Tag Archives: Virginia

aliens

One of my early memories is of being in a cool motel room with my parents and two older brothers, David and Dale, when I was very little – perhaps four or five years old in 1964 or ’65 – padding across the tiled floor in bare feet drinking an ice cold glass bottle of cola from a vending machine through a straw. We were in America’s Deep South, in Savannah, GA en-route to visit my grandparents, who lived on a semi-tropical island off the coast of Georgia.

Andrea swimming at Jekyll Island 1969.

Dad drove the near five hundred mile trip from our home in Virginia to Jekyll Island through the night to avoid the midday sultry, humid 100+ degrees Fahrenheit heat which made the back of my bare legs stick to the vinyl seats. The boys and I would ask to stop for a cold drink before we’d even left the end of our street – “are we there yet?” The seven or eight hour drive was still ahead. As night wore on, we’d settle to sleep on the back seat of the Oldsmobile in our cotton pyjamas, leaning against the side of the car doors on pillows; our heads wet with sweat as Mom and Dad talked quietly and listened to the radio. On and on through the night, through the high passes of the Smokey Mountains of North and South Carolina: Johnson City, Asheville before dropping down along the Eastern seaboard past Hilton Head to Savannah. 

1960s Oldsmobile.

By nine o’clock the following morning as the searing heat was already beginning to climb, Mom and Dad would check us all into a motel room near Savannah, so Dad could sleep through the day. Mom took me and my brothers swimming in the motel pool before we too had a nap in the air-conditioned room. Later that afternoon after lunch – and probably an ice-cream – we’d pile back into the old Oldsmobile and continue the last hundred miles or so of the trip until we could see the famous and terrifying Sidney Lanier vertical lift bridge across the Brunswick River

We reached our grandparent’s beach-front house during the early evening.  I can remember stepping from the intense humidity and sound of crickets into their air-conditioned home which felt like stepping into a fridge.

***

View of the Smokey Mountains from our old home town of Bristol, VA, (1969)

In the autumn of 1970, my parents upped-sticks from rural Virginia and moved our family to the UK, alighting a train at New Street Station in Birmingham, West Midlands on a cold, wet , grey September morning to follow their romantic dream of English life. 

As an historian with a special interest in English history, Dad looked forward to walking in the footsteps of his boyhood hero’s: Robin Hood, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table or Elizabethan explorer, statesman and poet Sir Walter Raleigh.

Mom had notions of finding adventure like the heroines of the romantic novels of her youth: Daphne Du Maurier’s protagonist and narrator Mrs. De Winter in ‘Rebecca’, Emily Bronte’s gothic and ethereal Cathy Earnshaw in ‘Wuthering Heights’ or Jane Austen’s bright, intelligent Elizabeth Bennett in ‘Pride and Prejudice.’

The fact that they had three children in tow didn’t seem to cross their minds.

With no home to go to and twelve pieces of good luggage (Mom had insisted on “quality luggage for international travel”- and one suitcase was just for my dolls), our first port of call as aliens was an Edwardian house B & B in Birmingham city centre. The handsome Victorian pile was now faded – its halcyon days long gone. Mom was hoping for the charm of an English country hotel, but the reality was cold and sparse; more Jamaica Inn than Brown’s Hotel. 

David and Dale shared a bedroom on the landing and I shared another with Mom and Dad further along the corridor.  My parents imagined we would quickly find a house to rent, but being so alien to this new metropolis, they didn’t know how or where to start. So here we found ourselves, embarking on this madcap adventure with no home on the horizon.

Dad embraced our plight with good humour and his pipe as the B&B became our home for the next nine weeks; Mom was less enthusiastic.  The boys and I started school and Dad began his new teaching post as Head of History in a grammar school, all in opposite ends of the city. I quote now from my diary, which I kept during that fateful year: 

SEPTEMBER 24TH, 1970 

      “Seven months ago today Daddy rezined from the college in Bristol, VA. Now we are in a bread and breakfast waiting for a house.”  

