A Nurse With No Name
Irene Foster sat a little straighter in the front seat of the jeep as it round the last corner and the 4077th MASH came into view. It wasn't much to look at; a sea of olive-colored tents, tin buildings, and camouflage netting nestled in a narrow valley between rugged mountains. A river snaked around behind the compound, disappearing around the bend.
It had been planned that she and her driver would arrive promptly after breakfast that morning, but with a rash of shelling between Seoul and the 4077th, they had arrived after supper. The early evening air was chill, but it wasn't quite cold enough to freeze the puddles, though she didn't think it would be much longer before that was the case.
People gave her brief glances as they passed, and a young Corporal greeted her in front of the office. He smiled shyly, noticed a lacy beige bra, yanked it off the board and kicked it behind a rock.
"Welcome to the 4077th Lt. Foster," he said, offering a hand to help her down from the jeep. He was a nervous little thing, with wire rimmed glasses and sweaty palms. Irene returned his smile and he blushed deeply, turning his head away to hide the crimson of his cheeks.
"Thank you, Corporal."
"You've been assigned to A tent ma'am. Major Houlihan'll get you on the duty roster first thing in the morning." Radar grabbed her bag and started toward the far end of the compound.
"Margaret's here? It's been awhile since I've seen her. So, what's your name Corporal?" Irene asked, dodging patches of mud in the road.
"Corporal O'Reilly ma'am. But you can call me Radar," he said, side eying her with a grin.
"Well then, thank you Radar. You can call me Irene."
"Oh no ma'am! I can't call you that, I'm just a Corporal. The Major'll have my head!" Radar protested, clutching her bag to his chest as if to protect himself. He opened the nurses tent door for her, and she strode past him.
Irene thought he was darling, the way he bumbled about, and within minutes he had won her heart. "Well, I don't want you to get in trouble Radar. How about this. Off duty, you have my permission to call me by my first name. It'll be our little secret."
Inside, the tent was cramped but relatively tidy. She ducked under the line of undergarments without thought, but Radar was distracted by them. Two bunks offered sleeping space on either side of the door, and the third wall had a cot, a stand-up locker, and a couple foot lockers for the girls to share. On top of the olive drab blankets were small colorful quilts. It reminded her more of summer camp than a military unit.
She removed her jacket and cap, choosing to store her dress uniform in the stand-up locker. Radar opened his mouth to speak when her jacket slid from her shoulders, but he stopped when a voice rang out across the compound.
"Incoming wounded, all available staff to the OR."
Suddenly the quiet camp was in an uproar. People could be heard outside scrambling about, yelling, and rushing to their posts.
"Duty calls," Irene said with mock cheer, kicking off her heels. Nimble fingers tied her dark, shoulder length hair into a bun.
"What are you doing ma'am? You don't be on the roster until morning."
"Radar, I'm available staff. I'm probably better rested than most of your outfit. Besides, no one should know I'm here yet and I want to get an unfiltered view of how the doctors and nurses work together. Now, if you'll step outside, I can get out of this dress uniform," Irene said.
"Wait Lieutenant. ma'am, Major Houlihan doesn't much like surprises. She even said so when Hawkeye put a frog in the drawer she keeps her unmentionables in. Oh gosh, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to mention the Major's unmentionables."
Irene giggled, shoving Radar out of the tent as the sound of choppers grew ever closer. "I go way back with Margaret. It'll be fine. Let me get dressed and you can take me to her."
Within moments Irene was dressed and joining Radar outside the tent. The chill down her spine reminded her that she had stashed her jacket. It wasn't something she would be able to do much longer, but there was no reason to go back for it now. The nurses would already be scrubbing and preparing the doctors for surgery. A group of corpsmen carried wounded from the jeeps and an ambulance lined up in front of Pre-Op, the distraction allowed Irene to duck in largely unnoticed. Radar took the opportunity to leave, running into the night to aid the others with unloading wounded.
