Sally and I just adore our historical reads and this one we just loved! Falling in love during WWII may have been a very short lived affair, but this made Frankie’s story all the more poignant. A time that shows us how important it is to live and love for today as tomorrow is never guaranteed.
R. A. Thorn is also shares with us how and why a short story turned out to be something a lot longer than originally planned. She is also giving away two ebook copies of Untethered to two lucky winners. What are you waiting for? Check out the post……..
“Untethered” began life as a short story, and if I had known I was going to be turning it into a full-length novel, I probably would never have picked World War II, the Army Air Forces, and fighter pilots as my subject matter. Admittedly, I have a serious uniform kink, but all of the military details about the planes and battles are generally not my cup of tea. I’m far more interested in the decades before the war, the 1920s and 1930s. However, I had once written a story about pilots in the Royal Air Force during the 1940 Battle of Britain and figured I knew enough to handle a short story about American pilots and wouldn’t have to do too much extra research. Fast forward a few months and the word count was expanding rapidly as were the numbers of books on my shelves as I became intimately familiar with things like the “Split S,” “Gosport tubes,” and the finicky coolant system of the P-51.
But actually I’m glad things turned out as they did. WWII is a fascinating period in many respects because even as it caused destruction and death on a massive scale, the war catalyzed tremendous social and cultural transformations in the U.S. In terms of queer history, mobilization brought together millions of men and women into the Armed Forces and enabled the formation of a queer community that was national—and international—in scope. At the same time, the army and navy were devoting increasing resources to trying to keep homosexuals out of their ranks. Before WWII, the army and navy had prosecuted men for sodomy, but WWII was the first time they started targeting people for having a homosexual identity. Enforcement was very uneven, though. So queer men and women encountered both harassment and prosecution while also finding opportunities to form friendships and romantic relationships. With the longer narrative, I was able to explore some of these changes through the protagonist, Frankie, as he discovers this community and finds love even as he grapples with the traumas of war.
The WWII Armed Forces are also an interesting setting because so much of their internal culture carried an erotic subtext or could be repurposed by gay men for their own ends. An example of this would be the sentimental song “My Buddy,” originally written in 1922 but which enjoyed a resurgence of popularity during the war. It includes such lyrics as “Nights are long since you went away; I think about you all through the day” and “Miss your voice, the touch of your hand; Just long to know that you understand.” For a man in the Armed Forces to have a good “buddy” like this was considered normal by society at large. For gay men, it offered a way to be in a relationship that was sanctioned by society, but which they could interpret as they wished. Many army psychiatrists recognized the eroticism in the concept but couldn’t very well ban a Top Ten hit from the radio.
So I ended up enjoying my exploration of the time period, although the most challenging aspect remained figuring out all of the details related to pilot training, daily life on airbases, and the missions. To pin those down I relied on memoirs written by veterans, many of which described the planes, their training, and their missions in great depth and also provided wonderful little gems, like the veteran who remembered how on his airbase in Britain they always had to ride bicycles to the nearest pub and on the way back would drunkenly meander into ditches and duck ponds. These memoirs were also helpful in picking up some of the slang, such as saying that bombers “dropped their eggs” or the penchant for affixing the appellation “Foggy” to every weather officer.
Would I revisit the WWII era? Possibly. Particularly if ailerons and rudders are not involved. But even if I never do go back, I’m glad I got to spend a bit of time there with Frankie.
Untethered by R. A. Thorn
Author: R. A. Thorn
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Released: 6th April 2015
Genre: M/M (historical)
Determined to help the war effort, Frankie Norris joins the US Air Force in 1943. Braving intimidating drill sergeants and unending marches, Frankie struggles to hide his secret—he’s queer. But having passed basic training, he’s not going to risk an undesirable discharge or any of his fellow recruits finding out. Then he receives word that he’s been granted a position flying the plane he loves, the P-51 Mustang.
