A Short Story
BY MARK HELPRIN
THIS WAS PROBABLY THE LAST PLACE IN THE WORLD for a factory. There were pine-covered hills and windy bluffs stopped still in a wavelike roll down to the Pacific, groves of fragrant trees with clay-red trunks and soft greenery that made a white sound in the wind, and a chain of boiling, fuming coves and bays in which the water—when it was not rocketing foam—was a miracle of glassy curves in cold blue or opalescent turquoise, depending upon the season, and depending upon the light.
A dirt road went through the town and followed the sea from point to point as if it had been made for the naturalists who had come before the war to watch the seals, sea otters, and fleets of whales passing offshore. It took three or four opportunities to travel into the hills and run through long valleys onto a series of flat mesas as large as battlefields, which for a hundred years had been a perfect place for raising horses. And horses still pressed up against the fences or stood in family groupings in golden pastures as if there were no such thing as time, and as if many of the boys who had ridden them had never grown up and had never left. At least a dozen fishing boats had once bobbed at the pier and ridden the horizon, but they had been turned into minesweepers and sent to Pearl Harbor, San Diego, and the Aleutians.
The factory itself, a long low building in which more than five hundred women and several hundred men made aircraft instruments, had been built in two months, along with a forty-mile railroad spur that had been laid down to connect it to the Union Pacific main line. In this part of the state the railroad had been used heavily only during the harvests and was usually rusty for the rest of the year. Now even the spur was gleaming and weedless, and small steam engines pulling several freight cars shuttled back and forth, their hammerlike exhalations silencing the cicadas, breaking up perfect afternoons, and shattering perfect nights.
The main halls and outbuildings were only a mile from the sea but were placed in such a way, taking up almost all of the level ground on the floor of a wide ravine, that they were out of the line of fire of naval guns. And because they were situated in a narrow trench between hills, they were protected from bombing.
“But what about landings?” a woman had asked an Army officer who had been brought very early one morning to urge the night shift to maintain the blackout and keep silent about their work. Just after dawn the entire shift had finished up and gathered on the railroad siding.
“Who’s speaking, please?” the officer had asked, unable to see in the dim light who was putting the question.
“Do you want my name?” she asked back in surprise. She had not intended to say anything, and now everyone was listening to her.
Nor had the officer intended to ask her name. “Sure,”he answered. “You’re from the South.”
“That’s right.” she said. “South Carolina. My name is Paulette Ferry.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a precision welder.”
That she should have the word precision in her title seemed just. She was neat, handsome, and delicate. Every gesture seemed well considered. Her hands were small— hardly welder’s hands, even those of a precision welder.
“You don’t have to worry about troop landings,”the officer said. “It’s too far for the Japanese to come in a ship small enough to slip through our seaward defenses, and it’s too far for airplanes, too.”
He put his hands up to shield his eyes. The sun was rising, and as its rays found bright paths between the firs, he was blinded. “The only danger here is sabotage. Three or four men could hike in with a few satchels of explosive and do a lot of damage. But the sea is clear. Japanese submarines just don’t have the range, and the Navy’s out there, though you seldom see it. If you lived in San Francisco or San Diego, believe me, you’d see it. The harbors are choked with warships.”
Then the meeting dissolved, because the officer was eager to move on. He had to drive to Bakersfield and speak at two more factories, both of which were more vulnerable and more important than this one. And this place was so out of the way and so beautiful that it seemed to have nothing to do with the war.
BEFORE HER HUSBAND LEFT FOR THE SOUTH PACIFIC, he and Paulette had found a place for her to live, a small house above the ocean, on a cliff, looking out, where it seemed that nothing would be between them but the air over the water.
Though warships were not visible off the coast, she could see from her windows the freighters that moved silently within the naval cordon. Sometimes one of these ships would defy the blackout and become a castle of lights that glided on the horizon like a skater with a torch.
“Paulette,” he had said, when he was still in training at Parris Island, “after the war’s over, everything’s going to be different. When I get back—if I get back,”he added, because he knew that not all Marine lieutenants were going to make it home—“I want to go to California. The light there is supposed to be extraordinary. I’ve heard that because of the light, living there is like living in a dream. I want to be in a place like that—not so much as a reward for seeing it through, but because we will already have been so disconnected from everything we know. Do you understand?”
