In 1937 I went to Spain to save the Republic and keep my friend Marty alive.
A small band of us arrived in Albacete on a rickety train after days on the sea, hours in the back of a bouncing truck from Paris to the French border, and a numbing climb by foot over the Pyrenees in the dark of a freezing April night to avoid French border patrols. Marty and I were here on the brown plain of La Mancha to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in a just and important cause.
After all that, the man in the uniform seated at the field desk in front of me insisted women couldn’t fight. He said I could be an ambulance driver, cook, or nurse’s aide changing bedpans and bandages.
“No sir,” I answered, staring straight ahead like a soldier. “I came here to fight.”
“They must have explained to you before you left America,” the man in the uniform said.
“I know how to fire a gun,” I lied. “And I can clobber any man here with my fists.” That part was probably true. I was bigger and stronger than most of them, with broader shoulders but fewer curves than most girls. Back home I usually covered myself in pants and men’s shirts, and when we reached Paris, I had my mousy brown hair cut short as a guy’s.
I stared at the man behind the desk and he stared back at me, his pencil suspended over the log of new recruits. A barrel-chested man in a brown officer’s uniform and black riding boots, who had been watching from nearby, came up behind him and whispered in his ear. Then he moved on. The red star on his field hat identified him as a Russian. The man behind the desk nodded and made a mark in his log. “Alright, Potter,” he said. “You’re in A Company.”
Marty struggled down the dusty street toward the granary, our temporary home for the next nine days, weighed down with the full knapsack, uniform, and bedroll we’d each been issued. He was a small man who couldn’t have stood more than five feet four or weighted more than a hundred twenty pounds even with rocks in his pockets. About halfway there I asked him to pause so I could catch my breath, really an excuse to give him a break.
He lit a cigarette. “You shouldn’t have insisted on carrying a rifle, Frannie,” he said.
“That’s why I came,” I answered. “To fight.”
“Well, I’m not going to be able to take care of you once we come under fire.”
“So who asked you to?” I shot back. I was the one, after all, who was there to take care of him.
He snuffed out his cigarette, and we continued walking toward the old granary, joining the other nine new recruits. We changed into our uniforms – brown flannel shirts, khaki trousers, and v-shaped caps. Marty turned his head away, too embarrassed to see me stripped down to my drawers. He would have liked to throw a blanket over me to shield me from the eyes of the other men. None of them paid any attention. I was just another soldier in the group: four pale Jews from New York City, a Negro truck driver from Chicago, a sharecropper from Tennessee, a union organizer from Cleveland, a bank clerk from Buffalo, a coal miner from Pennsylvania, Marty, and me. None of us had yet reached our twenty-fifth birthday.
That evening the two of us sat by ourselves under a Linden tree eating our plates of beans and bread with carrots and onions fried in olive oil.
“That’s not thunder you’re hearing,” Marty said. “It’s artillery fire.”
“Are you glad you came?” I asked.
“You know why I came.” He gave me that adorable puppy dog look that made me wonder why I couldn’t love him the way he wanted me to love him. Instead, he made me feel guilty all over again.
Marty was cute as could be, but it was his brain that fascinated me right from the start. The first time we met, I thought he had his eye on my best friend, Dolores Brown. We were just starting our second year at San Francisco State College, rare for a girl, and even rarer for a desperately poor longshoreman’s daughter. State was possible if I worked part-time. I wanted something more than my mother’s dull, desperate life of survival. I wanted to roam the world and achieve some great purpose. Every day when I entered campus through the big door on Haight Street, I felt I moved one step closer to escaping Rincon Hill. That’s where we lived, in a rundown, weathered-gray clapboard house not far from the Embarcadero where Daddy worked on the wharves.
Dolores lived down the street from us in a house no better than mine. We had been best friends for as long as I could remember, joined at the hip, my mother used to say. On the opening day of the fall semester in 1936, we headed into our first class and found seats toward the front.
Doctor Jefferson Drummond looked the part of a history professor: middle-aged, pipe smoking, thinning blondish hair, and a sonorous voice. Everyone said he was a socialist at best, and maybe even a Communist. “Who knows what’s going on in Spain right now?” he challenged before everyone was even seated. Twenty-three sets of eyeballs stared at their shoes, praying he wouldn’t call on them. He waited and waited some more. No one replied. I wondered if I was the only one sweating.
When all seemed lost, one voice spoke from two rows behind me. “Spain became a republic in 1931 when the people threw out their king. Then the election this past April was won by a coalition of republicans, socialists, Communists, workers, and peasants. That threatened the old order of generals, large landowners, and the Catholic Church.” I turned around to see this adorable little teddy bear taking control. I later learned his name was Marty Hornstein.
“Go on,” Drummond encouraged.
Marty explained that in July fascist generals led by Francisco Franco launched a civil war against the elected Republican government. Hitler immediately sent German-manned bombers, fighter planes, and transports to help Franco, along with many of their newest tanks and armaments. Mussolini did the same. Great Britain, the United States, France, and the other western democracies refused to help the elected government, their excuse being that this was an internal Spanish matter. The Russians snuck some antiquated equipment through the Italian naval blockade to the Republicans but not enough to be decisive.
After class, I caught up with Marty in the quadrangle and thanked him for saving the rest of us from humiliation. Dolores, a petite blondish temptress, immediately gave him her coy, pinky-in-the-mouth come-on. She knew how to flirt with guys. Me, I was nineteen and had yet to have my first date.
I asked Marty a couple of questions about Spain. He asked my opinion about the war and nodded his head in approval when I let him know that any side Hitler was on I was on the other. He finally glanced at Dolores and invited us both to continue the conversation over coffee in the school cafeteria. We accepted. I didn’t even think about it, but if I had, I would have assumed Marty’s only interest in me was to get to Dolores. That’s the way it always worked before.
During the weeks that followed, Professor Drummond’s lectures concentrated on the war in Spain. Nationalist forces under Generalissimo Franco took Toledo from the loyalist Republicans and closed in on Spain’s capital of Madrid. Untrained Republican rag-tag militias held out. By now, I was a committed Republican, ready to back Spain’s cause.
Marty, Dolores and I met nearly every day for coffee. We followed the war and commiserated over the Republicans’ desperate plight. Then Dolores, receiving little of Marty’s attention, became a less frequent member of our little group.
The two of us must have been a strange sight walking across campus, this monster of a girl in second-hand clothes alongside a fragile, collegiate young man in his natty sweater vest, bow tie, and gorgeous curly black hair. I didn’t think much about it. We were buddies and that’s all that mattered. Marty was a Jew, so I never mentioned him to Daddy and Mother. Daddy didn’t like Jews much. I had never known one before Marty, and it didn’t matter to me. I wasn’t about to ask him over to the house anyway. I didn’t want him to see where I lived.
One day, Marty asked me to a movie. “A Farewell to Arms,” he said. “Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes. You’ll love it.” I paused, confused. Marty was a friend, my little teddy bear. For a moment I thought he might have something else in mind, like a date. When he saw the look on my face, his natural grin shriveled into a bruised smile. “You can bring Dolores,” he said without enthusiasm.
