Allison stole another look at her desk calendar. The Armistice was signed two weeks ago. Soon, Max would be home. The letters were fine, of course, but nothing was as good as really being together.
“Hey there Allison.” Bob on the Job was back again.
Allison looked up. “Hello Bob. Still on the job, I see. No big game today for the Dirtbugs?”
“That’s Drybugs, and no. So how’s about you and me having a little drink to celebrate the end of the war? It might be our last chance. Half the states have already ratified the Eighteenth Amendment and the rest’ll fall in line soon. When Prohibition kicks in, the whole country’ll be as dry as an infield in July.”
“No thank you, Bob. I’ll take my chances.”
“Come on. What’s the harm in a little drink?”
“Bob, there is no way any activity that starts with that sentence can end well. Besides, you’d better put the kibosh on that stuff. You already got in trouble once. Stick with the Drybones.”
“That’s Drybugs. And I….here comes Mr. Tully. I’ll see you later.”
The editor watched Bob drift away. “Was Bob bothering you again?”
Alison shook her head. “Not at all. We were just talking about Prohibition.”
Tully shook his head in disgust.” Prohibition? I never thought even Congress would be that stupid. Anyway, I’ve been thinking about your next assignment.”
“I’ve been thinking about it as well, Mr. Tully,” said Allison. “What about an article on relatives and friends left behind in the states and how they adjust to the waiting? I have some first hand knowledge on that subject.”
“Nah. Too dreary. People get enough bad news these days. No sense reminding them of the hardships. But I do have a job that’s right up your alley. Mustering out.”
“Right. How is Uncle Sam going to handle all the Doughboys who are coming home? It took months to get them all to France. How long is it going to take to get them all home? Where is all the transport going to come from? What effect will the delays have on the loved ones back in the states?”
“Delays?” said Allison. “I thought they would all be back in a few weeks.”
“Not a chance. There’s too many of them. The paperwork alone will be a nightmare. I understand they’ve hired some local people to help with the processing on that end.”
“But what about the Navy? They should be able to get home quickly, shouldn’t they? I mean, they already have the ships.”
“Allison, who do you think they’ll need to bring the others home?”
The motor launch bumped up against the stone seawall and Max stepped onto the dock at Brest, on the French western coast. He looked back at the harbor, now filled with the gray forms of American and British ships waiting to embark soldiers to take back home. Barges lumbered out to the ships full of men and came back empty for another load as crowds of soldiers stood in ranks along the seawall, waiting their turn.
He picked up the mail sack and headed for the American Hospital, whose offices were being used to process men for return to the states. In the mail sack was his latest letter to Allison, explaining why he would be remaining in France for a little longer.
The processing office was in a series of rooms carefully separated from the main hospital to avoid the cases of Influenza that were becoming more and more common. Already the wards were filling up with patients and there was no end in sight. Max found the door and stepped inside.
An attractive, dark haired woman looked up from a desk. She looked surprised to see him, almost as if she recognized him.
“Good morning,” she said finally, in an accent that made it clear she was French.
“Bon jour,” Max said. “Ici est le mail du Carson.”
She smiled. “Thank you, Lieutenant. I will see that it goes out right away.”
“Your English is excellent,” said Max. “Certainly better than my French.”
She smiled, but did not reply. She seemed to be regarding him curiously as if trying to place him.
“My name is Hurlock, from the Carson. Are there any orders for us?”
She looked through some papers. “Not yet, Lieutenant.”
“Do you have any idea when we will know anything?”
“I’m sorry. There is a great deal of confusion and the orders are still being processed. There are many men and many problems. We are processing as quickly as we can.”
Max nodded grimly. “Hurry up and wait.”
“You are so anxious to leave France, then, Lieutenant?”
“Look. I’m just a Lieutenant Junior Grade. I was only promoted a few months ago. You can call me Max. And for the record, I love what I’ve seen of France, but I have a home of my own and I haven’t been there for too long.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“If I call you Max, you must call me Collette.”
“Oh, yes. Of course. Well, Collette. I have a couple more stops to make then I have to go back to the ship. At the rate the Navy is going, I have a feeling we’ll be seeing each other a lot.”
He gestured towards a small picture of a French army officer on the desk. “Everyone has something to go back to, don’t they? Au revoir.”
Collette watched him go, then looked at the picture.
“Pas tout le monde, Monsieur Max. Not everyone.”
“So when is Max getting back, anyway?” Betty Pringle inquired over her Morgan and Millard milkshake.
Allison sighed. “I just got a letter from him yesterday, postmarked Brest.”
Betty’s eyebrows went up. “He sent a letter from some woman’s…?”
“For heaven’s sakes, Betty. It’s a port on the coast of France,” Allison said.