But as Frankie finds his wings in the sky, feelings of isolation may keep him grounded. Slowly making friends among his squadron, Frankie realizes he may not be as alone or as abnormal as he thinks. Other queer men have formed a community in the Armed Forces to offer support. Then Frankie meets his crew chief, Jim Morrow. Initially antagonistic, they slowly become friends and a mutual attraction develops as they join the Eighth Air Force in Britain. Confessing their feelings, snatching what time they can together, and wary of discovery, Frankie and Jim are there for each other through dangerous missions and the loss of friends. It’s a long war with enemies on both sides. All they can hope for is to survive long enough for a chance at something more.
Sally’s and Mark’s Review
Mark: Frankie joins the US Air Force as flying is everything to him. Although he has a secret and that secret could land him in hot water. Reading about Frankie’s fear of being discovered starting with the medical check up and then through his training brought all those fears back to me when I was in the RAF. Frankie has to hide his true identity from everyone as this would only lead to a whole heap of trouble. I loved the way that R.A. Thorn portrays this, the crush he has on his first best friend he makes but can’t tell anyone the way he feels. He almost gives up on the fact that he will be able to find what he craves and therefore has to live a clandestine life. However, there are also others like himself and through coded language finds the friends he needs to make his existence in the USAF more bearable. Again I found this was expertly written,all those little codes, looks and nuances. Giving away what is necessary but never stating the obvious just in case you have judged the situation wrongly. What did you think to Frankie’s situation, Sally?
Sally: I was very impressed with that whole section. I found it very interesting historically, and although there was a lot of information I never felt that it was being dumped on me. The author uses Frankie’s unfamiliarity with the situation as a way of informing the reader. We discovered everything along with him, both as he moved from place to place within the military system and as his awareness increases of himself and his place in the little gay microcosm within his unit. The thing that came through very strongly for me was the claustrophobia of having to be continually on guard, the constant monitoring of one’s own behaviour, the nervousness and uncertainty. I also loved that moment of freedom Frankie feels when he meets Ed and realises that he’s not alone. I really enjoyed Ed’s function as a mentor to open Frankie’s eyes to the options without actually pushing him toward any of them. He’s not a predator, which was refreshing, and set Frankie up nicely for the next step in his romantic story.
Mark: When Frankie meets Jim his crew chief then there is definitely no love at first sight. I loved the way that Jim was rather indifferent to Frankie as the pilot, the most important thing being the plane that he so lovingly cares for. Here R.A. Thorn sets the tone perfectly with all the usual ribbing and banter that goes on, although under all this mockery there is a deep respect and camaraderie that in Frankie’s and Jim’s case soons develops into something a lot deeper. I loved reading the dialogues between these two. I was kept holding my breath on who would make the first move and admit the attraction they had for each other. Again not an easy thing to do, but once that step was made then a love developed that was deeper than anything else.
Sally: I liked Jim a lot. I prefer stories where the characters have to get to know and appreciate each other’s good qualities before falling desperately in love and Jim really did test Frankie’s patience. I loved his confidence and competence - I could see he had really earned his position. Pilots get all the glamour but it’s men like Jim who keep them flying and his devotion to the plane really struck a chord with me. However, I found that the story hit a flat patch. I think this is just me. Up to this point I’d really enjoyed the balance between the two stories - the war time plot and Frankie’s journey as a gay man - but here the seesaw fell very heavily in Jim’s direction. For several pages all that seemed to be happening was Frankie angsting about Jim. I was just beginning to find it tedious when I recalled that Frankie was a teenager and remembered weeks when my own teens could think and talk about nothing but their current crush, and I smiled and nodded and said “Oh I see what you did there”. But I was very glad when the story picked up again.
Mark: Once Frankie and Jim admit their feelings to each other the hardest part is keeping something like this under wraps from everyone. This was excruciating to read the effort this takes, but Jim is the more experienced as it turns out and Frankie falls for Jim hard. This book is not packed with huge amounts of sex. That I also found realistic as they are in the middle of fighting a war, living together with others in barracks in close quarters, there wouldn’t have been much time for any hanky-panky believe you me, let alone when you need to find time so others would not see what was going on. However, when they are together it is all the more sweeter and poignant due to it.
