In 1955, when the Air Force started building on the far outskirts of town what the local paper called an Aerospace Defense Command Center, the town was excited. To quote the local paper, which the town often did, this would surely show those no-good Soviets exactly what they were dealing with. Their town would be ready. Uncle Sam, in all his bounty, had chosen their town. Their little stretch of prairie. Fortunate stroke of luck, they all said. Nothing terrible will ever happen here now.
But when the Air Force came that fall, the men came. When the men came, so did the women. The women who came were sometimes wives and sometimes not, which precisely started the trouble. The women of the town, the women and wives who had been there long before the Air Force, recognized this problem right away. Certainly they hadn’t foreseen such a problem. Shocking. Upsetting. They all agreed: these poor boys, they protect our country, we must protect their honor. But how? Their husbands mostly shrugged. A few insensitive ones said things like: how do you think I passed the time during my Pacific tour? Or, too bad these girls aren’t French, oh la la, the French girls I met during the war!
The practical husbands suggested their wives turn a sensible blind eye. After all, the entire town was doing more and more business since the Air Force came, and wouldn’t more business be good? Wouldn’t it possibly mean that summer vacation for them? That fur they’d been eying? New shoes for the kids? A deluxe electric stove? Money to send to their mother for her operation? A way to pay off the mortgage?
When Willa asked her husband he just shrugged and said that he felt sorry for those women, not the Air Force boys. When she asked him just what exactly he meant by that, he only shrugged. When she said, wait just a darn minute, he had the audacity to go mow the lawn. Both the front and the back, and then, to add insult to injury, he washed the car. When he finally came back in for supper he wouldn’t say another word on the subject.
And so the women talked amongst themselves. Over clotheslines. While waiting to collect their children at school. At bridge parties. Morning coffee. Afternoon cake. Church socials. In front yards, and backyards. Between grocery store aisles. Slowly, they made plans, organized, enlisted the help of their friends, typed pamphlets and letters, and armed themselves for battle. They would, in effect, drive the vice out of their town. If they didn’t have their men behind them, they at least had most of the priests and ministers.
They worked all winter. To do her part, Willa typed most of the letters, ones to Air Force generals, Air Force wives, senators, the president, the first lady, the governor, the pope, the bishop, the mayor, not to mention letters to the editor. When her husband told her that he was glad to see she was putting that typing course to good use, she asked him if he really thought so. He went to shovel snow off the front walk. The women who were not involved in letter typing, or ladies league speeches, those other women, took up residence above Pistol Pete’s Saloon, a place that Willa heard described as an establishment that had been going downhill for years. Those other women wore fur coats to ward off the snow, the bitterly cold weather. Those other women were careful, but conspicuous. And, as the town women complained, they often were seen buying new stockings, stocking up, with the same ease as every other female on cans of soup and Spam at the Red Owl Grocery, even frequenting the movie theater on what was presumably a slow afternoon. No, they said, it must not be tolerated. But nothing happened, the months passed, seasons passed, and the Air Force, the town, and all of its various women continued: writing letters, buying stockings, talking over clotheslines, and comparing the prices of canned goods. Willa found this rather curious.
Nothing happened, she said to her husband over dinner one night. Typed my fingers raw, not even a response from the mayor.
The damaging nature of typing then should make you happy to be a housewife rather than a secretary, her husband said.
She could see he was smiling, and since he was in the middle of eating Swedish meatballs, she took this as encouragement that he’d have to sit through and hear her out. She gave their baby another bite of mashed carrot before continuing. She could hear the television on in the other room where their other children sat watching, ready for bed in their pajamas, having eaten before their father came home from work.
But surely it’s illegal, she said.
What’s illegal? How much time secretaries spend typing?
He was still smiling, but no longer eating. She watched him push meatballs and egg noodles around on his plate. He had turned his head, perhaps to listen to the children in the other room, or perhaps to the television.
Those women, she said. I see them around town, the children see them around town. Just the other day, at the park, no less, one was walking a little dog, a Chihuahua, right in plain sight. And the children actually asked me if they could go pet her dog.
Nothing illegal about walking a dog, her husband said.
