She had come out of the unit where she was looking after a colored soldier when she literally bumped into him. Wide-eyed she looked up at him, mortified. It was General Turpentine. He was out there having a smoke. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled, lowering her eyes. She was a colored woman and he was a white man. She had no business looking him in the face like that.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
Her heart sank and she thought, He’s going to ship me back to America. “Madilyn. My family and friends call me Maddie.”
“Do you smoke, Maddie?”
She shook her head, surprised. “No. I don’t smoke. It’s-it’s bad for your health.”
He smiled. “I’ve been trying to quit for a while now. One of these days, I’ll succeed.”
“How long have you been here in North Africa?”
“I came a couple of weeks ago, Sir. I volunteered because I wanted to take care of those brave soldiers fighting for our country. I’m taking care of the colored ones. I was afraid that they would make me take care of the German POWs.”
He sighed. He knew that because she was a colored nurse, she could either serve on a segregated base with colored soldiers or at a POW camp for German soldiers. Jim Crow segregation laws had permeated the military which meant that she was prohibited from taking care of the white American soldiers. There wasn’t anything he could do about it. If he had her take care of them, it would cause all sorts of problems among the soldiers and the white nurses. So, it was best to leave things as they were. It seemed unfair, though. She was an American same as them and she was serving her country same as them yet, they treated her like she was the enemy simply because she was colored.
Hypocrites, he thought, shaking his head. We’re no better than the Germans who treated the Jews, gypsies, Poles and everyone else whom they considered to be inferior like crap.
“Do you have a husband, children, Maddie?”
She shook her head. “No, I’m not married and I don’t have any children. I have a young man, though. He’s in France with the 761 Tank Battalion.”
“Do you hear from him?”
“Yes. He writes me when he can.”
“I write my wife when I can. Our son celebrated his thirteenth birthday yesterday. And our daughter had her first communion last week. I’m sorry I couldn’t be there. War. It separates families, couples.”
“Yes. And so many soldiers won’t see their families again. Gerald is his parents’ only son.”
“Gerald. Is that your young man?”
“Do you believe in God?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Good. In war, faith is what we need to hold on to to survive.”
She glanced around her, thinking that she had been out here too long and needed to get back to her patients. “I’d better go,” she said.
“It was nice talking to you, Maddie. I hope we can do it again.”
She smiled. “Goodnight, Sir.”
“Goodnight, Maddie.” He watched her walk away. If anything were to happen to him, he wanted her to be his nurse.
They accidentally on purpose bumped into each other a few evenings after that and until he left the base. The next time Maddie saw him, he was suffering from a gunshot wound from an enemy sniper. He needed surgery. She heard about it and tried to concentrate on her patients but when she had a moment, she slipped off to a quiet spot where she prayed fervently. Lord, please don’t let him die, she begged. Please let him live even it means the end of his career.
When he came out of surgery, he asked for her. She went to him. He lay there in the bed, his head bandaged. He smiled weakly. “Hello, Maddie.”
“Don’t talk,” she said. “You need your rest.”
“Stay a while,” he said.
“How are you feeling?”
“Better now that you’re here.”
Fortunately, they were alone when he said that. “Hush, Sir,” she said. “You shouldn’t be saying such things.”
“It’s the truth.” He reached for her hand and gripped it. “When I came through the surgery, your face was the only one I wanted to see.”
“Please call me James.”
“James, you need to rest now.”
“When I’m have recovered sufficiently I will be returning to my home in New Hampshire to convalesce. This means that I will never see you again.”
“When you’re back with your family, you won’t think about me or this place.”
“You’re wrong, Maddie. I will think about you everyday.”
She didn’t say it but she knew that she would think about him everyday too. She didn’t tell him that Gerald had been killed. She got the letter a week ago. Naturally, she had cried and grieved but when she thought that the General was going to die, she was devastated and it was then that she realized that she had fallen in love with him. How foolish she, a colored woman was to fall in love with a white married man. There was no future for her with him.
She smiled now. “I have to go and check on my other patients.”
He released her hand. “I want you to be my nurse for as long as I am here. I will request it.”
“You mustn’t do that.”
“Why not? It’s what I want.”
She didn’t argue. “Get your rest. I will come by in the morning.”
He watched her go and then, sighed, closing his eyes. What a fine mess he had gotten himself into. He, a married man with two children, had fallen in love with a colored woman who had a young man of her own. This was all rather hopeless. There was no future here. He might as well accept that and just go back to New Hampshire. Jane and the children would be happy to have him home. His future was with them. And Maddie’s was with her young man.
He decided that he wouldn’t request that she be his nurse. Tomorrow would be the last time they saw each other. It was a painful decision but he knew that it was the right one.
When he left, all she had of him was his prayer book which she kept.