I came over on a banana
IT isn't true that I had to leave England because of the Boot Affair. True, I was helping in my mother's shoe shop at the time (1951), and I did, quite by accident, force a woman's right foot into a left boot. The customer didn't like it and neither did Mother. But that isn't why I came to the USA. And it wasn't the state of Britain either, though that was not an easy time. The fruits of victory had left a horribly bitter taste. Naturally we were deeply thankful that the killing was over, proud that we had come through without flinching, and grateful, too, that gone out of our lives forever were those heart-rending farewells, that familiar ice-on-the-stomach feeling whenever a plane flew over, military uniforms, and sergeant majors.
But after five years of peace nagging shortages persisted. So did queues, and rationing, and yards and yards of red tape as the country toiled to beat its swords into plowshares (difficult to do without hammers).
Spring, summer, fall -- all had been canceled. Only January remained, and a cold, dank, foggy January it was, too, with little piercing winds that never let up. In those days most of the Marsh family refused to be parted, day or night, from their hot-water bottles.
And, oh yes, we had no bananas. Or practically none.
Hints of another kind of life began to filter in from America. ``Oklahoma'' arrived from New York, and of course we went. And right where we were queuing (oh, yes, we were queuing) taxis rolled up and out leaped members of the cast -- tall, incredibly bronzed, vital, walking with springtime in their steps -- aliens from a peacetime world. Then the musical itself persuaded us for an hour or so that we, too, were tall and exuberant and could do anything, even sing in tune.
Then, especially for me, America had another, never-to-be-forgotten present in store. Three young women, tourists from New England searching for a hotel in our town (there aren't any), found Mother instead. She, of course, brought them home, fed them (on vegetables, milk from our goat, meat from those oh-so-welcome parcels from America), and found them beds.
Overnight deep friendships sprang up to be strengthened by airmail and then, wonder of wonders, came an invitation to visit one of my correspondents in the land of nylons and bobby pins and yellow pencils (ours were all unpainted wood), and most important, home of all that exuberance.
Obviously, even hospitable America didn't welcome the idea of thousands of Britons starving all over the place. (Our government would allow us to take only about $20 out of the country.) So any would-be host had to be quite unusually generous and trusting. Outrageous promises had to be made, and my friend Ellen Morehouse had to swear to be responsible for me, financially and legally. I will never cease to be grateful to her.
But even her unselfishness wasn't enough to get me to the States. I needed space on a ship and there wasn't any. Every cabin on every vessel of every line was full, with no hope of a vacancy.
That explains why I traveled here on a banana. In a manner of speaking.
If you live on a crowded island and have to import most of your food, a shortage of ships means a shortage of luxuries, and who actually needs a banana? The few that did arrive in Britain were reserved for the over-70-year-olds. So to me they remained a happy memory until the day I happened to meet a friend who had just picked up her ration. She gave me one -- a banana that looked and smelled like summer. It was still in my bag when I paid my daily visit to the travel agent and took my place in the inevitable queue.
By now I knew only too well what to expect -- an automatic shake of the head from a clerk too harassed to look up. I didn't exist. I was just a body in a queue. On that day I believe I would have given anything just to be acknowledged. Anything. ``Like a banana?'' I said.
He loved it as much as I had, played with it, smelled it, admired its lovely smile-like curve. And then he said, ``I haven't tried the French line lately.''
So I sailed to New York on the Ile de France, though it was a banana that got me there. It was November, and the Atlantic was not at its best; I shared a cabin with two other women, and none of us had enough money for a deck chair. But what a splendid journey it was.
On the last day, while blas'e travelers lingered over their packing, we first-timers swarmed up on deck searching for the first glimpse of land. Passengers were there whom I had never noticed before, mostly Middle Europeans in dark clothing accompanied by young children.
And then we saw it, hazy in the early morning light -- the New York skyline with its improbable skyscrapers, and then at last the symbol of our hopes, Liberty herself. I thought I was prepared for her but the sheer drama of her standing there to welcome us took my breath away. People around me sank to their knees, some were crying, others praying. It was a reminder that we were arriving at the only nation in history to be built to specification, founded on principles. True, those ideals could be obscured from time to time (we were arriving during the McCarthy era), but have never been truly shaken.
And when, some hours later, we stepped out onto dry land, the mood of the USA hit us like an exhilarating pail of cold water on a hot day. This was what I had been waiting for, but I had never expected the message to be so electric, so intense. ``Here you are. This is America. Anything you decide to do, you can do.''