FANCY ANDERS, IN AN ENDLESS LINE of women outside the Amalgamated Aircraft plant, had all the required proof of identity a first-time war worker needed (birth certificate, driver’s license, and Social Security card), none of it bearing her real name.
As far as anyone asking was concerned, she was Franny Allison, just another young woman showing up for the first day of a defense job either out of patriotism or the lure of sixty-eight cents an hour...or both.
Not that Fancy needed sixty-eight cents. At twenty-four, she was a very well-fixed young lady, and – although she hadn’t intended it – that fact showed, and how. Wearing baby-blue coveralls with a red-striped white top, she had parked her pink Packard convertible in the six-thousand-car capacity lot, sporting a much-envied C-ration sticker – Essential hospital, utility, or war worker, a designation few at this plant were lucky enough to hold.
All around her were girls and women, jitterbugs and housewives, in short sleeves and slacks, summery dresses and open-toed heels, though this was a morning in early fall, 1942. Of course summer was a state of mind in Southern California, where any female – whether in bobby sox or white gloves – was welcome to try her hand at war work.
Fancy, who stood out in this crowd, was very blonde, if rather more so than nature had in mind, slender, curvy, with long legs that did not stop her from wearing heels. Her features were seemingly on loan from the late Carole Lombard, with the exception of a spare pair of Betty Grable’s red-rouged lips. Her nearly platinum tresses were pinned up in a pile, hidden by a white turban; her almond-shaped light-blue eyes with their long, natural lashes, were similarly hidden away by big white-framed sunglasses.
None of this bought her anything but a place at the end of the line. She fell in behind a girl whose trim five-foot-four figure was arranged in a red-and-black plaid blouse, cuffed denims, and hard-toed work boots. This confident creature turned to Fancy, revealing herself as a pug-nosed cutie with big dark eyes and a bigger bright smile.
“Staying overnight?” the cutie asked.
Fancy was lugging a big canvas duffel that was as utilitarian as everything else about her wasn’t.
“Nope,” Fancy said. “Just a handbag got out of hand.”
“Sure, why not? Some bum makes a pass, you can hit him with your purse, and mean it.”
Fancy, liking her already, extended a hand. “Franny Allison. Pasadena.”
“Lula Hall, Hollywood.”
“About the only thing I haven’t tried. Roller-skating carhop, bowling alley pin setter...gas pump jockey, of late. You?”
“My daddy’s secretary,” she said, which was sort of true. True enough.
“No. Actual daddy.”
Lula made an appreciative face. “Nice work if you can get it. Why trade that in for a rivet gun?”
“Daddy’s shut his office down for the duration. Got called back to active duty.” Also not wholly untrue. Exactly what kind of office didn’t come up yet, nor what duty. “Thought I should do my bit.”
Lula thrust a forefinger at her. “‘Uncle Sam Needs You.’ You can work your way up in this joint to a buck five, I hear.”
“No kidding.” Fancy’s salary from her father was five hundred a month.
The line was moving fairly fast. Helmeted soldiers with rifles walked guard duty up and down and back again. The many formidable buildings beyond the chain-link fence were painted a dull flat green, sandbags piled all around. Fancy and Lula were moving under a canopy of camouflage netting, more of which draped the looming buildings. On top of a low-slung structure, down by where they’d be checked through, an anti-aircraft nest was stationed, two GIs at a big gun, another fanning the sky with binoculars.
“You know what I heard?” Lula asked, walking backward. She was chewing gum and snapped it from time to time.
“You fly over this place in a plane? Looks like Carville – you know, Andy Hardy’s hometown?”
“Well, I heard girls talking at the Studio Hotel, which is where I live, and they say Paramount sent set designers down to make canvas-and-plywood houses and chicken-wire trees and paint streets to put on top of these buildings. To make the Nips think, when they invade? That this is just some quiet boring neighborhood.”
“Must be that movie magic you hear so much about.”
At the gate, the line swarmed, and one by one the young women had their temporary ID cards and belongings (purses, lunch boxes, Fancy’s duffel) checked by armed police-style guards, who then herded them up to a ten-foot cement wall garnished with electrified barbed wire. As they stood milling, Fancy and Lula chatted, both hiding their apprehension.
“Where did you train?” Lula asked. “I took classes at Hollywood High, nights, for a month. Welding and riveting.”
“Vocational School in Downey. Amalgamated has a plant near there.” She did not mention that her training had been for one intense single week by a select tutor.
Lula asked, “But you picked Long Beach instead?”
“Better opportunities, I heard.” True enough, but not why Fancy was here.
An efficient woman in her fifties, who had already managed early in the day to achieve an impressive level of boredom, passed out manila envelopes plump with handbooks, pamphlets, lists of work clothes, regulations and tools to acquire, plus the latest Amalgamated Employee News and an aircraft union membership card.
“Any questions you may have,” the woman said, “are answered in that envelope. In the meantime, line up and follow that yellow line.”
