July 8th, 1939
“Come on, Lena! It's almost here!”
Lena Oxton almost stumbled over the cobblestone, barely an inch from crashing into the ground. She and her best friend since school, Bethany Stanton, had traveled to Southampton on holiday partially to see the beach, but also to see the magnificent new arrival to England. A flying boat was on their way, the radio said, flying from America over to here. It was a feat some thought impossible – at least, if you listened to the naysayers. As they neared the water's edge, Lena could see thousands of people already gathered, all looking to the sky just like her.
This was not the first time Lena had flirted with dreams of flying – indeed, she had followed Amelia Earhart's exploits with a fever passion. Father often joked that Lena was more obsessed with the American pilot than any American at the time, her head filled with dreams of taking to the sky just like her lost idol had some day. Standing here, watching the skies for something, anything, it made Lena feel like she was nine again, waiting at this very same town with Father and watching Earhart land to rousing cheers.
The skies were as blue as the Channel, undaunted by the armchair experts scoffing at the entire venture. “I've a friend in America,” someone said. “Bloody thing's heavy. It'll never make it, you lot are all standing around for nothing!” She paid him no mind. He had no imagination, no sense of adventure. Off in the distance, Lena spotted a small dot. That must be it, right? It was the only explanation!
“There it is!” Lena said, smacking Bethany on the shoulder. “Do you see it?”
Surprised, Bethany began looking, her blonde hair bouncing around as her head whipped back and forth. “I… I don't see anything,” she confessed. “Are you sure?”
“Right there!” Lena exclaimed, putting a hand on Bethany's shoulder and pointing to the horizon. “Do you see it now?”
“Oh! There it is, yes!”
The dot grew closer, eventually coming into the shape of the aforementioned flying boat. Sun bounced off the silvery-white metal skin that covered the plane. The rotors began to slow as it neared, dipping into the water as a wave followed it, lapping against the side of the quay as a rousing cheer erupted from the crowd. Lena’s voice was one of many, congratulating the crew on a job well done in landing the plane safely.
Lena couldn’t help but stare at the plane as it floated to a waiting dock, doors opening to allow passengers to exit. The captain stepped out, with each traveler shaking his hand as he bore a wide smile on his face. How she wished it was her standing on that dock, greeting her charges and knowing she had successfully finished another flight. She dreamed of seeing the skies, floating above the clouds effortlessly and flying across the entire world to visit Germany, Russia, Japan, America… maybe she could make her own global trip like Amelia Earhart wanted to.
“Earth to Lena?” Bethany said, waving a hand in front of her face. “Did you hear me?”
“Oh, sorry, no! I was just… thinking about flying. Wouldn’t it be great to be up there?” Lena sighed, already looking to the deep blue sky. If only she could be up there with the birds.
Bethany laughed, a bubbly, lovely noise that made Tracer’s heart flutter each time. “You’re so obsessed with flying! Really, what is it with you and the clouds?”
“What’s not to love?” Lena asked. “I mean, just think about it, it wasn’t all that long ago that we didn’t even have airplanes, and now it’s like we’re flying higher and higher every day! Can you just imagine what’s next?”
“Well, I guess being an air stewardess wouldn’t be that bad,” Bethany said. “Could be fun, even!”
Lena scoffed, shaking her head. “No, Bethany, I don’t mean being an air stewardess, I mean being a pilot! What’s the fun of being up there if you’re not in the cockpit?”
She looked around, spotting an older man with a thick white mustache that lined his upper lip, arching a bushy eyebrow at her. He scowled, the harried lines on his face showing what Lena assumed to be immense disappointment and judgment. “And what makes you think you can be a pilot, darling?”
“Well, why can’t I?” Lena asked, shrugging her shoulders.
“Flying is men’s work,” chimed in someone else, a cross-looking gentleman with black hair. “You women ought to stay in the home, air’s no place for your fragile frames.”
Lena felt her cheeks heat up as she frowned, her brow furrowing as she tried to come up with a response. Before she could open her mouth, Bethany was dragging her away from the two men, muttering apologies for her as she did so. They were well and away from the scene on the quay before Lena found her voice again, smoothing out her clothes that had become wrinkled with leaning over the quay’s chain fence. “You didn’t have to do that, you know,” Lena said.
“You’re always getting yourself involved in arguments, you know,” Bethany replied, opening a pocket mirror to check her hair.
