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STREETLY, STAFFORDSHIRE MEMORIES  (1936 - 1961)

MY YANK, BOB
(late 1944)

by Chris Myers
 

My Yank, Bob

I was eight when I met my first American. He was a gentle, softly-spoken lad called Bob, of perhaps nineteen or twenty. He was a soldier, an infantryman, based at Pheasey.

My seventeen-year-old sister had befriended Bob at some local dance or even at the ice-rink in Birmingham. (What freedoms even well brought-up young girls were permitted in those days, despite the area being thronged with licentious soldiery). He had been wounded in Normandy and I am not sure whether he was destined to return to active combat. He hailed from somewhere in the mid-West, in the bible belt.

On Bob's first visit to our house, I was overjoyed and thrilled. As I say, he was the first American I had ever met. And not quite what I was expecting. No wise-cracking, nor chewed cigar, nor cowboy's white hat; no anxious, perspiring face looking out from under a strangely shaped helmet with its dangling, unfastened strap as the Japs approached through the jungle. All of these I had seen on our regular trips to the Avion at Aldridge. So I knew exactly what an American was going to be like. It was just a question of which version. It was all so exciting. And finally Bob appeared through the front door, politely greeted everyone and I had now met my first Yank.

Very early on in that first visit, I proudly boasted that I had some American money. Bob expressed polite interest and I bounded upstairs to my bedroom to retrieve it. I had been the proud owner for as long as I could remember of a number of these coins: they were particularly interesting because they were not metal, like our money, but plastic and in two or three different colours, red, green and blue, with 1c. or 2c. or 5c. on them. How very American and modern, I thought, to have money like this. A bit flimsy, compared with ours, I had to concede, but so colourful and different. I grabbed the little beaker I kept the coins in, bore it downstairs and triumphally emptied it out onto a coffee table. Polite interest changed immediately into uproarious laughter, from both Bob and Dad. Now, this was a bit of a blow. Pride was shattered. But you are limited as an eight-year-old as to what sort of reaction you can show in desperate circumstances like that. A flood of tears is of course no longer appropriate and would have evoked no sympathy whatsoever. A manly tear, quickly wiped away, would have been reasonable. But in the event, a quick acceptance of the mistake, illustrated by a rueful grin, was the preferred and correct response. Dad had the decency to explain the reason for the hilarity. These tiddelywink-like objects were merely tokens of some sort, to go into a vending machine or similar. He had picked them up during a business trip to the USA six years ago, in 1938; or even during the return voyage on the brand-new Queen Mary. I learned a couple of lessons that day: how to cope with feeling daft and what American money doesn't look like.

Bob's gentle nature, together with his old-fashioned courtesy and good manners, quickly endeared him to all the family. Dad, a survivor of the Western Front only 25 years previously, did once have a quiet chuckle about Bob's un-warlike demeanour and personality; he said he felt it difficult to visualise the gentle Bob running at the enemy with raised weapon and the glint of murderous intent in his eyes. But Bob had seen action and no doubt, just like Dad, had the scars to prove it. I never knew what sort of injury had brought him back to England from Normandy and out of danger. He always looked fit and well to me. But Dad knew. Bob wasn't permitted to mention the extent of his wounds in letters home and so my father undertook to write to his parents on his behalf. Many weeks later, a grateful reply appeared in which was enclosed a leaflet in beautiful Technicolor describing his home town - how I wish I had registered which it was - and marked up to show where Bob had gone to school, the church at which he and the family worshipped and other landmarks.

Bob visited us quite a few times, often bringing a precious can of peaches and perhaps a packet of chewing gum or sweets for me. So welcome to all of us. He must have walked - we lived in Chester Road, Streetly, two or three miles away from Pheasey; and probably on the odd occasion my father used some of his essential user's petrol allowance to run him back at night. He didn't have a bike as, of course, the four of us did - all leaning against each other in the garage together with a fifth, my brother's, now unused for the last two years and right at the back, thick with dust. Bob was there for our 1944 Christmas dinner to share our cockerel, a real treat. I can see him now, sitting on the other side of our dining table in his smart private's uniform with its smooth, good quality brown cloth - so different from my father's rough, Home Guard battledress, put away for good only a couple of weeks earlier. He ate in a manner which always intrigued me but which I was forbidden to imitate: knife in only occasional use and for most of the time lodged on the far side of the plate whilst the main work was done by the fork held in the right hand. I was assured by my parents privately that this was not the sign of an inadequate upbringing - it was how Americans did it.

At some stage Bob disappeared from the scene. He was probably posted away, perhaps back to France, perhaps elsewhere in this country. I was not conscious of his departure although I may have been present on the day of his last visit. On reflection, possibly playing gooseberry. I remember him offering my sister one of his insignia to remember him by - a wide, slim, metal, pin-on badge depicting an army rifle.

In fact he offered her two versions of this: one a dull, well-worn thing, perhaps his everyday one, the other pristine, gleaming, the colours bright. He asked her which one she would like. I knew that the polite thing would be to choose the scruffy one. I was shocked therefore to see my sister point to the new, gleaming version. Forever after I recalled it as the first example I had seen of the single-mindedness of the female of the species.

I don't know whether Bob returned to action or where he went after leaving Pheasey. I knew eventually, though, that he survived the war and he corresponded with my parents for several years afterwards. In what was probably his last letter, he told Mum and Dad that he was about to get married. As he put it in his gently humorous way: "I knew I couldn't marry Sheila and so I thought I had better find someone else......."

It's only as I write this, 77 years later, that it occurs to me that what Bob was offering my sister in January 1945 as an alternative, the scruffy one, was perhaps something really precious to him - the insignia which had accompanied him through thick and thin. Through training, Atlantic crossing, a strange country, more training, landing in France, goodness knows what experiences there, injury, hospital, convalescence. A trinket which, many years into the future and in happier times, he would be able to show to his (probably yawning) grandchildren as he told them tales of his time in Europe.

I'm glad, now, that my sister grabbed the new one, still in its cellophane wrapper.

 

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L8G April 2022

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