Saturday, February 17, 2024

Navy Nurse

By Adelaide Humphries, ©1954

Ensign Dorothy Phillips was beautiful; life was beautiful; her work was wonderful; and everything was right with her world—until the day, her arms laden with bundles for the Chief Nurse’s surprise birthday party, she was almost run down by a carload of brash young Air Corps officers. An impudent apology, yelled by a handsome lieutenant, was the crowning insult. Then the lieutenant appeared unannounced at the party—revealing himself as Lieutenant Keith Cameron Townsend, and the dour Chief Nurse’s nephew, no less! The fact that Dorothy was engaged didn’t mean a thing to Keith. The more she snubbed him, the more persistent he became. It takes a battle at sea—and all the suffering connected with it—for the ensign to realize that love and hate are often akin.


“Oh, you know a kiss or so doesn’t mean anything. At least most people don’t think it does in this progressive age.” 

Author Adelaide Humphries, who has previously given us two A-grade novels (Nurse Landon’s Challenge and The Nurse Knows Best), here has achieved a truly remarkable feat: She has written a novel in which not a single one of the five leading characters is a likable individual. One might wonder why you might want to write a book about spoiled, selfish, inconsiderate people—and a skilled writer might even craft a thought-provoking, Pulitzer Prize–winning epic from such a cast—but alas, here we are just left to grit our teeth and endure through to the end—or just toss the stupid book aside and move on to something better. I advise the latter. 

Let’s start with leading lady Ensign Dorothy Phillips. She is the most gorgeous woman in the entire world, somehow made even more dazzling by her uniform: “Ensign Phillips had features and skin a poster-girl could never have surpassed,” so “when a beautiful girl like Ensign Phillips donned her Navy nurse’s uniform, wolf whistles were the order of the day.” Oh, boy! When the book opens, she is on the sidewalk, carrying purchases for an upcoming party, when a car overflowing with Air Corpsmen whizzes around the corner. She’s pulled back from stepping into the street, knocking her packages askew and somehow keeping her from getting run over though she was never actually in the street, and one of the men in the car leans his whole torso out the window, shouts something unintelligible and waves his arms above his head—it actually seems as if his life was more at risk in this incident than Dorothy’s. These brief seconds leave her “with an impression of laughing black eyes, a flash of white teeth in a tanned, handsome face—and a burning sensation around her heart.” Yes, she’s in love already, and this is why she is overwhelmed with a relentless, obsessive hatred for the young man.

The fellow who had kept her from stepping into the street, Charles Henry Hale, who unfortunately chooses to be called Skid, is the closest we have to a decent human. As a first-class gunner’s mate, he is outranked by Dorothy, a fact that is made much of, and Dorothy’s condescension to even speak to such a lowly creature is treated with great admiration. Don’t worry, though, she is ultimately extraordinarily cruel to the respectful young man, who kindly and humbly helps Dorothy with her packages and carries them back to the launch for her (she is stationed in a hospital ship off the coast of San Diego). He hopefully suggests they have coffee, though noting the invitation is “entirely too brassy,” but Dorothy condescends to accept, after first having berated him for causing her to drop her packages.

During coffee, Dorothy decides that Skid is a “darned nice boy,” and he, of course, falls immediately in love with her and asks to see her again. “Dorothy despised anything that hinted of snobbery,” we are told, so she immediately wades into it, thinking, “An enlisted man couldn’t get seriously involved with a Navy officer. It would lead to all kinds of gossip, and no telling what it might lead to.” The only reason she decides to agree to see him again is that she spots that darned guy who almost fell out of the car that didn’t hit her, and becomes furious that he seems to be laughing at her, so she “deliberately turned her back on him” and gives Skid an overly enthusiastic wave and shouts that she’ll see the poor dope next week!

The party she is helping to plan is a surprise birthday party for Chief Nurse Capt. Nettie Leonard, the quintessential gray-haired spinster martinet, and who should turn up at it but that darned guy again, who is revealed as Capt. Leonard’s nephew, Lt. Keith Cameron Townsend (the two male leads both absurdly have middle names)! Darn the luck, her entire day is ruined! At the party Dorothy’s flirtatious and backstabbing roommate, Micky, flings herself at Keith, scorching her own boyfriend in the process, but Keith manages to grab Dorothy and tell her that he will win her, “no matter what or how long it takes,” because all women find stalkers irresistible! And when Keith crashes her next date with Skid, Dorothy takes her revenge on Keith by telling him that the pair have known each other since childhood and that they are engaged. “She felt good. She was glad she had told that big fib. She would whiten it by explaining later on to Skid, although she didn’t know just what her explanation would be.” This is the same woman who, “besides believing that the best policy was to stick to the truth,  believed that when a person gave his word to someone else he should do his level best to live up to it.” Lets see how honest Dorothy is going to play this out.

