It was one of the October Saturday evenings of the two months that I spent in Scotland during 1942 waiting for what turned out to be Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa. Since my arrival about five-weeks before, on twenty-four hours or less sailing notice I went ashore every evening to Gourock and also to nearby Greenock, except on Saturdays when I managed the trip to Glasgow. The initial phase of the latter entailed the usual ride on one of the paddle wheelers that seemed to be about 1900 vintage and resurrected from maritime museums for wartime service as water taxies.
At first the trip to the Gourock combination pier/train station took only thirty minutes. But as time went by, because more ships anchored in the Firth of Clyde, more stops had to be made and rough and foggy weather became the norm. More than an hour was spent on a paddle wheeler’s open deck.
The second leg to Glasgow was in an equally ancient train. Since the coal-burning steam engine could not otherwise get enough traction for start-up, each coach was coupled to the next with three large chain links. They provided enough slack so that the engine could jerk the first coach into motion before it sensed the load of the second, and so on regarding each of the others. Thus start-up noises consisted of a whistle blast, chugging steam bursts up the engine’s smoke stack, the screeching and grinding of steel on steel, and the rattling of everything made of metal when it was the turn of each coach to be jerked forward.
Each of the stops at Greenock, Port Glasgow, Langbank, etc., was really a sequence of crashes, cushioned by spring-loaded buffers between cars. Regardless of the buffers, the banging together was noisier than the screeching, grinding, and rattling.
I wore my cadet-midshipman’s navy-blue uniform beneath a lightweight belted coat of the same dark color. A gold anchor over a gold hat band contrasted vividly against a navy-blue cap cover. As a practical necessity, I wore a black wool turtleneck sweater in lieu of the prescribed white shirt and black tie. My overall appearance as I emerged after dark from Union Station onto Sachiehall Street, to the extent that a nineteen-year old could be called salty, was that of a mariner completely at ease in Glasgow’s crowded, dingy, fog-filled, blacked-out, cobblestone streets.
I was going to visit, unannounced because she had no telephone, Marjorie Nesbitt whom I had visited the Sunday before. She lived with her parents in a ground-floor tenement flat in Parkhead. On that occasion when she opened the door I was holding two oranges in each hand. I was greeted with, “Air’ ye daft? Ye’ll starr’t a riot! Thair’ thiree-year auld bairns in the building who’ve ne’er seen an orange!”
When I recovered from getting jerked through the doorway, I asked about the large areas of plaster missing from the walls. Marjorie offered to show me the cause. We walked opposite from the direction of my arrival and immediately the tenements showed more damage. On the next block all of the tenements were leveled. Marjorie said that late one night a year before a muffled Luftwaffe bomber dropped a land mine by parachute. There had been no air-raid alarm before the blast. Then in an obvious attempt to erase from both our minds the thought of many innocents who were murdered in their beds she added bitterly, “Tha buildings air being ree-air-rected with the same spunful of cement. Na wunder they for’l aparr’t!”
I spotted the double-decker tram that would take me to Parkhead; it had just loaded passengers from a crowded corner and was getting underway. I ran and just managed to catch a handrail, was thus pulled through two giant steps, and landed on the running board.
Since there was no room for me on the crowded platform that was one step up, I temporarily grabbed the handrail with my left hand and then pushed my right behind the waist of the uniformed girl about my age, then busy collecting a recent border’s tuppence an’a hay penny. I was thus able to grab the brake handle and felt myself secure while hanging on outside. I was especially enjoying the ride because the acceleration was causing the sweet young thing to press harder against my arm.
With the tram going a bit more than ten-miles per hour my new chum turned to see whom she was being so cozy with. There was instant recognition. She quickly leaned over, put her face against mine, and with a most-inviting smile said, “Hello Yonk!”
I was so surprised that I let go of the damn brake handle and fell off of the running board. I could hear her laughing from the disappearing tram as I tumbled and landed spread eagle on my back. I could also hear other laughter. I was blocking a crowded crosswalk. One person seemed to be enjoying my embarrassment more than the others, so with what indignation I could muster from a sitting position, I said, “Americans came here to help you in 1917 and now again, and you’re laughing because one almost got killed.”
She turned serious, “Air’ ye hur’t? Let’s go to yon tea shop and get yersel’ cleaned oop.”
That’s how I met Isabel Flemming, my date for that evening.
On 2 October1942 a few of us in URUGUAY who were on deck for a bit of air saw the arrival of RMS QUEEN MARY, then carrying over 15,000 U.S. troops, with her bow crushed due to having smashed into and sinking the British light cruiser HMS CURACOA. More than 300 CURACOA crewmen were lost. The collision occurred 20 miles north of aptly named Bloody Foreland in Northern Ireland.
Copyright © 2005 (text only) by Louis D. Chirillo