She had understood, and she had come quickly to a passionate agreement about California, swept into it not only by the logic and the hope but by the way he had looked at her when he had said “—if I get back.” For he thought truly nothing was as beautiful as Paulette in a storm, riding above it smoothly, just about to break, quivering, but never breaking.
When he was shifted from South Carolina to the Marine base at Twentynine Palms, they had their chance to go to California, and she rode out with him on the train. Rather than have them suffer the whole trip in a Pullman with stiff green curtains, her parents had paid for a compartment. Ever since Lee had been inducted, both sets of parents had fallen into a steady devotion, it seemed as if they would not be satisfied until they had given all their attention and everything they had to their children. Packages arrived almost daily for Paulette. War bonds accumulated for the baby that did not yet exist. Paulette’s father, a schoolteacher, was a good carpenter, and he had vowed that when Lee got back, if they wanted him to, he would come out to California to help with his own hands in building them a house. Their parents were getting old. They moved and talked slowly now, but they were ferociously determined to protect their children, and though they could do little more than book railway compartments and buy war bonds, they did whatever they could, hoping that it would somehow keep Lee alive and prevent Paulette from becoming a widow at the age of twenty-six.
For three nearly speechless days in early September, the Marine lieutenant and his young wife stared out the open window of their compartment as they crossed the country in perfect weather and north light. Magnificent thunderstorms would close on the train like Indian riders and then withdraw in favor of the clear. Oceans of wheat, the deserts, and the sky were gold, white, and infinitely blue, blue. And at night, as the train charged across the empty prairie, its spotlight flashing against the tracks that lay far ahead of it straight and true, the stars hung close and bright. Stunned by the beauty of all this, Paulette and Lee were intent upon remembering, because they wanted what they saw to give them strength, and because they knew that should things not turn out the way they wanted, this would have to have been enough.
Distant whirlwinds and dust storms, mountain rivers leaping coolly against the sides of their courses, four-hundred-mile straightaways, fifty-mile bends, massive canyons and defiles, still forests, and glowing lakes calmed them and set them up for their first view of the Pacific’s ease waves rolling onto the deserted beaches south of Los Angeles.
Paulette lived in a small white cottage that was next to an orange grove, and worked for six months on instrumentation for P-38s. The factory was a mile away, and to get to it, she had to go through the ranks of trees. Lee thought that this might be dangerous, until one morning he accompanied her and was amazed to see several thousand women walking silently through the orange grove on their way to and from factories that worked around the clock.
Though Lee had more leave than he would have had as an enlisted man, he didn’t have much, and the occasional weekends, odd days, and one or two weeks when he came home during the half year at Twenty nine Palms were as tightly packed as stage plays. At the beginning of each furlough the many hours ahead (they always broke the time into hours) seemed like great riches. But as the hours passed and only a few remained, Lee no less than Paulette would feel that they would soon be parting as if never to be reunited. He was stationed only a few hours away and they knew that he would try to be back in two weeks, but they knew as well that someday he would leave for the Pacific.
When his orders finally came, he had ten days before he went overseas, and when Paulette came home from work the evening of the first day and saw him sitting on the porch, she was able to tell just by looking at him that he was going. She cried for half an hour, but then he was able to comfort her by saying that though it did not seem right or natural that they should be put to this kind of test in their middle twenties, everyone in the world had to face death and separation sometime, and it was finally what they would have to endure anyway.
On his last leave they took the train north and then hitchhiked forty miles to the coast to look at a town and a new factory to which Lockheed was shifting employees from its plants in Los Angeles. At first Paulette had refused to move there, despite an offer of more money and a housing allowance, because it was too far from Twenty-nine Palms. But now that Lee was on his way overseas, it seemed perfect. Here she would wait, she would dream of his return, and she would work so hard that, indirectly, she might help to bring him back.
