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TideWriters Tales
Music to My Ears
By Emily Pritchard Cary
     It’s the summer 1942 and I’m singing and dancing around our vacation cabin in Virginia to the Big Band music that offers temporary retreat from the reality of wartime. Glenn Miller’s recordings of “In the Mood,” “Tuxedo Junction,” “A String of Pearls,” “Moonlight Serenade” and “Pennsylvania 6-5000” all conjure up happier times as they pour from my tiny Philco radio. Unable to peer into the future, I am unaware that this is my introduction to the state where I am destined to live and teach for many years. 

     Until Pearl Harbor, my father carried out his engineering duties for AT&T (American Telephone and Telegraph Company) in the Philadelphia office. Now his assignment is to update the military communication system throughout the Mid-Atlantic states, traveling each week from our home in Swarthmore to mysterious buildings known as “K Stations” scattered throughout Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. 
Mother and I have no idea what he does in those K Stations, only that he and his colleagues are on a secret mission for our government. When he announces that we can join him for an extended stay in Virginia during my school summer vacation, we are thrilled. He has already completed the necessary work in and around Washington, DC and Fredericksburg. To Mother’s delight, his next assignment takes him further southward. A history teacher before marriage, she devours every book she can find about the Civil War. Now she can rub shoulders with the ghosts of the Confederacy.

     By the summer of 1942, many deteriorating U.S. Army camps and airfields are refurbished and new ones are popping up throughout Virginia. When acquaintances become nosy about his work, Dad refers to his assignment as “cross-talk balancing.” Befuddled, they change the subject. Although he never delves into technicalities, Mother and I now understand that his mission is to establish a fool-proof means of communication between the various U.S. military posts, one the enemy cannot penetrate. 

     For the first month, we stay at Moore’s Brick Cottages, a tourist camp between Richmond and Petersburg. Except for the AT&T crew, our fellow residents are families of soldiers assigned to nearby Fort Lee but unable to find housing on base. To supplement their husbands' meager pay, many of the wives work in Moore's restaurant as waitresses and kitchen help. Even their children contribute as bus boys and dishwashers.
(Ironically, Dad was stationed at Fort Lee during World War I. Instead of going overseas, he ended up in the infirmary with the deadly influenza that swept the nation. At one point, he was moved into the holding room where all those expected to die were sent, but good fortune prevailed.)

     While Dad toils in the K Stations, Mother and I take advantage of the buses passing Moore’s Brick Cottages every hour. Except for jeeps, tanks, and other military equipment, they are the only vehicles traveling the once-busy U.S. Route 1 between Richmond and Petersburg. We stand much of the way, packed tightly between civilian employees of nearby military installations. With gasoline rationing underway, few people can operate their cars, so commuting by bus is essential.

    Free to explore, Mother and I make the most of our journeys. Within two weeks, we have visited most of the historic sites in both directions, amassing bags of brochures and books. There is even time for window shopping and lunch in the elegant tea rooms of Thalhimer’s and Miller & Rhodes department stores. We encounter few shoppers because most women have taken jobs to help the war effort. For that reason, the new fall fashions on display are offered at reduced prices. Taking advantage of the bargains, Mother splurges on a tailored dress for herself and a “smart” outfit for me æ a plaid skirt, wool jacket, and felt cap æ for the opening of school in September. 

     I have my first glimpse of a K Station in Chester, a small town near Moore’s Brick Cottages. Like others Dad points out during the summer, the one-story brick building is square and windowless, all the better to conceal secrets from the spies expected to sneak ashore from German U-Boats trolling Chesapeake Bay. Locked inside the K Station, answering only prearranged knocks from those cleared to enter, Dad and his co-workers consume handfuls of salt tablets and large thermos jugs of water daily to counteract the intense heat and humidity. Each evening he returns to our cabin soaked to the skin. After laundering his clothes in the sink, Mother dries them on a line she strung between trees alongside our cabin.

     From Moore’s Brick Cottages, we move to Richmond Court where our neighbors are officers and their families from nearby Army facilities. Mother likes it best of all the places we stay because of the proximity to the city, our carpeted cabin and the adjacent restaurant that boasts crystal chandeliers. Her joy fades three weeks later when Dad is transferred to Wakefield.

     We are literally trapped in a dreary cabin reeking of mildew. Since Dad is away all day in the company truck and Mother dares not drive our Chevrolet for fear of consuming our “A” sticker gasoline allotment, we have little to do except walk our dog, Bruce, or sit in the stuffy cabin writing postcards and letters to our friends and relatives, all the while listening to the Big Band music broadcast over the local airwaves. Glenn Miller’s Orchestra, my favorite, helps banish my boredom.

     By the time Dad completes his work in rural Southeast Virginia, school is about to begin, so Mother and I cannot accompany him on the next lap of the circuit that will take him to Norfolk, Newport News, and northward on the peninsula to Dahlgren. Instead, we return home just in time for my first day in seventh grade. Shortly afterward, Mother is hired to replace a history teacher newly drafted. Grateful for this opportunity to aid the war effort, she utilizes all the books and pamphlets she collected in Virginia to add zest to her classroom. While she labors over her lesson plans, I do my homework to the intoxicating rhythms of Glenn Miller’s music on my phonograph. 

     Fast forward to June 12, 2005. My husband and I are visiting London when we hear about the Glenn Miller Museum at Twinwood Airfield near the quaint town of Bedford.

     Although Miller topped the charts in the late 1930s and won the first ever Gold record for his recording of “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” the only permanent memorials in his native land are his childhood home in Clarinda, Iowa and a stone plaque in Arlington National Cemetery (Section H, Number 464-A).

    In 1942, as Captain and Commander of the U.S. Army Air Force Band, he was attached to the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF) and quartered at Milton Ernest near Bedford. For the next two years, he and his band entertained American and British servicemen.

     On December 15, 1944, he flew from Twinwood to entertain the soldiers who liberated Paris. He never arrived. Researchers now believe that his plane was downed by “friendly fire,” unused bombs dumped into the English Channel by B-17 pilots returning to their base following raids on Germany.

     Aware that British nostalgia for Big Band music continues unabated, and eager to see the tribute to Miller, we board the Bedford-bound train at Kings Cross Thameslink Station. A short taxi ride later, we reach Twinwood Airfield and are quickly swept into the time warp that materializes there every summer weekend.

It is 1942 once more. RAF pilots and women bedecked in wartime styles stroll along the crumbling airstrip. Young lads in the characteristic short pants of the period and girls in pinafores and smocks pursue childish amusements typical of the era. Between their scheduled reenactments, camouflaged troops are encamped throughout the adjacent woods to guard the planes and armored vehicles. Many boil coffee over campfires and gnaw on K-rations. Miller’s recordings reverberate everywhere over loud-speakers.

     At the top of a rise, we reach the Glenn Miller Museum in the World War II Control Tower. Restored in 2002 to its original specification, the tower houses an audio and visual exhibition of Miller’s life. His instruments, his Air Force uniforms, a jukebox, records, sheet music, and movie posters fill a glass case. Nearby is a photo gallery of his band performing throughout England during the war.

     “His music carried us through the war,” says one narrator. I can relate to that.

     Sadly, we cannot stay for the annual spectacular, the family-oriented Glenn Miller Festival 2005 of Swing, Jazz and Jive held August 27-29, a showcase for dozens of visiting big bands from around the world. Instead, we return home several days before the first London bombings, consumed by the sights and sounds of Twinwood, powerful impressions that reawaken my own memories of 1942 when Glenn Miller’s music orchestrated my first summer in Virginia.

© 2005 Emily Pritchard Cary. All Rights Reserved. 

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