Nowadays I take the warmth of my cosy bungalow for granted. But, when the boiler breaks down, I recall wartime winters. My winter’s tale also takes in two beaches in summer.
June 2, 1940. My father was killed at Dunkirk, helping his men into the rescue boats. My mother was left a widow with a five-year-old son and a falling-down cottage to manage.
She summoned the stoical determination required of women and tackled the shortages of all kinds. Fuel was the hardest, as our abode let in wind and wet through ill-fitting doors and windows. So we usually shared her bed and went about wearing most of our clothing. I didn’t realise at first that while I was at the village school she went without heating, saving the precious coal for when I was home.
There was a back-boiler behind the sitting-room fire, but we dared not stoke it enough to heat a bath, so had to wash and do the dishes in luke-warm water. The electricity frequently failed, too, blowing fuses, so we often spent the dark hours under the covers, where she told me fairy tales and stories about my dad, the hero who rode to her rescue and saved his men at Dunkirk.
The 1943-44 winter was not especially severe, but conditions in that decaying dwelling were pretty frigid. That surely contributed to my first bout of pneumonia.
Before that, however, there was an interlude of relief and renewed hope. The Yanks had arrived. They were going to help us beat Hitler, and meantime they brought candy, chewing-gum, nylon stockings and a welcome breezy cheer. And, oh joy! They laid on a kids’ Christmas party.
They collected us in jeeps and ran us to their Base, where there was a huge hut hung with decorations, and a tall tree with presents beneath for all. There was abundant food, with jelly, ice-cream and cake. Music came from a gramophone, and it was so warm we shed garments to dance and scamper about. Most important, everyone had a soldier of his or her own, helping us to drinks, filling our dishes, explaining the games. When tired we sat on our men’s knees and they talked in a fascinating accent, with new words, about their homes and families, and we told them about ours.
My man was called Steve. He came from Omaha, where his ‘pop’ had a ‘lumber yard’, where Steve meant to work again after the war. He learned that my mother was on her own and how we got by in the cold.
Then, replete and content, still warm when again fully clad, we were returned to our homes. The GIs shook the hands of our mothers, wished them a Happy Christmas and handed over sleepy children. I was last, and at our front-door Steve said, ‘Ma’am, I guess you’re a mite short for the fire. I’ll come by tomorrow, if that’s okay, and do something about that.’
Of course, being English, my mother said, ‘Oh, we mustn’t put you to any trouble.’
‘No trouble at all, ma’am. My pleasure. Should be able to scare up some lumber.’ And after another handshake, and a hearty hug and a kiss for me, he leaped into the throbbing jeep and was gone.
I was almost too weary to tell my mother of the wonders of the evening, as we shivered together, sharing the tepid hot water-bottle. But she was much moved, by my pleasure and the kindness we had received. She shed a few tears, the first time she had wept, to my knowledge, for a long time.
Next day, Sunday, we were both at home. My mother doubted that he would turn up. Maybe he was just being friendly. But I knew he would come and was watching out of the window when the jeep stopped in the lane. Holding packages, he got out and strode to the door, which I quickly opened.
‘Hey now, boy,’ he said. ‘Good day, ma’am, I thought you could use a few things. I know you folks are short on coffee, so here’s a tin, and this young feller could maybe handle a cookie.’
The kettle was always on the fire, and almost reverently my mother made coffee for the two of them, while I got to grips with a packet of chocolate biscuits, manna in the wilderness. The chilly room seemed warmer for this man’s energy. His smile lit up the gloom, and when the recurrent electricity problem was mentioned he said, ‘Well now, we can surely fix that. But first let’s get some lumber for this fire. Do you have an axe or a saw?’
My mother told him these items were in the lean-to at the back, and he said, ‘Let’s take a look, boy,’ and shortly I was outside, swathed in sweaters, gloved and wellingtoned, and we were peering into the dim interior of the shed. As well as the tools there were some old crates, lengths of timber and broken chairs.
