Labor Day, 1943, just east of Richmond, Virginia
“Call the watch! Lower a lifeboat! The waves will swallow them up soon!” Wesley Bishop shouted. “Hurry!”
“Wes, are you daft?” Charles shook his younger brother’s arm to quieten him. “Stop blithering!”
Charles Bishop sat back on his heels and scanned Wesley’s face, trying to gauge if he was awake. Wesley’s blue eyes were wide open, but clearly he was imagining a very different place from the shady pond where he and Charles were celebrating Labor Day with their American host family.
“We’ve got to do something!” Wesley shouted again. He pointed at the Ratcliff boys shoving sheets of water at each other amid good-natured teasing. “They’ll drown if we don’t! Don’t you see them?”
Charles recognized Wesley’s sleep-talking daze all too well. Nightmares had hounded him ever since he and Charles had sailed the Atlantic Ocean to escape Hitler’s nightly bombing of England – horrendous dreams about exploding firebombs hitting their London borough, about Nazi submarines torpedoing their ship convoy, about drowning in the war-tossed sea. Usually Charles could silence the ten-year-old before he woke up the Ratcliffs with his night-time outbursts. But here they were at the swimming hole with all five Ratcliff siblings and in broad daylight!
“Wes,” Charles said, taking him by the shoulders. “Wake up. Look at me!”
Awkwardly, Charles patted his arm. “There, you see, Wes, nothing but a bad dream.”
He always felt so at sea himself when Wesley had these nightmares. Since crossing three thousand miles of ocean and settling in on the Ratcliff farm, Charles had had to play dad, mum and big brother all to Wesley. Truth be known, Charles was rather homesick himself. No one comforted him when he was racked with similar nightmares!
Besides, hadn’t the British officials who’d herded them and dozens of other child evacuees onto the ocean liner instructed them to “never show they were downhearted”, so they’d be good “little ambassadors” for England? Blubbering certainly wasn’t the way to do that. And it certainly wasn’t the way to impress hardy American farm boys like the Ratcliffs.
Charles squared his shoulders. Mimicking the stiff-upper-lip adults he’d grown up listening to in England, the fourteen-year-old adopted a tone of voice designed to prompt agreement: “All righty, then, Wes?”
Relieved, Charles flopped down onto the bank’s velvety moss to watch the Ratcliffs swim in the deep pond that fed Four Mile Creek before it emptied into the James River. The pond was an oasis of coolness and playtime, an escape from their daily chores, and the family’s favourite place on earth. The siblings hurried there whenever possible. Even on that sizzling afternoon, the Ratcliff boys had raced each other across frying-pan-hot fields, whooping and hollering, to see who’d reach the pond first, the corn popping with panicked grasshoppers jumping out of their way. There’d been no proper rain in Virginia for forty-one days straight, and all the farmers’ corn had shrivelled to brown stalks. The air was so hot it almost felt too thick to breathe.
Despite that, Charles had kept apace with the American-rowdy clan, as usual. But Wesley had walked behind with the Ratcliffs’ older sister, Patsy, who lugged a basket crammed with sandwiches and bottles of Royal Crown Cola. As soon as they reached the dark-green gloom of the woods, Wesley
had lain down and fallen asleep, worn out by the heat. Charles had plunged into the pond with the Ratcliff boys, scrambling out only at the sound of Wesley’s first whimper.
Now Charles decided to stay by Wesley on the sidelines of the fun. He laughed as the youngest Ratcliffs – the seven-year-old twins, Johnny and Jamie – dunked each other. Their roughhousing reminded him of his and Wesley’s corgi puppies back home. “Very like Hamlet and Horatio, eh, Wes?” Charles elbowed his little brother, trying to pull him into conversation, away from his bad memories.
That was a mistake.
Something about the boys’ happy thrashing set Wesley off again. “There! Another hit! Another ship’s going down!” Wesley cried out, gesturing wildly at the twins, then at the older boys, Bobby and Ron. “Throw them life preservers! Quick, oh quick!”
With this outburst, Charles knew the exact origin of Wesley’s hallucination. He was reliving the night Nazi submarines, called U-boats, torpedoed nine ships in their convoy. The explosions had hurled hundreds of souls into the angry, freezing Atlantic.
“Blimey, Wes,” Charles hissed. “Put a sock in it!” At this point, Charles was desperate to silence him before the others heard.
But it was too late. Patsy was already climbing off the tree swing where she’d been reading and writing in a big notebook. She hurried toward them, her heart-shaped face awash with concern.
“Wesley, honey, what’s the matter?”
At the sound of Patsy’s soft Tidewater drawl, Wesley shuddered. He blinked. His eyes cleared. He looked at Patsy, then at Charles, then back to Patsy. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “I’m terribly sorry.” He rubbed away a tear.
