THE DOCTOR pressed his stethoscope to Frankie’s chest and ordered him to take a deep breath. Frankie did so, wishing they would turn up the heat a little in the exam room. He had goose bumps all over his arms.
“Now let it out,” the doctor said, and Frankie expelled the air from his lungs. “Good.”
The doctor looped the stethoscope back around his neck and picked up a tongue depressor from the metal cart hosting all his instruments. He held the wooden stick poised between his fingers, like a conductor’s baton. “Open up.”
Frankie stared at the ceiling as the doctor pressed down on his tongue, peering into his throat with a little light. He had already had a physical when he registered at his local draft board, but the officials seemed intent on making sure no inferior specimens slipped past their screenings. The Army Air Forces only took the best.
The doctor stepped back, then made a note on his chart. “You could stand to gain a little weight, son, but otherwise you’re in good form. I just have a few questions on your mental state.” He gave Frankie a reassuring smile.
Frankie returned it weakly.
“You’re from Idaho, correct?” the doctor asked.
“Yes, sir. A little town not far from Pocatello.”
Perhaps sensing Frankie’s nervousness, the doctor smiled again, pen relaxing in his fingers. “How do you like California?”
“It’s swell, sir. A lot warmer than back home.”
The doctor chuckled. “I imagine so. And how have you been feeling? Not depressed? Not homesick?”
“No, sir.” Frankie had never been out of Idaho—trips to Boise had been his biggest excitement, but the war changed a lot of things. Now here he was in Santa Ana, California, at an Army airbase, hundreds of miles from his dad’s ranch in Idaho. And if all went well, soon he’d be up in the sky piloting a fighter plane over Germany or Italy or maybe even the tiny islands in the Pacific that loomed large in the news reports.
“Good, good.” The doctor made another note on his chart. “Are you ever bothered by nervousness?”
“Uh, no.” Frankie tried to ignore his pounding heart. He wasn’t nervous exactly, but he didn’t like answering all these questions.
“Do you often have nightmares?”
“Not often, I guess. Once in a while.”
The doctor nodded. “Do you have siblings?”
“Yes. Two older sisters and a younger brother.” It would be tough for his parents with only Colin left to help manage the ranch, since Helen and June were both married and no longer lived at home. They’d have to hire a few more hands to look after the sheep, and money was always tight. But neither his mother nor father had said a word against his enlisting. “Proud of you, son,” his father had said, clapping him on the shoulder when Frankie told them he’d joined the Air Forces.
“And you get along with your siblings?” the doctor persisted.
“Well… yes,” he said haltingly, thinking of the many shouting matches with his sisters and the pranks he had pulled on his brother.
The doctor laughed. “I have a brother myself. It’s all good, clean fun.” He gave Frankie another smile. “Your parents are alive?”
“Do you like girls?”
“Have you ever engaged in sexual intercourse?”
Oh God. Frankie really wished he could put his clothes back on. “Um, no.”
The doctor gave him a stern look. “You’ll be hearing a lecture this week on the menace of venereal disease. I want you to promise you’ll pay attention.”
“Excellent.” The doctor smiled again and scratched his signature onto a form. “Now get dressed and move along. I’ve got a long line waiting out there. Take this to the office at the end of the hall.”
“Yes, sir.” Frankie hopped off the exam table. He dressed quickly, still in his civvies but one step closer to a uniform.
Out in the hall, he walked past the crowd waiting to be examined, and joined the next line of guys in front of the room the doctor had directed him toward. So far, the Army had consisted of one long line after another.
“Think we’ve been prodded and poked enough?” the guy in front of him said.
Frankie shoved his hands into his pockets. “More than enough.”
“No arguments from me. They even check to see if you’re a fairy, sticking that thing down your throat. I choked, of course,” the guy added. Then, seeing Frankie’s look of confusion, he explained, “The tongue depressor. A fag wouldn’t choke, see? They’re used to sucking on things.”
The guy laughed, and Frankie mustered a smile in return, but his palms started sweating. He’d thought it had been only the one question: Do you like girls? But if it had been more—and, oh Christ, he hadn’t gagged. He’d just sat there with the tongue depressor in his mouth. But the doctor hadn’t said anything.
Frankie swallowed, mouth dry, glancing down the corridor. Maybe the doctor would tell the MPs first, just in case Frankie tried to make any trouble. Maybe any second now they’d be coming to arrest him.
“I’m Roy, by the way,” the guy said.
“Frankie,” he replied. Clearing his throat, he looked back over his shoulder again.
