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In the TrenchesAdventures in Journalism and Public Affairs
By John Adams
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 John Adams
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBombs, Big Ben, and the Three Alpha News
It was the summer of 1939 – one of the better summers in England – when soldiers suddenly invaded our local park and started digging trenches.
This made games of hide-and-seek much more fun, until the trenches got too deep and we couldn't get out without help. We were warned not to play in them anymore.
What were the trenches for? "The war," they told us. But in August there was no war, just endless sunny days. And even if there was a war, what would the trenches do to stop it? We couldn't figure it out.
Did they expect the Germans just to fall into the trenches and surrender? Or did they expect our families to hide in the trenches? We were finally told that the trenches were to help soldiers defend the balloon station in the center of the park.
The balloon station was fun. Soldiers kept inflating and deflating huge, silver, Dumbo-like balloons, called barrage balloons. They sent the inflated ones hundreds of feet into the air, then brought them down again, then up again, all the time adjusting the wires that tethered them to the ground. My school pals and I were lost in wonder. We did not want to go home. We wanted to help with the balloons.
Ours was just one of many balloon stations all over London that eventually created a giant silver canopy over the city, a magical sight. The idea was to deter German planes from flying over the city, or from flying so low that they would get entangled in the multiple wires of the balloons.
As we excitedly discussed all of this, we were brought up against a new reality. Our school was about to be evacuated to an unknown destination. Here was another new adventure about to begin. As we boarded a special train, we had no idea how long our journey would be. As it turned out, the journey wasn't too long, just an hour or two to a station called Hemel Hempstead and Boxmoor, which we had never heard of. After a headcount to make sure no one had been lost, we boarded buses that took us to a large church hall, where we all sat on the floor waiting for local residents to come by and decide which of us they were willing to accept into their homes. It was a long wait. Girls were preferred since they were expected to be better behaved. I was among the last group of ragtag boys. As the hall emptied, we began to wonder what would happen if no one claimed us. Would they send us back to London? Finally, a billeting officer showed up and said she had found someone willing to take us in.
Two days later, on Sunday morning, September 3, war was declared.
A fellow evacuee and I were fishing for tiddlers in a river near our new home when three piercingly loud sirens sounded just before noon. We were not sure what the sirens were for until a man passing by told us they meant war had started with Germany. He advised us to go home. As seven-year-old Londoners, we had never seen a natural river or stream before and were reluctant to give up our newfound activity, war or no war. We could see no bombers overhead and doubted that they could see us. But eventually everything became eerily quiet, so we knew something must be up.
Where was home? At this point, it was a tiny four-room row house to which four of us boy evacuees had been sent to live with a truck driver's family in this country town of Hemel Hempstead, about twenty-five miles northwest of London. The driver's wife was a warm, loving woman with two children of her own. She took great care of us and was a lot less bossy than our own mothers, whom we had left behind in London, and who still had no idea where we were.
Children below school age, such as my three-year-old brother, were evacuated with their mothers at a different time and to a different place. In our case, they were sent to Bletchley, another country town about seventy miles away, where they were "billeted" with the local vicar and his wife, who were far less welcoming than our truck driver's wife. The vicar treated my mother as free kitchen help and accommodated her in the servants' quarters. She was not allowed to use the phone and allowed out for a walk only with special permission. It was a miserable situation. The lack of phone communication was a problem for many families who had been suddenly evacuated, without knowing their final destination. Phones were by no means as universal as they are today. My father was still living at our flat in London, but had no phone and no car. Eventually, he discovered where we all were and how to reach us by bus and train.
This meant my freedom was coming to an end. Meantime, on weekend mornings, I had acquired a job helping Horace, an elderly milkman, deliver milk to the neighborhood. His milk cart was pulled by an equally elderly horse who knew exactly where to stop and start without any word from anyone. Again, having freshly arrived from London, where few horses were to be seen, I found this whole scene totally fascinating.
Eventually, to our chagrin, our school reorganized itself and we were called to classes. Our new schoolhouse was a large, drafty Victorian building that had been scheduled for demolition. Nothing worked, including the toilets. There was no school furniture, so we were instructed to bring newspapers to sit on during class. This was all still a great adventure, especially when the weather turned cold and our classrooms were warmed by huge coal fires, around which we sat drinking our milk and eating lunch as if on a picnic.
