Every year in May when V-E Day is observed, I think of my childhood years in wartime London, England. I remember a gathering of parents and children in the street. My younger brother and I were among them. I was 4. All of the children were hustled into a truck that had benches on each side and canvas across the back.
Did anyone tell us why we were being sent away? I don’t recall. All I remember is that my father told me, “Take care of Jimmy,” and I did. I never let him out of my sight for the entire length of our evacuation. Only much later did I find out that we were being wrenched away from our families in London to save us from Hitler’s bombing.
We were sent to a house near Bristol, which is puzzling because Bristol was also being bombed. The woman who took us in had a number of evacuees, and she made it clear that she didn’t like us. I overheard her talking to a woman who helped take care of us. She called us “dirty Londoners.” We were nothing of the kind.
I was miserable there. But one day Jim and I were told that our parents would be arriving. We sat on the grassy bank on the side of a country road and waited. Soon they came up in a car from the railway station.
Since my father had a weak heart, he wasn’t taken into the army. He was able to look for work away from London so that we could all be together. For a while, he worked as a farm laborer and we lived in a thatched cottage on a farmer’s lands in Somerset. Our cottage stood in the corner of an orchard and had pink roses around the door. It looked picturesque, ideal. It wasn’t. Inside, the floors were flagstones. There was no heat apart from the fireplace, no electricity, no hot water, no bathroom. Our lavatory was an outhouse behind the cottage.
Every Friday night, we took turns having a bath in a long tin tub in front of the fire. There was a swing in the orchard, and my brother and I were free to play there. We used to take a shopping basket and walk to the farmhouse for eggs. The farm animals were all new to us. We saw cows being milked and, once, a calf being born. It was all amazing to two little Londoners.
Our life on the farm didn’t last long. From there we moved to Ilminster, which would have been called a village had it not been for its marketplace, which qualified it as a town. Ilminster is listed in the Domesday Book of William the Conquerer, who ordered the survey of the entire country in order to collect taxes.
Eventually, I was enrolled in a Church of England school. Learning to read changed my life. When I joined the library, a whole new world opened up to me. That first year of school, I made my first best friend, Ruth. We are still in touch today. In fact, I visited her last Christmas.
One teacher who stands out in my mind is Miss Lye. She was in her 30s, always wore thick lisle stockings and was quite pretty. Miss Lye loved teaching. One day, she threw a map of the British Isles over the blackboard and announced: “Today we’re going to learn about our beautiful country.” Her excitement was contagious.
Finally, the war ended in Europe, and there were celebrations on the village green. It was a joyous time. When we returned to London, our minds were full of enchanting memories of our wartime years in our little town.