Maybelle Kazinski was a welderette. That’s right, a welder-
ette. She worked at Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock in Chester, Pennsylvania. Sun Ship, one of the largest shipyards in the coun- try, boasted eight slipways and built mostly the indispensable T2 Tanker but also hospital and cargo ships. Ordinarily, this would seem an unusual job for a woman, but in 1943, thousands of women went to work building and repairing the ships vital to the war effort in Europe while most of the men in the country were off fighting Nazis—including Holden, Maybelle’s new husband.
Maybelle liked her job. Having begun in the sheet metal department, in only ten months she moved her way into being a first-class welderette in Department 59, working side by side with other women welding seams on the giant leviathans. And she could weld with the best of them, men included. However, some still remembered her first day on the job. She arrived wearing a pair of bright white, spotless overalls. They quickly turned grungy black and oily. She never made that mistake again.
But still, as much as she liked going to work and as much as it managed to fill the time and distract her thoughts, Maybelle carried a hole in her heart the exact size and shape of Holden. She missed him so much it hurt and longed for the day when he would come home—for good. After all, it was only right she should get to finish the marriage she had only two weeks to begin.
My dearest Maybelle,
Another long day has finally come to an end. We just finished dinner. Paxton is already snoring. He can sleep anywhere. I don’t have to tell you how sleep eludes me here. But, supper was good, lamb stew with potatoes and carrots. I had three helpings. I can’t tell you how or where, but we actually ate supper at a real house, not a foxhole. But now, I am in our tent, shivering because it is so cold and it makes me wish even more you were in my arms. I love you, darling, and miss you more than anything. I know you are worried, but don’t be. I’ll be home soon, I promise. I can hear artillery off in the distance, but if I listen real hard, I can hear your voice, singing the silly song you always sang. Oh, sorry, sweet- heart, I have to go now. My sergeant is waiting for me. Some sort of (censored) duty. Good night, darling.
Your Ever-Loving Husband,
Maybelle slipped the V-Mail letter into her pocket and headed off down Ninth Street toward the Sun shipyard. The main rea-
son she had taken the job was because she thought it would help take her mind off of missing Holden. And because most of the men had been sent off to war, they needed her. As it turned out, learning to be a welder repairing huge war ships did accomplish some of her goal, but it also accomplished something else. Maybelle had become a part of a small group of army wives whose husbands were fighting in Europe. A group that worked together, laughed together, ate together, and far too often cried together. Try as they might, the wives had a difficult time refraining from long talks of their husbands and the war. There was no use trying to hide their true feelings, although each and every woman was proud as punch her husband was doing his part. It seemed to be the motto on the home front. Do Your Part. Well, Maybelle certainly believed she was doing hers.
She lived only five blocks from the massive shipyard on the Delaware River in Chester—a small but bustling suburb of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After Holden enlisted, Maybelle moved in with her mother. Maybelle and Holden had plans to move into one of the blossoming communities a little farther west. But for now, home with Mom and Bingo, her black mutt of a dog, was the best of all places for Maybelle. Still, she missed Holden more than anything. They had gotten married only two weeks before he shipped out for Europe. His orders came early. Six whole months early and so Maybelle and her mother scrambled to get the wedding organized in time. Pastor Mendenhall was more than accommodating. As a matter of fact, Maybelle was delighted the way the entire congregation, what was left of it, pitched in.
Maybelle could hear the shipyard whistle blow all day long from the house. The yard operated twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The whistle announced the numerous shift changes, lunch, starting and stopping times. She felt fortunate for having the day shift.
Ninth Street was a nice tree-lined street with large row homes, mostly stone and wood but a few clapboard singles with small yards. Although the houses might have been identical in architecture, each one had its own personality, the mark of the owner. Just like her house, many of the homes had red-and-white service banners with blue stars indicating the number of men from that house who were fighting. Many of the houses around town displayed a black banner in honor of a fallen soldier.
Patriotism was something Chester was not short of.
Maybelle stopped in front of her friend’s house. She was a friend who had been her matron of honor and did more than any friend should to keep Maybelle cool, calm, and collected. Maybelle and Doris had been friends since they were babies. It was the end house on her row—her parents’ house. Doris’s house displayed a banner with one blue star in honor of Doris’s husband, Michael. Everyone called him Mickey. They inherited the house after Doris’s father passed away some five years ago. Her mother succumbed to inf luenza years before. Doris never really knew her and was pretty much the woman of the house since she could remember.
“Hey, Maybelle,” Doris called from the door. “I’ll be down in a second.”
“Okay.” Maybelle said with a wave.
Maybelle waited. She always waited for Doris. Doris would be late for her own funeral. But Maybelle was used to it and always arrived a few minutes early. Then they would not be late for their shift, something foreman Logan T. Frawley did not tolerate.
