I did a mountain of research for the 20,000 words I dropped from The Reluctant Canary Sings. I found several autobiographies by women who served, and their accounts were so full of detail that I was able to really provide a picture of that way of life. Culture shock is an understatement for Bobbi’s arrival at Fort Des Moines, so I tried to see her first day or two through her city-bred eyes. Here’s her first day, as described by other recruits and as I imagine it from the perspective of someone who never left the city.
Exhausted from dozing in the rattling train during the previous night, Bobbi expects to fall asleep immediately, but she finds herself listening to the silence. She hears the twenty-four women breathing around her—even some of them snoring—but no cars going by in the night, no footsteps, no people talking on the street, no dumpster lids clanging, no scuffles or shouts. She expected change, but this is a different world. She rolls over on her side and stuffs her pillow under her head, but that doesn’t feel comfortable either. After trying both sides, her back and her belly, she finally dozes, only to be awakened, seconds later, to that same blaring whistle that announced lights out. She opens her eyes to complete darkness. Before she can close them, somebody yells “Everybody up!”
“It’s still night,” she mutters and turns over. “I just got to sleep.”
“Let’s go, let’s go,” yells the voice and suddenly Bobbi sees red through her closed eyelids.
She flings her arm over her eyes as she hears the voice coming closer.
“C’mon,” says Bonnie. “Time for breakfast.”
“Breakfast? What time is it anyway?”
Bobbi groans. “People really get up at this hour?”
“Yup,” says Bonnie as Bobbi begins to hear other voices, muttering and groaning, and twenty-four other women scurrying into their clothes.
Bobbi throws her legs over the side of the bed, head still on the pillow. “I’m moving,” she says, mostly to herself. She sits and starts fumbling for her clothes, watching the others stumbling over footlockers and stubbing their toes on beds on their way to the showers. “Glad I showered last night,” she murmurs to herself as she pulls her suitcase from under the bed, sorts out clean underwear and gets dressed.
Using her hand mirror, she slaps on a little lipstick and stands to leave. “You ready?”
“I thought you’d be putting on a whole new face,” Bonnie comments.
Bobbi raises an eyebrow. “Do I need to?”
“Well, no,” Bonnie stammers. “I just thought . . . .”
“I had this whole ritual before I went on every night. Lay it on thick because the spotlights fade it out. Paste it back on during the breaks where the sweat washed it off . . . . Feels wonderful not to bother with all of that.”
“You look great without it.”
“Don’t know about that, but it feels better. Let’s go get food before it’s all gone.”
They’re about to step out into the aisle, between scurrying bodies, when the Third Officer steps into the doorway and yells, “Attenhut!”
Not sure what she’s supposed to do, Bobbi looks around at the others. They’ve all come to a stand-still wherever they are, so she does the same.
“Fall out!” yells the Third Officer and everybody stands watching her like a flock of nervous quail. “That means you can go now,” she says.
Bobbi hesitates a minute as they start moving. “Form up outside on the parade grounds.”
As Bobbi’s eyes adjust to the darkness, she begins to see women wandering around forming into three groups in front of the three barracks. When the officer comes to the head of her scattered column, she yells, “Attenhut!” again. The talking stops and the women stand a little straighter. When she shouts, “For’ard harch!” Bobbi thinks she sees a wicked little grin as the women start shuffling forward. Fifty yards later, when she yells, “Halt . . . Break ranks!” Bobbi looks around to see if she can spot the ranks they’re supposed to break, but all she sees is a clump. She follows a sort of line into the building.
Inside, she ends up behind Dottie and Bonnie with Shirley following. When they get through the chow line—already she’s learning a whole new language—they choose a table together. Last to get there. Shirley stumbles in her heels and catches herself with her tray on the edge of the table. Her omelet, hashed browns, bacon, and pancakes do a little flip and land close to where they started, but every beverage on the table upsets, causing five women to clamber over the benches where they were sitting as they mop orange juice, coffee, and milk off the front of their clothes.
“Sorry,” Shirley murmurs as she waits for the others to sit before she takes her place at the end of the bench, jiggling the solid table just a little bit.