Let me explain about B&B’s in the 1970s.  Unlike American motels which boasted air conditioning, a TV in every room, king sized beds, en-suite bathrooms, vending machines and a pool; they offered somewhat more spartan accommodation.

Typical of their ilk, this one only had one toilet on the landing with a wooden seat that scratched your arse. In fact my brother’s named it ‘Scratch’ (father to several ‘Sons of Scratch.’) The chain was so high I couldn’t reach it and believe me – having to shout for help down the landing at ten years old was so just too embarrassing! Whoever heard of a chain to flush the toilet? We had handles where I came from. 

Our rooms had an old fashioned washstand and bowl in the corner where we carried out our daily toilette; despite there being an old, stained, communal cast iron bathtub in a small room off the landing. Mom was worried about us taking a bath in it, fearing for our health,

“You never know what you might  catch in there!”

I thought that toilet seats had paper already on them because Mom would always get in there ahead of me and wrap carefully lain sheets of Izal over the seat – especially if we were caught short anywhere in public. The only exception to this was in the large department store Ladies Cloak Room on the Sixth Floor, where – according to Mom “attendants clean the sanitary ware after each flush.” (How do mothers know this kind of thing?) 

The waxed Izal toilet paper was an anathema to us because a) it was so slippery it would slide straight off the toilet seat and b), it was so thin, you had to use a wadge of it. We were used to four-ply in the States.

The toilet door had a sign on it which said, W.C. What on earth was this? The Manager explained to Dad that it meant Water Closet. 

“Water Closet? What the hell is a Goddamn Water Closet?” Dad laughed, “A closet where you keep water? Son-of-a-gun! Did ya ever hear of such a thing kids?” Dad laughed so hard he had to stoop and grab his knees.  The Manager put his shoulders back and stiffened his upper lip.

We soon became aware that people here spoke in another, strange tongue called Brummie: 

 “Can Oi cum in? Can Oi cum in?” asked the chambermaid, as she tapped on my brothers’ door to make the beds. I’m sure she heard the strains of stifled mirth and peals of laughter from under the blankets on the other side of the door. And of course the staff couldn’t understand our Virginia accents either which led to some funny exchanges.

Our first encounter with 1970s English fast food had disastrous results. Remember – we had come from the home of the hamburger: coke with crushed ice, side-orders of coleslaw and great fries – and great service, “Have a nice day!” 

Our hopes ran high when we discovered a burger joint in the city centre near our B&B but were soon dashed when we became acquainted with the lukewarm beef burgers, room temperature flat cola and slow service.  It was just our luck that a well-known burger chain didn’t open its doors in the UK for another four years in 1974. Our position in the UK as aliens was assured.

Well, of course my brother got sick with a terrible bout of diarrhoea, blocking the toilet; which Mom blamed on the ‘germs’ in the meat. (To be fair, our family had a history of blocking toilets; Dad always said he was ‘a-roll-time-man’.)

Finding that it just wouldn’t shift, Dad resorted to his time-honoured solution: he rolled up his shirt sleeves, flexed his hand, crouched down on all fours to get a purchase on the bowl and, with a quick flourish of his fingers just plunged his arm in there! After pulling out wads of paper, Dad shouted down the public hallway: 

“Someone get me a wire coat hanger, would ya?” 

“Shh! Someone might hear you!” whispered Mom, as she looked nervously up and down the hallway.

“I don’t give a Goddamn who hears me – I’ve got this honey – just get me the hanger please.”

 Mom trotted away furtively down the hall and returned; miraculously producing said hanger, at which Dad deftly unwound the hook and began scraping the bottom of the toilet bowl (he had done this before), 

Make that twenty-TWO uses!

“Dadggumit! Son-of-a-bitch, cheap toilet paper! How much did ya use Son?  Honey – can you get me a bucket? Whhaat? There isn’t one? Goddammit!”  Sweat was trickling down his sideburns.