Of course I told the children no, she said. What else could I say? But they wanted to know why not.
He picked up his plate and carried it over to the sink. The television went silent, probably accidently turned off, and one of the children started to cry. He smiled at her again and told her he’d better go see what the heavens was going on in the living room. She turned and spooned more carrots into the waiting baby’s mouth.
It was true, she had seen the woman at the park, walking her little dog, and the children had asked a lot of questions. But that was only because the woman with the little dog had sat down on the bench next to her. Willa had been sitting with the baby stroller parked next to her, while the children went down the slide, pushed each other on swings, and filled their shoes with sand. Although it was a nice fall day, sunny and fairly warm, no one else was in the park. Perhaps, she had thought, because it was after school hours, late afternoon, when most children were at home, or eating early suppers, or doing schoolwork before their fathers returned home from work.
She saw the woman walking toward her, hips swaying, the dog pulling on the leash, pulling both of them forward. The woman was wearing a cream dress with a light pink fur coat. The dog was also wearing a pink fur coat, a miniature version of its owner’s. Willa’s heart started beating fast. She considered calling the children, leaving the park. But to leave they would have to walk by the woman and the dog anyway. So she sat, and the children kept swinging and laughing, and the baby stayed asleep, and Willa kept her eyes on the woman. The woman had nice red hair, but it clashed with the pink coat. Willa thought she was probably older than her, and somehow this had surprised her. She watched the dog stop and pee, and the woman bend down and carefully check to make sure it hadn’t damaged its miniature fur coat. She watched the woman walk straight towards her, the dog pulling the leash taut so it could sniff at the baby stroller, sniff at Willa’s feet. The woman sat down.
Or, as Willa thought about it now in her kitchen, spooning carrots to the baby, it was to her horror that the woman had sat down next to her. The woman had sat down, smoothed her coat, her dress, and then bent, calling the little dog over, and smoothed its coat.
It’s a nice day, the woman said. She snapped her fingers at the dog and it jumped onto her lap. This is Eddy, she said. Upon hearing his name, Eddy wagged his tail.
Willa nodded and then turned to shift the baby carriage out of the afternoon sun.
You’re one of those town ladies, the woman said. I’ve seen you with them passing out those pamphlets. And once, maybe just last spring, you and some other lady pointed at me at the Red Owl Grocery. You were wearing a navy blue coat.
I’m sorry, I don’t remember, Willa said.
I was buying some steak for Eddy. But don’t feel bad, it’s the same welcome in every other place I’ve been.
Just then the children spotted Eddy. They pointed and yelled about the dog in such a loud voice that the baby woke up and started crying, and by the time the children reached the bench, the dog had jumped off the woman’s lap and started barking.
Can we pet that dog? they both said.
No, it’s time to go home.
She stood up, and even though the baby was still screaming, she started pushing the stroller towards the path, her two children running behind her.
I want a dog, her son said.
I want red hair, her daughter said.
Let’s not mention this to Dad, Willa said.
But why not? her son said.
I want a pink coat, her daughter said, and turned to point at the woman.
And Willa turned to look back at the bench, and saw that the woman was still sitting, and Eddy was still barking.
And so she had gone home and made dinner for the children and gotten them ready for bed and told them that, as a treat, they could watch television. She hoped, although she felt guilty, that this would keep them from mentioning the park to their father. She cooked for her husband and mashed carrots for the baby, thinking of the woman in the park. The pink coat. The dog. The dog’s pink coat. And as she sat feeding the baby, she wondered, since it was now dark, if the woman had gone to work. She imagined crowds of Air Force boys on leave for the night laughing and drinking at Pistol Pete’s. She wondered if pink fur coats were expensive.
The next day, after walking the children to school, Willa talked to her neighbor over the clothesline. They shared a clothesline and they were both hanging up tiny shirts, little pairs of pants, small dresses, even smaller socks. Overhead, Air Force jets left white contrails in the sky. Sometimes the jets were so loud that the women had to raise their voices.
In the park, did you just say? the neighbor said.
In front of my children, Willa said.
And your baby not even a year old, the neighbor said, and shook her head.