Maybelle watched Doris pull the front door closed. She wore a straight, no-frills dress with pretty pink f lowers against a yellow
background. Her hair was short, like Maybelle’s. A decision they both made after hiring on at the shipyard. Long hair was not the best when working around machinery and welding torches. Doris’s cut made her appear cute and flirtatious, while Maybelle often had to remind people she was a girl. Even wearing a dress to work was risky. There were posters all over the yard reminding women not to wear skirts and to keep hair tied up or short. Doris always changed into overalls once she got there.
“What?” Doris said as if she read Maybelle’s mind. “I like dresses.”
“Suit yourself,” Maybelle said. “But one of these days you’re gonna get caught in a fan or something.”
“Never happen,” Doris said. “We better scooch. Don’t want Logan breathing down our necks.” She said it every morning. Maybelle had come to look forward to it.
“Right,” Maybelle said. “What did you pack for lunch?” “Leftover meatloaf.”
“I got ham—again. It’s one thing about this war that’s annoying. Food rationing.”
“Yeah, I’ll say. Everything is so hard to get. Hazel was completely out of Off-Duty Red nail polish. I had to settle for this.” She wiggled her fingers at Maybelle. “Dark burgundy. Yuck.”
“It’s not so bad.”
The two picked up the pace a bit as they crossed Front Street to the shipyard. It was a wide street with a lot of traffic and a traffic cop who directed folks in and out of the yard. His name was Wiley. Officer Wiley.
“Morning, ladies,” he said as Doris and Maybelle crossed. “Have a good shift.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Maybelle said with a backwards wave. “Build those ships.”
To Maybelle, the entrance to the shipyard, at least Department
59, where they worked always looked so disproportionate to the rest of the yard. A little, well, normal-sized steel door against a building large enough to house a battleship.
Doris located her card first. Maybelle had to wait for Big Murray Johns, one of the only men on the line. Murray wanted to go to war, but a heart murmur kept him home. He was not happy about it. “I woulda made a great soldier.”
And standing over six and half feet tall and broad as an oak testified to that fact.
“Morning, Big Murray,” Maybelle said.
Murray only grunted as usual and headed toward Slipway num- ber seven.
“Always a cheerful guy,” Maybelle said.
“Yeah,” Doris said. “He is just way too happy.”
They giggled, and headed for the women’s locker room. Inside they found the locker each shared with three other women. Maybelle pulled on her overalls and snagged her goggles from the many on hooks near the entrance to the actual dock where they worked welding seams.
It was a good job, a job Maybelle felt, in some strange way, rather suited for. She always was a tomboy, more eager to play base- ball and climb trees than fuss over clothes and baby dolls. Doris, on the other hand, was practically absorbed with her concerns about how she looked and dressed. Even under her heavy, oily overalls and welder’s shield, you could tell Doris was pretty, slight, and trim with a figure to pretty much turn any head.
Logan met them just before they took their station. “Boss said we have to get a step on. We’re under quota,” he said.
“Yeah, yeah,” Maybelle said. “Get a step on.”
Doris just let a phttt noise leave her mouth. “He says it all the time, doesn’t he? I swear the boss just likes to get under our skin. And besides, what will happen if we don’t make quota? Will the Jerries win?”
“Just get to work,” Logan said from behind. “This is serious business.”
“Ohhh, I’m scared,” Doris said. “Look, just do your job and we’ll do ours and we’ll all get to Scotland before ye.”
Maybelle gave Doris a punch on the shoulder. “Don’t get him angry, Doris.”
“Ahh, he’s just a sourpuss. Never met anyone so grumpy. Besides, the ships always get launched, don’t they?”
The shift went as usual. Maybelle and Doris usually worked from seven in the morning until three or sometimes four in the afternoon before the next shift came on. Sometimes they worked later depending on demand and on exactly what task they had been given. And lately, it seemed President Roosevelt was adding more and more ships to their already bulging demand.
Maybelle worked steadily, while every so often feeling for the letter in her pocket and dodging welding splatter—the sparks f lew everywhere making the yard look like a perpetual Fourth of July celebration. Somehow, just knowing the letter was there helped pass the day and keep Holden close, almost home. Even though she would often remind herself anything could happen, and she really had no idea when Holden would be coming home. Or, as with the hundreds of other military wives in the yard, if he would be coming home.
“Doesn’t it bother you?” Maybelle asked on the walk home.
“How can you be so cool and so collected all the time?”
“Doesn’t what bother me?” Doris asked.
“The war. All the death and destruction. We build ships so our guys can kill their guys. What sense does that make? I mean, if you stop to think about it. It’s kind of crazy.”
“Hitler has to be stopped, Maybelle. We’re making it possible. So no, it doesn’t bother me.” Doris stopped and snagged a tiny rose- bud still hanging on to one of Ruth Bradshaw’s bushes.
