SEVENTY-SEVEN YEARS ago Major Melody, a tall, handsome American Army officer, had begged my mother to be allowed to take me, the youngest of her five daughters, to dinner at the nearby US army camp. I loved it when Major Melody hugged me and insisted on holding my hand. There he was, at the door, and we stepped into the warm balm of a Devonshire evening and jumped into an open-top Jeep.
On arrival at the camp, Major Melody helped me to the ground and took my hand as we entered a long, low wooden building. This barrack room was full of soldiers sitting on their bunks, polishing belts, boots, and reading books. Throwing open a door at the end, my escort said, “This is my room.” I quickly perched on the only chair and asked him about the photographs. He said, with pride, “That’s my Mom, my aunty Delphine, my friend Delores. Come on, if we’re going to get any chow, we have to leave now.” Major Melody took my hand, and we entered a cavernous, echoing canteen. He propelled me towards a space on a wooden bench and said that he hoped I didn’t mind, but Private Arnold would look after me because he had to go and sit on the platform and say the grace.
The soldiers were packed in shoulder to shoulder and I was surrounded by big smiles and gentle manners. I was passed freshly baked bread, smothered in real butter, which smelled like heaven. Private Arnold said, “Call me Joe” and I asked him which state he was from. He told me it was the golden one. Someone nearby shouted, “The best damn state in the whole world, California!” and then a quartet on another table sang, ‘Deep in the Heart of Texas’ at top volume and I was glad because, although too shy to join in the singing, I rather liked the clapping chorus and joined in with that enthusiastically. The soldiers on my table were impressed, and followed it up with a rousing chorus of ‘Dixie’. I ventured to join in with this and everyone was laughing and it was grand.
Joe served me a big spoonful of reddish brown steaming beans, and I was at a loss to know what I do. I did not have a spoon or a fork and thought it was probably impolite to point this out. I looked at my plate and burst into tears. A big hairy hand shoved a paper serviette at me and my nearest neighbours begged me to stop. They tried to work out what the matter was. “She’s never seen baked beans.” “The English don’t eat baked beans in the evening.” “She wants them in a sandwich.” “She needs a bun.” “The Major asked her to tea and that’s what she thought she was going to get.”
Joe went to get the Major, who helped me away from the bench and said it was time for me to go home. He scooped me up in his arms and carried me to the Jeep. Dismissing the driver, he put his beautifully tailored (Mother’s words) greatcoat on the back seat, fur lining up, and ushered me to sit on it, wrapping it around me. “There, snug as a bug in a rug.” I watched the back of his head as he drove us home and could not stop myself peeing as I had been too upset and shy to ask for a toilet at the camp. I hoped that the fur would absorb most of it. Mother could not understand why I did not invite him to my sixth birthday party the following week.