|Wonder City Stories (wonder_city) wrote,|
@ 2010-10-06 12:44 pm UTC
|Entry tags:||ana_hernandez, jane_liberty, lady_justice, madame_destiny|
“Of course, given the codename,” Dorothy Catherine Sanderson told me,” we tried to come up with a transparent blindfold sort of thing. It didn’t work, so I just stuck with the sword, though I went through swords like Grant through Richmond.”
Sanderson is the civilian name of the iconic, much-decorated World War II superhero, Lady Justice. We should have been having this conversation over tea in her neat, well-appointed living room in a small but immaculately-kept house. But we spoke while seated in battered nylon folding chairs outside the rusty silver van she calls her home, drinking instant coffee in chipped, mismatched mugs. Hers read, “#1 Mom.”
Later, she opened the back of the van and showed me the milk crates containing row upon row of painstakingly labelled cassette tapes. “I tape every conversation I have with the VA,” Lady Justice said, running her fingertips over the plastic, “and I file it here.”
Most of us know that Lady Justice enlisted in the Gold Star Battalion in December of 1941. Her superiors expected that she would simply be the secretary of the commander at the time, but she soon distinguished herself on the test field.
“We didn’t have the classification system back then, of course,” she told me in her hard-edged Yankee accent. “You were bulletproof or not, and that determined whether you went into combat. I was bulletproof, grenade-proof, and, we found out later, bomb-proof. I could arm-wrestle the Strong Man or Damned Yankee and beat them without blinking. They couldn’t waste me in the office, so they cut my hair and put me in a man’s uniform and called me Justice. For the first year of the war, no one but the doctors, the colonel, and my sergeant knew I was a woman.”
That part isn’t in the history books, of course. It wasn’t until 1942, after the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps began basic training, that Sanderson added the “Lady” to her sobriquet and became the drill sergeant in charge of training female recruits for the Gold Star Battalion. She was the one who discovered the young private who became Jane Liberty, as well as countless other heroines who served the United States without fail on the European lines. A graduate of Smith College who had been studying for an advanced degree at Harvard when Roosevelt declared war, Sanderson tore through officer’s training and was commissioned as a lieutenant in 1943.
This was where Lady Justice’s problems began, she says. “I was an officer, commanding my own platoon. I didn’t keep my mouth shut when I thought bad decisions were being made, especially about my women. The brass weren’t happy with me, and as my platoon grew to a company, they started getting really grim.” She laughed. “We were just figuring out that there were more women paras than men, and none of the boys were feeling secure in their pants.”
Ana liked that line. She’d laughed herself nearly out of the chair when Lady J said it, and damn her if she wasn’t going to put it in. Geoff might take it out, but what the hell. Nothing ventured and all.
It was late in 1944 when the Women’s Company was sent out with Company “D”, commanded by the American, then a major. There was a Nazi research base on the edge of Antarctica, the intelligence said, and there was some super-weapon being readied for launch into the Pacific theater. “We went in like blazes,” Lady Justice said, reminiscently examining the roof of her van with a blue-eyed gaze that seems hardly less clear than the photos of her from the war. “Jane was everywhere at once -- she’d picked up Blitzkrieg’s superspeed and kept it, you know. The Sentinel peeled back the roof of the lab, and I led several of the other girls in to find the superweapon. That was our job, you see, while the boys held off the troops that would come in behind us. I went forward to take out any interference while the girls handled the search.”
During this operation, Lady Justice went missing in action. After the war ended and it became clear she wasn’t among the POWs, she was declared dead. There isn’t much known publicly about what happened that fateful day in Antarctica, so I asked her about it. She was reluctant to discuss the matter.
“It’s old news,” she said, shifting uncomfortably in her chair. “I can’t imagine why anyone would be interested now.”
I originally found her in the diner where she’s eaten breakfast nearly every morning for the last ten years. “Everyone here knows me,” she said, gesturing around at the tiny space, with its cracked windows and melamine tables of the Stars ‘n’ Garters Diner. “Everyone knows about me, and they don’t care. I stop here first, every day.”
What she meant was that the regulars know about all her powers, including the one that made her most unpopular: no one can speak a lie in the presence of Lady Justice.