This is wonderful, Bobbi thinks to herself, all I can eat and then some. She digs in and finishes everything on her plate. She knows she’s gained a few pounds since Buffalo and she knows she’ll have to be careful or she’ll really balloon, but she figures the Army will make sure she gets plenty of exercise.
Her belly full, Bobbi troops back to the barracks, chatting with the other five—Bonnie, Dottie, and Shirley, and a couple of women from straight across the aisle—Betty Schmidt from Tucson and Barbara Jean from Arkansas. Barbara Jean just wants to get out of the hills before she marries some hillbilly out of desperation, she says and Betty says she’s been a secretary in Tucson and the WAACs represents escape from boredom. Besides, it turns out she’s engaged to a soldier who’s been sent overseas and she hopes to get sent over, too. Bonnie points out that “overseas” includes most of the globe, but Betty just shrugs.
Back in the barracks, Dottie digs around in her suitcase and pulls out a bottle of nail polish to touch up the chips, but she no more than gets the lid off before Third Officer bellows, “Fall in!” from outside the barracks, sending the women scurrying down the stairs again.
The day turns into a blur very early. Sometime in the morning, Bobbi visits the Infirmary where she has both arms poked and scratched with vaccines.
In Requisition, she collects her forty-eight items of Army-issued clothing and toiletries. As the others sign out with their new wardrobe, Bobbi shuffles through her pile and clucks her tongue, holding up her baggy, khaki-colored, rayon panties and bra to match. She turns over her folded stockings in beige cotton—with garter tops.
Dottie giggles. “We’ll have to have a fashion show tonight,” she says.
Bobbi smiles to herself, noting a big contrast with the things she had to wear at her previous job.
Once they’re all outfitted, they hurry back to the barracks with their haul to change into their new duds. Nobody’s feeling much like a fashion show. Most of them give up their underwear with reluctance, setting aside their dainty, lacy. One thing about it, Bobbi thinks with satisfaction, as she squirms into her new costume, it’ll be much harder for men to get their hands inside her brown, Army-issued girdle.
After rushing around all morning, the women line up in the mess hall, holding their trays and looking reverently into plates stacked with good food. Bobbi again sighs her appreciation of the plenty, as they find a table. Shirley brings up the rear for a second time and bumps the end of the table as she sits, again sloshing beverages and causing a few moments of chaos as everyone mops up the running liquids.
“Sorry,” Shirley murmurs.
Crisis over, Bobbi digs in to roast beef, mashed potatoes, and green beans. She eats until she’s stuffed, then nibbles on a piece of rhubarb pie.
The three smaller women nibble the rest of their meals and the four leave the mess hall, thinking they will have the rest of the day to relax after playing hurry-up all morning, but they’ve no more than settled on their beds than they hear the already-familiar “Attenhut!”
Bobbi recognizes the Third Officer as she strolls in and takes a quick look around.
“My name is Lieutenant Bayer,” says the WAAC officer, “and I’m your Platoon Commander.”
She tells them they can sit, so Bobbi takes her place on the side of her bed while Bayer outlines her new rules—the first person to see an officer must call out, “Attention,” she says. Retreat’s played at the end of the working day at five o’clock and lights-out’s at nine. Bed check’s at eleven—and you’d better be there.
Sounds like kindergarten, Bobbi thinks.
When Lt. Bayer demonstrates how to pack a foot locker, Bobbi thinks about the chaos she lived in for years and smiles with satisfaction. Wow, she thinks, I’ll be able to find things. She glances around as Bayer gathers the women to demonstrate bed-making—the Army way.
“These beds should be so tight, you can bounce a quarter on them,” she says, demonstrating. They watch as she pulls the top sheet down over the blanket, then takes a ruler out of her pocket and measures six inches.
“Okay,” she says, looking around, catching each woman’s eyes, “the top edge of the top sheet to the top edge of the blanket must be exactly six inches. The cuff over the blanket must be the same—not six and one-eighth inches, not five and seven-eighth, but exactly six inches . . . both places.”
Bobbi’s thinking that might be taking neatness to an extreme when one of the other begins to protest. “But how will we . . .”
“Your toothbrush is exactly six inches long,” Bayer says as she moves to the end of the barracks and watches.
