Disclaimer: Original Emergency! characters are the property of Mark VII. I’ve borrowed them to breathe life into this story as they did for Mr. Webb’s vision. My characters are thrilled to be in their presence.
Lt. Dixie McCall checked the calendar tacked to her dorm room door. “Damn.” Her finger sat on the current day – 5 July 1953. She would be leaving 10th Station Hospital for a lovely three day, four night stay in hell. Not that the collection of temporary buildings surrounding the old brick school building, now their main hospital building, in Chuncheon, Korea was any kind of haven. The notes on the next three calendar blocks read: ‘McCall – Aid Station Duty’.
She would be relieving her roommate and friend, Sally. Lt. Sally Martin. Dixie had joined the 10th Station Hospital from the hosting 4th Field Hospital, HQ’d in Pusan, nearly a year ago. Sally was here to greet her and they’ve been friends since. The our-lives-depend-on-each-other kind of friends that war necessitates. Otherwise, Dixie knew she’d never have met the breezy Sally Martin from Wichita, Kansas. She needed to have Sally here. Sally made the stark terror and heavy despair of the place and times bearable. Just as she provided the rock to anchor Sally – to keep her from floating away on the sea of emotions generated here.
Dixie readied herself for morning rounds. She was then scheduled for four hours of surgical assistance. Then she would be driven to Aid Station 8. She pulled her travel bag out from under her cot and bounced it on top of the thin, lumpy mattress. Quickly, she jotted a note for Sally and tucked it under her roommate’s pillow. It was a ritual – a few kind words to help with the unwinding process after returning from aid station duty. They’d done that about a dozen times already.
“Sorry, ma’am,” the young corporal said for the umpteenth time as the M-35 truck, affectionally known as the deuce-and-a-half, bounced around the rutted trail passing for a road.
Dixie just smiled at the young man and clung to various hand-holds in the cab. Normally, she’d be in a jeep, but was catching a ride with a squad from the 7th Infantry Division returning to the bloody Hill 255, Pork Chop Hill. The 7th was based at Fort Ord in California. She felt safe and comfortable with the young men from her home state riding with her. She prayed for their safe return to the sunny beaches of Monterey Bay.
Darkness neared as the truck pulled into Aid Station 8’s compound. Dixie dropped her bag down and climbed out of the cab. The bouncy trip in the unyielding truck made her twenty-three year old body feel more like ninety-three. She was sure she’d have bruises in places that would be difficult to explain – unless you mentioned a hasty trip in an M-35 to the front lines. Anyone in the Army would understand that.
Dixie turned to see Lt. Sally Martin crossing the compound towards her. She disappeared from view briefly as the truck roared past, continuing to its destination. Dixie glanced over her shoulder to watch the truck as it disappeared around a turn.
Her friend noticed. “Where’re they headed?”
“Oh, shit.” Sally recognized the designation. “There’s been rumblings up there. We had five on the tables today.”
“We should just give the damn hill back to them. It’s wasteland now anyway.” Dixie’s fear for the soldiers brought out her thoughts.
Sally picked up Dixie’s bag. “Well, that’d kinda put the Chinese bastards right in our front yard, honey.” Arms hooked together, she pulled Dixie toward the sleeping tent that was rarely occupied, except for casualty overflow, and tossed the bag in the corner.
“Yeah, well, I hope we chase them all the way back to Peking, then,” Dixie declared. “Or wherever they came from.”
Sally laughed; a genuine laugh. Dixie thought it seemed out of place surrounded by the devastated landscape and the dreary tents of the aid station. But, that was Sally. She could find a moment in hardest times to shine a ray of sunlight, a reminder that they were still human. It had a price, Dixie knew. She’d soothed Sally through a handful of sob-fests when the weight became too much to bear. It was what they did to get through it all.
“Where is everyone?” Dixie noted the empty tables and cots.
“Got everyone evac’d this afternoon,” Sally reported.
“Wow,” Dixie said. “Light time?”
“Pretty much,” beamed Sally. “Counting the five from this morning, I’d say we’ve only had around a dozen the whole three days.”
“Think, maybe, the rumors of a truce are real?” Dixie crossed her fingers as she said it, against jinxing the hope by saying it aloud.
Dr. Trenton Wells walked into the triage tent, wiping his hands on a towel that he habitually then slung onto his shoulder.