“We didn’t know about it at first,” she explained. “Doc Defense and Nox [the Night-stalker] put two and two together after a couple years. It made people kind of awkward around me.”
Does the power go both ways?
“Yes,” she said, with an embarrassed smile. “I’ve always told the truth, though. Never saw a point in lying.” She became more businesslike. “So now you have all the information. You can choose to stick around or not.”
I stuck, and followed Lady Justice on her peregrinations around Wonder City for several days. Every day, after the stop in the Stars ‘n’ Garters, her journey leads her straight to the door of the Veterans Administration building, ancient tape recorder in hand.
“Hi, Lady J,” says the pleasant young receptionist, handing her a number automatically. “I think David is in today. You want to start with him?”
Lady Justice smiles and shrugs. “I’ll start with whoever will see me.” Then she settles in to wait in the uncomfortable chair.
The parade of VA staff is bewildering after this. They look at me with ill-disguised hostility until they’re distracted by Lady Justice’s tape recorder clicking on. They are all tired, underpaid, and exasperated with her and her case.
Most are patient and ask what sound like the same questions they’ve been asking her every day for years: “Name? Rank? Serial number?”
Some are kind: “Like I said last week, Lady J, I can’t help you. I’m sorry. I’d lose my job. Oh, God, I didn’t mean to say that.”
Some are straightforwardly obscene: “You again? When are you going to learn that no one gives a [expletive] about you and your [expletive] pension?”
Others are vicious in a different way: “We don’t even know that you actually are Lady Justice.”
Through it all Lady Justice smiles serenely and nods and gives her answers in an even voice. When I express outrage about one particularly nasty exchange, she pats me on the shoulder and thanks me. “It’s all right, dear. No one likes being forced to tell the truth to a crazy old lady.”
When her body was found embedded in an iceberg floating in the Atlantic in 1965, the news stories were surprisingly few and far between. One journalist who had worked heavily with the para community of the time told me that all his coverage was heavily censored, and about half his stories never saw the light of day. Especially the initial stories about Lady Justice’s strange resurrection from the dead.
When asked about how that came about, she shrugs again. “The theory is that I was chilled so fast that my body shut down, and my invulnerability kept me from having all the usual problems that come with primitive cryogenics. Still, no one even suspected, so when they chipped me out, expecting to have a big funeral, and I started breathing, there were a few trips to the ER for shock.”
I tried again: what did she tell them about the moments before it happened? And this time she said, “I don’t remember much. I remember breaking into a dark space -- an ice cave, I guessed, under the lab. I heard a man’s voice say, ‘Sorry about this.’ And then there was a rush of water and cold. I struggled, but I had no leverage, and I was so cold and I couldn’t breathe. Panics the best person, I think, not being able to breathe.”
Was it a German voice?
“American,” she said, sadly shaking her head. “Definitely American.”
Why hasn’t she told anyone about this before?
“Oh, I have,” she said, looking away at the little suburban house of the friend who was letting her park in the side yard for a few days. “I told everyone when I came back. I told the Gold Stars, and the VA, and the reporters. Everyone said to leave it alone, it was a long time ago.”
Why did she think she was left for dead like that by someone who was supposed to be on her side? Did she think it was a traitor in their midst, or someone who had gone over to the other side early in the war?
“No,” she said flatly, looking me squarely in the eye. “It was someone acting under orders. From our side.”
How can she know that? Why would the military do that to one of their most iconic officers?
“He told me,” Lady Justice said. “I asked him point-blank, and he told me. As for why they did it, well, I suppose I made it difficult for them to lie about anything.”
Ana had tried to get the name of the perp, but Lady J had gotten stubborn on that point and wouldn’t tell. Admirable sense of honor, Ana supposed, but frustrating for the journalist trying to bring everything to light.
Every day, she spends between two and six hours at the VA, patiently arguing for her pension. She was declared dead in 1946, and there were no regulations in 1965 covering the surprising returns from the grave for which paras have become known of late. And, appallingly, in the subsequent 45 years, no one has cleared up her claim.
