Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Flight Nurse

By Kathleen Harris, ©1960

Fiestas, bullfights, the adulation of the aficionados—this was the thrilling world Raoul Bermudez, Spain’s celebrated young matador, opened to golden-haired Lieutenant Faye Ramsey, stationed at a US air base in Spain. Vainly Captain Russ Campbell cautioned the young nurse—“Love is only a game to these Latins, Faye.” But Faye didn’t hear him. She was living in an enchanted dream. Then reality broke in on Faye. Horrified, she saw that her ideals as a nurse and as an American girl were in jeopardy!


“I’ve about had my fill of being a gay bachelor.”

The cover of this book, of a woman ducking under a tree branch while a plane behinds her goes up in flames and another flies low over it, gives this book an air of urgency before you’ve even opened it. Does our heroine crash in the mountains and nurse the injured crew back to life? Is she the lone survivor after her plane is shot down? Is she taken prisoner by a hostile enemy after her plane crash-lands behind enemy lands? No, no, and no. More soap opera than action movie—which we can hardly blame a VNRN for being—the actual story does not live up to the anticipation created by the cover. Nonetheless, it’s still a pretty good read.

Faye Ramsey is a nurse in the Air Corps. She isn’t happy just working at the base hospital, so she had volunteered for flight-nurse duty. When we meet her, she has already spent six weeks in formidable training: “Faye not only had to drill and march, but carrying a medical kit and a pistol, she had been ordered to clamber out of planes that were supposed to have crashed—both on land and in water. She and the other nurses in training had had to keep themselves, their equipment, and a dummy afloat. She had had to swim through burning gasoline and oil, escape from simulated plane accidents—casually listed as ‘crash procedure’—and as a finale, as she had called it, she had had to learn how to jump and fall with a parachute. Then, before receiving her silver wings, she had to pass written exams. She had come off with the highest grade in her class.” So Faye is no slouch, and indeed, we have already been treated to a paragraph of her medical knowledge of treating wounded patients and how the altitude of the plane affects various wounds.

Faye has been seeing her steady boyfriend, Gerry Jackson, who is an obstetrician on the base, for two years. But she’s not really sure if he’s the right guy for her: “She couldn’t imagine being so much in love that it would fill her life, blot out everything else, including her career as a nurse.” Neither, apparently could many housewives of the early 1960s; enter Betty Friedan’s “problem that has no name.” Faye meets up with Gerry to tell him that she has been called up for flight duty overseas and will be away for two years. But before she has the chance to drop her news on Gerry, he tells her he’s found “a way out” of her flight nurse duty: If they get married and she gets pregnant, “the expectant mother must leave the service—with an honorable discharge, of course.” In a few more months Gerry will be through with his tour of duty, so “in the event that you were ordered elsewhere, you’d have a foolproof way out,” he tells her.

Well, Faye gets pretty steamed about this: “She was hurt at the way he took it for granted that she would jump at the chance to marry him. Hurt and indignant—and a little disappointed in Gerry. He hadn’t understood why she wanted to be a flight nurse, after all.” He responds to her indignation by saying that she should have realized he wanted to marry her. “You did take things pretty much for granted. Including me, Gerry,” she answers. “You never came right out and asked me if, when the time came that we could, I would marry you. And now, when you finally have—well, you could scarcely call it a proper proposal.” So though she gives a passing thought to his slight of her work, when it comes down to it, it’s not really the disrespect Gerry has for her career but being taken for granted and the fact that Gerry didn’t get down on one knee with a gigantic sparkler in hand when he proposed that really upsets her.

She’s shipped off to Spain, where Faye’s flight commander, Russ Campbell, naturally has his eye on Faye. He immediately starts calling her “Angel,” even though “she wished he wouldn’t call her by that ridiculous nickname.” And he is another one of those guys who will “take it for granted that she would go with him” to dinner. Four pages later, there he is again, “taking it for granted that he knew what she wanted, how she would feel.” Russ defends himself by saying, “Most girls liked a masterful man, a man who would make up their minds for them.” Remarks like this don’t make the fifty intervening years between then and now seem long enough.

As Faye gets out and about in Spain, there is plenty to be said about the Spaniards. “The living conditions are on about as low a level as in the fifteenth century. You’ve never seen so much filth and squalor—in the poorer sections, naturally. Although the well-to-do … are not too particular when it comes to cleanliness and conveniences,” she is told by the colonel in Spain. But his wife takes Faye aside and tells her to ignore the colonel. “He is so very American that he is inclined to be prejudiced. He thinks the people here are more lazy than diligent, more bloodthirsty than placid, more unfeeling than kindly,” she says, without offering a kinder interpretation of the culture. On the other hand, Russ tells her, “The Spanish are never bound by time. … If we could be like that, our hospitals wouldn’t be so crammed with mental patients—and all in all, we’d get more out of life.” And on the whole, descriptions of the Spanish countryside and customs are favorably depicted. But the book plays it both ways by never really committing wholeheartedly to one interpretation or the other, perhaps hoping to avoid offending either the bigots or the internationals in its possible audience.

