The following story, written by Jim Sunshine, appears in the most recent issue of Eureka, the literary publication produced and written by Kendal at Oberlin residents.
In a way this is a war story, but it is not really about the war, the one we knew. Instead, it is a story about a small English village in World War II, about a girl and a boy, and about the long passing of the years. I suppose you could call it a wartime story because that is when it all began and that is what it is really about. It ended just two years ago.
I am the boy, of course, and the girl – whose name I should tell you was Joan – lived in the village of Bromyard, which in 1944 was a small market town between Worcester and Hereford in the Midlands. Bromyard was pretty as a picture-postcard in those days, with one short High Street strung with no fewer than 13 pubs, a greengrocer, a butcher with mostly sawdust filled sausage to sell, a fish and chip shop, a Barclays bank, a few other shops and the Falcon Hotel, a timbered structure that had become an inn in the 17th century.
I arrived in Bromyard in early 1944 as a 19-year-old medical soldier with the 42nd Field Hospital. We were billeted in the village to prepare for D-Day, which was several months in the future and in which we played our part, but that is not really part of this story.
Some of you may recall what England was like when preparations had begun for the Normandy landings. It had become a vast dump of soldiers, tanks, trucks and guns dropped on a green and pleasant land which was rather short of things to eat and drink. There was still beer in the pubs, of course, and Brussels sprouts and other vegetables in season at the grocer’s, but not a great deal more. If one more truck or Sherman tank, or 105mm. howitzer was brought from the States, it was said, the island would surely sink. Our British hosts sometimes referred to us as “overpaid, oversexed, and over here,” but they usually smiled when they said it. Anyhow, you get the point.
The British had assigned a barn to the 42nd to house medical equipment and supplies, one of several structures enclosing a courtyard behind The Tan House, a tannery in the 18th century and now a handsome private residence around the corner from the High Street..
One day, shortly after arriving, I followed a path around the barn, past a garden shed, and found a sadly overgrown grass tennis court, a garden and a girl digging in the flowerbeds. Her name, she told me when I asked, was Joan. She was 18, slim, dark haired, and as I was instantly aware, very beautiful. Joan was a evacuee from Birmingham, living with her aunt in The Tan House in the relative safety of Bromyard. Most days she worked in the Barclays bank across from the Falcon.
Joan and I became friends, very good friends, although certainly not as good as many soldiers in the 42nd, who single-mindedly pursued Women’s Land Army girls (the WLA – “We Lay Anybody” people said) and others who were willing to go strolling in the pastures after dark. That is because we were both very young, well brought up, and in the Tan House there was her white-haired maiden Aunt Muriel, who was called “Emo.”
The Tan House may have been two centuries or more old, but inside it was beautiful in the English style, richly furnished, dark, and, given American sensibilities, more or less unheated. There was no refrigerator in the kitchen, but there was a “food safe,” a cupboard in the cool cellar passage in from the courtyard. Cooking was done, mostly by Joan, on a gas Aga cooker. Baking or roasting the infrequent piece of meat, was done on a coal stove that directed heat to one of two ovens when the correct handle was pulled. The stove also heated the sitting room which overlooked the courtyard.
Emo was a school teacher. On the wall of her living room was a single photograph of a young officer in the uniform of the first World War. Joan told me he had never come back from the Somme, and that was the reason Emo had never married.
It seems hard to believe now, but we were in Bromyard for only three months before D-Day. I lived with three other men in a room over the town library next to the Falcon. Each morning our platoon marched to The Institute, a collection of old buildings and Nissen huts on the edge of the village, where the rest of the 42nd was housed, for a breakfast of oatmeal and powdered eggs. During the day we stripped wrappings and cosmoline off the surgical instruments and otherwise prepared our equipment for use across the Channel. We also practiced putting up our ungainly 60-foot ward tents on Bringsty Common outside the village. At night we frequented the pubs, drinking quantities of warm beer and hard cider, and learning to throw darts. For a shilling or two the shop across the High Street would provide a rolled newspaper filled with hot fish and chips.
Joan and I spent considerable time together. At times I was assigned to guard duty over the barn and its supplies, but instead of walking around the barn watching for Germans, I often sat beside the coal fire with a mug of tea, talking to Joan. Once we went dancing to the music of Lesley Preese and His Wild Geese, a band of sorts composed of a piano, a drummer and a trombone. Maybe there were more; it’s hard to remember.
One day I wanted to play tennis again. In the garden house there was an old gas mower last used in 1939. I begged some gasoline from the motor pool, and Joan and I cut and rolled the old tennis court. She brought some flour from the kitchen to mark the court lines. And we found the net and some old balls and a couple of rackets in the shed.