OUR DAY AT the movies was months ago, and in a place as different from Albacete as Oz and Kansas. The enormity of what I was doing didn’t fully bite me until my first full day as a soldier. The brigade quartermaster issued us each a rifle and a bandoleer containing a hundred cartridges. We only simulated firing. There wasn’t enough ammunition to spare for the real thing. During our nine days of training, we learned to march and to follow simple commands in English and Spanish. None of us questioned the adequacy of our preparation for battle against a professional army.
Camila Castillo, our Spanish company cook, adopted me right from the start. I needed it. She had a thin black brush above her upper lip and the sagging breasts of an older woman, though she was probably no more than my mother’s forty-three years. She told me, through gaps in her broken browned teeth, how to take care of a woman’s needs in the field. She also warned me not to get involved with men with whom I shared the trenches. The later advice was advice I didn’t need. I hadn’t come to Spain to find a boyfriend. But if I had, the odds were good. There were only 80 American women among the three thousand American men in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
Her advice about fascist prisoners was more malevolent. She said in fractured English, along with exaggerated gestures, “if you capture one of those dog lovers you cut off his cojones and stuff them in his mouth. Then you poke out his eyes and shoot him immediately.” A Nationalist force overran Camila’s impoverished farming village. They did to her uncle exactly what she described. They suspected the poor illiterate farmer of being a Communist simply because he was wearing a red kerchief tied around his neck. She lost two of her three sons in this war. The third son and her daughter now fought for the Republic in the north.
Every day we heard the booming of cannon from the front only a few miles off. Occasionally trucks carrying troops sped toward the front or returning ambulances raced toward the hospital down the street. One time a fleet of about twenty German Heinkel bombers crossed above us in the high blue sky, headed toward Madrid.
On the evening of our ninth day of training, we were fed a huge pile of Camila’s chopped potatoes, vegetables, and a chewy but tasty chunk of goat spiced with garlic, peppers, and parsley. Wine flowed from the wineskins until anxiety waned. Tomorrow we were to be put to the fire.
Small wonder I couldn’t sleep that night. I lay awake thinking about the first time I heard of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade when Professor Drummond brought it up in class. He told us the unit consisted of American volunteers who traveled to Spain to join in the defense of the Republic. Their gallantry helped save Madrid for the moment.
When we came out of class that day, Marty carried a printed blue flyer Drummond had handed him. JOIN THE FIGHT it said. An illustration of a muscled man, a rifle raised above his head, dominated the top of the page. It advertised a meeting to be held Thursday evening at 7:00 pm at the Workers’ Hall off Van Ness Street.
“Let’s go,” I said impulsively.
“I’m not going to Spain,” Dolores grumbled.
“Maybe we can help in some other way,” Marty said. “Let’s hear what they have to say.”
“Okay,” Dolores relented. “But I’m not going to Spain.”
I was no longer so sure of that, so I kept my mouth shut.
The room was set up to hold about fifty people, but only nine showed, six young men plus Marty, Dolores and me. The small audience did not diminish the zeal of the two men up front. One was a well-spoken, modestly dressed middle-aged American in a suit. The other was a slender, handsome, mustached Spaniard in black pants and a white shirt opened at the collar. A few tufts of dark chest hair showed. He was gorgeous, and I was captured, not so much by him as with what he said.
First, the American gave a short speech about how the Republic had been democratically elected to serve the workers and peasants, and how the fascists with German and Italian help were trying to overthrow it.
Then the Spaniard rose to speak, his English fluent but with a decided accent. Dramatic gestures punctuated his every fervent word. He showed us a movie of fascist bombs destroying Spanish cities and killing innocent people. Rows of Franco’s goose-stepping regular army soldiers contrasted with the brave Republican militias of armed workers and peasants. There were shots of determined Americans in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade undergoing training before moving into battle. When the film ended, the Spaniard closed with an impassioned plea for us to come to Spain to join la causa – the cause. “We fight not just for ourselves, but for ordinary people everywhere,” he said. “Por favor, we cannot let democracy die, murdered by tyrants.”
By the time he finished, my blood pumped like water through a fire hose. I realize now that I had been searching for a way to fight back against injustice ever since Daddy was badly beaten by police during the 1934 longshoremen’s strike. How helpless he and the other workers were to resist the power of the shipowners, the mayor, the governor, the police, and the national guard arrayed against them to break the strike. Here in Spain, a whole people were going through something even worse.
Two young working men signed up immediately. The others milled around talking to the Spaniard or the American. I pulled Marty and Dolores into a corner in the back of the room.
“We’ve got to go,” I said, about to burst.
Dolores looked at me as though I had flipped my lid. “You’ve got to be kidding. I’m not going to Spain, for godssake.”
“Let’s settle down,” Marty said. “This is serious business.”
“Real people are dying,” I shot back. “And did you see those Americans over there ready to fight? They have courage.”
Marty said nothing. Neither did Dolores. I stood there, erect as a soldier, hands on hips, my glare fixed on Marty until he looked away.
“You’d better think this over, Frannie,” he finally said.
“I’m signing up right now.”
He took a deep breath. “Alright. I can’t let you go alone.” So, the two of us signed up.
Dolores refused to speak to me all the way home until we got off the streetcar and walked the last few blocks to our neighborhood.
“If he’s killed it’s going to be your fault,” she said, spite in her voice.
“What are you talking about?”
“Are you so blind?” She sniffled and wiped her nose on the back of her hand. “He’s been sweet on you since the first day he met you. That’s why he’s going. For you, not for some stupid cause.”
I was speechless and as blind as she said I was. Witless nineteen-year-old girls like me thought the only kind of love was the romantic love one sees in the movies. I didn’t know there was any other kind. Marty and I had a special friendship, I knew that. But not a romance. Yet the moment Dolores said it I knew she was right. He was willing to risk his life because he loved me. And I couldn’t return that kind of love. That’s a lot of guilt for a young woman to carry around in her knapsack. But it’s how we ended up in Spain together in the middle of a civil war.
Marty snored in the cot next to mine. I envied him. Tomorrow we were going to take on the fascists in battle, and I was supposed to keep Marty alive, as well as save the Spanish Republic. And the hell of it was I didn’t even know how to fire a rifle.
The morning we were bloodied for the first time broke humid and gray. People would be killed, but I never thought I might be one of them. Our company was ordered to hold a strong point protecting Madrid against attack by a fierce force of Moroccans from the Spanish African Legion. “Stay close to me,” Marty commanded when we jumped down from the back of the truck. I nodded. I had no intention of being anywhere else.
Artillery explosions shocked my eardrums and shook the ground worse than a San Francisco earthquake. Thick smoke burned my eyes and gunpowder stuffed my nostrils. The rat-a-tat-tat from a machine gun nest resounded to my right. Whatever I expected war to be, I never expected it to be so loud and haphazard.