 “Shhh!” Mom suppressed a giggle.

Dad then did something which has long remained a family secret. Looking around for a suitable receptacle, but finding none, he put all the waste material – handfuls of it – into a little wastepaper bin and  put it out on a window ledge outside the boy’s bedroom window. Mom was now giggling hysterically.

“We can’t do that – somebody will find out!”

 “Ah – nobody’ll see it honey.” 

We checked out. 

***

(Copyright: Andrea Burn 1st July, 2021)

hound-dawgs

(Post by Andrea Grace Burn of East Yorkshire – April 2021)

Alfie and Millie (2010)

The 1960s and ’70s were a great time to be a dog – and a child. My brothers and I were pretty much free-range kids; growing up on a rural college campus in Virginia where Dad lectured in History and Mom was at home for us. We were totally unencumbered by the pressures of an adult world. There were only two grown-up rules: don’t talk to strangers and be home in time for supper. Running barefoot through endless summers with our dog Shiloh, we were pack animals; our friends and their dogs ran with us – always at our side as we navigated our way through childhood. 

Nobody that we knew ever walked their dogs on a lead – what an absurd notion!4We simply opened the back door and let Shiloh out into our back yard and the wider campus. Shiloh would sit at the back door as Dad said, “Out? Out to bark?” whereupon she would race along the back porch and bark three times!

Attitudes towards dogs were different then  – nobody ever picked up dog shit. Our yard was full of it and in the long hot summers we would find chalky white deposits in the clumps of grass. We called it fossilised shit. Nobody cared or worried that we might get some terrible eye disease from it – we just ignored it – unless you were unlucky enough to step in it but that was your fault – you knew it was there!

Shiloh had her neighbourhood pack, including a Golden Retriever called Lanny and Old Jack, the black Labrador who would sleep in the middle of the road, forcing traffic to go around him – and they did! Even Joe the bus driver knew Old Jack and would give him a wide berth,  You can set your watch by him – -yes-siree-bob!”

Andrea & friends with Dale, in the back yard in Virginia – with Lanny the Golden Retriever and Shiloh (1970)

But Shiloh only had eyes for Nicky the Wolfhound; a well-known local bounder who had already sowed his wild oats with Doris the Dachshund in a secret tryst in her garage, producing unlikely looking puppies.

In the American South, a dog is a ‘dawg’ – even Elvis sang about it.  Troublesome ‘dawgs’ are ‘hound-dawgs’; not to be confused with ‘huntin’ dogs’ which are bred to run with the pack.  Shiloh was typical of the ‘hound-dawg’: a German Shepherd who chased small critters – rabbits, squirrels and the occasional rat – frequently puking them up on Mom’s orange velvet sofa.  Rumour had it that she killed a neighbour’s pet rabbit, but Mom refused to believe it. In a legendary show-down on the front porch with the afflicted rabbit’s owner – who had threatened to call the Sheriff – Mom rebuked the accusation and told the woman to get off her property or she would be the one calling the Sheriff!

Then there was the time that Shiloh chased the Dean of Faculty up one of our apple trees. He had the audacity to come to help himself to our apples with a ladder and buckets. Shiloh decided she was having none of his sass; keeping him up that tree for some time, snapping at his heels long enough to teach him a lesson – or until Dad called her off.  (Mom said “it served him right, as the apples were rotten and full of wasps anyway!”)  When still a young puppy, Shiloh nipped our neighbour, Mrs. Wyatt, on the calf, as she strolled past our house when we were playing in the front yard. “She was just defending her family,” said Mom. As I say, attitudes were different then. Oh sure, you had to have a dog licence but if your dog bit someone it was rarely reported. The Sheriff might mosey over to your house and give your parents a caution – then enjoy a cup of coffee with them on the front porch.