Roy stretched and bounced on his toes. “So when do you reckon the first dance is going to be held? Because the girls back in my hometown were khaki-whacky—wouldn’t look at anyone who wasn’t in uniform. But if you were….” He whistled. “I imagine the gals out here aren’t much different.”
Frankie nodded vaguely. What should he do if they did arrest him? God, what would he say to his parents if he got sent back home?
“I was reading the paper today,” Roy continued, unperturbed by Frankie’s silence and leaping to a new subject like a magpie spotting bugs in the grass, “and what I want to know is whose idea it was to make Italy so blamed long? We invade in September, and now it’s November and we’re still inching our way up toward Rome. At this rate it will be after Christmas before we’ve driven the Nazis out. And if they’re putting up this much of a fight now, imagine what taking France is going to be like.”
The line moved forward, and Roy took a step, still talking. “The Pope’s there, right? So you’d think God would’ve planned things a little better, that’s all I’m saying.” He frowned and took a closer look at Frankie. “You okay? Granted, it wasn’t the funniest joke, but usually people crack a smile at least.”
“I’m fine. Just… sick of waiting in lines.” Frankie was trying to remember the doctor’s tone of voice. Had it changed? Had he been lying when he said Frankie checked out?
“Me too. Me too.” Roy suddenly yelled over Frankie’s head, “Hey, George! Don’t tell me they let a wimp like you pass the physical.”
A guy with red hair who had just joined their line gave him the middle finger.
Roy chuckled. “That’s George. Met him this morning on the train here. Say, you got a smoke?”
Frankie shook his head. “Sorry.” He took a deep breath, trying to calm his racing heart. Maybe Roy had just been joking about the tongue depressor.
Roy shrugged and took another step forward. “I’ll mooch some off George if this line ever hurries up and moves. What are they doing up there? Asking everyone to recite their life history or something?”
Frankie kept anxiously scanning the uniformed personnel who surrounded them. But none ever singled him out, and gradually he began to relax.
Still, he wished he had just gagged on that damn stick. It wasn’t like he’d ever sucked a cock before.
Though he’d wanted to plenty of times.
Yeah, that was the kicker.
He wanted to.
When he went to enlist two days after his eighteenth birthday, he’d been nervous as hell, sure the draft board would somehow know he was queer, even though they were all locals, men Frankie had been acquainted with his whole life. But no flags had been raised. Today he’d thought he was in the clear once he lied and said he liked girls. It wasn’t even really lying, because he did like girls, just not like that.
He had to be more careful. The last thing he wanted was to be slapped with an undesirable discharge and sent home. He would never be able to face his mother—his father. Christ, it would be a disaster. Besides, he wanted to fight and do his part in this war.
The line inched forward. Frankie finally drew close enough to see they were issuing uniforms and having problems finding the right sizes. At last it was his turn, and he collected the stack of olive drab fabric the harassed clerk handed to him. Taking a deep breath, he headed off in the direction of the barracks. No one shouted at him to stop. No posse of stern MPs surrounded him. He’d made it. From here on out, he’d concentrate on his training and keep his guard up. No one would ever have to know.
THE BARRACKS looked like they had been hastily constructed at the beginning of the war during the rapid mobilization that followed Pearl Harbor. Now, almost two years later, the paint was beginning to fade, and Frankie discovered a loose board by his bunk that let in a cold draft. After depositing his stuff on the scratchy blanket, Frankie focused on his bunkmate, who, with studied care, was tacking the photo of a girl up onto the wall. He was a little on the short side, muscular, and had pretty blue eyes, a lighter color than Frankie’s.
Frankie stuck out his hand. “I’m Frankie Norris. That your gal?”
“Pete Norwood.” He shook Frankie’s hand. “And yes, this is Betty. She’s a looker, ain’t she?”
“Sure is.” It was true. Betty had curly hair and a real nice smile. Frankie shifted, feeling nervous again. Maybe he should clip some girl’s photo out of a magazine and pretend she was his girlfriend. Too bad he’d never gotten a photo of Ruth Baxter, the girl he’d dated briefly back in high school in an attempt to prove he was just like all the other guys.
“We’re going to get married soon as this war is over.” Pete smoothed the picture with his thumb.
Frankie nodded and tried to change the subject before Pete started asking him about his own nonexistent marriage plans. “Where are you from?”
“Yeah?” Frankie grinned. “I’m from a little town east of Pocatello. What are the odds, two boys from Idaho landing together?”
Pete laughed. “Pretty long, I’d say. So, what made you pick the Air Forces?”
Nerves beginning to dissipate, Frankie hopped onto his bunk and leaned back, staring at the ceiling. Sure felt nice to be off his feet after standing in all those lines. “I’ve wanted to fly ever since fifth grade, when my parents took us to an air show. Never thought I would, though, until the war. I thought I’d have to settle for motorcycles or breaking broncs.”