“If those rumors are true, get ready.” He dropped onto one of the cots, covering his eyes with his left forearm as he eased his head on the pillow. “Both sides will make a rush for landscape if it happens.”
Sally dropped onto another cot, resting her elbows on her knees and plopping her chin in her hands. “That would be awful.”
In the quiet, the two nurses heard the soft snores of an exhausted Dr. Wells. They tiptoed out of the tent.
The evening began to cool the steamy July heat. Both nurses looked up at the dark hills, in the general direction of the cratered, dusty hill that the outline on the map resembled a pork chop.
Dixie sensed her friend’s anxiety. Sally couldn’t be still, feet shuffling in the dust. It was too dark to see her expression, but her body seemed tense.
“What is it?” Dixie finally asked.
“Bradley, back at the 4th, called Dr. Wells earlier. Told him to prepare for a push.” Sally stomped her feet in frustration. “Soon.”
“Oh, my.” Dixie’s heart sank. “And the fresh troops I rode in with, they kinda support that.”
Dixie heard the tears. She touched Sally’s arm, but she jerked away, stomped a couple steps away from Dixie.
“I just want them to stop!”
“They will,” Dixie used her best calming voice. “Soon.”
“Not soon enough!”
“No, they missed that mark a couple years ago,” Dixie stated flatly.
The sudden rush and hug surprised Dixie.
“You silly girl,” Sally blubbered into Dixie’s hair as she clung to her friend.
“These are silly times.” Dixie comforted as Sally washed her troubles away with a good sobbing.
“I really don’t like leaving you here when something might be happening.” Sally had her bag packed and in the back of the jeep.
“Oh, it may take them days to figure out if or when they might do something,” soothed Dixie. “Get on back and enjoy an afternoon at the lake.” She gave Sally a soft embrace. “You deserve it.”
Sally eased into the passenger seat of the jeep. “You be damn careful, girl.” She waved at Dr. Wells as he stood in the entry of the triage tent. “And tell Dr. Soft Eyes to do the same.”
“We’ll be fine.” Dixie made shooing motions to get the driver going. She watched as they disappeared and a chill blew through her even as the sun broke over the barren hills.
A warming wind blew dust at her feet as she walked back to the triage tent. She smiled at Trent. He did have the softest chocolate eyes. “I’m going to unpack these supplies,” she said, motioning to the boxes on the table.”
Dixie packed the supply cabinet with thirty-six surgical kits. Trent Wells had insisted on having a bit of surgical equipment up here. He had taught himself to be a damn good vascular surgeon, in an emergency situation kind of way. Dixie couldn’t count the number of limbs and lives that he’d saved just by being able to close a few arteries and veins. So, although the Army designated it as an aid station, Trent had made it a place for a few miracles. They certainly still lost some, but his difference was measurable.
“I radioed for more sulfa, morphine and 3-0 silk,” Trent said as he sterile washed one of the tables, again. “I hope it gets here soon.”
Turning at the edginess she heard in his voice, Dixie gave him a critical look. “You believe they are up to something.”
“It’s too damn quiet,” he stated. “Yesterday, too.” He slammed his wash rag into the bucket, sloshing the liquid on his boots. “Reinforcements yesterday. Rumors of a truce.” He picked up the bucket and walked to the entrance. “It’s adding up to something.” He exited in a hurry.
Dixie heard the water splash on the ground as he emptied the bucket. When Trent didn’t return, she stepped outside and found him staring at the distant hills.
“Trent,” she called from behind him. She felt bad when he jumped. “All we can do is be ready.”
“It could be bad.” His head hung and he kicked at the dirt.
“We’ve had bad before.” She closed her eyes to block some of the images that ‘bad’ evoked. “We’ll be okay.”
He just continued to look into the distance.
Exhausted, Sally dropped her bag onto her sagging cot. Wistfully, she glanced over at Dixie’s neatly made cot before dragging out all the dirty clothes from her bag and tossing them in her laundry corner. “Three days,” she whispered. “Let the calm hold for three more days.” Then Dixie would be back and they would reign the dorm once again. She saw the slip of notepaper sticking out from under her pillow and smiled. She needed to get a shower first, though. The dust from the open jeep ride covered nearly every inch of her.
Refreshed from her shower, Sally settled on her cot and pulled the paper out from under her pillow. She immediately recognized Dixie’s loopy feminine writing.
