1946 - Agnes Moves to Canada as a War Bride
I left Manchester Airport Wednesday morning, September 18th, 1946 to travel via Paris, Shannon, Gander and New York. This was only four months after seven years of World War II. Our connection in Paris – Orly Airport was not available until Friday morning – planes in those days were just beginning to think about flying a load of passengers and baggage across oceans. They were either new ones that didn’t have any airmiles under their belt, or ex-warplanes that were being refurbished to carry paying passengers. They looked alright, had four engines, and carried forty passengers – and that was the best part of them, there was plenty of room to walk around with seats in twos down either side of the plane. Of course, they wobbled somewhat if there was anything worth looking at and there were no blinds on the windows, so whenever the pilot yelled “lights can be seen on the left” all forty of us stood up at the left side windows and immediately heard “Oops! Back to your seats please, we don’t want to roll.”
Anyhow, we had to spend one night in a hotel room overlooking the West Bank, compliments of Air France. I am sure I was the only person there who couldn’t speak a word of French. The only high schools in England were for the rich or the very brainy poor who could pass a scholarship examination at eleven years of age, and then they were allowed in high school until 16 years of age IF they could scrape up the money for bus fares every day, books and uniforms. So I stayed in my hotel until it was time to get in the bus to go to the airport, therefore I was very hungry by the time we landed in Shannon Airport, Ireland.
Some hours later, after enjoying our first non-rationed meal since August, 1939, we got back in the plane for the long flight over the Atlantic to Gander, Newfoundland. You have to realize that, at this time in history, Newfoundland was a foreign country – not part of Canada. However, we’d been flying for several hours when we saw lights ahead and heard the pilot’s voice again “Sorry, folks, this isn’t Gander, we’re coming down into Shannon again. If you look out the windows on the left without leaving your seats – and please fasten your seatbelts – you will notice that only three of our four propellers are spinning round.” So we returned to ground to be met by ambulances, doctors, nurses – and a handful of reporters, all of which expected us to roll over as we landed.
But we fooled them, and the pilot and the few engineers who happened to be around the airport went to work on the plane. We all stood around. It was still early morning, but we were bog-eyed because in those days the French Airlines cracked open the champagne bottles as soon as it was okay to unfasten seatbelts. After two hours, the pilot gave the signal for all the baggage to be returned to the plane; and, with that extra weight he did a test fly around. Back to earth he called “Get the bodies back on, we might be able to do it.: So all passengers reboarded. We circled for about 15 minutes doing most things except loop the loop. There were a few funny noises, and we stayed away from the water – and the pilot returned to terra firma with the remark “Unload everything. She’s no good. I must return to France and get a better plane.” Passengers were loaded on to a bus to pass the time touring the country – and went to Limerick and Blarney Castle and, believe me, I thought that was as good a time as any to contort myself and kiss the old Blarney Stone for luck.
Sometime in the very early hours of the next morning, after we were all lying down on the floor trying to get a little shut-eye, the pilot returned and forty very tired people and their baggage were shunted on board. That time we made it to Gander, but you can imagine our surprise when we were met by rows of ambulances, fire-engines, doctors, nurses and reporters. My main thought was “I’m glad I kissed that Blarney Stone.” However, it wasn’t really for our benefit. Evidently, thick fog was the order of the day, and some hours earlier the plane ahead of us had overshot the runway and dived into one of the many bogs of the surrounding area and was still missing. Every telephone out of that airport was tied up by newspaper reporters and I couldn’t phone Winnipeg to report my whereabouts.
Also, Gander being an English possession, but a foreign country as far as Canada was concerned, I wasn’t allowed to consider a flight from there to Winnipeg. I had to go to the destination stated on my ticket – New York. Well, Paris was Home, Sweet Home compared to the Big Apple on a Sunday morning. I was told all flights to Winnipeg were booked for the next two weeks, ditto those to Toronto. My American Visa only allowed me 24 hours on that side of the border, so my only chance was a train from Grand Central Station.
My only advice is don’t be in New York in the middle of a heat wave when the Customs Officials, dressed only in very scanty underwear, have orders to go through every single piece of baggage with a small tooth comb – especially when you have been allowed only 54 lbs. of baggage to set you up in a new country at a time bordering on winter. My two suitcases were aluminum, weighing only 6 ounces each, but even so, I couldn’t possibly get everything I needed into that 54 lbs. So, I had delved into my gray matter and come up with the obvious solution – everything that wouldn’t pack had to be on my body.
Therefore, heatwave or not, I was wearing two of everything from the skin out – including two dresses stuffed into my two pairs of slacks, a tweed two-piece suit topped by a short fur jacket and a raincoat. Talk about sweat!!
Of course, all that was at La Guardia Airport. Next move was a taxi to the railway station, complete with the two suitcases, my typewriter (regarded as ‘carryon’ baggage on the plane), a heavy book comprising of all George Bernard Shaw’s plays and sonnets, and my handbag. That was about three o’clock on the Sunday afternoon.
