Copyright 2018 Jo Huddleston
Santa Ana, California, September 24, 1956
Mary Ann Williams walked ahead of Betty Campbell through the halls of the Santa Ana Community Hospital. “Greg has a bullet in his shoulder. He’s lost a lot of blood and is almost unconscious. So…what’s your excuse, Betty?”
Betty hurried to match Mary Ann’s lengthy stride. “What’s my excuse?”
“Yes, they just rushed Greg to surgery, and now you tell me he proposed in the ambulance, and you said yes! What’s wrong with you?”
Betty plopped onto the green vinyl-covered sofa in the empty waiting room and cast a defensive gaze at her roommate. “Nothing’s wrong. I expected you’d be happy for me.”
“Be happy for you?” Mary Ann asked. “Since y’all met two weeks ago at Donna and Tommy’s wedding, you’ve been fighting non-stop. Putting you two together is like trying to mix water and Wesson cooking oil. Complete opposites! All weekend you’ve refused to speak to Greg and me since we had dinner together Friday evening while you had to work late. And now you’re going to marry him.”
“You just don’t understand because you’ve never been in love.”
“You’re right about that. Love has sure made you do some crazy things—I’m not sure I want to ever be in love.”
They looked up when Donna and Tommy Crowley rushed into the waiting room. “We got here as soon as I could leave work and pick up Donna,” Tommy said.
“How’s Greg?” Donna asked about her brother.
“He’s in surgery,” Betty said, standing and hugging Donna. “The doctor wants to get the bullet out of him. He’s lost a lot of blood, and it ran down over the cast on his wrist from his car accident during the recent Santa Ana winds.”
The three girls sat on the sofa while Tommy walked to the coffee urn on the counter behind the Pink Lady’s desk. He looked back at the girls and said, “Y’all want a cup?”
When they each shook their head, Tommy rejoined them with his coffee and sat in a nearby chair. “Mary Ann, when you phoned me, you said something awful had happened at your office, and you’d give me the details later.”
Mary Ann took a deep breath and dove into her explanation. “Friday night, Betty’s boss had her stay late at the office. She and Greg had a date for dinner, and when he came to pick her up, I told him she was still at work. He already had reservations and didn’t want to eat alone, so he asked me to go with him, and I did. When Betty found out we had dinner together, she got mad at both of us and wouldn’t speak to Greg.”
“Okay, but what’s that got to do with today and Greg being in the hospital?”
“Oh, well, I suggested to Greg he stay away over the weekend and come by the office today on his lunch hour. I assumed by then Betty would be over her mad spell. Anyway, two guys tried to rob the office around noon, and Greg arrived in the middle of it. When he tried to talk some sense into the robbers, one of them shot Greg, and then later Greg tackled the robber just as the police got there.”
“And y’all considered the gas company office a peaceful place to work,” Tommy said.
“Does the doctor think Greg will be okay?” Donna asked.
“Yes, after they get the bullet out of his arm,” Mary Ann said.
“Betty, you’re mighty quiet. You okay?” Tommy asked.
“Yes, I’m all right. I rode in the ambulance with Greg.”
“She thinks Greg proposed marriage in the ambulance,” Mary Ann said.
Betty stood and stamped her foot on the tiled floor. “Greg did ask me to marry him on the way here in the ambulance. And I said yes!”
“Greg was so out of it, he probably won’t remember anything either of you said inside the ambulance,” Mary Ann said.
Donna went to Betty. “You’re upset. We all are. Sit back on the sofa. We’ll learn more when the doctor finishes Greg’s surgery.”
During the next two hours, they each took turns pacing the floor. Tommy found a Coke vending machine and brought each of the girls a bottle. They waited in silence when an exhausted doctor entered the waiting room…
The doctor looked their way and said, “The Greg Turner family?”
They stood, and Tommy answered for them, “Yes, sir.”
The doctor shuffled to where they waited. “We got the bullet out with not much nerve damage. We had to re-cast his left wrist, the old cast was soaked in blood from his bullet wound. He lost a lot of blood, but he’ll recover, and I’ve ordered a transfusion. We’ll keep him overnight for observation. Then tomorrow, we’ll further evaluate his condition to see about sending him home.”
“Doctor,” Tommy said. “You mentioned not much nerve damage. Will he have full use of his left arm after this?”
“I’ll check that tomorrow before I discharge him. I expect he’ll have full use of his arm, but we’ll determine it for sure tomorrow.”
“When can we see him?” Tommy asked.
“He’s still pretty groggy, but we have him in a room. One of you can see him now and perhaps all of you by this evening. Who’s next of kin?”
“I am,” Donna said.
“Come with me, and I’ll take you to the nurse’s station.”
“Doctor,” Donna said, motioning to Betty. “I’d rather she see Greg first. Would that be all right?”
“Yes, if you give your permission we’ll allow it.” He looked toward Betty. “Come with me.”
Betty eased open the door to Greg’s hospital room and slipped quietly inside. His eyes were closed, and he didn’t wake. She stepped to his bedside. His pale skin and the new cast on his left wrist matched the stark-white bed linens. She reached to push back his dark hair from his forehead, and his eyes opened.