Instructions for a Sally-Good Time:
1. Get picnic basket from under the foot of my cot
2. Go to Lake Soyang, by our favorite big tree
3. Toast California and Kansas with the red(ish) wine (unknown vintner, unknown vintage – but best there is in these parts), also toast Navy doctors(!!)
4. Spread peanut butter on chocolate bar, nibble succulently with remainder of wine
Sally laughed out loud. Although she was a few years older than Dixie, she thought of her as an older sister. She set the letter down and reached for the picnic basket under Dixie’s cot. She smiled at the Hershey bar and tin of peanut butter – her two favorite decadent splurges. She lifted out the bottle holding about two cups of an amber fluid resembling something between kerosene and cough syrup. She shuddered at the thought of drinking it. But, she would, by the big tree on the shore of Lake Soyang.
The mention of Navy doctors in Dixie’s note brought back the wonderful memories of the Independence Day celebration the hospital hosted back on July 1st. A group of Navy doctors were visiting the Hospital and were set to sail for exotic destinations on July 4th, so they’d partied early. A send-off and a patriotic celebration all rolled into one. By dusk, before the celebratory fireworks – not the usual destructive kind famous in these parts, she found herself partnered with a very handsome Navy captain – Billy Saunders. He was a sweetheart. And Dixie had latched onto a gorgeous hunk, Lt. Cole Winston.
Her Billy turned out to be married, and unfortunately for her, happily so. She had coaxed a few sensuous kisses from him that still sent shivers down her spine just thinking about them. But, Dixie…she and Cole went off by themselves to the big tree by the lake. And Sally didn’t remember seeing her or him again until around 0300. But, Dixie was being tight lipped about what had, or hadn’t, happened. And that was driving Sally crazy. Any time she mention Cole to Dixie, all she got was a one-sided smile from her friend that mimicked the one Cole flashed in Dixie’s direction so readily that night.
With a sigh, Sally tucked everything, including the note, into the basket. She dressed in cut-offs, a faded OD green t-shirt and her seasoned keds. She dug into her shoebox full of greeting cards, selected the one she felt was right for Dixie’s return from this aid station trip. Dixie wrote notes on paper, she wrote in cards. She collected them everywhere she went and had something for virtually any occasion.
Checking out a motor pool jeep, she drove to the lake. The walk to the big tree was peaceful. Birds and a couple of frogs made it feel more like home than a war zone. A helicopter flew overhead, disturbing the peacefulness and briefly bringing the war back into focus. She nestled in with her back resting against the tree. Her now bare feet dangled over the low bank and the water lapped at them, cool and refreshing in the sticky heat. She followed her instructions, toasting their home states and handsome Navy doctors. The ‘wine’ tasted more like cough syrup than anything, but it definitely had a kick to it. She nibbled her melting, peanut butter covered chocolate in the dappled shade. Her thoughts always returned to her friend up at the aid station.
Dixie wiped the sterilizing solution across table number three with a final flourish. They’d handled a rush of nineteen soldiers, two didn’t make it – didn’t even make it to the aid station with any chance. She breathed deeply to calm herself. Even two hurt. The smells churned her stomach, so she walked outside to try again. Looking down the road back towards 10th Station, she wondered if Sally had enjoyed her picnic at the lake. Dixie knew she’d go, it was chocolate after all. Couldn’t say much for the wine, but the selection was rather weak.
She turned at the sound of footsteps. It was just Trent and her again. The corpsmen had accompanied the injured on the bus to either a MASH unit or an Evac, depending on the injury. The dead rode in the back of the bus.
“Not much cooler out here,” Trent said.
“Not yet,” Dixie agreed. She saw the hard glint in his eyes as he worked internally to deal with the horrific injuries he’d just treated. And the ones he couldn’t. If it stayed calm a little longer, the softness would return to his eyes. His ready smile would flash again.
They both watched as the setting sun blazed orange, reds and yellows across the sky, deepening to blues and purples at the edges. It could almost be pretty, she thought. But the ugly, scarred hills brought the reality of war back to the picture.
“Treat you to some C-Rats beans and wieners,” offered Trent.
Dixie smiled. “What girl could turn that down?”
They stood in the entry of the triage tent shoveling cold beans and wieners down and watching the evening colors fade into blackness.
A sudden shiver shook Dixie as she stared into the approaching night.
“Okay?” Trent had seen her shake.