You can imagine the thrill that I felt when I realized all the banks were closed on Sunday in that part of the country – and ATMs had not even been thought about. So, I didn’t have enough cash to get me to Winnipeg. All I could manage was what would get me as far as Toronto – and, anyway, the train didn’t leave until 11:30 that night. I knew I couldn’t walk it – but Oh! Was I tired. I literally fell into the train when it pulled in. I had to pack and lift and load all my own gear – then what a shock. The train was the milk train which stopped at every street corner and small town between New York and Toronto (or so it seemed.
With all those stops, I didn’t dare try to find a washroom on board; so, at 7:30 Monday morning I literally fell out of that train into the first door marked “ladies” at Toronto. I forget the station name now, but it was situated under the Royal York Hotel. I guess I must have acted somewhat discombobulated, because as I staggered along the platform, a strong hand landed on my shoulder. “Are you alright, lady?” I opened my eyes and suddenly realized I was about to be arrested by a young giant wearing a scarlet tunic. It occurred to me he couldn’t be an enemy because he called me “lady”. So I gave him a rundown of the excitement of the last four and a half days and I must’ve looked honest because he believed me.
“We’ll soon get you to Winnipeg,” he said gallantly. “I’ll take you upstairs. There’s a bank and the airline officer next door to each other in the foyer.” What a handsome rescuer – I would have asked him to sign my autograph album if it hadn’t been at the bottom of one of my suitcases. So, I cashed a ten-pound traveler’s cheque at the bank, walked into the Airline Office and almost had hysterics. There across the wall in front of me was a great big sign “FLY – CANADA TO ENGLAND IN 16 HOURS!!” I proved to them it took exactly four days – 96 hours to be exact, but they just laughed at me (I guess Toronto and Quebec weren’t talking to one another even then, and the consensus was that it was my own fault for not flying TWA.)
However, my ticket to Winnipeg cost forty-two dollars – my English ten pounds was worth $44.50, so I splurged fifty cents for some toast and a two litre jug of ice cold water in the hotel breakfast room.
The airline waiting room was also in the hotel and passengers had to wait there for a bus to pick them up and take them to the airport at 9:30 that night. However, Lady Luck hadn’t finished with me. We waited and we waited and we were finally let in on the secret – the first snow storm of the season had been enjoying itself just outside Toronto all day and the little local DC 3s couldn’t handle it, so a DC 4 was coming from Calgary – we’d fly between 1:30 and 2:00 a.m. Tuesday morning. Oh, happy life.
My seatmate was in hysterics – it was her first flight and she was going to Winnipeg for her brother’s funeral – and she could feel it in her bones we were going to crash. It was somewhat of a rough flight. The snow got thicker and thicker and the wind blew us all over the sky. It was quite a surprise when we realized that we were down on the ground, but there were no lights to be seen. Then the pilot and his henchmen came through into the cabin. “Who’s for Winnipeg?” the pilot asked. Seven of us put our hands. “Will you please describe your baggage in full, with your name and address – we must off-load everything we possibly can in the freight and baggage line, because there’s no one manning this little northern Ontario landing field with its one fuel pump and we are getting rather low on fuel. I promise your baggage will be delivered to your Winnipeg address before noon.” So that step taken, my seatmate was going through her invocations like they were going out of style.
So we took to the air again and as we came within touching distance of Winnipeg Airport, there was no such thing as circling the airport – we came straight down to the ground, and as soon as our three wheels touched the tarmac our four propellers stopped dead and we had neither speed nor fuel to go another 50 yards. For the third time on that trip I was treated to flashing of fire engines, ambulances, white-clad doctors and nurses coming hell-bent-for-leather.
I did get my baggage by eleven o’clock that morning at my soon-to-be in-law’s house. This was Tuesday morning the 24th of September, 1946, and Sam and I got married in St. Luke’s Church after supper on Wednesday, September 25th, 1946.
Mum wrote this story for my daughter when she was in junior high for a school project – that’ll explain some of the simple yet descriptive language, Mum was sure she could entertain a young teen!
I chuckled reading this story because she also withheld a few details that she thought inappropriate for young readers.
Dad (Sam) was waiting at Winnipeg Airport for Mum’s arrival. One of the ground crew however, knew Dad and also knew the plane was coming in on a wing and a prayer, there was a chance the landing would actually be a crash scene.
Knowing that Dad had already lost his first wife to cancer, this person decided he better insulate my father for his fiance’s expected outcome. That meant several stiff drinks. My dad quite enjoyed his stiff drinks so I’m not sure how many were consumed before Mum disembarked this last leg of her adventurous journey.
Mum was so not impressed to have gone through all the experiences and near-misses of the last several days to find the man she had come to marry stinking drunk! Obviously they sorted it out and the wedding took place.
The other part of Mum’s story that she told me about was, after all the officialdom was over and completed, the minister shook her hand and congratulated her as being the first woman he’d ever married to a dead man! There, on the war registry of Dad’s family church, was his name. As a bomb disposal expert who did finally take a healthy deposit of shrapnel to his leg, he apparently was listed MIA somewhere along the way and then listed as dead. Oops
Family pic from wedding day – In case you, like us, wonder about my grandfather’s little Hitler-style mustache so soon after his son had returned wounded from Italy… we don’t know either!