 My brother Dale once stepped out of the bathtub when he was a young boy, as Shiloh lay on the bathmat.  The young pup watched for a moment then pounced; nipping the poor boy where the sun doesn’t shine! Dale yelled and Dad could probably be heard clear across the campus:

 “GODDAMN SON-OF-A-BITCH DAWG! SON, GET ME THE MERCUROCHROME!”

The ‘hound-dawg’ pup slunk off and lay low until suppertime.

(NB/ Mercurochrome was a mercury based antiseptic, popular with mothers of the baby boom generation. It stained your skin pink and had a mighty sting on open cuts and grazes. It was finally. considered as unsafe and banned in 1998.)

Shiloh was finally caught red-handed one Christmas Day as she lay nonchalantly across the dining room table gorging on the turkey, which Mom had put their to ‘rest’ before carving. We had hamburgers that year.

Young Andrea with Shiloh, in Virginia – 1970

***

When we made the difficult move to the UK in 1970, we had to leave Shiloh behind with a neighbouring farmer, as quarantine laws were so strict then. We were heartbroken. To make us feel at home in Birmingham, Mom and Dad surprised us with a young rescue German Shepherd called Cleo. 

She was a gentle, beautiful dog who filled a great void in our lives. When my cat Brandy had her litter of kittens in an old packing crate in the garage, Cleo was on hand to help; perhaps sensing that this little cat wasn’t very strong. Cleo watched the birth, helped lick the kittens clean and carried them very tenderly in her mouth out onto the lawn to play with them. Sadly, Cleo became ill with a twisted bowel after only a few months and we had to have her put to sleep. My mother cried for a week. She had invested a lot of love and hope into Cleo, to help turn our dark days into bright ones.  Sadly, little Brandy died from a heart attack when she was being spayed but we kept one of her kittens, Frisky.

Frisky – 1975

After a campaign that lasted some weeks, Mom came home on the bus one dark winter evening with a bundle of fur under her coat. My brothers named her Zoo. She was another German Shepherd rescue puppy with huge ears that met in the middle and big paws which soon bounded their way into our hearts.  Her party piece was standing on her hind legs at the dining room window, farting as she watched life go by behind the net curtains – usually when Mom and Dad had company. Dad would just quietly strike a match – always worked.   Zoo took an instant dislike to Frisky, forcing the cat to live on the veranda roof.  Every now and then they would have a spectacular fight, with the cat holding her own. She lived up there for years.

Zoo in our back garden with scorched grass and remains of the Pampas grass – 1975

Our small, inordinately neat back garden in Birmingham, quickly became decimated.  Mom’s refusal to acknowledge dog shit meant that the grass turned yellow and Zoo shredded the flowers; tearing them by the roots from the borders and strewing them widely across the lawn. She was particularly fond of shredding the Pampas Grass. I can see Dad now – rake in hand – trying to put the Pampas grass back together so Mom wouldn’t notice.  Zoo used our small ornamental pond as a toilet, so Dad decided to fill it in. What Dad didn’t do was drain the pond first; he simply filled it with top soil – right on top of the pond weeds and tadpoles, which turned it into a quagmire. The neighbourhood cats loved it and we had frogs for ever more.

It was Zoo who found her way into the under-stairs cupboard  on Christmas Eve morning in 1970 and chewed up  the presents which our parents had carefully scrimped and saved for; leaving a pair of fluffy mule slippers missing a heel,  the Beatles’ ‘Let it Be’ album with a teeth marks on the corner, the ‘Fall of the Roman Empire’ with a shredded spine and a bald Tressy doll. Mom was distraught and trudged back into Rackham’s on the Number Nine bus on Christmas Eve afternoon with the little money she had to replace what she could. Zoo was indeed a hound-dawg.  The ‘Long and Winding Road’  spun on the turn table after dinner as Mom cried silent tears over the dishes. 