Sally: I think it was the single weekend they managed to spend together - two short days in a run down hotel in London - that broke my heart the most. Snatched time that they both knew could be all they’d ever have, because on the next mission it could be all over. Not that they were safe in the hotel. By this time in 1944 London was under constant attack from V-1 doodlebugs, possibly V-2s as well if the visit was after September. Maybe you can put me right on that, Mark? I’m not quite sure of the date in the book but I got the impression that it was autumn. Oh and just a word about the sex - I loved that it wasn’t all blinding orgasms and the bestest thing ever. I actually gave a little cheer about one particular thing. No spoilers :) Realistic and well-balanced describes this book throughout.
Mark: You’re absolutely right Sally, London was well under attack from the V2s by that time. The first V2 attack on London was actually September 7th 1944. The whole historical part of this book was brilliantly researched and written. What I also liked tremendously was that Frankie is not your typical hero who is afraid of nothing. Frankie is your average guy doing very extraordinary things due to the war. You feel his fear of getting in the cockpit for each mission, experience his nightmares of getting shot out of the air, sense his questioning about the whole point of it, his anguish when losing his comrades. This I found to be so well done and added for me a real feel to the book that had me hoping upon hope that Frankie and Jim would make it, survive and be able to have their HEA in some form that this time would allow for.
Sally: The detailing of how the constant pressure wears away Frankie’s confidence was beautifully done. In those days PTSD was not acknowledged. It was called shell shock or neurasthenia and sufferers were treated shamefully by their units, considering them cowards. This just increases Frankie’s anxiety. I fail to see how any young man - he’s barely out of childhood, poor dab - could continue to function normally with constant broken nights, the stresses of combat, seeing things that nobody should ever have to see, the terror of letting his unit down, on top of the very real knowledge of the awful things that could happen to him, both in combat or if he gives in to his fears and collapses on the base. Frankie can visualise the consequences of failure so clearly that it’s as real to him as what is actually happening. That he continues to fly is a testament to his courage and to that of all those other young men who went up night after night, knowing what they would be facing. I also liked that there was no quick fix for his problems. Again, a very realistic and sensible portrayal of Frankie’s situation. This has to be one of the best WW2 books I’ve read in this genre. In fact, I’d put it up there with some of H E Bates work and there’s no higher praise than that.
Mark: All in all a superb M/M story set in WWII and portrays the love, anguish and fears of the men and women who did so many brave things without considering themselves as courageous at all. But just doing what needed to be done and at a time when finding love was even more important I guess then it ever was or has been.
THE DOCTOR pressed his stethoscope to Frankie’s chest and ordered him to take a deep breath. Frankie did so, wishing they would turn up the heat a little in the exam room. He had goose bumps all over his arms.
“Now let it out,” the doctor said, and Frankie expelled the air from his lungs. “Good.”
The doctor looped the stethoscope back around his neck and picked up a tongue depressor from the metal cart hosting all his instruments. He held the wooden stick poised between his fingers, like a conductor’s baton. “Open up.”
Frankie stared at the ceiling as the doctor pressed down on his tongue, peering into his throat with a little light. He had already had a physical when he registered at his local draft board, but the officials seemed intent on making sure no inferior specimens slipped past their screenings. The Army Air Forces only took the best.
The doctor stepped back, then made a note on his chart. “You could stand to gain a little weight, son, but otherwise you’re in good form. I just have a few questions on your mental state.” He gave Frankie a reassuring smile.
Frankie returned it weakly.
“You’re from Idaho, correct?” the doctor asked.
“Yes, sir. A little town not far from Pocatello.”
Perhaps sensing Frankie’s nervousness, the doctor smiled again, pen relaxing in his fingers. “How do you like California?”
“It’s swell, sir. A lot warmer than back home.”
The doctor chuckled. “I imagine so. And how have you been feeling? Not depressed? Not homesick?”
“No, sir.” Frankie had never been out of Idaho—trips to Boise had been his biggest excitement, but the war changed a lot of things. Now here he was in Santa Ana, California, at an Army airbase, hundreds of miles from his dad’s ranch in Idaho. And if all went well, soon he’d be up in the sky piloting a fighter plane over Germany or Italy or maybe even the tiny islands in the Pacific that loomed large in the news reports.
“Good, good.” The doctor made another note on his chart. “Are you ever bothered by nervousness?”
“Uh, no.” Frankie tried to ignore his pounding heart. He wasn’t nervous exactly, but he didn’t like answering all these questions.
