Thursday, January 21, 2016

Charlie's War, part three

Continued from here

New York City, New York
February 1918

But Mama, all the other girls are going to be wearing red,” Charlie complained. “I'll look like a bumpkin.” She glanced at her mother, thinking she'd hit upon the perfect argument against wearing the dress Marjorie had created especially for her. “None of the boys will want to dance with me. That means no husband. No grandbabies.”

Marjorie merely smiled and held out the dress to Charlie. “That's quite all right. I have two already, and I'm sure that Al and Gwen will have babies soon as well.” Then she sighed the long-suffering sigh of mothers with headstrong daughters everywhere and thrust the dress out to Charlie once more. “I guarantee that at least one young man will ask you to dance tonight, Charlie. You will stand out in the crowd. You'll be the prettiest girl at the Plaza tonight.”

Charlie took the dress and then began putting it on while she continued her protests against going to the Valentine's Day ball in the Plaza Hotel's Grand Ballroom. “I have to study, Mama. I have exams next week. And I have an article to write, too. I don't want to...” She trailed off in mid-sentence and looked at herself in the full-length mirror of the dressing room in her mother's flat. “Oh, my,” she said softly, her eyes going wide with shock. “I look like Mary Pickford.” She turned a brilliant smile on her mother, the first of such expressions since June.

Marjorie smiled at her daughter, her eyes filling with tears. Charlie looked like a proper lady. The dress was a floor-length gown of a soft butter-colored silk charmeuse with fine lace edging at the bodice, overlaid with cream lace netting that ended in a small train in the back. Blue topaz flowers framed the neckline and decorated the sleeves, and the sleeve's four points each ended in a blue topaz briolette. With Charlie's wild mane of wheaten gold properly tamed into curls piled high atop her head and a little artfully applied make-up, the resemblance to America's Sweetheart would be remarkable. “See?” Marjorie said and adjusted the dress a tiny bit, picking bits of imaginary lint off the shoulder and darting a kiss against Charlie's cheek. “You'll be the prettiest girl there tonight. Let's finish getting you ready. Gwen and Al will be here in an hour.”

An hour and a half later, Al's Packard Touring car stopped in the front of the Plaza Hotel. Once they were standing on the pavement, Charlie clutched Gwen's arm and looked up at the building's edifice with wide eyes. “It's so elegant,” she said in a hushed voice. “You're really going to get married here?”

Gwendolyn Beck, of the Westchester Becks, a petite girl with a lush feminine figure and glossy golden curls, glanced down at her future sister-in-law and nodded. “Daddy said yes. It is the most expensive and exclusive hotel in the world after all." Then she smiled, softening her tone a bit. "It was quite a coup for Alfred to get invited to this ball. I'm glad he convinced you to come with us, Charlotte. There's sure to be many eligible men here tonight. Let's go in.”

The Hotel's Grand Ballroom quite literally took Charlie's breath away. The large room, done in white and gold, was lit by two enormous electric chandeliers dripping with Baccarat crystals. Balconies on the east wall overlooked the dance floor and a large stage dominated the north wall. Elegantly dressed couples took turns waltzing or sitting at one of scores of tables covered with red tablecloths, crystal goblets, gold place settings, and arrangements of fresh red roses. A coat check girl took Charlie and Gwen's wraps and Al's coat before they descended to their table. As they cut through the crowd, Charlie noticed that she was right about red being the predominant colour of the girls' dresses tonight. But she also noticed more than a few men looking at her and smiling hopefully.

That night, Charlie danced with an Astor, a Vanderbilt, a Mellon, and a Rockefeller. They were all polite but slightly aloof, and Charlie was left with the feeling that they danced with her as a matter of form and not because they had any interest in her personally. She sat out most of the dances, sitting alone at her table and sipping champagne punch while she watched Al and Gwen spinning around the dance floor.

