Chapter 25 How Doreen met Ben
A/N: Nearly half a million women volunteered for non-combat military service in WW2, and more than double that number worked in support of the war effort on the home front, just in the USA, and Canada with similar numbers in all allied countries. Forgotten and mostly unrecognized, these women worked hard and sacrificed much.
It is my honor to recognize the Female War-radio Operators of the Pacific Front and say Thank You for Your Service...
The beginning of the chapter has a time jump, memories represented in Italics while what is happening in the present is in Bold type.
The number is B as in boy. Eleven.”
Doreen Wallace smiled as she called the numbers for Friday Night Bingo. It was the one and only thing she did every week that she had done with Ben before he went to heaven without her. That was how they had met during World War 2 in San Francisco.
Doreen Grace Bowen was calling the numbers at the Our Lady of the Bay Catholic Church weekly Bingo fundraiser when Ben Wallace had wandered. A Navy Seaman on evening leave, tired of the routine of getting drunk and nothing else to do on his one night a week off from guard duty at the Naval Shipyard. He came in and sat at the back. She noticed his broad shoulders and honey blonde hair but most of all his hazel eyes the color of mossy agate. She tried not to stare. He did too.
Every week for three months, he came to the church, bought a dollar’s worth of Bingo cards and red clay chips, but he didn’t play. Just handed in his blank card after each round. Finally Father Pietro Delmonico took him aside and asked why he came if he didn’t play, he had quietly answered that he was raised not to gamble by his Protestant parents. He considered the money a donation to the poor parish. Father Delmonico asked again why he came, the money could be left in the box by the Virgin Mother. Ben shyly explained that he came to listen to her melodious voice, it was like an angel’s. The old priest had smiled and patted his hand, assuring Ben that Doreen was an angel, willful but pure-hearted.
Four months after the handsome sailor first came to bingo night, Doreen had been the one to ask him to have a cup of coffee. They sat in the small cafe near the church with Father Delmonico chaperoning discretely from another table. She had done most of the talking but Ben’s eyes told her everything his short shy answers didn’t say aloud. His every thought telegraphed through those green, gray, and light brown orbs to her heart. She was smitten with the young sailor from Colorado. Ben believed she was the most beautiful creature in creation, vowing to himself that if they survived this war, he would marry her.
The number is G as in girl, four, five.”
Doreen was asked if she would go to Alaska, they needed her voice and her ear. Her musical education had trained her to hear the slightest sound in the hiss of the static. A skill the War department sought. Unlike many wartime radio operators, she had an advantage. Growing up in San Francisco, her father had hired Chinese immigrants to work in his businesses and their home. She had learned the language from her nanny and their maid and cook after her mother died. She could speak, read, and write Mandarin with the fluency of a native speaker. She knew their children’s stories and fables so she suggested them as the basis of the radio code the cryptographers were developing.
Most of her time was spent listening to very weak broadcast from and sending messages to Occupied China. Every morning from 3AM to 6AM, she would read a bedtime story and sing songs to traditional folk melodies over the radio. Her programs wasn’t for entertainment as it seemed, the coded stories and songs told the resistance forces when supplies were coming, where attacks were planned, and what the Japanese were doing in the rest of the Pacific. She spent the filler between messages encouraging them to have hope, the war would be over soon.
The number is O as in omega, six, zero.”
Then in 1943, she considered the move to a listening and transmitting post at the far end of the Aleutian Islands, near Japanese held waters. They needed someone to listen for the weaker radio signals and communicate back, someone with her language skills. It was the only time Ben had risen his voice in anger to her, he did not want her to go. Not there. The last group at that station had been attacked and all but two killed straight away, the survivors were tortured to death and left for the rescuers to find. It was war after all. But her mind was made up and he had stormed away angrily. When he had not come to see her off the whole week before she was to sail out or the last morning, she had been upset. As the ice laden nautical miles passed, she began to despair ever seeing him again, folding all her pain into a space in her heart so she could do her job.
She arrived, chin held high and confident. Walking into the tunnel the Army Corps of Engineers had blasted into the mountain on the volcanic Island, every male head turned to stare at the slim brunette with Lieutenant’s bars, bow lips, and chocolate brown eyes.
The number is B as in boy, two.
To be or not two B, I-N-G-O that is the question.” The crowd chuckled and murmured at the common Bingo caller joke. It made her smile every time.
Doreen spent hours, listening to the rise and fall of the hiss of static, catching the faintest of broadcast. Happy voices greeted her responses, glad to be talking to their storyteller in person. Slowly, the Chinese were pushing the Japanese back toward the sea.
Then one morning, the alarm sounded. The Major in charge of the base had ordered everyone out of the transmitter station and to the deeper levels of the mountain. Mid-broadcast, Doreen had refused to leave her post, desperate to finish the nightly intelligence gathering.
