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Spearfish Lake Tales
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Joe/Joan book cover

by Wes Boyd
©2015, ©2016

Chapter 25

The past two years Cat and I had taken off with the climbing club for a trip to the Smokies. Those trips had been fun and memorable in several ways, but this year we had to give it a pass. We had other things to do. We told Ed and the club that we had to go see about a summer job, but we didn’t get into the details, mostly because we didn’t want to let it be known what we were considering until it was a sure thing. We had figured some pinheaded loudmouth would take exception to our plans, so there was no need to stir up controversy for nothing.

However, we let the folks think that we were going to be with the climbing club as always, or at least we didn’t bother to tell them we’d changed our plans; there was no need to stir up trouble there, either.

Instead, on Saturday after classes broke for the week we got in the Karmann Ghia and took a daylong drive toward Washington DC. We got a cheap motel room in Rockville, Maryland, a few miles out of DC. Since we had a day to kill, we spent some time exploring some of the monuments and sights to be seen in the nation’s capitol and we also scouted out where the national headquarters of the Red Cross was located. We had appointments for Monday morning, and we didn’t want to be late.

I can’t speak for Cat, but I was nervous the next morning as we got up early, got dressed in nice clothes, and drove to a nearby diner for breakfast. I had been thinking about this for nearly three months, and while I can’t say I had a lot riding on it, it would have been a disappointment if it didn’t work out.

We got to the appointment early, and after sitting around in an outer office for a short period, we were called one by one into the inner office to meet with a well-dressed older woman with streaks of gray in her hair. She introduced herself as Mrs. Oldfield.

It was mostly a simple job interview, although the questions were not ones that would normally come up in most such cases. She asked several questions about why I wanted the job, and I gave them – and added the incident with the idiot at O’Hare. “Joey may be my brother,” I told her, “But no one deserves to be treated like that. He told me once that the job of the USO and Red Cross girls he met there was to show that there were people who still care about them, no matter what’s in the newspapers.”

“You have a wise brother,” she smiled.

We talked for a while about how I thought I might get along in primitive conditions, and I told her about my climbing, and our camping out most of the previous summer. “You’re telling me that you are used to doing hard and dangerous things in rugged conditions, sometimes in foreign countries,” she said. “I don’t run across that very often.”

I couldn’t tell for sure from the tone of the interview, but it seemed to me that she was impressed. After a while she excused me and asked me to send Cat in. I sat in the outer office while Cat was interviewed, wondering what would happen. After a while, the secretary said I should go back into Mrs. Oldfield’s office. Cat was sitting there looking pleased, and I joined her.

“All right,” Mrs. Oldfield said once I was seated. “There are not many girls like you and your friend left any more. You both seem to be brave and level-headed, are used to being in strange and difficult situations, and have a sense of purpose that seems to be lacking in the others of your generation today. Normally I would do this one at a time, but I have the same things to say to both of you, so we might as well save a little time. In spite of your youth, I have been impressed by your maturity. I believe you can both do the jobs we need you to do, so I’ll give you a waiver on the college graduation requirement and offer you both positions in Red Cross Supplemental Recreational Activities Overseas like we discussed. We usually use the term SRAO for short. How soon can you start?”

“Classes end at the end of April, April 26, I think,” I told her. “I suppose we need a few days to get things ready, but we ought to be able to be here by the first part of May.”

She looked at her calendar. “How does May 6 sound?” she said. “You will have two weeks of training here in this building before we’re ready to send you out. I can arrange for quarters for you at a small hotel nearby, but you will have to pay for them, and for meals while you are here.”

We both agreed that would work very well for us.

“Very well,” she smiled. “I know the two of you are friends, but I can’t guarantee that you will be stationed together. That will have to depend on the needs of the organization in-country and they change constantly. However, I will send along a note that states that you wish to be together if possible.”

“That would be preferable,” I told her. “Cat and I have learned to depend on each other.”