Our group crouched behind a stone parapet in an unplowed field. A sunburned road ran down to our left. I grabbed hold of Marty’s belt to make sure he was within arm’s length. The menacing Moors in their terrifying turban headdress moved from one trench and hill defilade to another with well-trained precision. Our side fired and fired, but the rounds from our antiquated Russian rifles died a hundred yards out, worthless. The fascists had new, modern German Mauser Karabiner bolt-action rifles that can hit a man at three hundred meters. The enemy crept closer and closer with deadlier and deadlier fire. One of the Jewish kids in our group from New York fell on his back, his legs bent under him, a big messy hole in his stomach, and a surprised look on his dead face. In the confusion of their assault, I lost sight of Marty. I shouted his name but with all the noise it was like shouting into the wind on a stormy night.
One of the bearded Moors, now nearly upon us, showed himself, his black eyes fixed on me. I took careful aim and fired my rifle for the first time. He suspended in mid-stride, paused, and toppled over. I felt the exhilaration a big game hunter must feel when he bags his first lion. Then I did it again and again and again. Each time I pulled the trigger a man fell and my heart pounded in celebration.
My last round stopped one of the bearded bastards not fifty feet from our wall. His Mauser rifle lay near his outstretched hand beckoning me. I had to have it. I crawled over the wall and made a run for it. The ping-ping-ping of rounds landed near me kicking up puffs of dirt. They barely registered. I wanted that rifle. I grabbed it, yanked the cartridge belt from the dead body, and then turned and scurried back.
I was nearly over the wall when a deep burn bit my calf. I fell to safety, blood on my pants. I’d been nicked. It hurt a little, but not much - a slight tingle, followed by a little hot and a little cold. Marty crawled over and poured water on it from his dented canteen, then wrapped a gray bandage around the wound, tying it in place.
“Are you nuts?” he yelled. “You could have gotten yourself killed.”
“Look at this rifle,” I answered, sticking out my new weapon for him to see.
We held our own that day until three German tanks smashed into our lines. An antitank gun knocked out one of them, but the other two advanced, firing on the Spanish company on our right flank until they broke and ran. We had no choice but to withdraw and regroup on the next hill behind a clump of farmhouses. The fascists did not pursue us.
A cluster of us sprawled beneath a tree in front of the lone remaining wall of an ochre casita smoking those long Russian cigarettes with cardboard tips and sharing a canteen of raw red wine. An essence of bull testes swirled in the air. Men who have been in battle smell like men in heat. A woman is little better. The Soviet officer who interceded on my behalf the first day ambled over. He had the broad forehead, bushy eyebrows, and squinty eyes of a Siberian Tatar. I learned his name was Oleg Veselov, and he was a major.
“Good shoots Comrade Potter,” he said in a tainted Russian accent. He nodded at my Mauser. “Nice rifle. Kill more fascists.”
I saw men die that day for the first time, and I killed. None of it bothered me as long as it wasn’t me who died, and it wasn’t Marty. After the battle, our Spanish interpreter, Diego Valera, gave me the nickname of la asesina – the assassin. Everyone soon called me that except Marty. He still called me Frannie.
In the second and third battles that soon followed, I felt I wore magic armor that protected me. But by the fourth or fifth battle, I prayed to God I wouldn’t be the one to die. And I didn’t even believe in God. By then, I hardly paid attention when my brethren shot a few Nationalist prisoners after the fighting died down, routine vengeance repaid in kind.
During the months that followed, my muscles grew hard as a bull’s behind, my skin turned the color of dark earth, and my hair bronzed under the Castilian sun. It was much the same for Marty except his black hair remained black, and he grew a handsome mustache. He looked healthy for the first time since I met him. The Spanish women of Madrid couldn’t keep their eyes off him; the prostitutes would have served him for free if he were willing. At least that’s what the other guys in our group teased.
We were now under an unrelenting barrage from the Nationalists’ artillery. Fleets of German and Italian aircraft terror bombed civilians in the center of Madrid without letup. The Republican air force could only respond with old bi-planes, and not enough of them.
We no longer had any illusions about the limits to which Franco, Hitler, and Mussolini would go. It made me angry, but for Marty, it ignited a frightening fury and despair that had no bottom. I worried about the heedless risks he took when we got into vicious firefights with German units. After such battles, he sought out German prisoners to execute.
I wrote home to Daddy and Mother whenever I could, telling them often about the brave and noble Spanish men, women, and children I had quickly come to love. I assured them with lies that, being a woman, I was kept safely behind the lines, out of harm’s way. “I’ll be proud of you no matter what the result,” Daddy wrote, “for standing up for the little guy.” He was following the war closely, he said. Mother, on the other hand, rarely wrote, and when she did, she told me how worried she was. She reminded me of the heartache I caused by sneaking off to Spain in the middle of the night without even saying goodbye.
Marty’s frequent packages from home usually contained a few luxuries and a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle. He shared his Lifebuoy soap with me, good enough to wash off some of the lice and fleas. He shared his mountain of candy with the children. I’d never seen him so happy as when he was playing with the little ones, or so sorrowful as when one of them was killed.
In early July, our battalion moved to the west end of Madrid and some of us were granted overnight passes to roam the city. We deceived ourselves into believing we were on vacation though hand to hand combat went on only fifteen blocks away amidst the library book stacks at the university. An occasional artillery round landed near us in the street spewing plaster and stone in all directions. We ducked in a doorway, and when the dust settled continued on our merry way.
Marty, two guys from Brooklyn, and I toured the Plaza Mayor, hung out at cafes, ate in a restaurant, and strolled by the Florida Hotel hoping for a glimpse of Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, or any of the other celebrity journalists covering the Republican side of the war. I swore I spied Hemingway, but Marty insisted it was only another Spaniard with a mustache trying to look the part.
Spotting luminaries was something of a game. Everyone but Abe Lincoln himself came to Spain to support the cause. I fell in love with Errol Flynn as soon as I saw him, even if I couldn’t get close enough to ravage him. Paul Robeson, the blacklisted Negro operatic star, sang to us. Dorothy Parker, George Orwell, W. H. Auden, and John Dos Pasos wrote about us. Parker gave me the once over when we met. She took a puff on her cigarette and blew the smoke out her nose. “Guys don’t make passes at girls who kick asses,” she smirked. Then she gave me a genuine smile and a pat on the shoulder. “Fuck ‘em. You keep kicking, sweetheart.”
When our twenty-four-hour holiday ended, we returned to our quarters in a church emptied of all religious relics and all furnishings. The thick stone walls provided the best shelter from Madrid’s scalding summer heat. Late that afternoon, our battalion commander, with Soviet Major Petrov by his side, briefed us on the big offensive to begin the following morning. The Republican army, with the help of Russian military advisers, prepared to launch a surprise attack designed to relieve Nationalist pressure on Madrid and cut their lines in two.
When the briefing ended, Marty and I grabbed a bundle of hay and found a corner of the church where we could bed down for the night. Four or five Jews from New York City in black skullcaps prayed nearby, muttering chants in a language I could not understand. Half of the young men we met were Jews from New York City. Some of them tried to speak to Marty in Yiddish, but he only understood a few words and could speak even fewer. So, he smiled and nodded a lot. They weren’t even sure he was Jewish until they confirmed he was circumcised.
“They’re praying in Hebrew. Saying Mourner’s Kaddish for themselves,” Marty said.