“Do you often have nightmares?”
“Not often, I guess. Once in a while.”
The doctor nodded. “Do you have siblings?”
“Yes. Two older sisters and a younger brother.” It would be tough for his parents with only Colin left to help manage the ranch, since Helen and June were both married and no longer lived at home. They’d have to hire a few more hands to look after the sheep, and money was always tight. But neither his mother nor father had said a word against his enlisting. “Proud of you, son,” his father had said, clapping him on the shoulder when Frankie told them he’d joined the Air Forces.
“And you get along with your siblings?” the doctor persisted.
“Well… yes,” he said haltingly, thinking of the many shouting matches with his sisters and the pranks he had pulled on his brother.
The doctor laughed. “I have a brother myself. It’s all good, clean fun.” He gave Frankie another smile. “Your parents are alive?”
“Do you like girls?”
“Have you ever engaged in sexual intercourse?”
Oh God. Frankie really wished he could put his clothes back on. “Um, no.”
The doctor gave him a stern look. “You’ll be hearing a lecture this week on the menace of venereal disease. I want you to promise you’ll pay attention.”
“Excellent.” The doctor smiled again and scratched his signature onto a form. “Now get dressed and move along. I’ve got a long line waiting out there. Take this to the office at the end of the hall.”
“Yes, sir.” Frankie hopped off the exam table. He dressed quickly, still in his civvies but one step closer to a uniform.
Out in the hall, he walked past the crowd waiting to be examined, and joined the next line of guys in front of the room the doctor had directed him toward. So far, the Army had consisted of one long line after another.
“Think we’ve been prodded and poked enough?” the guy in front of him said.
Frankie shoved his hands into his pockets. “More than enough.”
“No arguments from me. They even check to see if you’re a fairy, sticking that thing down your throat. I choked, of course,” the guy added. Then, seeing Frankie’s look of confusion, he explained, “The tongue depressor. A fag wouldn’t choke, see? They’re used to sucking on things.”
The guy laughed, and Frankie mustered a smile in return, but his palms started sweating. He’d thought it had been only the one question: Do you like girls? But if it had been more—and, oh Christ, he hadn’t gagged. He’d just sat there with the tongue depressor in his mouth. But the doctor hadn’t said anything.
Frankie swallowed, mouth dry, glancing down the corridor. Maybe the doctor would tell the MPs first, just in case Frankie tried to make any trouble. Maybe any second now they’d be coming to arrest him.
“I’m Roy, by the way,” the guy said.
“Frankie,” he replied. Clearing his throat, he looked back over his shoulder again.
Roy stretched and bounced on his toes. “So when do you reckon the first dance is going to be held? Because the girls back in my hometown were khaki-whacky—wouldn’t look at anyone who wasn’t in uniform. But if you were….” He whistled. “I imagine the gals out here aren’t much different.”
Frankie nodded vaguely. What should he do if they did arrest him? God, what would he say to his parents if he got sent back home?
“I was reading the paper today,” Roy continued, unperturbed by Frankie’s silence and leaping to a new subject like a magpie spotting bugs in the grass, “and what I want to know is whose idea it was to make Italy so blamed long? We invade in September, and now it’s November and we’re still inching our way up toward Rome. At this rate it will be after Christmas before we’ve driven the Nazis out. And if they’re putting up this much of a fight now, imagine what taking France is going to be like.”
The line moved forward, and Roy took a step, still talking. “The Pope’s there, right? So you’d think God would’ve planned things a little better, that’s all I’m saying.” He frowned and took a closer look at Frankie. “You okay? Granted, it wasn’t the funniest joke, but usually people crack a smile at least.”
“I’m fine. Just… sick of waiting in lines.” Frankie was trying to remember the doctor’s tone of voice. Had it changed? Had he been lying when he said Frankie checked out?
“Me too. Me too.” Roy suddenly yelled over Frankie’s head, “Hey, George! Don’t tell me they let a wimp like you pass the physical.”
A guy with red hair who had just joined their line gave him the middle finger.
Roy chuckled. “That’s George. Met him this morning on the train here. Say, you got a smoke?”