“That counts for something,” Mrs. Oldfield smiled. “This is not an easy job. It can be a very hard and stressful one, and frequently emotionally draining, so it’s always good to know you’ve got someone to support you. I know what I’m talking about. I was a Red Cross SRAO in Korea and one of the first Red Cross representatives to serve in Vietnam. I know from talking to people who have returned that it’s considerably worse now. You always need to remember that you will not just be representing the Red Cross. You will be representing the country and the families that make up the country. In essence, you will be a face of home, and it’s very important that you always represent them in the highest and most trustworthy manner possible.”

She paused for a moment, took a breath, and went on. “Many people in the military have a term they use for the people doing this job. It’s often used in a derogatory manner. One of the things a SRAO does when she has the time is run a canteen, sometimes just a temporary one out in the field. There they often serve coffee, soft drinks, and donuts to the soldiers, if for no more reason than to remind them that the kinder parts of our country haven’t forgotten them. The term I mentioned is ‘donut dollies.’ Believe me, I heard that term in Korea, and I heard it in Vietnam, although I was a little beyond ‘dolly’ age at that point.”

We both smiled at that as she went on, “I hope you will learn to wear the term proudly. It always helps to lay claim to a derogatory term and turn it back into people’s faces. Be proud to be donut dollies. You will be doing something that I guarantee you few young women your age have either the willingness or the courage to do, especially in this day and age when it seems fashionable to denigrate men who are serving their country. Neither of you seem to lack in the willingness, and from what you tell me of your mountain climbing hobby I can see that neither of you lack courage, which is why I’m giving you the waiver on the college graduation requirement and the increase in pay above minimums. I’m afraid you won’t find any mountains to climb in Vietnam, and you wouldn’t want to climb them anyway.

“You will be expected to maintain the highest moral standards,” she went on. “I’m afraid that doesn’t always happen, and that is part of the reason why SRAOs aren’t always held in the highest regard. You are not going there to have fun, you are not going there to hunt for husbands, and you are not going there to have wild parties. You are going there to try to show men in uncomfortable and sometimes desperate conditions that the people of their country have not forgotten them. If you start playing favorites, especially romantically, you will touch off resentment among people you haven’t favored, and that can be disastrous. The way to avoid that problem is to not get started in the first place. If you have to do something like that, do it when you’re on your rest and relaxation tours outside the country.”

I decided to speak up. “We’ve always had to do things that way,” I told her. “As climbers, we’re often the only girls among groups of guys. If we start playing that game there is a good chance that someone could get hurt, and it could be us.”

“Then you understand what I’m saying perfectly,” Mrs. Oldfield smiled. “Although I hope you will hear it again before you get to Vietnam, there is one extremely important thing that you always want to remember, and that is, always let them see you smile. It seems simple. It is not. You will have plenty of occasions for anger or tears. If you must cry, keep it in your quarters. Yours will be the faces of hope to the men you serve, and you must give them hope. Keep smiling. Never forget it. Can you do that?”

“I can try,” I promised. “I may not always be able to do it, but I can try.”

“Me, too,” Cat added.

“Good enough. I’ll see you on May 6.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Oldfield,” I said. “I’ll try to do you and the Red Cross proud.”

“I think you’ll do just fine,” she smiled. “Welcome to the ranks of the donut dollies.”

We were given some paperwork to fill out, and some materials we had to study before we came back for our official training. It was nearly noon when we were back out on the street, just a little bit dazed. “Jo,” Cat said as we walked up the street to where the Karmann Ghia was parked, “Do you feel like we just took the first pitch up one of the big routes on El Cap?”

“I don’t want to say ‘no turning back,’ but it feels like we just took a hell of a big step. Cat, I don’t know how to say this, but this feels important, and it feels like I just made one of the big decisions of my life.”

“I think so too. I hope I don’t wind up regretting it. You know, after all the stuff we did the last two summers, right now it feels like we were just screwing around. This is serious.”

“Yes, I think it is,” I agreed. “But I also feel like we’ve taken a stand on something important, something a lot of people our age wouldn’t agree with.”

“So now what do we do? We can’t go back to the dorm, since it’ll be closed all week.”

“If I’d known it was going to be this simple, I would have found out from Ed where the climbing club is going to be, and we’d have the gear in the car,” I sighed. “But for once, I don’t want to go climbing. It seems like play, like kid stuff, and after this morning I don’t feel like a kid anymore.”