This town, isolated at the foot of hills that fronted the sea, this out-of-the-way group of houses with its factory that would vanish when the war was over, seemed like the proper place for her to hold her ground in full view of the abyss. After he had been gone for two or three weeks, she packed her belongings and moved up there, and though she was sad to give up her twice-daily walks through the orange groves with the thousands of other women, who appeared among the trees as if by magic, she wanted to be in the little house that overlooked the Pacific, so that nothing would be between them but the air over the water.
TO WITHSTAND GRAVITATIONAL FORCES AS FIGHTER planes rose, banked, and dived, and to remain intact over the vibrations of 2,000-horsepower engines, buffeting crosswinds, rapid-fire cannon, and rough landings, aircraft instruments had spot welds wherever possible rather than screws or rivets. Each instrument might require as many as several hundred welds, and the factory was in full production of a dozen different mechanisms: altimeters, air-speed indicators, fuel gauges, attitude indicators, counters, timers, compasses, gyroscopes—all those things that would measure and confine objective forces and put them, like weapons, in the hands of the fighter pilots who attacked fortified islands and fought high over empty seas.
On fifteen production lines, depending upon the instrument in manufacture, the course of construction was interspersed with anywhere from twenty to forty welders. Amidst the welders were machine-tool operators, inspectors, assemblers, and supervisors. Because each man or woman had to have a lot of room in which to keep parts, tools, and the work itself as it came down the line, and because the ravine and, therefore, the building were narrow, the lines stretched for a quarter of a mile.
Welders’ light is almost pure. Despite the spectral differences between the various techniques, the flash of any one of them gives rise to illusions of depth and dimension. No gaudy showers of dancing sparks fall as with a cutting torch, and no beams break through the darkness to carry the eye on a wav e of blue. One sees only points of light so faithful and pure that they seem to race into themselves. The silvery whiteness is like the imagined birth of stars or souls. Though each flash is beautiful and stretches out time, it seldom lasts long. For despite the magnetizing brightness, or perhaps because of it, the flash is born to fade. Still, the sharp burst of light is a brave and wonderful thing that makes observers count the seconds and cheer it on.
From her station on the altimeter line, Paulette could see over gray steel tables down the length of the shed. Of the four hundred electric-arc or gas-welding torches in operation, the number lighted varied at any one time from twenty or thirty to almost all of them. As each welder pulled down her mask, bent over as if in a dive, and squeezed the lever on her torch, the pattern of the lights emerged, and it was never the same twice. Through the dark glass of the face plate the flames in the distance were like a spectacular convocation of fireflies on a hot, moonless night. With the mask up, the plane of the work tables looked like the floor of the universe, the smoky place where stars were born. All the lights, even those that were distant, commanded attention and assaulted the senses— by the score, by the hundreds.
Directly across from Paulette was a woman whose job was to make oxyacetylene welds on the outer cases ot the altimeters. The eases were finished, and then carried by trolley to the end of the line, where they would be hooded over the instruments themselves. Paulette, who worked with an electric arc, never tired of watching this woman adjust her torch. When she lit it, the flame was white inside but surrounded by a yellow envelope that sent up twisting columns of smoke. Then she changed the mixture and a plug of intense white appeared at the end of the torch, in the center of a small orange flare. When finally she got her neutral flame—with a tighter white plug, a colorless core, and a sapphire-blue casing—she lowered her mask and bent over the work.
Paulette had many things to do on one altimeter. She had to attach all the brass, copper, and aluminum alloy parts to the steel superstructure of the instrument. She had to use several kinds of flux; she had to assemble and brace the components; and she had to jump from one operation to the other in just the right order, because if she did not, pieces due for insertion would be blocked or bent.
She had such a complicated routine only because she was doing the work of two. The woman who had been next to her got sick one day, and Paulette had taken on her tasks. Everyone assumed that the line would slow down. But Paulette doubled her speed and kept up the pace.
“I don’t know how you do it, Paulette,” her supervisor had said, as she worked with seemingly effortless intensity.
“I’m going twice as fast, Mr. Hannon,”she replied.
“Can you keep it up?”
