Friday, October 29, 2010

23. More about Rainbow Corner and the war ends.

But, back to Rainbow Corner. Most of the soldiers visiting the Club were just passing through London on their way to Europe. One day three boys from Brooklyn, wearing their infantry uniform and boots, arrived at the information desk where I was on duty. They begged me to spend the following day with them, to show them around London, and I agreed. We rode on open deck buses, drove round in taxis, played idiotic games in Regents Park and laughed a lot. The next day they had to travel by troop train to the coast, where they would embark for Normandy. Please would I go with them? I explained that I could not travel in a troop train. Well, would I travel down on an earlier train? They just wanted me to be there to see them off. What could I say? I went ahead, met their train, watched them depart in a convoy and felt terribly sad.

In 2009 I visited the American Forces cemetery in Normandy, and gazed at the thousands of crosses, row upon row, and wondered how many of those boys had passed through Rainbow Corner and if I had danced or dined with any of them. How many black and white soldiers were buried, side by side, something that would not have happened back home, and I especially thought about the three Boys from Brooklyn who had been so reluctant to wave me goodbye.

There was one particular Corporal stationed nearby called Johnny Byers and we saw each other whenever he was in London. Sometimes he would visit my family. Maureen had quite a crush on him and mother liked him too and was very thrilled when Mrs. Byers sent her a beautiful lace table cloth. We were great friends, but he was 'off limits' because he was engaged to a girl back home. Before joining the army he had worked in “summer stock” which was some sort of repertory theatre and he was determined to become an actor so we enjoyed many visits to the theatre together. After he returned to America he wrote to say that his engagement was broken and would I marry him. I said yes, and the paper work was going through for me to follow him as a GI bride-to-be. He was really nice, but although we were friends for a long time, I don’t think I was truly in love with him because as soon as I met Tom no one else in the world mattered.

One person who was particular kind to me at Rainbow Corner was Lady Charles Cavendish, previously known as Adele Astair the dancing sister of Fred. She was loud, brash, down to earth, and great fun. One day I paged her on the intercom, in my most upper class voice, “Paging Lady Charles Cavendish, paging Lady Charles Cavendish”. She came rushing to the desk asking “Who the hell is paging Lady Charles Cavendish I’m Adele for Christ Sake.” She wore a solid gold charm bracelet, full of charms, which must have weighed five pounds, there were so many charms it was impossible to see each one. I adored her and when Fred Astair visited the club she introduced me to him. He was exactly like his movie image, kind and charming with that same big, natural grin.

Burgess Meredith came to the club to make a propaganda movie about the Yanks in London. Part of it was being filmed in the dance hall, Glen Miller’s band was there and Beatrice Lilly who sang “There are Fairies At The Bottom Of Our Garden!” about fifty times before the cameras got the take right. I think she was supposed to represent the type of entertainment the boys were getting in London, although why the Yanks would be interested in having fairies at the bottom of the garden I cannot imagine! Quite the reverse I would have thought. I was quite pretty and one of the crew took me over to Mr. Meredith and suggested I play one of the bit parts in the film. He gave me one very brief look and said “No. She is not photogenic.” How true. Apart from the picture the young Major took I have never taken a good picture in my life and avoid being photographed whenever possible, so I could never have been a movie star, other than a comedic one.

The British troops were very jealous of the Yanks. The Yanks were overpaid, oversexed and over here! No one would have believed that I emerged from their company intact, although there were some heated sessions in telephone boxes! But although it was touch and go, literally, with some very near misses, I was terrified of getting pregnant. The Yanks were well supplied with condoms but the thought of “going all the way” terrified me. Mother firmly believed that I was a virgin when I joined the WAAF because I had been examined by a doctor who, according to mother, wrote that I was virgo intacto or however you spell it. “After all,” as she said to my father “if she had not been a virgin they would not have accepted her into the Air Force!.” Did she think we won the war with the help of a handful of virgins?

Some of the Americans stationed in London occupied flats and after one evening at the Coconut Grove Night Club, where I am sure my soft drinks had been laced with brandy, I was offered a bed for the night in the flat occupied by my escort and some friends. I was shown into a single room with a single bed. Sleep had barely overtaken me when I felt someone trying to get in beside me, so I leapt out, ran to the nearest door and dashed through it. It happened to be the door of the wardrobe, and as I listened to my drunken escort plunging through the flat, cursing and looking for me, I accepted that I would be spending the night among greatcoats and army boots.

I was very naive even at eighteen. I vaguely knew that a female made a seed and a male seed met up with it and made a baby. What I did not know was that there were millions of the little beggars in every shoot. All my mother ever said on the subject was “For heaven’s sake don’t get pregnant. Your father will kill you!” Movie censors ruled that if a scene involved a man and a woman being on a bed together the man must keep one foot firmly on the floor. Since then I have seen some pretty hectic sex on TV - even with both feet on the floor.

June 1945 and the war in Europe was over. Selfishly, because the war with Japan was not over and many military personnel and civilians were still dying in the East, we celebrated. At last we would be able to sleep at night, there would be no more air raids, and we could discard the hated cardboard gas mask boxes. I went out into the streets on my own and joined the jubilant crowds. I was among the thousands who gathered in front of Buckingham Palace, and when The Royal Family came out on to the balcony I cheered through my tears until my throat was dry. Strangers kissed and hugged one another, and many did more than that in the empty doorways and in the parks. The buses stopped running at 11.00 pm and a policeman stopped a car going towards Earls Court to see if the driver could take me home. The driver agreed, failing to say that he was on his way to Chatham to take a sailor back to his ship before he became AWOL (absent without leave). So, on the morning after VE Day I was having breakfast in Chatham and walking on the beach. It was a night of madness. As predicted in my under the stairs poem, “the lights came on and cheers resounded”. Soon all the Yanks would go home and Rainbow Corner would close down.

My carefree life of fun and excitement collapsed around me like a pack of cards. Barbara was offered a passage back to Canada and would leave shortly, and I could not pay the rent for the room on my own. No job, no home that I would willingly return to, and nowhere to go. When would the next door open for me? Where would it lead to?

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