And then the orchestra's leader announced that their next number would be a tango and a young man asked Charlie to dance. The tango was on Mrs McNamara's list of forbidden dances but Gwen pushed Al to let Charlie go once she realized just exactly who was asking. Jack Taylor was the great-grandson of Moses Taylor, the founder of the First National City Bank of New York, the most handsome and eligible young bachelor in the city.

Jack was tall, dark haired, elegantly dressed in a bespoke tuxedo, and had the bluest eyes Charlie had ever seen. He was polite but not cool and aloof. He talked to Charlie, asked her questions, and made her laugh. And he could dance. Boy, could he dance! He expertly led Charlie around the floor for the tango, a foxtrot, and two waltzes, before leading her back to her table. “May I join you?” he asked Al.

Gwen spoke up before Al could say anything. “Oh, yes, Mr Taylor. Please do.” She grinned across the table at Charlie, pleased that she'd found such a catch. The Taylor family was consistently on the Forbes list of the wealthiest families in America.

Jack sat next to Charlie and turned to face her, leaning closer to her and giving the impression that she was the most interesting, most fascinating girl in the entire world. And truth be told, she was. He'd been impressed with her when he first caught sight of her, standing out in the crowd like a ray of sunshine in her daring yellow dress. All of the stuffed shirts got to her first, which actually had worked out in his favour. She could see what cold fishes those boys were and when she danced with him, he'd be sure to impress her.

Charlie was more than impressed. She was smitten. Jack was handsome, well-bred, and he'd made her laugh. His sense of humour reminded her a great deal of Hank's and she had missed laughing like that. He was also a graduate student at Princeton, studying archaeology and had been promised a position with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in their Egyptology collection when he graduated just four months from now.

When the ball ended, Jack walked with the McNamaras and Gwen to Al's car. He caught Charlie's hand and pressed a kiss to the back of it before saying, “Miss McNamara, may I call on you again?”

Charlie glanced at Al and then Gwen, who were both smiling at her. Then she turned back to Jack and nodded. “I'd like that very much, Mr Taylor.” Jack grinned happily, bowed to Gwen, and shook Al's hand before giving Charlie one last fond look and turning on his heel. Al saw Gwen and Charlie into the car and then went around to climb into the driver's seat, setting off for Marjorie's flat a little further up Fifth Avenue.

Gwen sat next to Charlie in the backseat, nattering on about how handsome Mr Taylor was, how nicely mannered and interesting, and of course, how rich his family was. Charlie didn't hear a word she said; her head was still far too full of Jack to even think of anything else. Her mother had been right: she had stood out in the crowd and the most interesting man there had noticed her.

Michigan Creek, CO
June-November 1918

Al and Gwen were married in a huge ceremony in the same ballroom where Charlie and Jack Taylor had met four months earlier. It was the event of the New York social season. The ceremony was attended by the mayor of New York City, senators from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, and many railroad, lumber, and coal barons. Gwen's dress was a frothy confection of white satin and lace, and she had selected peach chiffon for the dresses of her bridesmaids. It was the first time since Hank's funeral that the entire McNamara family–all three generations–had been gathered together in one place, and though they were all thrilled for Al and Gwen, that joy was nonetheless touched with heart-ache over Hank's absence.

Jack Taylor and Charlie had been seeing each other every weekend since the Valentine's ball at the Plaza. He went up to Poughkeepsie from Princeton to see Charlie at Vassar, and sometimes they'd meet in the City at Mrs. McNamara's rented flat near Central Park. They went to see talkies and went to dances; he took her out to dinner at expensive restaurants and she cooked for him and her mother. His constant cheerfulness, solicitous manners, and kind-hearted, generous nature helped Charlie heal from the loss of her closest sibling, and by the time school ended just a few weeks after Al and Gwen's wedding, Charlie was back to her old self, laughing freely, smiling often, and cracking jokes about everyone and everything.

