Max paced the foredeck of the Carson, looking out at the gray harbor of Brest for the thousandth time. The rumble of the engines had been replaced by a faint hum from the generators below. Day followed monotonous day with no orders.
“Getting a little restless, Max?” Charlie Bradwell appeared behind him.
“Who wouldn’t be?” said Max. “If we had some duties it would be one thing, but we just sit here watching other ships take people home. Every day I go into port and every day there are no orders.”
“Yeah, the Navy is standing by for action. Nothing we can do about it. The wheels of the War Department grind slowly.”
Max grunted and leaned against the bow gun moodily.
Charlie Bradwell lit a cigarette and offered Max one. Max shook his head.
“That’s right. You don’t smoke, do you, Max? Smart man. If you have to have a vice, pick one that won’t kill you, I say.”
They stood in silence, watching a ship slowly steaming towards the harbor entrance with a cargo of American Doughboys headed for home. Bradwell took a long puff on his cigarette and watched the smoke lazily twist in the breeze.
“Max, I’ve never met Allison, but I feel like I almost know her from her letters. A great girl…”
“Are you trying to make this worse, Charlie?” said Max.
Bradwell ignored him. “…so I’m sure you’ll understand when I ask you a personal question.”
Max looked at him curiously. “Don’t bet on it.”
“What’s the story with you and that French woman, Collette?”
“Max, I’m just a reservist, and I’m slow on the uptake sometimes, but I know you’ve been, well, seeing her when you go to Brest. What’s more, she seems pretty happy to see you as near as I can tell. Of course, it’s none of my business, but, does Allison know about her?”
Max stiffened. “There’s nothing to know, Charlie. I have to check status reports with Collette periodically, and I have walked her home or had dinner with her several times. Yes, I enjoy her company, and I look forward to seeing her every few days. It’s refreshing to talk with someone who is not only a female, but is not in the damned Navy. Besides, as you’ve heard from her letters, Allison has an old boyfriend who hasn’t yet retired gracefully from the fray, so we each have some contact with the opposite sex. And Collette has a husband in the French army who should be back any day. So you can set your mind at ease. Nobody is going mattress hopping.”
“All right, Max. Look; I don’t mean to pry, but these things can get out of hand.”
“Right now,” said Max, “I’d be content just to get out of France. We’ve been here over two months now.”
“Maybe tomorrow,” said Bradwell.
“Maybe never,” said Max. “Sometimes I wonder if the Navy has lost our paperwork and has decided to just write us off.”
Bradwell laughed nervously. “The Navy would never do that….would they?”
Allison looked up from her typewriter and saw Bob on the Job passing by. He nodded at her, but didn’t speak. Allison frowned thoughtfully.
“That’s odd,” she said softly. “Bob always has something to say. He’s always casting out his fishing line to see if he gets a nibble. And look how slowly he’s walking. I wonder if something is on his mind?”
She turned back to the typewriter and looked through her notes. The more she looked through the notes and organized her article the more discouraged she felt. The logistics of getting over a half million men gathered up, processed and shipped across the North Atlantic were staggering. Add to that the influenza epidemic, now being called the Spanish flu, and it was looking like it would be months before Max got home.
She was still thinking about the uncertainties when she arrived home.
“Allison,” her mother called to her, “Betty called and asked if you could meet her at Morgan Millard at seven.”
“Sure thing. I’ll be there.”
An hour later, Allison slipped into a booth at Morgan Millard’s with a sigh.
“Hello, Betty. Boy, it’s great to see someone who isn’t reminding me of deadlines.”
“You still working on that demobilization article?”
“I’ll be finished tomorrow, and good riddance. It’s nothing but problems. How about you?”
“I got a secretarial job on Charles Street. It’s a big bank and they have room for advancement, or so they say.”
Allison looked at the menu she knew by heart anyway. “Well, at least they acknowledge the possibility. Congratulations.”
The waitress appeared, a middle-aged woman with an expression that seemed to say I’ve seen it all.
“Evening, ladies. The usual?”
Betty looked up at the waitress and sighed. “Are we that predictable?”
“Well,” said the waitress, “let’s just say ‘consistent'”.
“The usual it is,” said Allison. The waitress drifted away in search of other hungry diners.
Betty looked thoughtful. “Allison, David has been talking to me about your…situation.”
“I have a situation?”
“Oh, you know; the eternal triangle between you and Max and David.”
“Oh, that situation. More like an eternal quadrangle now that Collette has made her grande entrée.”
“I never mentioned her,” said Betty. “It’s complicated enough as it is.”
“But why is David talking to you?”
She shrugged. “Sympathy, empathy, inside information….Who knows? Anyway, I promised him I’d ask you about where he stands.”
Allison frowned. “What is this; the third grade? Next he’ll be sending notes and offering to carry my books home from school. Well, I’m sorry he got you involved in this, Betty. It’s hard enough as it is. David is a great guy, and he’ll be wonderful for somebody, but everyone is different and he’s just not right for me. I like him a lot, but that’s as far as it goes.”