Thundering sounds of anti-aircraft artillery boomed in the cave, deafening her delicate ears as she dragged the cables to a more fortified room. The ground shaking as she sat under a desk but continued her normal broadcast and recording coordinates radioed back for an hour or more. Suddenly, there was a screech like every chalkboard in the world being scraped, then silence.
For a moment, she thought she might be deaf, but the muffled sound of artillery through her headphones made her realize it was dead air. The radio towers had been destroyed. Staggering to her feet, her numb mind was overwhelmed by the cacophony of the war. She was suddenly terrified that the mountain would fall on her. She ran out into early dawn of the long Alaskan summer day and the battle.
The number is I as in igloo, one, four.”
In the besieged harbor, the fishing boats and last remaining navy patrol boat were under attack. Above Doreen on the cliffs, anti-aircraft artillery spat fifty caliber rounds at the small planes that buzzed over the water like mosquitoes. She watched horrified as the patrol boat was hit and burst into flames, even as it sank the bow gunner continued to fire. She almost cheered watching one of the Zeros crash into the mountain and explode. Looking back, the other two crashed into the deeper water, burning. The last plane flew away and the all clear sounded.
Her eyes scanned the waves for survivors as she ran down to the rocky shoreline. Faintly, she something moving in the waves, then a sailor stood up, struggling in the surf. A man over his shoulder, another held up under his arm as he dragged them toward shore. She plunged into the waves to help. Taking the wounded man’s weight, she looked up at the sailor and was shocked to see moss agate eyes looking back at her in relief and pain. It was Ben.
“Enn. Thirty- seven.
The number is N as in Nancy, three, seven.”
Together, they struggled to the rocky shore. As Doreen helped the wounded sailor sit down, she heard Ben coughing. Looking over, she was horrified to see he was coughing blood, then he collapsed. She screamed his name and rolled him over. Quickly untying his float vest, she found a pulsing, bubbling hole near the spot where she had rested her hand the first time he had kissed her. Not knowing what else to do, she stuck her finger in the hole. Inside, she could feel the pulsing of his heart and the sucking of his lung every time he took a breath. Tears ran down her face, as she begged God for a miracle.
Ben whispered to her, “My heart will always be in your hands.” Then his eyes fluttered shut.
“Don’t you die on me, Benjamin Franklin Wallace! I will never forgive you!” she pled, “Don’t... d-don’t you d-die."
The number is O as in Oh my goodness I’m almost sixty again. Five, nine. And speaking of almost sixty, can everyone give a round of cheers for Mrs. Ursick’s 59 again birthday. She’s still not sixty, wink-wink.” Many people laughed and clapped. Madeline, the church’s choir director, started singing happy birthday and everyone joined in as the 76 year-old matriarch of the Lazy UK ranch blushed like a 20 year old girl.
The next number is N as in Never grow old. Three. Five.”
The medic had made Doreen keep her finger in Ben’s chest as they moved him to a makeshift operating room. She had almost vomited when they had cut him open around her hand. Quick as a quilter, the medical student made doctor by the war, had sewn him up, clamping off the hole in his lung, freeing her hand. Legs shaking, she had stumbled back against the hard stone walls and sunk to the floor.
She folded her hands covered in his blood and prayed until he was taken to another room. She stood numbly as the medic washed Ben’s blood from her hands, complimenting her on her quick thinking but warning that Ben might not survive the trip back to Anchorage if infection set in. He’d be sedated for the first week, maybe longer and all they could do was wait and pray.
Doreen only left Ben’s side to work. He looked so much thinner than the last time she saw him, and his wound made his pallor gray. The third morning after her night shift, she found one of the men Ben pulled from a watery death sitting in her chair, his crutches against the wall.
He gave her a lopsided smile. “I never could figure out why Bucket Ben took the assignment to be gunner on the patrol boat here until I saw him watching you the first Sunday you did Bingo. Never could figure out why he never came in and played. He just said he didn’t believe in it, but Bucket Ben always sat outside and listened when he didn’t have duty.”
“Bucket Ben?” Navy men gave each other weird nickname, but she had never heard that one before. “Why Bucket Ben?”
He chuckled, “’Cause, darling, he always has to have a bucket with him. Never seen a guy get so seasick, even on calm days. He’s tossed everything he ate since he transferred in, but he wouldn’t let the captain send him back to the mainland for shore duty. He saved us. Shot down three of those Zeros and stayed on the deck firing as the Lollie, PT- 112, sank under him. He’s the bravest man I ever knew.”
“Know,” Doreen snapped, “He’s the bravest man you know. He’s not going to die. ”
“Of course not, darling. He’d be a fool to leave a woman like you.” The sailor grinned.
The Number is I as in Igloo, one, nine.”
“Bingo! I have Bingo.” Several groans of disappointment followed the proclamation.
