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A novel about women in the 1940s


Sample Chapters, Kaiser Shipyards

Chapter 1:

At first, Tilly wasn’t sure she’d heard right. “The Germans have agreed to unconditional surrender.” The announcement reverberated through the assembly gallery on loudspeakers usually reserved for emergency drills, and production slowed, and then stopped. For a moment, there was silence. Then, at once, a cheer rose from every bay and corner. Thousands of voices sang “God Bless America”. Many wept. Tilly tossed her goggles and embraced the women working to her left and right. She looked across the deck to Elsie, who nodded in her direction. And then, on cue, they lowered their masks and went back to work. No one knew what would come next; there was still fighting in the Pacific, but the war in Europe was over.

Two weeks later, Tilly tugged the old army duffel from beneath her bunk and dragged it to the door of the Airstream. She paused to admire the lacy pattern spiders had laid across it and wondered if a fortuneteller might find her future there. With a damp towel she captured the sticky threads and beat the bag, inside and out, against the aluminum doorjamb. The dust made her sneeze. Her father had carried the bag back from the Great War.

She’d acquired few possessions while at Kaiser, so packing was light work. She’d leave most of her welder’s gear behind, except for a few mementos. News clippings and the binder she’d received at orientation would go home with her. She tucked her heavy gloves into the corner. Maybe she’d use them as oven mitts—she laughed to herself and then cried. Soon she’d be home and working as a waitress; she might never do anything so important again. She had helped win a war.

Among the clutter in the small trailer she’d shared for three years was the issue of Fore ‘n’ Aft that had featured her roommate. Tilly wanted to keep it but knew that Doris would someday want to show it to her kids.

Doris had been interviewed after scoring highly on an aptitude test. It was big news, a woman with so much aptitude for so many things, and Doris was something of a phenomenon. She’d been quickly trained to install sophisticated navigation systems on Liberty Ships. But when the hulls currently on the line were launched, she’d be sent home too. It didn’t matter how good she was. It was understood that returning soldiers would be hired to do their jobs.

Tilly wondered if her roommate would go back to Pittsburgh. Before the war, Doris had lived with her mother and had sold cosmetics in a downtown department store. It was hard to imagine her selling lipstick, hard to imagine her assisting women in the weighty decisions of color and application, but that’s what she’d done. Everything changed after Pearl Harbor. Now it had to change back.

Chapter 2:

October 25, 1941

It was Katherine Hepburn who’d convinced Tilly she could play an important role in the drama unfolding on the world stage. The Maltese Falcon had come to Half Moon Bay. Tilly was so excited, she took the bus to town ahead of Mark, because she thought he’d be late and she didn’t want to miss a minute. The lights were down before he slid into the seat beside her. He’d waited in line ten minutes for a fresh batch of popcorn and had bought the largest size—because she loved it—but when he passed her the bag, she barely acknowledged him. Her eyes were glued to the newsreel.

All Tilly could see at first was a person covered head to toe in canvas and gear, in overalls and a welder’s mask and those big heavy gloves, holding the rod in one hand and a torch in the other. She couldn’t tell it was a woman. And then Katherine Hepburn took off the mask and looked straight into the camera—straight at Tilly—and said “Democracy’s in a jam.” Tilly was eating popcorn by the handful, rapt, not even blinking, shoveling through the bag while Mark sat quietly beside her. The feature film followed, but Tilly, who’d seen the future, couldn’t concentrate on the exploits of Sam Spade. She was ready to take her place with women in industry. Tilly Bettencourt would leave home and work to supply the Arsenal of Democracy.

In twenty years, Tilly had never been farther north than San Francisco or farther east than San Mateo. She worked for tips and could predict, with accuracy, how much each of the regulars would give before she’d even served them. She was pretty sure everyone in town believed they knew how her life would unfold. Mark was a boyfriend who would do in a pinch, but he wasn’t someone she dreamed about. She needed to get out, breathe. She needed to be part of something bigger, and what better cause was there?

“Democracy’s in a jam? What’s that supposed to mean?” Helen said.