“Part of it is that I didn’t immediately deal with all the paperwork back in ‘65,” she explained as we drove out of the VA parking lot. The back of her van contains a clever platform bed and storage underneath and around it. There is no clutter. There is very little dust. Everything has its place and everything is in its place.
Make the point that she’s not a crazy old lady. Drive it home, Ana thought. Hell, she’s subjectively only about 70, for all that her records list her as 91.
“I was in shock,” she said. “There were big changes in 20 years. My parents were dead. I didn’t have anyone or anything.”
The marriage of Lady Justice to the Flag in 1966 was the subject of many magazine and tabloid photo spreads. It was a modern version of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, with the Flag rescuing her from the ice and bringing her back to life. She was young and pretty and still in culture shock when she was finally presented to the press corps, hand-in-hand with the craggily handsome Flag. She was a dazzling bride on the front cover of Time. They were an iconic young couple with babe in arms in the Ladies’ Home Journal article.
Ana smirked as she eyed that magazine cover. Lady J had told her, in confidence, that the Flag had been on the other side of the globe when her iceberg was discovered. But nobody wanted to hear about the Argentinian para team that had found her -- people wanted a romance.
“He started fooling around with some of the younger women on the Gold Stars team around, oh, ‘75,” Lady Justice said with a snort. “I made the mistake of asking him why he was staying so late, and out came the truth. He hated me for it, though he swore it was over, blah blah blah. And what could I do? We had three kids, I was pregnant again. My marriage was the only thing that made me a real person, since the government was still fooling around with my records.”
What did she do then?
“I moved into the guest room and let him have his affairs,” she said. She spends a lot of time shrugging when talking about her life. “We raised the kids. Well, I raised the kids, and he showed up occasionally for ‘quality time’. I resigned from the Gold Stars officially, and once all the kids were in school, I started going out solo for nights on the rooftops. It made me feel useful.”
She pulled the van into a trash-littered empty lot on the south side of town, near the river. Baffled, I followed her as she easily carried a 50-pound bag of cat food through the tall grass to a pair of clever gravity-drawn feeding stations. Several cats appeared and twined affectionately around her legs as she filled the stations. We sat down on the ground nearby. A slender tabby cat emerged shyly from under a rotted picket fence and crawled into her lap, purring loudly and rubbing his head against her fingers.
Lady Justice divorced the Flag in 1998, after the last of their children had graduated from college. “Not that I really needed to wait that long,” she said. “The kids were so glad to get out of the house. Mike ran away at 16. Janna went to live with her aunt when she was 13. Bob and Tony stuck it out until college, but both of them graduated high school early.”
Why did they want out so badly? Were she and the Flag fighting?
“Oh, sometimes,” she said. “But mostly we were on a slow burn. Toxic, you know. And teenagers need to be able to lie to their parents.” Lady Justice peered inside the ears of her feline friend, then continued to scratch his cheeks. “There were times -- like when Mike ran away -- I would’ve given up all my powers just to be a normal mother whose kids wouldn’t hate being around her.”
When I asked if she ever saw them now, she laughed ruefully and shook her head. “They all stay away from Wonder City. We talk on the phone sometimes. They send me money. They really wish I’d get an apartment and just fade away quietly. None of them got that power, so none of them understand.”
It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to picture what an entire apartment complex where no one could tell a lie might turn into after a few weeks. I asked her why she didn’t buy a house.
“Because he won everything in the divorce,” she said. “Everything. I was naive even in ‘98, thought that the fact that no one could lie in the courtroom meant I would get my half of things. My lawyer was smarter than me, knew it was going to go sour. I mean, of course his lawyer used it against me, like it was some kind of domestic abuse.”
Left destitute, alone, and without a government identity, she took her small savings and bought the van. For a while, she couch-surfed with friends.
“A couple of my friends got together and built the bed into the van,” she said as the tabby crept up into her arms. “So I wouldn’t have to spend my life as a guest. It’s good, you know, to have some nights where I don’t have to be ‘on,’ where someone else doesn’t have to watch what they’re saying all the time. I park down here, or out west of town, just get away from it all.”
Don’t her kids help her out at all?
