like when we talked about the ending of "West Side Story" and how sad it was, I found tears were running down my cheeks. All of the emotions I felt I had to suppress for so many years were now coming to the surface. And it felt good.
It was on one of our dress-up sessions that Eileen surprised me with a little present; a pair of foam breast forms. "Where did you get these?" I asked.
"I ordered them from supply. They are kept in stock for mastectomy patients. I just looked up the Federal Stock Code and ordered a set. Go ahead, try them on!"
I slipped the forms into my bra and checked myself out in the mirror. It was a definite improvement! My breasts did not have that sort of lumpy look which the wash cloths gave them. And they were weighted, too. "Eileen, they're wonderful! Thank you so very much! Oh, I love them!"
"They look good on you, Billie," she said. "It's a much more feminine appearance. Why don't you finish getting dressed?"
I needed little encouragement. By now I was shaving my legs regularly. So far, nobody seemed to notice. I pulled on some pantyhose. Tonight I was wearing a tan skirt and a matching blouse with a neat pair of sandals. I had finished putting on my makeup and was still pulling on my wig when I emerged from Eileen's room.
That's when I met Eileen's roommate for the first time!
I could feel my cheeks redden! Oh, no! The secret was out for sure! I just stood there in stunned silence, wishing I could somehow disappear. Eileen spoke first. "Patty, what are you doing back so soon?"
Patty was a willowy African-American woman. Her features were those of a classic African beauty with skin like polished ebony. She spoke, staring at me all the while. "We got back ahead of schedule so one of the pilots could take his R&R. Eileen, just what the hell is this guy doing in your clothes?"
I stammered, "Listen, I can explain..."
Patty just ignored me. "Eileen, girl, you aren't recruiting guys into your club, are you? Is this fellow looking to make the change?"
"Patty," Eileen said, "this is Bill. He's the fellow I told you about."
"Yeah, but you left out this part."
"Bill's not looking to change sexes. He's just dressing up. He's a transvestite."
I was looking desperately for a rock to crawl under. None were in sight, so I decided to speak up. "Uhh, hello. I guess you're Patty. I'm Bill."
Patty began to laugh. "Right now you don't exactly look like a Bill."
I wasn't exactly in the mood to laugh. I could feel my Air Force days coming to an abrupt end. The last thing I wanted was to be tossed out on a bad conduct discharge. That's when Patty surprised me again. "Well, you better not go parading around like that outside this bungalow. I know you aren't queer, but some of these military shrinks aren't too enlightened."
"You mean, you aren't going to turn me in?" I said, incredulously.
"Of course not. Crossdressing is not homosexual behavior no matter what those fools might think."
I was relieved. "Thank you, Patty. I really didn't think you would understand."
Eileen then said, "Don't worry about Patty understanding. Her brother is transitioning."
"Not for long," said Patty. "Those hormones are giving him a nice set of boobs. He's about ready for the real-life test. He has to live as a woman full time for a year before he gets the surgery. I guess I ought to get used to saying 'she'."
"Patty's the only other nurse who understands what I went through," said Eileen, "and that's because of her brother. None of the other flight nurses have much to do with me. They can be just as uptight and prejudiced as guys."
"Prejudice is something I understand too, sister!" said Patty.
"Listen," I said, "I better be going. Sorry if I upset you, Patty."
"There's no need to go on my account," said Patty. "We can still have some fun together. Just us girls," she said with a wink.
So I stayed. We opened a bottle of white wine and sat down for a little girl talk. We talked about a lot of things. Family back home. Growing up. Patty turned out to be quite a woman, with a somewhat earthy sense of humor.
We were talking about family when I asked Patty about her brother. Specifically, I asked her how her father took the news about his transition. "Not very well," she said. "Black men are just as hung up about their sexuality as white guys. For a black man to have his son tell him that he's going to change his sex, it's like saying he wants to join the Klan. As far as Daddy's concerned, Dwight is dead."
"Yeah," said Eileen, "men are really pigs about that. My old man never had a damn thing to do with me when I was a kid. Now that I'm a woman, he despises me. At least the next time I see that bastard, he has to salute me."
"Hey, watch that guy bashing you two!" I said. "I'm still a guy under all this, remember?"
"No way!" said Patty; "you make too much sense to be a man!"
We all laughed. Then Patty said, "wait a minute." She popped into her room end emerged with a Polaroid. "I just want to get a picture of you two."
