MEMORIES OF A WAR BRIDE
It was a cold dawn, that March 8, 1946. The light was just beginning to come up from above the horizon. Most of the ship's passengers had already crowded onto the top deck and were looking at the new day appearing.
We were in a strange country but somehow to me it didn't seem foreign. I felt that I knew it so well. There was a toothpaste sold then in England in the mid-40's, I believe the manufacturer was Gibb's? I remember fairy castles decorating the tins. To me, the emerging grey skyscrapers of New York were my childhood castles. They were not unknown shapes but familiar objects not to be feared. Perhaps all the movies I had seen about this fabulous country also helped me at that moment. The Statue of Liberty welcomed this cargo of war brides eagerly waiting to be reunited with their soldier husbands.
I had first met my husband on Christmas Eve, 1943. I was a Wren stationed at Portkil on the river Clyde, opposite to Greenock and Gourock, well known Scottish ports. There were only eight of us in our unit, some living in a small house commandeered by the Navy for the duration of the war while the others slept in a Quonset hut across the path. That particular holiday, most of the girls had gone home to celebrate Christmas. I was on duty with another young woman called Ruth. We didn't have much to do because it was Christmas and were delighted to get a phone call from a friend in the village, asking us if we would like to entertain two young American officers who were all alone, not knowing what to do on Christmas Eve. Well, we said, we would try. And that's how I began my romance!
Ruth and I scurried around and dressed up. I borrowed a long gown from her, (she lived nearby in Helensburgh and kept quite a few clothes at the house), and we were ready at 7:00pm when the officers rang the door bell. John and I paired off, and so did Ruth and Jack, both being married. We went to the dance in the village hall and had a great time. For the next six weeks, while John was on location nearby, we saw each other almost every night. When he left to go down south to prepare for the D-Day invasion, we knew that this was the real thing. We corresponded for the next 16 months until he returned to England in July of 1945 from Czechoslovakia where he had been on occupation duty. We were married on July 14, and had a week's honeymoon in Kent and up in Manchester, my home town. John returned to Europe, expecting to go on to Japan but VEJday occurred and
he was sent back to the States. And now here I was, eight months after our brief honeymoon, landing in his country and a whole new world.
After the fantasy of the skyscrapers and the Statue of Liberty, the brides were soon brought back to earth - there seemed to be swarms of grumpy officials checking passports, medical reports, luggage and, above all, the name of a husband or whoever was going to meet you at the ship. No one was allowed to leave until such a person had arrived. Holding a small suitcase, (all other luggage was sent to a final destination by the U.S. Army) I looked over the ship rail. There was a man in a civilian suit and a long coat looking up at the ship. I heard the name, Mrs. John Farley, and someone beckoned me to walk down the gangway.
Guess what, I didn't recognize my husband. After all, I hadn't seen him in a long time and had only known him in uniform. This man in civvies was a stranger. When he spoke and smilingly said, Hi, darling, then I knew I had been handed over to the right ex-lieutenant.
We spent the first week in a small hotel off Broadway. I don't think it is there anymore. John took me to the big store, Macy's, to buy lighter clothing. Although it was only early March, New York was having a heat wave, 80 degrees. We went to Radio Music City Hall and saw the big show. I remember the movie was a Clark Gable/Greer Garson comedy about advertising people. We ate out and I discovered the strange foods and the enormous quantities of it all. Such a change from war torn Britain and the rationing. John's sister and husband drove out from New Jersey to meet me, and they took us back to their home. My eyes were dazzled with the beautiful decor in the house and the lavish meals and drinks. We ended up spending eight months with them while we looked for an apartment, a luxury item even in the U.S. So many servicemen had returned and needed homes for themselves and families that housing was at a premium.
When I look back now after nearly 50 years residence in the U.S., I realize I went through three emotional stages in those early years. To begin with, everything was fairyland. After six years of blackout and rationing in Britain, to see so many lights and so much food in the markets was unbelievable. I truly gorged myself with my eyes and my stomach I learned to eat hamburgers, hot dogs, steaks and banana splits with no worry about calories or cholesterol. Those days were still to come. To walk around a well stocked department store buying decent bras and nylons was as great as eating those delicious Whitman candies. There were so many cars on the roads and such big ones. My new relatives were very kind and went out of their way to buy me presents or gifts for my family back home. Strangers seemed to be fascinated by my accent and always asked about the Royal Family and, in the same breath, asked me if I knew so-and-so in a certain town. Their relatives, no doubt, but even a small country like Britain is too big for such close acquaintances.
We had our first child 13 months after I arrived in the U.S. and, then, images changed. Perhaps I was homesick and needed my own mother to help out (although John's mother did her best), but I felt a repulsion to almost everything American. Except my husband America seemed to be a greedy, overbearing place. There was just too much - food, drink, clothing, cars, you name it. They didn't seem to realize the rest of the world was suffering still. Bombed out cities and towns, with rationing in full force. Oh yes, the Americans had had rationing and how they loved to moan about it - no gas for their cars on some days, not as much meat as they had wanted. I felt stifled by this display of bad taste and unfeeling.
Our second child, a daughter, was born in 1949. The next year I sailed on the Britannic to Liverpool with both children to stay with my mother for the summer months. My father had died in late '46, something I hadn't been able to believe until I reached home. It was only after that visit I felt that I was ready to become an American and live in the States. My attitudes changed and I saw more clearly that I couldn't blame my new friends for their country's richness of material wealth. I could understand the feelings of parents not wanting their sons to fight on some foreign shore, so many thousands of miles away. After all, many Americans had left Europe or Asia in the last century for a better world, and they truly believed they had found it in this land. I have settled for a happy medium, proud to be of British heritage and proud to be an American, bringing up children and grandchildren to be proud also of their double inheritance.
P. Bridgen Farley 680 Route 15 South Lake Hopatcong, NJ 07849