“Check out the geezer in the high waters and orthopedics. I bet he breaks a hip before the night’s out! Better yet, ten bucks says he makes a play for one of the hotties at the punch table.”
Muffled laughter rumbled across the table as several soldiers fought to keep their drinks from spewing out of their mouths. Most succeeded.
“Ewww!! That’s disgusting!” squealed a voluptuous blonde wearing a thick slab of Electric Pink lipstick. “Private Hayes, look what you’ve gone and done – this is a brand-new dress!” Holding the silk bodice away from her skin, she threw him a baleful glare before tiptoeing from the table in search of a place to wash.
“Not anymore,” whispered the leggy redhead still seated at the table. With a saucy grin, she tossed her long, thick hair over her shoulder. “Now how’s she going to return it?”
“Man, wouldn’t want to be you, pal.” The highest-ranking G.I. at the table only had two mosquito wings on his collar, but it gave him immense satisfaction to lord it over the other buck privates. Driving his point home, he delivered the crushing blow. “No chance of scoring tonight.”
“Shut up, Phillips.” The spewer kicked the table leg and crossed his arms. His eyes wandered towards the latrine, calculating the possibility of his date actually returning.
The redhead seemed to find his sense of humor amusing, so Phillips thought he’d give it another go. “Watch this,” he whispered to Red. “Hey, Noah! Where’s the flood?” he called out, waving away her half-hearted protests. “Don’t worry, he can’t hear me … can you, Gramps?”
When the elderly man in the cardigan failed to respond, Phillips widened his grin. “See, I told you.” Taking another swig from his glass, he pulled his fleshy lips up and over his teeth, smacking them in a ridiculous effort to mimic a toothless set of gums.
Bored with the one-man show, several troops left the table in search of better amusement. But the redhead stayed, and that was enough to keep Phillips.
“Deaf as a stump,” Hayes agreed, trying his hand at the sport.
Phillips rolled his eyes. “It’s deaf as a post, you idiot! Don’t you know anything?” he goaded, flexing his jaw and giving Red a wink. They didn’t arrive together, but he was trying his best to make sure they left that way. “Hey, here’s an idea – let’s ask our silent pal, dummkopf, what he thinks.”
Three pairs of eyes turned to stare at the quiet, broad-shouldered private on the far side of the table. His honey-brown hair was buzzed close to the scalp, accentuating the solid, angular planes of his face. “I wouldn’t know,” he muttered, swallowing self-consciously.
“He talks!” Phillips patronized with a sweeping motion of his arm. Casually, he let it drop over Red’s shoulder. When she didn’t pull away, he knew he had her; hook, line, and sinker.
Rising to his comrade’s defense, Hayes spoke up. “Cut it out, Phillips. You don’t want to mess with him. His people are like Vikings, or something. Aren’t they, Jansson?”
“A Viking … how romantic.” Red’s overlong eyelash extensions fluttered provocatively against her cheek as she leaned towards the blushing soldier.
Tactfully avoiding the overt flirtation, Jansson frowned. “Born and raised in Minnesota. Apple pie, baseball … and the red, white and blue,” he said, smacking the flag on his right arm. “And proud of it.”
Phillips let out a low whistle. “Dang … that’s quite the speech, son. You got it down pat!” When that failed to produce a response, Phillips let his eyes wander around the room restlessly. “When’s this thing supposed to start anyway?”
This was his first USO show and, so far, he wasn’t impressed. The brass got all the front tables, basking in the glow of the halogen bulbs and drawing more attention than they deserved.
“I suppose we’ll have to listen to the lot of them pat themselves on the back before the entertainment starts,” Phillips grumbled, momentarily forgetting he was trying to impress Red. “In the meantime, they could at least give us something besides watered-down punch to whet our whistle.”
As if on cue, an elderly waitress appeared by his side. Her dress green skirt suit was bulging at the seams, and more than one button was left undone in compensation. A matching garrison hat was pinned tightly to her head, allowing one strategically placed curl to loop onto her forehead, just shy of center.
“What can I get you boys and … miss?”
Back in the day, they had other words for young women dressed and painted in such a colorful manner. But this was a different era. There had been a number of revolutionary coups in the world of fashion since her time, all chanting the same mantra: Out with the old, in with the new.
Phillips gave a nudge under the table, raising his brows significantly at the woman’s nylons, wrinkled and pooling slightly at the ankles. Red put her hand to her mouth, concealing a sly grin.
“Two of whatever beer you got on tap. Please,” he added, remembering Red.
The waitress held her tray up a little higher and tilted her head towards the coffee pot in her hand. “No brew tonight, but can I interest you in a donut and Cup of Joe?”
Phillips shook his head. “Uh, yeah … we’ll pass. Donuts to the hip and dishwater drip is the last thing we want,” he said, giving Red’s hips an appreciative glance.
The waitress followed his eyes blandly. “Kind of missing the point, aren’t you?”
“I would like a cup, please, ma’am.”
The woman turned towards the lone soldier, giving him a radiant smile. “Well, at least someone gets the theme of the night. “Donut?” she offered, never breaking stride as she poured the coffee and balanced her tray.