“It’s a prayer to honor the dead. They’re expecting to die tomorrow. I should join them.”
That made me mad. “You’re not dying tomorrow. And neither am I.”
Marty shrugged his shoulders and went back to cleaning his rifle. He examined the trigger housing and blew away a speck of invisible dust. “Why do you think so many on our side hate God?” he asked, changing the direction of our conversation.
“They don’t hate God. They hate the church for serving the landowners, not the people.”
“So they went out and murdered the village priests.” Marty inserted the trigger housing into the rifle’s stock. “And you? Do you hate your church?”
“I don’t have a church,” I answered. “We aren’t a religious family.”
Marty laid the assembled weapon to his side and turned toward me. He seemed momentarily taken by our spiritual sanctuary. “I don’t think I can live up to the goodness of these people we’re fighting for,” he said quietly, a catch in his voice.
“You? You’re a Boy Scout,” I laughed. “I can’t imagine you doing anything worse than sneaking into a movie.”
“You don’t even know what I did last night,” he said, dropping his gaze.
“You mean your roll with that prostitute?” I was just taking a wild guess, but Marty’s mouth dropped open, embarrassed. I must admit I found it hard to picture Marty with one of those busty women with the painted lips and fake flower in her coal black hair. It didn’t take much to imagine this was Marty’s first time. I was peculiarly jealous, though at least if he died he wouldn’t die a virgin.
“Please,” he begged. “Don’t tell anyone back home.”
I laughed again. “For Chrissake, Marty. What makes you think we’ll even be alive by this time tomorrow?”
He averted his eyes. Then he smiled. “You’re right. Still, I don’t want you to think less of me.”
“For being with a whore? That’s what you’re worried about?”
“You’ve done worse?”
I paused, not wanting him to think the less of me either. Then I proceeded to tell him about my favorite black and white saddle shoes I stole from the Emporium Department Store on Market Street back home.
“That’s it? No wonder I love you.” The adorable way he said it made me want to grab him and hug him. But soldiers don’t do that the night before a big battle. I reached over and grabbed his hand tightly in mine. He gripped back and held on.
By now the church was largely dark, most of the men asleep, some snoring loud enough to wake a saint. “This could be ugly tomorrow,” Marty whispered just before I nodded off. “The Nationalists kill any foreigners they capture, you know. But they torture them first. Promise me if I’m wounded and about to be captured you’ll shoot me.”
“I promise. You promise me the same.”
He squeezed my hand harder. “I promise.”
BRUNETE LAY NOT more than twenty miles from Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, but it may as well have been on the outskirts of hell. From the first day to the last, nineteen in all, we baked like snakes in the sands of the Sahara. Thirst tortured us as much as Nationalist bombs and bullets.
For a change, we were the ones on the attack with tens of thousands of troops, over a hundred tanks, armored cars, and heavy artillery. Some of our equipment was new and modern, each piece bearing the red star of our Soviet benefactors. We surprised the fascists, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade once again given the honor of leading from the center of the assault. The Italian forces opposing us broke and ran.
In the first skirmish, we found a handful of our comrades who had been captured. The fascists had executed them all, but not before torturing them alive and desecrating their dead bodies in the foulest manner.
Wave after wave of our brave fighters fell in our attacks like wheat stalks before a thresher. Wildfires burned across the dry yellow hills, ignited by the artillery explosions. The sun, the heat and the smoke dried my throat to a bitter cinder; wind-blown dust caked on my nose and lips. When on the fourth day there were few of us left, we made a desperate drive on Mosquito Ridge. We mustered the strength to charge the fascist trenches only because someone said they had water. Marty and I stuck to each other like salami and cheese.
A few of us fought our way to one of their bunkers. I threw a grenade into the slit killing everyone inside. A survivor in the trench outside raised his hands in surrender. I saw two canteens dangling from his belt, so I raised my Mauser rifle and fired three shots into his belly, relishing the terror in his face. He dropped. Marty watched, his lips grizzled as the grim reaper, then raised his rifle and fired three more shots into his face, demolishing his expression. We took the dead man’s canteens and paused long enough for a couple of good slurps of warm water. By then the assault had stalled. Our dead comrades lay in piles, among them the Abraham Lincoln brigade commander, Oliver Law, a Negro.
Nonetheless, we relieved the fascist siege of Madrid. We held our own against Franco’s best troops and pushed them back in fierce house to house fighting. Then we occupied trenches and emplacements on the heights protecting a major highway into Madrid. “No pasaran,” Diego, our interpreter, yelled. They will not pass.
The best part of our short-lived victory came hours after the last of the Italians retreated. Camila pulled up in the cook-wagon. She passed out huge pieces of beef, perfectly seasoned, cooked on two field grills, the first piece of beef to fill my stomach since I crossed the Pyrenees.
“Where did she come up with this?” I asked Diego, licking the last of it off my greasy fingers.
He smiled an elfin smile broad enough to count every one of his few remaining teeth. “We do not need bulls right now if we do not have bullfights.” He reached into the pocket of his baggy pants and pulled out the end of the black tail. “A gift,” he said, holding it out to me.
I politely declined. “No hace falta.” There’s no need.
He shrugged his shoulders and stuffed it back in his pocket. I loved my bow-legged friend. If Camila was my absent aunt and Marty my brother, then Diego was my uncle. His hunched back bore the mark of a laborer who had hauled as much material in his lifetime as an overburdened donkey.
Too bad about the bull. I had not yet had the opportunity to enjoy the most Spanish of spectacles. I would never be able to fully understand these people without understanding their passion for the sport, but fighting bulls were finding their way to the slaughter. Better the peasants should enjoy their first taste of beef.
THINGS DIDN’T GO well after that. Many more Nationalist troops and those from the German Condor Legion poured into the battle. High above, the German fighter planes knocked our outnumbered, outmoded planes from the sky. After nearly three weeks of hell, both sides ceased major operations. Every one of the original eleven in our group was dead except Marty, me, and the son of the kosher butcher from Brooklyn.
In the following months, the Republicans lost vital battles at Bilbao, Zaragoza, and Gijon in the north. As the year of 1937 drew to a close, many of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade survivors were ready to go home. Not me. And as long as I stayed, Marty stayed. I wish he hadn’t.
By now I was so much the soldier that I could have forgotten I was a woman except for the sex. It was an available, uncomplicated diversion. I found I quite enjoyed it and maybe was even good at it. With so few American women in the country, I was a unique commodity, a curiosity if nothing else. I had never even spoken to a Negro man before I left home. Then I let a Negro man have me, in just the way you think. His name was Luther Hodges, the first man I ever slept with. After that came a Polish volunteer, and then a Spanish anarchist from Valencia. He smelled like a pig sty with onion breath strong enough to kill a bull. But I liked him. I didn’t get around to a normal white American Christian until near the end.
Sex with Marty was out of the question. You see, I wanted his respect more than I wanted the respect of any person alive. In those last few months, Marty and I shared everything: our food, our ammunition, and even our underwear. We shared our most awful secrets, our brightest hopes, and our passion for the Spanish people. We convinced each other we were going to survive this.
