“There. Finish up, nurse, thank you.” Her wide, brown eyes did not change expression as she waited for instructions. “Sorry. Et voilà. Je vous laisse finir, madame.”
“Bien sûr, docteur. Allez vous reposer.” Sure, doctor. Go get some rest. She reached for the bandage tape, and began cleaning and covering the incision. She was the third nurse to assist him today. An American WAC, a Scottish nurse from the British Army, and this local civilian who volunteered. The patients were just as varied.
Jason Lockhart wiped the sweat from his brow with his bloody forearm and turned unsteadily to the wash basin in the corner of the tent. Another one saved. He cleaned up as best he could and staggered into the blinding sunshine to find his quarters. After the oppressive heat of the heavy medical tent, the wind off the Atlantic felt wonderful, in spite of the sand and salt spray that came with it.
He fell onto his cot fully clothed. Someone shook his shoulder. Opening his eyes, he saw that it was dark.
“Napping on the job again, Lockhart?” Marcus MacAlan’s cheerful Scottish brogue finished waking Jason up. “Come get some food. Then go back to sleep.”
“What time is it?”
“Eighteen hundred. I think that’s two bells of the second dog-watch to you swabbies.” He grinned. “What’s important is that the mess tent is still serving supper. I know you’ll sleep through that and breakfast again if I don’t watch out for you.”
“Thanks, Marcus. You’re a real friend.”
“And you’re a damn hero. You pulled sixteen men back from the brink today. It’s the buzz all over the camp.”
“That many? I lost count.”
“I noticed. Now you finish cleaning up and change into something decent. Then let’s eat.”
Forty-five minutes later, Lieutenant Commander Jason J. Lockhart, MC, USN, emerged from the tent looking more like a naval officer than the blood-splattered, dark-eyed skeleton that had crept into it some three hours earlier. His friend Marcus, a surgeon attached to the British Army forces in the invasion, walked with him to the mess tent.
“About the only bright side to this operation is the food,” Marcus said as they pointed to entrees on the line. “You Yanks have no idea how to set up an officers’ mess in a tent, but at least you were smart enough to accept the French offer to send over their cooks.”
“I agree. The cooks on our hospital ship are good, but this is special.” They carried their portions of coq au vin, flageolet verts and pommes de terre rissolées to a table. The only thing missing was a good French wine, but it was an American operation, so no luck there.
“Aren’t you on at midnight?” Jason asked as they tucked into the hot, dripping chicken.
“Aye, but I took a nap, and I’ll take another before going on.”
“I hope you have a dull shift.”
“Thanks. I hear the battle was short-lived. Gave us lots of work now, but we should not have many trickling in after today.”
“Any word on your replacement unit?” One of the two landing craft with medical teams on board took a hit from a French destroyer and sank. The Commander of the Central Force ordered the hospital ship to send over a surgeon with a nurse and some corpsmen to help out until replacements could come from Gibraltar. That put Jason Lockhart and four others in the sand.
“Last word was two hours ago. The hospital in Gibraltar balked at losing a full surgical team, but promised replacements in a week after General Patton threatened to visit them personally.”
“I hear Old Blood and Guts is a real sweetie.”
An hour later, the two tent mates were fast asleep. In the morning, Jason awoke to the sound of bugles and shouts of soldiers. One of his corpsmen knocked outside.
“Dr. Lockhart, sir?”
“Yes, Williams, I’m awake. What’s going on?”
“Breaking camp, sir. The Vichy surrendered. We’re moving into the city.”
“Fedhala? It’s too small.”
“Casablanca, sir. All three landings are consolidating there.”
“Okay. Thanks. I’ll be packed and out of here in a few minutes. Is Nurse Haines up?”
“Yes, sir. She already mustered the rest of us at the hospital tent.”
Jason grinned. “Good. I’ll be right out.”
Marcus appeared as Jason shouldered his duffel and stepped outside.
“I hear that our humble home is disappearing.”
“Aye, and it’s the big city now.” Marcus slapped Jason on the arm and went into the tent to pack.
At the hospital tent, Lieutenant Haines was checking on the wounded with the three corpsmen. When she saw Jason, she motioned him outside.
