This is my story of a short but monumental event in my life that changed me forever. It was not planned, as most catastrophic, frightening, achingly miserable events tend not to be. I was only five years old. Kindergarten was the extent of my exposure to life outside of my home, and even that was limited to several months. After a few hours away from our pleasant farmhouse, I wanted nothing more than to come home where I could kick off my stiff school shoes and don my worn-down leather shoes. Ten cantankerous sheep, five golden Guernsey cows and a couple of stubborn donkeys were my source of entertainment along with several dozen Freedom Ranger chickens my father raised for selling at the market for a few extra pounds when we needed them. He prided himself in growing the best tomatoes on the island, jabbering on in French about how he had the best soil and the angle of the sun was just perfect. We spoke French and English at home, and sometimes mixed them together, since school for me was only in English.
The trouble in town bothered my parents. We lived just half a mile inland from the busy St. Peter’s Port. Repeated visits from neighbors and numerous town meetings for my parents left my brother, Roger and I sole caretakers of the farm on many days. He was twelve years old but I thought of him almost as an adult. He was a bright chap and kept me on my toes with his clever whit. Trying to outsmart and outrace him was the sole purpose of the majority of my days. He loved Father with a passion and hated when I would catch him dressing up all proper with Father’s hat and jacket. He made me giggle. Mine was a family of love set in the atmosphere of the lovely island I called home, Guernsey. If you didn’t know, Guernsey is a tiny island, but the whole world to me, set in the English Channel about thirty miles off the coast of France. I knew I lived on an island, but it meant nothing to me as we had a proper town, schools, churches, stores and beaches, just like every other family’s community.
The tension at home got much worse. Father and my mother argued often and on several occasions, I found tears running down my mother’s face as she washed the dishes in silence. The difficulty of staying happy bothered me until I was able to pester her into explaining her troubles. There was a war in Germany, she explained. The loud planes we saw daily were carrying soldiers to the war for fighting. I am not sure I understood her concern, but her worried face etched my memory forever as I watched her mouth move and tears flow down her face. The Germans wanted to use our island almost as a hiding point; my mind seemed to interpret, to launch attacks on war traffic through the English Channel. They wanted to use our town. Father was angry and would shout that he was not leaving. My brother sided with him and would mutter angry words about the invaders as he worked in the barn, throwing the corn at the unsuspecting chickens.
The town leaders decided that we children needed to leave to go inland to England. They did not want the soldiers taking advantage of their daughters or influencing their sons. It was not safe for us. School stopped and our teachers told us to take our belongings home and to help our parents. As a young child, I did not mind. The evacuation was way off in the future and I could stay home with my brother at our farm.
Finally, the day came when my mother said we needed to pack my satchel for a trip. I was excited. It was going to be a boat trip off the island that only Father made when he first bought our chickens or when my mother wanted special cloth for a dress she made. Roger was supposed to come with me.
“Non, je ne veux pas y aller! I am not leaving my home so some soldiers can come here and take our farm!” he argued in French. He sounded just like my father and was eye-to-eye with him.
“Your mother and I will stay here and protect the farm, but you must understand, il n'est pas sûr, it is not safe for Amelie. We need you to go in our stead and watch out for her.” Father stood up to him and held his shoulders firmly.
“Je ne peux pas aller. I cannot go. It is shameful. Our island needs us to stand up to the soldiers. I don’t want to be taking care of a girl.” He was angry but flustered to have to speak against Father.
“I can take care of myself here, Father. Why do I need to go?” I inserted, trying to ease the conflict since I seemed to be the cause of it.
“It’s a bloody shame when we can’t even stay in our own home. Ce n'est pas notre guerre! This is not our war,” my brother continued, echoing the words he had heard around town switching back and forth between French and English.
“No, Roger. The decision is done. You and Amalie are leaving in the morning on the first boat out. There are some families that have agreed to take you with some other children into their homes until the Conseil agrees that our island is safe again.” Father spoke with resolution.
Roger clenched his fists, knowing he couldn’t argue anymore but without resolve. He stomped upstairs to his room, muttering under his breath.
I tried to reason with him but he just shouted, “Ce n'est pas pour vous. This is not about you, Amelie. I am supposed to stay with the men and not be a déserteur. “
Mother cooked us a wonderful dinner of roast beef, potatoes, sweet parsnips, haricots, gravy and my favorite dessert, sticky toffee pudding. The wine flowed that night and even Roger and I enjoyed a glass of wine mixed with a little water while Father told us stories of his childhood. My mother’s cheeks were flushed and she kept staring at me as though I had food on my face.
