Rita heard the chirping voices of women relaxing around her, but her concentration was on the nighttime Kansas sky. Finished with her mid-shift sandwich, she studied the constellations wondering if Peter were looking at the Big Dipper or Orion from some precarious perch in the Pacific. News had not been good from there, but then for national safely reasons, she did not know exactly where he was either.
She sipped on her Coke bottle and summoned up images of orange Indian Blanket and nodding sunflowers that would be blooming now on the prairie outside Wichita. She had not seen anything but the inside o Boeing for several weeks. Working the night shift, she had been steady at her job for six days a week. No complaints form her though once she had sighted the war poster reading “The More Women at Work, the Sooner We Win”. It was a powerful invitation for her to help end the war, to do her part to bring Peter and the others home. She might even be riveting a plane Peter would fly in over the islands.
“Quit your daydreaming, Rita. Your fuselage awaits!” taunted Edna, a riveter of bomb doors, as she gathered up her napkin and banana peel from the outdoor picnic bench. Rita shut her own wartime fiberboard lunch box, the metal ones long gone to the war effort.
The women, a small group dressed similarly in belted coveralls with kerchiefs knotted over their curls, meandered back into the hanger where B-29s were taking shape. Before Rita even got inside the door, Tommy a young runner from the head office weeded through the women getting to her.
“Rita Hegel, Mr. Bower wants to see you in his office,” he said waving her through the workers.
The hanger became eerily quiet as workers feared anyone’s bad news. All wondered if it were Pete. Was Rita the next wife to learn her GI wasn’t going to come home again?
“Come on ladies, let’s hustle,” Edna urged the hushed crew towards their own posts while climbing up stairs into a plane and grabbing her rivet gun.
Rita opened the door to Mr. Bower’s office. Her stomach had already turned over and landed loose side up like a fried egg. One look at the man’s face said it was not good news he meant to share.
“Rita, I have some bad news, but it is stateside news,” Ed Bower tried to relieve her some, knowing full well she expected to hear it was Pete. “Actually, it is your brother, Samuel. His training plane has crashed and his injuries are still undetermined. Unfortunately, the other pilot has died. Your folks are on the way to Coffeyville now, and someone will get news to you as soon as there is some.”
Rita thought of Samuel doing pilot training right here in Kansas. She hoped his plane hadn’t been a “Texan” built in Dallas where they now built trainers out of plywood since aluminum was scarce and used only for war bound planes. If he had to crash, it was better here in Kansas where there was no enemy, with better chances of survival. Maybe he was injured just enough to keep him safe so he could stay home now, never going on to war zones.
Then she caught her selfish thoughts and remembered her people had always been strong, surviving folk. Her grandparents had come to Kansas when it was a wild place, willing to live in a cave in a river bank, to break sod, to build a farm on their own land. The least her generation could do was defend the land without complaint.
Rita returned to the hanger with yelping rivet guns and occasional cobalt flickers from masked welders. She mounted the metal steps into the cigar-shaped fuselage and grabbed her own rivet gun, determined not to worry. Adele, her bucker, was ready with bucking bar in hand. Rita smiled at her and began shooting rivets as fast she could to make up for lost time. Adele held the bucker fast and tight while Rita’s skill hammered the rivets tight as a hot canning jar lid.
A vermilion sun was just breaking the horizon as Edna and Rita waited in an exit line to have their lunch boxes and purses checked. Boeing was careful not to let secrets or contraband out of its gates. Seeing the stunning dawn reminded Rita of early mornings on the family farm near the Solomon River. The sun drenched prairie stretched far and wide there, and she missed the quiet comfort of the land. But holding a man’s job with good pay in bustling Wichita was going to help Peter and her buy their own place near Hoxie someday. If, that is, Peter came home; but she would not allow herself to think with any doubt now. Worrying about an injured Samuel interrupted the reverie, and she longed to hear more news of him.
After a short bus ride, the two women walked a couple of blocks to the bungalow on Oliver Street they shared with Barbara Smalley from Liberal. Barbara worked days assembling landing gear at a small shop downtown. When they opened the front door, they spied a note Barbara had left propped on the table. She had scrawled news that Rita’s parents had called leaving a message for Rita. Samuel was going to be okay, but he would need a long recovery; they would call her later with details. Rita sighed deeply, letting worry, fear, and exhaustion slump into the air, but she was grateful for some good news. Now if Peter could just come home safely. Edna was reading her mind.
“Rita, it will all be okay,” she said in a muted voice, as if trying to reassure herself too. Then with a gutsy laugh, “Hey, girl, go wash up. This is good news about your brother. They might not be making any new waffle irons right now, but the old Sears model in the kitchen fires up great. I am making some celebration waffles and then we can sleep!”
Making an overly dramatic face and a false salute, Edna added, “Tomorrow we return to building the protectors of the world!”
Rita rubbed her sore hands and achy forearms still rippling from hours of rivet work while nodding in agreement with a slight grin. “With blueberries, maybe?”
A batch of waffles might not fix everything, but it was a good start for a new day.