I Gave My Heart To Know This by Ellen Baker



The first chapter of I Gave My Heart to Know This…

January 1944

Grace Anderson stepped out into the biting wind, clutching her father’s old lunch box.  In the muted light of nearing dawn, the Superior Shipbuilding Company’s vast parking lot was so full that some latecomers’ cars were half on snow banks, tilting at precarious angles, and the men emerging from them were sheepish or angry or chuckling, and other men were joshing them, the sounds carrying across the stillness as if across water.  She heard the far-off banging of metal on metal, the creaking of cables, the screaming of machinery – the night shift finishing up as the day shift came on.
     She saw Violet and Lena Maki, the mother and daughter who’d started as welders the same day as Grace last November, getting out of their neighbor’s truck; they made the long journey to town every day from their farm.  She waved, but they didn’t see her.  Not surprising, in this crowd of shadowy men in their dark wool coats, scruffy pants and boots, with pin-on buttons on their hats – MEMBER LOCAL NO. 117; BOILERMAKERS AND SHIPBUILDERS; SOLIDARITY.  Grace’s muscles ached against her heavy clothes as she merged with the mass, moving toward the gates.  She’d been working here only two months, but the smells of smoke and metal and worn-too-often-too-long clothes, the sounds of lunch boxes thunking against legs and boots crunching on packed snow seemed eternally familiar.  Ahead, floodlights brightened the skeleton of a four-story-tall oceangoing cargo ship, the nearly completed hull of another in the opposite slip, the massive cranes hulking above both.  In the farthest slip was a just-christened frigate with its sleek, pointed bow, proud superstructure, and low, flat stern – Grace’s favorite.  The Coast Guard crew took this ship on near-daily test runs on Lake Superior; she would soon be heading for Lake Michigan, the Illinois Canal, down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, and, from there, anywhere in the world. 
     Grace turned up her collar against the wind, thinking what a far cry this life was from what she’d dreamed. 
     But she laughed when she caught sight of Boots Dahlquist unfolding her six-foot frame from underneath a blanket on the floor of a Ford V8 – Boots lived across the harbor in Duluth, Minnesota, and the fellows she carpooled with had elected her to hide out to save on tolls when they crossed the bridge to Wisconsin.  “Worth the nickel, Boots?” Grace called.
     “Don’t you know there’s a war on?” Boots said, unkinking her back.
     Grace saw Lena hurrying toward them, cutting against the grain of the foot traffic.  “Grace, I’ve got something to show you,” she called, and she was clutching a piece of paper in her gloved hand, waving it above her head.
     The cold made Grace’s smile slow motion.  “A surprise?  You didn’t have to, kid.”  When Grace had first met Lena, she’d worried that the girl’s billiard-cue wrists might break under the strain of the job – but she’d quickly learned how stubborn Lena was.  She and Boots had started teasing that Lena’s bones were made of steel.  “If you break, we won’t worry – we’ll just weld you back together!”  Lena’s mother, Violet, didn’t seem to think that was funny, but there wasn’t much that she did.   
     Lena reached them, her pale skin flushed, her eyes the color of a low winter sky.  When she smiled, her nose dipped like a divining rod.  “I got a letter,” she said, and her voice was the chirping of a bird being carried away on a strong breeze.  “From Derrick.”
     Grace and Boots let out automatic groans.  Lena and Violet often discussed Lena’s twin brother’s evidently limitless merits – one of the few subjects on which daughter and mother agreed. 
     Lena stamped her foot and pointed with a gloved finger at the text.  “I sent him a picture of the four of us, and he wants to meet you!  I mean, write to you.” 
     Grace was trying to shield her face from the wind.  “For Pete’s sake, Lena, it’s cold out here.  Let’s not just stand here.”
     “He says, ‘She’s every bit as pretty as you described, and if she’s as sweet and funny as you say, I sure would like to hear from her, if she wouldn’t mind helping “boost the morale” of a poor, lonely sailor, sniff, sniff.’” 
     “Morale!” Boots said.  “Now you’re in for it!”  Everyone knew that any girl who refused to do her part to boost a serviceman’s ‘morale’ was not only heartless but practically handing victory to the enemy.   
Lena was serious.  “He’s just joking with that ‘sniff, sniff,’ part, he’s got plenty of pen pals, but you’re from home, Hollywood.”
     Lena had come up with Grace’s nickname supposedly because she looked “just like” the movie star Lana Turner, but since Grace imagined the real reason was that she always wore red lipstick and black mascara to work, it was a reminder not only that she hadn’t been blessed with Lena’s flawless pale skin and shadow-casting long eyelashes, but also of the dream she’d deferred of going to Hollywood to become a costume designer.  “Forget it, Lena.  You know I have a boyfriend.”
     “Alex Kowalski, Mr. East High 1942,” Boots supplied.
     “Very funny,” Grace said.  Her friends had given her a hard time because she’d draped her work locker with pink organdy and pasted up photos of Alex in all his uniforms – Marine, baseball, basketball – as well as of him and Grace together at the spring dance, graduation.  “This isn’t high school, Hollywood,” Lena had scoffed, while Boots laughed and Violet frowned.  “You’ve got to admit the place needed a little dressing up,” Grace had shot back, thinking there was no reason for anyone to be jealous.  Alex’s pictures were nice to look at, but she hadn’t seen him in a year and a half.  She still wrote him daily, but she didn’t tell him much.  It wouldn’t do to complain about the cold weather and hard work of the shipyard to a boy who was off living in mud and mosquitoes, fighting a war. 
     Lena handed Grace a snapshot from the envelope.  “Derrick’s the one on the right.”  Two sailors in work dungarees squinted into the sun.  Derrick, shorter and leaner than the other fellow, with light blond hair and a straight nose like Lena’s, leaned all his weight on his right foot and tilted his head a little with a just-perceptible smile, as if he was on the verge of asking the prettiest girl in the room to dance.
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