A familiar voice rang out the moment she opened the door. Major Margaret Houlihan was commanding her team of nurses from nearby, observing them as they scrubbed and calling out any problems she might have seen in their prep.
Irene snapped a quick salute. "Lt. Irene Foster, reporting for duty ma'am."
"Lt. Foster," Margaret beamed, "it's so good to see you. How's your father?"
"You know, same old war horse refusing to be put to pasture," she laughed. "The only people who know my father is a General is you, Colonel Potter, and myself. If you don't mind, I'd like to keep it that way. I don't want to be treated any differently because of who my father is."
"Of course, Lieutenant. Well, you won't be on the roster until morning; you can return to your tent and get some rest. I'll start you in Post Op tomorrow," Margaret said, returning her attention to her nurses.
"If I may, I'd like to help. If nothing else, I'll fetch supplies and I promise I'll stay out of the way." Irene was pleased when the Major nodded her approval.
"Get scrubbed and help the other nurses prep the trays. Girls, this is Lt. Irene Foster. Show her where we keep the supplies. And get the lead out, we don't have all day," Margaret snapped.
"Yes ma'am," Irene said, striding to the sink where a woman was waiting.
"Hi, I'm Alice. Alice O'Neil," the woman said, turning on the water for Irene. She was pretty. Young too. If Irene had to guess, the girl was maybe twenty, just a few years younger than herself. Curls of her auburn hair peeked from under her cap at the nape of her neck, and her green eyes were large and vibrant. A light dusting of fine freckles adorned her narrow nose and high cheek bones.
"You're our third new girl this month," Alice explained. "Shirley Grey and Sarah Smith got in a couple weeks ago. She's around here somewhere. Poor Sarah. She's one step from getting shipped off. Weak stomach."
"I guess that's a warning?"
"You bet. Anyway, that's Helen Williams, Shirley Grey, and Corra Jones. The other nurses are already in OR," Alice said, pointing to the other girls who gave her quick nods of greeting while they donned scrubs and gloves. Irene would do her best to remember them.
Nurse Williams was in her early forties, with straight dark hair and pale blue eyes. She was a little on the heavy side, and instantly struck Irene as the mother hen type.
Nurse Grey was next, a beautiful blonde bombshell. One look at her and Irene wondered why the woman was a nurse and not a model. Shirley was tall and voluptuous, with great features and honey colored hair. Her eyes were catlike and blue as a summer sky. She seemed to be far more interested in bragging about her love life than in greeting Irene. Apparently, some man they called Hawkeye had broken off his affairs with a Nurse Davis in order to pursue her instead. This seemed to make her very happy, but Irene couldn't help but notice the other girls were not so impressed.
Nurse Jones was last, and from the looks of it, she had no intention on sitting around and listening to Nurse Grey chatter. She was a little shorter than Grey, pear shaped with a long torso and an angular face that made her look like some sort of elf or fairy. Jones warmly greeted Irene, cutting her eyes back at Nurse Grey before exiting to the OR.
The operating room caught Irene off guard. She wasn't so naive to think there would be glistening trays and sparkling white floors, but she was still taken aback. The four tables were close together, and it was hard to imagine how the medical staff were able to get anything done.
Everything fell into place quickly; trays were set up, nurses at the ready, and the doctors were filing in. It all happened so fast it took time for Irene to acclimate to the pace. The other nurses and doctors got into their grooves and set to work.
Margaret motioned Irene over to an older man with white hair and glasses. He barely gave them a sideways look before taking up a scalpel. "Who's this, Major?"
"This is our new nurse, sir. Lt. Irene Foster. Foster, this is the commanding officer, Colonel Potter."
"I'd shake your hand but I'm a little busy. Swing by my office first thing in the morning," Potter said.
"Yessir," Irene said.
