Fort Des Moines

When you buy a movie, sometimes you get the extended version with the out takes. What follows is one of the out takes from The Reluctant Canary Sings. At one point, I thought Bobbi Bowen would join the WAACs and I wrote some 20,000 words about her military career. This scene is her journey to boot camp, from the 20,000 words I deleted. (Well, I don’t throw anything away.)

WAAC recruits in civilian clothes, marching to the trucks for transport to Fort Des Moines.
Here’s a group of recruits marching to the trucks in daytime.

Three weeks later, she got orders to report to Union Station at 2814 Detroit Avenue, no later than 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, September 12. She’s in the Army now.

On the specified afternoon, Bobbi climbed into a taxi alone and stepped out a few minutes later in front of the Union Station arches, slinging her purse over her shoulder, grabbing her overnight bag in her right hand, and hauling her battered suitcase up the steps with her left. Inside the high, vaulted concourse, she walked into bedlam with soldiers, sailors, their wives and girlfriends, and a few miscellaneous civilians stuffed into the waiting area. Sound echoing off the granite concourse added decibels to the confusion.

Bobbi spotted a particularly frenzied group of women, with photographers’ flashes going off and reporters scribbling in little notebooks. When she sidled over to see what was up, she discovered the WAACs. Someone pinned a gardenia on her and a reporter started shouting questions while a photographer snapped photos.

“Hey, aren’t you Bobbi Bowen?” the reporter demanded a couple of questions into his interview.

“Yes,” Bobbi said, smiling.

“Tell me again why you joined the WAACs.”

As she started to answer, she heard the recruiter yelling into a microphone. “All WAACs over here, please.”

Boy, he doesn’t know how to use a mic. She walked away from the reporter.

After a little farewell and congratulations speech, the women hurried off to Track A. There they boarded a New York Central Pullman heading for Fort Des Moines in the middle of what looked on the map in the library like a very blank space in the middle of the country.

As she stepped aboard, Bobbi wondered how long it would be before she returned to Cleveland. She knew one thing, though, she wouldn’t have to worry about the rent or the grocery money. She would have a roof over her head and plenty to eat for the duration.

She joined the first women to board and found a window seat where she sat humming Chattanooga Choo-Choo as the rest of the women found their seats. She’d changed her wake-sleep schedule during the last couple of weeks, but felt pretty groggy, and worried the rattle of the rails would lull her to sleep.

When another recruit sat across from her, though, she reached across with her right hand, “Bobbi Bowen.”

“Dorothy Cowan. People call me Dottie,” said her new friend, taking Bobbi’s hand in a warm grasp. “Pleased to meet you.”

“So what do you think about going clear out to Iowa for training?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never been west of Chicago.”

“Neither have I.”

“I’ve read that it’s mostly farm country. Lots of corn and pigs.”

The two women drifted into their own thoughts as they looked over the others. Before long, though, everyone chattered about what they might have gotten themselves into. By sunset, the rattle and sway of the train had Bobbi drifting toward sleep, but she was apparently not alone. Since they couldn’t see anything on the prairie under a waxing sliver of a moon, the women began climbing into their berths, Bobbi above and Dottie and a small-town girl from Strongsville named Shirley Shank below.  Before she slept, Bobbi’s mind drifted back to the miserable three days in Buffalo that led to her joining the WAACs.

She started, sitting up and bumping her head. When I got out-if-town gigs, I could have just made sure I took enough cash along when I traveled so that I could get home.

“You okay up there?”

“Yeah, I just thought of something.”

She rolled over and adjusted her pillow. I could have gone back to Danceland or the DownBeat. She rolled onto her back and stared at the swaying ceiling. Hope I haven’t made an awful mistake. Her eyes closed as she began to doze. Hope I can get a job when this is over.

At ten o’clock the following evening, Bobbi stepped off the train in a cloud of soot and smog that smelled like oil and cinders. She stood on the platform for a moment, suitcase clutched in her right hand and purse slung over her left shoulder, bouncing against her overnight bag. She noticed the sky first—all 360 degrees of it. Black and empty, it felt like she could just float up into it like a hot air balloon. She gazed into the distance for a few moments, getting her bearings.

“There’s nothing out here,” she whispered.

Dottie nodded and Bobbi stood transfixed by the sheer openness of the plains. She’d never imagined anything quite like this. Sweeping the country around the platform, she looked off to her right and nudged Dottie.

“No lights. Not a one. Doesn’t anybody live out here?”

Dottie shook her head.

Bobbi peered around, trying to get an idea of what she ‘d gotten into. She noticed two women in uniform with armbands that said WAAC standing beside a truck. She heard a couple of girls behind her whispering about a cattle truck. She turned toward them.

“Cattle truck?”

“That’s what it looks like.”

“Ugh.” Bobbi glanced down at the nearly-new suit she’d chosen for the trip.

Once the recruits had handed over their orders, the two Lieutenants told them how happy they were to see them, and waited while they claimed their luggage. Soon, Bobbi sat on a bench in the back of a truck that used to haul cows. She hung on to keep from careening into the other women as the truck ploughed over the first gravel road she’d ever seen. The four miles to Fort Des Moines seemed endless and she wondered again if she might have made a big mistake.

Shaken and uncertain, she climbed out of the truck, grateful for the two soldiers who helped her jump out, because her straight skirt didn’t lend itself to jumping. She rejoiced to have her feet on solid ground.

“Where are the buildings?”

“All around you,” said one of the women, gesturing.

“But they’re just–very short.”

“This is the Great Plains.”

Bobbi kept looking for something taller than the low structure she saw in front of her–about fifty feet across a stretch of dirt, gravel, and a little bit of brown grass. To her left stood three two-story buildings lit by bare electric bulbs.

“It all looks so . . . bare.”

In the middle of an area by the buildings, two tables supported piles of bed linens and towels—with a WAAC officer sitting behind one. She told them that some of their company had already arrived and had settled into the barracks. Then she invited them to line up, step up to the table, and give names and serial numbers.

Bobbi stepped up in turn. “Bobbi Bowen, A509027.”

She took her two sheets, one pillowcase, and three towels. Assigned to the First Platoon building, second floor, seventh bed on the right, she walked over to the building, still taking in the desolation around her, climbed the stairs, and stood in the doorway, gazing at everything in military order—beds lined up with foot lockers placed precisely at their ends, wall lockers perfectly aligned with the beds. She walked in and found her spot. She glanced at the woman in the next bed who seemed absorbed in a book, then quickly made her own bed, as the others filed in. She grabbed her pajamas and found her way down the inside stairs to the latrine where she showered, washed her face, and brushed her teeth. Stretched on her bunk, she turned to the woman with the book.

“Hi,” she said, stretching out her hand, “I’m Bobbi Bowen.”

The other woman introduced herself as Bonnie Anderson. She said she haled from a farm in North Dakota and arrived a couple of hours earlier on a train from Fargo. Bobbi noticed that everyone else in the barracks chattered away, curling their hair, filing their nails, writing letters—but mostly chattering. They wouldn’t do very much of that in the days to come.

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