“Well, I was never much on geography.”
“It seems his ship is standing by awaiting orders. He thinks they’ll be helping in the transport back to the states, but he has no idea what they’ll be doing. The Influenza epidemic is complicating things. They can’t just pile everyone on ships, even if they had enough. They have to be examined first. So meanwhile, the Carson is at anchor in the harbor at Brest. They’ll probably wind up with some sort of escort job, I suppose. I just hope they hurry up.”
“That’s the Navy for you. So how is your latest assignment coming?”
Allison smiled with enthusiasm. “It’s the best assignment yet. It’s a real news feature about the returning servicemen and how they are getting back. It’s a long and complex process; lots of paperwork and waiting.”
“And that includes Max?”
“That includes Max. At this point, I’m not sure just when he’ll be back.”
Betty swirled the straw in her milkshake thoughtfully. “So how are things with you and David in the meantime?”
Allison smile faded and she sighed. “I like David. He’s a great guy and he’d make a great husband for somebody, but that spark…well, it just isn’t there. Anyway, he’s been hinting that he’s interested in someone else.”
“Did he say who she was?”
“No. He’s been rather cryptic on the subject so far.”
“So how do you feel about it? Does it concern you?”
“In a way it does, I suppose. I mean, I certainly don’t want to hog David all for myself if I’m not serious about him, but I do like his company. It’s just that…”
“Just that what?”
“Well, I just hate to think that he’s flying into the arms of someone else out of desperation, or even to make me jealous. He could wind up with the wrong person very easily that way.” Allison looked at the clock over the soda fountain. “Drat! I’m sorry, but I have to run, Betty. I have to interview some Jasper at the War Department this afternoon. Bye.”
Colonel Forrest occupied a smallish office on the ground floor of the War Department in Washington. He glowered and clearly regarded Allison as an intrusion.
“Now look here, Missy. I’m a busy man and I have very little time to waste. When you called about an interview, why naturally I assumed there would be a real reporter coming down.”
“Oh, I understand,” Allison replied in feigned sympathy. “Life is full of disappointments, but the Army has a reputation for overcoming all sorts of difficulties. Your job must be extremely important and challenging.”
“Well, of course, but as I said…”
“I understand the army has placed its most capable people on this task. You must be very honored.”
“I just do my job, no matter what,” the colonel replied. “Still, I’m glad someone can appreciate the difficulties in this job. Now as I was saying…”
Allison gasped. “Why Colonel Forrest, surely the importance and difficulty of getting our boys home expeditiously is blindingly apparent to everyone.”
“You would think that, but….well, let’s just say that someone who isn’t involved might not appreciate the complexities.”
“Well, colonel,” said Allison, “maybe we could work together for a few minutes and help the public appreciate the difficulties, and the talented men who are overcoming them.”
Colonel Forrest looked at her. He was still glaring, but now he had one eyebrow raised.
Allison fought back a moment of panic. “Uh oh. I laid it on too thick. He’s going to throw me out the nearest window!”
Colonel Forrest glared for another second, then his face broke into a grin.
“Ha ha. Very good, little lady. Very good. You flanked your objective like a veteran platoon commander. By God, if we had women in combat, you’d be the first one I’d recruit. Now let’s get on with that interview.”
“Ah, Mr. Max, n’est ce pas?” said Collette.
“Bon jour,” Max replied, standing in the doorway. “Yes, I’m afraid I’m back once more. The Carson is still bobbing at anchor awaiting orders.”
“Quelle domage. Well, perhaps today will be the day, n’est ce pas? It has been over a week. Let me see. She thumbed through a stack of papers on the desk.
“I am sorry. Perhaps tomorrow.”
Max sighed. “Yeah, maybe. Meanwhile, I have a half day’s leave and no place to go.”
“You have seen the chateau on the harbor, Max?”
“That stone pile on the river by the bridge? I saw it from a distance.”
“I will be off duty in a few minutes and I walk home that way. I could show it to you.”
“Uh, well. You see, I have this girl back home. Her name is Allison and…”
“So this Allison has forbidden you to see the local sights?”
“Well, no. Of course not. Come to think of it, it might preserve my sanity. Thank you very much. Merci bien.”
“Il n’y a rien. It is nothing.”
A little while later, they were walking along the narrow cobblestones of the Rue de L’eglise.
“That tower you see is the Tour Tanguy. It guarded the other side of the river, along with Le Chateau across the bridge.” Collette was bundled against the late afternoon chill with a threadbare coat, but seemed not to notice. She walked at a brisk pace, pointing out the places they passed. To Max, Brest seemed to be an endless expanse of narrow twisting streets lined with ancient-looking gray stone buildings, with coatings of grime and salt from the nearby ocean.