For the first two months of 1938, we battled on bravely winning a small victory here and there only to be crushed in the end by overwhelming Nationalist counterattacks. We lost more people. We retreated. Franco’s army kept attacking, giving us no rest. By mid-April they reached the Mediterranean Sea, cutting the Republic in half. The remnants of our brigade withdrew into the collapsing Catalonian pocket.
Marty hadn’t smiled in weeks, his good nature replaced by sacrilegious sarcasm. A leather wine bag tucked in his knapsack was now a constant temptress. We continued to eat together and sleep next to each other, but he rarely talked to me or anyone, his eyes hollow and his face a milky gray. In the next battle, and the two after that, he took reckless chances, daring the fates or fascists to kill him. I didn’t know how I was going to keep him alive if he didn’t want to stay alive. Then the devil took a hand.
This one particular afternoon in August, our trucks unloaded us in a small farm town a hundred miles to the west of Barcelona. Its one paved street ran down to a narrow wooden bridge over the Ebro River. Our group found a spot in the dark barren cellar of a pock-marked two-story building.
Marty and I slung our knapsacks and rifles to the floor, exhausted. He set to cleaning his rifle and sharpening his bayonet, his dry, cracked lips fixed in a stony grimace. I pulled a stale piece of bread from my pack and offered half to him. He shoved it in his mouth and took a squirt of wine. “Enough of the wine,” I said, perhaps a little too sharply.
He glared at me through red-veined eyes. “The son of the butcher from Brooklyn deserted.” His eyes swiveled, trying to remember his comrade’s name through his inebriated haze.
“Abe Leopold,” I said. “And he didn’t desert. He just went home.”
“They’re going to hunt us down and kill us all. Hell, even the Russians are bugging out.”
“No, they’re not. I just saw Major Veselov.”
Every muscle in Marty’s body tensed, resenting the increased attention the Russian was paying me. “It’s time we went home,” he snarled.
“You go home,” I answered. Then I said it again, quietly. “Please. Go home.”
“Come with me.”
He lifted his wine bag above his head again and squirted a long stream down his throat. About then our company commander descended the open wooden steps and called my name. “Potter. Can you run these dispatches up to battalion headquarters?” he asked.
“Yes, sir.” I leaped to my feet, glad to be out in the air and away from my morose friend for a while.
The battalion staff always picked a nice palacio for its headquarters. I delivered the leather pouch with the dispatches to a lieutenant and then lingered around chatting, trying to pick up the latest gossip. They didn’t know any more than I did. I was about to leave when my old friend, and I use that word loosely, Major Oleg Veselov entered through the front door.
“Ah, Comrade Potter. You are still with us.”
“By luck,” I smiled.
“And your friend?” he asked, referring to Marty.
“Such a pity,” he said, suggesting other possibilities if Marty were gone. He smiled in the tortured way Russians did when they tried to cover their insincerity. He paused a moment, and then touched my face. “Hermosa,” he said. Beautiful. His Spanish had improved a little, but not his bullshit.
An unlikely thought crossed my mind. “Major. I need a favor. A big favor. Not for me. For my friend Marty Hornstein. He is not well, but he insists on fighting the next fight. If he does, he will die.”
“And what would you ask of me?”
“Assign him to the battalion staff. Away from the fighting. Just for a little while. Until he gets well.” I was begging and I knew it, but I had no choice.
“And what do you have to offer for such a favor?” He put one hand in his pocket and one on his hip, examining me up and down.
“What can I offer?” I asked. “I have nothing but what you see.”
“Mujer. That is enough.”
He had called me a woman, though I looked like a dead rat and smelled like one, my hair in tangles, and my dust-covered uniform in tatters. I couldn’t believe what I had to offer could pay for what I was asking. He seemed to think it did.
We went down a hallway to a room in the rear of the house, a single bed with a filthy mattress in the corner. The major unfastened his high buttoned tunic deliberately and dropped his pants. It didn’t take him long to finish. He seemed as satisfied with our bargain as I was. He even tried to be a gentleman, not the usual Russian brute. True to his word, he immediately sent orders for Marty to report to headquarters. Then the major treated me to some Russian honey cake. He said his mother had sent it, but I suspect it was his wife. I savored the cake, chewing each bite slowly.
Ten minutes later, I was on my way out the door. The street was oddly quiet and still. My boots thudded on the dusty cobblestones, grating on a sore spot outside my little toe. The major’s smell floated from my body and into my nose. Halfway back to the company, Marty trudged toward me up the middle of the street, his knapsack, bedroll, and rifle slung over his sagging back. When he saw me, his face twisted into a scowl. I stopped, my arms outstretched to him.
“You whore,” he growled when he was nearly upon me. “Who asked you to butt in?”
My heart sank when I realized my sacrifice earned me no grace. “Marty, please,” I pleaded.
He brushed past me and kept walking.
I turned to see him enter the battalion headquarters just about the time I recognized the drone of approaching German Junker bombers, many of them. Our machine guns and antiaircraft guns opened deafening fusillades from the rooftops. Still, the bombers churned toward us. I ducked in a doorway when I heard the whistles of falling bombs.
A cloud of powdered cobblestone rose in front of me with the first explosions. Another hit down the street, and another around the corner. A child screamed and then a mother. I crouched lower in the doorway but could not make myself small enough. A machine gun and antiaircraft gun ceased firing when an explosion ripped through the roof of a nearby building.
The flotilla of Junkers passed. Dust and debris covered me. I was ready to bolt when the next wave of Heinkel bombers let loose their cargoes of high explosive ordnance. I ducked in my doorway again and covered my ears.
One explosion burst close to the headquarters, a near miss. The next three were right on target, so precise and devastating the bombardiers must have known the palacio was the command center. Marty was in that building.
I raced down the street and through the open door. Plaster dust blew down on me. Broken glass and crumbled bricks crunched under my feet. A wall was gone and blue sky glimmered through the shattered roof. I tripped over a body. Across the room, the dead Major Veselov lay against an unscathed field desk covered with rubble. He was missing half of his head. He seemed to stare at me from his one remaining eye. The foul odor of explosives and gore churned my gut.
Other bodies scattered the room. “Marty,” I screamed. “Marty.” No one answered. Then from the far corner near the hallway, I heard my name called ever so faintly: “Frannie.”
Marty was on his knees, his rifle by his side, blood streaming down his forehead and across his crust-covered cheek. His hands rested on his thighs. He turned and looked at me without expression or recognition. Then he toppled over.
I picked Marty up, carried him out of the building, and down the street to the medical aid station. It was like walking through the main boulevard of hell, fires burning, smoke obscuring the light of day, acrid high explosive gases choking, bodies sprawled on the cobblestones - two of them little girls holding hands. Some survivors ran, some walked like zombies. Some voices shouted commands and others pleaded for help or salvation. By now the bombers had passed. Crews rushed to rescue those from beneath the wreckage.
“Don’t you die, Marty. Don’t you dare die,” I shrieked at him. His eyes sunk back into his head, unresponsive.