“They’re kids,” she says, “for all that a couple of them are nearly middle-aged. They’re struggling like everyone else. A couple of them are in spandex, one has kids of his own. They send me money when they can. I put it aside, and it does for food and gas and keeping up the van. And, really, whatever else I want.” She smiles down at her cat friend, who began to snore in her arms. “There are people with less than I have.”
I went with her when she visited one of those people on the last day of our strange extended interview. We drove out to Fort Wilson. The guards at the gate recognized her ID -- she’d long ago managed to get a state driver’s license -- and my press pass got me in with her. She parked the van and we entered a low-slung building that seems to be a leftover quonset hut from the war, with an arched corrugated metal roof and cracked, filthy, plastic skylights. Inside were a few offices and an elevator. A guard stepped into the elevator with us, and we went down a very long way.
We disembarked in a concrete bunker with a low ceiling, armored doors, and more guards. They checked our IDs again, and meticulously opened a complex set of locks on one of the doors. I heard it hiss as it opened, and the guards gestured us inside.
It smelled of baby powder on the other side, and it was brightly lit, with pastel-painted drywall over the concrete and neat matching carpeting. The furniture was old, and showed signs of wear and tear -- stains, mended upholstery, repaired woodwork. And in a rocking chair that was the worst for the wear was a tiny, shrivelled, elderly woman in a faded blue housedress and matching slippers. Her white hair was yellowed and had been cut quite short, almost in the manner of a prisoner. Her dark eyes were vacant, focused on the middle distance, and she didn’t acknowledge our arrival.
Lady Justice waited for a moment, then said, gently, “Jane, honey, it’s Dottie.”
Jane Liberty’s gaze focused slowly, and she smiled like a child. “Oh, Dottie. Did you bring Janna with you again? That’s so nice.”
I took my cue from Lady Justice, smiled and nodded and said hello. I had expected many things, but not this.
Jane Liberty was one of the most powerful paranormals of World War II, arguably as powerful as our most impressive paras today, including the Ultimate. Her power was to borrow, or in some cases, take outright, other people’s powers. She only grew more effective as the war went by. After the war, someone decided to make her America’s defender in a different way by creating a role for her within the criminal justice system: permanently taking the powers of the worst para criminals. She carried out this role, which some people likened to that of a hangman, for decades, even after she was no longer an active hero.
And now, holes eaten in her mind by Alzheimer’s, she is a danger to herself and the entire world, so she spends her days and nights alone, imprisoned more surely than those she helped punish. Her conversation consists of asking about the weather, talking about the television programs that are vetted and piped in for her consumption, and wondering when the waiter was going to come take her order. It cycled every five minutes or so with almost no variation, no matter what Lady Justice said. Still, she was patently enthusiastic about her subject matter, particularly favoring football games. Key words were sometimes replaced with other words that made no sense; sometimes she forgot words completely and simply made noises. Getting back into her conversational groove usually fixed this for a little while.
At the end of our allotted hour, we all three rose and walked to the door. Lady Justice was answering her questions about the weather -- “Yes, they’re saying it will be a hot summer” -- and Jane Liberty threw herself into my arms, gripping me hard enough to bruise.
“They turn the lights out every night at eleven,” she told me with terrified intensity, “to let the apples out. I can’t sleep, listening to them walk around and talk among themselves. I can’t sleep anyway, I can’t understand what they’re saying. Make them stop turning the lights off, please?” she begged.
Lady Justice carefully pried the death-grip off my shoulders and hugged her. “You know I’ll talk to them, but they say that if they don’t turn the lights off right at eleven, you get upset, honey.”
Jane Liberty clung to Lady Justice like a child for several minutes, giving vent to a few terrible, wrenching wails before subsiding into sobs. Lady Justice walked her back to her rocking chair, and gently lowered her into it. I heard a hissing sound from somewhere near the ceiling, and Lady Justice, after patting Jane one last time, hurried back to the door and knocked on it.
As I looked back over my shoulder, I saw that the tranquilizing mist from the vents was lending a soft blur to the scene of the old lady in the rocking chair. It almost looked serene.
She wiped her eyes with her sleeve. It had been hard to let the guard close that door again. Ana couldn’t believe that Lady J did it every week.
