Authors: Barbara Bretton
Tags: #World War II, #Women-HomeFront, #Romance
His words still echoed in her memory. “There’s no choice, Doro,” he’d said. “If we don’t win the war, we’ll lose the freedom that makes our family possible.”
And so there they were in the bedroom they’d shared for the first time on their wedding night and every night since. She could still see herself standing there, so young and scared in her white peignoir set, staring at the handsome boy who was now her husband.
The terrible thought that this might be the very last time she felt his arms around her as they dressed for a Saturday night outing made her feel as if her heart would break.
His caresses grew more ardent, and she laughed softly and placed a hand on his chest. “We’ll be late, Tommy.”
He cupped her breast and she swayed toward him. “The Canteen will still be there.”
“And after you told the girls to be ready at six o’clock sharp or you’d have them court-martialed! How on earth would we explain this?”
“Do them good to know their old folks still love each other.”
She longed to stay right there in his embrace, but making love in broad daylight with the girls waiting for them downstairs was too scandalous to consider.
“Get dressed, Tommy.” She kissed him soundly.
The look he gave her was so thrilling that her breath caught for an instant. “Tonight, Doro,” he said as he reached for his army-issue shirt. When we close the door behind us tonight, I don’t intend to let you go.”
Although she had grown up right there in New York City, smack in Forest Hills in the borough of Queens, Catherine still felt a thrill each time she boarded the IND subway bound for Manhattan. Manhattan was another world, a fairytale land straight from the dreams of a Hollywood director.
Only who needed Hollywood when you had Manhattan right there on your doorstep! From the splendor of Central Park to the broad expanse of Park Avenue, to the electric excitement of Broadway with its neon signs and palatial theaters that housed everything from Shakespeare to Shaw to Rodgers and Hammerstein, all of it was real and only twenty minutes—and one five-cent subway fare—away.
Where else could you see the Camel cigarette man, who presided over a billboard poster that blew giant smoke rings over Times Square, or the mighty Prometheus of Rockefeller Center with the weight of the earth on his shoulders? They said that Henry Ford had worried that the excavating necessary for the Empire State Building would affect the earth’s rotation on its axis, but the spectacular 101-story structure had only added to the city’s grandeur. And who hadn’t met a friend or loved one beneath the golden clock that hung over the information desk at Grand Central Station?
How glad Catherine was to escape her bedroom and get out!
It had been a long time since she had fussed with her hair and her lipstick or worn a dress as pretty as the tight-waisted cornflower blue that just skimmed her knees. War restrictions on clothing had taken much of the fun out of dressing up. No more full skirts. Pleats were outlawed, as were cuffs on men’s pants. Even double-breasted coats were gone for the duration. Nancy had appealed to her sense of family loyalty. “All of Daddy’s friends from the squadron are going to be there, Cathy. Don’t you want him to be proud of you?” her little sister had asked, sending Catherine back into her closet in search of something more special than her sober workaday dress.
The rediscovery of her femininity came as a powerful surprise. She’d forgotten how wonderful it felt to primp before the mirror and actually smile at the reflection she saw there. The sweetheart neckline bared her collarbone and each time she turned her head, her hair brushed against her skin. She remembered the time that Douglas daringly pressed his lips to the hollow of her throat and—
“Will you look at them?” Nancy asked over the rumble of the subway train. “Acting like newlyweds!”
Catherine looked at her parents who were sitting together on a bench a few feet from where she and Nancy stood clutching the leather straps overhead. Her father looked handsome in his army uniform and the strange new haircut; her mother, lovely in a filmy dress of sea green, looked as proud of him as if he were a four-star general.
Suddenly she didn’t want to think of goodbyes, of the war and the dangers lurking everywhere. She definitely didn’t want to think about the jittery feeling that had been haunting her the past few days. She wanted to think of music and dancing, of spending an evening with the family she loved. Impulsively she gave her little sister a quick hug, almost losing her balance as the train careened around a curve, then slowed as it neared the station.
“You look so glamorous tonight, Nance.” She smiled at the cloud of Evening in Paris that fairly surrounded the girl. “Gerry Sturdevant should only see you now.”
Nancy blushed as red as the roots of her hair. “Don’t tease me, Cath.”
“I’m not. You look grand.” She glanced down. Nancy’s very best shoes, a pair of white pumps, glistened with Shinola polish. “How are your stockings holding up?”
Nancy laughed out loud. “It better not rain. I’d die of embarrassment if my makeup runs.”