His weak smile revealed his cheeks’ one dimple. “Hey…how long have you been standing there?”
“Not long. I didn’t mean to wake you. Go back to sleep.”
“No, not with you here. Is everybody at your office okay? Nobody else got hurt, did they?”
“Everybody’s all right.”
With his good arm, he reached for her hand.
“I seem to be visiting you too often in a hospital room,” she said. “You need to be more careful.”
He tightened his grip on her hand. “In the ambulance, I told you I love you. I meant every word I said.”
“And I love you.”
“I asked you to marry me.”
“And I said yes and mentioned a Christmas wedding.”
He tugged her closer, then reached to pull her face nearer to his. When their lips touched, all her tensions from the doubts Mary Ann had planted disappeared. Greg did remember! He loved her and wanted to marry her. As she’d told Greg in the ambulance, she loved him too much to stay mad at him.
The next day at work, Betty had been in the private office of Mr. Bolton, the district manager of Southern Counties Gas Company of California, taking dictation for an hour. When the girls transferred to the Huntington Beach office last week, that had been her primary assignment, and if Mr. Bolton wasn’t in, she helped at the front with customer payments and start-up and disconnect orders.
Mary Ann sat on her tall stool, in place behind the service counter. Judy was at her position on Mary Ann’s left, and Estelle, the office manager, sat at her desk behind them and farther to the left where she had a view of the entire office area as well as the front entrance and small lobby area. Customer traffic was slow this morning, allowing Mary Ann to daydream. Her feelings turned, as they often did, to how fortunate she and her friends were to be in California.
They were not the same naïve girls who left Alabama six months ago to chase their dreams to Los Angeles. When she and Donna and Betty traveled west on U.S. Highway 66, they had been footloose and fancy-free. Much had changed for each of them.
Donna had run out of money in Needles, California and stayed there working in a diner to save money to continue to the west coast. It was in the diner where Betty’s life changed forever when Tommy Crowley, her junior high school crush had walked in. He was her brother’s best friend, and she’d tagged along with them every chance she got. Tommy didn’t recognize her, but when Donna introduced herself, he was attracted to her, seeing the beautiful results of her transformation from the skinny kid he remembered.
Tommy was on his way to Los Angeles to take a job at his uncle’s architectural company. He didn’t want to continue his trip and leave Donna, but his uncle expected him. He offered her a ride with him to Los Angeles. To convince her to accompany him, he stressed they were simply friends, and she would get to Los Angeles to meet up with Betty and Mary Ann quicker than working to save money for the trip. Their love blossomed, and they married about two weeks ago, on Labor Day weekend.
Meanwhile, Betty and Mary Ann reached their destination and landed jobs in the steno pool at the Southern Counties Gas Company’s headquarters in Los Angeles. They rented a furnished, one-bedroom apartment in Santa Ana, a short drive on the Santa Ana Freeway south to their work. Recently they’d been transferred to the Huntington Beach office, and at Donna and Tommy’s wedding, they’d met Donna’s brother Greg.
Betty had taken an immediate dislike for Greg, telling Mary Ann she considered him arrogant. Greg, on the other hand, had fallen for Betty and decided to end his vagabond lifestyle and settle down to try to convince Betty he was responsible and serious about spending time with her. The attempted robbery at the office and Greg’s subsequent injury had apparently awakened them both to their feelings for each other, and they would soon marry.
Mary Ann let out a long sigh, which caught the attention of her co-worker, Judy. “You sound like more than boredom on a slow day. What’s wrong?”
“Oh, nothing. Just thinking.” Maybe she felt sorry for herself, and Mary Ann hated when other people did so. But she couldn’t dismiss the obvious: Donna and Betty had probably found the last two men on earth who had a deep devotion for their women. It would be a miracle if Mary Ann were to meet a man who would be as devoted to her. She allowed her friends to think she didn’t want a boyfriend.
She wished she did. Especially now since her two best friends had found their soul mates. Wearing high heels with her height of five feet nine inches, she towered over almost everybody. What guy wanted to date a girl taller than he was? Any man who found her attractive would have to be at least six feet tall, preferably taller.
Growing up, she’d always been the tallest girl in her class and even taller than most of the boys. She wished she had a dollar for every time her mama demanded she pull her shoulders back and stand tall. Slumping to pretend she wasn’t so tall came easy. But not anymore. She’d left such a mindset behind and now did not give into such negative thinking. Her height didn’t bother her as it had done growing up. She didn’t need a reminder to stand tall—if others took exception to her height, it was their problem, not hers.
Besides believing her tall stature turned the boys away from her, she’d never shared with her friends that she didn’t really trust any man. She’d watched her mother remain faithful to her daddy, even though Mary Ann knew he was unfaithful to her. On a fateful night several years ago, she’d joined a carload of high school girls who had gone to the movies in a neighboring town. Her daddy walked into the theater with a young woman who was not her mother. Her friends saw him too but didn’t mention it, and neither did Mary Ann.
