Most historians focusing on the private life of Barnes have been frustrated by a lack of pre-war evidence. Based on birth and scant housing records, Barnes grew up poor in one of the rougher corners of Brooklyn and abandoned formalized schooling to take on day work wherever it could be found at 15. There's a marriage license on record for August 4th, 1936 to Stephanie Grant Rogers, but little information beyond that. Barnes would have been 19; we don't know how old Stephanie was at the time of their wedding — it's commonly accepted her birth records were among those consumed in a 1940s fire that blazed through several Brooklyn municipal buildings.
But the little known about Stephanie Rogers only complicates things.
The letters found amongst Barnes' personal affects after he was lost behind enemy lines are tender but incomplete: a fragment of a larger document woven from their shared lives. We know that Rogers and Barnes grew up together, that they were childhood sweethearts, that Barnes ached for her in a way that is humbling to read. We know she was fragile, often ill, and there's a strong possibility based on fragmentary evidence that the couple had suffered a miscarriage. We know she was a remarkably gifted artist, and that she sent Barnes vivid, witty pencil drawings, tucked in among the pages of her fluid handwriting. She drew their neighborhood, their windowsill, the stray cats Barnes apparently fed and now wouldn't go away.
"I think 24 hours have stretched out, Bucky," she wrote to him, three months after his deployment. Barnes was in France when he received the letter. "I wake up at 7 like always and get dressed like always, walk to the hospital and work my shifts like always. But no matter how long they run — stop worrying they don't run that long — I come home and the apartment is quiet and I think it must not be that late, that you're not home yet, and I find myself sitting dumb on the couch as the shadows get longer, until another hundred years have gone by and I realize it's only just 10, and that you're not coming home tonight."
We don't know what he wrote back, although we know he did write back: among the 107th there were a few diarists, and Barnes was acknowledged to be steadfast in his marital devotion. If he had wartime indiscretions, none of his platoon wrote about it. Although one did write, "Sgt Barnes isn't like the rest of the married guys, or even the guys with sweethearts. They always talk forever about their girls or wives, and Barnes just hunches over her letters, reads them over and over again."
All of which only makes the mythology of his romance with Lady Liberty more confusing.
— Kramer, Edward J. Barnes: A Portrait. New York: Penguin, 1973. Print.
The first place she'd gone to sign up, she'd written "Stephanie Barnes" out of reflex. The processing nurse had taken a look at her paperwork and asked, "I thought you said your name was Rogers," and that had been that.
Bucky's always been right: Stephanie's a God awful liar, so she's not surprised she fumbles — badly — when she tries to spew out her excuses. In the end, she'd accepted their lecture about the Nursing Corps being for unmarried women only, nodded politely at their suggestions she join any of the women's service organizations and gone home to find the mailbox still empty — still no word.
Bucky had written like clockwork the first eight months of his deployment: one or two letters a week that made their way over the Atlantic too slowly. They were harried sometimes and scared most times and dirt smudged, and Bucky talked about a whole lot of nothing, which made Stephanie so worried she could throw up thinking about all the things he was keeping close to his chest, trying not to worry her. He talked about the other men in the 107th instead, until she thought she knew all of them: Danny, who was so young his voice was cracking and Chuck, who apparently spent most of his time harassing Bucky to see a picture of her.
Bucky's handwriting slants upward along the page, every line of jagged, cramped letters curving higher at the ends like the slope of a valley. Stephanie would recognize Bucky's letters just from the shapes of his sentences, the loops of his gs. They're poor compensation for the absence of him in all the spaces he belongs: at their rickety kitchen table, curled around her in their bed beneath the blankets.
She presses each letter she gets flat under her old sketchbooks — they're overflowing with pictures of him, and she pages through them like the faithful worry over their rosaries — so that the folds won't wear the paper through. And Stephanie knows it's stupid but she likes to run her fingers over the ink, lightly, feel the depressions on the paper and think about where the heel of his hand had sat across the grain, where it had smeared across the page. They grew up two streets apart, and he used to walk her to class every morning and home every night, and on the weekends she'd sit in the shade of a gangly tree and watch him play stickball with the neighborhood boys, draw the line of his nose and the angle of his elbow on scrap pages until he was done for the day, golden and sweaty and dirty as hell, smiling wildly. And even after he quit school for docks and day labor he was always there, scamming lunch off of her and stealing kisses, the reassuring palm cupping her cheek and the fingers she'd reach for on the way home from church. She'd never been apart from him before; his absence and the ocean between them are ever-unfolding.