I slept fitfully, dreaming of chickens running away with the sheep hiding behind the trees. Roger was shouting at me to go home and my mother kept crying as she hoed the carrots. The best part of the dream was the hug Father gave me. He picked me up and squeezed me into his chest, rubbing his scratchy whiskers over my cheek, smelling of the smell of Father. I never wanted it to end. To me it meant he loved me. I was his little girl and he was my father. I was safe.
“Amalie. Vous devez vous lever maintenant. You have to get up now,” I heard my mother call me softly.
“I am awake already, Momma,” I answered as I scrambled out of my covers. I pulled the blankets up quickly and smoothed them out.
“Wear your Sunday dress and your school shoes. You might have to walk a bit when you descendre du bateau, (get off the boat).” her voice instructed me quietly, as though she didn’t want to wake the rest of the house. I could hear Roger’s footsteps as his boots clumped down the stairs. Father was always up early, coming back in from the barn by the time I was ready for breakfast.
I decided not to argue about the shoes. I was going to be good today. I tossed my knit doll into my satchel and slung the strap over my shoulder.
“Nous devons nous dépêcher (we must hurry). The boat is leaving at and we cannot keep them waiting,” she chided me. She pushed a wedge of warm sausage pie wrapped in paper into my hand.
“Je vous remercie! Thank you, Momma!” My eyes lit up with the delight of such a wonderful treat. Roger was outside with his satchel, but looking irritated and bothered. He had no jokes for me and didn’t tease me at all.
The whole family walked down to the docks. I felt special. I walked to Kindergarten by myself each morning. This was almost like a holiday, walking alongside Father trying to get my steps to match up with his. My mother clung to my hand, walking with her head held high but with red-rimmed eyes. I loved her for her tenderness. Roger walked behind, scuffing as many rocks as he could. He was mad and I understood him. The road was steep as we descended into the main part of the town. I loved coming here and seeing the shops and the people everywhere. Other families were walking on the streets towards the long pier.
Baskets of tomatoes were lining the docks, waiting for the outgoing boats to carry them to the mainland. Potted flowers were everywhere in pots, brightening our path as we walked. I cringed as my shoes rubbed my ankles, but refused to complain.
‘’Les jeunes, en ligne ici! (Children, line up here!),’’ a man shouted as we neared the pier. A long row of about three hundred children stood holding their bags while their parents stood back almost silently along the main dock. Hundreds of mothers holding babies and young children were also crowding the docks.
“Roger et Amalie mettre en ligne (get in line),” my mother instructed. “’Cela ne sera pour un peu. (This will only be for a little while.) We will send a boat to bring you home shortly.’’
We hugged our parents trying not to look too sad in front of the other children. My mother had tears running down her cheeks and shook Roger as she told him to take good care of me. The boat looked like a huge building to me with its gray sides and big chimneys.
‘’Nous vous aimons! (We love you!),” they called repeatedly as we edged into the line of children. The morning sun felt good and the water was beautiful. If my parents weren’t so sad, I might have been happy, but instead a heavy lump filled my throat. Roger let go of my hand to open his meat pie. I had almost forgotten about it in the hustle to get to the boat. I pulled it out of the pocket of my jacket and peeled back the paper a little.
We started moving forward as the boat captain started helping children climb onboard. This was a boat from the British Royal Navy and far larger than all of the fishing boats and ferries that normally came to the port. We maneuvered around some tall boxes on the pier as the line slowly edged forward. Roger pushed me forward, “Attention si vous ne tombez pas dans le. (Pay attention so you don't fall in.)”
“Wave to Momma and Father,” he said as we neared the ramp.
I shoved the rest of my pie back into my pocket and looked back to find them. There they were waving at us. I lifted my arms and waved vigorously, “Au revoir! Au revoir!’’
Other kids were pushing me and I tried to hold my satchel tight as I walked up the ramp into the huge boat.
‘’Find a seat on the floor.’’ A tall Englishman was herding us into straight rows along the open floor. There were windows all around but too high for me to see out of. I sat down and crossed my legs, holding my satchel on my lap. I saw a few kids I knew but no one seemed to want to talk. Roger wasn’t behind me so I saved him space on the floor next to me. He must have gone to check something out.
Apprehension filled me with a strange feeling in my stomach. I tried to concentrate on my satchel and the children around me. There were a couple of scared faces and when I saw a little chubby boy look at me with tears running down his face, I couldn’t help crying a little.
“Why are you keeping this space open?” the Englishman asked me.
“My brother is supposed to sit here. We are going together.” I managed to speak clearly.
“Why isn’t he with you?”
“I don’t know. I thought he was behind me,” I answered guiltily.
“Ok, we’ll see if he shows up.” He went away to help other children come in behind us.