“Me either, when you put it that way.” She shook her head. “I suppose we’d better face up to the hard part.”

“And that is?”

“Telling our parents without setting off community heart attacks.”

“Yeah, that could be a problem,” I agreed. “It would be tempting to hang around this town for a couple more days just to take in the sights, but I think maybe we’d better head back home and face the music.”

Before long we were back in the Karmann Ghia and were pointed in the direction of Simsville. It was close to seven hundred miles, and there was no way we could make it home before the very early hours of the morning. We finally called it a day just into Ohio and got a motel for the night.

After considerable discussion, some of it lasting into the next day, we decided to both break it to my parents first, just because of them having been present at the incident at O’Hare, so they might be able to understand that part of our motivation better. Once we had them as convinced as we could manage, we would take on Cat’s parents. That seemed preferable to breaking it to everyone all at once.

We stalled a little and took our time getting home, mostly because I knew that Dad was off right then, and we didn’t want to have to wait around him until Mom got home, since they thought both of us were down in North Carolina.

We pulled in not long after Mom got home; she was in the kitchen just getting started on dinner. Dad was there, and I got the impression that he had spent much of the day doing things to a Chevy V-8 that General Motors had never intended. Needless to say, both of them were surprised to see us pull in, get out of the car and walk in the back door. “What are you doing here?” Mom exclaimed. “I thought you were down south climbing in the Smokies.”

“No, Mom,” I said soberly. “We had something else to do. We went to Washington to see about getting a job, and we both got it.”

“A job? Where? What? What brought this on?”

“The job is doing Red Cross Supplemental Recreational Activities Overseas,” I explained, and dropped the explosive word into the conversation. “In Vietnam.”

You WHAT?”

I had to repeat myself. “You remember what happened at the airport when Joey got home,” I explained, simplifying things drastically. “That taught us a lesson. It’s obscene that guys who are trying to do the right thing are treated like that. We can’t fix it, we can’t make it better, but we can try to ease the pain a little. Besides, the money is good and it will give us the opportunity to do that foreign student program in Switzerland a year from next fall.”

In the next few minutes we had to go through the whole thing again. “There’s no way to tell for sure,” I summarized, “But it’s probably safer than Joey had it, and it feels to us like the right thing to do for any number of reasons. Joey and the guys like him are at the head of the list. The money won’t hurt and it fits into our other plans. We feel like we need to be responsible citizens, not by just saying we support the guys over there but by showing that we do.”

Mom took a deep breath. “It was hard enough to send my son to Vietnam,” she said finally. “I can’t believe that I’m going to be sending my daughter there, too. But I think I understand why you’re doing it, and after that scene at the airport, I can’t say I’m sorry. You girls, both of you, continue to amaze me.”

“What your mom said, Joanie,” Dad said, taking me in his arms. “But I see that I have a brave little girl who isn’t scared to stand up and do the right thing. I’m proud of you, kid.”

It was too late that evening to go on to Cat’s parents, so we stayed at Mom and Dad’s, filling them in on some of the details, and admitting that there was a lot that we didn’t know. In a way, it was a little scary to even admit it, but if things went to plan, we’d be leaving in May and wouldn’t be coming back for over two years, unless we made a brief stopover on our way from Vietnam to Switzerland. It was too far in the future to make plans about that.

 We also talked over the problem of breaking the news to Cat’s parents, which we all knew wasn’t going to be as easy as telling Mom and Dad, not that it had been easy. “I think maybe your father and I had better go with you,” Mom said finally. “I don’t want to say we’d be ganging up on them, but I think it would be best if they knew that you had our support.”

Cat and I hung around the house the next day, but late in the afternoon the four of us took off for Cat’s parent’s house in Mom’s Olds. I won’t say it was easy to convince them, but we had them pretty well immunized from our trip to Europe two years before and our climbing out west the previous summer, plus the plans they knew about for us to do the program in Switzerland. They had come to expect us to do some outlandish things, so in a way it may not have been all that big a shock to them. Not that it wasn’t a shock – Cat’s mom was close to hysterical there for a while – but the presence of my parents and what we could tell them of Joey’s experience there may have put us over the top.