The last letter had come to her in April, dated February, but it's June now, the summer heat pressing against the windows of their shabby apartment. Molly at the hospital says that the mail is just lagging, Stephanie, don't worry so much, but the walls in their building are thin and Stephanie has been hearing the telegrams coming, the crying after. Stephanie brings her bad soup and worse cake and her urgent need to do something, to help, and then they all take turns feeding Brooklyn's latest widow platitudes Stephanie is terrified they'll all use on her eventually: you'll carry on, he wouldn't want you to be like this, I'm sure he didn't suffer, he died protecting you — protecting all of us.
Stephanie's not superstitious, sometimes she barely believes in God, but even when she's keeping herself busy — at the hospital, with the local women's groups — her fear keeps chasing her around. She's so worried for him, and worried if she worries he'll suffer for it, that her nightmares, her waking moments of frozen horror, are going to signal something to the universe and that when they come to tell her he died somewhere cold and scared it'll be because she didn't believe strongly enough.
That last night, after they'd escaped the press and scrum of Stark's Expo, they'd fucked desperately. She'd left scratches down his back — "Aw, hell, Steph, the guys are going to give me hell for this." — and he'd left bruises on her thighs, a ring of marks around her wrist. And afterward, when she'd been lying across his chest as if her weight could hold him here, keep him in New York, he'd pressed his mouth against her wedding ring and made her promise not to do anything stupid.
"How could I — you're taking all the stupid with you," she mumbled at him.
"I mean it, Steph," he'd said, rolling them over, pressing her down into their bed again and tucking himself between her legs — pressing back inside her where she was sore and still so desperate for him her hips rolled up to meet him, instinctive.
She'd dug her nails into shoulders, into the skin and muscle she loves so much, wrapped her legs around him and gasped, "Just come back to me — you gotta come back to me, Buck," and he'd put his face in her neck and rode her through the mattress saying, "You're never getting rid of me, you hear me?"
Bucky's it for her. He's always been the whole of her, the pencil line that made up her borders. And she'd tried, she'd tried to be patient, but April had leaked into May and June was waning now into July, and Stephanie hadn't promised to obey — she'd promised to love, honor, and keep. She wants to keep him — she has to keep him.
So she gets up the next morning and knots her hair, pins it back neatly, and puts on a cotton sprigged dress. She says hello and how do you do today to her neighbors, to the boys from down the street who yell, "Good morning, Mrs. Barnes!" and Mr. Carlyle and Mrs. Adams and heads for the subway — unfolds the map in her lap with its marked-off recruitment locations and whispers to herself, "Stephanie Rogers — Stephanie Rogers."
She gets the name right this time, but that's the only thing that goes right.
The Red Cross center is hitched to an Army recruitment hub, a crush of people and soldiers and nurses and gawkers, too. She'd picked it precisely because it was always a mess of people: harried intake officers, people less likely to take the time to double check, who'd rubber stamp her, turn a blind eye, and send her off to where she was needed, somewhere she's not separated from Bucky by an ocean. These things they churn together: the urgency of her uselessness and her longing, gone frothing like a gothic romance novel. Sometimes Steph thinks she's her own woman in the attic.
She explodes to help when there's so much help needed and so little she can do here in New York, when she's not fit for factory work and no good at being a domestic goddess. And she knows they need more hands out there: binding wounds, sewing up soldiers, tending the sick and dying across the Western front. In New York she gives boys stitches and tells girls they may be pregnant, and all day long she thinks she should be in France, she should be in England, she should be where Bucky is so that even if the worse happens she'll be with him. Steph's never been right, exactly, as a woman, but she doesn't know how to be anybody else.
So she fills in all the appropriate lines on the intake form, her height and her weight — no point in lying about it — and she puts as her place of residence Paramus and her hand doesn't shake at all when she writes Stephanie Grant Rogers.
Except the woman who takes her form frowns down at it and up at her, and says:
"Rogers — Paramus?"