‘Well,’ Steve said, ‘it sure ain’t prime lumber, but it’ll burn right enough.’
He applied that tremendous vigour to chopping and sawing, and in short order had a heap of combustibles to carry in. He loaded a little into my held-out arms, gathered a great heap against his chest and led the way back to the sitting room.
‘Just have to stack it,’ he announced, relieving me of my small bundle, and soon had a neat pile ready for use. ‘Okay,’ he said, ‘let’s get this fire going some,’ and used the poker with an abandon we could not have matched, and would not have risked for fear of consuming too much. Then he arranged some of the new material on the embers, and we watched with satisfaction the spread of the flames.
‘Should last a coupla days,’ he said. ‘But I’ll take the tools and raid the woods.’
At that point the lights flickered, and he continued, ‘Looks like loose cable. Let’s take a look.’ This was my first lesson in how practical the Americans were, able to repair wiring, service motors, mend anything. As Steve said, ‘If you live in the boondocks a hundred miles from town, you gotta know how to fix things.’
He and my mother drank up the coffee-pot, discussing the war and recent Allied successes. We were relishing the unaccustomed rise in temperature. Then he was gone, promising to return. This time my mother believed him.
Of course, much of the time he was busy with his military duties, which must have been onerous, because he was, as he explained, a First Sergeant, a rank conferring great responsibility. He pointed to the chevrons and ‘rockers’ on his sleeves. But at every opportunity he was with us, always bringing something to lighten our lives. Wire to restore the faulty connections, so there were no more outages, logs he’d gleaned from the local copses, so we were as warm as possible in that draughty den. He packed rags into the cracks round the windows, and, most wonderful of all, improvised chimney-sweeping gear. So, not only the sitting-room fire but that in my room drew properly. That would later be a lifesaver.
The food he brought to supplement the rations was sumptuous. Tins of: ham, sweet corn, peas, beef-stew, soups. Produce from the Base kitchen: bread, pretzels, bagels, cookies. There was also an apparently limitless supply of candy.
Of course, in a small village there was gossip. A woman alone being visited by a virile man, especially as it was rumoured the Americans were sex-mad. Eventually the vicar called and I was banished to my room. He left after a short time and was not seen again. When I asked my mother what he wanted she said, ‘To mind his own business.’ Then she laughed and added, ‘I gave him my old-fashioned look.’ I’m not quite sure what that was, but those who received it were generally chastened.
I can confirm that nothing untoward occurred between my mother and Steve. He referred to her always as ‘ma’am’, and, while he freely hugged and kissed me, there was no physical contact, other than hand-shakes, between them.
On the other hand, he said often we would definitely be going to see him in Omaha after the war. The prospect thrilled me and I assumed we would be staying there. I didn’t consciously think of him as becoming my dad, but the assumption was there in my soul. If I expressed anticipation of this reunion my mother said, ‘We’ll have to see,’ but she didn’t rule it out, and I was sure she liked and admired Steve.
Six or eight weeks passed, and, despite the increased warmth and extra nourishment, I contracted pneumonia. I was put to bed in my own room, in which the fire blazed high, thanks to Steve’s clearing the flue and his unending fuel supply. My fickle appetite was tempted by specially prepared dishes brought from the Base in an insulated container: egg-custards, omelettes, junkets.
Steve came as often as he could, sat on my bed, told me cowboy stories, and described the marvels of the State of Nebraska, which I would soon see for myself. Above all he exhorted me again and again, ‘Put up your dukes and fight this darn puny-ornery-onia. You gotta kick him outa bed, like we’re gonna hit old Hitler.’
I was seriously ill, and I’m certain he was the main cause of my pulling through, for, when the crisis came he stayed all night, lying beside me, holding me through the bedclothes, and murmuring in my ear, ‘Hold on, boy… ride that bronco… you can break him… don’t give in… you gotta stay in the saddle… keep a’going… all the way to Omaha… I’m a’holding you, pardner… you can make it… we’re gonna ride, side by side, way across Nebraska…’
My mother sat on the other side of the bed, bathing my forehead, saying ‘Be a soldier, like your daddy… be brave and strong, like him… do that for me, darling.’