How many other times had her daddy lied about being out of town on business? As a little girl, her daddy was the first man she’d loved. By the time she hit high school, she’d placed him on a high pedestal and measured all the boys by his example. Discovering her daddy’s infidelity shredded her heart. She no longer trusted her daddy and vowed she would never trust any other man enough to give away her heart. During the years since then, she had ended several budding relationships. They just weren’t worth the likely heartbreak.
The double glass doors of the gas company’s main entrance swooshed open, and Mary Ann looked up, ready to help the approaching customer. Two Marines wearing green fatigues approached her and stopped at the elbow-tall counter. The one who presented his gas bill to pay failed to get her attention, but, oh my, did she notice his companion. They fit the description of Mutt and Jeff in the comics. The guy who wanted to pay his bill was no taller than Mary Ann, but his friend had to be at least six-feet-three.
A little flustered, she reached for the statement the customer pushed toward her. She took his money, returned his change, stamped paid on both ends of the bill, and tore it apart. She slid the customer’s portion of the bill across the counter to the first man and chanced a glance at his friend standing behind him. Uh-oh, his eyes were trained on her. His beautiful brown eyes, the color of her favorite milk chocolate candy bar, held her attention. The guy who had paid his bill turned to leave and stumbled against his friend who stood stock-still, gazing at her.
The first guy turned to see what his friend found so interesting and caught Mary Ann before she lowered her eyes. He moved his hand from side to side in front of his pal’s eyes. “Hey, I’m finished. Time to go.”
“I’d sure be pleased if you’d introduce me,” the tall Marine said with a beautiful Southern drawl to his friend.
“I can’t. I don’t know the lady. Let’s go.” He tried to turn his friend toward the door.
Instead of turning away, Mr. Tall-Dark-and-Handsome stepped closer to the counter. “Miss, please forgive me for staring. I’m Doug Palmer. And you are?”
How daring of him to be so familiar with her, a complete stranger. Nevertheless, she’d opened her mouth to respond with her name, when Estelle immediately left her desk and stood between Mary Ann and Judy, facing the customers.
“May I help you with something?” Estelle asked.
“Yes, ma’am, thank you. Please introduce me to this pretty lady. I’m Doug Palmer,” he repeated.
“Your friend has completed his business here and is waiting for you. It would be wise for you to leave.”
“Ma’am, I’m not trying to cause any trouble. Really, I’m not.” He glanced toward Mary Ann who barely suppressed her smile. “All I want is this pretty girl’s name, so I can contact her later.”
Estelle nudged Mary Ann’s shoulder and said to her, “Go to the break room.”
Mary Ann locked her cash drawer and withdrew the key, slipped off her stool, and walked toward the door to the break room in the back.
“Now young man, I appreciate your service to our country. But please leave.”
In the break room, Mary Ann ran a glass of water at the sink and sat at the round table. What had just happened out there? If she’d ever taken time to visualize her Prince Charming, he would have been standing across the counter from her minutes ago. Before she gave him her name, Estelle had silenced her and banned her from the scene. When she and Betty had reported for work last week, they soon learned Estelle didn’t allow the girls to make any personal telephone calls while on the job. Apparently, she didn’t intend to permit any socializing either.
Doug Palmer. He’d said his name was Doug Palmer. She’d probably never see Doug Palmer again, but she’d never forget those eyes locked with hers—eyes appearing capable of devotion. His square chin, strong jawline, and ample height added to his appeal to her. No other guy had ever affected her the way Doug Palmer had done. And she’d probably never see him again.
Estelle bolted into the break room, talking as she neared the table. “Mary Ann, I’m sorry that Marine caused such a ruckus out there. I sent you back here because I didn’t want you exposed to whatever he might have planned. He was quite brazen to approach you in such a manner.”
She didn’t dare to disagree with her bad-tempered boss. “Yes, ma’am.”
Estelle continued her nervous rant. “Those Marines come into town and think our young ladies should fall at their feet. They’re all brainwashed to consider themselves better than everyone and deserve whatever they happen to want, including a young lady. Even in their fatigues, they feel superior. Put them in their full uniform, and they’re even worse.”
Mary Ann had seen a few Marines around but always at a distance. She knew nothing about them or their frame of mind. “Where did they come from?”
“They’re stationed at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station located near Irvine, inland and about fifteen miles east of here. I understand it’s a sprawling place—a military base as well as an airport. Obviously, the one who paid his bill lives off the base. I hope their appearance and ill manners haven’t upset you terribly. Ready to return to work?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Mary Ann decided Estelle supposed she’d done her a favor, separating her from the presence of the Marines, and added, “Thank you.”
At closing time, before turning the contents of her cash drawer and validated receipts over to Estelle, Mary Ann shuffled through her receipts to find the one paid for by Doug Palmer’s friend. She made a note of the name and address and tucked it into a pocket. She had no idea what good the note would do to help her find her prince charming, but it was her only link to him. A link probably less reliable than trying to count the grains of sand on the nearby beach…
© 2018 Jo Huddleston, All Rights Reserved