Stephanie swallows hard around a sudden stone in her throat. "Yes, that's me, ma'am."
The woman just frowns harder and says, "If you'll give me moment. You can wait — " she points to a curtained room in the corner, near where they've set off the triage examinations for the soldiers " — there, please."
"I can come back. If you're busy that is," Stephanie offers, panic rising now as she gets to her feet, clutches at her purse, eyes a line of exit.
But the woman's mouth hardens into a line and she says, "Not necessary, please give me a moment," in a way where the 'please' barely registers, and Stephanie staggers over to the waiting room and keeps staring at the signs on the walls: Falsifying your enlistment information is illegal.
She's worked herself halfway into an asthma attack when she hears the curtain swish open and someone saying, "Why are you doing this, Miss?"
The man in the doorway has glasses and a kind, curious face. He's said "Miss" like he knows it's a lie, like he's humoring her, and he's wearing worn brown clothes underneath a white doctor's coat. There's a folder in his hand, the edges of pages peeking out. His hair is a riot of gray strands flying in all directions, and Stephanie thinks he has the face of someone she'd be fond of, if she wasn't so scared of him right now.
It's too hot in the room and her hands are shaking where she's folded them together in her lap, and Stephanie just says, "Excuse me?" and hears her voice tremble.
He says, "Dr. Abraham Erskine. I represent the Strategic Scientific Reserve."
He speaks with a heavy German accent that makes her stutter as she says, "Stephanie Rogers," and because she's never been able to keep her mouth shut, especially when she should know better, she asks, "Where are you from?"
Erskine glances up at her. "Queens," he says. "Seventy-third Street and Utopia Parkway." And this time he looks down, at her file on the table, and says, "Before that, Germany — this troubles you?"
"No," she lies, but only a little. It's hard now to hear German without the reflexive flinch, to think of Bucky at the other end of a Nazi rifle, but Dr. Erskine has frazzled hair and frayed cuffs and looks nothing like the soldiers she sees in the news reels.
Dr. Erskine goes back to the file. "Where are you from, Miss Rogers?"
Stephanie stiffens, feels her spine like a metal rod.
"New Haven?" Dr. Erskine asks. "Paramus?"
"You might have the wrong file," she says, but it's not even convincing to her own ears.
"It's not the locations I'm interested in," Dr. Erskine says in a way he probably thinks is soothing but completely fails to be. "It's the attempts — five different Red Cross recruitment centers in the last two months. Why so desperate?"
She says, "I just want to contribute to the war effort — I know we need more nurses," the way she's been practicing in front of the mirror before bed, when her eyes are red-rimmed from a long day's pressure of not crying. It helps that it's true, too, but she wonders if Dr. Erskine can see the desperation on her, the needfulness in the tired slope of her mouth. In her mirror Stephanie always sees the truth writ large on her face.
"Yes, we do," he allows, and folds his arms across his chest. "But you could do that here, could you not? There are hospitals in New York, too, other things you can do to help with the war effort?"
"I don't want to sit here and collect scrap metal all day," she says, and it's not until it's out of her mouth she realizes how angry it's come out, and then it's too late to staunch the flow. "I don't want to work in a factory or start a rooftop victory garden or share tips on how to make fake stockings. I want to help."
"Scrap metal, factory work, gardens — they're all important," Dr. Erskine says, and she can hear that he means it.
Stephanie fists her hands. "I'm — I'm no good for factory work, you can see that."
Dr. Erskin coughs. "Well," he allows, but even men who never earned a Dr. in front of their names can guess she's 90 pounds dripping wet, that her arms and legs are too thin, and that she pushes through her shifts at the hospital fueled by stubborn willfulness and the knowledge that if she falls over, Bucky will come fetch her and yell at her all the way home.
"But I'm a good nurse," she argues. "I know I can help if you'd only just — "
He waves away whatever she's going to say, looking back down at her papers, and he asks, "Do you remember a woman named Marlene? Carradine?"
"Not really," Stephanie admits, wrong-footed. "Why?"
"She works for me, here, now," Dr. Erskine says, waving a hand around. "Frankly I find her terrifying, and so do most of the soldiers who come here. But — she remembers you."
Stephanie stays quiet, confused.