“Good morning, sir. I hope you slept well.”
“Yes, nurse, thanks. I came straight here, but I probably should have stopped at the command tent.”
“Did that already, sir.” She smiled. A head nurse in a big city hospital before the war, Beulah Haines was accustomed to handling young doctors as skillfully as she handled wounded gangsters, and now, soldiers. “Word is that all three Attack Forces will move overland to the Mediterranean Coast.”
“And we go with them. Apparently General Patton was impressed when he saw how many survived here in Fedhala.” She caught the slight sag in Jason’s face. “No good deed goes unpunished, sir.” He snorted, and they joined the others to organize their part of the move as the tents came down around them.
Three weeks later, Jason was stitching the right leg of a ten-year-old boy in the operating tent near Tangiers. The other five boys were killed by a land mine where they were playing. Jason had managed to connect all the muscles in the leg, and pull it all back together. Beulah Haines helped him with the bandaging.
“He’ll limp for the rest of his life, but hopefully not enough to slow him down.” Jason looked up as an orderly walked in.
“Out of here!” Haines barked. “This is a sterile area.”
“Sorry.” The young private ducked back out and called in. “You’ve got mail! The postal clerk sent me to let you know, because we almost never get Navy mail.”
The surgical team exchanged glances, then smiles. They cleaned up the operating area briskly and joined the Army surgical teams at mail call that afternoon.
“Here you go, Jason.” Marcus MacAlan handed him a canvas bag. “I saw it on the back of the truck with just your name on it. I wager the ship’s mail room was overflowing with unclaimed mail from you five.”
“I guess. Thanks.” After all the mail was distributed, the two friends walked back to their tent, where Marcus pulled out a bottle of single malt whisky from his duffel and shared it with Jason as they opened their envelopes. Jason’s mail was almost all from his brother, so he put the letters in chronological order. It was the first mail he had received since leaving the USA three months earlier.
Ilion, New York
August 15, 1942.
I have no idea where you are, when you’ll get this, or what you’re doing, but I hope you are safe and in a place where you can keep up with events at home as I write. Since you left, everyone has been fine, more or less. Mother had a cold last month, but she got over it. Dad has been busy taking care of her, which is a big help to Carrie and me, because the gun factory has put us on 12-hour shifts. Carrie had to quit her job to be here for the twins. My overtime doesn’t quite replace her income, but there’s less and less to buy every week anyway. Thank God we have a garden.
I hope you beat the Krauts and get home soon. Mother, Dad, and Carrie join me in sending you our love. You are daily in our prayers.
“Seems like everything is stable at home.” Jason took another sip of the Scotch. “This stuff is so smooth! Where does it come from?”
“A little still down the road from our house. Glen Fiddich.”
Jason counted the letters again. There were three more.
Ilion, New York
September 1, 1942.
The news is not good this time. Mother fell last week. She thought she was going up to her bedroom, but she was at the top of the stairs, not the bottom. She broke her right hip and her left forearm. Dad is with her in the hospital in Utica, helping to care for her. He drives back here to shower and shave and change his clothes. It feels like no one is home when I wake up after sleeping (I’m on the night shift), and the girls are at school. Most times, Carrie is shopping, out in the garden, or visiting Mother when I get up. Carrie is incredible. She gardens, repairs masonry and cabinetry, cooks, cleans, and keeps the twins under control by making them help. She has me show her things she doesn’t know when I’m up, but then takes care of them herself after that. When I see the posters of Rosie the Riveter near the clock at the factory, I have to smile. Rosie has nothing on Carrie.
Mother is not well, but all we can do is pray now. Stay well yourself.
Jason tore open the next letter.
Ilion, New York
September 15, 1942.
This is a terrible way to tell you, from so far away. Our parents have died. Mother passed away in the hospital three days ago. Dad was crying when he left. I have never seen him cry in my life. The police found his car by the side of the road, still running. He was slumped over the wheel. The doctors at the hospital think he had a heart attack. I’ve authorized an autopsy, but I don’t know if I want the details. You might, though: it’s your profession. So, I told them to go ahead.
