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Synopsis

Francine “Fritzi” Stoddard, Air Force wife, is always prepared to send her pilot husband, Joe, to war, move a household with four children to the next base, and ultimately, to accept the folded flag if Joe sacrifices his life on behalf of the country.

Thanks to Fritzi’s dedication, the Stoddards are a shiny, spit-polished, adventurous American Air Force family, living wherever Joe’s career takes them and blooming wherever they are planted.

When they are transferred to a base in Italy, Fritzi revels in the opportunity to explore Europe with her family. During the fireworks of an Italian festival, tragedy strikes, plunging the Fritzi and her family into a free-fall of denial and grief.

How will they navigate a future they are not prepared for?

Set in the heyday of the military-industrial complex of the 1950s and 60s, Beneath the Wild Blue explores the unique pressures of military family life from the Korean War through Vietnam.

Chapter Two

“When you became engaged, you, too, chose a career in the Air Force. 

You should know that every officer in the Air Force has an ‘effectiveness report’...

In time, his wife also has an ‘unwritten efficiency report,’ unfiled but known, labeled and catalogued throughout the Air Force.”

—Nancy Shea, The Air Force Wife 

MONTROSE, LOUISIANA October, 1948 


SHE HAD BEEN CHRISTENED Francine Isabelle Fontaine, the only child of two parents who adored everything about their precocious red- haired daughter. At the age of six, Francine decided to go by “Fritzi.” It sounded crisp and energetic, like her. Years later, she insisted that even her children call her Fritzi, because “I will not be a stodgy old mother, or a cloying little mommy.” 


“If Lieutenant Stoddard could just see his bride now! Flaunting around in her underwear,” Mother said, sniffing into a hankie and bustling around. 

Fritzi would rather have been married in a smart suit, but Mother insisted on a custom-made satin and lace get-up like Princess Elizabeth’s gown for her wedding to Prince Phillip. Fritzi hated the gown and postponed putting it on as long as possible. She stood on the upstairs veranda, laced into her corset, garter belt, and stockings. 

“I’m just having a cigarette before I get all dolled up, that’s all. I’ll just be a minute.” 

Fritzi winked at Lieutenant Stoddard himself, who was standing in the yard, looking up and admiring his smoking bride-to-be. She laughed, stubbed out her cigarette in a flowerpot and blew him a kiss. 

Fritzi looked at herself in the full-length mirror and smiled. She looked like a pin-up queen in her underwear, so it didn’t much matter what she looked like in the dress. Let the honeymoon begin! 

On Monday of the following week, the Montrose News Star ran the story of the Fontaine-Stoddard nuptials: 

Miss Francine Isabelle Fontaine recently became the bride of 2nd Lt. Joseph Randolph Stoddard. The ceremony, officiated by the Rev. Stanley Bridges of the First Presbyterian Church in Montrose, took place in the gardens of Fontainebleu, the bride’s ancestral home. 

The bride, daughter of Judge and Mrs. Stanton Fontaine III, wore a handmade lace and satin dress of the same design that England’s Princess Elizabeth wore at her own nuptials last year. She carried a hand- embroidered handkerchief from her mother, along with a nosegay of white chrysanthemum and stephanotis. 

The mother of the bride wore an aubergine silk jersey dress by Hardy Amies with a corsage of white calla lilies. The mother of the groom wore a beige broadcloth suit accented by a red rose corsage. Maid of honor was Flora Fontaine, first cousin of the bride. 

Beneath the Wild Blue 

Best man was Bud Caraway, childhood friend of 

the groom.

After a honeymoon in Hot Springs, Ark., the couple will be 

at home on Sandia Air Force Base in Albuquerque, N.M., where the groom is stationed as a test pilot. 

FRITZI NUZZLED next to Joe in the front seat. “Can’t we go any faster?” she pleaded in a sweet-baby voice. 

“Darlin,’ you know I can’t afford to get pulled over. I’m up for promotion to first lieutenant and I’ve got to keep my nose clean.” Joe took his eyes off the road to kiss his bride on the mouth. “Hot Springs isn’t far. We’ll be at the Arlington before you know it, and then ...” He moaned because Fritzi had unzipped his pants and was messing around. “Let’s not get carried away, now...” 

“Oh, hush! It was bad enough we had to spend our first night in my old bedroom. I swear, having Montrose in the rearview mirror is the best thing that could ever happen to us. Mother and Daddy would expect us for dinner every Sunday night if we didn’t move far away. And your mama! She would always want her beloved ‘Son’ to be at her beck and call. Step on it! Let’s put as many miles between them and us as we can!” She uncapped a bottle of Schlitz and took a tug. 

“I’ll drink to that!” Joe said, grabbing the bottle out of her hand. 