After a few weeks some secondhand desks arrived, and we settled into a more regular routine. Our first school reader was Les Misérables, a bit heavy for our age level, but probably the only book available in sufficient quantities. I developed a great admiration for our teachers, who were also evacuees, but performed the role of foster parents and tried to make life as pleasant as possible for us.
At age ten, I was lucky enough to win a scholarship to our local secondary school, the Hemel Hempstead Grammar School, a fairly new school that already had established a strong academic reputation and is still ranked among the best in the country, though to the dismay of many alumni it eventually dropped the word Grammar in its name.
By now, my mother, father, and younger brother had discovered our hideaway and rented a house nearby, where we all lived together for the rest of the war. My father, a veteran of World War I, commuted to London six days a week, where he managed a department store, and served as an air raid warden during his time off. When my brother was old enough to go to school, my mother took a job making bomb cases. There was no shortage of jobs. It seemed that every family in England was engaged in the war effort in one way or another.
Hemel Hempstead was close enough to London that we could see the sky lit up with searchlights and fires as the German bombing raids increased. An aunt's coffee-roasting business in central London was bombed. Fortunately, she was not hurt, but for the next several weeks she carried on her roasting business with no roof and only half a wall. The noise from the anti-aircraft guns was often much louder and more frightening than that of the bombs.
Hemel had its own colossal searchlight, operated by a team of young women soldiers with whom we enjoyed flirting on our way home from school while waiting for night to fall. We were not a main target of the enemy bombers, but we were close enough to the American air base at Bovingdon that we attracted occasional attention. We often awoke to sirens warning that German bombers were in the area and we became quite expert at identifying the distinctive throb of their engines. Our house had no basement, so if the bombers seemed to be getting too close, our parents would insist that my brother and I sleep on a mattress beneath the staircase – the safest place, apparently, if the house was hit.
"This is London"
My journalistic career began almost immediately. Because of the war, we were all intensely interested in the news. Each morning, we learned from the radio about the previous night's bombing attacks, which cities had been hit, the number of casualties, how many German planes had been shot down, and how many of our own were missing. In the evening, we never missed the BBC's main newscast of the day, the Nine O'Clock News, which led off with the reassuring chimes of Big Ben and was followed by the news in French for the men of the Maquis, the French resistance. This was preceded for several minutes by a stirring drumbeat of the Morse signal for V (for Victory) and the announcer's dramatic words, Ici Londres (This is London). My spine still tingles when I think about it. For us kids, it was beyond exciting; it made us feel part of a worldwide struggle between good and evil.
There was also a darker side, when classmates' families received official letters notifying them that their fathers or brothers had been killed or wounded in action. One morning, a close friend learned that his father had lost his life when the Germans scored a direct hit on his warship, the HMS Hood, killing virtually all on board. Another friend's brother was killed in jungle fighting in Malaya. In my own family, a cousin was seriously wounded and decorated for bravery in France, and a half brother was wounded in the Norwegian campaign. Meanwhile, an occasional bomb exploded too close to the school, sending us all scampering to the basement, where classes continued among walls of sandbags. Tough for the teachers to make themselves heard. Great fun for us kids.
Against this background, it was often difficult to focus on the intricacies of French grammar or English poetry, although there was a line in one poem that we all remembered, from the poet Rupert Brooke, who had died in World War I. "If I should die," he wrote, "think only this of me: that there's some corner of a foreign field that is forever England." He did die in a foreign field, and at that point in our lives, we felt there was every chance that we might soon follow him.
It was against this background, too, that I became an amateur journalist—as founder, publisher, and editor of the Three Alpha News, our class newspaper, written and illustrated by hand and circulated for a penny a look. The school had no printing press, paper was in short supply, and we could not afford a commercial printer, so we made one copy and hoped people would pay a penny to read it. This turned out not to be a good business model, but it was fun to do and it introduced me to the magic of journalism.
Then—at age fourteen—I had my first article published in a national newspaper. The war had just ended, and I wrote about the election fever then gripping the country, including me. I wrote it by hand after doing my homework one evening and mailed it in to the four million-circulation Daily Mirror, then Britain's biggest newspaper. I did not expect to hear back, and I didn't. We had no phone at home. But about a week later, a neighbor told me she had read it and congratulated me. When I saw it in the paper, I was embarrassed—the editors had given it a huge headline, and the article filled most of a page. Quite a large check soon followed. It was at this point, I think, that I decided to become a journalist. It did not seem too difficult.