It was mid-May, and unusually warm. That evening as the sun went down Joan, Emo and I had our tea beside the court. There were cucumber sandwiches and Marmite on crackers, bread and margarine and jam. And we played our first set of tennis on the newly trimmed grass. It was really quite fine.
The next morning it was suddenly time to go. The three platoons of the 42nd were assembled at the Institute with full packs, bedrolls, steel helmets and duffel bags. People from the village, who seemed to know without being told that we were leaving for good, stood watching us, waving farewells. There were tears and embraces from village girls who ran up to the ranks for a last kiss, then darted back into the crowd giggling with embarrassment.
A village boy ran along the ranks calling my name and presented me with an engraved calling card. On the back was a message from Joan: “Emo and I again wish you the very best of luck and send you our address. Au revoir, Joan.” The six-by-sixes ground slowly toward us up the hill and lined up in the yard. I stuffed the card into my pocket, threw my duffel bag into one truck and climbed into another.
After that there was the war, but that is of no consequence here. Joan wrote me several times during the next year, always signing herself “Affectionately, Joan,” and sent snapshots of herself. My mother at home in Cleveland Heights, hearing that nice things were scarce in Britain, sent her a dress and some packages of food. After the Germans gave up, I was given a furlough and hopped a B-17 back to England and Bromyard, staying with Joan and Emo in the Tan House. It was wonderful to sleep in a huge bed with real sheets and a real down quilt. Emo found some gasoline for her old Rover, and we all, including Joan’s sister Mary, went up to Stratford to tour the town. When I left to go back to Germany, I kissed Joan goodbye, the only time, to my regret, that I ever kissed her.
I was home in time for Christmas of 1945, went back to Oberlin, met a wonderful girl named Anne at the old Pyle Inn, married her in Fairchild Chapel, and worked hard enough to graduate in 1949.
The next time I saw Joan was the summer after my graduation, when Anne and I went cycling through Europe and Britain. By now, Joan was a nurse in Birmingham. She came down for a lunch at the Falcon given for us by the village doctor. A few days later, Anne and I stopped in Birminghamon our way north to pay a visit to Joan and her parents. Unfortunately, her mother in a burst of good feeling said: “Oh Mr. Sunshine, I felt sure we were going to have an American son-in-law.” Anne froze, while I shrank as far down as possible in my chair. I could not bear to look at Joan.
A few years passed. I became a newspaper reporter in Rhode Island, and one day at my desk I received a letter from Joan describing her marriage to a stockbroker and enclosing a snapshot in her wedding dress outside the church in Birmingham. At her side was the stockbroker. I sent best wishes. There were no more letters.
More years passed. Anne and I had two children and, in the 1960’s, enough to worry about without thinking of a long ago war. In 1994, the 50th anniversary of D-Day, I wrote a long Sunday magazine article for the Providence Journal, my newspaper, and included a passing reference to Bromyard and the beautiful girl I had known. As luck or fate would have it, someone in Rhode Island sent the magazine to a sister in Bromyard who proved to be not only a born romantic but also an indefatigable researcher. She persisted until she found Joan, who by that time was living in Lincolnshire. She had three children and, as she put it in a subsequent letter to me, “six of the best,” meaning grandchildren.
A few more years went by. Then came a letter with the news that she had cancer, and was undergoing chemo. Then there was a remission. We kept in touch, exchanging Christmas cards and letters. Hers were always signed “Affectionately, Joan.”
In 2001, after Anne died, I went to France to see Chartres with some old Oberlin classmates. Afterward, my son Tom, a doctor, joined me in Paris, and we went to Normandy to tour the D-Day beaches, and then to England and Bromyard. Joan and her stockbroker husband came down from Lincoln for a long lunch at the Falcon. Afterward, we all trooped over to the Tan House to see how it had changed since Emo’s death in the 1950’s. I was horrified to see that the garden, the tennis court, and the barn were gone, replaced by a cement parking lot. The Tan House, however, was in the hands of new owners who gave us tea and a tour. They made a great point of showing off their new refrigerator.
Eight more years passed. The stockbroker died. Then, one day in 2009 I received an email from Joan’s son, Nicholas, with word that his mother had died and was to be buried the next day. I briefly wept, and then dug through my billfold to find, after 65 years, the engraved calling card wishing me luck that morning the 42nd left for D-Day and the tiny snapshot she had later sent me in France. Then I went to the internet to search for a willing florist in Lincoln. I found one, a good one, who promised to get a floral bouquet to the church by noon the next day, with a card saying: “To Joan with love from Jim. Bromyard, 1944.”
I am sorry now that I did not sign it “Affectionately, Jim.”