"Nurse Carradine tells me she used to work at Sacred Heart with a Stephanie from Brooklyn — " and Stephanie's heart stops for a minute, her vision swimming, and a voice in her head yells, caught, and by the time she manages to focus herself again, Erskine is saying " — tells me you have the strongest, best heart of anybody she has ever met. Well, and that our rule about unmarried women is foolish, but it's hardly my rule."
It takes a minute to gather the wherewithal to ask, "Excuse me?"
Dr. Erskine closes her file now, and when he smiles at her it is kind. "I am working on a project — one that is very top secret, and I need people on it who aren't squeamish. I believe that is you?" he asks.
Part of her is shouting for Stephanie to agree without reservation, but the part that controls her mouth just blurts out, "I — I wanted to go overseas, to help on the front."
"Oh, yes, Nurse Carradine told me, too," Erskine says, still philosophical, still smiling, and Stephanie tries not to hope too much. "About your — well, she called him 'her good-for-nothing-but-her' husband."
Stephanie snaps, "Bucky's a good man in every way," before she can think better of it.
"Yes, he must be," Erskine agrees, and he bends over to start writing something down in her file, saying, "Overseas is a possibility — but for now, let us at least allow you to help, yes? Do what you're good at?"
Stephanie says, "Yeah — I mean, yes, yes, Dr. Erskine."
"Good," he says, and when he unfolds himself, caps his pen, he reaches out a hand to her and asks, "Now — if you'll tell me who you are? Who you really are?"
And shy still, Stephanie shakes his hand. She says, "Stephanie Barnes, sir."
"Mrs. Barnes," he agrees, smiling. "It's very nice to meet you."
Erskine's flight to the U.S. became the rubric for later Paperclip scientists, though he differentiated himself by having been a conscientious objector before the war had reached fever pitch. His work was also likely more successful than that of many of his later peers, though this is speculative at best. The 1983 Howling Commandos Declassification Project turned loose in the world thousands on thousands of pages of their exploits, but Erskine's work remained largely redacted. It lives in the spaces where respected historians and conspiracy theorists collide, knitting together fragmentary references to a supersoldier program that was dismantled in either late 1943 or early 1944 — coinciding with the appearance of Barnes and his Howlies. In the early 1990s there were a spate of reports that bubbled through the then-infant internet about a successful supersoldier attempt, but there was never any corroboration or statement from the government. Most tellingly is that a successful supersoldier program would have been something to be heralded in the news of the time, to be promulgated near and far, whereas all that exists of Erskine's work are oblique references. So it must be assumed that while his work was successful — why else maintain the redaction to today? — it was not of the magnitude of the ubermensch.
— Darling, Clarissa. Unforgiven. Los Angeles: Doubleday, 1999. Print.
They give Stephanie her ANC uniform, her identification number — N-743960 — and a ride out to Camp Lehigh, where Erskine gives her a clipboard there and says, "Record the particulars, Miss Rogers."
The camp itself is sprawling with bunkers and low buildings, boys drafted into Basic so scared they shake whether or not the drill sergeants are yelling. Stephanie looks at the dying grass on the practice fields and mud pits in the obstacle courses and she thinks about Bucky crawling through barbed wire and sneaking cigarettes behind the mess. She thinks about him cold and hurt in France, in Poland, in England, in Italy and has to dig her nails into the meat of her palm to focus.
She learns everything she can, asks a million and one dumb questions that the corporals and privates and Colonel Philips indulge because Stephanie knows that rough-edged men like girls like her, girls that look frail and awed by them, blushing. So she asks about munitions and training and how the war is progressing — "Aw, Miss Rogers, don't worry your pretty head about that," and "Yeah, Missy, we'll be back and take you dancing soon enough!" — and drills it into her memory.
But that's general admission, she thinks of them. Stephanie's little corner of Camp Lehigh is bounded off by more barbed wire and armed MPs than the rest. She trots through the gates every morning and nods at Freebush and Clarkson and they doff their helmets at her in reply.
"Got a new visitor today, Miss Rogers," Freebush tells her, gossipy.
Stephanie arches an eyebrow. "New recruit?" she asks.