"That's Captain Pierce on the far end," Margaret pointed out quietly as she and Irene left Potter's table. "Captain Hunnicutt is assisting him and Major Winchester is on the other end. We have a guest surgeon for now, but he'll be leaving in the next few days. Now, I trust you know what you're doing. Keep up and keep yourself together." Her voice had a hint of warning to it, but Irene knew better than to be offended. Margaret had always taken her job seriously.
"I'll do my best."
"I know you will," Margaret said before walking off to join Pierce.
Despite conditions, the OR ran smoothly, except for some sarcastic banter at the expense of one Major Winchester, who as far as Irene gathered, was intent on taking his time no matter that there was a war on.
Irene worked stocking trays and fetching items requested by nurses at the tables, trying her best to both keep out of the way and be useful. Pierce and the guest surgeon finished and called in new patients and Potter was getting ready to close. Winchester on the other hand, showed no sign of finishing any time soon. His nurse, however, decided she was done. The woman fainted out of nowhere, her legs becoming like jelly right before she dropped to the floor.
"Klinger!" Potter yelled. An instant later a man in a lady's nurse uniform, complete with heels and cape, rushed through the door. "Nurse Smith dropped cold. Get her outta here and get her going with some smelling salts."
"Consider it done, oh fearless leader," Klinger said, pushing past Irene who had frozen in place at his strange attire. He and another corpsman picked up the nurse and carried her away.
"Houlihan, assist Winchester," Potter demanded. "And Winchester, keep it moving. We don't have all day."
"Yessir," Margaret said from Pierce's table. She pulled her gloves off as she approached Irene, hands up and ready for new ones. "Foster, assist Captain Pierce."
Irene's stomach jumped into her throat, forcing her to quickly swallow it.
"I can assist the Captain, Major," Grey said from Potter's table.
"You'll say where you are, Lieutenant," Margaret said. "Foster, get moving."
"Yes ma'am," Irene replied, taking her assigned place.
The Captain was up to his knuckles in a boy with severe chest wounds, and he didn't give Irene a second glance as she joined him, ready and waiting. Never had she seen anything like it. The soldier's injury was worse than anything she'd ever encountered. His flesh was pulled back to expose part of the rib cage. Bile burned her throat, but she was determined not to be like Nurse Smith. A part of her wanted to hide her face behind Pierce's arm until she was ready to view the wound again, but that wasn't professional. Irene had no choice but to take a deep breath and try to keep her head.
"Sponge," Pierce said quietly, concentrating on finding any loose pieces of shrapnel. Irene handed him what he asked for and he sniffed, his brow furrowing slightly in confusion as he applied the sponge. "You smell that BJ?"
"What's that smell?" Pierce asked a little more loudly.
"Perforated bowel?" Hunnicutt asked, peeking over his shoulder to Pierce's patient.
"No, I'm nowhere near his bowels. It smells sweet like..." Pierce took a few more deep breaths, his fingers moving ceaselessly in the solder's chest, preparing to close.
"Perfume?" Potter offered.
"Are one of you nurses wearing perfume?" Margaret raged from across the room. "The use of perfume in the OR is strictly prohibited."
The nurses shuffled about, muttering their "No ma'ams" until Pierce interjected.
"Not like perfume, just not like blood and sweat." He tossed a piece of metal into the pan that Irene offered to him. He did a double take when he glanced at her. "Those eyes. I don't recognize those eyes, and I know every nurses' eyes in the whole compound, open and closed." He joked, grinning behind his mask like a Cheshire cat.
"That's true, Hawkeye is the best optometrist in Korea," Hunnicutt added.
Ah, so this was Hawkeye. As the doctor leaned in toward Irene to get a gentle whiff of her, she instantly realized why the other nurses liked him so much. A girl could swim in his sparkling blue eyes. Or more likely, drown.
"You must be the new nurse I ordered. Come to my tent after surgery and I'll sign your shipping papers," Hawkeye said.
"Colonel!" Margaret protested, in one word, demanding their leader put an end to Pierce's shenanigans. Potter sighed and stepped in.
