Thursday, April 20, 2006

When I was Eight, Part II

Editor’s Note: Last year I wrote a short story for my youngest son on the occasion of his eighth birthday. I’ve decided to post that story here, one chapter per day, for three days. Keep in mind the story was written for an eight year old…so the tone is quite simple!
Here's Part Two...
Chapter Two: On to England
My Dad finally called sometime in early November to let us know that he had found a house and was making our travel arrangements. I was very excited when I found out we would be taking a ship from New York City to Southampton, England. I had never been on a ship before and thought it was going to be a great adventure. My Mom wasn’t as excited as I was…she was a little afraid of crossing the ocean. The trip from America to England is a long trip by sea. The fastest ocean liners made the trip in about three days, but we weren’t going to travel on an ocean liner, we were going to be aboard a U.S. Navy troop ship, and troop ships are a lot smaller and a lot slower than ocean liners. But, we had to get to New York, first!
My Mom and Dad decided to sell our car. In America we drive on the right side of the road and the steering wheel in our cars is on the left-hand side of the car. You drive on the other side of the road in England and the steering wheel is on the RIGHT side of the car. This can be a big problem if your steering wheel is on the wrong side of the car! Dad thought it would be better to buy an English car rather than try to drive our car on the “wrong” side of the road in England. So, Mom sold the Hudson. That meant we had to go to New York on the train.
It’s fun to travel by train. You have a lot more room than you do in a car. You can get up and walk around, you can sit and look out the window, and if you’re taking a long trip, you can eat in the dining car and sleep in a bed, too! The trip from Atlanta to New York takes two days and a night. We got a Pullman sleeper compartment on the train for our trip. A Pullman compartment is the term used to describe a little private room on a train. The room has two bench seats and beds that pull down out of the walls so you can sleep.

Train at Peachtree Station
The picture above was taken in 1969 at Peachtree Station, which is where we caught the train to New York. There’s little or no difference between the train you see in the picture and the one I took to New York.
I really enjoyed riding the train, especially eating in the dining car and watching the country roll by the window. When we were going through open country the train ran about 60 or 70 miles per hour. Whenever the train passed through a town you could see people in the street, kids would wave at the train, and it seemed like everyone was looking right at you. In the old days the train tracks often ran right in the middle of the main street of those small towns. The train would slow down to 25 or 30 miles per hour whenever it went through a town (for safety reasons, I’m sure), and the result was you got a close-up look at the town. I’m sure all that has changed, now. The train also stopped to pick up passengers, mail, and supplies in the larger towns and cities. I remember waking up in the middle of the night and raising the shade to look out on to the station platform. It was very late, but I could see men wheeling baggage carts and people getting on and off the train. I’ll never forget those sights.
As soon as the sun went down the porters began their work. Porters are people that are sort of like waiters or butlers. The porter’s job was to take care of the passengers and get the sleeping cars ready for bed-time. The porter would knock on your door and ask if you were ready to have your room “prepared.” That was the signal for you to step into the corridor while he pulled the beds down out of the walls, tightened the sheets, put the blankets on the beds and fluffed the pillows. The whole exercise was over in about three or four minutes. When you went back into your room the seats were gone and your beds were made for you. It was very cool!
The train passed through northern Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Washington, D.C., a tiny bit of Pennsylvania, and New Jersey before arriving in New York City. We got to see a lot of farm land, lots of woods, rolling hills, and flat plains. The east coast of America is very, very beautiful, even in November. And rolling through the big cities like Richmond, Washington, Newark, and finally New York was exciting. A lot of folks say there’s no better way to see the country than by train. I’m inclined to agree with them.
We arrived in New York two days before our ship sailed. Mom wanted to spend time in the city, do some shopping, and just generally walk around and see the sights. It probably wasn’t very easy for her, since I was seven-going-on-eight and Norma was not quite two, still a baby, really. I vaguely remember being dragged through all sorts of department stores and not enjoying the experience very much. I wanted to go to the top of the Empire State building, but Mom wouldn’t do it. My Mom was afraid of heights and avoided big buildings at all costs. I was SO disappointed!
My Mom was disappointed, too. She had hoped we’d sail on one of the fancy ocean liners of the day, especially the Queen Elizabeth. Some military families were sent overseas on ocean liners, but not many. We didn’t get the Queen Elizabeth; we sailed on a troop ship.

The Queen Elizabeth in NY Harbor
We got up very early the morning we left and took a taxi to the port. There was lots of processing to do before we could get on board. We stood in lines while Mom turned our baggage over to the baggage people, showed the officials our transportation orders, our passports, our shot records and millions of other things. Processing to get on board probably took two hours or more. A long time for a seven-year-old boy with ants in his pants!!

A Troop Ship
The ship in the picture above is the USS William Darby, and may or may not be the ship we sailed to England on. I remember the name of the ship we sailed in back from Turkey in 1958, it was the USS Maurice Rose. I can’t remember the name of the ship we went over on, though.
Once we were on board we were shown to our cabin, which was VERY small and had three bunks, a small table, and lockers for the clothes we brought for the trip. The rest of our baggage was stored in the hold. Families had cabins on the upper decks and “troops” slept in large barracks areas in the lower decks. The troops were not allowed in the family areas and had their own facilities. There was a recreation room, a very small theatre that showed movies twice a day, a library, a dining room, and several lounges. You were also allowed out on the open decks if the weather was good. Fortunately for us, the weather was good. Crossing the North Atlantic in November could be miserable, or it could be OK. We didn’t have any storms that I remember, it was relatively smooth sailing. No one in the family got sea-sick.
I’m afraid the trip got to be boring after the first two days, and it took us a week to get from New York to Southampton. A troop ship is a relatively small vessel, compared to ocean liners. You can see all you’re allowed to see in a day. My Mom was probably ready to jump into the ocean by the end of the fourth day, and we were all anxious to get to England and see Dad.
When we finally arrived in Southampton it seemed like it took FOREVER for the ship to dock and get tied up at the pier. It took longer for all the passengers to disembark. I can remember standing at the ship’s railing and yelling back and forth with my Dad, who was waiting for us on the dock below. We finally walked down the gangway, met Dad, went and retrieved our baggage, loaded it into a car Dad had borrowed from a friend and began the drive to our new home in London. We were on the road in the early afternoon and home by early evening.
Next: I See England, I See France


  1. "Next: I See England, I See France…"

    Who saw Bucky's underpants?

    I may not get to read your next installment until Sunday, or even Monday... Leave Friday for weekend trip to DC.

  2. Hey, if you see Michael Fay, tell him I said "Hi!" and that I really, really, really, love his blog!

    And have a great time!

  3. The ships name was U.S.S. General H.W. Butner. She arrived on 23 October 1953 and the Captain was D. Branneman Capt, USN. It says you were 8 1/2 and your sister was 2 1/2, mother was 29 and just about over the hill (smile).

    This is on and they had a free access to europe records (I was too cheap to buy the add-on).


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