“I sure can,” she answered. “In fact, when Lindy comes back, you can put her down the line and give her work to me.” Whereas Lindy always talked about clothes and shoes, Paulette preferred to concentrate on the instrument that she was fashioning. She was granted her wish. Among other things, Hannon and just about everyone else on the line wanted to see how long she could continue the pace before she broke. But she knew this, and she didn’t break. She got better, and she got faster.
WHEN PAULETTE GOT HOME IN THE MORNING, THE sea was illuminated as the sun came up behind her. The open and fluid light of the Pacific was as entrancing as the light of the Carolinas in springtime. At times the sea looked just like the wind-blue mottled waters of the Albemarle, and the enormous clouds that rose in huge columns far out over the ocean were like the aromatic pine smoke that ascended undisturbed from a farmer’s clearing fire toward a flawless blue sky.
She was elated in the morning. Joy and relief came not only from the light on the waves but also from having passed the great test of the day, which was to open the mailbox and check the area near the front door. The mailman, who served as the telegraph messenger, thought that he was obliged to wedge telegrams tightly in the doorway. One of the women, a lathe operator who had had to go back to her family in Chicago, had found her telegram actually nailed down. The mailman had feared that it might blow into the sea, and that then she would find out in some shocking, incidental manner that her husband had been killed. At the factory were fifty women whose husbands, like Lee, had passed through Twentynine Palms into the Second Marine Division. They had been deeply distressed when their men were thrown into the fighting on Guadalcanal, but, miraculously, of the fifty Marines whose wives were gathered in this one place only a few had been wounded and none had been killed.
When her work was done, knowing that she had made the best part of thirty altimeters that would go into thirty fighters, and that each of these fighters would do a great deal to protect the ships on which the Marines sailed, and pummel the beaches on which they had to fight, Paulette felt deserving of sleep. She would change into a nightgown, turn down the covers, and then sit in a chair next to the bed, staring at the Pacific as the light got stronger, trying to master the fatigue and stay awake. Sometimes she would listen to the wind for an hour, nod asleep, and force herself to open her eyes, until she fell into bed and slept until two in the afternoon.
Lee had returned from his training at Parris Island with little respect for what he once had thought were human limitations. His company had marched for three days, day and night, without stopping. Some recruits, young men, had died of heart attacks.
“How can you walk for three whole days without stopping?” she had asked. “It seems impossible.”
“We had forty-pound packs, rifles, and ammunition,” he answered. “We had to carry mortars, bazookas, stretchers, and other equipment, some of it very heavy, that was passed from shoulder to shoulder.”
“For three days?”
“For three days. And when we finally stopped, I was picked as a sentinel. I had to stand guard for two hours while everyone else slept. And you know what happens if you fall asleep, God help you, on sentry duty?”
She shook her head, but did know.
“Article eighty-six of the Articles of War: ‘Misbehavior of a sentinel.'” He recited it from memory. “‘Any sentinel who is found drunk or sleeping upon his post, or leaves it before he is regularly relieved, shall, if the offense is committed in time of war, suffer death or such other punishment as a court-martial may direct.'
“I was so tired . . . My eyelids weighed ten thousand pounds apiece. But I stayed up, even though the only enemies we had were officers and mosquitoes. They were always coming around to check.”
“Who?” she asked. “Mosquitoes?”
“Yeah,” Lee replied. “And as you know, officers are hatched in stagnant pools.”
So when Paulette returned from her ten-hour shifts, she sat in a chair and tried not to sleep, staring over the Pacific like a sentinel.
She had the privilege of awakening at two in the afternoon, when the day was strongest, and not having to be ashamed of having slept through the morning. In the six hours before the shift began, she would rise, bathe, eat lunch, and gather her garden tools. Then she walked a few miles down the winding coast road—the rake, hoe, and shovel resting painfully upon her shoulders—to her garden. No shed was anywhere near it, and had one been there she probably would have carried the tools anyway.
