My father, Staff Sgt. Bill King, had grown up in Colbert, near Athens, and had been drafted early in 1943 at age 20. Assigned to the U.S. Army Transportation Corps, he just recently had arrived in Abergavenny, near Cardiff, at the time of the dance.
My mother, Mollie Parry, was 17. The war had prevented her from going to university, so she was working in a local bank. She went to the dance with a Welsh lieutenant, but she ended up being escorted home by my father. (She was told the lieutenant had been called back to headquarters, and had asked Dad to see that she got home. What she didn’t know was that some of my father’s friends had gotten the lieutenant caught up throwing cards into a hat in the cloakroom during intermission of the dance.)
Bill and Mollie made a date to go to the movies the next night, and, afterward, she invited him in for a cup of tea. Her mother, Elizabeth Parry, recognized her daughter’s date as the young American soldier she’d seen walking by their house every morning. She had been impressed by how smart he looked, but noticed he had a bad cough, which she figured was due to smoking.
A day or two later, Gran went to the family doctor and asked him for a prescription for cough medicine. The doctor assumed it was for my mother, but Gran told him, “No, but there’s this nice young American, and he has a cough.”
The doctor said, “Mrs. Parry, you can’t mother the world.”
To which my grandmother answered, “Well, I’ll have a very good try!”
And that brings us to Dad’s 21st birthday party in January 1944. Mom and Dad had been dating steadily, and my grandmother thought he was “a lovely boy,” while he thought she was the nicest lady he’d ever met. Dad had spent Christmas with the Parry family and felt very much at home at their big house on Lion Street, though he was billeted in another home nearby.
Gran was surprised to learn from Dad that he’d never had a birthday party. So, despite Britain’s strict wartime rationing, she determined to throw him a party, and told him to invite his friends and tell them they could bring dates.
Writing years later in a journal she did for her sons and grandchildren, Mom recalled: “Mummy made a birthday cake (and) there were all kinds of sandwiches, sausage rolls, biscuits, individual trifles, wine, punch and ginger beer to drink.”
Gran and one of Mom’s sisters, Betty, decorated the sitting rooms with streamers and 21st birthday signs.
That weekend, Gran also decided to cook my Dad a real Southern American meal. She asked him what that would consist of, and he told her “fried chicken, creamed potatoes, green beans, sliced tomatoes and hot biscuits.”
Of course, to the British, “biscuits” are cookies, but, after questioning him, she determined that Southern biscuits were rather like scones without the sugar.
For the fried chicken, she was willing to sacrifice one of the pullets she kept out back (for eggs to supplement the family’s meager food rations).
All of my mother’s five brothers were on active duty in the war, but her closest brother in age, also named Bill, was home on leave from the Royal Navy. Gran assigned the two Bills to catch one of the pullets and kill it.
There ensued a comical scene in which the two tried unsuccessfully to dispatch the unlucky bird, so Gran had to go out and wring its neck herself, before plucking and cleaning it. Then, she cut it up, per my Dad’s instructions, and fried it.
As Mom recalled, “Since it was January, the green beans had to be canned, and the tomatoes were replaced with pickled beetroot. The dinner was delicious — everyone enjoyed it, especially the birthday boy. He wrote home about it and his mother’s response was, ‘Why didn’t she make banana pudding, too?’”
Of course, the British had not seen bananas for several years, but Gran had provided a creamy rice pudding, which the two Bills polished off.
(Years later, when my mother took me home to Wales for my first visit, at age 3, Gran made me a rice pudding every single day, because she thought I was terribly underweight.)
Mom and Dad got engaged that April, on my mother’s 18th birthday, but their permission to get married (ultimately signed by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower) had not yet come through by the time Dad left for London in July. However, once he was there, he got it processed.
Then, he was sent to France in late July, where his unit worked to make sure that Gen. George Patton’s Third Army didn’t run out of gasoline.
Allied troops rolled into Paris in August 1944, and that’s where Dad was stationed for the remainder of the war.
Furloughs were being granted only to married soldiers, but he volunteered for courier duty, flying across the channel with a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist, in order to make it back to London, where he tracked down the colonel in charge at a cocktail party and was given verbal permission to go to Wales to get married. However, the colonel warned him that, if he got stopped by MPs, his papers said Paris, and the officer would deny any knowledge of him.
Arriving in Abergavenny at 7:30 a.m. after an all-night train ride from London, delayed by German V-1 buzz bombs, my parents were married at St. Mary’s parish church at 10 a.m. on All Saints’ Day; the local U.S. major sent a Jeep for Dad at 5:30 p.m. The next day, he was back in Paris.
He got back to Wales for one furlough six months later, and was shipped back to the U.S. in late 1945. My parents were reunited in March 1946, after Mom sailed to New York on a ship full of British war brides. They settled in Athens.
When I was growing up, my parents viewed WWII as “the last of the good wars,” as Dad told an interviewer from the Athens Regional Library Heritage Room in 1994. Partly, that was because the threat was clear, and “everyone pulled together,” as Dad said. But, also, without the war, my parents never would have met.
And Dad wouldn’t have had that 21st birthday party.
A year or so before the library session, a French reporter, working on stories for the 50th anniversary of D-Day, visited Athens and interviewed my parents. She asked Dad how he felt when he knew he had to go to war overseas.
“At the time,” he said, “it was something I had to do.”
But, Dad added, “as it turned out, it was a great adventure for me because of the things that happened … that affected the rest of my life.”
Read more tales of a World War II romance at Bill King’s Quick Cuts blog, billkingquickcuts.wordpress.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more stories like this by liking Atlanta Restaurant Scene on Facebook, following @ATLDiningNews on Twitter and @ajcdining on Instagram.