“Yeah, just a little spooky up here at night.” She smiled at him to affirm she was okay and was pleased to see Dr. Soft Eyes had returned.
“Well, I’m going to steal as much nap as I can get and you should, too.” Tossing his bean can in the trash, he flopped onto a cot, covering his eyes with an arm.
Dixie settled into another cot, but sleep didn’t come immediately.
When at 10th Station, Dixie could hear the distant echoing booms of mortars, bombs, etc. only if the wind was right and all else was calm and quiet. It was an eerie sound, like distant thunder. Killing thunder.
At Aid Station 8, the mortars and bombs were so close they knocked her out of her cot, tore her from her brief slumber.
Trent shouted her name over the sudden onslaught of crashing noise. She crawled over to him and took the steel helmet he held out and settled it on her head.
“Here we go,” Trent said into the darkness.
They huddled under one of the sturdier tables as round after round of explosions shook the hills around them and their wits.
“This is big,” murmured Trent.
“The Push,” added Dixie.
“I hate when they’re right,” he stated and straightened. He grabbed the table as another round of explosions rocked the tent.
“Get down,” hissed Dixie.
“Gotta get ready for the rush,” he countered. “It’s gonna get crazy.”
Dixie rose from the floor and went about her preparations. The explosions kept her nerves scrambled as she tucked fallen supplies back in the cabinets.
Then soldiers began arriving – by jeep, truck, whatever means available.
Dixie and Trent slipped into their well-rehearsed dance. The rattling explosions settled into a background annoyance as she hauled litters, inserted IVs, wrapped miles of bandages. Trent worked at her side until a spurting artery on a mangled limb caught his attention and he moved to the surgical table.
The first buses and ambulances roared up the road and Dixie loaded what felt like a company of soldiers on a fleet of vehicles. Every third bus brought them fresh supplies – bandages, IVs, drugs. And it was all returned – attached to bleeding soldiers.
The first lull came shortly after midnight and Dixie was able to assist Trent with surgery. She managed triage solo to give him the time for surgery, to give the worst of these boys a fighting chance. She was worn out after just these few hectic hours, but there was always more to do. The chance to save made it worth any price.
The fire and brimstone returned quickly. If possible, it was heavier than before. Their tent rattled, their nerves frayed and still the explosions roared. More casualties arrived in jeeps with blood smears on the fenders and doors. It pooled in the cargo areas from litters lying across them. The ground darkened with the blood of war.
Dixie no longer saw faces, just bleeding wounds that needed tending. She tied pressure bandages until her arms shook. There were too many IVs to count and countless morphine injections. She loaded buses and ambulances again and again, unloaded endless cartons of supplies.
The sun came up. Dixie still had two more days to go. Mid-morning brought another lull, of sorts. The number of injured dropped down to a trickle instead of the burst dam. She handled the triage quickly and got the bus loaded. She rushed into the tent and caught Trent as his legs sagged. She struggled him onto a cot, lifting his legs up on carton and massaging some feeling back into them. He groaned as the tingle of circulation returned. Her heart ached for him and every soldier that had passed through.
She finished closing a gaping, bleeding wound on the patient, pausing to tie a small bow in the final stitch. That was a clue to Sally that she was still alive and working. If this soldier went to 10th Station, that is.
Later, she jerked awake, not remembering even getting on a cot. Trent was running triage for a new batch of injured. She pulled herself off the cot, stripped off her bloody gown and pulled on a fresh one. She traded a dream nightmare for a living one.
They slogged through the next twenty-four hours, sleeping standing up at times. The night was the worst. Mind games from the Chinese. Not only the noise, but the visibility of the explosions gnawed at their nerves. Nights seemed endless. Lulls only came during daylight now. Trent had heard on the radio that divisions of Chinese communists had swarmed Pork Chop Hill. The nightmare was true and they were right in the middle of it. She couldn’t imagine the terror of being up on that hill.
At least 10th Station was thinking about them, Dixie thought as she opened a carton of supplies and found sandwiches and orange juice. They were savored as if it were caviar and champagne.
“They can’t send replacements yet, Dixie,” Trent told her between bites of this third sandwich.
She closed her eyes and nodded. “It figures. How long do you think this push will last?”
“We didn’t start it, so who knows?” He reached for a fourth sandwich. “Maybe when the Chinese run out of soldiers.”
Dixie’s eyes popped open. “But, there’s millions of them.”