Because she shared the garden with an old man who came in the morning and two factory women who were on the second day shift, she was almost always alone there. Usually she worked in the strong sun until five-thirty. To allow herself this much hard labor she did her shopping and eating at a brisk pace. The hours in the garden made her strong and fit. She was perpetually sunburned, and her hair became lighter. She had never been so beautiful, and when people looked at her, they kept on looking. Seeing her speed through the various and difficult chores of cultivation, no one ever would have guessed that she might shoulder her tools, walk home as fast as she could, and then set off for ten hours on a production line.
“Don’t write about the garden anymore,”he had written from a place undisclosed. “Don’t write about the goddamned altimeters. Don’t write about what we’re going to do when the war is over. Just tell me about you. They have altimeters here, they even have gardens. Tell me what you’re thinking. Describe yourself as if we had never met. Tell me in detail exactly how you take your bath. Do you sing to yourself? What do the sheets on the bed look like— I mean do they have a pattern or are they a color? I never saw them. Take pictures, and send them. Send me your barrette. (I don’t want to wear it myself, I want to keep it in my pocket.) I care so much about you, Paulette. I love you. And I’m doing my best to stay alive. You should see me when it gets tight. I don’t throw myself up front, but I don’t hold my breath either, I run around like hell, alert and listening every second. My aim is sure and I don’t let off shots when I don’t have to. You’d never know me, Paulette, and I don’t know if there’s any thing left of me. But I’m going to come home.”
Although she didn’t write about the garden anymore, she tilled it deep. The rows were straight, and not a single weed was to be seen, and w hen she walked home with the tools on her shoulders, she welcomed their weight.
THEY EXCHANGED POSTSCRIPTS FOR TWO MONTHS IN letters that were late in coming and always crossed. “P.S. What do you eat?” he wrote.
“P.S. What do you mean, what do I eat? Why do you want to know? What do you eat?”
“P.S. I want to know because I’m hungry. I eat crud. It all comes from a can, it’s very salty, and it has a lot of what seems to be pork fat. Some local vegetables haven’t been bombed, or crushed by heavy vehicles, but if you eat them you can wave good-bye to your intestines. Sometimes we have cakes that are baked in pans four feet by five feet. The bottom is cinder and the top is raw dough. What happened to steak? No one has it here, and I haven’t seen one in a year. Where are they keeping it? Is there going to be a big barbecue after the war?”
“P.S. You’re right, we have no beef around here and practically no sugar or butter, either. I thought maybe you were getting it. I eat a lot of fresh vegetables, rice, fish that I get in exchange for the stuff in my garden, and chicken now and then. I’ve lost some weight, but I look real good. I drink my tea black, and I mean black, because at the plant they have a huge samovar thing where it boils for hours. What with your pay mounting up in one account, my pay mounting up in another, and what the parents have been sending us lately, when the war is over we’re going to have a lot of money. We have almost four thousand dollars now. We’ll have the biggest barbecue you’ve ever seen.”
As long as she did her work and as long as he stayed alive, she sensed some sort of justice and equilibrium. She enjoyed the feminine triumph in the factory, where the women, doing men’s work, sometimes broke into song that was as tentative and beautiful as only women’s voices can be. They did not sing often. The beauty and the power embarrassed them, for they had their independence only because their men were at risk and the world was at war. But sometimes they couldn’t help it, and a song would rise above the production lines, lighter than the ascending smoke, more luminous than the blue and white arcs.
The Pacific and California’s golden hills caught the clear sunshine but made it seem like a dream in which sight was confused and the dreamer giddy. The sea, with its cold colors and foaming cauldrons in which seals were cradlerocked. was the northern part of the same ocean that held ten thousand tropical islands. All these things, these reversals, paradoxes, and contradictions, were burned in day by day until they seemed to make sense, until it appeared as if some great thing were being accomplished, greater than perhaps they knew. For they felt tremendous velocity in the way they worked, the way they lived, and even in the way they sang.
ON THE TWENTIETH OF NOVEMBER, 1943, FIVE thousand men of the Second Marine Division landed on the beaches of Tarawa. The action of war, the noise, smoke, and intense labor of battle, seemed frozen when it reached home, especially for those whose husbands or sons were engaged in the fighting. A battle from afar is only a thing of silence, of souls ascending as if drawn up in slow motion by malevolent angels floating above the fray. Tarawa, a battle afar, seemed no more real than a painting. Paulette and the others had no chance to act. They were forced to listen fitfully to the silence and stare faithfully into the dark.