Erskine and Colonel Philips are locked in a not-insignificant war of wills. Philips keeps bringing in meathead thugs with ever lower IQs. Erskine keeps fetching recruits that look like they were pulled out of dumpsters. Given the givens, Stephanie prefers Dr. Erskine's. The men Philips bring in usually have to be convinced she's not up for grabs by the brutal application of needles.
"Naw, Miss," Clarkson whispers, gleeful. "An English lady."
"Oh," Stephanie breathes out.
The English lady is Agent Margaret — "Please, call me Peggy," she insists — Carter of the Strategic Scientific Reserve. She wears the olive drab uniform like armor and two hours into her arrival, Stephanie watches her punch Hodge in the face.
Stephanie goes on a hunt for wildflowers, and she leaves the prettiest ones in a jar of water on Agent Carter's desk, barely unpacked and already overflowing with paper.
Thank you and welcome to Camp Lehigh, Stephanie writes neatly on a card.
Later that week, when Hodge — clearly unteachable — decides to entertain himself during his daily physical exam by grabbing Stephanie's ass, Agent Carter arrives just in time to see Stephanie smack him in the head with a bedpan.
"An ally, at last," Agent Carter declares her, and shakes Stephanie's free hand, the one not brandishing a weapon.
Agent Carter — Peggy is a revelation.
Stephanie feels always a bit awestruck around her, and each day Peggy sits with her in the mess hall to talk strategy, to ask, "What do you think of the recruits, Miss Rogers," Stephanie is always, always, always momentarily stunned she'd want Stephanie's opinion. Peggy's lipstick is flawless, her hair curled every morning without a single flyaway. She teeters on high heels in mud and when she wears trousers, her hands are always at her hips so she won't be tempted to hit anyone as she's yelling at them. She attends every high level meeting, is secreted constantly away with Colonel Philips and Dr. Erskine, and Stephanie watches her come and go and marvels at her.
"You are quite remarkable yourself, Miss Rogers," Peggy says one night.
Late summer is pressing heavy overhead, the dark clouds swirling like a thunderstorm on the cusp. It's August now, four full months since Stephanie's heard from Bucky, and she stays at the camp most nights now, in the women's barracks, because the vast emptiness of their apartment is overwhelming.
Stephanie shakes her head. "There's nothing special about me, Peggy," she says, fussing at the hem of her nightdress. There's a ceiling fan rocking creakily overhead and crickets outside, singing at the swelling moon.
"From what Dr. Erskine says, you are one of a kind," Peggy disagrees, crossing one leg over the other and fussing with her cigarette case.
It's late, past midnight, but all four of the other female personnel have gone home for the weekend. Stephanie had volunteered to stay, and now the barracks are empty: just Stephanie and her absences and the coal orange tip of Peggy's cigarette when she lights it up. Even now, when Peggy's curls have frizzed in the humidity, she leaves a lipstick ring on the filter of her Camels and wears a gray silk nightgown — a vision of self-possessed glamor that makes Stephanie feel thinner and smaller and dowdier in comparison.
"Not really," Stephanie says, and suddenly confessing, she adds, "Actually I'm selfish."
"Oh, this reasoning I'll have to hear with my own ears," Peggy invites, blowing out a smoke ring and looking expectant.
Stephanie folds her legs up on the bed, draws them close to her chest and wraps her arms around her shins. She rests her chin on her knees and stares off out the window at the sodium orange lights around the camp. "Did Dr. Erskine tell you how I got involved? In this project?"
"I presume you signed up, and Dr. Erskine stole you once he saw your adept handling of bedpans as weaponry," Peggy replies, tart and with a laugh.
Grinning, Stephanie shakes her head. "I — well, I falsified a bunch of my information, kept going to different Red Cross recruiting centers to try and get someone to give me a chance," she says, realizing suddenly what she's confessing here: not just her size and sickliness, and the words fall away to quiet.
And it stays quiet between them for long moments before Peggy says, halting, "Stephanie, I can't imagine what you could say that would hurt my good opinion of you."
"I wanted to get shipped out. I wanted them to send me to France, or Italy. Or anywhere, really," Stephanie makes herself say, and the next part is harder, and it hurts more to murmur, "I wanted to find someone."
But Peggy's reply is soft, rasped through with tobacco smoke. "Your sweetheart?"