Towards dawn I lost track entirely and have no further memory, until I woke around mid-day, exhausted and weak, and asked for a drink. I also asked for Steve, but of course he’d gone back to the Base. But my mother told me he was proud of me, because I had stood up like a man to that durned old puny-moaninga.
March and April passed as I recuperated, and at last I ventured out, holding Steve’s hand, into the spring, drinking the medicinal air, feeling the season strengthen my feeble legs, readier than ever for the new life in Omaha.
Well, you’ve probably guessed what followed. Steve’s unit moved to a marshalling area on the south coast, preparatory to the greatest armada ever seen crossing the English Channel, to take back mainland Europe. We all knew this was coming, that the gum-chewing, nylon-bestowing, good-humoured guys we had come to respect were going to do what they had crossed the Atlantic to do.
On June 6, 1944, Steve went to Omaha sure enough, but it was not in Nebraska, it was a beach in Normandy, and he died there. Though we didn’t get the news for some time, we had a sense that he was gone from us. I think he knew himself, too. That was why he was able to talk so freely about our joining him, after he and his compatriots had fixed Hitler with the same assurance they could fix anything.
So, that looks like the end of the story of the winter of 1943-44. Ending on another beach. But there’s another winter to record, too. For in the appalling cold and snow of January and February of 1947 I succumbed again to pneumonia, and this time there was no fuel reserve. The stockpile Steve had left, beside the hearth and in the shed, was long since used, and the coal-shortage continued, worsened by the weather.
My poor mother was wearied and worried to near prostration. How far she had believed we really would get to that special lumber-yard I’m not sure. But I think that she’d considered it possible, and, despite the premonition, had entertained a hope. So the news of Steve’s death had cast her down, and she found it hard to recover her spirits, even when the end of the war came. Now her son was a sick unto death again, and there was no support. Afterwards, to the end of her life, we never discussed this time. It was too deep to delve.
There I was, then, huddled under as many blankets as she could muster, with an inadequate fire, shivering and sweating, slipping from the saddle. The bronc was going to throw me, and my pardner was gone. Sometime in the early hours, I entered a new, detached state of being, able to survey the darkened room, aware that my mother, in overcoat and trousers, was slumped unconscious across the end of the bed.
Then the door crashed open against the wall, and Steve staggered in, bearing a huge load of logs, which he dropped with a thundering crash by the fireplace. He knelt, jabbed at the few glowing coals, and crammed the grate with wood up into the chimney. After that he sprang to his feet, turned and leaned over me. ‘Hey now, boy!’ he bellowed. ‘What’s this? You quitting the range? Did I give you furlough? Hell no! Beg pardon, ma’am. You stay on that pony and keep a’riding till I tell you to stop. Your mom needs you to keep a’going, keep a’going along the trail.’
The fire blazed up and lit the room in leaping light. A delicious lassitude possessed me and I felt my face break into a great grin. I was ready to spring out of bed and sprint all the way to Omaha. Steve knew this, I could see, and he whispered, his voice quietening into eventual silence, ‘Hold hard, boy. First you gotta rest up and have some chow, and then, later, and then later…’
I didn’t see him go. I was asleep. When I woke some hours later, my mother was sitting up, yawning, shivering and stretching. The fire was out, there was nothing to feed it with and the room was icy. But I was warm and ready to eat, even if it wasn’t jelly or junket.
I understood I should say nothing about the night, and I didn’t, until my mother was herself in bed and we knew it was the last time we would be together. Then I said, ‘You know when I had that second go of pneumonia, the last night before I began to get better?’
‘I know,’ she said.
‘You know, Steve came back, to get me through.’
‘I know,’ she said.
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