“Daredevil, huh?” Pete fished a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and offered one to Frankie.
“Thanks.” His mother had never let him smoke near the house, but he had sometimes snuck off after school with his friend David to have a purloined cigarette behind the gym. “I guess maybe I am a daredevil. Mostly I just like things that go really fast,” he added with a grin.
“I heard they start you out in dinky little planes that got left behind in the last war.”
Frankie shrugged. “They’ll still be planes.”
Pete stretched out too, although a good inch or two remained between his feet and the end of the mattress. That was another of Frankie’s worries—that he would prove too tall to fit comfortably in the cockpit. “Seems like you started growing when you turned thirteen and never stopped,” his mother always said, reaching up to pat his cheek and then making him bend down so she could plop a kiss on his forehead.
“I’ve never flown before, either,” Pete continued. “I’m kinda—well, I hope I don’t get airsick on my first flight.”
“I’ve heard most people get over it, if you do.”
“Maybe.” Pete sighed. “Wouldn’t be surprised if I end up in the infantry, though.”
Frankie’s best friend, David, had gone into the infantry. They’d enlisted together three weeks ago on October 5, two days after Frankie’s eighteenth birthday and about a month after David’s. “I could never cut it as a pilot, Frankie,” David had said when Frankie protested his choice yet again. “You know I couldn’t, not with the way I get nervous just climbing up a ladder. ’Sides, I’ll get over there real soon—sooner than you will. I’ll take care of the Nazis and Japs while you’re still stuck in your fancy flying school.”
He’d smiled, and it had been the first real smile he’d given Frankie since the previous night, just before Frankie had summoned the nerve to confess he was queer, and David had gone horribly silent.
“You don’t like girls?” David repeated hesitantly, staring at Frankie.
“That’s what I just said.” His heart was going a mile a minute, his mouth dry.
“You mean you want to….” David trailed off, and there was a full minute of awkward silence.
Frankie didn’t know where to look, so he settled for pressing his fork in the strawberry pie crumbs on his plate. His ma had made it for them, as this was their last night home.
“So you never guessed?” Frankie asked at last.
David shrugged unhappily. “Maybe. I don’t know.” He scowled. “Why’d you have to bring it up now, for Christ’s sake?”
Frankie pressed his fork down harder. “Anything can happen in a war, right? And I… wanted you to know.” Sighing, he set the fork down and crossed his arms. “It felt wrong to keep lying to you.”
“Do your parents know?”
Frankie shook his head. “You won’t tell them?”
“Of course not.” David had fallen silent again and then finally said he needed to get back home because the train was leaving early the next day.
Frankie had nodded and watched him go.
So when David had smiled at him and made a joke the next day, Frankie had been so relieved, thinking maybe things were right between them again. “Yeah, well, you just be careful,” he had told David, raising his voice over the sound of a train arriving at the station. “And write to your ma ’cause you know she’ll worry.” David was terrible at keeping in touch. One summer he’d gone off to stay with an uncle in Montana, and Frankie had heard from him a grand total of once in three months. “She can let my mother know, and then she can let me know, so I can rest easy that you haven’t gotten your ugly mug blown up.” Then he had tugged David into a hug, there on the platform waiting for the trains that would take David one way and Frankie another.
David had gone stiff and still. Frankie released him quickly, his face burning.
“Sorry,” he muttered.
David had shrugged and not said anything. Three minutes later he was on the train, leaving Frankie with a sour taste in his mouth and a bitter regret that he had ever told David the truth. Guess he should be grateful David hadn’t just slugged him and spit in his face.
But there was nothing he could do about David now. So he said to Pete, “We’ll get through the training. We won’t end up in the infantry, stuck in the mud in a trench somewhere.”
“Promise?” Pete gave him a smile, those blue eyes crinkling in the corners.
Frankie nodded, taking in his fill of that smile. He only realized he was staring when Pete’s expression grew puzzled. “What is it?”
Frankie cleared his throat and looked away. “Nothing.” Shit. He could not develop a crush on Pete. There was no way that would end well.
Pete shrugged, stubbed out his cigarette, and flopped back down. “I’m going to rest while I can, seeing as it’s probably the last time we’ll get some peace and quiet before we have a sergeant breathing down our necks and yelling for us to march faster.”
“You call this peace and quiet?” Frankie said, staring around at the chaos of men jostling for spaces in the barracks and stowing their gear.
“In two days’ time, when we’re toiling in the hot sun, this will look like paradise,” Pete said, covering his eyes with an arm.