I was putting the last two pool balls in the pocket after losing a close game to Gary. Win or lose it didn’t matter to us.
It was our one game a day that had become a tradition. We were evenly matched and our egos were not damaged, win or lose. I saw the old woman circling the table checking out the bar at the Happy Garden. Her face was wonderfully wrinkled, but it was the eyes that got me--they were a vivid blue on clear white; they were the eyes of a teen staring out from her ancient face, and they were looking steadily at me. They smiled hello. I nodded and returned the smile.
Back at the bar I took my stool next to Gary and told him to take a look at the beautiful wrinkles in the old woman’s face. As she came up to an open place next to me he glanced over with disinterest. She hit me with that wonderful smile again and explained she was awaiting her take out order of Chinese food. We exchanged names and I introduced her to Gary, who showed little interest in joining in a conversation--he was into a basketball game on the TV on which he had a bet.
I asked her what she had ordered. As we talked of food and the weather, I thought I detected a slight accent. “Are you from England or Australia?” I asked. “England,” she answered. “I came over here from there as a war-bride. I married a young American lad who was a tail-gunner on a B-17.”
“Tail-gunner! That was the most dangerous position on a B-17.”
“Yes it was. A lot of the lads never came back.”
“How’d you happen to meet.”
“Well, during the war the men were all over fighting in Europe and there was no one to work the fields. My father, who owned three fields, asked me to come and help him. So I joined the Woman’s Land Army.”
She explained that women went to work the fields to take the places of the field workers who were off fighting the war.
“One day this lad came riding up on a bicycle and introduced himself and told me he wanted to get permission to hunt on the land we were standing beside. He asked who owned it. I pointed to my father out in the field and told him my father did.”
“It occurred to me then that in a couple of days it would be April 2nd, and every April 2nd the farmers would go to where the crows lived and shoot them, I’m ashamed to say.”
In an embarrassed voice she rushed on, “The crows would follow along behind the plows and they would eat the just planted wheat seeds, so it had to be done.”
She looked intently at me with those young eyes to see if I was disapproving -- I wasn’t.
“It was war and one had to do what one had to do during those dire times.”
Not seeing censure from me, she continued, “I told the American about this local tradition and said perhaps my father would let him get in on the shooting. My father came over and I introduced him. The American was a very polite young man and my father said it would be alright.”
“The young man had some job back at the base that gave him access to shotguns and ammunition. He also had a friend who had access to a Jeep, and so on April 2nd I was out shooting. We would only shoot one shot at a time since during the war we were only allowed one box of 25 shells a month.
All of a sudden I heard to my right, pow-pow-pow-pow,” she held her arms up like she was holding a shotgun, “and there he was. The Yanks had all the shells they wanted. He was using a pump-shotgun,” She moved her left arm back like she was working the pump. “Anyway that was how we met.”
She got a far off look in her eyes as she thought back to when she and her young American tail-gunner were in love. Her eyes misted.
She was standing very close to me in the narrow space and her ancient hands, all big-veined and beautiful, unconsciously played with the sleeve of my blue flannel shirt. She lightly pinched and rubbed it as she spoke. She must have been quite something as a young woman, I thought.
I changed the subject by asking if it was true that the British soldiers had a saying about the American soldiers, “They’re over-paid, over-sexed…” “…and over-here,” she finished. “Yes, that was true,” she laughed, remembering.
“Where was your father’s land?” I asked.
“About thirty miles north-east of London.”
“North-east! On the coast! You must have seen the Luftwaffe flying in on bombing runs.”
“Oh yes,” she said, “and the B-17s would take off and circle around and around grouping up and then one group would go that way, and another group would go that way,” she pointed in different directions seeing them in the picture in her mind. “It was so sad. We would count them as they left, and so many times they would return and there would be two or three missing.”
Just then her order arrived in a white plastic bag tied at the handles. We talked of foods we liked for a bit more, and then she gave my arm a squeeze and a pat, and picked up her dinner. We agreed that if we met again, we would have a drink, or perhaps something to eat, and continue our talk. She gave a wave and flashed that remarkable smile that lit up her teenage eyes, and left with a quick stride.