In the end, as was usually the case with Cat’s parents, her mother was the one who got emotional while her father provided the level head and the final word in the family.

“I have to say that I wish you weren’t doing it,” he said after everyone had talked themselves blue in the face. “But I think I can understand why you feel you have to go, and I think it shows a great deal of moral courage. Catherine, I have come to realize that you have taken your life in your own hands a great deal the past three years, and you did not turn out the kind of person I expected you to be when you were in high school. You are a much stronger, braver, and wiser person. I suspect Joan has had a great deal to do with that, and I have come to realize that we can’t keep you under our wing forever. I may be crying when you leave but that doesn’t mean I won’t be as proud of you as I can be.”

All in all, it had gone a great deal better than Cat and I had been expecting.

On our way back from Washington, Cat and I had agreed that if the folks had bought off on it, we really ought to spend some home time with our families, since there wouldn’t be much more of it in the years to come. In fact, depending on what happened, there might not be much more at all, period. So we left Cat behind as we drove back to Simsville; I promised that I would pick her up in a few days so we could go back to school.

It was a long drive back home, and there wasn’t much to talk about. The reality of the situation was setting in for all of us. Dad made an effort to get some conversation going. “Joanie,” he asked, “what do you plan to do with the Karmann Ghia? You’re not planning on just leaving it sit behind the garage for two years, are you?”

“I hadn’t really thought about it,” I admitted. “But you’re right, there’s no point in letting it just sit there. It’s been a great car, but it’s starting to act like it’s had enough use, and the engine is starting to use some oil. Maybe it’ll be time to get rid of it when I leave. Do you think that’s something you could handle for me?”

“I’m sure I could,” he said. “There’s a guy I work with whose kid is looking for a car, and it strikes me that the Karmann Ghia would be a good one for him. It’s got some guts but not too much for a beginning driver to handle. I can talk to him when I see him tomorrow.”

“That would be fine,” I told him. “I want to keep driving it until I’m through with classes, but I won’t have much use for it after I get back home after finals.” It was hard to say it; that car had been part of my life for two and a half years, and we had enjoyed any number of adventures together – that is, the Karmann Ghia, Cat, and me. I didn’t want to turn my back on it but it seemed like the right thing to do. “I can get another car when I get back.”

“Yeah, you might appreciate something a little more substantial by then,” he commented. I didn’t say anything in reply; I really didn’t want to get rid of the car but there was no point in keeping it, either. There wasn’t much to talk about the rest of the way back.

A few days later I drove back up to pick up Cat so we could go back to college. “So how did it go after we left?” I asked.

“Mom did some crying,” Cat reported. “I think it was less about our going to Vietnam than it is about her little girl growing up. I know she’s been looking forward to marrying me off, having a big wedding, grandchildren, and all of that. I still think that’s what I’ll ultimately do, but I’m not ready for it yet and won’t be for a while.”

“You know, it’s strange, but I don’t get a lot of that from Mom. Oh, the desire is there but she doesn’t push it at me. I’m sure she will be happy to see the day come, but she doesn’t seem to be particularly anxious about it.”

We rode on for a few miles in silence before Cat spoke up again. “Jo, what do you think we ought to say around campus about our going to Vietnam?”

I thought about it for a while. “I’m tempted to say as little as possible about it,” I said finally. “If we say something about it there’s bound to be some trendy anti-war type who’s going to create a ruckus about it. I think we ought to let Ed and Sue know, and maybe some of the members of the climbing club, but not until just before we go.”

“I can go along with that,” she said finally. “I think we’re going to get enough shit over it as it is. Maybe we ought to just say that we’re not going to be back next fall, and will be working until we can go to Switzerland.”

“I can go along with that, but you know what? There’s a part of me that would like to make a statement that we’re going out with a bang, not a whimper.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I don’t have the slightest idea,” I said. “I just want to, oh, I don’t know. Show a little contempt for narrow minds, I guess. Make our mark on the place, maybe, something that won’t be forgotten. I can’t really get my mind around what I’m thinking. If you get any ideas, we need to talk them over.”

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To be continued . . .

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