The waitress reappeared, bearing two cherry phosphates. Betty sipped hers moodily. “That’s what I thought, but at least I can tell him I asked you. Sheesh. Life imitates Cyrano de Bergerac.”
Allison smiled. “See? That Goucher education is kicking in already.”
“Well, the next time he stops by…”
“The next time?” said Allison. “Is he making a habit of this?”
“Oh, he’s been by several times. He’s very concerned.”
“Well, there’s plenty to be concerned about these days. Say, Betty, do you know anyone who has the Influenza? I keep hearing more and more about it. They’re calling it the Spanish Flu now.”
“My aunt in Ruxton thought she had it, but then she thinks she has everything.”
“Well, it seems to be getting closer to home all the time, and I’m a little nervous about it. If it ever hits the newsroom, all those people working closely together could be big trouble.”
Betty’s straw made a loud slurping noise as she reached the bottom of the cherry phosphate. “Holy cats. First a war and now this. Say, do you have any idea when Max is coming home?”
Allison sighed and shook her head. “None whatsoever. At this point, Madam Collette is seeing him a great deal more than I am.”
A worried-looking Charlie Bradwell appeared in the doorway of Max’s tiny stateroom. “Max, I know you’re off watch right now, but I need you and a one other man to take a boat ashore to the hospital right away.”
Max, who was stretched out on his bunk reading a letter from Allison, knew something was wrong.
“Now? It’s almost 1700. We always send the boat in the morning. What’s up?”
“We have a man on sick call and have to get him to the hospital right away.”
“Looks like it. The Corpsman says we should play it safe. You and the Coxswain get him to the wards on the double….and wear face masks.”
Minutes later, the launch was chugging ashore with the sick man huddled in the bow. Two mask-wearing orderlies were waiting for them with a cart.
“I have to sign him in,” Max said. “You can wait in that tavern over there if you take it easy.”
Max completed the paperwork and stopped by to see Collette. She looked startled to see him. He told her why he was there.
“Oh, Max,” she said with concern. “I hope the Influenza does not strike your ship. People are dying everywhere from it. Are you feeling all right?”
“So far, but it seems to spread every day.”
She looked at the clock. “My shift is over. Would you walk with me a little?”
“Aren’t you afraid I might be contagious?” said Max.
She shook her head. “At this point, anyone could be contagious, but we have to live our lives all the same, n’est ce pas?”
“Mais oui. Let’s go.”
“The man in the launch, he will wait for you?”
“There’s a tavern by the seawall. He won’t be in any hurry to leave, believe me.”
Collette shook her head as they walked. “So much death and destruction. The war, the wounded, now the Influenza. It is all too much to bear sometimes.” There was a catch in her voice and a wetness visible at the corner of her eye. “There is pain in every life, but not so constantly as this. I have lost so much of my life to the war, and soon, you will also be gone.”
“I wouldn’t worry about that too much,” Max reassured her. “At the rate the Navy is going, I’m likely to retire here. It seems like…”
“Your orders came today, Max.”
“What?” Max was stunned at the suddenness.
Collette reached in her coat and pulled out a large envelope. “This arrived just before you appeared today. I had no chance to contact your ship.”
Max looked over the document. “We are to leave tomorrow and ferry 200 Marines back to the states. Oh, Collette. This is wonderful. I will miss France and I will miss you of course, but you will have your husband when he returns.”
“My husband is not returning,” she said flatly.
“Not returning? But I just assumed he was…I mean, you said he was never wounded.”
She stopped and looked at him. “My husband is dead, Max. He was killed at Verdun over a year ago.”
“I have worked to bury my feelings; to, how do you say it…get on with my life. Then you came in to the office and all the memories and feelings came flooding back. My husband was so much like you, Max. Every time I saw you, it was almost like having him back for a little while. He even gave me a little salute when he left, just the way you do. But he went marching off to war in his handsome uniform and he seemed to have a charmed life. He was in many battles and was untouched…until he was sent to Verdun. Now he is gone, and you are going as well.”
“Collette, I never meant…”
She was sobbing. Max put his arm around her to comfort her, gently stroking her hair as she buried her face on his shoulder.
“I’m so sorry, Collette. I didn’t know.”
“Soon you will be leave, Max, and I will have nothing to remind me of my husband or of you. All that will be left will be death and sickness.”
He hugged her tightly, not knowing what to say to such unhappiness. All he could do was to try to comfort her. Suddenly, she returned the embrace and kissed him. Then she stepped back and looked at him. “Good bye, Max. You have made my life brighter for a while and for that I say merci. Go now to your Allison and every night thank God you have her.”
Before Max, still stunned from the kiss, could reply, she turned and disappeared into the gathering darkness of the gloomy streets.
The next morning was spent fueling, loading supplies, and taking the 200 Marines aboard. Finally at 1700, the USS Carson raised anchor to leave Brest forever.
Max stood on the bridge wing with binoculars scanning the military hospital for some sign of Collette, but there was none.