“Just kidding, sorry,” he said around a mouthful of sandwich. “Sorry, bad time for joking around.”
“I certainly hope that’s a joke.” She calmed herself with more effort than she preferred. “The real scary part is that it could be entirely true.”
“Don’t even think that way, Dixie.” He chugged down another glass of juice. “Besides, they’ll probably run out of bullets and bombs before they run out of soldiers.” He winked then collapsed on a cot.
She punched him in the arm. “That’s not funny, you know.”
“Yeah, I know. Go to sleep while you can.”
“Already there.” She stretched out on the nearest cot and closed her eyes, hoping for no dreams at all.
Sally woke to thunderous pounding on the door. “What?” she growled.
“It’s Bev. Open up. Please.”
Sally glanced at the clock. 0430, ugh. Two and a half hours before she was scheduled for duty. She sat up and reached over to release the lock. “It’s open.”
Lt. Beverly Kline rushed into the room, her red hair flaring as she turned to take in Dixie’s empty bed. “Oh, no!”
“What?” Sally asked again.
Beverly turned towards Sally, tears streaming down her face. “The Chinese have overrun Pork Chop.”
Ugly, consuming fear stabbed through Sally. “The aid station,” she gasped.
“Massive casualties are coming in.” Beverly hooked her thumb towards the window. “We have three more buses coming in now.”
“The aid station!” Sally demanded.
“No official word,” Beverly said quietly. “But some of the wounded said they had been to Station 8. ‘With the pretty nurse,’ they added.”
Sally managed a slight smile. “Dixie!”
“It must be terrible up there,” Beverly cried. “They’re bombing them to hell.”
Sally gave her a quick hug. “I’ll be over there as soon as I can to help with all these casualties. Go.”
Beverly wiped at her red-rimmed eyes. “I’ll be praying for her, too.”
Sally nodded to Beverly and closed the door behind her. Leaning against the door, Sally squeezed her eyes shut. She stomped her foot in fear and frustration. “Damn it, girl.” A tear escaped, but she held the rest back. It would not help her friend at all to lose it now, here.
With a flash of inspiration, she reached under her pillow for the card she had picked out for Dixie. She inspected it, concentrated. Yes, this was still the one she wanted. She knocked over the cup holding several pens as she reached in a rush. Jumping on her cot, she paused and collected herself. Then she wrote.
Bev just ran in here to tell me that those Chinese bastards have overrun Pork Chop. I’m so scared for you guys! I can’t image how terrifying it is for you up there in the shadow of that damn hill. Please, please be safe! And keep Dr. Soft Eyes safe for us – although, I’m sure those dreamy chocolate eyes are hard as coal right now. I have to run and take care of these boys you’re sending down here. I’m going to be looking for your sign. You’ve got to give me a sign! Come back to me, girl!
She closed the card and held it briefly against her chest before tucking it back under her pillow. She jumped into a fresh uniform, laced her boots halfway, and raced out the door.
Stumbling to a sudden halt, she took in the ‘standing room only’ crowd at the hospital. Taking a deep breath, she grabbed a clipboard with blank chart forms and leapt onto the nearest bus to begin triage.
Buoyed by rumors that the allied forces may retreat from Hill 255, Dixie and Trent worked into their fourth night in hell. The fighting was still furious and the casualties continued to pour into the aid station. Their compassion for the wounded never wavered. Both wetted dry, cracked lips; held weak, shaky hands; listened to those who could and needed to relate horrific stories. And they both hoped their replacements would arrive on the next bus or ambulance.
A hellish barrage unleashed furiously on Hill 255 at some ugly hour of the night. Dixie and Trent huddled under a table once again as their tent all but disintegrated around them. An extremely close explosion threw them to the ground, collapsing half of their tent over the empty cots.
Nearly deafened by the power of a blast that close, Dixie felt, rather than heard, Trent leaving their meager shelter. She grabbed his arm. “Don’t.” It was all her shaky voice could get out.
The combination of fear, despair, anger and concern that Trent read in Dixie’s eyes was enough to make him forget about trying to repair the tent. He held on to her protectively, hoping sheer will would be enough to deflect any bombs that may stray their way.
As they huddled against hell’s fury, Dixie thought how strangely time flowed in living nightmares. At times, it crawled achingly slow, seeming to enjoy protracting the misery. Other times, it flashed by in a fast-forward blur that made her head spin – too many, mostly horrible, things happening at once to register it all. This nightmare had moments of both and showed no signs of stopping.
