“How high is it?” I asked.
“One hundred and fifty feet. It will be nearly one seventy when they finish the lookout cabin at the top. I’ll take you up there someday when it’s safe.”
I wrinkle my nose. “Maybe not.”
“Afraid of heights?” The captain laughs.
“Just a little.”
“Miss Becky!” A voice breaks me out of my memoires. It’s Mrs. Ross calling me in her high voice, as she stands just inside the mess hall door. She’s wearing her winter coat and hat and I realize I’ve never seen her in the cafeteria before. She prefers to bring her own lunch and eat at her desk while listening to supervisor Milliken’s big band records on his Victrola. The minute we return, she turns off the machine, as if it’s her guilty secret. “Miss Becky!” she calls again looking around the mess hall.
“Over here!” Boodean yells and the short round woman rushes across the crowded room. By the look on her white face, I have no doubt something’s wrong. Perhaps one of the boys has been injured.
“Oh, Nurse Myers! I hate to interrupt your meal, but Sheriff Hardman from Liberty is in the main office and needs to speak to you.” All heads turn and the hall gets very quiet. Most of these young men have had hard lives and know that a summons from the sheriff is never a good thing.
Captain Wolfe strides over. “Is there a problem, Mrs. Ross?”
The poor lady is so upset she’s shaking all over. “The sherriff wants Miss Becky, now. Says he tried to reach us on the two-way radio, but couldn’t get through.”
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” I reassure. “I’ll be right over, Mrs. Ross.”
“I’ll come with you.” That’s Wolfe, the protector.
Outside, rain comes in from an angle and I pull my burgundy wool coat closer. The sheriff paces on the clinic porch. He takes a drag from his cigarette, blows out steam with the smoke, and tosses it into the snowbank.
“What’s this about, Bill?” Wolfe starts out, and I’m surprised that the captain knows the lawman by name.
“There’s a woman in labor and Daniel Hester, the vet, called and asked me to get Miss Myers,” Hardman explains. “Can you come, Nurse? It’s way out in Hazel Patch.”
“A birth? A delivery?” Even in the chill, I begin to perspire.
“Yes.” The sheriff looks at me funny, wondering what else it could be. “One of the colored ladies. The midwife told the vet that it’s her second child and she expects a quick delivery.”
“Go,” says the captain. “Don’t worry about your automobile. One of the boys from the motor pool and I will drive it out later.”
“Let’s hit it,” says Hardman, opening the door of his squad car. I grab my nurse’s bag out of the Pontiac and climb in with him.
“Oh, dear!” says Mrs. Ross, fanning away a hot flash.
“So, do you know what’s going on?” I ask Sheriff Hardman as we skid out the CCC gate.
“Sorry, didn’t get the details.” He activates the flashing red lights on either side of the front doors, and then takes off on a small dirt road, a shortcut to Liberty. It isn’t until we’re within a mile of town that he turns on the siren and I feel like I’m a G-man on a Prohibition raid. In another half hour, we’re following a rail fence into Hazel Patch.
This is the first time I’ve been to the Negro community, and as we wheel through the neighborhood, the siren blaring, small, tidy farmsteads fly by. Most have a barn and farm animals and enough oak and maple trees for a woodlot out back. There are goats and sheep, a few cows and even some horses, and it strikes me that this is what Mrs. Roosevelt is trying to create at Arthurdale, only the people have done it without government help.
At last we pull into a short drive and stop in front of a weathered clapboard house where a small dark man stands on the front porch waving. Apparently, he’s expecting us, because he shows no surprise as a police car with red lights pulls into his yard.
“It’s coming!” he shouts. “The baby’s coming!”
With no time to thank the lawman, I grab my nurse’s bag and run into the house where three colored women push me into the bedroom.
“The midwife’s here. She’s here!” they tell the very lean mother who half sits in bed, rhythmically swinging her head back and forth. She’s gripping the white sheets, making a low noise in her throat, and an infant’s head, with dark curly hair, shows at the opening of her vagina.
I take a deep breath. “Hello . . . I’m Nurse Myers the home health nurse. I’m sorry . . . the sheriff didn’t give me your name.”
“Mmmmmmm,” the mother groans. The short man who was waiting on the porch and who I assume is the father makes a brief introduction.
“Sorry, I’m Homer Lewis and this is my wife, Livia. Now that you’re here, I’m going to escape down to the Reverend’s house. This is women’s business.” He kisses his wife and steps out in a hurry.
“Okay, Livia, one or two more pushes and the baby will be out. If you can blow through the next few pains, I’ll have everything ready.” What I’m thinking is, this looks easy. I don’t even need to get vital signs or a fetal heartbeat. It will all be over in minutes.
“Ladies.” I turn to the three birth attendants, a light brown wisp dressed in a yellow shift; a graying, almost black grandmotherly type; and the third, a coffee-colored girl who could be the laboring woman’s sister. She has the same narrow face, high cheekbones, and almond eyes, and it suddenly strikes me that even though they are all called Negro, they’re as different as a pale Norwegian, a swarthy Italian, and a red-faced Irishman.
“Ladies, this is what I want you to do. . . .” I give orders like the boss on a PWA road crew and within minutes we’re set up and ready for the birth.
“Okay, Livia, time to push.”
The laboring woman doesn’t answer but growls with the next pain, the sound of a mother elephant calling her young.
There’s timelessness when watching a labor and we slip into the stream. I check vital signs. I check the fetal heartbeat and all is well, but after another ten contractions I look at my watch. This isn’t right. The head hasn’t moved and it’s been forty minutes. I need to take action, but what should I do?
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