Three months after the end of World War II, my father was relieved of his military obligations in Europe. He went home to see his family in Chicago, 3 weeks later he was in Detroit, soon to be joined by his GI Bride and about a year later, by me.
Dad was an ace mechanic and he loved Chevy cars, by 1950 he was maintenance chief at a large Chevrolet dealership. He was living his dream. My mother was from the East End of London, she lost a sister and a niece and nephew in the London Blitz.
By the time I was eight-years-old I had two brothers. The young boys were all over dad, they wanted to do what he did, go where he went. I was a mothers boy. Her family had a tradition of working for the British Rail companies, most of them based in London and one of the perks was free or very cheap travel. She used to tell me about the trips she had taken, all over Great Britain and occasionally over to continental Europe. I was fascinated.
Dad worked hard and long, but when it came to vacation and holiday weekends, he loved his time off with us. Two or three days, sometime a week, at a lake fishing and cooking out. Dad and the boys would do all the fishing and swimming, mom and I would hang out, and she would tell me about her travels and the things she had seen. In the evenings we would all sit in a circle and sing songs, we had quite a choir.
Memorial Day was a special holiday for my parents, for reasons I came to understand as I was older. Mother’s loss in the Blitz and dad’s friends who didn’t come home from the beaches of Normandy gave them a depth of belonging and emotion which, in reflection, I have too. The songs that were sang on Memorial Day took on a different tone. My parents favorite singer from the WWII era was the English songstress Vera Lynn. Her songs were patriotic and full of yearning and hope and in the dark days of the war she was a beacon. One song my parents attempted to sing was “The White Cliffs of Dover”, I say attempted because they never got through the first verse without bursting into tears and clinging to each for dear life. My brothers and I found this a little disconcerting, but mom used to say, “don’t worry boys, we’re crying ’cause we’re happy.”
By the time I was in High School, my younger brothers were playing sports and fishing, I was out to earn a dollar. I had a plan. I begged my dad to get me a job cleaning cars and polishing tires at his work. He was pleased that I was showing an interest in what he did and that I was a willing worker. I made friends with the used car salesmen and if they had customer coming to look at a car, I would hear, “Hey JD, blue Chevy, must look like new, buyer in 45 minutes.” If they pulled off the sale, I would get as much as a $5 dollar tip, and I socked it all away. When I started my senior year at High School my parents sat me down for a talk.
At teacher/parent conferences they had been told I was college material and they were keen for me to be the first member of either family to go to University, which school was I going to try for, was the theme of the talk. When I told them as soon as possible after graduation I wanted to go to Europe, things got a little tense. My father was angry, even my mother looked shocked. After listening to them for several minutes, I took several deep breaths and said: “Dad, I want to see the Normandy beaches, I want to go to the Ardennes, because you were there, and mom, I want spend some time with your family in London and I want to see the White Cliffs of Dover.”
They were both visibly at moved at my little speech and dad said: “Take a hike son, I want to talk to your mother.” Twenty minutes later, they came out to the front porch were I was sitting and wondering if this was beginning of a family rift. My dad, speaking softly said: “OK son, go and see grandma and the family for a few months, she has come to see us, so you return the favor, when you come back we’ll talk about your future.” Within seconds I was hugging them both, spluttering: “Thanks, thank you, thank you.”
“If you are going to visit grandma in London, WHY are you buying a ticket to Paris, that’s France son,” said mom with dad glaring silently. “I know, I’m flying into Paris then taking the boat train to London, I want the first thing I see in your homeland mom, the place where you met and married dad, the first thing I see has to be the White Cliffs of Dover.” Silence.
Two weeks after graduation, a tearful family goodbye, even my younger brothers seemed sorry to see me go. A Greyhound bus to Chicago, I insisted they didn’t drive me to the airport. I arrived in Paris at 7.15am local time and was soon being bussed to the Gare du Nord to catch my train. I hadn’t slept, but I was wide awake. Never been so excited. The super fast train soon had me at the channel port of Calais. We left Calais it was misty and raining lightly. I positioned myself as far forward on the boat as I could and kept peering into the fog. After about 45 minutes the sun peeked through and the visibility improved dramatically.
There they were, the White Cliffs of Dover, resplendent in the growing sunlight, magnificent. I started to sing softly to myself: “There’ll Be Bluebirds over, the White Cliff of Dover, tomorrow just you wait and see . . . .” In the true family tradition I couldn’t get through the first verse.
From the same author BERLIN WALL, JOHNNY WALKER, LEVI STRAUS AND ROCK AND ROLL HERE