Sally burst through her dorm door. Jumping on her bed, she plucked the card and pen from under her pillow. Calming her excitement for a moment, she added to her note for Dixie’s return.
I saw your sign, girl!! I did a happy dance right then and there. The young man bearing your bow-tied stitch on his thigh is doing well, thought you’d like to know – kept his leg. He said you were like an angel to him – told him that was just for him, I know better. I hope you & Trent are doing okay up there. The stories these guys tell chill my soul. We are going to celebrate for a week when you get back – so hurry up! You’re constantly in my thoughts. Get back here, girl!
She hugged the card, wishing it were her friend instead. Her heart squeezed painfully as she looked over to Dixie’s empty cot. Having her best friend in danger and unable to do anything about it hurt physically.
A truck pulled up outside their crippled tent. Trent motioned for Dixie to stay put. “I’ll see what they have,” he said and ran, crouching low, to talk to the driver. Dixie watched, ready to sprint out to help with triage or unload supplies.
Trent ran back to her, a shocked expression on his face. “Get on the truck,” he said, pulling her out from under the table. “It’s a full retreat. Go!”
“Oh, God,” whispered Dixie. She ran.
Two pairs of strong hands pulled her up into the back of the deuce-and-a-half truck. She turned to help Trent, but he wasn’t there. With a pang of panic, she leaned out to look for him. Relief flooded through her when he appeared with both their bags in tow. She jumped back, collected their bags he’d tossed in, and settled on the bench seat running along the side of the truck. The strong hands pulled Trent in and he slid in beside her. The truck lurched forward immediately.
Joyous relief washed over her as she watched the remnants of Aid Station 8 disappear from view.
Through the opening in the back of the canvas covered truck bed, Dixie saw the red line of dawn blazing on the horizon. It felt like the sky was bleeding from the horrors of the past few days. She closed her eyes to the sight. It hadn’t been that long ago that she would have seen the red dawn as rosy and pleasant. She hoped to have that peace of mind again. Soon.
She opened her eyes again at the sound of a cough from one of the soldiers riding with them. She studied a couple of them and immediately recognized the ‘thousand yard stare’ on the young faces. She wondered if they saw the same from her. She was sure she’d had it a few times. A shoulder patch caught her eye as the light from outside began to strengthen. The glint of red made her heart jump, thinking the young man was injured. But, it was the patch for the 7th Infantry Division – the boys from Fort Ord. He smiled at her and a cold chill ran through to her bones.
“I rode up to the aid station with you guys, didn’t I?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” a gruff sergeant answered. He put out his cigarette and held his hand out to her, then Trent. “I want to thank you two for handling so many of my men.”
“That’s what we’re there for,” Trent answered.
The sergeant sat back down on the bench across from her and Trent, with the six other soldiers. Dixie’s breath caught in her throat.
She looked through the back window of the cab, looking for the fresh-faced corporal that drove her the last time. He wasn’t in the cab and he wasn’t back here. Sadness gripped her heart. “The others,” she said. “You’re all that’s left?” She remembered there were around thirty men in the truck that brought her up here.
The seven shifted around on the bench. “Yeah,” answered the sergeant. “It was crazy up there.”
She thought about saying how sorry she was, but it rang so hollow in her thoughts she couldn’t voice it. The quiet said it all.
She started when Trent took her hand in his, squeezed it tightly. “We made it,” he whispered.
While not yet melted chocolate, his eyes had softened from the diamond-hard coal of earlier. She envied his ability to shed the stress, anxiety, horrors so quickly. Or give the illusion he did. She didn’t think those eyes could lie, though. She slumped against him, resting her head on his shoulder. She was so tired.
He kept her hand.
Tears streamed down Sally’s face as she packed her belongings into the travel trunk. She couldn’t believe they had her, four other nurses and five doctors transferring back to the 4th in Pusan. She’d fought the order with her soul, but the Army had spoken. Talks of a truce were humming and the Army was shuffling around, preparing for withdrawal. That made her heart sing. Leaving now made her heart ache. She couldn’t think of leaving without seeing Dixie, not after all that had happened. She didn’t really know that Dixie was okay. It felt like she was, but Sally wanted to know.
A knock at the door forced Sally to dry her eyes, face. “It’s open,” she called.
