If it weren’t for the war.
Fifty years ago this winter, in February, 1958, I began my journalistic career as editor of a fledgling monthly newspaper, the Springdale News. I had just turned eleven.
A key ingredient to increasing readership is a crackerjack staff. We engaged correspondents from New York, California and Scotland. And that’s where this story starts.
How does one find a pen pal from Scotland?
We go back another generation, to World War II. In the summer of 1940, in the Battle of Britain, over 2,500 English schoolchildren were evacuated to the United States and Canada to protect them from Luftwaffe bombs and the anticipated German invasion.
Three young sisters were part of the last contingent to leave England aboard the Duchess of Atholl. After two weeks at sea, they arrived in Montreal, then journeyed to Worcester. That part of the evacuation was coordinated by my aunt, Louisa Dresser, head of the Worcester Placement Committee. Two of the sisters stayed with my family.
“I spent my time on deck, seasick on the crossing,” recalled Belinda Putley, one of the sisters. “It was an adventure.” Shortly after Pearl Harbor, the Putleys’ mother wrote my grandmother: “And now your burdens are getting so much greater. Now I am feeling that we should not have let the children go and that it is becoming too much of an imposition.” The children stayed.
For three years, Belinda lived at our house and went to school with our family. She said, “I had my two sisters with me, so we were not really not thrown out.”
In 1943, at the age of 17, she returned to England to join the war effort as part of the WRNS (Women’s Royal Naval Service) where she cooked for officers. “We had to serve poached eggs on round toast,” she recalled.
Belinda kept in touch with friends and family over the years, and it was through her that Martin Nichol, son of another of the sisters, became Scottish correspondent for the Springdale News, half a century ago. (The newspaper folded in 1966 after an eight-year run.)
This month, Belinda made the trip back to the states to meet friends she made during the war. She was accompanied by her nephew Martin and his Aussie wife Val. Belinda can’t believe time has passed so quickly; her gratitude is fresh. “Your family did so much for us,” she says. “It’s been great meeting younger versions of people I knew.” Martin echoed his aunt: “It’s the people who count.”
The three toured the house where Belinda stayed during the war, now home to Country Curtains at Sturbridge Village. They took in the opera in New York, gatherings in Worcester and friends on Cape Cod. And they stayed with Joyce and me to savor the flavor of the Vineyard from Featherstone to Menemsha, from Mytoi to Wasque. At 81, Ms. Putley is as spry as ever. As she says, “If it weren’t for the war, I never would have met the lovely Dresser family.”
How was Martin as a correspondent? He wrote a great deal about sailing, a little about political and economic matters in Scotland, and recently said: “I always got a charge about seeing an article under my byline of Scottish correspondent.” It was a good run.
The intertwining of families has been an experience forged by adversity and nourished over the years by friendly visits across the sea. We hope it continues into the next generation. And while the British don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, their visit was a Thanksgiving for all of us. Martin’s wife Val spoke from the heart: “We feel welcomed into the family.”
Tom Dresser lives in Oak Bluffs and contributes regularly to the Gazette.