The Writing Traveler: Journey to a New Life by Bill Thomas

The Queen Mary arrives in New York. Photo: the U.S. Navy

When the young girl sailed away from the war-torn country of her homeland, she had no idea her life would be forever changed.  

She grew up and attended school during the war years, was exposed to the bombing of London, evacuated by train to live with relatives in Wales during part of her childhood, and had limited exposure to normal ways of life.  She would have a cultural awakening when she married Julius,  better known as Tex, an American serviceman stationed in England.  Growing up with shortages and rationing of food and supplies in the UK, her first travel to the US was an eye-opening adventure.

Audrey made her first trip to the states in 1957 when her husband “Tex” finished his three-year assignment in England. He would relocate to a military base near Blytheville, Arkansas.

Coming into port with her two young girls, and arriving in New York seven days later after sailing through some rough weather, she was to meet her waiting husband at the disembarking area.  A number of passengers on this trip had experienced seasickness.  Fortunately, Audrey and the girls did not suffer as did many others.  They fared well with the large swells and winds navigated by such a large ship.  The Queen Mary which has been used as a troop transport ship in World War II had now been refitted back to its original use as a passenger ship.

Apparently their port arrival had been delayed by the weather.  They were behind schedule.  With a late afternoon disembarkation from the Queen Mary, collecting luggage, for customs review and inspection, review of travel documents, it was a long day before Tex could begin his family trip out of the big city  Then it would take several days car travel to reach Blytheville.  He and Audrey decided to have a good night of rest before striking out on the following day.  They had not anticipated the delayed arrival so would look for a hotel room for the night before leaving New York City.

Traveling only a few miles from the disembarkation dock in New York City, and with lengthening shadows disappearing from the higher office buildings to the streets below, darkness would approach shortly.  Unfamiliar with the big city, Tex drove around a while before locating a hotel for Audrey and the two girls. They found a room in a small hotel, one that was probably located in a business district, per Audrey’s description of the area.

After settling into the hotel, it was time to eat, yet they had seen few restaurants open  at this time in the approaching evening.,  Perhaps the hotel restaurant in the business district was a little more pricey than that usually afforded by a military family in transit. Tex,.  Perhaps something else was in his mind.  With good foresight, he brought some food (snacks and other edibles) along for the trip, so they would at least have something for the night.  However, Tex had not planned on milk for the girls.  So, being the good father he was, he told Audrey he would find a store and buy some fresh milk.

Some two hours later after he departed for this “milk run”, he was still not back at the hotel where he left Audrey and the children..  Audrey began to have a bit of anxiety hoping nothing serious had happened to delay his return.  Now, another thirty minutes later, her mind was beginning to wander.  Had he had a car wreck,?  Was there a mechanical breakdown?  Was he in a hospital?  Was he in jail? Did he get robbed?   Worst of all, she recalled stories from several English friends about American servicemen who brought English brides to America only to leave them to fend for themselves  Did Tex desert her and the children in America,. Fortunately, before that splinter of doubt was allowed to fester in her mind, Tex appeared at the door with a milk bottle in hand.   Humbly, with humility, he apologized for a lengthy drive to find an open grocer and, then not recalling the way to get back to the hotel while he drove the streets trying to trace his way to return.

Although Audrey’s youngest girl, had no memory of the story when it first came to light, she offered her opinion Audrey would have let Tex know in no uncertain terms what she thought about him being so late, and deserting them for those anxious hours.  At any rate, the girls had their milk and a restful night of sleep to start the next day’s travel.  Traveling was to become better for the remainder of the trip with the past night’s anxiety placed in Audrey’s memory for years to come.