Two stud soldiers stood in the open doorway. “Transportation, ma’am.”
She pointed to the trunk by her cot. “That’s it.”
They lifted the trunk with ease and walked through the door. “Headed out in fifteen, ma’am,” the trailing stud said over his shoulder.
“I’ll be there.”
She clicked the door closed, needing privacy. She dug in her travel bag for Dixie’s card and her pen. She sat on Dixie’s cot, let out a shuddering sigh, and wrote another entry to the note.
Dearest Dixie –
My heart is breaking writing this. Ten of us have been recalled to the 4th. I’m leaving in a few minutes. The Army is preparing for the truce, it seems, so maybe this is a good thing. It doesn’t feel good though. Not now. I miss you so much already. Not being here for your return is unthinkable. I’ll do everything I can to contact you. I never would have survived here if you hadn’t come. You helped me so much, sister. Take care of yourself!
Love you always – Sally
She slid the card in its cream colored envelope. Wiping a tear away, she used that to seal the tip of the flap closed. She wrote a fanciful ‘Dixie’ on the back and slipped the envelope under Dixie’s pillow.
Taking a deep breath, she shouldered her travel bag and exited their room. The click of the door latch stabbed into her heart. She turned and ran down the hall, out into the hot, sticky afternoon. Settling in a seat on the bus, she stared blankly ahead. A thousand yards ahead.
“Hey,” Trent called over Dixie’s low snore. Waking just moments before, he recognized they’d arrived at 10th Station.
Dixie jerked awake, eyes wide in a second.
“Sorry,” Trent calmed her. “We’re home.”
She looked out the back as the soldiers disembarked. She rolled her eyes. “Doesn’t look like California to me.”
“Got me there,” he chuckled. “Our home away from home, then.” He stood, stretching sore, aching muscles. “Either way, I’m glad to see it.”
She enjoyed his laugh. It had been a while since there was an opportunity to joke and laugh. “I’ll give you that,” she agreed. “It’s a lovely sight.”
They checked in at the hospital duty station. Carla leapt from behind the desk and gave Trent a big hug. Dixie knew Carla was sweet on him, confirmed when all she received was an icy stare. She’d assure her later that they were too busy surviving hell on earth to be having a fling up at the aid station together. Trent did give her a warm embrace and a peck on the cheek before they went their separate ways – girls dorm to the right, guys to the left.
Trent Wells was a nice enough guy, Dixie thought as she trudged down the hall to her room. He was a great doctor. Not much of a soldier. She thought of him more like a brother than a lover. Maybe with enough time that could change. But it worked for now. She valued their friendship greatly and wouldn’t want to complicate it or do anything to destroy it.
She hoped Sally was in, but doubted she would be as busy as it was at the hospital. Looked to be an ‘all hands’ day. Well, she and Trent were off the duty roster for forty-eight hours. She felt like sleeping for at least forty of them. The cat nap on the truck was anything but restive.
She pushed their room door open and wasn’t really surprised to find no Sally. She tucked her bag under her cot. A shower was the first order of business. A candle lit bubble bath would be perfect, but she’d settle for the institutional gang shower down the hall. She stripped off her reeking uniform and pulled on her robe. Hooking her bath basket on her arm, she set out to feel human again.
Dixie jerked awake, her belly churning with fear. It was dark. She squinted at the clock, 0327. She had dropped off like a rock. She looked across the room, still no Sally. She should’ve checked the duty roster to see what Sally’s hours were, if they were sticking to the roster. She sat up and a blanket tangled her legs. Sally, she thought. She must’ve come in, found me zonked out, covered my legs, and snuck out again to let me sleep.
The churning in her stomach morphed from nightmare fear to real hunger. She got up, fumbled along the wall to find the light switch, turned it. She blinked in the brightness. A plate of sandwiches and a pitcher of juice sat on the little table. A note on the plate said, ‘Welcome back, The Dorm Girls’. Aw, Dixie thought, all the girls here were good friends to have.
With her hunger gone, the tiredness returned. It would take a few naps before she’d feel rested again. Although none of her previous aid station trips could hold a candle to this past one, it always took a while to get back on schedule after them. She’d nap until the sun came up and then hunt down her roommate.
After turning off the light, she settled back down on her cot, pulled the blanket over her legs, and snuggled into her pillow. As she did, her hand slid across the edge of the card hiding under her pillow. She shot up like an arrow, knowing immediately what she had felt. Sally’s card! She knew her brain was fried – she’d forgotten all about the card.