“ARE you sure you don’t want to dine downstairs? You brought all those pretty dresses. I want people to ogle my bride and be envious.” Joe nibbled at Fritzi’s neck. 

“I know. Mother had all those things made so I’d have a proper trousseau. But I’d rather save them for the Officers’ Club in New Mexico. They’ll look nice and fresh in the dust-blown desert.” She rolled over to kiss him on the mouth. “Let’s spend our honeymoon in our birthday suits.” 

14 MARIAN MCCARTHY 

“Just as God created us. Like Adam and Eve?” Joe lit a Chesterfield and passed it to Fritzi. 

“Just like the sinners we are,” she agreed, exhaling a stream of smoke. She reached for the Room Service menu in the bedside table. “But even a sinner like me knows her husband has to eat. Here,” she said, “order us up a post-coitus feast. I’m starving!” 

That week, they didn’t stroll along the shady boulevard in front of the Arlington Hotel. Joe never wore his white dinner jacket to accom- pany his bride to the Vapors Club for cocktails and dancing. They never set foot into the sulphur-smelling old bath houses built over the natural hot springs, and they didn’t take in a movie at the theater across the street from the hotel. They made love and ate and drank and made good use of the Honeymoon Suite, paid for by Judge Fontaine as a gift to the newlyweds. Fritzi, having promised to drop her parents a line before they headed out to New Mexico, dashed off a postcard on the last day, thanking Mother and Daddy for the “gorgeous wedding” and the “wonderful sightseeing” they were doing. She even lied about the “relaxing mineral bath” she’d enjoyed at the Buckstaff. She dropped it into the mailbox at the front desk just as Joe finished checking out. 

They set out for Albuquerque in a driving rain with, as Joe said, “limited visibility.” Near Texarkana, a deer bolted out of the woods, grazing the side of Joe’s Ford as he swerved to avoid it. “Dad gummit!” Joe said, pulling over to the shoulder. They both got out to inspect the damage to the rear fender. The deer had left a small dent, smeared with blood and feces, before it had bounded back into the woods. Fritzi leaned over and threw up her breakfast. Joe handed her his handkerchief and rubbed her back. Concern for his wife trumped his anger at the deer for damaging the Ford. 

They got back into the car, Fritzi having assured Joe that she was all right. She felt queasy until they reached the outskirts of Dallas. The sun finally came out and followed them all the way to Ft. Worth, where they spent the night at a motor court. They left before dawn the next day, Joe determined to reach Albuquerque well before dark. As they grew closer to the base, Fritzi saw Joe’s hands clench the steering wheel, his eyes focused ahead like a hawk homing in on its prey. This man was no longer her bridegroom. He was Second Lieutenant Joseph Stoddard, about to report for duty. And, she was now Mrs. Stoddard, reporting for duty as the young officer’s wife. 

There was no base housing for married junior grade officers, so they rented a two-bedroom adobe house with an apricot tree in the walled back yard. Fritzi found that the dry air agreed with her sinuses; she did not miss the stifling humidity of Montrose. She did, however, grow out of those beautiful dresses from her trousseau, as a visit to the base hospital confirmed what she’d suspected for awhile: she was pregnant. The diaphragm had been more trouble than it was worth. She liked to think that her eggs and Joe’s sperm were somehow destined for each other, and that no barrier could have kept them apart. 

When she broke the news over the phone to Mother and Daddy, Mother sobbed and insisted that Fritzi spend the rest of her preg- nancy “at home” in Montrose, where Dr. Pike could take proper care of her and the baby. “He delivered you, honey. He’s a man we can trust,” Daddy chimed in. 

“My home is with Joe, now, and I couldn’t possibly consider it,” Fritzi snapped. “We have very good doctors here on the base. I’m an officer’s wife now, and Joe needs me here.” 

A month later, Fritzi glowed with pride when she wrote her parents to tell them that Joe was promoted to first lieutenant and assigned to a B-29 squadron charged with testing the Superfortress bomber. They ran daily test flights from Sandia Base to a base in Utah. They were mostly day flights, so Joe was always home for supper, full of stories about the new airplane and how excited he was to be part of the team to test it on takeoffs and landings. 

Fritzi had taught herself to cook plain, good food—the kind Joe was used to on the farm. He was happy most of the time with her simple preparations like braised pork chops, canned green beans, and dinner rolls. She bought the dinner rolls in a package at the commissary because she had never learned to bake or had any interest in learning now. (Mother had always warned her to be careful not to become proficient at menial tasks, lest she be expected to perform them on a daily basis. Baking, Fritzi believed, qualified as menial.) 

