“Town And Country”
By Peter E. Gibbons
When Hitler’s Luftwaffe intensified the night time bombing raids on London, the British Government decided to evacuate the children to country areas. I lived in Maidenhead, a river-side town bisected by the A-4 major trunk route from London to Bristol. This two-lane highway passed through the heart of the town, traffic competing with parked local vehicles.
Our house had sufficient room to accommodate two little evacuees and they jumped off the truck with only a paper bag containing their belongings and a boxed gas mask slung over their shoulders.
The milkman had just made a delivery and there were three bottles of milk on the front doorstep. Seeing them, Ronnie Barrat, one of the siblings, said. “Is that a cow’s nest?” Thinking it rather funny, my father replied, “Yes. The cows come around every morning and lay three bottles for us.”
Almost immediately Dad realized he’d lacked compassion.
The evacuees had just been uprooted from their family, school and friends and trucked to an alien territory. He was also aware that East London was hardly Calcutta or Bombay and the cockneys would never have seen a cow and therefore he started to enlighten them.
“A cow,” my dad explained. “is oblong-shaped with a leg at each corner. At one end there’s a head with little horns and gentle eyes, and at the other, the tail which is not used for pumping out the milk.” He paused and was pleased to see the children smile. “Just in front of the back legs, under the belly is a bag called an udder. It has what are known as teats, like little fingers.”
He was interrupted by Ronnie, who excitedly said, “I’ll bet that’s where the milk goes into the bottles, right, guv?”
Dad smiled and replied. “Please call me uncle and not ‘guv,’ but you’re right. The milk does come from there, but not into bottles.
“Then ‘it get in ‘em then, uncle?”
“The milk is squeezed by hand or pumped by machines into big containers to make it safe for us to drink. It’s called pasteurization named after a French chemist.”
“OId on ‘alf a mo. You mean to tell me that milk can only be drunk if it goes through that French geezer’s machine?”
Dad smiled down at the little boy and slowly moved the palm of his hand across his face. “If you do it, Ronnie, your hand will go past your eyes. Pasteurize is what the Frenchman invented.”
The evacuee nudged his sister as he learned a new word telling her to do it. It was explained to them that people on farms and in country parts drank milk without it being pasteurized. They also made cream, cheese and butter. That really got their attention.
“Come orf it, er uncle. All them things come from a bleeding cow? I don’t believe it. Pull the other one, it’s got bells on it!”
“With or without bells on your legs, they do come from cows, and shaking one will not produce cream, either.” Dad joked. “Nearly all dairy products are imported as we cannot produce enough. The war is preventing what we’d like and so there’s rationing, as your mum knows.”
The boy and his sister drew closer together and touched hands, looking down at their feet. They were remembering why they were away from their family, home and friends. Dad broke the silence by gently mussing Ronnie’s hair. “Do you know you have a cowlick? That’s considered very lucky.”
“It aint been so far, uncle, or we wouldn’t be ‘ere, would we’?”
After a few minutes of silence, Dad said very quietly, “Whatever the reason children, we have been lucky in having you two here to stay with us and be part of our family. When the war’s over and you go back home, don’t forget us. You’ll always have another home in the country with real cows, horses, chickens and rabbits.
The little boy fingered his cowlick and looked up. “I would ‘alf like to see them farm animals before we go ‘ome.”
“And so you shall,” Dad replied. “Our children’s grandparents live on a farm way out in the countryside. We’ll all go there one Sunday. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
The mixed emotions and excitement nearly brought tears to his eyes as they hugged his legs.
“When? When?” The little girl asked.
“During the autumn when it’s time for the harvest. You’ll see everything then.”
They never did.
During the summer, both children had been caught stealing from Woolworths and were taken away. We never knew where. Their mother did write a “Thank you” note from a bomb shelter in London. Her home had been destroyed by the Luftwaffe.
We never learned if the evacuees really believed cows laid milk in bottles or were just “having us on.” But we certainly were aware there’s a difference between “town and country folk,” to say nothing of the spoken language!