“What were you dreaming about, sugar?” Patsy took Wesley’s hand and brushed his blond curls back from his forehead.
Worrying how Wesley might answer, Charles jumped in: “Oh, it was nothing much. Just some rubbish about our trip over.” He cued his brother with a little nod to get him to follow his lead.
For a moment, Wesley’s lips quivered. But then he murmured, “Right. Nothing much.”
“You know, Charles,” said Patsy, “bottling stuff up all the time can’t be good for you. Better to vent off some steam now and then.” She whispered a big-sister-to-big-brother aside: “That’s especially true for Wesley. He’s right...well...tender, isn’t he?”
God’s teeth! Patsy was only two years older than Charles, but she was head-over-heels in love with a neighbour named Henry, a bomber pilot off flying missions over Europe, and she acted like that wartime romance elevated her to an almost adult position. Or at least that’s the way it felt to Charles. Still, he admired the way she was always so patient with her younger brothers and Wesley. Charles knew he should try to be more like her, but he hadn’t asked to be Wes’s nursemaid.
What was it with Americans thinking that talking about feelings helped anything? Charles continued to fume. He’d been completely taken aback by their tendency to hug people they barely knew, and for Virginia ladies to say “Bless your little heart” whenever they met Wesley. Did they really think that talking or hugging or those molasses cookies and lemonade they endlessly offered could wash away the memories of houses shattering, friends trapped under rubble, or ships exploding and burning while survivors clung to wreckage in ten-foot-high waves?
Shut up, Bishop, he cautioned himself. He and Wes had escaped the Nazis’ bombs only because of the Ratcliff family’s kindness. Their father had saved Mr. Ratcliff’s life during World War I, so Mr. Ratcliff had readily agreed to save Wesley and Charles from Hitler’s Blitz and London’s raging fires. That Ratcliff generosity made him and Wesley among the lucky few – two of only some four thousand British child evacuees who’d gotten across the sea safely before Nazi U-boat attacks became so deadly that the British government refused to let more children risk the crossing.
Most of their friends back home still had gas masks hanging around their necks, and hunkered down in underground Tube stations or in flimsy backyard shelters during bombing raids. Charles remembered what it felt like during a Luftwaffe pounding, not knowing what might be left of their life when they crawled back out. He wasn’t about to bite the hand that fed him, as the saying went, with some rude demand that Patsy mind her own business.
But he also wasn’t about to embarrass himself by opening up. Once, he’d shared some of the realities of the London Blitz with Bobby, the oldest Ratcliff boy and his best friend. Charles had broken down and sobbed bitterly as he did. Bobby had been aces about it, but Charles had been mortified that he’d let someone see him so, well, weak. No, swagger was the better option, the best deflection in such moments.
So as Patsy gently coaxed Wesley – “Was it a bad memory, honey? You can tell me” – Charles swallowed hard, shrugged nonchalantly, and said, “Oh, a few people just took a bit of a dunking.”
Wesley’s blue eyes seemed to get even bigger and rounder. “It was more than that, Charles. The ship next to us sank so fast, they couldn’t get their lifeboats ready in time. Do you suppose any of those people survived?”
Probably not many, Charles thought grimly, but he said with fake cheerfulness, “Oh, I’m sure the follow-up boats got them, Wes. Remember the Royal Navy’s orders? Convoys keep moving after a torpedo hit but transmit a distress signal. Our sailors are good lads, the world’s best. I bet they had all those people on deck drinking tea within a few hours.”
Charles looked at Patsy to gauge her reaction to all this. Her usually friendly and open freckled face looked ashen. “You see...” He almost choked on the words; he’d always felt so guilty about leaving those people to the sea’s mercy. “With Nazi wolf packs hunting us, slowing down in the middle of an attack to fish people out of the water after their ships were torpedoed was suicidal.”
Patsy’s eyes welled up. “That’s seems...so...hard-hearted,” she whispered.
“That’s the war,” said Charles. He tried to be matter-of-fact, but he was thrown off his game by the empathy in her large hazel eyes. For one more tantalizing moment, he longed to tell how he’d wondered with terror if he could manage to tread the icy water and hold his little brother up to breathe if their ship went down too. “I... It...” he began.
But by then the Ratcliff brothers had scrambled out of the water and stood around them in a dripping circle.
“What’s the scoop?” asked Bobby. “Something wrong, Chuck?”
Surrounded by boys, Charles automatically switched back to a practised bravado. He grinned roguishly, his dimples deep, and his blue-grey eyes grew mischievous. “Naaaaw,” he said, imitating American slang. “We were just remembering some of the things that happened on our trip across the pond. Like seeing those icebergs, right, Wes?”
