Parma senior recalls when being an Army nurse meant powder, lipstick — and not getting pregnant
Parma resident Linda Pike wanted one thing more than anything else in the late 1960s: to lose 30 pounds so she could join the U.S. military. She spent six months in 1967 and 1968 working on that goal.
"I was eating some days a plate of broccoli for lunch," recalls Pike, who was 21 at the time. "Then I would go home, and I’d exercise with my sister in the basement before dinner. This one day we exercised after dinner. The next morning, I fell to my knees just getting out of bed."
A rueful smile appeared on Pike's face as she shared the story.
"I was probably a little bit too gung ho, but I wanted to get there."
“Getting there,” for Pike, specifically meant enlisting as an Army nurse — a long-held dream.
"I figured it was my duty to serve my country," she said. "My dad was a veteran, my grandfather was a veteran."
Stretch bands and leotards
Pike, now in her 70s, teamed up with her younger sister, Elaine, who also wanted to enlist. Their exercise guru of choice was Paige Palmer, who for decades had her own aerobics TV show on Cleveland's WEWS Channel 5.
Palmer's ultra-feminine ensemble of black leotard, bejeweled earrings and high heels belied the toughness of her workouts. Many of her sessions employed the use of stretch bands.
"You know, 'take your hips this way, bounce your hips that way,'" Pike said, describing movements a physical therapist years later told her could be harmful when done in excess.
After six months of sweat, sore legs and portion control, Pike dropped the necessary pounds. She was in, and so was her sister.
A reporter from the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper happened to be present for their weigh-in and enlistment. The moment was memorialized on the front page of the March 5, 1968, edition, complete with a photo and a punny headline: "With a will, there's a weigh, two Army-bound sisters say."
"I was so proud of that day," Pike said, gazing at the article and photo more than 50 years later.
Pike wore a yellow dress she had made herself.
"I had to take it in about three inches on each side because of the weight I'd lost," she chuckled. "Oh wow, that felt fantastic."
You're in the women's Army now
Within a matter of days, Pike said goodbye to family and friends in Ohio and headed to Fort McClellan, Alabama, home of the U.S. Women's Army Corps between 1943 and 1978.
The rules for Pike and other newly enlisted women didn't stop at maintaining their weight.
"You're in the women's Army, not the men's, and should always strive to look feminine," a training film from 1964 admonished. "Powder and lipstick are enough. Follow the natural shape of your lips."
Pike did follow the natural shape of her lips — and she followed all the other rules for women, too, including shaving her legs and wearing stockings.
She thrived as an Army nurse, winning two promotions in a year. She even fell in love and got married, to a male recruit who’d been one of her patients.
No pregnancy allowed
Then things changed.
"I had gone to the clinic one day because I wasn't feeling well and found out I was pregnant," Pike said.
Pike knew immediately she'd be dismissed from service.
"See, back then, they would let you get married as long as you didn't start a family," Pike said. "That was a no-no."
Seven years later, in 1976, the Army’s policy excluding pregnant women was dropped. But by then Pike was too far along in her new life as a mom and civilian nurse to consider re-enlisting.
Pike said she feels some anger about her forced withdrawal but also sees a silver lining. Her service was during the height of the Vietnam War.
"I said something to my son the other day," she said. "I would have volunteered to go to Vietnam. And who knows? I could have been dead."
Pike is now retired from a long career in nursing and lives not far from where she grew up in Parma with one of her children — not the child with whom she became pregnant during her time in the Army, but another, born a few years later.
When Pike looked at that front page newspaper article from that big day in 1968, she shook her head and choked back tears.
"I loved it. I really did," she said. "I'm just proud that we took that chance and we did it."
Ideastream Public Media's 'Sound of Us' tells stories of Northeast Ohioans — in their own voices. We work with individuals and communities. This series was produced in partnership with the Donna Smallwood Activities Center in Parma. Tell us your story!