So having gotten herself into one bad situation, she now plans to make it worse: “It looked more and more as though there was nothing she could do except try to make this trumped-up betrothal authentic,” because the honorable thing to do is to marry a man you’ve just met to spite someone else. Dorothy also promises Micky’s boyfriend, Dr. Tommy Simms, that she will keep Keith away from Micky, though this goes completely contrary to her life’s purpose of never speaking to that horrid man again. It doesn’t exactly work, as Keith presses her and Skid into double dating with him and Micky on a regular basis—though, out one evening celebrating their engagement, Dorothy dances with Keith and discovers “one dance had made all the difference in the world,” because Keith kisses her and tells her that he is in love with her—and that “you’ve got a lot to learn, Dorothy. But you will.” So the next scene finds Dorothy admitting to Skid that she does not love him, but that she’ll agree to get married if he wants to. Ugh!!

When word gets out that Dorothy is engaged to Skid, however, the chief nurse becomes unprofessionally hostile and assigns Dorothy to night duty out of spite, and then calls a staff meeting in which “everyone present agreed that it was a mistake for an ensign in the Navy to become engaged to, or even go with, an enlisted man.” Now nothing can possibly save Dorothy from this horrible situation—except a really big sea battle! So off her ship chugs, following the battleships into war—I’m not exactly certain which war we’re supposed to be fighting—and on the eve of the big battle, Skid sends Dorothy a “beautiful” letter in which he tells her that he loves her because “she was so sincere, the kind of girl a fellow would be proud to take home to show off to the home folks.” Clearly this man barely knows herand her true character is again revealed by her reaction, which is not remorse or shame, but rather “fatality”—and then she hopes that she’ll get a letter from Keith. But when she hears Keith has survived the battle, she’s remembering “his pride, that masculine ego of which he had more than the average share. His pride would demand that he, an officer, must never give up trying to win a girl away from an ordinary enlisted man.” That jerk!

Soon Skid turns up on the medical ship, one of the worst burn cases in a coma for days, his chances of survival a hundred to one, and “it will take plastic surgery to restore that burned face.” Dorothy tells him with tears and kisses to get well, that they’ll be married as soon as he’s better, but “Skid knows Dottie doesn’t love him. He probably knows she feels sorry for him and so is willing to make the best of a bad bargain.” And so he does the decent thing, committing suicide by willpower and dying in his sleep, because “if a fellow wants to die—well, nothing any doctor, or anyone else, can do will help him,” declares Dr. Tommy Simms. “He had the courage to die—because he wanted you to be happy,” adds Micky. Dorothy replies, “It makes me feel almost as though, instead of helping him, I had caused Skid’s death.” Probably her first honest thought—and her last, as without another thought to her likely role in manslaughter, she steps off the ship to “where she belonged—in a certain handsome young lieutenant’s arms.”

There is not one admirable quality in Dorothy, her manic roommate Micky, or the egotistical and domineering Keith, and not much better in the vindictive chief nurse, or even Skid, who is self-sacrificial to the ultimate degree. Dorothy’s stint in the Navy makes it look like a casual weekend gig, and her commitment is definitely wanting; early on she confesses that she’s not sure why she joined the Navy since she has a deep-seated phobia of water, gets seasick easily, can’t remember all the darned rules and regulations, and after six months she still cannot get the hang of military time! But she gets excellent training in the Navy, and she doesn’t have to work very hard—“a navy Nurse’s duties are much lighter nowadays; they’re mostly supervisory.” Interestingly, it is suggested that if she were to marry, she would just resign her post. I’m not sure how that could ever have been a thing, because my impression of the military is that it’s not an optional sort of arrangement. This book, however, is optional for you, and so I recommend that you forego it, and instead try the much more interesting Navy Nurse penned by one of my favorite authors, Rosie M. Banks—it’ll be much smoother sailing.

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