“What about Mickey, then?” Maybelle asked. “Aren’t you worried about Mickey?”
Doris stopped walking and looked in Maybelle’s eyes. “Sure I miss him. I worry every single day, but I also pray every single day. God is watching over him and won’t let any harm come. I figure as long as I keep getting letters, I ain’t gonna worry. I just ain’t.” Maybelle could feel Doris’s determination to stay brave.
“Yeah, yeah, I suppose that’s best.” Maybelle didn’t know for sure. She didn’t know much for certain except her feelings about the war, and the restrictions on gas and food and electricity. She desperately wanted the war to end. And as for God? Well, things of that nature had started to elude her. She went to church every Sunday, and if push came to shove, she would admit God was in control but lately she had started to wonder.
“It’s like this rosebud,” Doris said as she picked up her pace. “I got no real guarantee it will bloom. But . . . but I believe it will. All I have to do is put it in some water and wait.”
Maybelle chuckled. She wished she had Doris’s optimism. But she didn’t. She reached her hand into her pocket and felt the letter. Still there. Still close. She still worried.
They reached Doris’s house. “All I can tell you is to try not to worry too much. Don’t ask so many questions and, like the president keeps reminding us, do your part to help. I think it makes me feel like I’m fighting with Mickey, not just waiting for him to come home or for victory—which by the way is more sure than ever if you listen to the news reports.”
“I do, I guess I’ll try harder.”
Doris kissed her friend’s cheek. “Look, I’ll see ya tomorrow.” “Hey,” Maybelle said, “why don’t you stop down for supper in a
bit? Mom’s making chicken and dumplings.”
“Oh, boy, chicken and dumplings. I love your mom’s chicken and dumplings. It’s a deal.”
“Great. Get changed and come by. About an hour.”
Maybelle picked up her steps a little as she walked; the air had turned chilly as late October settled into the Delaware Valley. Maybelle thought living so close to such a huge river might be part of the reason for the cool winds in winter and the steamy zephyrs in summer. She wanted there to be a spring in her step like Doris’s. Like some of the other women in the yard. They were all in the same boat, so to speak. But she couldn’t shake the terrible feeling haunting her for three solid days. Every time she read Holden’s letter she felt it. Every time she touched the letter, she felt it. Every time she mentioned his name, she had to hold back tears. Something was not right.
Maybelle stood a moment outside her house. She loved it. It was one of the biggest ones on the block and set off on a large lot now gone to mostly dirt and weeds. A huge oak tree grew on the side. Maybelle’s father had told her it was there when William Penn first walked the streets of Chester, the oldest town in Pennsylvania. She liked knowing this. It made her feel a part of history, the way the war was making others feel, perhaps.
“Mom, I’m home,” Maybelle called as she pushed open the front door. “Mom?”
Maybelle slipped off her boots as she did every day. The boots were heavy and made her feet hurt. Then she put her handbag on the couch. “Mom?”
Bingo came bounding into the living room to greet Maybelle. “Hello, puppy,” Maybelle said. She kneeled and rubbed the dog’s ears and head. “I missed you, too, boy.”
“What is it?” her mother called from the kitchen. “Nothing, just letting you know I’m home.”
Maybelle played with Bingo another minute before heading up the stairs. “I’ll be down in a minute,” she called. “Just want to wash my face and change.”
Blue jeans and f lannel shirts were pretty much all Maybelle wore lately. She was comfortable and happy and saved her dresses for important things like church and the occasional party at the Canteen. She quickly washed the oil and smudges from her face and then joined her mother in the kitchen. The wonderful, enticing aroma of chicken simmering in the pot permeated the room. A smell like spring, with celery and roasted pepper, carrots and peas. Truly one of Maybelle’s favorite meals, especially on a chilly evening.
“How was work today?” Francine asked.
Maybelle lifted the lid of the simmering stew and let the steam encircle her. She inhaled. “Mom, you make the best chicken and dumplings. I invited Doris.”
“I thought you would. I’m making plenty.”
Maybelle sat at the kitchen table. “I had a good day. You know, same old stuff. Logan was a bear, though.”
“Ahh, don’t let him bother you. He’s just sore ’cause he can’t be fighting in Europe.”
“I know, but he doesn’t have to take it out on us. But yeah, it was a good day.”
“Good, good.” Francine dumped a bunch of confectioner’s sugar into a bowl. A small white cloud drifted up.
“Whatcha making?” Maybelle asked.
“Frosting. I baked a chocolate cake this morning.”
“Really, Ma? That sounds good. Where’d you get chocolate?” Just then, Roger walked into the kitchen, yawning. Roger was
one of the three boarders Maybelle and her mother had living in the house. Since things had gotten so busy at the shipyard and there were so many rooms left vacant as men and women went to war, many folks rented out their beds. Some houses had two and three people sharing one bed in different shifts leading some folks to remark there was never a cold bed in Chester.