“I never realized there was so much to this place. It looks like it’s been here forever.”
“Oh no,” she smiled,” just since the 1200s or so.”
“In America, anything built before 1900 is considered ancient.”
She laughed. Max hadn’t heard a woman laugh since his last leave in the states, over six months ago. It was a beautiful sound.
“I feel better already,” said Max, admiring the view of Le Chateau looming across the river. “All this uncertainty involved in winding up the war had clouded my head.”
She shrugged. “It must be done, Monsieur Max.”
“Oh, of course. It just causes a lot of uncertainty and…say, I noticed a picture of a French soldier on your desk.”
“My husband, Pierre.”
“Has he gotten back yet?”
She paused a second. “No, Max. He has not.”
“See? They can’t even get things moving quickly in France. No wonder it’s taking so long to get men back to America.”
They were crossing the bridge now, only a few blocks from the castle.
“They brought in twenty more Influenza cases today,” she said suddenly. “Have you had any on your ship?”
Max shook his head. “No, but we’ve been hearing about them. It seems some people are dying from it.”
“At the hospital, there were three deaths yesterday and two today,” said Collette. “All this war and all this death, and now that the shooting is finally over, there is a new scourge.”
Between the threat of Influenza, the gray sky, and the ominous stone bulk of the castle Max felt uneasy as they approached the castle. The stone entrance and drawbridge looked like something from King Arthur. A few visitors explored the castle, while a scattering of men in bluish-gray uniforms sat or slouched near the gate. As they approached, Max could see that the men were wounded French veterans. Some were bandaged, and some were hobbling on crutches with missing limbs. Their greatcoats were ragged, patched, and faded, and several had medals.
“Bonjour,” the nearest one said, saluting. “Un sou pour les blesses?”
The others took up the chorus. “Un sou pour les blesses, Monsieur?”
“They are asking for money for the wounded, Max.” said Collette. “I should have warned you.”
Max stopped. He had seen death and he had seen wounded men, but had never been confronted with so much human destruction in one place. He reached into his pocket and took out all the money he had; $27 in one dollar bills and started passing them out.
“Tell them….tell them it’s all I have. Tell them I’m sorry for their wounds. Tell them they are brave men who stopped the Germans…”
Collette put her hand on Max’s arm. “It is all right, Monsieur Max. They know. There are men like them all over France. Men who marched off the fight the Boche. These are the fortunate ones; they are still alive. This is what victory looks like.”
They took a quick tour of Le Chateau, but Max was still shocked by the wounded men.
“I must be going now, Max,” said Collette. “You should be returning so the launch can pick you up.”
“Yes. Thank you Collette. You have shown me a part of France I have never seen. You should be proud of your country.”
“Au Revoir, Max.” She turned to go.
She turned. “Yes, Max?”
“Was your husband…well, was he wounded, like those men?”
She shook her head. “No. Max. He was not. Good night.”
“David. What are you doing downtown?”
“I wanted to see you. Is there some place we could talk?”
“There’s a bench over there. I usually eat my lunch there if the weather is not too bad.”
They sat on the bench and Allison turned towards him. David looked nervous, but determined.
“Allison, we’ve known each other for a long time, and I think I know you pretty well; better than that Max guy at any rate.”
Allison stiffened. “If you think I’ll react favorably to you running down Max, David, maybe you don’t know me all that well after all.”
“All right. I guess that didn’t come out right.” He was twisting his hat in his hands nervously. “What I mean is that I think you should be more, well, open-minded.”
“I mean, have you considered the possibility that you might be well, idealizing Max too much?”
“Look, he’s been away except for a few brief leaves for almost two years now. Well, when someone is out of sight like that, you tend to remember all his good points and forget the other ones.”
She shrugged. “I suppose there is something to that….maybe.”
He nodded rapidly. “Right. Whereas when I do something you don’t like, the memory is fresh and crowds out the good stuff.”
“That’s putting it rather strongly, David. Just what are you getting at?”
“Well, the truth is, I think you’re idealizing him and writing me off too soon. Besides, once he’s back, what if he misses the Navy and decides to steam off again? What if he comes back as a different person. It happens, you know. Well, I’m not steaming off and I’m still the same guy I was.”
“David, I think you are wonderful, but, well….say, I thought you were seeing someone else?”
“I am, but I haven’t given up on us yet.”
Allison sighed. “Look, David. You’re a dear, but please try to understand. We’re just friends; that’s all. I’m sorry. I have to get back.”
David nodded. “All right. We’ll talk about it later.”
Allison stepped inside the doorway to the Sunpapers building and sighed.
“When is Max going to get back?”