When I burst into the aid station, Marty lay lifeless in my numb arms, one dangling leg nearly severed. The big lobby of the town’s only hotel churned with the dead, dying, and those trying to thwart the flow. “Help me. Help me.” I screamed it over and over, hysterical, until a scrawny Spanish nurse ran over. She took one look at Marty and shook her head. “Get a doctor,” I threatened, “or I’ll kill you.” She must have believed me because she ran off.
A red-headed doctor with an Irish brogue raced over, the scrawny Spanish nurse behind him. “Put him there,” he said pointing at a blood-splattered table. I lowered Marty as gently as I could. He moaned when his dangling leg dragged on the table top.
The doctor checked his breathing with his stethoscope and shined a flashlight in his eyes. He tore away the remnants of Marty’s pants leg and checked the grievous wound. “You have to save him,” I demanded, my heart hammering like a cannon.
The fatigued doctor turned his burned-out blue eyes on me. “We’ll try,” he said. “Now go wait outside until I come and get you.”
I did what he said, taking a seat on the sidewalk, my back against the wall. I smoked one cigarette after another. What I really needed was some whiskey.
It may have been an hour later, or two, or maybe only fifteen minutes when the Irish doctor came out. “He’s going to live,” he said. “He’s a lucky fellow. You saved his life.”
“Can I see him?”
“There’s one more thing,” the doctor continued. “We can’t save the leg. We’re going to evacuate him to a hospital where they can amputate it.”
“Oh my god. Save me.”
Marty was still unconscious when I went in to see him. The pandemonium had diminished to mere frenzy, the dead removed and the damaged placed in makeshift beds. Some of his color had returned. His head was bandaged. I held his hand and bent down and kissed him on the lips. “You deserved better than me,” I whispered.
Stretcher bearers carried him out to a waiting ambulance where he was loaded on, along with two other men. The scrawny Spanish nurse climbed in behind him. They closed the doors and sped off. Marty was gone. But he was alive.
Our battalion was no longer the assembly of idealistic young Americans I had first known. We took so many casualties the ranks had to be filled with Spaniards, many of them women younger than me. With Marty gone, I felt all alone except for my Spanish friends, Camila and Diego.
One day a Nationalist onslaught overran our lines. A Guardia Civil in his leather three-cornered hat ran Camila through with a bayonet, killing her. Diego fell the same day, a grenade hurled into the trench where he manned a machine gun. Our counterattack pushed the fascists back far enough to recover their bodies and give them a proper burial in the hard-packed red clay, their graves marked with a large rock rather than a cross. Neither would have wanted a priest, so I said a few words of farewell. I could no longer cry.
A few weeks later in September of 1938, the Republic’s prime minister, Juan Negrin, ordered the withdrawal of all foreign fighters from the country. He had nothing to lose, wagering the international community, through the League of Nations, would then pressure Franco to remove all German and Italian forces. Negrin lost his hollow wager. One day I was spending all I had in frantic fighting, killing all the fascists I could, my own life no longer of much importance. The next day my war ended abruptly, with a whimper, our battalion pulled out of the line.
On October twenty-ninth, the men, women, and children of Barcelona gathered to bid farewell to our international brigade, volunteers who came from all over the world to save their republic. War raged nearby, but it didn’t stop what must have been a million people from turning out on the streets, on the balconies, and hanging out of the windows above. Spanish units in their finest uniforms paraded before us, but when the crowds lining the Diagonal saw us marching by in our tattered garb, they screamed and roared like a storm sweeping down a canyon.
We marched with our heads high and our arms raised in clenched-fist salute. Mothers held up their children for us to see and to see us. One little girl with big black eyes caught mine and threw me a kiss. I smiled. Flowers carpeted the street a foot deep. Tears ran down the cheeks of my new friend, Yvette Bisset, a pretty young French-Canadian volunteer from Montreal who marched at my side. She had seen her own share of mayhem in the past year from behind the wheel of an ambulance.
When the parade was over, we were taken by bus through the terraced mountainsides to the town of Ripoll north of Barcelona, twenty-five miles from the French border. There we waited for nearly a month, the cold biting at us through dark skies. The food was meager, some of it with the odor of rot. Representatives of the U.S. government at last verified we were Americans entitled to repatriation and issued us the necessary certification. These officials considered us all Communists and were none too eager to have us back.
Still in a raw state of confused despair, I ended up in Marseilles with my new-found friend, Yvette Bisset. We rented a small, dingy flat above a rowdy bar near the docks. Rats and cats kept us company, but at least it was warm, dry, and free of gunfire.
In early February, I finally boarded a ship for America. I kept to myself during those eight days on the sea, gazing into the churning waves and mist, the skies above a grim gray. Every morning began with rage in my gut, ready to fight again. Every evening ended in dark solitude, haunted by the sad weathered brown faces of Spanish children and the piles of enemy dead. Sometimes I felt sorry for myself for still being alive, but much of the time I was too exhausted to care.
IF I THOUGHT I was escaping from Nazis and fascists by coming home, I was mistaken. A few days after I landed in New York City, the American Nazi party held a massive rally in Madison Square Garden. Over twenty thousand homegrown goons in their brown shirt uniforms and swastika armbands raised their arms in salute to their American Fuhrer. Anti-Semitic propaganda from the popular radio broadcaster, Father Coughlin, filled the airwaves. I read in a newspaper report that my idol Charles Lindbergh, and also Henry Ford, personally met with Adolph Hitler and received medals from him. They admired him, as eager to appease him as Chamberlain at Munich.
No hero’s welcome from our government awaited me. I knew no one in New York, so I sought out the butcher’s son in Brooklyn, Abe Leopold. He fidgeted, nervous, when I showed up at his apartment door. He didn’t invite me in to meet his folks. He said right after he returned home, the FBI had paid him a visit. They did the same with other members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade he knew. It seems FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover suspected all of us of being Communists. He cared more about catching Reds than catching Nazis. I left Abe alone and moved on.
Not everyone felt the same as Abe, or I might have been forced to head home to San Francisco. I wasn’t ready for that. You see, I couldn’t face Marty. There was a lot I needed to figure out first. But everywhere I went, I found a union hall where the members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade were heroes. These big, burly union men knew of the casualties we suffered and our bravery. I let them believe I was an ambulance driver if they couldn’t imagine a woman fighting in the trenches, even a woman like me who could never pass for Vivien Leigh. An ambulance driver was good enough for them. Whenever I asked, they found me small temporary jobs to sustain myself.
First I grabbed a train to Philadelphia, and then after a while moved on to Baltimore. In mid-March of 1939, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. Two weeks later, Republican forces in Spain surrendered and the United States recognized the Franco government. A week after that, Mussolini seized Albania.
After Baltimore, came Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and St. Louis. In each place, I looked up a few comrades from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade when I could find them, or their parents if they were dead. The grieving mothers and fathers embraced me like an unexpected visitation from the beyond. I lied to them when I told them how bravely their sons had died, and how painlessly.
On the Greyhound between Kansas City and Chicago, I started a letter to Marty. Twice before I wrote him telling him about the final months in Spain, my special feelings for him, and how sorry I was for what happened to him. But the letters sounded like self-pity so I threw them away unmailed. This one was no better. I crumpled it up and tossed it in a trash barrel during a rest stop in Springfield.