Eileen and I stood together while Patty snapped a few pictures. We watched them develop. "Look at that," she said, "two gals having a good time together." The pictures showed us both smiling and laughing while holding wineglasses. It looked like we were at a party. Patty handed me one. "Don't show it to the guys, though," she cautioned.
"Well," I said, "I think I better change and get back to base. I don't think I will be able to borrow your bedroom tonight, Patty."
"Nonsense, "said Patty, "you can stay, as long as you don't mind sleeping on the couch. But definitely shower before you go to sleep. I don't want to surprise Whit tomorrow." Whit was the houseboy. He cleaned the house, made the beds, and did the laundry for several bungalows.
I accepted the gracious invitation. Our girl talk lasted into the night. Eileen excused herself and went to her room. I was alone with Patty.
"You know, Billie, " she said, "you have done a world of good for Eileen. Since she met you she's been a different girl. She was really morose and withdrawn when she first arrived. Now she's happy. Her eyes have a light in them that I never saw before. And she smiles. It's helped her cope with her work."
"Yes, she told me about her work," I said. "About the maimed and wounded guys she has to care for on the Nightingale. In the safety of Thailand, I often forget about the horror going on in 'Nam. You ladies don't have that luxury."
"Having a positive outlook is a survival skill in our line of work. She has one now. I know she'll get through this."
"I'm glad. I'm so glad I helped."
"You did, girl. You did."
Patty yawned. So did I. "I guess I better change now," I said.
"Go ahead. You can change in my room."
I pulled off the wig, washed my face, and proceeded to remove all of my feminine things. It had been quite a night. I had spent the night en femme with two women, and it felt as natural as breathing. As I lay on the couch in my boxer shorts, it occurred to me that I had experienced profound changes in these last few months. I was soon asleep.
As the weeks passed, we were vaguely aware of the changing political situation. The American presence in Vietnam was gradually winding down. This had little effect on us in Thailand, since we still flew in support of the Vietnamese troops. I still pulled my shifts on the flight line and savored my time off.
I was waiting in the shop for my next work order, writing a letter to Molly, when our shop chief, Art Dobson, brought me some good news. "Hey Smitty, guess what? Happy FIGMO day." FIGMO was one of those colorful informal military acronyms. The last four letters stand for "I Got My Orders". I'm sure you can figure out what the first one is. Dobson handed me one of the bundles of sheets he was clutching. "Congratulations, Bill, you drew a slot at Tyndall."
I couldn't believe my luck! Not only did I have my ticket home, but I had also managed to get an assignment on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Dobson continued handing out orders.Four other guys got their orders that day. Two were headed to Minot, North Dakota, one to Loring, Maine, and another to Dover, Delaware.
The orders were standard, authorizing a 30-day leave once I got back to the states. I could get a port call as early as November.
Bud was the second guy to congratulate me. "Way to go, Smitty! We're headed to the same place. I'll write back and let ya know what it's like there!"
That night I was on duty at the MARS station. I had several calls to handle, but I would try to sneak one in for myself. I soon managed to raise a station in Arizona. It was Barry Goldwater's station.
Senator Goldwater was an avid Ham Radio operator. It was always a pleasure to work his station, especially since the Senator would pay for the long distance call. He did this without publicity, preferring not to use his activity for political gain. Not too many people know about this gift he made to GI's in Southeast Asia. Now that you know, I hope you will tell others about him.
The call to Molly was through! "Hi, Molly, I just got my orders! We're going to Florida! Over."
"That's great, Bill! Do you know when you're coming home? Over."
We needed to say "Over" so that the operators on each end knew when to key the mike. I had to listen to many private conversations working MARS. "I don't know yet. I haven't been assigned a port call. It could be as early as November, but I think December is more likely. It's sure great to hear your voice, Molly. I love you! Over"
"I love you too, Bill. I can't wait to see you again. God, I miss you! Over"
"I miss you too, Molly. I'm counting the minutes until I see you again. Over"
My three minutes was running out. "Bill, let me know all the details in your next letter. We have a lot of plans to make. Over"
"I will, Molly. I'll get it out tonight. I have to sign off, now. I love you! Over"
"I love you, Bill! Goodbye, lover! Over"
"Goodbye, Molly. Over" She hung up.