Lady Justice didn’t refer to the visit after we left, and wouldn’t talk about it when I broached the subject. We parted soon after, with many thanks on my part. Still, the visit reminded me of the way our earlier conversation ended.
“I can’t really keep a pet in the van,” she said, and gestured expansively over the dozen or so animals that were crowding the feeding stations, “so these are my free-range kids. Sometimes, when one of them is sick, I do keep them in the van for a while, though. I take them to the vet, that sort of thing.” She rubbed the tabby’s ears lovingly. “Mostly, I keep them when they’re too old to handle the winters around here, or I keep them so they can die comfortable. I figure, if I do it for them, maybe someone will do it for me.”
Ana saved the file and spell-checked it quickly. The clock said she had five minutes to her midnight deadline when she hit “Send” on the email with the file attached.
She hadn’t expected to get the response that was waiting for her at 8 am: “Upstairs does not approve. Scrap it and write me 500 words on puppies or something by 3 pm. -- Geoff”
The rage tried to consume her attention, but she needed that paycheck to cover rent the next week, so 500 words on a local dog park it was. Fortunately, she’d been noodling around with the idea anyway and had already done a couple of interviews.
Later that night, though, she couldn’t stop thinking about Lady Justice and her daily pilgrimage to the VA. She thought about her sister, Sancia, who’d been trying to get the VA to acknowledge that perhaps her growing inability to walk might possibly have something to do with the shrapnel she carried in her knee. She thought about her father, who’d died because the VA had failed to diagnose his impending heart attack.
She thought about Jane Liberty, whose old age pension did not include windows.
She spent an hour rereading and editing the story, and then, with a final cut-and-paste and a hasty click of the “Submit” button, she posted it to her blog.
Her blog had been a minor “light” news destination on the Internet. That ended by the next afternoon.
So did her job, of course.
“Back so soon?” Lady Justice asked cheerfully from her favorite table at the Stars ‘n’ Garters.
Ana shrugged and settled into the chair across from the old lady. Flo, the waitress, automatically provided a cup of coffee and a glass of orange juice. “Just a social call.”
Lady J eyed her sharply and leaned back in her chair. “Did you lose your job over me?”
“Yes,” Ana said without intending to, and flushed with embarrassment. She suddenly understood why Lady J’s children had fled incontinently from this sometimes too-incisive woman.
Lady J nodded and sipped her coffee. “What are you going to do, then? Moneywise?”
“I... I think I’m going to try to make it freelance, for a while at least,” Ana said, running a hand through her hair. “I mean, the name ‘Ana Hernandez’ is getting around. I’ve quadrupled my blog traffic in three days, and it’s still rising. I just have to keep writing stuff that brings in the crowd. And see if I can get people to pay for it.”
Lady J nodded again. “You’re good. One of my friends showed me the article.” She looked over Ana’s shoulder. “What do you think, Madame? Will she do all right?”
Madame Destiny, in today’s flowing burgundy batik dress, plucked a card out of her deck and eyed it.
“Yes,” she said, and displayed the Two of Gold Stars, which showed Nox the Night-stalker, recognizable in his Shadow Suit, balancing on a tightrope between buildings. “But it’s going to be a scary ride for a while.”
Ana smiled. “Thanks, Madame.” She looked back at Lady J. “So what should I write about next?”
Lady Justice looked surprised, swept some straggling grey locks out of her face. “You’re asking me?”
“You know everyone in the para community,” Ana said. “And people are really hot to know about the status of veterans right now. People are starting to get the idea that maybe, possibly, veterans are being screwed.”
Lady J smiled ruefully. “We always have been, sweetie.” She pursed her lips. “Let me think about that.”
Flo showed up with a plate of scrambled eggs and pancakes for Ana, who looked puzzled. Flo winked. “On the house,” the waitress said, nodding, her beehive bowing to Ana alarmingly. “Ebb and I like good stories. Even if they don’t always have a happy ending.”
Ana dug into the meal. She glanced around at the regulars: Lady Justice, Madame Destiny, Damned Yankee, the Tinkerer. She thought about all the different lives they’d had, all the different people they’d been, and thought, laughing at herself, There’s a few million stories in Wonder City, and I’ve written down just one of them.
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