by Amy L. Hull
written in the Yuletide 2013 challenge for sarken
Thanks to my beta-readers, Blue Morpho and Merlin Missy
Margaret set her hands on the podium, scanned the crowd, and took a deep breath.
"Today," she began, "we take our oaths as nurses. We promise to serve, to use the skills we've learned, and never to fail the doctors we assist or the patients we care for. We will promise to learn new techniques and to be examples of-"
Maggie Houlihan raised a gloved hand in front of her neatly pressed suit coat and waved. Margaret scanned, and Maggie saw Margaret's face fall at the empty chair beside her.
Margaret blinked, lifted her chin, and started again, louder. "Examples of the best this country has to offer."
Maggie pressed her lips together, determined not to cry. The afternoon sun turned her baby's hair to spun gold, shone in her eyes like her fiery temper. As Margaret would have been the first to say-in her father's tone that brooked no argument-she had not been Maggie's baby in over twenty years.
Margaret fumbled with her paper, and pressed on. "I'm sure many of us will be offering our skills to the United States Army to support the war effort. I know I will. Thank you." She smiled again-forced this time-and stepped back to join her class.
Maggie swallowed hard. Two of them. Her only two. And there was a war on. She lifted her chin. She was an army wife. She understood how it was.
The department head was back at the microphone. "My congratulations and thanks to the top nurse of our 1942 class." He gestured to Margaret who, even sitting, was at attention. "Her inspiring words are a reminder to us all to do our part." He pushed up his glasses. "After we present these new nurses with their hats, we'd like to ask those family members to come forward and participate in awarding their pins."
Maggie leaned forward, made eye contact. Margaret shook her head slightly then looked away.
Hats were folded and placed on the women's up-dos. Margaret held hers on as it slipped.
Next came the president of the school. The nurse beside him held a tray from which he plucked a pin and approached Margaret first. He looked around. "Who will be-"
"I'll pin on my own," Margaret said, reaching for it.
"Oh, we can't have that." The man fumbled with her lapel, pinned the circle on, and shook her hand. "Congratulations, Nurse," he said formally.
Margaret's smile wavered only slightly.
He moved down the line, handing pins to family members. Some kissed cheeks, others swayed in embraces. One even saluted a uniformed father.
Margaret, standing at attention, looked into the distance and stood a little straighter. Maggie ignored the tightness of her chest, the dampness on her eyelashes.
The last pin was pinned, applause rang out, and people crushed together. Two people stepped on Maggie's feet, she was knocked off balance, but she moved toward a flash of blonde.
Margaret's smile was genuine this time. Maggie held her daughter tight, then she leaned back and touched the pin with Florence Nightingale's lamp embossed in gold filigree. "This is almost as beautiful as you. I'm so proud of you, Margaret."
"Daddy's all right, isn't he?"
Maggie pursed her lips. "He's fine. He's being sent to Hawaii and has a briefing. Your father told me to congratulate you."
Margaret lifted her chin. "I've got an appointment with a recruiter tomorrow morning. Maybe I'll join him in a few months."
Maggie patted her daughter's arm. "Your father told me to buy you lunch. Ready to celebrate?"
Neither of them mentioned Al, no matter how large his presence loomed.
The Houlihan recruit was fit, especially for a woman. Apparently she'd gone on runs with her father, had tried the training course starting at age eight, had pushed until she could do it all.
Jameson overhead all this when the recruits thought they were being quiet, especially as he shadowed them at calisthenics, on morning runs, and during obstacle training.
Boot camp was often harder than children of career military expected. Houlihan, though, she roared her way through every trial, and at every weakling who whined.
It's supposed to be hard, she shouted. The enemy doesn't make it easy!When her bunkmate sprained an ankle on morning runs, Houlihan wrapped it and tied the boot laces tight so the boot would support the joint. "Let's go, soldier," she said, pulling Alice to her feet. Hines hissed in pain. "You won't be able to stop if there's a threat! Let's go!"
Houlihan stayed back during the run, pushing Hines, pacing her, yelling orders. They arrived back last.
Jameson barely avoided smiling as he barked, "Hines! Houlihan! Drop and give me twenty!"
"Sir, yes, Sir!" they shouted back in unison. Hines squeaked just once as they got into position.
Jameson shouted. "What do you little girls think the enemy does to little girls who fall behind?"
"I sprained my ankle," Hines gasped.
Houlihan was so close Jameson could smell her mouthwash. "The enemy don't care if your leg is broken!" he shouted.
Houlihan jumped to her feet and stood to attention.
"Come on, Hines! Five more!"
Soon Hines was on her feet and at attention.
"Breakfast is over. You girls are on KP. Be at the training course in twenty!"
"Sir, Sergeant, Sir!" Houlihan interjected.
He moved to an inch from her nose.
"What is it, recruit?"
"Sir, Hines is injured, Sir."
Jameson growled. "Is that so, recruit?"
"Sir, yes, Sir. Possible ankle sprain, Sir." She kept her voice steady and loud. No flinching, no backing down. Yes, this one was tough.
"KP, both of you. Hines, infirmary then training afterward. Houlihan, at training in fifteen."
"Sir, yes, Sir!" she shouted.
Houlihan made it in fourteen minutes.
Her records said she was a registered nurse. The medical officer confirmed that Hines' ankle had been expertly wrapped. Houlihan worked harder than almost any recruite Jameson had seen. He signed his name to the officer training transfer with a flourish.
Despite her carefully-perched cap, his daughter squinted into the sun. Even so, Margaret stood tall, her form at attention perfect, just as Maggie had described their daughter at her nursing graduation a year before.
Small hands pinned second lieutenant's rank insignia to Margaret's neatly-pressed Class A uniform. Those hands belonged to Representive Edith Rogers, the woman responsible for the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps, and Al could admit-only to himself, of course-that he didn't know quite what to think of that, for the Army or for his daughter.
"Thank you, Ma'am," Margaret said.
Oh, she was smart, his girl.
"Congratulations, Officer," Representative Rogers said. Then this woman who got herself elected to Congress, then made laws for the Army, she shook his daughter's hand firmly. At least she had a strong handshake.
Margaret's uniform and stance, they were as sharp as any man's, and the laws said Margaret would not see combat, but, still, she was meddling in places Al was still not sure she belonged.
Margaret glanced his way. Maggie squeezed his hand, but he just stared in Margaret's direction. He held himself tight-lipped and still. He would not betray emotion with so many officers present.
After the ceremony, Margaret found them and snapped to salute her father. He saluted back, then offered a hand. Her palm was moist in his, as if his soldier-daughter was nervous, so he tried to offer her strength through his grip.
"Lieutenant Houlihan," he said.
"Captain Houlihan," she replied.
He released her hand and saluted again, struggling or words. "I suppose with a war on, it was inevitable they'd bring women into the army. Just don't forget, Margaret, the army's a dangerous place."
Maggie squeezed his arm where hand rested near his elbow. For his wife's sake, he hoped there were no hostilities after this war in Europe and the Pacific were over. Maggie would rest easier if Margaret ended up stationed Stateside.
His daughter just held his gaze, accepting the challenge. She'd never be one to go down without a fight, no matter who she was up against.
That's my girl, he thought.