The truth was I could never give him back his leg or his soul. And I couldn’t give him the kind of love he wanted. Yet I loved him deeply in my own special way, in a way maybe even better than the way he wanted me to love him. In the good times, away from battlefields, he made me happy and content, and I made him happy and content. We were best friends. What could be better than that?
By the time I reached Chicago, I admitted something had to change. I went into Marshall Field’s and bought the first dress I had worn in nearly three years. It was gray with pink and blue flowers, buttoned up the front, with a big collar. Next, I had my hair done, my nails painted, and I applied some subtle red lipstick. When I first walked in the beauty shop, the beautician took one glance at the mess and said, “honey, you look like you’ve been in a war.” Then she went to work, all the time gossiping about Bette Davis, Greer Garson, and Henry Fonda. I exited the shop feeling pretty. A few men gave me a healthy examination, and one gave me a whistle, the first time that ever happened.
In late July, a letter from Daddy caught up with me in Omaha. He simply said, “Come home, Frannie. It’s time.” The next day I bought a train ticket to San Francisco on the California Zephyr.
For nearly four days, loneliness and anticipation rode with me across the prairies, across the rivers and over the Rocky Mountains, lost in thoughts of San Francisco, Mother, Daddy, my little brother Ernie – and Marty.
Again and again, I came back to Marty. Remember, this was 1939. Good Protestant girls like me didn’t get mixed up with Jewish boys. Still, here was this wonderful man who loved me so much he was willing to follow me into a war. I prayed he would forgive me for everything. And if he did, what then? Life would be unimaginable without him in it.
Daddy was so glad to see me alive he would have forgiven me anything. Mother forgave nothing. She still hadn’t gotten over my running off to Spain in the middle of the night without telling her. Ernie, my little brother wasn’t so little anymore. His voice was changing and he was nearly as tall as me. Ernie was the only one brave enough to ask me about the white scars on my leg and my neck. No one could see the other scars with my clothes on.
For the first few days home, all I did was sleep, wallowing in the cleanliness of the bed and Mom’s cooking. Meat appeared on our plates more often than before I left. Daddy twice took me to meet his buddies at the longshoremen’s union hall. A few checked me out, but most treated me like a celebrity, a respected war veteran.
I was not welcomed home a hero by everyone. A couple of months earlier, while I still wandered America, the FBI rapped on our door inquiring about me. They wanted to know if I was a Communist. “She ain’t here,” Daddy said. “Don’t live here no more. Now get off my front porch.” When I heard the story, I gave him a big hug.
Coit Tower, Telegraph Hill, the Ferry Building, and the bay were more beautiful that late summer than I can ever remember. I woke each morning smelling the fog drift in. The city of San Francisco was so normal it felt oddly dull. Crowds on Market Street and Union Square went about their business without a care in the world. Daddy worked nearly every day now for good wages, and Mother no longer had to serve us watery soup. Yet everything seemed without purpose. The opening of the International Exposition on Treasure Island captured more attention than the death of democracy in Spain or Hitler’s threats of war in Europe. I wondered if anyone in San Francisco was reading the newspapers.
A few weeks passed. The end of August neared and still I hadn’t let Marty know I was home. I was afraid he wouldn’t even see me. Fear collided with yearning. When I couldn’t stand it anymore, I did what every coward does. I sought an intermediary.
My old friend Dolores Brown worked at the Rexall Drug Store on Mission Street. It was close to quitting time when I stopped in. She tried hard to act glad to see me, but she never was much of an actress. I asked her out for a cup of coffee at the big Woolworth’s on Market and Powell. On our walk over, we struggled to pick up the loose thread of an old friendship. She was disinterested in my ordeal in Spain, or about much of anything of substance. She was entering her senior year at San Francisco State College. All she talked about was her dull classes and the goofy boys she hung out with. I gathered she was still a virgin, so her life couldn’t have been all that thrilling.
A waitress in a pink and white uniform brought us the coffees we’d ordered. Dolores filled her cup with milk and two pounds of sugar. I took mine black as tar. I lit a cigarette, and stared off into space, my arms locked around myself.
“You’re different since you’re back,” she said.
I didn’t respond until my comprehension caught up with the sound of her voice. “What do you hear about Marty?” I asked.
“You haven’t seen him yet?”
“No. Should I?”
“That might not be such a good idea,” she said. “I don’t think he wants to see you.” Her smug look suggested she enjoyed saying it.
“How do you know that?”
“Because he told me. I saw him when we were signing up for classes. He showed me his wooden leg and said you gave it to him. He wasn’t joking.” Then she delivered her big shot. “He also told me he has a serious girlfriend. A Jewish girl his mother fixed him up with.”
I didn’t much like Dolores after that. Maybe I never did. Still, her message about Marty rang true. I could hardly blame him. Why hadn’t I been able to give him the words of love he wanted to hear? That’s all it would have taken.
Two days after my conversation with Dolores, I woke with a pit in my stomach, not an unusual feeling for me these days. Another nightmare must have visited me in the night. When my head cleared, I recognized the smell of bacon coming from the kitchen. The sun was up so Daddy mustn’t have been going to work today. I put on my robe and went downstairs. He sat alone at the kitchen table reading the front page of the Chronicle. A dirty plate of what had been eggs and bacon sat in front of him. Smoke curled from the cigarette between his yellowed fingers. He looked up when he saw me, a troubled expression on his wrinkled face. I poured myself a cup of coffee from the metal pot sitting on the stove and sat down beside him at the table.
“Not good news this morning, Frannie,” he said, handing me the newspaper.
The large headline across the front page screamed: NAZIS, SOVIETS SIGN PACT; HITLER TELLS BRITISH IT’S TOO LATE FOR PEACE; ALL EUROPE ARMS!
I scanned the articles about the crisis. Hitler demanded Poland capitulate to German terms under threat of invasion. The British and French repeated their pledge to defend Poland and began mobilization. Roosevelt hurried back to Washington from a vacation cruise to urge peace among the belligerents.
“Where were these assholes in Spain? Hitler could have been stopped there,” I fumed. Daddy cringed at my coarse language.
“This ain’t your fight, Frannie,” he said, gently placing his rough hand on my arm.
“I didn’t know much about Hitler before Spain,” I said. “I know him now. He isn’t going to stop.” I pulled my arm from under his hand and took a cigarette from his pack of Chesterfields.
“You’re not thinking of doing something stupid, are you?”
“Stupid? You think what I did was stupid?”
“I didn’t mean it that way honey.” He took a last puff and snubbed out his cigarette in the metal ashtray. “It’s just that I look at those scars on you and I want to weep.”
I covered the white blotch on my throat with my hand. “What am I going to do? Just sit here and wait for Hitler to sail into San Francisco Bay?”
The next afternoon the mailman knocked on our front door to deliver a letter with an international postmark. “Thought it might be important,” he said, tipping his hat to me. The letter was postmarked Montreal from my friend Yvette Bisset. It’s time to fight again, she wrote. Canada will be in it. America won’t. Come join me. She signed it: Your comrade forever, Yvette. I stuffed the letter in my dress pocket.