Now, when the line broke into song, the women did not sing the energetic popular music that could stoke production until it glowed. Nor did they sing the graceful ballads that had kept them on the line when they would otherwise have faltered. Now the songs were from the hymnal, and they were sung not in a spirit of patriotism or of production but in prayer.
As the battle was fought on Tarawa, two women fell from the line. One had been called from her position and summoned to what they knew as the office, which was a maze of wavy-glass partitions beyond which other people did the paperwork, and she, like the lathe operator from Chicago, simply dropped away. Another had been given a telegram as she worked; no one really knew how to tell anyone such a thing. But with so many women working, the absence of two did not slow their industry. Two had been beaten. Five hundred were not, and the lights still flickered down the line.
Paulette had known from the first that Lee was on the beach. She wondered which was more difficult, being aware that he might be in any battle, or knowing for sure that he was in one. The first thing she did when she got the newspaper was to scan the casualty lists, dropping immediately to the Fs. It did not matter that they sent telegrams; telegrams sometimes blew into the sea. Next she raced through reports of the fighting, tracing if she could the progress of his unit and looking for any mention of him. Only then would she read the narrative so as to judge the progress of the offensive and the chances of victory, though she cared not so much for victory as for what it meant to the men in the field who were still alive.
The line was hypnotic and it swallowed up time. If she Wanted to do good work, she couldn’t think about anything except what was directly in front of her, especially since she was doing the work of two. But when she was free she now dreamed almost continually of her young husband, as if the landings in Tarawa, across the Pacific, had been designed to make her imagine him.
During these days the garden needed little attention, so she did whatever she could and then went down to a sheltered cove by the sea, w here she lav on the sand, in the sun, half asleep. For as long as her eyes were closed and the sea seemed to pound everything but dreams into meaningless foam and air, she lay with him, tightly, a slight smile on her face, listening to him breathe. She would awake from this half sleep to find that she was holding her hands and arms in such a way that had he been there she would have been embracing him.
She often spoke to him under her breath, informing him, as if he could hear her, of everything she thought and did—of the fact that she was turning off the flame under the kettle, of the sunrise and its golden-red light flooding against the pines, of how the ocean looked when it was joyously misbehaving.
THESE WERE THE THINGS SHE COULD DO, THE POWers to which she was limited, in the town on the Pacific that was probably the last place in the world for a factory or the working of trancendent miracles too difficult to explain or name. But she felt that somehow her devotion and her sharp attention would have repercussions, that, just as in a concert hall, where music could only truly rise within the hearts of its listeners, she could forge a connection over the thin air. When a good wave rolled against the rocks of the cove, it sent up rockets of foam that hung in the sun, motionlessly and—if one could look at them hard enough to make them stand still—forever. To make them a target, to sight them with concentration as absolute as a burning weld, to draw a bead, to hold them in place with the eye, was to change the world.
The factory was her place for this, for precision, devotion, and concentration. Here the repercussions might begin. Here, in the darkness, the light that was so white it was almost blue—sapphire-colored—flashed continually, like muzzle bursts, and steel was set to steel as if swords were being made. Here she could push herself, drive herself, and work until she could hardly stand—all for him.
As the battle of Tarawa became more and more difficult, and men fell, Paulette doubled and redoubled her efforts. Every weld was true. She built the instruments with the disciplined ferocity that comes only from love. For the rhythm of the work seemed to signify something far greater than the work itself. The timing of her welds, the blinking of the arc, the light touch that held two parts together and was then withdrawn, the patience and the quickness, the generation of blinding flares and small pencil-shots of smoke—these acts, qualities, and their progress, like the repetitions in the hymns that the women sang on the line, made a kind of quiet thunder that rolled through all things, and that, in Paulette’s deepest wishes, shot across the Pacific in performance of a miracle she dared not even name—though that miracle was not to be hers. □