“Right, Charles,” Wesley answered hesitantly.
“And the whale spouting?”
“Oh yes, that was lovely. I saw its eye!”
“Remember how you children played hide-and-seek amongst the lifeboats piled up on deck?”
“Right!” Wesley began to perk up. “And shuffleboard and tag, and sometimes the crew let us ring the ship’s bell.”
Charles turned to the Ratcliffs. “There were two hundred kids on board. They ran riot because His Majesty’s government could only pay for one adult chaperone per fifteen of them. With so much chaos, we older lads could sneak into the cocktail lounge and drink off the remnants of adult passengers’ cocktails.”
The Ratcliff boys gasped.
“That’s right.” Charles had the boys’ full attention. “Had my first sip of a martini, dry, olives even.” He omitted the fact that it tasted like lighter fluid and he’d spat it out immediately.
“But where were the adults?” asked Bobby.
Charles laughed. “Off throwing up. We had to sail at fifteen knots, in zigzags to make it harder for the Jerries to target us. Everyone was seasick everywhere. We even made up a vomit song. It goes like this.” Grinning, he motioned at Wesley to join in.
Wesley took a deep breath and, in his high choir-boy voice, piped out new words to the tune “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean”:
“My supper went over the ocean,
My breakfast is over the sea,
My tummy is in such an uproar,
Don’t bring any dinner to me.”
Patsy rolled her eyes.
“EEEEEEWWWW,” squealed the twins.
For a brief, wonderful moment, Wesley could tell they admired him. Usually they saw him as far too bookish to look up to.
Bobby slapped Wesley on the back. “Ha-ha-ha, that’s the ticket!” he said.
Wesley basked in the boys’ approval until Ron – the middle Ratcliff brother – spoke. “Hey, Bobby, you know I tasted moonshine when I was just Jamie and Johnny’s age. Me and Tommy skipped school and hung out with some field hands working his daddy’s farm. It was—”
Bobby ignored his younger brother. “Is a martini as ritzy as the Phantom Detective magazine stories say, Chuck?”
Wesley watched Ron’s face cloud up as fast as a summer thunderstorm gathered on the river. This time Ron fairly shouted to get Bobby’s attention. “Bet Wesley threw up buckets too. Didn’t you, old chum?” He said the last two words with a fake British accent and a sneer.
The twins stopped looking impressed and giggled. “Throw up, throw up,” they chanted.
Ron was forever going after Wesley. Maybe it was because he and Charles took up space in the Ratcliffs’ already crowded farmhouse. Maybe twelve-year-old Ron was jealous of the fact that Bobby seemed to like Charles and Wes so much.
Charles stood, clenching his fists, ready to do battle. Wesley knew his big brother wouldn’t stand down either. He’d told Wesley that appeasement never worked with cocky boys like Ron, he’d learned that much at least at his English boys’ school. Wesley needed to learn the same, he’d said.
“Boys, boys.” Patsy stood as well. “Please, it’s such a lovely afternoon.”
Neither Ron nor Charles moved. For several seconds, no one spoke, anticipating a punch. There was only the hum of katydids in the trees, until Jamie suddenly started jumping up and down, pointing at the pond. “Hey, y’all! Look!” he shouted. “A water moccasin! Holy mackerel, it’s a whopper! Let’s get it!”
With so many marshes and creeks coming off the James and York rivers, the Tidewater area was the perfect environment for all sorts of wildlife, including snakes – much to the delight of hawks, herons and little boys like Johnny and Jamie. One of the first American precautions Wesley had learned, however, was that water moccasins were poisonous.
“Oh no you don’t, mister!” Patsy grabbed Jamie before he could jump into the water. Bobby intercepted Johnny, who kicked and screeched in protest.
They watched the greenish-black snake slide in serpentines across the mirror-still water, leaving a trail of S-shaped ripples. At the far bank, it disappeared under a mess of wild roses overhanging the embankment. There was something odd-looking about the shape of the tangled underbrush.
“A TYRE!” they all shouted at the same time.
An old discarded tyre had drifted down the creek, gotten caught in the brambles, and stopped, half submerged.
Ker-plunk! Before Patsy could stop them, her brothers dived into the water like bullfrogs. Kerplunk, kerplunk.
Yanking and shouting, they dragged the frayed tyre out of the water.
“Boy oh boy, it’s a beaut!” Bobby exclaimed. Since Pearl Harbor, he and Charles had become passionate salvage collectors for the war effort. Bobby pushed his coppery hair out of his eyes so he could look at the tyre carefully. “Men,” he said. “Oh, and lady.” He bowed to his older sister. “This is a treasure trove! Y’all know why?”
“Why?” chirped the twins, clapping their hands.