APRIL 3, 1949 

THEY NAMED him Joseph Randolph Stoddard, Junior, and called him Rand. Fritzi believed the baby had saved Joe’s life. If she hadn’t gone into labor on that April morning, her husband would be dead, along with the rest of the crew of the Superfortress. Joe had been scheduled to co-pilot the plane on a test flight, but Fritzi gone into labor at two in the morning. Reluctantly, Joe called his duty officer to beg off the assignment and took Fritzi to the base hospital at three. At five a.m., the Superfortress exploded on the dawn horizon. Now, Joe not only had a son, he also had his life. Nine men dead. Nine men he’d worked with; flown with, trusted to make sure the plane was in fine shape. Six of those men were fathers. Now, Joe was a father, too, able to hold his son for the first time because he had not been aboard. 

Joe argued that he could have saved the flight if he’d been there. With his astute eye, keen sense for detail, and strict adherence to checkpoint protocol, Joe would have alerted the crew about something gone wrong. 

Time and again, Fritzi argued that the accident investigators from the Pentagon had searched, but were unable to find the technical or human fault that caused the crash. “It was fate,” she said. “And your son’s birth saved you from it. He’s your savior!” 

“For creep’s sake, Fritzi, don’t get sacrilegious.” 

The “savior” argument always got Joe’s goat, and Fritzi delighted in goading her husband to worship their young son as much as

she did. 

Worship was the right word. Fritzi could gaze for hours into the boy’s cornflower blue eyes. She insisted on keeping his bassinet in their bedroom, and she awakened at the slightest whimper from their son. It seemed to Joe that she craved holding the boy, comforting him with warm bottles, cooing into his ear. He longed to separate her from the baby as he would a calf from its mother, but his heart melted when he saw how tender she was with the child. He also knew that if he dared intervene, she’d turn on him like a mama bear, and there would be no reckoning. He had nothing to complain about, after all. Fritzi somehow still had energy to jump his bones on the living room couch after Rand was sound asleep in the bassinet. 

Fritzi had not enjoyed pregnancy. She hated growing out of her clothes, the awkwardness of moving around in a larger body, the swollen breasts and nauseous mornings. But the moment she saw Rand’s eyes look into hers, she recognized the best part of herself. A new life—a boy—created in her own image. The very act of child- birth had filled Fritzi with tremendous pride, a sense of physical and mental achievement of Olympic proportions. She was strong, capa- ble, revered. She was a mother, a superwoman with boundless energy and a libido that kept Joe grinning from ear-to-ear. 

Rand wasn’t a fussy baby. She’d heard other young mothers in the Officers’ Wives Club complain of colic and diaper rash, but Rand was a dream baby, content with his formula, easily comforted back to sleep after 3 a. m. feedings. He sat up at six weeks, began to crawl at four months, and by his first birthday he was walking and running like a born athlete. His milestones delighted Fritzi, thrilling her with pride and the expectation that she was raising a bona fide genius. 

With her superior pride in her son, it was a wonder Fritzi had any friends at all among the young officers’ wives. She made an effort to keep her pride to herself. She became a bright, funny friend to other young wives in the squadron. They knew they could rely on Fritzi to watch their children if they had an urgent appointment, whether it was at the doctor’s office or the beauty parlor. Fritzi enjoyed the hustle-bustle of other children in the house, and secretly delighted in comparing Rand with the “average” sons and daughters of her peers. Her energy seemed boundless. 

Her mother called long distance once a week, insisting that she visit to help her daughter and give her a rest. 

18 MARIAN MCCARTHY 

“Mother, I honestly don’t need the help. Rand is such an easy, wonderful child. I love doing my own cleaning and cooking. I’ve learned so much living out here,” she’d say brightly each week. “I like being independent.” 

The last thing Fritzi wanted was for her mother to invade her New Mexican paradise. Mother would find the adobe architecture stark and confusing, and she wouldn’t understand why the yard was landscaped with gravel instead of St. Augustine grass. Fritzi cringed to think of her mother’s reaction to the many Indian and Mexican- American families who lived in the neighborhood. There would be nothing for her mother to do but fuss about the dry air and the dust storms. She wouldn’t be interested in visiting the regular tourist haunts that delighted Fritzi: Old Town with its margaritas and spicy food; the Acoma Pueblo to see the weekly tribal dances performed for tourists; Sandia Crest, where they picnicked on cool Sunday after- noons. Plus, they had no spare bedroom, now that Rand had moved into his own room. A visit from Mother was just out of the question. 


About the author

Marian McCarthy is a novelist and award-winning short story writer. Beneath the Wild Blue, her debut novel, is based on her experience as a military brat, part of a vagabond family that traveled the world and never clung to one place. view profile

Published on September 13, 2018

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100000 words

Genre: Historical fiction

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