"That's enough Pierce. Leave the poor girl alone would'ya?"
Hawkeye glanced at Margaret, who was looking quite pleased with herself. The doctor had little choice but to give up and return to his work.
A few more times over the night he started up with his incessant flirting; commenting on everything from her eyelashes to her hands only to be shut down by Margaret or Potter. Irene wasn't used to being complimented in such a fashion but the more he said the more uncomfortable she became, especially once she realized Nurse Grey was staring her down from Potter's table.
The night was a long one, and ten hours later the staff was exhausted and retreating to their tents for some much-deserved rest. Irene dumped her scrubs in the bin, half tempted to lay down on the bench and sleep there. Even after all her time as a nurse in the states, nothing could have prepared her for the pressures of the 4077's operating room.
Out into the predawn chill Irene trudged, hands jammed under her arms for warmth. Her legs refused to move any faster than a walk, her feet aching with every step.
"What are you doing without a coat?"
Irene turned her head to the voice, so see Hawkeye trotting up beside her, hands shoved deep in his pockets. His smile was tired but genuine, prompting a grin from Irene.
"It wasn't so cold when I left last night," she replied. "I won't forget it next time."
"Care to join me for breakfast in a few hours? You might have to have your stomach pumped after but lucky for you I'm a doctor."
"No thanks, I'll pass." She grimaced a little, thoughts shifting uncomfortably to the gory scenes from their meatball surgery.
"How about you let me buy you a drink at my place before you head back to your tent? It'll really warm you up. And if the drink doesn't work, maybe I can help," he suggested playfully. Irene was not impressed, but she was amused.
"Maybe next time Captain. To the drink that is."
"Captain?" he said in mock disgust. "That's low, calling a man by his rank. What do you think this is, the Army?"
"If this isn't the Army, why is there so much olive drab?"
"Olive drab? Huh….I thought I had just gone color blind." He squinted at a tent as they passed.
Irene shook her head and chuckled. "You're impossible Captain."
"Hawkeye," he corrected.
"Oh, I know your name. Your reputation precedes you."
"Please, call me Hawkeye," he said, throwing an arm up to block her from the tent door.
"Fine. Hawkeye," she sighed.
"This is the part where you tell me your name. Actually, that part was way back there, but you missed your cue," Hawk said, pointing aimlessly in the direction they had come from.
"Where's the fun at that?" Irene responded, ducking under his arm and into the shelter of the A tent, where the girls were huddles around the door, giggling at Hawkeye's failed endeavor. Irene counted herself lucky that the faces she was met with didn't include Shirley Grey. Thank God for small favors.
Outside, Hawkeye leaned on the post by the door, dazed and confused. It took a minute for him to make himself move. It wasn't unusual for a nurse to turn him down, but he didn't recall one that refused to even give him her name. He still couldn't decide if she was playing hard to get or just playing. Either way, he was determined to figure it out.
In the Swamp, Winchester was already asleep, his boots lined up perfectly at the end of his cot. BJ peered over the top of his blanket when he heard the door open. Without any expression, Hawkeye walked to the heater, grabbed the pot of day-old coffee and dumped it into Winchester's boots.
"I guess the new nurse didn't want to play doctor?" BJ snickered quietly.
"No," Hawkeye replied, pouring himself a drink before perching in his favorite chair. He was more than exhausted but he was recounting their time in the OR, trying to think about if he heard her name spoken at some point. As far as he could remember, she had just been addressed as 'nurse'. "She wouldn't even tell me her name," he sipped his gin and set it aside.
"Eh, she'll come around. Not like she can hide her name forever. Besides, don't you have a date with Nurse Grey later?"
"Yeah, Shirley," Hawk nodded slowly, grinning at the thought of the blonde. "Great girl. I thought we'd start with a drink at Rosie's and then take a little trip to the mine field for tango lessons."
