The kindness of strangers
Recently, my TV service has featured a rash of World War II movies. Of course, for me, this always brings back memories: — some good and some bad. Those old enough to remember, I believe, know how significantly that time signified so much of the rest of our lives.
When my husband Don Hill Sr. first went into the Army Air Corps, I’d planned to stay at home working at my job in a defense plant. When Don found out he’d be staying for long periods of time at one station or the other, he made plans for me to join him. The first place was at Athens, W.Va. where he was studying at the college.
Getting there from Philadelphia, required an arduous train ride in a car, I think, had been used during Lincoln’s administration. Every time they turned on the heat, a multitude of roaches would come scurrying across the floor. I spent an inordinate amount of time sitting on a trunk in the baggage car to get away from the bugs. Suddenly, at a siding, the train stopped, backed up and headed up a sidetrack.
They picked up mail and what looked to be a lot of milk containers, and then headed back to the main tracks, about an hour later stopping at a regular station. This gave people time to get out and buy food, etc. I purchased a pork sandwich from a woman who was selling her goods from the platform. Even to this day, I’ve never had a better sandwich.
My train trip ended at Bluefield, W.Va. From there I took a trolley, disembarking at the next stop Princeton. I then went to Athens, the final part of the trip by bus, traveling through the beautiful hills of West Virginia. Don picked me up. We stayed one night at a nice family home, sleeping on a bed with a straw mattress. Those people were so friendly, and they invited us to have dinner with them.
The following day, a room was made available next door with an elderly lady named Mrs. Rolls. Her home was used as a boarding house for soldier’s wives. There were four bedrooms. We paid 10 dollars a week for the room, linen and two meals a day. It was there I learned how to make yeast rolls and stewed apples, the stapples of our meals.
The home’s only heat was a wood stove in the living room. Mrs. Rolls would fill that iron monster with wood each morning, getting the living quarters warmed. I remember how bitter cold it was upstairs that winter. In the morning, the wives would huddle together in the living room, waiting to have breakfast. Each day we had a nicely cooked meal that always included huge extra plates of those yeast rolls and apples.
We soon learned to fill up in the morning since breakfast was served at 8 a.m. and dinner at 6 p.m. By then we were hungry puppies, unless of course we headed out to eat lunch at the only small restaurant in that tiny town. The government paid $50 a month for spouse support. With our rooms costing $10 a week most of us didn’t have much extra left for lunch.
On weekends the husbands could eat with us for a few extra dollars. I also got to meet a lot of other wives staying in other homes. One stayed with the town’s dentist and his family. Their home was absolutely gorgeous, something like five bedrooms, central heating, etc., and they served “three meals a day.” Of course it cost a lot more than I was paying.
However, I fondly remember the kindness of this dentist’s wife. She invited those from other homes to come visit her as often as possible. About once a week she’d have “a tea party,” as she called it, complete with really great fancy sandwiches and cookies.
I learned a lot of lessons; that short stay in Athens. During that Christmas holiday was when we learned of families that needed help.
Some families lived in homes without electricity. We met a family whose father was injured in World War I. Half his face was gone and he was unemployed. We were so very young, way back then. However, the blessing of lessons learned, and the kindnesses of total strangers who opened their hearts and homes to us, became a part of this old lady’s life she will never forget, and always appreciate.
Edna Van Leuven is a Churchill County writer and columnist. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org