Tilly had waited until her mother was pressing clothes to tell her that she’d written to the Kaiser Company. Helen reached for the starch on a shelf above the shallow cabinet that the ironing board folded into. “They need workers,” Tilly said. She grabbed a kitchen chair and sat on the opposite side of the ironing board. “They’re running crews around the clock. Even women with children are working in the shipyards. They provide babysitters.” “Uh huh. And what do you think is a better deal for an industrialist like Mr. Kaiser? Hiring men, or women and babysitters? Tilly, use your head.” “That’s the point.” Tilly liked to sit when she talked with her mother because she was several inches taller, and it felt wrong to look down on her during important conversations. “I want to use my head. And my hands.”

“I could use a hand. Can you pour me a glass of lemonade?” Tilly got two cut glass tumblers out of the cabinet and pulled the pitcher from the icebox.

“There’s nothing like lemonade when you’re ironing,” Helen said.

Tilly watched as the wrinkles disappeared from her father’s shirt. She looked at the lines in her mother’s face. Helen had been a great beauty, the Chamarita Queen of the Portuguese Festival in Half Moon Bay. But that was before she married, before she was Tilly’s age.

Helen took a sip and resumed ironing. “I didn’t raise you to build ships,” she said. “I raised you to find a nice man and settle down.” She unfolded her pressing cloth. “And speaking of nice men, have you talked to Mark about this?” Tilly looked away.

“I didn’t think so,” Helen said. She shook her head. “What exactly do you think this little adventure is going to be like? Do you have any idea how difficult and dangerous the work will be? Tilly, you’re a waitress for heaven’s sake.” “And Katherine Hepburn is an actress,” Tilly said, her fist clenched beneath the table.

Helen looked up with her mouth open and stared at Tilly. “And what you saw her do was act,” she said. “Do you really think that Katherine Hepburn is working as a welder? Do you think she’s given up her career because of Hitler? This is Europe’s war.”

Tilly had no idea what Katherine Hepburn was doing. She looked into her glass as if the answer might appear in the floating lemon pulp. “But even if we’re not at war we need to do our part,” she said. “We need to produce. The President said so. You listened to the radio.”

Helen handed Tilly Paul’s best shirt and a hanger. She untangled the ties of one of her aprons and flattened it out on the ironing board. A bit of hair came loose from the knot at the nape of her neck, and she tucked it behind her ear. She rubbed the back of her hand across her forehead before she spoke. “What could be more patriotic than food production? If you’re so worried about the war, feed the soldiers; feed the Europeans. Feed them vegetables. Havice is converting his flower fields. Go see him about a job.” Helen didn’t notice that she’d yanked the plug from the socket until it hit her in the leg and snagged her stocking. She dropped the iron and muttered words Tilly wasn’t supposed to hear. Tilly seldom saw her mother so angry. “You know,” Helen said, “your aunt and uncle depend on you at the roadhouse. What kind of jam would you put them in?”

Tilly swirled the glass and took a final gulp. The lemonade wasn’t very sweet. “I have to get ready for work,” she said. She took her glass to the sink and rinsed it, then climbed the stairs two at a time.

In the tiny upstairs bathroom, Tilly ran warm water in the basin. The small window above the sink looked out over the marine terrace and the summer bloom on the flower fields of old Rancho Corral de Tierra. This would be the last year for flowers, according to talk at the roadhouse. Next year they’d be growing beans.

She looked toward her favorite trail. In an hour of steady hiking, Tilly could climb to North Peak. From there, using her father’s old army issue field glasses, she could see all the way to the southern end of the San Francisco Bay and north to the Marin Headlands. She could see the new bridges and Mt. Diablo to the east—places farther from home than she’d ever been. If she could get a job in the shipyards, she might be able to save enough to buy a car. She wondered how hard it would be to learn to drive.

While the water warmed, Tilly twisted her long, dark hair into a knot and clipped it at the nape of her neck. She got the mix of hot and cold just right and sudsed her face, shoulders and arms. Then she dried off and rummaged in the closet for the last clean, white shirt. She gave her black pumps a shine with the damp towel and put them in a bag with the hose. The mile and a half to work was along the Great Beach, and she often walked barefoot in the sand for a good part of the way. She would clean her feet when she arrived. Her long-suffering Aunt Ida would just sigh and hand her a towel.

Looking out the kitchen window at the same view of flower fields, Helen tried to imagine her beautiful girl, her only child, behind a welder’s mask. Tilly had always been a tomboy, but a very pretty tomboy. She ran her pressing cloth under the tap for only a moment.

Her sister had been with her on the night Tilly was born. Helen remembered a much younger Ida sitting with her at the kitchen table, saying she knew their husbands were running whiskey with their brother, Aldo.