“It’s not my fault! Well, not usually…”
“Well, nevermind then, we’ve really got to get back to the train station if we’re to get home in time,” Bethany said, quickly leaving Lena behind in the dust.
Well, it was either now or never, Lena thought to herself. She started walking, quickening her pace to match Bethany’s and catch up to walk alongside her, nervously swallowing. “Um, thank you for that,” she said. “I… I guess I do tend to get myself in trouble sometimes.”
“Only sometimes?” Bethany said, laughing. “It’s almost like I have to help you out every week!”
“Yeah…” Lena agreed, chuckling with anxiety. “Um, Bethany, do you mind if I ask you something?”
Had her mouth always been this dry? It was hard to tell. Almost immediately, Lena regretted ever opening the door, fearful of what the response could be. Well, she had opened it, may as well step through, right? “I… I wanted to ask if you’ve ever… maybe… I don’t know, wanted to go on a date with me sometime?”
She looked to her friend, hopeful for a positive response, but instead of that, she saw… a blank look on Bethany’s face, as she avoided Tracer’s gaze and stared at the old brick road they walked on. Slowly, her walk slowed until she had stopped entirely.
“Bethany?” Lena dared to ask, the very sound of her voice just barely eking out of her mouth.
She coughed, almost as if to clear a massive lump in her throat, still avoiding Lena’s eyes. “Sorry, I’m… well, I’m very flattered Lena, but… I’m not queer.”
Lena drew a sharp breath, closing her mouth. She should have known. It only made sense, after all. Why would her best friend since grammar school like her that way, anyway? “Oh,” she said flatly. “Well… alright then. I guess we should go home, huh?”
Unfortunately, they had just missed the train, and had to wait another hour for the next one. The ride back was slow and incredibly awkward. Well, at least she had seen the flying boat on its inaugural trip. If nothing else, she could dream of flying on her way home, pushing Bethany’s rejection out of her mind.
September 3rd, 1939
The air in the Oxton living room was positively frigid, despite the late Summer heat. She remembered it clearly – Mother had just started lunch when the radio changed from lovely music to the Prime Minister’s voice.
“...this country… is at war… with Germany.” The PM’s voice paused, for far too long as Father drew a sharp breath. “You can imagine… what a bitter blow it is to me… that all my long struggle to win peace has failed.”
“What… what does this mean?” Lena asked, feeling her voice waver as the Prime Minister continued to speak.
Father cleared his throat, puffing away on his pipe as he stuffed it in his mouth, using his arm to push himself out of his chair. His right sleeve hung lazily, a result of the Great War when he had been wounded fighting in France. “Well, rather simply it means that we are at war with Germany.”
Standing up, he walked slowly to the table, settling in there with an uncharacteristic weariness. “Probably means more young lads are going to be sent over to France. More men are going to lose arms, legs, heads.”
“Please, Walter, not at the table,” Mother said, frowning. “She doesn’t need to hear that.”
“Well, I can still do my part,” Lena said, heading over and pulling back a chair.
Father nodded, small clouds of smoke escaping from his lips. “Indeed. You’d make a fine secretary at any number of the downtown offices. Maybe even for a general somewhere.”
“Wait, what?” Lena asked, blinking. “No. I should be out there, helping, not sitting behind some desk!”
“No, don’t be absurd, Lena,” Father said, shaking his head as he put down his pipe. “The front line is no place for a young lady like yourself. Now, looking for a job as a secretary is excellent work, you can keep up your education whi-”
“I don’t want to be a secretary, though,” she protested. “You always told me that the world could always use more heroes. So why can’t I be one of them?”
Father paused, bowing his head as he pursed his lips, a slow, drawn-out breath escaping through his nose. “Yes, I did tell you that, didn’t I? Lena, the world is much more complicated than it was when you were a little girl. You can be a hero, by staying home and letting stronger people do the hard work.”
“But Father, I don’t want to-”
“Lena, if there is a single thing I learned while serving King and Country, it is that this nation does not care what you want. Tomorrow, you will go down and you will knock on doors looking for a job as a secretary, here, at home. Is that understood?”
She swallowed hard, frowning as she reluctantly nodded. “Yes, sir,” Lena said quietly.
September 4th, 1939
Lena had spent four hours so far, wandering her way through downtown London with no success. Not a single business was looking for secretaries, at least not the ones she went to. At each one, she had introduced herself just like father had instructed her to, but the second she said “secretary” they slammed the door – figuratively and in some cases, quite literally – in her face. Lena couldn’t understand it – everyone said she was qualified, but the excuse was either “not now” or “we’re going for a more qualified candidate.” How much hard work could this be?