I searched the group and noticed my schoolteacher several rows in front of me.
“Mme Carey,’’ I called.
“Amalie,” she motioned for me to join her. “I am going to help take care of you. Where is Roger?”
“I don’t know. He was right behind me,” I almost cried. My teacher Mrs. Carey was nice, but she was not my friend as Roger was.
“Don’t fuss. I am sure he will find us.” She tried to dismiss the fact that Roger was missing as nothing important, but I was so scared. Hundreds and hundreds of people were cramming into the ship and there was no way for her to find Roger. I scanned the crowds, hoping to catch a glimpse of his face. Babies started crying and little children were whining as the crowds pushed further into the room.
I heard the ship horn blast and felt fear wash over me.
“Momma,” I whispered. “I can’t find Roger, Momma!” Tears flowed from my eyes as I could see the land starting to back away from the ship through the window. “Where am I going? What am I going to do?”
“Roger!” I shouted, hoping to hear his familiar voice answering back. I ran to the doorway. “Roger!” I ran down the side of the ship, struggling to get through the people. He had to hear me. I was shouting so loudly, “Roger,” as the tears blurred my eyes.
“Little girl, come on now. Go back in with the children.” A tall navy man tried to stop me and turn me around. He put his hand on my shoulder but I ducked down and got away behind some other women.
“Roger! Where are you?” Frantic with finding him in this crowd of hundreds of people, I started climbing some stairs to get a better view.
“No, no. You can’t go up there. Who are you looking for?” It was the same navy man. I tried to explain that I couldn’t find Roger. He was very kind to me and told me he would help me look for him. We walked around the entire ship but there was no Roger.
People were crying all around me now. Children, mothers, even older teens gave in to the tension of the evacuation. Men in uniform walked around trying to comfort and help as they could. Children without parents were assigned to schoolteachers that came to help. One man told me to stay with Mrs. Carey, but where else would I go? I didn’t know anyone else.
I worked my way closer to a window so at least I could see outside for a minute. Our ship was so high but I could see seagulls circling overhead. The bright June sun calmed my nerves, making me feel a little better as I waited the time away.
“I don’t have any parents or Roger with me - no one.” The phrase kept passing through my mind but I kept pushing the panic away.
I noticed some children snacking and remembered I still had part of my sausage pie. Gratefully, I opened the rumpled wrapper and enjoyed the food as it filled my empty stomach. We had been on the ship for a couple of hours now. The strangeness of the crowded room as I listened to the jumble of half-French and half-English conversations. The navy men spoke with clear accents and smiled at me whenever they looked my way. They certainly were nice men. I wondered if they were the soldiers that were going to live on my island.
I contented myself with my knit doll and pretended she was my fellow passenger, rambling on about the trip we were taking and the frozen custard we were going to buy. After a while, Mrs. Carey asked me to come sit by her so I did. After another hour of doing almost nothing but watching the people, I fell asleep.
“Amelia.” Someone was shaking my shoulder. “We are at the port. You want to wake up and be ready, mon chéri. ‘’ I remembered my strange journey with a knot of apprehension in my stomach. I stood up and brushed my clothes smooth.
Crowds were starting to push towards the doorways, anxious to get off the boat. I watched, hoping to catch sight of Roger. Mrs. Carey was busy with other children so I followed the crowd off the boat, holding tightly to the handrail in case I fell in as Roger warned me with his last words.
The dock was the scariest place I had ever seen. I knew no one. Mrs. Carey was nowhere in sight. Thousands of people were walking the streets, cars were honking but there was nothing familiar for me. I heard the ship’s horn blast and watched it slowly slide away. It was my last connection with home.
My satchel over my shoulder, I walked towards the town away from the docks. A police officer at a large street stopped me and asked me where I was going all by myself. Since I had no answer, he took me to a building on the docks.
“Hey, I have a little girl here that got lost in the shuffle of the evacuation from Guernsey,” he told the officer behind the desk.
“Oh, my. I think I can take care of that.” he replied in a jovial tone.
I didn’t hear the rest of the conversation but somehow he arranged for me to go to a family’s home from a list of volunteers who had opened their homes to the evacuees. A car drove me out to their home and I lived there for twenty years. My new family attempted to contact my parents but apparently, my father was one of the first casualties of the bombing on the island. Roger joined the Royal navy during the later years of the war so I didn’t see him until eight years later when he came to visit me. My mother agreed to let me stay with my foster family until I finished school, although she was faithful to visit me every a month once the war was over. She died when I was sixteen and just finishing school, so I never did go back to the old home except to visit the island.
2015 copyright. Use only with permission.