I Gave My Heart To Know This by Ellen Baker



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

     Written on the back was:  Me and Grabowski in Calif. sun getting ready for our next big “starring roles,” Dec. 1943.  Note authentic-looking “sweat.”
     Lena said, “They’re in California, training in the desert.”
     “Well, I guess I don’t need to hear about it, when I’ll be there soon enough,” Grace said, shoving the snapshot to Lena as Violet approached. 
     “Oh, Derrick’s picture!” Violet said, smiling.  Grace didn’t know how Violet always managed to look like she’d just stepped off a propaganda poster, her pants and even her wool jacket pressed and clean, her boots shiny, the red bandanna covering her hair as bright as a rose.  “He looks just like his father looked when he was young,” she said, her mouth relaxing into its typical frown.  She’d made no secret of her anger at her husband, Jago, who’d signed Derrick’s enlistment papers so Derrick could go into the Navy at age seventeen, last summer.  They hadn’t told Violet until it was done. 
     “Except that Derrick actually is as nice a boy as he looks.” 
     Grace started again toward the gates, rubbing her face with her free hand.  “Are we standing in this wind for our health?”
     “I don’t see why you’d ever want to go to California,” Lena said, catching up.  “You might be something special around here, but, out there, girls like you are going to be a dime a dozen, honestly.”
     “Thanks, kid.”
     “I just mean, you think dull old Alex is what ‘home’ means, but what if you met someone from here you liked better?  Besides, it wouldn’t hurt to have a new pen pal.”
     Behind them, Boots whistled; Lena must have given her the picture.  “I’d say it wouldn’t hurt one bit.  You do realize he’s not really a movie star, though, right, Gracie?”
     Violet laughed; sure, she’d think this was funny, of all things.
     “Alex isn’t dull, Lena,” Grace said, her stomach tightening.  “I don’t know why you even bothered telling your brother about me.”
     “Well, we like to know everything that’s going on with each other, so of course I told him all about you, and now he wants you to write to him, and I just want him to be happy.  Would it hurt you to do it?” 
     Just what Grace needed: another boy to tie her to this town.  Obviously, he was only in California because the Navy had sent him there.  Even worse, he was a farm boy, short, and too young besides – just eighteen, compared to her almost twenty.  “You never know.”
     “Derrick wouldn’t hurt you,” Lena said.  “Never.  Besides, I bet he’d tell you everything about California, and you’d find out it isn’t nearly as great as what you think.”
     Grace got in line to punch her time card, tuning out Lena’s breathy voice going on to Boots and Violet about how ridiculous Grace was to dream of California, where they didn’t even have seasons.  As far as Grace was concerned, that was a main selling point, as it should have been for anyone standing in this bitter wind in the dark on the crusted-over snow.  On the billboard above the gate was the image of a soldier lying facedown, his stiff hand outstretched like a claw, showing the agony of his death.  And you talk of ‘SACRIFICES’!  Canceling bond pledges won’t help. 
     She shivered, wondering, as she did every morning, standing here, if she was wrong to keep telling Alex they shouldn’t be exclusive, when he was off risking his life for their country.  Talk about not doing her part for ‘morale.’  Of course, when he’d left for the Marines, she’d been headed for fashion design school in Chicago, planning not to give her hometown a backward glance, and she hadn’t thought he should be made to feel beholden to a girl who had the whole world in her sights.  But then, a month into school, she’d received the telegram from her mother about her father’s stroke, and the summons to come home to take care of her younger brothers and sister – her mother had to go to work.  Riding the train back north to Superior, watching out the window the red leaves drifting to the ground, Grace had thought: A temporary sidetrack.  He’ll be better in a month.  But when she’d walked into her parents’ house and smelled the boiled coffee and rye bread and lingonberry jam and seen her father stranded in his bed, his body and face slackened, only his sparking blue eyes familiar, even as an apology lingered in them, a looks like we won’t be dancing to Your Hit Parade this Saturday night, Gracie, she’d known this was no drill, that she was in it for the long haul. 
     She’d taken care of him, her siblings, and most of the housework, for a year.  Radio broadcasts of war news and FDR’s Fireside Chats seemed her only connection to the actual world.  And then, last fall, her uncle, Jorgen Anderson – who, as chief loftsman, was one of the most important men at the shipyard – had called with the news that the yard was going to be hiring girls as welders, and paying them more than a dollar an hour.  Her dad had grown well enough to shuffle around the house and keep an eye on ten-year-old Susan and six-year-old Ted when they got home from school; Pete, at fourteen, was old enough to look after himself, mostly.  So her mother had encouraged her, saying the family could use the extra money, and Grace, tired of being the only girl in the whole USA not doing anything for the war effort, and wanting to save some money, besides, for when her dad was finally back to normal, had signed up for the six-week training course, and now here she was, day after long cold day. 
     Yet she kept holding out on Alex, unable to stand the thought that she might end up stuck in this town forever.
     It was her turn to punch in.  She shuddered at the noise the machine made, handed her card to the attendant, and dragged her feet through the massive gates.  The slab – the low stage in the yard’s center where all the beginning welders were assigned – was visible in the distance.  Here, after burners had cut the steel into the sizes and shapes indicated on the ship’s plans, welders like Grace and her friends worked to fasten immense flat pieces of steel together, forming the large sections of the ship’s hull.  Lying down on the below-zero steel was the worst part.  No matter how many layers of scratchy wool and stiff leather Grace wore, the cold always seemed to shoot straight into her bone marrow.  After an hour, she’d be so frozen that, when she tried to get up, her legs wouldn’t want to bend.  Even in wool socks and work boots, her feet would burn like she’d soaked them in ice water, a disconcerting contrast to the hot stickiness under her arms and around her collar.  Her head and neck would ache from her welding helmet and the intermittent bright flashes.  Eventually, she’d get up and shuffle to the warming shack, elbowing between hulking men, peeling off her two sets of gloves, holding her filthy hands an inch from the black stove without feeling the warmth.
     But the monotony of drawing flat seam after flat seam was almost worse than the discomfort.  She’d asked her uncle if she might work for him in the loft, where he supervised the transferring of the engineers’ drawings into full-size paper patterns, which were then used to cut basswood templates of the ship’s pieces.  Grace had thought the loft would be the perfect place to employ her three-dimensional imagination, but her uncle had told her girls weren’t being hired there.  “The skills it takes, Gracie, and the amount of training,” he’d said with a shrug. 
     Lena caught up to her.  “Did I tell you Derrick’s a really good dancer?”
     “Very funny,” Grace said.  She’d told her friends about Alex’s enormous feet, as graceful as canoes out of water; how, every school dance, she’d wound up taking her own bruised feet to the floor with a series of less handsome, less treacherous boys, while Alex leaned sheepishly in the corner, drawing longing looks from girls who didn’t know any better than to wish he’d ask them to dance.
     “I’m not trying to be funny.”
     “Forget it, Lena, I told you, I don’t want the distraction.”  Crossing the railroad track, Grace thought of the supply train that stopped at the shipyard daily to drop off gondolas full of steel and pick up empties; how she always imagined swinging up onto a boxcar’s ladder and riding to the main rail yard, then somehow finding a car that was on its way to California, stowing away…
     Well, for now, she had to be content with trying for a promotion.  The good welders got to do different jobs all over the yard, and she could imagine the many locations that would be more interesting than the slab – not to mention warmer. 
     Probably not as interesting as the loft, and not as warm as California, but still.

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