Don’t anyone ever tell me that you can’t die of a broken heart. I am so sorry to have to write to you. It is taking me a while to write all this, because I keep stopping. I’m crying myself, sitting here alone, sharing this news.
There is so much to do, even as we try to process having them both gone so suddenly. Just this morning, word came down that some of us will be sent to Independence, Missouri, to expand the factory there. Meanwhile, I have a meeting in Frankfort with Mr. Leyre to read Dad’s will. As you know, I’m the executor. Mr. Leyre said that it’s a straightforward process. The house will go through Probate and all that.
Time to go to work. Be well and win this war for us soon, please. Carrie and the girls send their love, too.
“Are you well, Jason?” Marcus took his cup and tipped more whiskey into it.
“My parents died back in September.”
“Bloody hell! Both of them?”
Jason nodded. “Mom fell, then died in the hospital. She wasn’t well already, and the fall did her in. Dad was heartbroken, I guess. It seems he had a heart attack driving back home from the hospital.”
Moving to Jason’s cot, Marcus sat down and put his arm around the devastated man’s shoulder. “I am so sorry for you, mate.” They sat there while the shadows lengthened outside, gently sipping the single-malt Scotch. When the last sip was taken, Jason turned to his friend and broke down. Marcus held him tight while the tears from the new orphan dampened his shirt.
After a while, Jason stopped sobbing. He sat up and took a deep breath. “Sorry about that, Marcus.”
“What’s to be sorry about? If you hadn’t cried, there’d have to be something wrong with you.”
“I’m glad I could be here.” Marcus looked at the remaining letter. “I’m afraid to mention it, but you still have another letter there.”
“Oh, yeah.” Opening the last letter, Jason read.
October 20, 1942
Where do I begin? We’re all here in Independence, in a new house close to the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant. It’s an Army facility, but Remington runs it for them, and old 4-F’s like me are cranking out several different types of small arms ammunition. I’m in the R&D unit, testing new rounds for various Allied rifles and machine guns.
Dad’s will confirmed that I was the sole heir. This was not a surprise; we all knew that Dad was passing the house and the rest to me. There wasn’t anything except the house. The surprise was finding out that we couldn’t keep it. The company decided that I should go to Independence, and the house is way too big for us to maintain. Besides, Carrie’s parents live just outside Kansas City, so it was not a hard choice to sell the old house in Ilion and move here. The girls still have grandparents around. It’s good here, and we can heal our wounds and replace the memories with new ones.
We packed all your things carefully in boxes, and we have a room for you here when you return to the States. If you settle somewhere else, we’ll ship the boxes to you. We were careful not to make any choices for you; if we weren’t positive it was ours, it’s in your boxes.
The address here is RFD #32, Independence, Missouri. We’re on a country road close to Buckner. The phone exchange is Independence 223.
Please come home safe. There’s enough grief to go around in this war.
Carrie and the girls send their love. So do Doris and Jim (Carrie’s parents, in case you forgot).
“Well? More bad news?” Marcus had moved back to his own cot.
Jason was silent as he digested the meaning of this latest letter. He felt anguish losing his parents and the home he grew up in, all in a single afternoon of his life. At the same time, he knew that the home had never been his – or Frank’s for that matter. He had left home once already when he went to Cornell for college; now the home had left him. Simple. Only time would heal the loss he was feeling now for his parents. When his throat started to close, he put that thought down.
“Yes and no. On one hand, I not just an orphan; I’m a homeless orphan. My brother had to sell the house when he was sent to Missouri to another ammunition plant. On the other hand, it’s near my sister-in-law’s family, so they are settling in well and my nieces still have grandparents in their lives.”
“You never got your own place, did you?”
“No. In a way, this is best. When this damn war is over, I can look out with no commitment to anywhere in particular. I can also get over the grief better by not walking around Ilion with its memories.”
“You’ll be fine.” Marcus stoppered the bottle and put it in his duffel. “Fancy some of that French cuisine in the mess tent?”
© 2020, 2023 JT Hine
This is the first of eight prequel short stories in the Lockhart series, following Joe and Nancy Lockhart from the Second World War until Joe meets Sandra in the first book. Enjoy!