“Bonjour, Collette.” Max was back at the hospital office again.
“Ah, Bonjour, Max,” said Colette brightly. “Comme ca va?”
“Tres bien if you have some orders for me,” Max replied. “It’s been over a month and the Carson is still at anchor.”
“Do not be in such a hurry, Max. Your French is improving by the day. Soon you will be the homme bilingue; a man who speaks two languages.”
“Yes, that should come in handy in Baltimore or St Micheals.”
She checked some papers on her desk. “I am sorry, Max. There are still no orders and the mail has been delayed also.”
“What? I just can’t believe it’s taking so long. I want to get back and see Allison again. I want to get back to my life.”
“Poor Max. Quelle triste. How sad.”
“Well, enough about my troubles, Collette. How about you? Has Pierre returned?”
She shook her head. “I’m afraid he has not.”
“Well, I suppose in a month or so we will be laughing about all this,” said Max.
“Perhaps, but I am afraid laughter is one of those things that are in short supply in France at the moment,” she said.
Max suddenly felt embarrassed at his self-centered concerns. “I’m sorry, Collette, but I’m now starting my second month at this place and when I heard the mail was delayed, I guess it was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. Oh, do you know what that expression means?”
She nodded. “I have heard it before, Max. In France we say la goutte d’eau qui fait deborder le vase; the drop of water that makes the vase overflow. It means the same thing. But there is another American expression you should remember as well; grin and bear it.”
Max smiled. “Touche, Collette. Touche. I knew my French would come in handy. How about we grab some dinner at the Black Cat down the street?”
“If you mean Le Chat Noir, then mais oui.”
Later, at a red checker-clothed table at Le Chat Noir, Collette leaned over towards Max and looked serious. “Max, you have not seen much of France. It is not all like Brest. There are places only a few hundred kilometers from here where every building, every tree, and most of the people have been destroyed by the fighting; places where surviving farmers cannot even work their fields because of the unexploded shells still buried in the ground; places where every rainstorm exposes skeletons in shreds of uniforms. There are whole villages populated only by widows and fatherless children. You are impatient to return to your life and your Allison, but this is our life. You are unhappy now, but you will get back to America. When you do, I hope you remember how fortunate you really are.”
Max looked at her, and saw beneath her good looks, the face of a woman who has seen too much of what the world can do. “Back home we’d say that you really took the wind out of my sails. But I promise you, Collette, I will remember, and I will be grateful.”
“Well, isn’t this nice?” said Allison, reading a letter from Max. She had taken it to Morgan Millard and her meeting with Betty.
“What’s the matter, Allison?” said Betty. “Is something wrong?”
She read some more. “It seems Max has a girlfriend; a bit of French pastry named Collette. She’s teaching him to parlez-vous. She’s handling the mail and the orders for his ship and he goes into Brest and sees her several times a week. Official duties, he says.”
“Hmmm,” said Betty, non-committedly.
“There’s more. Collette’s married, but her husband hasn’t returned yet. Well isn’t that convenient? He’s learned a lot about France from her. I’ll bet he has…especially l’amour!”
“Did he say that?” asked Betty.
“Well, no. To hear him tell it, Collette is a combination tour guide and language teacher; just a local acquaintance; an agent of international good will. I can’t believe Max would do this.”
“What has he done, exactly?” said Betty, sipping her phosphate.
“What has he done? He’s seeing someone else! Who knows what they get up to over there? Oh, Betty, do you think Max is staying there intentionally? Maybe he doesn’t want to come home at all. Maybe I’ll never see him again. What if…”
“Yes, Betty,” said Allison in a voice of misery.
Betty put down her glass and looked Allison in the eye sternly.
“Now you listen to me. Allison, you’ve always been the smart one. You get better grades and you say more clever things than I do. But if you can stop panicking for a minute, there are two very important facts that I think you are missing.”
Allison looked at her old friend with interest. “What facts?”
Betty cleared her throat. “Fact number one. You and Max are not married or even betrothed. There is no more reason for him to avoid other woman than there is for you to avoid other men.”
“Like David you mean?”
“Exactly. You have no claim on him other than your current correspondence.”
Allison frowned. “Well, I have to say that fact number one didn’t cheer me up much. What’s the other fact?”
“Fact number two; if Max were carrying on with this woman, do you really think he would be telling you all about it in a letter?”
Allison smiled. “Oh, Betty. That’s right. If Max were sneaky, he wouldn’t say a word about her. It’s obvious he just considers her a friend…like David. It’s all strictly platonic for Max.”
Betty nodded and took another sip of her phosphate.
“Let’s just hope Collette feels the same way,” she said quietly.
DON’T MISS PART 5- MUSTERING OUT 1918-1919