That took them down a hallway to an infinite office where dozens and dozens of desks and harried-looking women, often with glasses, always with typewriters, awaited. There Fancy’s false name and Lula’s real one were recorded.
The two young women (and the others) were sent from this desk to that one, for job and pay rate classification, physical description documentation, birth certificate check, time clock instruction, identification card signing, then visits to little rooms for fingerprinting, ID badge photography, and a cursory physical exam.
Last stop was another, smaller office where each applicant was made to read, and sign, the Espionage Act, Executive Act of the President of the United States – Secret, Confidential and Restricted. Fancy, under false pretenses here, allowed herself to feel a little intimidated by that one.
Then the new workers were presented with big yellow political campaign-style buttons, with the numbers of their assigned departments. Both Fancy and Lula, perhaps because they’d gone through all of this together, received the same number: 190.
A man in his forties in a tan jumpsuit played weary Pied Piper to the women, leading them up a flight of stairs into an auditorium with college-style tiered seating. Fancy and Lula sat up close.
At a lectern in front of a pulled-down movie screen, the man in tan rattled off facts (the facility had cost twelve million and its fifteen concrete-and-steel buildings, connected by tunnels, weighed 9000 tons) and showed a few slides, primarily of the aircraft built in Long Beach (DB-7 attack plane, B-24 long-range bomber, C-47 cargo hauler).
“Now we’ll have a double feature,” he said, with the enthusiasm of a principal at an assembly making a little joke that even he didn’t think was funny.
The first of two classroom-style films showed an airplane being built by thousands of workers, using drills, hammers and other tools right out of a home workshop.
“Not a single woman,” Fancy softly observed.
“Or a married one either,” Lula whispered back.
The second flick was called Safety on the Job and began with a quote from Lincoln: “It is the duty of every man to protect himself and those associated with him from accidents which may result in injury or death.”
Lula whispered, “Maybe start by having somebody watch your back at the theater when you’re in a box seat.”
“Stop it,” Fancy said, managing not to laugh, though she had trouble not doing so when the lights came up and the man in tan was suddenly wearing goggles, looking like he was about to drive off in a Stanley Steamer.
“Safety glasses,” he explained, and took them off and whammed them on the lectern repeatedly, to show just how safe they were.
A few of the women yiped and yelped at this rowdy demonstration, but Lula just rolled her eyes at Fancy.
Finally, the man in tan turned things over to an attractive black-haired woman in a gray suit.
“I’m Head Counselor Sharon Longtin, ladies,” she said, in a well-modulated alto. “I want you to know that you may bring any problems you might have to me or any of our other counselors. You’ll know us because we’ll be the only women wearing skirts around the production line.”
Counselor Longtin then briefly discussed “women matters,” including the need for a doctor’s permission to work while pregnant.
“The re-production line,” Lula cracked a little too loud for where they were seated.
Fancy laughed, and got a look from Longtin, although not a cross one. In fact, the woman just smiled and nodded a little. Fancy nodded back.
“Lockhart also enforces a strict no dating on the job policy,” the counselor said. “That doesn’t mean dating men who work here is forbidden. Just don’t make arrangements to do so on company time. And don’t take your lunch break in a supply closet getting to know a male co-worker better.”
That got a few giggles from the younger girls.
“You are not to wear wristwatches, pendant earrings, necklaces, bracelets or rings. No loose sleeves, frills, nothing with cuffs or lapels. Your natural beauty will have to suffice.”
That got genuine laughs.
The group was dismissed and reminded to be back for the start of their four p.m. to midnight shift, allowing an hour to get through inspection at the gate. Lula suggested they grab lunch somewhere and Fancy offered to drive.
They wound up at a little diner where the lunch crowd was just thinning out. In a booth, with Glenn Miller’s “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” playing on the jukebox, Fancy feasted on an egg salad sandwich and Coke while Lula had a tuna salad sandwich and Green River. They shared an order of fries.
Ducking questions about herself, Fancy worked at getting Lula talking. Was that a little tinge of Texas Fancy detected?
“Guilty as charged. Grew up there. One of ten kiddies.”
Lula nodded, nibbled white-bread-swaddled tuna salad. “Mama always had one baby in her arms and another on the way. Really only was one thing that Papa was any good at. He got gassed by the Germans in the last war, and loud noises always set him off.”
“Could he work?”
“Some. We all of us farmed – anywhere we could trade work for a shack to live in. Papa worked for the railroad a while. We had the upstairs of a nice house, for just two bucks a month, as long as we kept the place up and worked the garden. Then the Depression hit and we wound up picking cotton, Papa and us kids too. Paid us by the sack.”
“I can’t imagine,” Fancy said, and she really couldn’t.
“Finally Mama took us and moved to town. She only knew how to do one thing, really, if you know what I mean.”
“Well...let’s just say she finally figured out how to have fun without havin’ kids. One fella after another come into our little apartment, mostly much younger than her, and all of a sudden money wasn’t so short. Papa come around one time with a shotgun, threatening her, so one night she packed all of us kids in her car, somehow. Next I knew, I woke up in Oklahoma, which I wouldn’t wish on Hitler.... I could use another Green River. Want another Coke?”