Audrey’s first real eye-opener in the new world, happened while they were traveling through Georgia.  Seeing several fruit stands along the way, Tex asked if Audrey would like to have some peaches, now in season.. They stopped at a roadside fruit stand.  Audrey inspected those beautiful Georgia peaches with wide eyes and a watering mouth.  Seeing more fresh fruit in one place than she had seen in her entire life during the war years and beyond, she pointed to the peaches and asked, “How much are these?”  The road stand operator quoted a price, and Audrey told him straightaway that was too much to pay for one peach.  The fruit stand operator laughed as he recognized Audrey’s strong English accent that gave her away as one who was “just off the boat.”   He explained, “Lady we don’t sell peaches one at a time;  the price is for the whole basket of peaches “.   Audrey’s eyes widened further as she heard the roadside vendor,  She quickly convinced, or possibly coerced Tex, to purchase an entire half-bushel basket.

Audrey and her family ate peaches while continuing on the way to Arkansas,  She was enthusiastic about those inexpensive peaches and proceeded to eat more than her fair share.   It wasn’t long before they discovered a new American definition of “pit stops” along the way.  Many stops at the service station were not for oil, gas, or water, but they certainly took advantage of the “services” offered.

Arriving in Blytheville, Tex and Audrey knew base housing was completely taken. They had to take what they could afford — perhaps for a long time until base housing became available.  They settled on a place Audrey thought to be “in the middle of nowhere” — a small house with a walk-in living area, two bedrooms, and a kitchen.  It likely was a former home for a tenant farmer,  Located “in the middle of nowhere”. it was surrounded by a crop field that had been recently harvested..  Audrey didn’t know what the crop was. She only knew she was in the middle of it.  Here she was to live with Tex, two children (Karen and Sheila) to tend.  And, to top it off;  there was no air-conditioning for the hot summers, and no buses to provide transportation to and from town, some two miles away..  To be sure, life in the US was a drastic change and, it was going to take time to adjust.  Audrey may have had second thoughts about going to the States, but to her credit, she never voiced looking back to regret the life she left when departing England.

Tex had not seen his relatives in many years and his family knew little, if anything,  about his English wife and their family.   Tex was not one to call or routinely write his family about what was going on in his life but did keep his Czech family utmost in his thoughts. It was time for Tex to take Audrey and his girls to meet the family, some 700 miles travel to Central Texas.  Most of the family were to be found near Moravia, a community settled by Czech families when many of them moved from Czechoslovakia in the 1840s.  Many of the Czech settlers still spoke only their native language and continued to live as if they were still in the “Old Country”.  Most were content raising cattle and farming. They were committed to their lifestyle and only a few of them worked at the city jobs or ventured very far elsewhere in search of their livelihood.  But, Tex was one of those who had volunteered for military service expecting to develop trade skills that would allow him to become a cook and manager of his own business when he retired..

Other than what she and her brother Norman experienced when evacuated to the countryside during the British war years, this would be Audrey’s first visit to a working farm.  She was amazed at the world of plenty, and the wealth of vegetables and farm animals that had been in short supply in England.

Other things were new as well.  Notably, outhouses were not known in England, and it was with a cautious curiosity she ventured to the country farm outhouse when asking “where’s the bathroom?” or “loo” (as the English might call it}.  With reluctance, she used the outhouse but was only when sure it was absolutely essential.

While visiting her newly introduced Mother-in-law, Willimenia, Audrey was asked “What would you like to for Sunday dinner?” She was offered fried chicken.

Audrey said, “That will be fine.”

“Come on outside with me and we’ll get a fresh chicken. “  Willimenia  related,

In the chicken pen outside, with Audrey looking on, Willimenia went to the pen and picked out a nice size chicken, caught it, grabbed its neck in a chokehold, and proceeded to wring its neck until its head popped off, leaving only a flopping body that would be plucked of feathers,  Cut up and fried, it would shortly become Sunday dinner.

Audrey was both amazed and horrified at the method of killing the chicken, but still ate a good Sunday fried chicken dinner while thinking,  I’m sure glad I didn’t ask for a nice steak – no telling what would have happened!   It was one of those things a city girl from the UK would not forget!.

Audrey would have many more experiences with moves her husband would make to different places while in the military service.   Those would not only relate to the States in the northern U.S. but to Spain as well.  Indeed Audrey would have a cultural awaking as she traveled.

Bill Thomas is a member of Silver Leos, an outstanding organization of writers living in and around Commerce, Texas.


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