“Well, I’ll tell you. How many old razor blades does it take to make the tail of an air force bomb?”
“A whole twelve thousand,” the twins shouted together.
“Right! How many pairs of nylon stockings can make a parachute?”
“I know that one, Mr. General,” Patsy said, playing along. “Thirty-six pairs. We collected that many at Girl Scouts.”
Bobby nodded. “And it takes five thousand tin cans for a tank shell casing. That’s a lot of soup and dog food! But this single, old, beat-up tyre, all by its little lonesome, can be recycled into twelve – that’s right, folks – twelve gas masks.”
“Twelve pilots,” breathed Patsy.
“Twelve of our mates back home,” Charles said to Wesley.
“Jeepers!” cried the twins.
“Hey! We’ll be the first to bring in salvage this year!” crowed Ron. “We’ll be heroes!”
Suddenly, school starting the next day was exciting rather than awful.
The Ratcliffs and Bishops trooped home, carrying the tyre like a big-animal trophy from a safari hunt. Bobby and Charles led. As they emerged from the woods, they sang a song from a popular Donald Duck cartoon playing in the movie houses. It was full of red-white-and-blue sass and spite, making fun of German oompah-pah bands to ridicule those who’d blindly followed Hitler and his racist beliefs to become Nazis.
“Don’t forget to add the raspberry after Heil!” called out Bobby.
The boys put their hands under their sweaty armpits and pumped their arms up and down in popping slaps, or stuck their tongues out and blew to make loud farting sounds to replace the Nazi Seig Heil salute.
“When der fuehrer says we is de master race
We heil (BLAT), heil (BLAT) right in der fuehrer’s face.”
They nearly split their sides with laughing after each fake fart – even Wesley.
12 September 1943
I have started ‘‘high school’’, as the Yanks call it, and I am back on a team! I jolly well miss cricket but I shall make do with ‘‘football’’. By the way, the name itself is daft. Over here they call the real football ‘‘soccer’’, and the closest they come is kick-the-can. No, their football is more like rugby, although Americans wear helmets and shoulder pads to play it, Dad! For all their guff about how strong they are, they would never survive our rugger scrums.
Still, I keep that opinion to myself because Bobby is the quarterback, the player who pretty much commands the team. So many seniors left school early to join the service, he recruited me to play tight end. I run wide for passes. Blokes on the other team try to knock me to the ground and hold me there. (Mum would not like it.) But if I catch Bobby’s pass and cross the goal line, I am a hero!
Speaking of heroes... May I come home now? The Richmond Times-Dispatch writes that the Blitz has finally eased a bit and the Yanks have better control over the Atlantic. Cargo ships leave Hampton Roads and Newport News for England almost every day. Fewer are being torpedoed. I wager a captain would take me as a junior crew member. I am ever so much taller since last you saw me – five whole inches. Do not forget, I turn fifteen this spring. I could fight incendiaries with London’s fire brigade like you do, Dad. I hate having nipped out when my chums are toughing the war at home.
I do not mean to complain. Mr and Mrs Ratcliff are very kind, and we do have a good laugh with the brothers. This weekend, we raced wheelbarrows down the farm’s lane. I put Wes in mine and Bobby put the twins in his. Ron was the flagman to start us. You will not believe what happened! The lane is shaded by walnut trees, and a black snake fell off the branches, smack-dab onto Wes! It had been lurking up there waiting for some unsuspecting squirrel. A doozy (as they say here) of a serpent – six feet long! Nothing like it in England except maybe Nessie. But the brothers turned it loose because it keeps mice out of the crops.
Of course, Wesley set off blubbering about it. Honestly, he does go on. Do you know he still stows Joey under his pillow? If the brothers find him with a stuffed koala bear, he will catch all manner of grief. They are good hearts, but a tough lot, farming and all, you know.
As evacuees from Blitz-stricken London, Charles and his little brother Wes have survived a deadly journey across the Atlantic to reach the safety of America. Yet Charles is overcome by guilt that, back home, his friends and family are fighting on without him, while Wes is haunted by terrifying nightmares.
Together, they struggle to come to terms with their new life on a family farm - where German prisoners of war work side by side with them in the fields. Award-winning author L.M. Elliot brings a rarely told story of World War II overseas evacuation to life in this enlightening and meticulously-researched novel, a companion to the acclaimed Under a War-Torn Sky.
L. M. Elliott works as a senior writer for the Washingtonian magazine. Her first novel, "Under a War-Torn Sky", won the Borders' Original Voices Award for Young Adult Literature and was inspired by her father’s experiences in World War II, and his stories of the courage and self-sacrifice of the French Resistance. L. M. Elliott lives in Virginia with her family and their many pets.
Visit www.lmelliott.com to find out more.
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