“Where’s Bob today?” Allison asked.
Joe Tully looked grim. “He’s home sick. It looks like the Spanish Flu.”
“Oh, no. Will he be all right?”
“Oh, you know Bob. He’s irrepressible.”
“But not invincible,” said Allison. “The Flu can be deadly. I got a letter from Max and he said they had a lot of cases in France.”
“Yeah. There’s irony for you,” said Tully. “The Flu didn’t start in Spain, but because of wartime censorship, Spain was the only place that had stories about it in the papers. So now everyone calls it the Spanish Flu. Can you beat that?”
“The power of the press, I suppose.”
“Say, Allison, any word on when Max might be getting home?”
“Not a peep. The last letter said they were still waiting for orders, but that was almost three weeks ago and I haven’t heard from him since. I’m beginning to get worried.”
“Well, you know how erratic the mail is from France. They have to send it back with whatever ship is crossing. I’m sure there is another juicy letter on its way.”
By the time she walked out of the Sunpapers Building, Allison was in a glum mood. No word from Max; the Spanish flu rearing its head, and the still unresolved problem of David troubled her.
“Allison!” David stood waiting for her.
“Speaking of which…,” said Allison. “Hello, David.” To her alarm, Allison noticed he was holding a bouquet of flowers. Apparently, he was on the offensive.
Oh no. No. No. No. Not today, David, she thought. Please not today. I don’t know if I can be cheerful and reasonable much longer with all that’s going on. You’re here and Max is still in France seeing some sophisticated French woman.
She braced herself and smiled. “David, this is really unnecessary.”
“What? You mean these?” He held up the flowers. “But that’s what I wanted to tell you. I have great news.”
“You’re going into horticulture?”
“No, not that. Listen, Allison. You know I care for you very much…”
“And I respect your opinions and your choices.”
“Uhhh. Choices?” Allison was getting confused, by this decidedly unromantic turn of events.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about us and about how you’ve made it clear that we’re just not meant for each other.”
“Well, David, I…”
“And I realize you’re right.”
“Right?” Allison’s confusion was not going away.
“Of course. We’re great friends and I will always think of you fondly, but that magic something just isn’t here. It’s not anyone’s fault. It’s just the way it is.”
“But the flowers…”
“Well, I wanted to tell you that I have found someone who is compatible; someone who makes me happy, and whom I make happy. The flowers are for her. I hope you’re not too disappointed.”
‘Disappointed? Why..er…no. Not at all. Congratulations, David. I am very happy for you. Who’s the lucky girl?”
“She works downtown so she’s meeting me here. Allison nobody really understands what goes on between people, but something special happened with me and I want you to share it. Wait a minute. Here she comes now!”
Allison looked around. “David, I don’t see anyone except….Betty Pringle?”
“Hi, Allison,” said Betty with a grin that was so wide it looked painful. “Isn’t it grand? I hope you don’t mind.”
“Mind? Of course not. Do you think I’d want David courting some stranger? Congratulations to both of you. I’m very happy.”
“That’s wonderful,” said David. You’re the greatest, Allison. Well, next to Betty, that is. Can we give you a lift home?”
“Thanks, but I’ll take the streetcar. I think you two need your privacy.”
The streetcar dropped her off on Roland Avenue. As she walked home, she talked softly to herself.
“Betty and David. You know, they seem right for each other at that. Now if only getting Max back int0 my life would be as easy as getting David out of it…. Why haven’t I gotten a letter for three weeks? Is the mail delayed? Maybe Max has the Spanish Flu! Maybe he is staying with Collette! No; no; I don’t want to think about that. I won’t think about that.”
She wearily mounted the steps to her front porch and saw there was a note on the door. “What’s this? A note? My parents never leave notes on the door. What is going on?”
The note simply said
Your chariot awaits
“What in the world?”
She looked around, but the street was empty.
“Is this someone’s idea of a joke?”
She heard a noise and saw a Model T coming down the street. It pulled over to the curb in front of the house and sat waiting. Cautiously, she took a few steps closer. In the fading twilight, the driver appeared to be wearing a dark uniform.
“A policeman?” she whispered to herself. She felt a momentary panic. Had something happened to her parents?
She walked briskly up to the car as the driver emerged.
“Hello, Allison. Welcome aboard.”
“Max! Oh, my God. Is it really you?”
“You bet it is. I’m…” His words were momentarily muffled by Allison’s kisses.
“Hey; we have to weigh anchor,” said Max finally.
“Where are we going?”
A few minutes later, they were at Lake Roland, standing by the car listening to the wind in the trees and watching the ripples in the water reflecting the street lights.
Oh, Max. I’ve missed you so much. I thought you’d never get home. When did you get in? Is the Carson in Norfolk? Are you going to be discharged? What about Collette? Are you..”
“All in good time, Allison,” he interrupted. “I will answer all your questions, but first I have one of my own.”
“All right. What is it?”
“Allison, will you marry me?”
“Of course I will.”
DON’T MISS PART 6- DECISIONS 1919-1920