War’s soundtrack

In almost every photograph of my mother taken when she was a child, she was by the sea. Sometimes she beamed right into the camera, posing as if she was on the stage. In my favorite, she giggles entirely to herself, clutching her seashells as her polka dot dress balloons in the breeze. Her tiny body casts a huge shadow across the sand. Caught by the photographer, her arms extended, she leaned into her unsteady steps in cream buckled shoes—a bundle of blond innocence in motion by the seaside.

Days before England declared war against Germany, families stubbornly trekked down to the East Anglian beachfront, not knowing how long the memories of what could be their final holiday for some time would have to last. Less than a month before Prime Minister Chamberlain laid down the gauntlet, my mother and her family, like other families, spent their last few days by the sea at West Runton, a seaside resort on the north Norfolk coast.

This is the way I picture my mother’s last holiday by the sea. The salty breeze had nearly chased a sluggish cold from my mother’s chest, and she, anxious to enjoy the waning days of the summer sea, absorbed the wind, the sunlight, and the beach. For hours, she sat mesmerized by bobbing sailboats the size of milk cartons dwarfed by miles of ocean. Oblivious to the spirited voices soaring over the radio, she waited patiently in the warmth for her mother to unpack the picnic basket full of cucumber, tomato, and beef sandwiches, sliced apples, and orange sponge cake.

Pinched strains of organ music drifted between the sculpted legs of winking ceramic horses on the carousel, each rotation a kaleidoscopic blur. Children clamored at the skirts of their mothers, begging for a turn on the merry-go-round, its colors bright against the faltering sky. Mothers glanced at each other, waiting for the first handbag to open. The women knew that the first days of war were around the calendar’s corner. An unspoken signal passed faintly between the young women. Purses clasped shut. “Look at the sea darling and the seagulls diving into the water to pluck a fish for their midday dinner. Soon we shall have a picnic on the beach,” one mother tried in vain to turn her child’s attention away from the silent ponies.

Along the East Anglian beachfront, holiday visitors rented huts along the boardwalk. Shelves piled with swimsuits and towels, picnic baskets and thermoses, puzzles and toys, books, and straw hats burst at the seams. Children trimmed sandcastles with smooth pebbles worn by centuries’ waves. The men poured over crossword puzzles, listening to cricket games broadcast over portable radios. Women engaged in animated conversations swapped sandwiches back and forth across blankets.

Next door to my grandmother’s beach hut, a man named Dr. Ware, also from Bury St. Edmunds, stared intently at his radio. With his discarded crossword beside him, he gazed hopelessly at sea, watching the children chase each other through the sand and the foam. Turning to my grandmother, he declared, “There is going to be a war. Let’s go home.”

Vulnerable since before the Napoleonic Wars and during Elizabeth I, the East Anglian coastline was a primary target for invasion by Hitler, especially after the fall of the Netherlands and Belgium in 1940. Coastal stretches of pebbled and sandy beaches, emptied of holiday visitors, resembled a prison yard. Tentacles of eight-foot-high, barbed wire barricades slithered along the coast for miles to impede invasion and along the coast of southern England; the areas of Plymouth, Portsmouth, and Dover earned the unsavory title of Hell’s Corner.

That August day, word spread across blankets and over picnic hampers, along the shoreline, and through the line of beach huts. Within hours, my mother’s family left for home. At age three, my mother glimpsed her first image of war from a train window. Passing through the Norwich station, the train slowed long enough for her to see hundreds of sobbing young children, crammed shoulder to shoulder, reluctantly listening to Red Cross workers. London’s children, shepherded into lines matching their destination tags, were being evacuated to the country, away from the bombing, away from their families. My mother saw children like her huddled together with their name tags and gas mask boxes swaying around their necks through plate glass. The government had issued gas masks months before, and evacuation waves were escalating. My mother remembers the gas masks made the children look like miniature elephants, their noses shifting and swinging with each step.

Arriving home from West Runton, my mother and grandmother returned to find two little girls, and their mother from Bethel Green had been billeted with the family. Though the three evacuees had traveled only seventy miles from London to Bury St. Edmunds, the country surroundings and the absence of noisy red Double Decker busses and black taxicabs unnerved the East End children; many children arriving in the English countryside during the evacuation waves had never seen a cow or a sheep before their journey.

After introductions, the mothers agreed to consider boundaries dividing the house between the two families. Routines for preparing meals, quietly arranged by the two young mothers, go unnoticed by the children. My mother’s family retreated to the back of the house, the East End family to the front rooms, only meeting in the evenings around the wireless to listen to news about the war.

September 3, 1939. A Sunday morning. Gardens, spared by an early frost, still bloomed. The air carried summer winds inland from the sea. The shipping forecast predicted steady waters and a cloudless sky. Great Britain declared war against Germany. The women around my mother sipped cups of rationed tea in West Road’s front room, listening to Prime Minister Chamberlain’s declaration of war against Germany on the wireless.

France and the Netherlands had fallen to the German invasion within days, and now only eighteen miles of the English Channel separated the French coast from England.

When the church bells rang, the circle of women around my mother wept. The thundering church bells, silenced by government order, would ring again only if England faced invasion or if the war was over.

A disembodied voice of the radio commentator, church bells fading into the crackling wireless, and the sound of her mother crying, this was the soundtrack of war my mother always remembered.