My journalistic education really began when my cousin, Patricia FitzGerald, a gifted writer who should have been a journalist but became a wartime nurse instead, gave me a copy of the autobiography of a distinguished British correspondent named Philip Gibbs, one of the great frontline reporters of World War I. After that, I read every book I could find on the subject in the local public library—and the more I read, the more exciting the prospect became. Journalists seemed to lead wonderful lives, filled with adventure, dealing with important matters and important people, influencing events, and enjoying the warm comradeship of fellow journalists. One of the greatest attractions, for me, was that there were no barriers to entry. No exams. No university degree required. The only academic requirement was that you should know or be willing to learn shorthand (tape recorders were as yet unknown).
So when the time came for me to leave school, just after my sixteenth birthday, I became an apprentice reporter on the local weekly paper, the Hemel Hempstead Gazette. This, I understood, was the normal way to start. In those days, few journalists ever attended a university. We liked to boast that our university was the "real world." The Gazette was housed in a once-grand Edwardian mansion on the main street. The owner and his family, wonderfully kind and generous people, lived upstairs. The offices were on the ground floor. A large office was assigned to the advertising and business staff and a smaller one to the editorial staff, consisting of a news editor and two reporters, of which I was now one. The only typewriter and only phone were in the advertising office, so we wrote all our copy by hand, and instead of asking permission to use the phone, we usually opted for face-to-face meetings with our sources. Since it was a fairly small town, this was easy enough.
"Names Make News"
My first reporting assignment was to find and interview the delivery man of a local liquor store, who was also secretary of the Old Contemptibles. This was an organization of World War I veterans that proudly derived its name from Kaiser Wilhelm's description of Britain's "contemptible little army"—an army that eventually helped win the war. My story was considered satisfactory, so I was given a more important assignment—writing the weekly "Kiddies Corner" under the pen name of Uncle George. This was a task for Saturday mornings. On Saturday afternoons, I covered local events such as flower shows and soccer matches, which I had to write up on Sundays to provide early copy for the printers on Monday morning. Altogether, there was not much free time. But I loved every minute.
One of the great things about working for a local paper, I discovered, was that you were a key person in the community. Without you, most people wouldn't know what was going on, and their prize chrysanthemums and dahlias would go unremarked, as would the winners of the darts matches in the pubs, the village whist drives, and the local weddings. "Names make news" was our mantra, so we always mentioned as many people as possible. You also learn a great deal about your town and how it works. You discover that the mayor—usually a key news source with an outsize ego—expects to appear in at least one flattering photo each week, preferably on the front page. I later discovered that clergymen, even bishops and cardinals, shared the same desire for worldly recognition and confirmation of their importance. This came as something of a surprise.
The biggest story I ever had to cover for the Gazette was the visit of Queen Elizabeth II, then just twenty-five years old. This was one of her first public appearances, and everybody wanted to be seen with her and to talk with her. She had a porcelain-like quality, very gentle and strikingly beautiful, and, like her much-revered mother, found time for everybody. To use the terminology of the day, her smile was "radiant," and she bestowed it generously on everyone. The visit was a great success. She was the first monarch to visit the town since Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn stopped by in 1539, when the king granted the town its royal charter. I was the only reporter covering the Queen's visit for our paper, which presented quite a logistical challenge, since her automobile route was some three miles long and I was on foot. Though I ran pretty fast, I couldn't be everywhere to catch what she did or said. Fortunately, we also had a photographer with a bicycle, so our coverage was primarily photos and captions—and headlines.
Another big story that came my way was the discovery of medieval wall paintings in a cottage just outside the town, in a hamlet called Piccotts End. These five-hundred-year-old religious scenes were found when a young couple moved in and decided to scrape the walls before applying new wallpaper. The priceless frescoes were unfortunately damaged by spear marks, said by experts to have been made by Cromwell's soldiers when marauding through the area attacking religious symbols—adding, nevertheless, to the historical interest. It became a great story for the national press, and the group of historic cottages went on to become a major tourist attraction, which they still are today. I discovered that being the first to find stories and tell the world about them is part of the true joy of journalism.
Excerpted from In the Trenches by John Adams Copyright © 2012 by John Adams. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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