***

And finally, my brother Dale and I still refer to the following incident in which a teenage friend of ours – I’ll call him Mike – was watching TV at our house one afternoon in 1977. He suddenly jumped up from the sofa to pop to the loo, startling Zoo who had been asleep at his feet. She jumped up and  nipped poor Mike in the nuts, causing him to leap higher and emit a piercing yell which reverberated down our road as he ran upstairs clutching his crotch. Dale said,

“She just nipped him in the bud.”

History repeating itself. We’ve always wondered whether he’s OK.

***

Our children grew up with two dogs: Alfie our beloved black Lab and Millie, our Springer Spaniel; each one a ‘hound-dawg’ in their own right with their own idiosyncrasies and characters. We have recently had to say one last ‘goodnight’ to Mille (aka ‘Mills’, ‘Mrs. Mills’, ‘Cruella Da Mills’ and ‘Miss Havisham’) after twelve years of crazy antics, unquestioning devotion and fierce loyalty. Letting go is the hardest part; Mills had my heart and the upper hand (or should I say upper-paw) until the end of her long and happy life.

We still have our four year old chocolate Labrador, Humphrey, who is proving to be a ‘hound-dawg’ and a half!

Dogs teach us compassion, help us laugh at ourselves and make us better humans – especially ‘hound-dawgs’.

Mills.

school daze

(Post by Andrea Grace Burn of East Yorkshire – February 2021)

Andrea, aged ten, in Virginia.

Born and raised in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the early 1960s, I was on course to to live an all-American, Appalchian, apple-pie life with high school, hot dogs and homecoming queens; catching lightening bugs and eating watermellon on the back porch steps on humid, languid summer evenings and dodging icicles under the eaves that could take your eye out in winter. At the age of ten I knew that I would become a cheerleader with the high school football team, the Virginia Bearcats, and that one day my prom date would ‘look sharp’ in a plaid jacket, tan slacks with a crease, Brylcreem-ed hair and be called Brad.

My older brothers and I had idyllic, secure, happy childhoods with Mom and Dad, Friends, Good Neighbours, School, Church and the Great Outdoors; where we played with our ‘dawg’, climbed trees, skinned our knees and didn’t come home until Mother called, “Suppertime!” Life was good.

A bizarre twist of fate catapulted us into a grey 1930s semi in a cul-de-sac on the edge of the Black Country in Birmingham – Britian’s industrial heartland – in the autumn of 1970; just in time for three-day weeks, a national bread shortage and homework by candlelight. Like Dorothy Gale, I knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore.

On the Trail of The Lonesome Pine: from this, The Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia …
… to this – The Bull Ring Shopping Centre, Birmingham in the Seventies.

I failed the Eleven Plus as soon as we landed and was thus despatched to the God Awful School. Where I came from, money was in decimal units of ten, which made perfect ‘cents’. I sat at my wooden school desk in Maths at the ‘thick’ table faced with counting apparatus in units of twelve; pounds, shillings and pence. It was completely alien – what on earth a Threepenny-Bit? Halfpenny? Farthing? Half-a-crown? Ten-Bob? Two-and-six?

I was an alien in every sense – culturally and linguistically. I also had an exaggerated squint, which didn’t help the kids take to me straight away.

“Oi! What ch’ow lookin’ at Scarbra – me or the f***ing wall? (A regular playground chant as my surname was Scarboro.)

The Brummy accent and local idyioms were confounding, as exemplified by a large boy who farted a lot and sat with one foot under his backside on his classroom chair:

‘Sir! Sir! Can I goo? Can I goo to the toylit? Sir! Oi’m des –p – rit!”’

My mother would have said he was ‘vulgar’, for back in Virginia I was only allowed to use toilet words in the bathroom. If caught short in public, it was referred to in hushed tones as the restroom.

A group of boys with short trousers would regularly form a circle around me in the playground:

“Speak American.”

“I am.”

“Naw yam not – not loike on the tele. Goo on – I dare yer.”

“Who d’yow support?”

“Say what?”

“Who d’yow support?”

“What d’ya mean? My dad supports me.”

“Am yow yampee Bab? Yow know, loike the  Villa”?