"Hey, sarge!" I heard in the headphones. It was Senator Goldwater. "I have your next call ready. Airman Morris. Is he ready? Over."
"I'll call him. Over"
"By the way, sarge, give her a hug for me when you get home. Over"
I smiled, and then settled into the routine of connecting the guys in the MARS shack with their loved ones back home.
Eileen was back from her latest run a few days later. She met me at the library. "Bill, I have great news! FIGMO!"
"Me too," I said, "where are you headed?"
"Eglin, in Florida. How about you?"
"Tyndall. It's less than 100 miles away! Eileen, that means we could be neighbors!"
"Wow! That's too great to imagine! I can finally meet Molly!"
"That's right," I said, "I know you two will hit it off! I've told her so much about you, she almost knows you."
"Have you told her everything?" she asked.
"No. Not everything. She doesn't know about your transition. Or about our 'girl talk'."
"Thank you. I would prefer to tell her in person. And you have to decide for yourself when to tell her about Billie."
"Yeah," I said, "I still don't know how to break it to her."
Eileen smiled. "You'll know when the time is right. And I'm sure she won't hate you for it."
"I hope you're right," I replied. In all honesty, I was not sure about this. Molly and I had only been married for a few months when I shipped over to Thailand. I wanted to make sure our relationship was firm when I told her my secret. And I certainly didn't want to hurt her. A surprise revelation after being away for a year would not help.
We walked over to the main gate, pausing to check out the port call assignments posted outside The Pentagon. This is the name we gave to the eight-sided building that served as headquarters for the base. A port call was a GI's official reservation on a freedom bird heading home to the real world. Even though our orders had an estimated rotation date several months in the future, we still stopped to check. It felt good.
"So when is your DEROS, Bill?" Eileen asked, referring to the Date of Expected Return from Overseas on my orders.
"22 November," I answered. "If all goes as expected I should get a December port call and get to spend Christmas at home with Molly."
"Your first Christmas together! Oh, how romantic!"
"Well, not exactly our first. We celebrated Christmas in November before I shipped overseas. We set up a little tree and decorated it, and then exchanged presents. We had the family over to visit, too. Everybody seemed to enjoy it."
"I bet they did," she said. "You and Molly seem to have a really special kind of relationship. I can see it whenever you talk about her."
I smiled. We had now walked to the taxi stand at the main gate and hired a cab to Eileen's bungalow. We arrived to find Patty. "Well look who's here," she said, "Eileen and Billie. Time for another night of girl talk." She smiled broadly. I think Patty enjoyed these sessions as much as I did. I didn't notice that hint of mischief in her smile, but I was about to experience something the two of them had been planning for a while.
Eileen said, "Bill, we have a special treat for you tonight. Patty and I both think it's about time you tried on a uniform." And with that, she pulled a WAF's uniform from her closet.
The uniform was the everyday WAF uniform that consisted of a pale blue blouse and a dark blue skirt. This was worn with tan hose and black pumps. A blue hat similar to the male overseas cap was worn with this combination. "Wow," I said. "I never thought about a woman's uniform. Do you mean it?"
"Of course we do," said Patty, "go ahead and try it on!"
I didn't need much encouragement. I shed my male clothing and soon was in panties and a bra. Patty informed me that a slip was mandatory, as well as pantyhose. She quoted the Regulation. "'Women shall wear appropriate undergarments to ensure a conservative, feminine appearance.' That means you don't get to go braless, girl!"
I discovered that Eileen had bought a shorter wig. "Big hair is not permitted in uniform," she explained. "Besides, the hat would look pretty silly over that much hair."
I was done dressing. I remember slinging the regulation black purse over my left shoulder as I went to check myself out in the mirror. It was stunning! "Jesus!" I said, "I almost feel like I have to salute myself! Do I look as good as I think?"
"Billie," Eileen said, "you look good enough to walk over to the Esso station. Those kathoys would just die from envy!" Kathoys are Thai transvestites. They are quite beautiful and routinely manage to fool newly arrived GI's. Their gathering place in Ubon was a gas station although some would wander into the local bars to have some fun. The working girls didn't like them much, but most Thais seemed to tolerate them without a lot of fuss.
"You know," I said, glancing nervously at the Lieutenant's silver bars I was wearing, "technically I'm impersonating an officer."
"Girl, if the brass sees you in this outfit, impersonating an officer will be the least of your problems!"