Seeing that her daughter would be in good hands with Mr. Taylor come the autumn and would no longer need the presence of her mother so close by, Mrs. McNamara announced that she would return to the Michigan Creek house in July. Charlie invited Jack to spend the summer there with her, her parents, and Howard and his family. Jack eagerly agreed and in early July, they arrived in Michigan Creek just in time to learn that the Germans had launched what would prove to be the turning point of the war in the Western Front. For days, the entire family, Jack, the Colonel, and Mr. McNamara's legal clerks and junior associates surrounded the radio in Mr. McNamara's office, glued to news reports of the Second Battle of the Marne. When the German retreat was announced on the twentieth of July, all those gathered cheered and the Colonel opened a bottle of champagne.

The rest of the summer passed by too quickly. Charlie and Jack went on a week-long camping trip with the Colonel and she taught Jack to hunt and fish, and he taught her how to spot potential archaeological sites, how to read ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, and the line of Pharaohs from the First Dynasty clear through to the very last Pharaoh, Cleopatra VII.

They returned just in time to learn about a new threat to the world, the Spanish Flu. First reported at Fort Riley in Kansas, the sickness reached epidemic proportions by mid-August and no community, no matter how isolated, escaped unaffected. The first people in Michigan Creek to feel the sting of the killer virus was the small group of German Lutherans, who worked most of the farms in the South Park Basin.

Since the Great War had started, this small community had suffered horribly, becoming the object of suspicion and outright hatred. The ignorant and afraid pelted the German children with dirt clods on their way to school, called them “Huns” and worse, and the local war board harassed them even in the sanctity of their church. A group of men had marched into their sanctuary in the middle of church services one Sunday and announced that from that day on, no services would be held in German or the church would be shut down. Soon after, there were reports that several of the men who were present in that church had been abducted, and tarred and feathered. There were also suspicious fires in which an entire family lost everything they owned, including their farm animals.

The flu, however, was the Great Equalizer. It didn't care if you were German, Irish, Native American, male or female. If you were between the ages of twenty and forty, chances were you would contract the disease. In the first three weeks of the flu's arrival in Michigan Creek, fifteen people died and another thirty fell ill. Junior and his wife, Georgia, got the flu, as did both of their children. Even Charlie and Jack didn't escape and spent the last month of their holiday in Colorado, wandering in and out of consciousness. No McNamaras died, and eventually, Junior, Georgia, Charlie, and Jack recovered and helped tend to others in the tiny town. Junior and Jack, along with Mr. McNamara and the Colonel, dug many graves, and Georgia, Charlie, and Mrs. McNamara helped take care of many children whose mothers were deathly ill.

By September, a total of twenty-five people in South Park had died and fifty-eight more were sick. Charlie learned that Vassar had cancelled its classes, urging everyone to stay home until the epidemic ran its course. Jack had graduated earlier in June, but was set to return to New York City when Charlie did, to begin his position with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but his mother begged him to stay in Colorado as well and not to return to the City. Things were even worse there. More than 90,000 people had fallen ill in the state and some 12,000 had died.

In early October, Jack had a conversation with Mr. McNamara, a private conversation in the attorney's office with the door shut. Clerks and junior associates of the little firm exchanged worried looks and Junior hovered around the door, trying to listen through it, straining to hear even just a few words. At the end of the conversation, Jack emerged, looking pale and shaky, and Mr. McNamara sat behind his desk, a stunned expression on his face. He noticed his employees and his son lurking and swore them to secrecy. No word of this closed-door conversation was ever to leave the office.

On the morning of November eleventh, a curious thing happened. Church bells rang, car horns honked, and telephones jingled with the “general call” of the party line. “The armistice has been signed!” shouted the operator, amidst a cacophony of bells, whistles, horns, and cheering in the background. “The War is over!” That night, there was a huge celebration at Michigan Creek's Town Hall, and the world felt as though it had stopped holding its breath. Years later, when the final death toll from the fours years of fighting was made available, more than nine million combatants had been killed. No family in the countries involved in the conflict went untouched. It seemed as though everyone knew someone who had been killed on the muddy battlefields of France.

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