Frankie shook his head. “Sorry.” He took a deep breath, trying to calm his racing heart. Maybe Roy had just been joking about the tongue depressor.
Roy shrugged and took another step forward. “I’ll mooch some off George if this line ever hurries up and moves. What are they doing up there? Asking everyone to recite their life history or something?”
Frankie kept anxiously scanning the uniformed personnel who surrounded them. But none ever singled him out, and gradually he began to relax.
Still, he wished he had just gagged on that damn stick. It wasn’t like he’d ever sucked a cock before.
Though he’d wanted to plenty of times.
Yeah, that was the kicker.
He wanted to.
When he went to enlist two days after his eighteenth birthday, he’d been nervous as hell, sure the draft board would somehow know he was queer, even though they were all locals, men Frankie had been acquainted with his whole life. But no flags had been raised. Today he’d thought he was in the clear once he lied and said he liked girls. It wasn’t even really lying, because he did like girls, just not like that.
He had to be more careful. The last thing he wanted was to be slapped with an undesirable discharge and sent home. He would never be able to face his mother—his father. Christ, it would be a disaster. Besides, he wanted to fight and do his part in this war.
The line inched forward. Frankie finally drew close enough to see they were issuing uniforms and having problems finding the right sizes. At last it was his turn, and he collected the stack of olive drab fabric the harassed clerk handed to him. Taking a deep breath, he headed off in the direction of the barracks. No one shouted at him to stop. No posse of stern MPs surrounded him. He’d made it. From here on out, he’d concentrate on his training and keep his guard up. No one would ever have to know.
THE BARRACKS looked like they had been hastily constructed at the beginning of the war during the rapid mobilization that followed Pearl Harbor. Now, almost two years later, the paint was beginning to fade, and Frankie discovered a loose board by his bunk that let in a cold draft. After depositing his stuff on the scratchy blanket, Frankie focused on his bunkmate, who, with studied care, was tacking the photo of a girl up onto the wall. He was a little on the short side, muscular, and had pretty blue eyes, a lighter color than Frankie’s.
Frankie stuck out his hand. “I’m Frankie Norris. That your gal?”
“Pete Norwood.” He shook Frankie’s hand. “And yes, this is Betty. She’s a looker, ain’t she?”
“Sure is.” It was true. Betty had curly hair and a real nice smile. Frankie shifted, feeling nervous again. Maybe he should clip some girl’s photo out of a magazine and pretend she was his girlfriend. Too bad he’d never gotten a photo of Ruth Baxter, the girl he’d dated briefly back in high school in an attempt to prove he was just like all the other guys.
“We’re going to get married soon as this war is over.” Pete smoothed the picture with his thumb.
Frankie nodded and tried to change the subject before Pete started asking him about his own nonexistent marriage plans. “Where are you from?”
“Yeah?” Frankie grinned. “I’m from a little town east of Pocatello. What are the odds, two boys from Idaho landing together?”
Pete laughed. “Pretty long, I’d say. So, what made you pick the Air Forces?”
Nerves beginning to dissipate, Frankie hopped onto his bunk and leaned back, staring at the ceiling. Sure felt nice to be off his feet after standing in all those lines. “I’ve wanted to fly ever since fifth grade, when my parents took us to an air show. Never thought I would, though, until the war. I thought I’d have to settle for motorcycles or breaking broncs.”
“Daredevil, huh?” Pete fished a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and offered one to Frankie.
“Thanks.” His mother had never let him smoke near the house, but he had sometimes snuck off after school with his friend David to have a purloined cigarette behind the gym. “I guess maybe I am a daredevil. Mostly I just like things that go really fast,” he added with a grin.
“I heard they start you out in dinky little planes that got left behind in the last war.”
Frankie shrugged. “They’ll still be planes.”
Pete stretched out too, although a good inch or two remained between his feet and the end of the mattress. That was another of Frankie’s worries—that he would prove too tall to fit comfortably in the cockpit. “Seems like you started growing when you turned thirteen and never stopped,” his mother always said, reaching up to pat his cheek and then making him bend down so she could plop a kiss on his forehead.
“I’ve never flown before, either,” Pete continued. “I’m kinda—well, I hope I don’t get airsick on my first flight.”