“Villa? What’s a Villa?”

 “The Villa football tame!  Villa! Villa! Villa!”

I wondered whether the Villa had cheerleaders?

********

I was an instant hit with the gang of girls who terrorised the Lower School playground and corridors, led by Lisa Wentworth and Cheryl Cross:

“Yam dead, Scarbra!”

“Yea, dead! Yam gunna get it afta school!”

“Why d’ yow sit with yam knees apart? Slag.”

(I’m sure I kept my knees together at all times like my Southern Mama had taught me – and what was that word again?)

“Oi! Teacher’s Pet! Yam a scrubber, yam am!” I ran the gauntlet between lessons, ducking in and out of classroom doorways.

********

Miss Fanshaw, my French teacher, had a terrible time with Form 3B. The kids couldn’t care less about learning French (always useful on the cusp between Halesowen and Dudley). They would stand on their desks throwing rulers, shouting and swearing. Miss Fanshaw had no control over the class and no hope of ever achieving any. Sometimes she refused to enter the classroom at all, as missiles were launched towards the black board.  It became sport to goad her until we could see the veins in her neck bulge in the (vain) hope that one might actually pop. We watched her run along the corridor in tears to fetch the Head Master, who would come down to our form room with his cane. The same boys and girls were hauled out and thrashed daily but it had no effect. These were tough kids, from tough backgrounds who didn’t expect to finish school anyway. To be fair, all I remember of Science was singing the ‘Monster Mash’ around  the Bunsen burner with Caz and Julie,

“I was working in the lab, late one night.”

Andrea, aged 14, at school in Birmingham.

I witnessed a school fight once between Rachel and Jack on our way to Geography in the Fourth Year. They were flirting and playfully pushing each other until Rachel got accidentally pushed down a flight of concrete steps and broke her front tooth; whereupon her mother filed a complaint with the police against Jack and it ended up in the Juvenile Court. I had witnessed the whole thing and was prepared to say that it was not entirely Jack’s fault; they were as bad as each other.

 My statement at the Juvenile Court prevented Jack from being sent to Borstal. His parents held my hand with tears streaming down their faces.  Rachel’s mother sent me to Coventry.  While Dad and I were at the Court House we were evacuated by an IRA bomb threat. Dad was proud of me for “standing up for the truth, justice and the American way”.

“But Dad  – we’re in the West Midlands.”

“What the hell difference does that matter, kid?”

Sitting on the upper deck of the Number Nine bus on the way home, as we swung past the Bull Ring Market and the Rotunda, Dad wiped away tears of pride mingled with relief that we hadn’t been blown up.

Most of the kids at school left at fifteen to work because they could. Jobs were plentiful in Birmingham’s car factories so most of the boys walked straight into apprenticeships, where they donned ovealls over their flares and traded platform shoes for steel-cap boots. Caz and Julie traipsed into typing pools with Farrah Fawcette flicks perfected on their mum’s Carmen Rollers and a hint of Charlie.  I wanted an education and had the audacity to think that I could get one.  I got three O’Levels: two in English and one in History. Well, Dad was a History teacher!

The most impressive thing I learnt at school was that my Spanish teacher was friends with Ralph McTell. And I will never again wear big brown knickers after years of torment from the boys on the hockey pitch:

“Oi Scarbra! Did yow fall in a cow pat or ‘ave yam shat yamself?”

A few years ago I saw a headline splashed across a tabloid newspaper about my old God Awful School; its reputation had finally hit the headlines:

‘SEX, DRUGS AND ALCHOHOL’

… the only thing missing was Rock n’ Roll.

********

Ironically, thirty years later when I was teaching Primary School, I became the Sex Education and Drug Awareness Co-Ordinator. 

Oh yeah – here’s one for the boys in the playground: a few years later, when I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar, I met Villa football player Andy Gray.

Villa! Villa! Villa!

(Copyright: Andrea Burn 27/02.21)