The moment of excitement was quick to pass. The mischievous sparkle faded from his eyes as he focused on some far-off place beyond the floor, his smile fading when he pressed the martini glass to his lips. Wind from the south brought forth the scent from Sophie's stable but Hawkeye only smelled the fresh aroma of the mystery nurse.
"Just get some sleep Hawk. The duty roster'll be up in a few hours. You can look her up then."
"Alright," Hawkeye grumbled, rolling from his chair onto his cot. He was asleep before he could even kick off his boots. Deep in his slumber, surrounded by the scratching of rats, the tramping of heavy boots, and the covered in blood stained clothes, Hawkeye dreamt of chasing the new nurse weightlessly through a field of wildflowers.
Across camp, Irene unpacked her few belongings while the other nurses in her tent changed their clothes. They were all tired but giggling, amused by Hawkeye's rejection.
Corra plopped down on a bottom bunk, propping her head up with her hand. "It's a good thing you turned him down. Shirley's had her sights on him since she got here two weeks ago. You heard her talking about him earlier. She wouldn't be happy if she thought you were interested."
"Yeah, I heard she's the jealous type," Alice said, climbing onto the bunk above Corra. "That girl, Sarah, that came here with her, says Shirley was threatening another nurse over a Major. That's why she had to be transferred."
"That's just a rumor Alice," Helen reminded the young girl. "We don't know if any of that is true."
Irene felt she had pegged Helen right as a mother hen. It was nice though; to have a motherly figure instead of strict military all the time.
Alice opened her mouth to speak but a knock at the door interrupted her. Helen opened the door to see Shirley Grey standing on the other side, a smile plastered on her beautiful face. They exchanged a greeting and Helen moved aside to let her in.
"I thought I would stop by and welcome the new girl," Shirley stated, giving Irene a quick once over. "I'm pretty new myself. Only been here a couple of weeks so, if you need anything, don't hesitate to ask. My door is always open."
"Well, thank you," Irene answered cautiously.
"Anytime," Shirley added, an awkward silence following. "I'm sure you're tired so I'll get out of here." She turned to leave, pausing at the door to offer another word. "Oh. Don't mind Hawkeye. He loves to joke, but he is with me, and he is loyal."new
Alice hid a snicker.
"I'm not interested in Captain Pierce," Irene stated flatly, tossing her bag into the bottom of the standup locker. "I'm here to work, do my duty, and hopefully go home again. I have no interest in entertaining a handsy doctor and his male urges."
Shirley's eyes blazed at the word "handsy". Her fist tightened on the door, but she managed to hold her tongue, flashing another fake smile. "So you say. But I did see you walking with him across the camp. I just wanted you to know he's taken before you start reading into his jokes too much." The smile couldn't sugar coat the venom in her tone.
"Lay off Shirley, the girl turned him down," Helen interjected, standing up perfectly into her mother hen role. She stood between Shirley and Irene; hands placed firmly on her hips.
"Turned him down?" Shirley scoffed. "He was just being polite. As if I would think he would come onto her." She gestured to Irene with a casual flick of her wrist.
Irene's face burned. "Listen here you—," she stepped, but Helen stuck out a meaty arm and barred her. There was nothing Irene wanted more than to lay the tall blonde out on her back.
"I suggest you leave, Nurse Grey," Helen said, puffing up her chest.
Once the door slammed behind Shirley, Helen relaxed. "You've got quite a temper, Foster."
Alice and Corra watched on silently.
"We don't much like Shirley, but we have to put up with her. May as well hold your tongue and keep things civil," Helen sighed. She didn't seem angry, which was a relief. Irene was already feeling ashamed that she had lost her cool so quickly.
"Yes. You're right," Irene nodded, calming down before climbing up into the bunk above Helen. The sun would be rising very soon and all she cared to do was sleep. Never had any bed felt so good to her exhausted body. As she closed her eyes and began to drift off she couldn't help but wonder; what was so great about Captain Hawkeye Pierce?