I laughed, and continued to admire myself in the mirror, an Officer and a Lady. Patty added a few comments of her own. "Lookin' good, hon! You could use a manicure, though."
"I just had one," I said. "I was at the barber's yesterday." Thai barbershops on the base were full-service establishments. For a single fee, a customer got a haircut, a shoeshine, a shave, and a manicure. Lots of guys in Ubon sported clear nail polish.
"I'm talking about color, dear. Let's get some pink polish on you! Something to match your lipstick." Patty pulled out a bottle of nail polish and showed me how to do my nails. It felt funny holding them out to dry, but it also felt good. Once they were dry, Patty had me pose for a few more pictures. I really liked the way I looked.
By this time, Eileen had changed into her Nurse's white uniform. "I don't get to wear it much," she said, "since I normally wear a flight suit on duty." I have to tell you, Eileen looked quite gorgeous in her whites. I think it was the contrast of her flaming red hair with the nurse's cap atop it. Patty insisted on some more pictures of us together.
I kept the uniform on that night as we talked over wine and snacks. We were deep into our "girl talk" when somebody came into the bungalow.
It was Sgt. Max Fisher, one of the corpsmen on Patty's crew. "I'm sorry to burst in here, Lieutenant," he said. "I knocked but nobody answered. I tried the door and it was open, so I came in." He recognized Eileen, but looked at me in bewilderment.
Eileen noticed my nervousness and said, "This is my friend Billie. She's visiting from Korat. She has a touch of laryngitis and can't say a word! Lost her voice."
"I know how that feels. I just got over a cold myself. Pleased to meet you, Ma'am," he said, and then turned to Patty. "Lieutenant, I was sent here to get you. There's been some heavy fighting and they need our crew to fly some wounded to Clark. We have to be in the air in an hour."
"OK, Max. Thanks for coming by. I can be ready in about five minutes. Do you know if Eileen's crew is flying tonight?"
"They might be, Ma'am. I heard it was pretty bad, but so far only our crew is flying." He looked over to Eileen. "I wish I could tell you for sure, but I really don't know much more. Sorry to break up your reunion."
Max's glance turned toward me. I watched as his eyes scanned my legs and hips, with a short pause for my bosom. This guy was checking me out! I didn't know whether to be flattered or insulted.
Patty emerged from her room dressed in her flight suit. She was carrying her B4 bag with her. I had a feeling it was always packed just in case of emergencies like tonight. "Girls, I don't know when I'll be back, so don't wait up for me. Max, let's grab a taxi back to base."
Yes, ma'am." Max replied. Then he extended his hand to me. I took it, trying to make my grip as limp as I could. "Nice meeting you, ma'am," he said, shaking my hand.
"And it was nice to meet you, Sergeant," I whispered in reply. He shook Eileen's hand as well, then turned and left with Patty.
When they were out of earshot, I let out an audible sigh. So did Eileen. "That was close!" I said. "I was sure he could see right through me!"
"Well he certainly undressed you with his eyes," Eileen said. "Wouldn't he be surprised to see what was really under that uniform!" That made us both laugh, although mine was a bit nervous.
"I feel so strange," I said. "On the one hand I'm kind of flattered that he thinks I look so good. On the other, I feel so, so violated. Like all my privacy was stripped away."
"Well, if it makes you feel any better, Max is the squadron horn-dog. He's hit on every girl in the squadron at least once. It's a good thing he had to leave right away, or he would have tried to talk you into bed with him."
"I don't think he would have much success," I replied. "I might like these clothes, but I sure don't want to have sex with a man!"
"Aren't you the least bit curious?" she asked.
"Well," I said, "I'm curious as to how sex feels for a woman. I wonder how Molly feels when we make love, for instance."
"It's wonderful," said Eileen. "I have to say I really enjoy it. But I think I like the foreplay a lot better. The touching and the kissing."
"Oh," I said. "I guess that means you..."
"Yes, I've had lovers," she replied. "Not many, but some. There's this guy at Clark Airbase in the Philippines. We get together sometimes when I fly in. He's pretty good in the sack."
I was just a wee bit shocked, hearing a woman speak so openly about her sex life, and said as much to Eileen. "Oh, gosh, I forgot for a minute that you're really a guy, Billie. I won't say any more if it embarrasses you."
"It's not that," I said, "I guess I just didn't expect a girl to talk like that."