“All this mystery and intrigue,” Ida had said. “They think we’re stupid.”

Helen had made tea from the thickly growing mint she could never seem to eradicate from her garden and had poured them each a cup. She’d been grateful for Ida’s company, with the baby so close. The sisters recalled how their mother and aunts had fingered rosary beads while they waited for their men: Portuguese women—Pera women—suffering high winds and late returns off the coast of Monterey, where cold up-welling currents made fishing a productive enterprise. Ida and Helen swore their lives would be different, and in a way they were. “Our mother worried about our father drowning at sea,” Ida said. “Our husbands have added getting shot or arrested.” Their brother, Aldo, had inherited the old man’s fleet of three wooden trawlers and continued the family fishing tradition. During Prohibition, he discovered he could net more profitable cargo. Aldo was the captain most capable of navigating the waters between Monterey and San Francisco in darkness and through impenetrable fog, and the likeliest to out-run federal agents. He’d spent his boyhood with his immigrant grandfather in the wheelhouse.

That night the sisters tried to guess the probability of their men successfully launching dinghies undetected from an isolated cove. They were sure the feds were no match for Aldo on the water, but wondered what would happen when the extra catch arrived at Fish Alley in San Francisco.

Helen yawned and spooned honey into her mug. She felt brief and infrequent contractions. Her lower back was sore. She ran a hand over her hard belly, wondering if she’d last until the due date. She was counting on a mid-wife for the delivery. “We have to keep the faith that they know what they’re doing,” Helen was saying when she suddenly felt like she’d sat in warm liquid. She looked at her cup, puzzled because it still had tea in it. She watched the expression on Ida’s face as her eyes moved downward. Simultaneously, they knew. There wasn’t a phone in the cottage then, so Ida ran to Moss Beach to find the midwife.

When Paul got home at daybreak to find Helen with her sister, and he held his daughter for the first time, Helen suggested that the baby should be called Paula.

“Tilly,” he said. “I’ve always liked the name Tilly.” She was christened Matilda Ida Bettencourt at Our Lady of the Pillar, and Jose and Ida hosted a celebration at the roadhouse. Some weeks later, the men quietly changed the name of Aldo’s favorite boat Matilda C., to Matilda B., and when Helen noticed, she couldn’t help but wonder if her daughter was named after the old vessel.

Tilly was sixteen before Helen heard the full story of what the men were doing while she was giving birth. Aldo was up from Monterey and staying at the roadhouse with Ida and Jose, and they were all in the upstairs apartment eating fresh fish from his catch that Ida had prepared using her mother’s recipes. They were drinking good, strong red wine and after they’d drained the third bottle, Jose brought up the old days and their career in “distribution,” as he liked to call it, and the night of their first sale.

“It was just after two-thirty,” he said. “Paul had been sitting at the bar with those old field glasses trying to hold them on the horizon, but he’d drunk so much coffee he couldn’t steady them.”

“I was worried I’d miss your signal,” Paul said to Aldo, “And you’d be sitting off the point waiting—imagining that everything had come apart and that we’d been locked up somewhere.”

Helen glanced over at Tilly, the only sober member of the party, who sat wide-eyed. She thought her daughter must be thinking, Who are these people?

Paul talked about catching sight of the first lantern the deck hand had raised up the mast, and then the second. He and Jose had paused for a moment, though they knew they were well past a change of heart.

A thousand feet south, the whiskey they’d bought with the mortgage money was loaded onto a wagon tended by two men with rifles. Ida gasped and interrupted the story to ask if they’d really intended to use them. Jose said that they weren’t even loaded, and Aldo just roared with laughter.

They hauled the barrels to Lighthouse Cove and gave the food money to the light keeper. He darkened the light. Darkness was the signal to Aldo, who launched two dinghies with trustworthy men who could row in rough surf. They pulled worn oars against brass oarlocks and made good time toward shore.

Paul explained how he’d planned the operation and had been sure to schedule transport to the Matilda C. in an outgoing tide. He said that everything had come off so efficiently that the whiskey made its way to Jose’s contacts through the canneries at Fisherman’s Wharf undetected. But Helen wasn’t listening. Her husband, on the night their daughter was born, had gambled both the mortgage and the food money on a bootleg venture. She said a quick prayer as she looked again at Tilly, who appeared enthralled with the story, and thanked God that He had protected her husband, brother and brotherin-law. She would need to talk to Tilly soon about this period in their family history; she was old enough now. But she could never tell her everything. There were things that even Ida didn’t know.

