One of the nurses just asked me what I happened to be doing when I heard that war was declared. I couldn't remember. She said that she was in the middle of putting a fresh nappy on her baby when the news came over the radio. The baby reacted with a fresh bowel movement, soiling the nappy before she even had it fastened.
My own reaction to war, whatever it might have been, couldn't have been nearly as appropriate. It was just that we had been expecting it for so long, and there had, in recent weeks and days, been so many ultimata and threatened ultimata. It's actual announcement was then an anti-climax. But I do clearly remember the first air raid warning, that very afternoon.
We were in the Neasden yards, getting the engines ready for the nightly run, and John Henry and I were standing next next to one of the doubled engines. When we heard the sirens, he said,
"I guess we'll soon find out whether we'll be able to do it."
I knew what he meant. Even if London suffered no more than ten per cent destruction over the course of several months, a destruction of ten per cent of our line, in many separated places, could easily put us out of business.
A moment later, when I thought about myself, I felt fear, as definite and tangible as the horrid wailing of the sirens. I suggested that we seek shelter, but John Henry replied,
"We can just crawl under the engine. That's probably the safest place we can find. There are gas masks right in the cab."
Gas was the other great scourge. As John Henry climbed up to get the masks, it occurred to me that we would be better off in the open ground of the yard than in some underground location where the gas might collect and overwhelm our masks.
There were the sounds of airplanes, and we could see them overhead, but they were scattered and heading in all directions. They hardly looked like an incoming bomber formation. Indeed, we concluded that they were RAF fighters even before one came low and we got a good look at it.
It wasn't long before Sigiloff came up, chattering and smiling ear to ear. I asked him,
"Why are you so happy, Sammy? You've had nothing but dire predictions for weeks."
"That was so nothing'd get overlooked and we'd be prepared. But now the balloon's gone up and we're ready. Let em come."
I hadn't realized that Sigiloff actually loved war, something that gradually became plain. I was so impressed that I, too, began to hope that the Luftwaffe would come.
The longer we stood there, the less happened. The first air battle of the war was the so-called Battle of Barking Creek, occasioned when one RAF aircraft mistook another for a German bomber. There were no casualties, either in the air or on the ground, and the all-clear sounded after an hour. Sigiloff was actually crestfallen, but John Henry and I went back to work cheerfully enough.
That was the period of the Phoney War. Apart from the German and Russian conquest of Poland and a few actions at sea, almost nothing happened. I heard that, when the French troops on the upper Rhine played soccer, the German troops on the other side of the river cheered when goals were scored. Probably they bet on the games. In a similar vein, British bombers flew over Germany and dropped leaflets. That wasn't quite as useless as it might have seemed. German civilians would at least realize that bombs could be substituted for the leaflets.
Many people now believed that the war would simply be declared null and void. The point had been to protect Poland, but that country, having enjoyed at best an intermittent existence, had now disappeared. The scant probability of bringing it back again seemed too small to justify the sacrifices that would certainly be involved.
On the other hand, one thing, more than any other, convinced me that the Nazis were crazy, and would have to be stopped. I heard it on excellent authority that they were de- capitating Germans who had been caught listening to the BBC. When I mentioned it to Vignis, she said,
"That couldn't be true!"
"It is. It's a public law, and there's nothing secret about it. A Swiss correspondent just reported it, as have others."
Vignis shook her head and replied,
"Barbarian though that is, England would never have gone to war over it."
"No, but it shows that Hitler and his mob are so crazy that there's nothing they can be trusted not to do. No one in Europe is safe as long as they're in power."
"I think that's the majority British opinion. This war isn't just going to end."
We proved to be right, of course. On the other hand, that was a happy time for me. Vignis and I were becoming more intimate by tiny degrees, and for the first time, I was confident that we would eventually marry. We had our work, which was hard and satisfying, and also our soccer golf, which was hard and satisfying in a different way. It would have seemed the last time for me to do something extraordinarily stupid.
Excitement and glamour in England centered around the royal family. I was particularly fascinated by the queen. Even though she was a quiet unassuming person who had never expected to be queen, she became a fantasy figure for me just as Vignis, who had always been my fantasy figure, was becoming ever more a real woman. I was frequently outside the gates of Buckingham Palace, along with hundreds of others, whenever it was announced that the royal couple would arrive or depart. Vignis came with me sometimes to humor me, but she wasn't there on the fateful day.