“Hey, Roger,” Maybelle said. “Graveyard again?”
Roger lifted the lid on the stew. “You make the best chicken, Francine.” He replaced the lid and joined Maybelle at the table. “Yeah. Graveyard. It’s killing me. Except well, I probably shouldn’t be saying this, but I understand we’re starting some top secret job tonight.”
“Now, now,” Francine said. “Loose lips sink ships.”
Roger snorted air from his nose. “Yeah, yeah. I ain’t sayin’
“Hey,” Maybelle said. “Doris is coming by in a bit.”
A grin the size of Francine’s soup pot stretched across Roger’s face. “That’s nice, real nice. But I ain’t hangin’ around tonight. I’m meeting a couple of the boys down the taproom before work.”
“Ahh, you and the taproom. How can you go there before put- ting in a full shift?” Francine asked as she tapped a large spoon against the pot.
“I can’t sleep, once you hens start yakking, so I might as well.” Then he smiled and kissed Francine’s cheek. “See you tomorrow.”
“No, no, hold on. Sit. Let me give you a bowl of stew before you go. No dumplings yet but you can eat the best part.”
“Fine and dandy,” Roger said. “But Francine, we all know the dumplings are the best.”
Francine ladled a heaping helping of the chicken stew with carrots and peas into a bowl and set it in front of Roger. Then she tore off a chunk of bread from a freshly baked loaf. “Here you go. Eat up.”
Roger was definitely charming. Maybelle had always thought so, even in high school he could always get the girls. He moved in with her and Francine after Pearl Harbor, once the war was in high gear. Roger intended to become a soldier, but unfortunately, a small hearing loss in his left ear kept him from duty. But he stayed on at the house becoming for all intents and purposes the man of the house.
Francine pulled two cakes from the refrigerator. “Want to frost the layers, May?” she asked.
“Ah, Ma, you know I can’t bake or cook to save my life. I’ll just ruin it.”
“I know you are not exactly a great housewife, but give it a try. You’ll learn as you go. Use this wide spatula.”
Roger laughed. “Maybelle is too much a tomboy.”
Maybelle stuck her tongue out at Roger. “Gimme that spatula,”
she said. “I’ll show you.”
Bingo barked twice. Francine slipped him a piece of the chicken cooling on the counter. Bingo ate pretty well, considering. Table scraps, leftovers, the occasional fried egg.
But try as she might, Maybelle just couldn’t get the frosting to spread evenly, and in one swipe, she took a large chunk off the top. “I’m sorry, Ma. I told you.”
Francine took the spatula from Maybelle. “Sometimes I think you do this stuff on purpose.”
Francine expertly reassembled the top of the cake. “Why you can’t do the easiest domestic chores is beyond me,” Francine said with a chuckle. “Did I ever tell you about the time she tried to make a dress?”
“Mom.” Maybelle said. “Don’t.”
“No, come on, Francine, tell me. I can use a laugh.”
Francine continued frosting as she spoke. “I can’t believe you never heard this story. Anyway, it was in high school, so just a cou- ple of years ago. She was supposed to be making a dress. A simple, no-frills dress.”
Maybelle sneaked a spoonful of frosting. Sat at the table and cringed as her mother continued speaking.
“She was going along okay, sort of, the sleeves were crooked, her seams were not straight, but at least it sort of resembled a dress. But then came the hard part. The zipper.”
“It wasn’t all my fault. No one really explained it very well.”
Francine shook her head and spread more frosting.
“Yeah?” Roger said. “What happened?”
“She sewed it into the neck hole.” Francine drew her index finger across her neck. “No foolin’, my little girl zippered up her own neck hole.”
Roger laughed and laughed. He smacked the table. “Hysterical! Wait till I tell the guys.”
“I ain’t a monkey, Ma. I’m just not suited for it. I’m better at more . . . whatcha call brainy stuff.” She stood and made a hoity-toity motion with her head. “I can’t help it if I got the brains in the family.”
Francine elbowed Roger. “My genius daughter.”
“Ha, ha, make jokes,” Maybelle said. “Frost your own cake. I’m gonna go take a bath before supper.”
“Can’t do that,” Roger said. “No hot water left. I used it all.”
Maybelle heaved a sigh, “Fine. Then I’ll go . . . read a letter.”
“Haven’t you read that letter enough?” Francine asked.
“No, it’s never enough.” Maybelle felt tears rush to eyes. It was hard to know if the tears were from missing Holden or from embarrassment. Probably both.
Francine set the spatula down. She pulled Maybelle close. “I’m sorry, dear. I know you miss him.”
“I do, Mom. I miss him so much.”
“Ahh, don’t cry,” Roger said. “I can’t stand when girls cry. Holden is tough. He’ll be home, you’ll see.”