by Anthony Dobranski
It was a sight Dorothy could never have imagined: trucks full of typewriters, hundreds in each one, hastily unloaded by workers into carts that wandered multiple paths along the Munitions Building’s great loading dock. An anthill of movement, it swept up Dorothy and her crew.
Dorothy’s crew now wore overalls, scrounged on Monday from no one knew where, but welcome. They possibly had something to do with the cookies Dorothy had Agnes give to the supervisor last Friday. Dorothy felt like a trussed chicken in her oversized overalls, the extra width of fabric like stubby wings below her arms, but it was better than snagging a blouse. The overalls stank of her own sweat and of others, but only on first wearing them, and they likely smelled worse at Guadalcanal.
Dorothy had seen the typewriter drive signs back in Bowling Green over the summer, asking for recent models to be donated to the war effort. She had never imagined she would be on the receiving end.
Dorothy and her crew wound up loading the carts as they wheeled up and wheeled away. It was sweaty and dusty work, never mind the overalls, and the trucks had sat in the sun a long while. Their tarp-enclosed beds blew out the heat and the stench of an old furnace, the dusty oils of a thousand machines warming and baking.
If physical work was going to be Dorothy’s lot, some of her first paycheck would go to denim pants and hair scarves. Maybe even an engineer’s kind of cap, with a peaked brim. Shirley would die to see her sister so mannish. But, who would see here? Women in overalls, women in caps, women in metal sunglasses with squared lenses. Women here wore heavy work clothes, in denim and leather, in brown and gray and black. Some women, drivers and dock bosses, had been at this for months, their home-tailored husbands’ clothes already worn and patched. No glitter, no flowers, no decoration; no pink and lime and periwinkle. Fellow workers only had breath to chat instructions, and managers spoke in numbers and letters. Workers, they were just workers, dressing for protection and durability, not dressing to be seen.
Dorothy took a deep breath of loading dock air. This was something to enjoy, this strange wartime Amazonia. Here she was only the sum of her effort, of her strength and of her common sense. It was the same focused pleasure she felt alone in an art studio, in a place where no one judged her by looks, by manner, by poise or style. Where dirt, noise, stenches and smudges were a given, not a social error. Working for the war had been Dorothy’s patriotic impulse, but it was also a new life, a new kind of life, one few women ever had. To be here was a privilege.
Once the trucks were emptied, Dorothy’s crew was sent to help sort the donated machines.
At long tables, typists beat out rapid upper case alphabets to make sure all the keys worked. Dorothy’s crew loaded carts by manufacturer: Remington, Smith-Corona, Olympia, Royal, Continental, Underwood. The rejected typewriters, headed for scrap, went in boxes under the tables. Many boxes were full of typewriters that were portables or older models, rejected out of hand but likely in fine shape. After months of rationing, Dorothy had a new consciousness of material goods. She felt it a terrible waste to lose so many good machines just because they weren’t suited for war work.
Her crew took lunch outside, south of the Munitions Building. After the oily and noisy morning, it felt magical to have a picnic in sight of the magnificent Doric temple of the Lincoln Memorial.
Enough of the gals had worked together that their conversations had gone past introductions to light chat.
“I want someone to take me dancing,” Jean said. Even with her hair in a scarf and shoes too big for her, she was still somehow pretty, while the rest of them looked like paintings in rain. “I bought a new dress. Red for fall. There are darling shops on 8th Street.”
“For dancing, there’s always USO halls,” Agnes said.
“Have you been to Glen Echo Park?” Dorothy said. “Lots of people go dancing there on weekends. There’s a grand ballroom and carnival rides. At night, though, it’s all young people like us.”
“Square dancing?” Agnes asked.
“Big bands,” Dorothy said.
“I don’t want to just show up,” June said. “I want to be escorted.” That got laughs.
“What’s square dancing?” Dorothy asked Agnes.
“Couples dance with other couples, changing places with the music.” Agnes looked bemused by Dorothy’s ignorance. “In Kentucky everyone square dances. Here all the dances are bands or little combos. I ain’t found any square dancing here yet.”
Dorothy wondered if Mormons square-danced. Agnes had some of Enos’s manner but a different accent, and Enos had cut a passable rug at Glen Echo. A good rug, really. She knew nothing about New Mexico. Maybe at home, he wore tooled leather and six-shooters, like the cowboys in Benny’s comics.
“I’ll ask around,” Dorothy said. “Do you live in the city?”
“I’m rooming in a house off Massachusetts Avenue. You?”
“North of the Zoo. Let’s exchange phone numbers.”
Agnes worried her mouth as if surprised to be asked. “Let’s, why not.”
Back at the loading dock, a woman with a clipboard was calling out Dorothy’s name. “See the shift supervisor,” the woman said. Dorothy was sent to two offices in her wing, then upstairs to a large open office, with rows of tables repurposed as desks for thirty people. Other than the cleanliness and the office clothes, it wasn’t all that different from the typewriter storerooms.
Dorothy remembered her dirty overalls but the clerks at the tables didn’t seem to take notice. She sat across from a gaunt woman in charcoal light wool, in the midst of stacks of folders weighed down by glass paperweights. The woman wore a silver son-in-service ring. Dorothy straightened up.
“I’m Lenore Kerns, with Personnel,” the woman said in a clear quiet voice. “How long have you worked for the United States Government?”
Dorothy felt she had to whisper. “This is my third week.”
“And what did you do before?”
“I was a student teacher. My specialty is art.”
That relaxed Mrs. Kerns. “Oh. That might explain it. Art. Work with your hands, I suppose? Yes. Well, good to see that people’s skills are being used at a less menial level.”
“You’re being transferred,” Mrs. Kerns said. “You’ll work out the rest of the day, and tomorrow you’ll report to the National Bureau of Standards. It’s not an Army facility but they’ll work that out there.”
“The National Bureau -” Dorothy remembered the dinner-party talk about getting her a job there, but she had never imagined it would amount to much. Her brother-in-law’s new colleagues clearly had some pull.
“I had hardly heard of it either,” Mrs. Kerns was saying. “Up Connecticut Avenue. Scientists doing, well, not sure what, but there’s lots of things to do. It’s nice up toward the District line. Won’t be nearly so hot as down here, for sure.”
“So, my whole team?”
“Oh, no. Just you. Standing order for special skills. Heaven knows how they found out though. I know your supervisor’s not happy at all to see you go.” Mrs. Kerns smiled. “Which is a recommendation by itself, I’ll say. Here, let me write down my phone number. Let me know how it goes for you up there. Always good to keep abreast of all the Army work.”
Dorothy tucked the number in the same pocket as Agnes’s and made her way back to the loading dock. A job with no commute sounded heavenly, but Dorothy felt she was leaving her new crew in the lurch.
At least she could work hard today. Maybe she’d ask a couple more gals for numbers. Friends were never a thing to take for granted.
She made her way back to the loading dock, wondering if her overalls had the room to hide one of those rejected portable typewriters.
NEXT: Of sound and bombs!
© 2015 Anthony Dobranski