That night I tossed and turned until the early hours. When I went downstairs in the morning, Mother, Daddy, and Ernie were huddled around the radio. “Warsaw is under bombardment by German Heinkel and Junker bombers,” the agitated British announcer chattered. “Nazi troops and tanks crossed the border at dawn this morning at many points and are now rolling through the Polish countryside.” Mother looked up at me with the long ashen face of a woman whose child is soon to be taken from her. She held Ernie’s hand tightly. Daddy stared at the radio as if beaten dumb. The radio station cut to its correspondent in Berlin and then to its London correspondent where the British moved to a full war footing.
I picked up Ernie’s baseball bat and would have smashed the radio with it if Ernie hadn’t rushed over and thrown his arms around me. “Don’t go away again,” he begged. I hugged him and ran my fingers through his hair.
I needed room to breathe, away from my family. I wandered downtown. The usual Friday crowds weren’t there. The few men and women I passed looked sober as morticians, hands buried in their pockets against the crisp overcast morning and the chill of war. I decided to escape to one of the bars on Market Street but none of them were open yet. In front of one of them, a huge poster advertised the exhibit of Pablo Picasso’s already-famous Guernica at the Museum of Modern Art, the first stop on its American tour to raise money for Spanish war relief. The huge painting depicted in stark black, white, and brown the fascist terror bombing of the town of Guernica in northern Spain during the second year of the war. Sixteen hundred women, children, and old men died helplessly in the attack.
The museum exhibiting Picasso’s masterpiece was in the War Memorial Veterans Building, a short walk past city hall and across Van Ness Avenue. I pulled my coat tight around me and followed my feet without much thinking.
When I stepped off the elevator and into the room, Guernica surrounded me, massive, from the floor to the high ceiling. I looked but did not see Picasso’s wild-eyed bull, the terrorized woman, the tortured horse, or the flame in the lamp. Instead, I saw my fallen comrade, Diego, his arm severed at the elbow, his hand still gripping his rifle. I saw a mother in front of me who died screaming in Zaragoza, with her dead baby in her arms. I saw dead Americans from my group with their guts and their brains oozing out onto the streets of Villanueva. I saw bombs from German planes exploding on innocent children and old women. And, at last, I saw Marty covered in plaster, his body limp, a leg dangling by threads. All of this at the hands of barbarians - fascists. No one came to help my noble Spaniards except those of us from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Now it was happening again, bombs whistling down on Warsaw in the early morning light, the Nazi blitzkrieg poised to sweep across Europe and to America. Who was going to stop them?
The room began to spin. I stumbled backward, staggered over to an oak bench in the center of the room and collapsed onto it. For the first time since Spain, tears fell in unrelenting cascades. I shook all over, as feverish as at the battle of Brunete and as frozen as at Teurel. Still, I could not take my eyes from Guernica. If anyone else was in the exhibit room, I didn’t see them. I slumped over and closed my eyes against the horrors. How long I lay there on the bench, in a stupor, I do not know.
I felt a gentle hand on my shoulder, a familiar hand. “Frannie, it’s me, Marty.” It couldn’t be, but when I came to my senses, there he was. I threw my arms around him and kissed him hard on the lips. He kissed me back and held me tight.
We pulled away, our arms still around each other. He looked at me with kindness I did not deserve. “I knew I would find you here,” he said. I hugged him again so hard I could have hurt him. He was all flesh and bones. He gave me his handkerchief to wipe my blotchy face and blow my red runny nose.
“Come on,” he said. “I think we’ve had enough of this.”
He struggled to his feet leaning on a dark wooden cane. I wanted to help him but resisted the impulse. We took the elevator down and exited to the gardens next to the Veterans Memorial Building. He held on to my elbow all the way. He winced once, and we stopped for him to catch his breath. “I’m still getting used to this new leg,” he said without self-pity. But I pitied him.
He said he was starting school again at San Francisco State. He was thinking about becoming a college history professor. I told him about my little brother Ernie and the novel I was reading. Both of us talked nonsense as if it were any other ordinary day. The German invasion of Poland made it anything but an ordinary day. Neither of us mentioned Spain.
His mustache was gone. He again looked like the preppy young man with the adorable smile I first met. Only now the indelible sadness of Spain etched itself in premature worry lines and a sag in his shoulders.
We walked a little further along the dirt path into the garden. Then I helped him sit down on a green wrought iron bench nestled between a couple of leafy poplar trees. Pink, yellow and white chrysanthemum flower beds scented the air. I sat beside him, a safe distance between us. When he was settled, he rested his hands on the curved top of the cane. The sky was now a vivid blue, the fog gone, the warming sun glittering off the dome of city hall across the street. No one else was in the garden, and only a few people walked Van Ness Avenue.
“I’ve got to say it, Marty,” I began. “I’m sorry for ….”
“Stop,” he said firmly, anticipating what was coming. “I went to Spain for you, but I went for myself too. And the longer we were there the more I believed in what we were doing.” He said it with the conviction of one who’s earned the right. “If I had the chance I’d do it all over again.”
I lowered my head. “I’m so ashamed,” I said.
“We all did things we’re ashamed of.”
“At least I never lied to you.”
Marty stretched his wooden leg and rubbed the stump, then settled back. A near-empty streetcar clanged its bell as it pulled away from the stop on Van Ness. An odd hush suffused the usually bustling street. “That Spanish nurse told me you saved my life,” he said.
Thoughts of the Russian major snuck back into my mind, so I changed the subject. “You know what bothers me most is I don’t like losing to those bastards. I want a rematch.”
“I’m sure you are.”
“More children and women and old men are going to be killed,” I said referring to the coming conflict. “And many young men.”
“I’ll do something to help when America gets in it,” he said. “If it weren’t for this,” he tapped on his false leg with his cane, “I’d do something right now. You? You don’t have to wait.”
As so often happened when I talked to Marty, what must be done became evident. “Canada is going to fight with the British now. I’m going to join up.” The way I blurted it out must have sounded as if I’d thought everything through already. I hadn’t. But as soon as I said it I knew it was right.
“I wish I could come with you,” he said. He took my hand in his and looked at me with those deep dark eyes.
I hesitated, reluctant to speak what was in my heart. But if I learned anything, I learned you had to say what you had to say while you still could. I kissed him lightly and tenderly on the lips. When he kissed me back, everything in the world finally felt right again.
“There are all kinds of love,” I said when I pulled back. “I’m only starting to figure that out. What I know is I’ve never met anyone as good as you, or anyone I loved more.”
“Please Frannie. You don’t have to….”
“Don’t stop me. I need to say it. I love you. When this is over and I come back, I want to marry you if you’ll have me.”
He ran his fingers across my cheek, then kissed me on the forehead. He smiled. “I’ll never stop loving you, no matter what. But you can’t come back here, at least not to stay. There will always be another war, another righteous cause, and you will always need to be there to fight it.”
I wanted to argue with him, to tell him he was wrong, to tell him I loved him and would come back to him to live our lives together forever. Instead, I wrapped my arms around him and hugged him desperately.
I wished he wasn’t right.
* * *