"Chicks get horny too," she said. "We like to talk about sex as much as guys do. We just don't get turned on by quite the same things."
I was silently mulling over this new insight into the feminine mystique when Eileen asked me "How does it feel for you? I didn't have sex until after I transitioned."
I smiled. "Well, you already know about the closeness, about the warmth of two bodies rubbing against each other. Now try to imagine being surrounded by warmth, by wetness, by love. When I'm loving Molly, I can feel my excitement build up from the base of my spine throughout my body. It's like exploding outward in a series of blasts until I'm totally spent. It's pain mixed with ecstasy. I wish I were a poet so that I could do the feeling justice. It just feels so wonderful!"
I saw Eileen smile. "It's the same for me, but I'm on the receiving end of the explosions." She poured us each another glass of wine. Then she asked, "How many lovers have you had?"
NOW I was embarrassed! "Well, just one. Molly."
Incredulously, Eileen said, "Do you mean you were a virgin on your wedding night?"
"No," I said, "Molly and I have been lovers for years. But she was my first, and she's my only partner. I don't know if I want another. No offense."
"None taken. Sex would only mess up our relationship."
"It's funny," I mused, "but Molly didn't believe at first that I had no experience. Why is it that when somebody says 'virgin', nobody ever thinks of a boy?"
"It's one of those stereotypes men never bothered to deny," she answered. We both laughed again. It felt good to laugh with her, sipping wine and talking. It was while we were girl-talking that Eileen had an inspiration.
"Why don't we take our R&R together?" she said. "Let's go to Bangkok or Hong Kong. I bet it would be fun!"
"I don't know," I said. "Maybe it would. But what made you think of this?"
"Well, you managed to fool Max Fisher. He really thought you were a woman. If we go to Bangkok or Hong Kong, nobody will know us. You could be Billie and walk in the open. What do you think?"
"I think it's the craziest, most illogical idea I have ever heard. When do you want to go?"
We checked our respective schedules and decided to take R&R in the first week of October. We decided to fly down to Bangkok on the first day and check into a hotel, where I would change into my femme clothing. Then Eileen and Billie would do Bangkok, just a couple of girl friends on a holiday.
We started planning our trip immediately. After we got our R&R's approved, Eileen and I began accumulating new outfits. We wanted to have new things for our trip. Eileen did the buying, getting us new things from the Exchange in Clark. We had many sessions trying on new outfits. Day by day, our R&R was getting closer.
It was the day before we were leaving on R&R. I was going to meet Eileen at The Bunker. "The Godfather" was playing at the base theater, and we both wanted to see it before signing out tomorrow, When I walked in, I deliberately wore a hat. The Bunker had one inflexible rule. "He who wears his hat in here buys the bar a round of cheer." I was feeling pretty cheerful, so I decided to treat everybody to a brew. Charlie, our permanent CQ and bartender, was right on the ball and sounded the gong. "Hey, folks, Smitty's buying!"
I took a beer over to Eileen and sat down. "Well I hope you weren't trying to sneak away, Bill. Everybody's going to remember you were here!"
"I don't mind," I said, "I just wanted to treat the fellows." In fact, just about everybody raised his bottle to me to thank me for the drink. "I'll probably do this the day I fly home, too."
Charlie came out from behind the bar to let me know the damages. I pulled some bills out of my pocket and paid up. "Charlie, I'm going to be signing out on R&R tomorrow. I'll be in at 0600," I said, drawing it out to the full military "oh six hundred".
"Speak English, Smitty!" was Charlie's retort. "If you mean six in the morning, just say so. You going to turn in early tonight?"
"No. Eileen and I are going to see 'The Godfather'."
"Good flick," he said. "I saw it downtown with Thai subtitles. The Thais seemed to get a charge out of it. Do you remember the part where Sonny gets shot up on the turnpike? They thought it was hysterical!"
Eileen and I finished our beers, then set off to the base theater. The movie had progressed to Michael's wedding in Sicily when the PA system made an announcement. I really wasn't paying attention and voiced my displeasure at the damned moron who had to make an announcement over the movie. Then Eileen said, "Bill, I think that page is for you."
Sure enough, the P.A. once again boomed out, "Sgt. Smith. Sgt. William Smith. Please come to the phone."