I had known but little of the English legal system. It is founded almost entirely on precedent, and the precedents sometimes go back hundreds of years. In my case, one of the precedents turned out to be that of a man "who did make a rude noise when the queen passed by." I, of course, didn't make a rude noise. Moreover, even though I did something which had no recent, or even very close, legal precedent, I doubt that I was observed by the queen. But, it seems, there are certain hawk-eyed gentlemen who always watch the crowd closely and move with alarming speed when something untoward catches their eye. There was no Sidonie there to rescue me this time.
I am being rather indirect in this matter. Even though I am well enough to write these lines, the nurses continue to amuse themselves by reading them. And they may not have heard the particulars. The only concession made to me on account of my prominent, and even essential, position was a certain shroud of privacy. Even after I entered Holloway jail, and then Wormwood Scrubbs prison, certain fictions were maintained.
I propose to say almost nothing of this period, which extended through to the June of 1940. Except for two things. Wormwood Scrubbs happens to lie quite close to our line, and listening to the whistles at Acton Wells from my pallet, I timed the trains and knew that all was well.
The other thing concerns Vignis. She was appalled, but she was understanding. She visited me then, as she visits me now. The institution was of a different sort, but she then charmed warders as she now charms nurses. She also kept me up to date on what was happening on the line, and I continued to have a voice in the management of the system. She only alluded to my difficulty once, when she said,
"I've been tempted to ask you why, James. But I know that you don't know."
I could only nod my assent.
I got out in the early June of 1940 just as the evacuation of Dunkirk was taking place. To many ordinary English people the rescue of their army, mostly surrounded and about to be chewed into bits by the German Panzers, was, simply, a miracle. There was a tremendous surge of joy when the number of those rescued became known, but it was difficult for a man who had just come out of jail to participate in it. I nevertheless walked from Wormwood Scrubbs to Neasden and jumped into the middle of things. We had an extra surge of traffic on our hands, and I arrived just when Vignis needed my help.
A week later, Paris fell. It had no immediate direct effect on our operations, but a considerable indirect one, as I found out when I met with Mr. Stewart. He began with a hearty,
"Glad to see you back. We need some help just now."
He spoke as if I had been on vacation rather than in prison. But, whatever his private thoughts may have been, he seemed to trust me. Indeed, he surprised me by saying,
"The government in wartime has the right to read the mail of ordinary citizens, and an analysis of a random sample of it is distributed to certain of the ministries and the P. M. The upshot of it is that morale isn't good. Ordinary men and women are doing a great deal of complaining about shortages, and, worse, a great many seem to think our cause is hopeless."
"Isn't grumbling normal in wartime?"
"Certainly. But we're used to it from the last time, and everyone of any experience thinks it's much more serious now. For us, the upshot is that, this winter, we've got to give a much higher priority to transporting coal and food for the city dwellers than one would think necessary in war time."
As it turned out, that wasn't the half of it.
A great many different lines of confidential information met in the person of Andrew Stewart. He wasn't the first person to be told about anything, but, in the end, someone would decide that, in his position, he had to know. It wasn't until a little later that I discovered why he had chosen to confide some of this information to a man who had just been released from Wormwood Scrubbs.
The report in question came from the Admiralty. The substance was that the submarine threat was much more serious than that posed by either the Luftwaffe or the German army. Submarines could sink merchant ships much faster than they could be built, and, since Britain couldn't feed herself, she was much more likely to be starved into submission than invaded. Commenting on this projection, Stewart said,
"I find it unduly pessimistic. It may be that, under normal circumstances, we don't produce even half the food we eat, but that doesn't mean that we couldn't. The railways can help in two ways."
One way, of course, was to distribute the food that was available as efficiently as possible. His second idea was much more radical.
"There's a great deal of waste land in Britain, much of it heath and moor. It isn't economical to farm it, but it can be cleared and cultivated in an emergency. All it takes is someone with initiative to make a beginning."
Stewart wanted to build spurs from main lines in desolate areas and use our own men to clear the land. Then, we would transport laborers to it, use old coaches to house them, and take the produce to market. He concluded,
"I'm convinced that it'll make a significant difference, and that no one else will do it if we don't."