Doreen listened to the radio signals, relaying what she was hearing to Strategic Command. It sounded like they were winning. Ben stood quietly by the door, watching her working, listening amazed as she took the sounds that were a code in a language he had never heard and translated them to English and then to another code. It sounded like gibberish but she made it sound like music. His eyes couldn’t hide the love and pride he felt for her when she glanced at him. She flashed him a smile and a wink, wiggling her ring finger that was adorned with a band made of gold mined only an hour from his home in the Colorado Rockies. If they survived this war, he was going to take her there and never let her leave again.
Giovanni Valtini walked across the snow cover yard to a dark house, no one was home. An airgun with tranquilizer darts had the two Australian shepherds asleep in a few minutes. He picked them up and placed them on the porch before breaking in. He missed his dogs, the way they followed him around, the way they fought and killed other dogs was so beautiful. It was their purpose, like these dogs whose purpose was to herd cattle and help make sure his favorite food survived long enough to make it to his plate. He hated to interrupt their work. Dogs were so much easier to deal with than people.
He hated people, like his cellmate Ron, pompous, entitled, worthless, but Ron had served a purpose. He had given Gio something to dream about, someone beautiful to imagine. A woman whose strong spirit enthralled him. He wandered through the rooms of the house, stopping to look at the pictures on the walls. From the bedrooms, he could tell only the old lady had been home for the last two weeks. Two rooms obviously belonging to teenage girls, a guest room had teenage girl clothes in the closet. The office had pictures from the war, a framed bronze star, pictures of cattle with ribbons. It held history but no computer, no postcards in the mail basket. He went into the last bedroom. His heart somersaulted.
Soft tones of blue mimicked a pool, it smelled faintly of chlorine but mostly of lavender, orchids and vanilla. A small blue fish swam around in a bowl on her dresser. A beautiful jade velveteen dress hung in her closet. He smiled, fingering the soft fabric. He could imagine it clinging to her curves before he tore it from her body. In a drawer, he found a beautiful scarf, and silky undergarments. He laid the lingerie down on her bed, imagining tying her up with the scarf. He pulled the picture Ron had taken of her while she lay naked in perfect submission out of his wallet.
Gio remembered every word about how she hadn’t resisted anything Ron did to her, how perfect her body felt under his hands. Ron had planned to find her when he got out, to claim her again. Gio couldn’t let such a pathetic excuse for a man touch his future. During a fight in the prison yard, Ron died, and no one knew who did it. Lying on her bed, inhaling her scent, rubbing the silk, he relieved himself of his desire. Soon he would replace his cousin’s whore with a tattooed angel, a blue butterfly. She would make him whole, heal him because that was the purpose of blue butterflies. They were signs of healing. His next cellmate after Ron had taught him that.
Panting and satisfied, he almost fell asleep. He laid there thinking, he had no idea where his butterfly was, where his cousin’s child bride-to-be was. He needed to bring them back. He needed to lure them home, wandering back to the living room he looked at a picture, of the four females only one remained within his reach. He knew where she was and what route she would take to come home. Taking a knitted blanket off the couch, he covered the still sedated dogs on the porch so they would stay warm. He locked the door and left as if he had never been there. Maybe he would move here, he found her home comfortable, rustic. Gio lifted the pashmina to his nose and smelled it, savor her scent mingling with his as he drove back toward town.
The Number is I as in igloo, one, six.”
“Bingo! I have Bingo.”
Several groans of disappointment followed the proclamation. As Elder Nabona, made his way to check the numbers, calling them out while Doreen confirmed them.
“Sorry folks, we have a winner in the last blackout round of the night. Congratulations Penny, you won the four vouchers to the Pagosa Brewery and Grill. Thank you everyone for coming and drive safely.” Doreen announced through the P.A.
Doreen spent the next half hour, putting away the portable speaker and microphone, gathering the ink stampers and used paper bingo cards made her heart heavy. Ben used to be the one to sort the etched wooden balls into their tray, and help clean up even though he never played. It made her happy to think about him waiting for her in heaven. Elder Nabona wished her good evening.
Bingo night had always been a good distraction from the troubles going on in the world. Doreen tried not to start worrying again. Camille and the girls would keep Tatiana Ballard safe. The Wallace women never backed down from a fight. They would be home soon Doreen hoped. She kept praying that Sheriff Thomas ‘Tank’ Tanner would catch that horrible man, find Tonia, and life would settle back down.
Pulling slowly out of the parking lot onto the icy road, Doreen carefully navigated the slick streets. Driving his old truck, Doreen ached for Ben like the frozen earth craves the sun during the short days of the dark Alaskan winter. He was her strength, her happiness, her war hero, and her hands felt empty without his heart to hold. ′
‘Someday I’ll hold it again... but today was not that day,’ she thought regretfully.
Just as she was turned onto the highway, a large SUV came out of the night. No headlights and on the wrong side of the road. Doreen only heard the screech of bending metal and the explosive bang of the airbags deploying before darkness claimed her.