She made herself comfortable sitting on her cot, the light on again. She ran her finger over her name on the back, all swirly and pretty. She slid her finger under the flap and popped it open, getting a tiny, stinging paper cut with the motion. She stuck her finger in her mouth to relieve the sting. She laughed. Almost five days in a raging war zone and she bleeds opening an envelope.
Satisfied that she wouldn’t bleed to death, she carefully extracted the card. She ran her fingers across the slightly raised portion of the picture on the front. It was such a fancy card. Sally was so good at picking just the right card. It showed a bright, sunny sky shining on a stone bridge, pressed in relief on the paper. Pretty pastel flowers and blooming shrubs surrounded the sparkling creek flowing under the bridge. The half of the bridge by the spine of the card was dark, in shadow. The other half was bright as a spring day in paradise. She ran her fingers over the bumpy stone bridge again. It was so easy to imagine herself on that bridge, walking from the shadows into the warm sun. It was, of course, perfect.
She flipped the card open to read the inscription. ‘The darkest night is often the bridge to the brightest tomorrow’. Dixie turned back to the front of the card. She couldn’t believe how perfect this card was. It was downright eerie. She clearly saw ‘the darkest night’ as the nightmare from hell she had just survived and the ‘brightest tomorrow’ could be the upcoming truce and trip back home to start her real nursing career – in a normal, sane California hospital.
She took a deep calming breath and opened the card for the most important part – Sally’s scribbled message. The woman only used cursive to sign her name. That was Sally. Dixie’s throat constricted when she read the first part of Sally’s message. She felt the concern her friend had for her, the fear. She couldn’t wait to talk to her about it. She would understand everything. She smiled at her second note. An angel, huh? Very unlikely. She wanted to party for a week, too. Her throat closed off when she read the third note. She gasped. No! Her fingers went numb with shock and the card fell onto the blanket.
She looked over at Sally’s corner. Sure enough, the bookcase was bare and there was nothing under her cot but a few dust balls. How had she missed that all Sally’s stuff was gone? How could she not feel that Sally wasn’t here? It must mean that she was safe up at the 4th. Otherwise, Dixie would know. She was sure of that. A tear tumbled down her cheek. She wiped it away, took control. She wouldn’t lose it now, not after all she’d been through. She would do what she had to to reach Sally at the 4th. They would cry and laugh together and they would get on with their lives.
She picked up the card and ran her fingers across the bumpy stones, again. Her heavy heart told her she was still on the shadowy side of the bridge.
Dixie sat, sweltering in the hot August sun that beat down on the C-54 Skymaster cargo plane on the Pusan tarmac. About two weeks ago the armistice was signed. She was going home. When she reached San Diego Naval Station, she would be honorably resigning her commission.
She sat back when the plane roared down the runway, lifting. Exhaling slowly, she kept her tears in check. She was no longer in Korea. The war was over. She had seen the map of the new North and South Korean countries. She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry seeing that Hill 255, outline on the map still looking like a pork chop, was in the demilitarized zone between the two countries – owned by neither side. All that fighting, all those lives – all for nothing.
Reaching into her purse, she pulled out the last card she received from Sally. As a cruel twist of war, she had not been able to reach Sally again. Running her fingers over the raised stones of the bridge, she looked out the window. It was bright and beautiful out there. She was flying into her brighter tomorrows, leaving those dark, dark nights in Korea.
And what about those tomorrows? She’d thought long and hard about that the last couple of weeks. Resigning her commission was the first step. She’d given the Army all she had to give. Next, a leisurely visit with her brother in San Fernando. Her brother was the picture of Americana – housewife, three kids, a dog and a nice suburban home. After that, she would go back to school to upgrade her nursing skills. And, ultimately, get a nursing position at a big hospital. She’d prefer the emergency room – the front lines, so to speak. She could certainly handle that. A job with an edge was still a must.
With a sigh, she put the card back in her purse. She thought of Sally, Trent, even Cole. They were the brightness of Korea. Would her tomorrows have friendships like that? Laughing in the face of fear and terror, skill and bravery under impossible odds – will she find that in a civilian hospital? She smiled. How about soft eyes or lop-sided grins?
Relaxed, she leaned back and closed her eyes. She’ll just have to jump in and see what those tomorrows bring.