by Kimberly Keagan
Base Hospital 12 in Dannes-Camiers, France
December 24, 1917
War didn’t stop for Christmas.
Clara Chapman walked the darkened hospital ward—a hut under canvas, in all honesty—while the recent convoy of patients slept fitfully in their beds. Frostbite was the most pressing concern of the evening.
“The fighting will be over before year’s end, now that we’ve declared war on Germany,” Mother had predicted the night before Clara left for France with the other nurses' training school students.
Father wasn’t as confident in the doughboys’ ability.
“I think Clara will be home before the corn harvest,” Anna interjected. “She won’t have the will to last any longer.”
Clara worried her sister might be right.
Time, however, marched on well past the first frost. Clara's resolve was stronger than any of them realized.
She checked the pulse of a private from Iowa and pulled up the blanket of a lieutenant from New York. Wounded men of every rank and background filled the ward, recalling the adage that war is the great equalizer.
Yet the nurses had strict orders not to fraternize with their subordinates. As a nurse in an army unit, Clara had the standing of an officer, albeit honorary, and military discipline was very strict.
Most of the orderlies under the nurses’ management were university men from privileged families. Recruited from the Chicago area's college campuses, they were some of the first Americans to enlist.
The irony of the situation didn’t escape Clara. Raised to distrust young men of wealth, she was now assigned the duty of managing them.
Clara glanced over at Private Mitchell.
She could never call him by his Christian name out loud. But in her heart, that’s how she thought of him.
He yawned and ran a hand down his face.
They’d shared night duty for the past month. She still didn’t know much about his life before the war, but recent camp rumors claimed he was the son of an oil man, destined to marry a society girl.
That gossip would have come as no surprise to Clara eight months ago when she’d met James for the first time on the ship to France. A handsome man with a cleft in his chin that Clara’s fingers itched to touch, he’d been full of humor, his new uniform freshly pressed and his dark brown hair sporting an expensive cut. He held himself like someone who knew his place in life.
Over time, her initial attraction to him grew to respect and admiration.
Without complaint, James alternately applied hot oil and hot water bottles to a soldier’s feet. As he turned from the bedside, he caught Clara staring and gave her a slight smile.
Her heart fluttered.
“Do you want to take a break? Get yourself some tea. I’ll hold down the fort.”
Clara shook her head. “That’s kind of you, but no thanks. I’ve had my fill of tepid tea.” She moved to the next bunk and took the temperature of a man admitted with an infection and a high fever.
“But to have a cup of coffee in the morning, wouldn’t that be grand?” She sighed. Coffee was difficult to come by.
Yet by some miracle, she returned to her bunk at seven on Christmas morning and found a canister of coffee tied with a burlap bow at the foot of her bed.
December 31, 1917
For one night and one night only, Army regulations went out the window.
Nurses, doctors, colonels, and privates gathered to ring in the New Year.
And Clara waltzed with Private Mitchell.
James’s hand felt warm and comfortable in hers.
Voices counted down the last minute of nineteen seventeen.
“Happy New Year, Sister,” James whispered in her ear.
Clara never understood the moniker given to nurses. She leaned back and studied James’s handsome face. “Since it’s New Year’s Eve, can you call me Clara?”
His lips tipped up at the corners. “All right, Clara.” Hazel eyes searched her face. "You look lovely tonight."
“I bet you say that to all the girls.”
James shook his head. “As a matter of fact, I don’t.” His right arm slipped from Clara’s shoulder blade down her back, pulling her in tighter.
Later, they braved the cold and took a quiet stroll in the moonlight.
“I’m headed to the front,” James said as he stared into the darkness.
Clara stopped and put her hand on his arm. “Why?” Fear clawed at her throat. “Surely, with your family connections, you can get out of going.”
James’s jaw tightened. “I could, but I’ll not dishonor my name nor the soldiers already fighting in the trenches.”
By the next week, he was gone.
April 18, 1919
Clara hadn’t heard from James since he left the base hospital in January of nineteen eighteen.
He’d made no promises to her, but still…
She prayed every day for his safety.
Anna said it best to forget him. If he’d survived, he would most assuredly marry someone from his social circle, not a farmer’s daughter. And Clara couldn’t bear the thought that he hadn’t come home.
She walked down the wide corridor of the hospital where she’d worked for the past two weeks. Clara missed the comradery of the camp, and the Evanston facility seemed almost too quiet and organized.
“Wait. There’s something here for you,” a fellow nurse called from behind the desk of the nurses’ station.
Clara’s eyes widened at the sight; a simple coffee canister tied with a red velvet bow. From the ribbon dangled a sparkling sapphire and diamond ring.
Footsteps sounded from behind, and Clara turned. Her heart leaped at the sight of James, healthy and strong. Alive.
“Marry me, Nurse Chapman, and I’ll care for you the rest of my life.”
Clara threw her arms around his neck. “Well, if we’re going to marry, can you call me Clara?”