“No, I’m fine.”
Lula called out to a waitress for a fresh soda.
“Anyway, eventually I wound up out here,” she said, dragging a fry through ketchup. “I was a cute kid, still am far as that goes, and getting jobs like the bowling alley and drive-in and gas station was never a stretch for me. What about you, Franny?”
“What about me?”
Lula grinned. “What’s a girl who comes from money doing at a defense plant? You got a guy overseas? You sure ain’t chasin’ sixty-some cents an hour.”
“I’ve had it easy,” Fancy admitted, embarrassed but not ashamed, “my pop having his own business and all. The Depression didn’t hit us so hard. I know I’m lucky. Am I...flaunting it? I don’t mean to.”
“Well, a pink convertible. Kinda strings it takes to land a C sticker? Man! And those coveralls didn’t come out of a Sears Roebuck catalog.”
Like the fake town the aircraft plant wore, the coveralls had been made by Paramount, specifically her father’s friend Edith Head, and Fancy was starting to realize how little she knew about going undercover.
Back at the Lockhart parking lot, Fancy pulled into a spot in the sea of vehicles, climbed out, and reached in back for the duffel bag. She got out the tool belt she’d been provided and slung it on. This opened Lula’s eyes wider than the convertible had.
“Wow,” Lula said. “Makes my couple of tools from home look like kid stuff.”
“Well,” Fancy said, the array of whatchamacallits clanking a little, “when I applied at the employment bureau, I heard you had to provide your own tools.” That was accurate, except for where she’d got the info.
“You are a rich girl,” Lula said admiringly.
“Don’t spread it around.”
“Honey, you’re the one spreading it.”
More and more, Fancy was wondering if she’d already blown this job.
Lula had left her lunch box in Fancy’s car and now Fancy got hers out of the duffel, as well as the steel-toed work boots she’d been told to bring along. She traded her heels for these, then left the duffel behind as they trudged off toward their first day of work. Night of work.
Once through the rigamarole at the gate, they were greeted by a clipboard-equipped young woman in a floral long-sleeve blouse and navy slacks.
“I’m Miss Simmons,” the woman said, leading them across the grounds. “Secretary to the assistant of B-24 production. I’ll show you to your department.”
Under a non-sky of camouflage netting, the little trio moved past dull green buildings whose roofs wore those little Hollywood-constructed faux houses and trees and streets. In the odd shadows, they passed an outdoor stage draped with a “Work to Win” banner, then a bus stop, tool store, infirmary.
“It’s a city,” Lula said, eyes wide, “with the neighborhoods on top.”
Soon they were at an imposing structure wearing a big “4,” one of its huge rolling doors humming electrically as it raised as they passed, large enough to accommodate a finished plane. They might have taken a shortcut through, but Miss Simmons took them around to the entrance. Before going in, Fancy put on her ear plugs, prepared for what was to come.
Only she wasn’t.
Fancy Anders, in her short life, had been places rare for a woman of any age, including assorted continents and various great cities.
But what ocean liner’s foghorn could compare to the torturous noise level of this screeching mechanical cacophony? Which high-ceilinged cathedral of Europe might outdo this vast open building of three or was it four towering stories? What was the brightness of a Cairo sun at noon compared to thousands of brilliant white lights flying in strict formation, kept in line by a network of steel? How could snowy alpine skiing slopes stack up against the chill of this windowless chamber, where condensation dripped like cold rain? And how could the crowd at the Harvard/Yale football game compete with this horde of hustling, bustling workers?
And though she was a pilot herself, Fancy felt as though she’d never really seen an aircraft before, not confronted by rows of B-24 bombers lined up in various stages of completion, the tail of one nearly touching the wing of the next.
Attending each craft was the equivalent of the Grimms’ fairy tale shoemaker’s elves, teams of women working on high platforms under wings, and low ones under bellies. Here a ladder rose into the underside of a bomber’s tail, another in front going up into the nose. There on top of the fuselage they walked and worked, as if that were a normal way to behave.
As Fancy and Lula followed their guide down the center aisle, they took it all in, though barely keeping up. Now and then they had to dodge a bicycle or small truck, and Lula almost walked into a hook lowered on a crane (someone politely yelled, “Get the hell out of the way!”).
Miss Simmons said, “You’ll get started right off the bat, but won’t really get to meet the girls on your team till the first smoke break.”
It was interesting how the secretary could get her voice up enough to be heard without screaming.
She was saying, “I should warn you, girls. You’re replacing two well-liked team members. One was a school teacher, just here for the summer. But the other, a popular girl, died under...unfortunate circumstances.”
Lula yelled, “An accidental death?”
“Yes. We have very few of those, but it does happen. There are dangers in a plant like this.”
That much Fancy already knew.
She was here, after all, to determine whether that death really was accidental.
copyright © 2021 Max Allan Collins