“I’ve heard most people get over it, if you do.”
“Maybe.” Pete sighed. “Wouldn’t be surprised if I end up in the infantry, though.”
Frankie’s best friend, David, had gone into the infantry. They’d enlisted together three weeks ago on October 5, two days after Frankie’s eighteenth birthday and about a month after David’s. “I could never cut it as a pilot, Frankie,” David had said when Frankie protested his choice yet again. “You know I couldn’t, not with the way I get nervous just climbing up a ladder. ’Sides, I’ll get over there real soon—sooner than you will. I’ll take care of the Nazis and Japs while you’re still stuck in your fancy flying school.”
He’d smiled, and it had been the first real smile he’d given Frankie since the previous night, just before Frankie had summoned the nerve to confess he was queer, and David had gone horribly silent.
“You don’t like girls?” David repeated hesitantly, staring at Frankie.
“That’s what I just said.” His heart was going a mile a minute, his mouth dry.
“You mean you want to….” David trailed off, and there was a full minute of awkward silence.
Frankie didn’t know where to look, so he settled for pressing his fork in the strawberry pie crumbs on his plate. His ma had made it for them, as this was their last night home.
“So you never guessed?” Frankie asked at last.
David shrugged unhappily. “Maybe. I don’t know.” He scowled. “Why’d you have to bring it up now, for Christ’s sake?”
Frankie pressed his fork down harder. “Anything can happen in a war, right? And I… wanted you to know.” Sighing, he set the fork down and crossed his arms. “It felt wrong to keep lying to you.”
“Do your parents know?”
Frankie shook his head. “You won’t tell them?”
“Of course not.” David had fallen silent again and then finally said he needed to get back home because the train was leaving early the next day.
Frankie had nodded and watched him go.
So when David had smiled at him and made a joke the next day, Frankie had been so relieved, thinking maybe things were right between them again. “Yeah, well, you just be careful,” he had told David, raising his voice over the sound of a train arriving at the station. “And write to your ma ’cause you know she’ll worry.” David was terrible at keeping in touch. One summer he’d gone off to stay with an uncle in Montana, and Frankie had heard from him a grand total of once in three months. “She can let my mother know, and then she can let me know, so I can rest easy that you haven’t gotten your ugly mug blown up.” Then he had tugged David into a hug, there on the platform waiting for the trains that would take David one way and Frankie another.
David had gone stiff and still. Frankie released him quickly, his face burning.
“Sorry,” he muttered.
David had shrugged and not said anything. Three minutes later he was on the train, leaving Frankie with a sour taste in his mouth and a bitter regret that he had ever told David the truth. Guess he should be grateful David hadn’t just slugged him and spit in his face.
But there was nothing he could do about David now. So he said to Pete, “We’ll get through the training. We won’t end up in the infantry, stuck in the mud in a trench somewhere.”
“Promise?” Pete gave him a smile, those blue eyes crinkling in the corners.
Frankie nodded, taking in his fill of that smile. He only realized he was staring when Pete’s expression grew puzzled. “What is it?”
Frankie cleared his throat and looked away. “Nothing.” Shit. He could not develop a crush on Pete. There was no way that would end well.
Pete shrugged, stubbed out his cigarette, and flopped back down. “I’m going to rest while I can, seeing as it’s probably the last time we’ll get some peace and quiet before we have a sergeant breathing down our necks and yelling for us to march faster.”
“You call this peace and quiet?” Frankie said, staring around at the chaos of men jostling for spaces in the barracks and stowing their gear.
“In two days’ time, when we’re toiling in the hot sun, this will look like paradise,” Pete said, covering his eyes with an arm.
Meet R. A. Thorn
R.A. Thorn lives in northern California, although her heart remains in the Colorado mountains. She enjoys exploring the strange and varied paths of history whether in her fiction writing or more scholarly pursuits. In her writing she seeks to capture the elusive feeling of a particular historical period and the way its people thought and felt. Many days find her sequestered in the archives or pursuing the odd historical fact, but when chance allows she likes to escape and go hiking. She is perhaps too fond of footnotes and dark chocolate and looks forward to the day when she can get a dog.
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