Bobbi rolls her eyes at Dottie, and tears her bed apart, but as the four—Dottie on one side, Bonnie on the other, and Shirley in the next bed—bend to the task, they keep bouncing against each other, suppressing giggles that try to bubble up their throats. When they’ve finished, Bobbi produces a quarter from the change purse she’s thrown on her foot locker and drops it on the bed. It bounces, sort of.
“Tighter,” barks Bayer strolling by in the aisle.
The women remake their beds, repack their foot lockers and stow their personal, before-the-Army belongings in their wall lockers. They hear retreat playing when they finally pass Bayer’s inspection.
When she says, “That’s fine,” the whole squad room seems to take a deep breath and sigh. “This is what your squad room should always look like in the future,” she says.
She releases them to the mess hall, and this time when Shirley sits everybody else grabs their beverages and holds them aloft until she’s seated. After stuffing themselves again, Bobbi and Bonnie decide to take a little walk, just to see the post in daylight. They pass several women’s barracks under construction, kicking up dust.
“There’s nothing here,” Bobbi says.
“What did you expect?” Bonnie asks.
“I don’t know. Something. Isn’t Des Moines a city?”
“Yes, but this is a military post. The city is . . . must be about four miles.”
“But you can’t even see it.”
“It’s just flat. Everywhere I look, there’s just that empty sky and nothing.”
“Can’t you hear that rustle?”
“Yeah. What is that?”
“That’s corn stalks. See that tannish field way over there,” she says, pointing toward the edge of the post. “That field’s ready to harvest—or just about anyway.”
“So we’re in the middle of a big corn field?”
“Well, there are probably some other crops around here.”
“So that’s what a farm’s like. Just flat?”
Bonnie chuckles. “Not exactly, but a flat field’s easier to farm.”
“It’s just so empty,” Bobbi says as they head back toward the barracks.
“Not at all, Bobbi. If you know how to look, it’s just teeming with life . . . more than you can even imagine.”
“If you say so,” Bobbi says, taking the bottom step up to the squad room. “It just seems barren to me.”
Bonnie shakes her head.
Bobbi’s writing a promised note to Mary Teresa when someone yells, “Attention!”
Good grief, she thinks.
Bayer leads her platoon to the back side of barracks row where they grab brooms, mops, soap, and rags. They scurry into their version of formations and march, mostly without running into each other, back to their own barracks. Bobbi tries not to giggle as she surveys the crooked ranks of women, mops over their shoulders, marching knees high and out of step, across a dusty field of rank grass.
“I want these floors to sparkle,” Bayer shouts, “hands and knees, girls.”
Without thinking, Bobbi starts humming Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.
“Who’s singing in here?” demands Lt Bayer.
Bobbi stops mid-bar. “This is gonna be a cheery place,” she mutters under her breath.
“What was that?” demands Bayer.
“Nothing . . . sir,” Bobbi says
“You will stand and salute when you address me,” says the Lieutenant.
Bobbi stands and snaps a smart salute. “Nothing, sir,” she repeats.
“That’s better,” says Bayer, suppressing a grin. “Get back to work.”
The women complete their cleaning detail at midnight and crawl into tightly-made bunks. Bobbi hears sighs all around her as the lights go out.
Boy am I out of shape. Stiff and sore after that little bit of marching around. I suppose the Army will take care of that—if it doesn’t make me too fat to move at all.
She drifts into a deep sleep. But in only a few minutes, it seems, the most piercingly awful racket she’s ever heard, jerks her into consciousness. Lights snap on, blinding her as she scrambles out of bed.
“Fire alarm,” yells Bayer. She’s standing at the barracks door, fully clothed. “Line up in formation outside.”
Twenty-five women scramble into shoes and clothes as fast as they can.
“No time to dress,” Bayer yells. “Get your asses out of here!”
In seconds the women are arranged in ragged lines, shivering in Army-issue pajamas.
“Attention!” yells Bayer, saluting.
“Holy Bejesus,” Bobbi mutters, coming to rigid attention.
“Straighten up those lines,” Bayer yells.
The women adjust their placement, continuing to stand at attention.
“All right,” Bayer says, “fall out.”
They all scatter, hustling into the barracks to grab whatever sleep they can get.