Confused, I walked back to the phone. It was Charlie, calling from the Bunker. "Smitty, I'm glad you told me that you were going to the movies. Listen, the Red Cross has a message for you at the Pentagon. He says it's urgent."
A message from the Red Cross meant only one thing: bad news. A million scenarios raced through my mind. Was it Molly? Did she have an accident? Could it be one of my brothers or Mom? I looked up from the phone to see Eileen. "The Red Cross has a message for me. I have to get over to the Pentagon."
"I'm coming with you," she said. I didn't argue. The Pentagon was only a few minutes away on foot. As we walked in the NCOD and the Red Cross worker met us. The Red Cross guy had one of those sad faces that looked like all he ever did was relay bad news. That probably wasn't very far from the mark. "Sgt. Smith? Hi, I'm Ray Gowen from the Red Cross. I'm really sorry to give you this sad news. Your Mother has passed away." He handed me the telex with the terse message.
I suddenly became very numb to the outside world. I was vaguely aware that people were talking to me, but none of it registered. A very sick feeling came over me, and I excused myself and headed for the latrine where I proceeded to puke up the entire contents of my stomach.
I must have looked as sick as I felt, because when I emerged both Eileen and Ray were waiting for me. Ray asked me if I wanted to go to the dispensary. Eileen said "It's OK, I'm a nurse. I can get him anything he needs."
"I don't need anything," I said, "it's just the shock. Now what happens?"
"We get you home as soon as possible," Ray replied. "I'll confirm an emergency leave tomorrow morning and the admin folks will cut the orders. You should be on the next plane home. We can get you a cash advance if you need it."
I thanked Ray, then Eileen and I headed outside. I was just about lost, so she took me back to her bungalow.
"Eileen, I'm really sorry," I started, "I didn't want to ruin our R&R..."
"Now you just hush," she said, "Right now you need to sleep. Don't worry about the R&R. Just concentrate on getting home tomorrow."
That's when I broke down and wept. The tears came spontaneously. I don't think I cried like that since I was in diapers. Tears are not very manly. But I wept, my tears flowing down my cheeks in rivers. Eileen held me, giving me comfort. I cried without shame for what seemed an eternity. Eileen held me, letting the tears soak into her blouse.
I don't remember falling asleep, but I woke up on Patty's futon. I stumbled out of bed. Eileen was already awake, making breakfast. I protested, claiming to have no appetite, but she would hear none of it. "You have to have something in your stomach for today," she told me, "especially after that job you did emptying it." Somehow I managed to shovel down eggs, grits, toast and coffee before Eileen guided me into the shower. The feel of soap and water on my skin made me feel a lot better. I felt good enough to risk pulling a razor over my face. Showered and clean-shaven, I stepped out of the bathroom.
Somehow Eileen had managed to get a set of my 1505's from my barracks locker. The khaki uniform had been cleaned and pressed as well, thanks to a rush job at the base cleaners. "Thanks, Eileen," I said.
"Well I sure couldn't send you home in MY uniform, no matter how good it looks on you. Now get dressed." Somehow I managed to get everything on.
The rest of that day was a blur. I remember packing a bag with a change of underwear and some toilet items for the trip home. Then I went to several different offices to get all the clearances I would need to board the shuttle and head for the states. Bureaucracy, it seems, did not admit to the concept of an emergency.
Despite the hassles, I soon was in the transportation terminal waiting for the Starlifter that would take me to Clark Air Base in the Philippines, where I would catch the first available flight home. Eileen was there. To my surprise, so was Bud Sedalis.
Bud had a small gift. "Smitty," he said, "the guys took up a collection to buy flowers for the funeral, but we thought maybe you could use the money instead, so.." And with that he pressed a wad of bills into my hand. I didn't know what to say! "Thanks, Bud. And thank the guys for me too, OK?"
"Sure thing, Smitty." He stepped away. Now it was Eileen's turn.
"Do you know any of the details yet, Bill?" she asked.
"Some," I replied. "Father Diamond pulled a few strings to let me call Molly on the AUTOVON network. Molly said Mom had some kind of blockage in her heart. A blood clot broke off or something."
"Myocardial Infarction," said Eileen. "Sorry. I can't help that. It's my medical training. I guess you won't know when you are returning."
"I'm not coming back, " I said. "I already have orders for Tyndall, so they were amended. After leave I report there. Sorry, Eileen. I guess that ruins the R&R plans."