Dejected, she continued to walk the streets of London, facing more employers only to be turned away at every corner. Disheartening didn’t even begin to describe how she felt. If there had ever been a lower point in her life, it surely was nowhere near as rock-bottom as this. How could anyone keep up hope when in such a desperate situation like this? She sighed heavily, collapsing on a bench outside yet another business that had rejected her.
“Oi, cheer up, lad, could always join the Army,” a passer-by said to her, quickly disappearing into the crowd.
Lena looked up, swiveling her head left and right. It looked like he had been talking to her, but she was the only one on this bench. Confused, she blinked, trying to derive meaning from what the man had said. Something just didn’t make sense about it. Maybe he had mistaken her for someone else. She sighed, leaning down to grab her things.
She paused just as she bent over, staring at her clothes. Almost as if a light had gone off in her head, the man’s nebulous comment began to make sense. In a rush, she had spilled morning tea on the dress she was intending to wear today, borrowing one of Father’s old suits despite Mother’s protests that it wasn’t “ladylike”.
Well, perhaps being ladylike wasn’t for her. The thought began to pass through her head, an inkling of an idea, then forming into a full-fledged plan. She wasn’t stupid, Father had told her plenty of stories about squatting in a trench with little better than a hole for a bathroom. They’d know quickly she wasn’t who she said she was. Lena wasn’t much a fan of the idea of being stuck on a ship for weeks on end.
But she had always dreamed of being a pilot, and as she looked up, she saw a nice, pretty poster. “See life from a new angle,” it said, showing a wing over the idyllic English countryside. “Join the RAF.” And, almost as if by fate, she could see the recruitment office right there. The opportunity was right there. She could take it right now. The suit had clearly fooled the fellow on the street, so maybe it’d be good enough for the RAF? If nothing else, she could find a more permanent solution to hide her bust later. Lena took in a deep breath, grabbing her things and marching right into the office.
Behind the desk stood a man wearing a light blue uniform, a thin black mustache on his face. The wrinkled lines on his forehead told Lena he must have almost always been cross with someone over something, if not just generally upset all the time. He looked up, standing to shake her hand and offering a slight smile. “Welcome to the Royal Air Force, lad. Captain Palmer, how can I help you?”
Lena coughed, nervously gulping. “Um, yes, I’d like to be a pilot, if at all possible.”
Captain Palmer nodded, gesturing for her to take a seat. He sat down as well, opening up a file. “Well, you’ve made the right choice, lad. Ah, what’s your name?”
On the inside, Lena panicked, keeping a straight poker face as she desperately sought a name. “Leonard,” she blurted out. “Leonard Oxton.”
The captain nodded, checking a file he had and frowning. “I don’t see you on here. Hmm, must not have been called up to be a militiaman. Are you local, Leonard? Or just here in London on holiday?”
“Local,” she answered.
“I see. How old are you? Sounding a bit young over there,” Captain Palmer said, jotting this down on a notepad.
“Oh, I’m 20, actually. Always had this kinda voice,” Lena replied, awkwardly laughing. Was it hot in here, or was it just her?
“What’s your education look like?” he asked, not reacting at all to her explanation. “Gone to university?”
Lena shook her head. “Haven’t had the money.”
The captain jotted this answer down, sliding over a packet to her. “Well, just off of your answers alone, I’d like to get you into a uniform as soon as possible. Right in that packet, you’ve got all the information you need to settle your affairs and gather up whatever it is you’ll need, as well as when to come back here to see yourself off to training.”
“Wait, just like that?” Lena asked taken aback at how quickly – and easily – it had happened. “I thought there’d be a bit… well, more to it.”
He laughed, shaking his head. “No, no. Leonard, make no mistake, you’ve got a long path ahead of you, and there’s barely even a guarantee that you’ll be a pilot. Medical exam stops a lot of dreams of being a fighter ace well before they even hit the airfield. But, you look healthy, fit, you seem a smart young lad, I’m sure you’ll be fine.”
Lena nodded, chuckling with even more nervous energy than she had beforehand. The packet had not just the information the Captain was talking about, such as organizing finances, letting family and friends know of “his” departure for the RAF, and a checklist of everything a potential flier needed before heading out.
Well, either she had just made a great choice, or doomed any chance of finding a job.