“So, what’s the theme all about, anyway?” Red asked, commandeering the soldiers’ attention. She had mentally eliminated Hayes as a buffoon, but the silent Viking held a certain appeal and Phillips had a quick, if not callous, wit. If she engaged in conversation with the woman, it just might buy her time enough to decide which of the two she would pursue. Red chewed her lip and tried not to squirm as the woman gave her a critical appraisal.
“And why not? My feet could use a rest!” Pulling up a chair, she joined the table, pretending not to hear Phillips’ groan. “Where to start?”
Red took charge of fielding the questions. “You’re wearing a uniform, were you in the Army?”
“Wearing a uniform?” The woman let out a laugh. “That’s one way of putting it.” Chuckling, she added, “Squeezing the stuffing out of me is more like it and to answer your question, no – it’s part of the theme. Unfortunately, this was made for someone like you.”
The observation could have been a compliment. Or not. Red forced a patently false smile. “I’m not sure I’m built for soldiering.”
“No, you most certainly are not,” Phillips murmured, letting his eyes roam at will. It was meant to flatter, but somehow, he had managed to invoke the disapproval of everyone at the table except Hayes, and he didn’t count.
“I, myself,” the woman continued as if Phillips hadn’t opened his mouth, “am … was,” she amended, “a farm girl from a little town in Nebraska called North Platte. Don’t suppose you’ve ever heard of it?”
Red shook her head, but the lone soldier answered with enthusiasm. “I come from a family of farmers as well. Four generations of corn farmers!” That earned him an eye roll from Phillips, but the waitress beamed with approval.
“Corn-fed boys have the strongest hearts,” she praised, causing him to blush for the second time. “My daddy and uncle grew sugar beets. I had never seen mountains up close, but when I was younger, I naturally assumed they were made out of sugar beets. Just piled higher.
“Oh, good grief! ”
The woman’s casual honesty put Red at ease, and this time her protests were genuine. “Knock it off, Phillips! No one’s forcing you to stay.”
The table went silent. For an awkward moment, Phillips considered choking down humble pie, but Red had raised a brow in challenge, and that was the last straw. With a derisive snort, he pushed away from the table. “Let’s go, Hayes, we’re outta here.”
Hayes shrugged apologetically before scrambling after Phillips.
“Good riddance, I say! Now, where was I?” the woman questioned the remaining two. “Oh yes … North Platte. An insignificant town altogether in every way possible – except,” she emphasized, holding up a finger, “when Christmas of forty-one rolled around. That’s nineteen forty-one. World War Two, in case you’re wondering,” she said with a wink. “Let that sink in for a moment!”
The soldier nodded significantly with undivided attention.
Self-conscious that she hadn’t actually known it was World War Two, Red ducked her head.
The waitress continued with her story to spare her further embarrassment. “Anyway, some of our home boys were scheduled to pass through by train on their way to the front. Those of us left behind – practical farmers that we were – did what we did best. We cooked.
“You … cooked?” Red asked, perplexed at such a notion. “Why?”
For a moment, the woman paused, her eyes brimming with tears. Then, with practiced determination, she gave the most logical and concise reason she could come up with. “Because we knew our boys were going to go hungry for a long, long time and right then – in that moment in time – the one thing we could do was feed them. So we did!”
“What did you feed them?” the soldier and Red asked in unison. They turned towards each other as sheepish grins spread across their faces.
Pleased that she had intervened on Red’s behalf, the waitress became animated. “Anything and everything we had stashed away in our larders! Fried chicken, ham, pickles, eggs – you name it. Bread, popcorn balls … even a birthday cake that never made it to the party!”
Red’s eyes grew round. “Let me guess … you also served donuts and coffee?”
The waitress chuckled. “Every time. Now you’re catching on! A Cup of Joe … To Go, we called it. And here’s the kicker – as it turned out, they weren’t even our boys!”
“Whose boys were they … Janie?” Red asked, leaning closer to read the name tag.
“Some other mama’s boys. Somebody’s brother, daddy, nephew. They all had a story, and an appetite! We fed them, gave them magazines and even …” here Janie lowered her voice to a whisper, “cigarettes. Then we sent them off with a smile to take with them.”
“Those were well-stocked larders,” the soldier noted pragmatically.
“Well, we didn’t have all that the first time,” Janie admitted, slapping his arm lightly. “But they kept passing through our grassroots canteen throughout the war, so we kept meeting them at the trains. Most, we never saw again.” Her eyes grew soft as she glanced across the room. “But some we did. Like my Joe.”
Following the trajectory of her gaze, Red’s eyes came to rest on the man that had been the object of their ridicule earlier. Abashed, she put a hand to her chest. “He’s … your Joe?”
“My one and only,” Janie replied proudly. Reaching for her tray and coffee, she stood.
The private jumped to his feet and saluted smartly. “Thank you, ma’am, for your service!”
Janie’s smile widened. “You’re most welcome, soldier. Miss. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go and pour a Cup of Joe.”