Stockings were currently in short supply, for the government was using nylon to make powder bags for explosives. These days American women wore bobby sox and anklets and knee socks, or they went bare-legged. On special occasions like tonight, enterprising females applied Dorothy Grey’s Leg Show in sheer or suntan to their legs to simulate stockings. Catherine had painstakingly sponged the thick foundation onto her sister’s ankles and calves and knees, getting into the same spirit of excitement that held the teenager in thrall.
Fortunately the weather was splendid. They climbed up the concrete subway steps, laughing at the Hold Your Hats! sign in the stairwell, to find the evening sky a beautiful mixture of pink and blue and flame orange. Women in snugly fitted suits and feathered hats walked arm in arm with gentlemen whose temples were as gray as their own summer suits. Sailors lingered at the corner of Forty-second Street, whistling and calling out “Hubba, hubba!” as a trio of pretty nurses walked by. “Mairzy Doats,” the nonsense song that had taken the country by storm, floated out from a radio blaring inside Tad’s Steak House, while moviegoers queued up at Radio City Music Hall to see Jean Arthur in
The More The Merrier
“Actor dies in airborne attack!” cried the headlines on the papers being hawked on every corner. Leslie Howard, Ashley Wilkes from
Gone with the Wind
, had been en route from Lisbon to England when his airliner was attacked by an enemy plane and brought down.
No one was safe: Absolutely no one.
Catherine forced the notion from her mind. There would be plenty of time in her darkened bedroom to think about it later.
reigned supreme on the Great White Way, and she had to tug at Nancy’s arm as the girl stopped to stare at the color posters flanking the entrance to the theater.
“Hurry up!” Catherine urged as their parents crossed to the other side of the street. “We can’t get into the Canteen without Dad.”
That was all Nancy had to hear, and they scurried to catch up.
“I’m so nervous,” Nancy said. “If I meet a movie star I’m afraid I’ll die!”
“You won’t die. If you meet a movie star, you’ll smile and say hello, same as you would if you met a plumber.”
“My stomach hurts,” moaned Nancy. “I wish I had some Bisodol.”
Catherine looked at her little sister and for an instant she couldn’t remember how it had felt to be seventeen and in love with life. Had she ever felt all giddy with excitement, trembling on the threshold of new experiences, new adventures? It seemed so long ago since she’d approached each new day with pure joy that she felt older than her grandmother.
Her dad kissed her mother on the cheek as he opened the door to the Stage Door Canteen. “This way, ladies.”
Well, if nothing else, at least she’d have something new to write Douglas about tonight.
She sighed and followed Nancy downstairs.
* * *
Movie stars! Soldiers! Sailors! All the glamour and wonder that Nancy had dreamed about was right there in that noisy smoky room. Big band music, so loud you couldn’t hear yourself think, surrounded her—and so did men in uniform, a dazzling assortment of army privates, youthful marines, sailors in their jaunty outfits, and fly-boys with silver wings sparkling on their chests. The room smelled of Brylcreem and Vitalist of Old Spice and Ivory soap. Laughter rang out from every direction, and a big smile spread across her face as she realized she was right there in the middle of things in the most exciting place on earth.
“Take a look over there, honey.” Her mom directed her attention toward the stage up front. “Isn’t that Bob Hope?”
“Oh, golly!” Nancy’s mouth dropped open in surprise. “And that’s Mary Martin with him!”
Old Ski Nose and the beautiful blond star of Broadway’s musical fantasy
One Touch of Venus
took the stage to a round of enthusiastic applause. They launched into a skit that Bob Hope must have done a hundred times at bases and camps around the world, yet his enthusiasm was electric, as he and Mary Martin took an imaginary stroll, arm in arm, through Central Park.
“Nice night,” said Bob.
“Nice night,” said Mary.
“Nice bench,” said Bob, waggling his eyebrows in a mock leer.
“Nice bench,” said Mary, all-innocence.
The crowd loved it, but no one loved it more than Nancy. Everything was as she’d imagined it would be—and even better. Bob Hope put on an apron and magically transformed himself into the world’s most famous busboy, while Mary Martin perched on a high stool and sang along with Harry James and his Music Makers.
“’Scuse me,” said a male voice behind Nancy. “Care to dance?”
She turned and saw a cute jug-eared sailor with even more freckles than she had. “I’m Nancy,” she said, smiling at him.
“Bobby Dunn. I’m not much good at jitterbugging, but if you’re game...”
“Sure,” said Nancy, ignoring her father’s knowing grin from across the room. “Why not?”