"Don't worry about that," she said. "We'll be getting back together when I rotate Stateside. I can't wait to meet your wife. She seems like such a sweet gal."
"Yeah, she is," I said. "I really love her."
"What about all your things at the barracks?" she asked.
"It's all going to be packed and shipped to me at Tyndall. It will be waiting for me when I process in. Oh, that reminds me." I dug into my pocket for some bills, counting out 30 dollars. "I owe this to Terry Swenson for the guitar he sold me. Could you get it to him?"
"Yes, I will. What else can I do?"
"Eileen, you have already done so much for me! I don't think I could have made it through today without you."
I could see tears forming in the corners of her eyes. "Hey now," I said, "don't cry. We'll be seeing each other soon."
She smiled. I will always remember that smile.
The P.A. announced that the shuttle was boarding. Everybody was queuing up to the boarding gate. I didn't know quite what to do. Eileen then reached out and hugged me. As we held each other, she whispered in my ear, "See you in the States, girl friend!"
I looked back as I walked through the gate. Eileen and Bud waved to me. I turned and walked across the tarmac to the waiting Starlifter.
* * * * * * * * *
My reunion with Molly was bittersweet. She met me at the airport and we embraced so tightly that we must have squeezed the air from between each other. She drove me home and related all of the events of the past few days leading up to Mom's death.
I don't know who invented the custom of viewing the departed's remains. I often thought it rather ghoulish to go look at a corpse. But seeing Mom in her casket demonstrated to me just why this is done. It gave me a chance to say goodbye. I couldn't help but notice the way the undertaker had done her nails in a sort of orange nail polish. Mom hated orange! She wouldn't be caught dead in orange, I found myself thinking. But then again, she was dead. And why do I suddenly take notice of things like nail polish?
After the funeral I spent a few weeks at home with Molly. Except for the funeral, it was like I had never left. Our bodies seemed to remember each other and just how nicely we fit together. But soon the demands of the outside world exerted their force upon us. Molly still had several weeks to go on her final class. So I went on ahead to process in to my new assignment and find a place for us to live.
It didn't take long to find an apartment. It was not too far from the base and had plenty of room. I moved in as soon as I signed the lease. As I expected, my stuff had been shipped from Ubon and was shipped to my apartment.
I started writing to Eileen. I knew it would take a few weeks to start getting letters, thanks to the inevitable lag time of the military postal service. But I never did get a letter. I began to get worried when a shipping crate arrived from Thailand. A letter from Patty accompanied it. Confused, I opened it.
"Dear Bill," it read. "I'm sorry to be the one to tell you this. Eileen was killed in the line of duty."
"She was flying a routine mission from Vietnam to Clark," it continued, "when the Nightingale's engine caught fire. The pilot pulled the fire handle and shut it down. He thought the fire was out.
"He declared an emergency and turned around to get back to the closest friendly base. He made it to NKP in Thailand. But the tower spotted smoke coming from the engine nacelle. After landing the crew had to evacuate.
"Eileen directed the evacuation. She went back several times to get the wounded out of the aircraft. It was on her last trip that the engine finally blew. She caught a piece of shrapnel in the back of her head. I know this isn't much comfort, but it was quick." Patty was right. It wasn't much comfort.
For a moment I was too stunned to continue. It wasn't fair! First my Mother and now Eileen. How many more of the people I love were going to die on me! And why now? The damned war is supposed to be ending. Why Eileen?
I read on. "Eileen didn't leave a will, and she didn't have much in the way of personal effects." Well, I thought, she took after her Aunt Maeve. "I was appointed her executor by the squadron commander. If you are interested, she is buried in California with the Aunt who raised her. Her father, who did not want to claim her body, suggested this.
"I didn't know what to do with her personal effects, so I shipped them to you. I know how close you were to her, so maybe you might know what to do with them.
"I wish I had better news for you, Bill. But before I close, I wanted you to know just how much your friendship helped Eileen. Before you two became friends, she was a very withdrawn woman. She kept to herself and didn't talk with the other nurses very much. After you two became friends, her entire personality changed. She became a lot more outgoing and friendly. You gave her some confidence and self-esteem. It seemed like she had a reason to enjoy her life. It's a shame that it ended so abruptly, but take some comfort in knowing how much better her life was with you as a friend.
"I'm not going to pretend I understand this gender thing you two had. My own brother is becoming my sister and I still don't understand it. But I know that somehow the two of you were good for each other.