There’s another prejudiced view of the Spaniards: They are superior lovers. Her friend Barbara says, “These Latins know more about playing the game of love, courting a girl, than our American boys can ever learn.” And then there’s the fact that “everyone knew that foreign men were much more romantic than Americans. Although when it came to being serious, American men made the best husbands.” Faye indulges in this particular form of prejudice when she becomes enamored of Raoul Josepha Bermudez, the nephew of a marquesa, and, of course, a very famous matador! “One thing Faye was certain of—Senor [sic] Bermudez would never take her—or any woman—for granted.” This, of course, is a big plus for her. She also appreciates Raoul’s semantics, telling Russ that Raoul “isn’t taking me—he invited me to go” to a local fiesta.

Raoul lives up to the hype when he tells her that he loves her even though he does not think she returns the sentiment: “He reached out to take her hand in his … ‘You are not angry that I spoke so soon?’ he asked. … ‘But I loved you from the moment I looked into your blue eyes, saw your smile, gentle as a madonna’s.’ So this was the way a Spaniard spoke of love, with passion, yet tenderness. Not a work of taking for granted that its recipient would love him in return. So different from Russ and Gerry.”

Russ is angry about her relationship with Raoul, and tells her not to see him again, “because he’s not your kind.” He says, “You’re not being very patriotic, Angel.” She responds, “I am perfectly capable of looking after myself … I’m a nurse—remember?—and over twenty-one.” And the fact that she has given both Russ and Gerry the back of her hand does cause the two to start mending their ways. Gerry sends her a ring for Christmas, and in his accompanying letter, he seems to be catching a clue, writing, “Please don’t think, honey, I am taking it for granted that you will wear the ring.” For his part, Russ has no problems taking orders from Faye when patients are on the plane, as “the captain realized that when a patient was aboard the flight nurse was in command—as far as the patient went, anyway.” On one of their missions, Faye dramatically saves an injured pilot by tying off a gushing artery in his leg. Russ “was struck dumb by what he was witnessing. … His voice held humility, as well as respect, as he asked if it was all right for the take-off.” She comes to admire his leadership when he talks the crew out of danger when they are briefly abducted by a group of insurgents in a surprisingly tensionless scene. “Faye had been amazed that Russ had used so much tact in dealing with the commander. She had had no idea that he could be such a diplomat. Nor had he ‘eaten crow’; he had maintained his dignity and leadership.”

So it would seem that Faye has three men to choose from, but the foreigner, it should not come as much of a surprise to learn, is out. Not only is Raoul engaged (it’s an arranged marriage), but he also has a mistress on the side. And to top it all off, he also turns out to be a Commie traitor. Before he gets arrested, however, he delicately suggests to Faye that he could continue to see “the woman he loves” even after he is married, but of course this goes over like a ton of bricks: “All the flowers in the world could not erase the facts: he had deceived her, betrayed her trust, he was scheming to betray his country.”

While she is supposed to be in love with Raoul, and is at first pretty broken up about his engagement, not much time passes before Faye realizes “she did not love him—had never loved him. It had been a thrilling experience—a romantic infatuation, a part of being in Spain.” Her little fling is painted as a learning experience: “Faye’s brief romance with the Spaniard had made her grow up—a maturity that would help her over any rough spots in the future.” She actually does display some sense when she tells Russ that she has to be sure before she gets engaged, and to be sure she has to go home and see Gerry. But the book quickly takes an easy way out, telling us something new and unexpected about one of her beaux that effectively ends that relationship. I’ve said before that I just can’t forgive these out-of-nowhere plot turns when they involve the most important moment of the book (see Nurse Pro Tem), and I still mean it.

There are some fun parts to this book. Faye’s dates in various Spanish locales—a restaurant in a castle, a bullfight, a local fiesta—are entertaining and dated in a good way, in that you can feel what the times were like. Her tours with the flight crew are also vividly drawn, particularly their rescue of the crashed pilot. But the book tries to play it both ways on a regular basis. Faye is perfectly open to dating a Spaniard, but there’s no way an American woman could seriously consider marrying one. Then she repeatedly insists she’s an independent woman who can make up her own mind, but the first time the new and improved Russ asks her what kind of flowers she wants (“Russ offering to send her flowers! What had happened to him?”), she answers, “Any kind you like.” She insists that being a flight nurse is very important to her, but when she falls into the arms of her true love, it’s “so satisfying—so right—that it blotted out everything else.” The very second she gets the respect and recognition she’s been insisting on, she renders it null and void by subsuming her choices and her identity to a man. So while I have to say that this book is worth reading, in the end it may just piss you off.

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