Bobby Dunn didn’t lie. When it came to jitterbugging he was about as graceful as a cocker spaniel, but somehow it didn’t matter. He made her laugh as he told her all about life in a small town in Illinois, and she had him guffawing with stories of her one and only attempt at milking a cow on her grandma’s farm in central Pennsylvania.
Bobby Dunn gave way to Charlie, a marine from San Diego who obviously believed girls swooned over men in uniform. He was right about that, of course, but Nancy wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction. She did the fox-trot with an officer from Cheyenne who said she looked like his youngest daughter, and waltzed with an elegant young lieutenant from Maine with aspirations of giving General Eisenhower some real competition.
The Andrews Sisters, Patty and Maxine and Laverne, took center stage and launched into a rousing rendition of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” that had everyone dancing in the aisles.
If only the night would never end....
* * *
Catherine glanced at her watch and tried not to think about how much her feet hurt.
Within the first hour she’d danced with four English sailors, three American marines and a half-score of army privates, most of whom managed to fox-trot all over her toes. Her father had introduced her to most of the members of his squadron, and she’d jitterbugged with each of them in turn for the better part of the next hour. Her dad beamed his appreciation, and the look of pride and apology on her mom’s face went a long way toward easing her aching arches.
They were a nice group of guys, just a bunch of regular Joes who were looking for nothing more than a few happy moments to take with them into the unknown. It wasn’t hard to talk to them, to make them laugh and to listen to stories about their sweethearts and their hopes for the future. Any one of them could have been Douglas, far away from home and scared, even though no self-respecting American boy would ever admit to such a thing.
She leaned against the railing and looked down at the couples dancing to the Andrews Sisters’ rendition of “Rum and Coca Cola.” The thought of an icy-cold Coke sounded wonderful. She was on her way to the bar when her dad waylaid her.
“Cathy, there’s someone I want you to meet.”
“I thought I met all of the fellows in your squadron.”
“Not Johnny. He just got here.”
“Couldn’t he wait a moment, Pop? I’m so thirsty. I—”
“Have this.” A huge frosty glass was thrust in front of her face.
She looked up into the clear blue eyes of a man about her age.
“You’re a mind reader, Danza,” said her father.
She accepted the glass from the stranger and took a long grateful sip. “I don’t know if you’re a mind reader,” she said, “but you certainly have great timing.”
“This is Johnny Danza,” said her father, gesturing toward the tall man who stood before her. “Private, first class.”
Johnny Danza stood a full head taller than her, his close-cropped hair blacker than jet. Thick long eyelashes framed those dazzlingly blue eyes, and she couldn’t help noticing the arrogant set of his jaw, the bold thrust of his Roman nose, and his angular cheekbones.
“I’m Catherine,” she said, as her father disappeared back into the crowd.
“Glad to meet you.” Danza shook her hand firmly. “Your old man’s told me a lot about you.”
“You have me at a disadvantage,” she said, noting the rough strength of his grip and the street-tough sound of his voice. “You in my dad’s squadron?”
Danza’s laugh was short and husky. “You bet. We met up in signal-corps school. Us New Yorkers had to stick together down there in Georgia.”
Her dad had been away an extra few months for specialized training after boot camp. “Were there many New Yorkers?”
“Enough. Looks like we’ll be going the whole way together.”
Her heart did a funny kind of skip at the thought of the unknown that stretched before her father. “Wh-where do you think you’ll be stationed?”
“Hey! What’s with you?” He put an index finger against her mouth. “Loose lips sink ships, Cathy. Didn’t old Tom tell you that?”
She glared up at him. She wasn’t used to men like this brash young Italian American from Brooklyn. “ ‘Old Tom,’ as you put it, has been busy taking care of his business and his family, Johnny. It was just an innocent question.”
“Yeah, well, questions like that can get a whole lot of people in trouble.”
“I don’t think it’s the questions that are the problem,” she observed. “It’s the answers.”
He grinned at her. “You won’t be getting any from me.”
“Somehow I didn’t think so.”
Catherine couldn’t imagine two more different human beings than her taciturn father and this fiery young man, but apparently war made for strange friendships. Besides, who was she to question an allegiance that might help her father weather the storm ahead?
Johnny had that lean and hungry look Catherine had come to associate with soldiers on their way to war. Even her own father now had that taut sinewy look about him, but with Johnny the look seemed an extension of personality, not just circumstances. He couldn’t possibly be that much older than she was, but something about his demeanor made her feel terribly young and painfully inexperienced.
Casual conversation became a struggle.
“So how do you like the army?” she managed at last. “It must take some getting used to.”
He shrugged and took a drag on his Lucky Strike. “I’ve been in since I was nineteen. Hard to remember anything else.”