The “distribution” business had been their life-blood through the end of Prohibition; there’d been little legitimate commerce on the coast after the railroad failed. They’d been dependent on the Ocean Shore. Without the railroad, it was simply too difficult to transport meat, milk and produce to San Francisco over Montara Mountain on an unpaved road that was impassable four months of the year, and too difficult for roadhouse patrons to come to the coast for pleasure. Helen and Ida saw their brother more often in those days, and Aldo Pera always traveled from Monterey on the Matilda B. As a young girl, Tilly had used Paul’s field glasses to scan the horizon for her fishing boat. She drew pictures of it with crayons, floating the hull on blue waves. She talked about how she’d like to fish someday in her own boat—which she once told Aldo she would christen the Aldo P.—but Aldo thought girls were bad luck on board and only took her out once, for a short spin around the harbor.

Helen sighed. Tilly was trading her girlhood dream of fishing for shipbuilding. She thought for a moment that it might be an improvement, then lightly starched her best white blouse.

It was normal that a daughter should do things differently from her mother she thought, but welding! Why did it have to be welding? She could understand that it was stifling for Tilly to work in the family business, despite Ida and Jose’s generosity. She would have been happy if Tilly had applied to teacher’s college or secretarial school, but no, her daughter wanted to weld in a shipyard and had sent a letter off. Helen drank more of the lemonade before laying out another shirt. She heard the front door close.

That evening Tilly had two new customers. They lingered long after the check was paid, with only coffee cups and cordial glasses remaining, and Tilly craned her neck over the server’s station to watch them. The woman pulled a polished cigarette case from her purse, as her date simultaneously drew a lighter from inside his dark, double-breasted jacket. Tilly took in all the details of the woman’s dress, which she suspected was silk; the drape was fluid and the skirt reached just below the knee. The color wasn’t exactly silver, it was warmer; she would call it champagne. She thought she might go through her entire life and never wear anything so gorgeous. She marveled at the beautifully coiffed blond hair. How did it stay so perfectly curled? Tilly could hardly look away. She thought the pair must be from San Francisco. It was unusual to have such late diners on a Tuesday night.

One of the candles on their table was burning down, leaving white wax on white linen, but the couple ignored it and Tilly had no desire to interrupt them. They sat perfectly framed by the window and dark wood paneling, and for the moment, Tilly felt transported from the roadhouse to someplace far more elegant.

“I think they like it here,” she said to Jose, “They don’t appear to be in any hurry.”

“Bring them each a glass of port and some Camembert, on the house,“ he said. The full moon was rising over the hills to the east, illuminating a fine view of softly breaking waves. Tilly cut a small wedge of the creamy cheese for herself before arranging the gift on a silver tray. “Compliments of the owner,” she said. “Please stay as long as you like.” Then she faded back into her corner.

The spell was broken by the sound of heavy work boots on the plank floor; she knew who it was without looking and felt the familiar sense of annoyance. Mark took his seat in the back as he always did, but she was in no mood for a visit. She pointed toward the bar and ushered him out of the dining room, “I don’t want to disturb that couple,” she said, with more urgency than necessary. He would ruin everything.

She poured his coffee and went into the kitchen for a slice of his favorite apple pie, without ice cream. She couldn’t tell a steady customer to go on a diet, but she thought Mark could do without the extra calories. He lived with his mother who fed him three squares a day, and Tilly figured he probably ate her pie too.

“Tips good?” he asked. He dug his fork into the crust. “I’ve got things to do,” she said.

From a shelf in the pantry, she counted two dozen tapers onto a tray and unobtrusively circled the floor, pulling stubs from candlesticks and replacing them. The light on the couple’s table had burned completely, and they’d moved their chairs and sat shoulder to shoulder, silhouetted against the moonlight, reminding Tilly of a movie poster she’d seen. She felt as if she’d entered a different dimension when she came from the bar. And then Mark was suddenly at the gateway between the two worlds and Tilly wondered how he could have eaten so quickly. She impatiently shooed him out.

“I’ll be by Saturday night,” he said

She closed the heavy wooden door behind him and leaned against it for a full minute