"Something like that, yeah," Stephanie admits, and rubs fretfully at her wedding ring, worn on her right ring finger as a distracted nod to a very poorly concealed truth. "I didn't want to stay home, be good, keep up appearances and — and make water pie. I wanted to do something."
"Stephanie, that's the sort of selfishness we could do with more of," Peggy tells her, authoritative, reaches out the window to ash her cigarette. "I'll have no more of this self-flagellation, then. Am I understood, Miss Rogers?"
"Sir, yes sir," Stephanie laughs — well, until it turns into a cough.
Peggy puts out her cigarette now, and she rubs Stephanie's back through the fit, muttering apologies and "why didn't you say anything, for goodness sake, Stephanie," and asks, later, as they're both about to fall asleep, "What's his name? Your sweetheart?"
Stephanie presses her face into her pillow, the cool cotton of it good against her cheek. She closes her eyes and fills in the blank spaces with the memory of Bucky wrapped around her in their bed, his mouth on her shoulder. She says, "Barnes — James Barnes. He's in the 107th infantry," and drifts off.
Hodge continues to be scum, but Bracken is okay, and so is Aldis Grenville, Chuck Capernick. Their band of potential recruits waxes and wanes and Stephanie's clipboard of their particulars expands to volumes of their details: their height and weight and stamina, remarks and general comments about their personalities.
"Colonel Philips believes we should select Hodge for the trial run," Dr. Erskine says, tearing through his office and his hair, harried and sounding annoyed.
Stephanie doesn't bother to hide her frown. "What does Peggy — Agent Carter think?"
"Agent Carter thinks Hodge is an ape, and unfit for this program," Erskine tells her, sounding grudgingly pleased by that, and glances up at her. "As, I suspect, do you."
She clutches her clipboard more closely to her chest, feeling the crisp seersucker of her uniform shift. "Any man who doesn't learn from two frontal assaults with a bedpan isn't supersoldier material, it doesn't matter how many jumping jacks he can do."
"I'm inclined to agree," he sighed, and pinched at the bridge of his nose. "But I have no compelling alternative, you see."
"You'd be far better off picking Agent Carter," Stephanie tells him primly, and extends her clipboard. "Here, you need to sign this and four other things."
Erskine swears in three Continental languages, but he fumbles his pen out of coat pocket, taking the clipboard off of her. It leaves Stephanie free to look over his shoulder, to the sun streaming down on their remaining five recruits and Peggy frowning at them as they do push ups in the parched summer grass.
In the after-hours conversations Stephanie has had with Peggy and Dr. Erskine, when they're all bone tired and ground down from a long day, Stephanie has learned her initial impressions were correct. Dr. Erskine is the kind of man Stephanie is helplessly fond of: constantly losing his glasses and happy always to admit when he is wrong. His office and lab are brisk and cheerful, and like any seasoned doctor, he defers to the nurses in all things. Marlene thinks the world of him, which just means she yells at him a little less than every other man on the base. Dr. Erskine says he hopes whoever they choose, in the end, for the supersoldier project, he is a good man more than a good soldier.
"Somewhere out there, Colonel Philips is developing a migraine as we speak," Peggy says to that, arching her brows.
Peggy sees the supersoldier program as a dangerous means to an end, and behaves in her capacity as operational supervisor for the SSR in that vein: with suspicion. Dr. Erskine sees it is a magnifying glass.
"It amplifies everything, the serum," he explains to them, deep into his stash of awful liqueurs. "Whatever is inside you, it amplifies. Even when it wasn't ready, it did it to Schmidt — turned him into a monster."
Peggy huffs. "He was already a monster, Dr. Erskine."
"I mean 'turned' in a rather more literal sense," he replies, wincing.
Stephanie doesn't know what she thinks of the serum, exactly. The idea's too big for her to feel the weight of it. To take an ordinary man and transform him, make him stronger and faster, all of it wrapped up in a little blue vial and an electrified coffin — it's like the comics she and Bucky used to share when they were kids: fantastical.
"Well," Peggy decides, "it hardly matters now — Grenville's been selected. Stark's seeing to getting us control of the grid. It's all on schedule."
"May it go well — or, fail completely," Erskine says, and downs another drink.