"With my deepest sympathy,
"Lt. Patreece Dahl"
By the time I finished my tears were dripping onto the letter. I didn't remember crying, but it happened. I opened the crate and found Eileen's clothes, her uniforms, and all of the things she had accumulated for me.
I don't know whether it was from guilt, or sadness, or whatever, but I found myself putting on her nurse's whites. I pulled the wig over my head and looked in the mirror. I didn't look a bit like her. But I left them on as I sorted through her things.
As I was rummaging through her effects wondering just what to do with most of it, I found a small jewelry box. It contained some rings, earrings, and a locket. I opened the locket and found a picture inside. It was a middle-aged, red-haired man with a receding hairline. His face bore an eerie resemblance to Eileen. Who could this be, I wondered? Then it struck me. It had to be her father!
"Son of a bitch!" I said aloud. Eileen never stopped loving him, even after he turned his back on her. All she ever wanted was to be daddy's little girl.
"Rest easy, girl friend," I said aloud, "I'll always think of you as a princess." With that, I closed the locket.
* * * * * * * * * *
A familiar touch at my arm snapped me back to the present. I was once again in Washington D.C., standing in front of the Vietnam Memorial. Molly was taking my arm. "Hey big guy," she said, "are you all right?"
I felt an unaccustomed moisture on my cheeks which sweat could not account for. "Yeah, I'm okay, honey. I was just reminiscing."
Molly pulled my face over to hers and kissed me. Her kisses still could drive me crazy. They could also give me comfort, which is what this one did. "I'm still not sure how I feel about all this," she said. "When you told me about Eileen, you never mentioned the, you know,..." She fumbled to find the words, but could not.
"I'm really sorry about that," I said. "I meant to tell you, but I kept losing my nerve. Before I knew it, a lot of years had gone by." I paused, trying to find the right words. "I felt so damned guilty about Eileen, I just bottled it up inside me. I tried to stop crossdressing; I even managed to succeed for a long time. At least, I thought I had."
"I know," Molly continued, "I know that's what made you so angry and irritable for so long. I have to tell you, Bill, I don't miss that grouchy person one bit."
"Me either," I readily agreed, "I really hate that jerk I used to be. I much prefer being reasonable."
"Well you ARE much easier to live with," she said. That made me smile, and we kissed again.
I reached into the bag I had brought along to retrieve the mementos I wanted to leave. I stooped to place them by the wall. Molly watched me place the pictures, the locket, and the presentation case by the wall. "Is that her medal?" she asked, referring to the case.
"Yes," I said, "Eileen and the other crewmembers who died were awarded the Air Medal posthumously. Patty sent it to me. I tried to contact her father to see if he would like it. I finally caught up with him. He retired in Virginia."
"I assume he didn't want it," she said.
"No he didn't. He told me that he had no daughter, and that his son died a long time ago. I just wish he could have gotten over that blind prejudice. But he didn't."
"That's, so sad," Molly said. "It must have been rough on you."
I looked at the items I was leaving; Eileen's locket, her medal, and the pictures Patty had taken of us. Then I stood. "It's time to go," I said.
"No need to rush," Molly said. "If you need a few more minutes..."
"I don't," I said. "I know her spirit is at rest. And so is mine. It's time to go, time to heal."
"I suppose I ought to be jealous," she continued, "but I'm not. I know she was just a friend, nothing more."
"She was more than just a friend," I said. "We were girl friends."
Hand in hand, Molly and I left this place of healing. We would now play tourist, haunting the monuments and the museums. In this way, life would continue.
I looked back to see the others who had come seeking the healing power of this site. That's when I saw him. He was an old man, bald, save for wisps of hair at his temples. Using a walker, he slowly and painfully made his way to the area Molly and I had just left. He stopped, facing the wall. It took a great deal of effort, but he pulled himself erect. He then raised his hand sharply to his brow to render a military salute. He held the salute for the space of several breaths. Then his hand dropped, he slumped back into his walker, and slowly shambled away.
(c) 1998 Valentina Michelle Smith
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© 1998 by Valentina Michelle Smith. All Rights Reserved. These documents (including, without limitation, all articles, text, images, logos, compilation design) may printed for personal use only. No portion of these documents may be stored electronically, distributed electronically, or otherwise made available without express written consent of the copyright holder.