It happened that one of the most promising such districts, in Hereford, could be reached from our line to Swansea in Wales.
Even as I agreed, I had the feeling that I had somehow been through something like this before. It was only after Stewart left that I realized that he had a grand design. He wanted me to help him get started immediately with a pilot project, and, once it looked promising, he would attempt to get it duplicated on a massive scale. He intended nothing less than to save England from starvation.
It reminded me rather vividly of the STARVATION game we had played in Iceland. But, more usefully, Stewart reminded me of Mac back when he was promoting his grand design. There wasn't, of course, much surface similarity. Stewart was urbane and modest where Mac had been generally loud and sometimes rude. But they had both come straight to me with their idea.
This time, my intuition, as clear and distinct as ever, concerned myself more immediately and directly. I was gullible in an unusual and almost unique way.
Lots of people are gullible. But not people with my intelligence and my critical abilities. And I was only vulnerable to a particular approach. It had to come from a particular sort of person. The ideas it contained had to be grandiose, and they had to sound crazy. Moreover, there was something about me that indicated to the people who had those ideas that I would, not only accept them, but be able to advance them in a material way.
As an antidote to that gullibility, I took Stewart's scheme around to MacRitchie. As I expected, Stewart hadn't himself put it to him. I was intended to be the opening wedge.
MacRitchie made a whistling noise. He then began to calculate. The crisis might come in two years' time. How many agricultural branches could we reasonably expect to open and have functioning in that time? He named an outside figure. How much could each produce? He again gave a generous estimate. He then multiplied and concluded,
"That's something like three per cent of the current supply of food."
It was typical of MacRitchie. He always had the facts, whatever the subject matter, and he could do lightning calculations in his head. His conclusions always followed deductively from his premises. But, of course, I didn't believe a word of what he said. Stewart had come to the right man.
Vignis was much easier to persuade. She also had a different reason.
"Andrew Stewart is doing more than anyone to keep the railway system of this country from falling apart. He's working sixteen hours most days, and, if he thinks this is what's needed, we ought to do it. After all, even three per cent could make a critical difference."
"Yes, the difference between being very hungry and starving."
A little later, Vignis and I had a meeting with MacRitchie, Sigiloff, and John Henry. The latter was quite optimistic. He also pointed out,
"We could bring over a lot more men from the GER. Most of them started out in the fields, and they know how to farm."
It was then MacRitchie who said,
"I have no objection to doing something that could marginally increase the food supply, but there's a simpler solution. Get the people to eat grains and vegetables instead of meat. If you convert livestock production to grain, you can feed just about three times as many people."
Sigiloff had been mumbling faster and faster. He finally exploded, almost screaming,
"Crucnchie, Crunchie, don't ever say that, ya don't realize, that's terrible, you're not even improvin, don't nobody repeat it ..."
Once he calmed slightly, Sigiloff allowed me to put his point,
"You think it would be the ultimate in tactlessness for an American to suggest to the English that they go without meat?"
He did think that, and then some. He didn't state his principles, or any principles, in so many words, but they still emerged clearly enough from his combination of speech, gesture, and near hysteria. Somewhere down the line, he put forward, more or less, the generalization that no goal, no matter how desirable, should be put forward if its mere mention would destroy the kind of civility and co-operation required to reach that, and probably other, goals.
In the present case, it wasn't totally obvious that the mere mention of vegetarianism would cause the English to revile us and all our works. But Sigiloff was often right when others thought he was being absurd. People generally weren't as sensitive as he thought, but they were generally more sensitive than other people thought. In the end, it was decided that I would put MacRitchie's suggestion quietly to Stewart at our next meeting.
When I did so, the next day, Stewart smiled and said,
"There are some plans to that effect in various ministries. But it's felt that we can't say anything about it in public. The people simply aren't with us to that extent."
Stewart was, however, very pleased that we had decided to go ahead on his project, particularly when I told him of John Henry's intention of bringing over more men to get the new farms started. He replied,
"I'll see that they get passage on a fast liner. We can't have them sunk by a U-boat."
Since time was critical, John Henry and I set out on the very next day for the first of Stewart's suggested locations. We took an old Midland 4-4-0, one that steamed well even though it hadn't been rebuilt, and a short work train and crew.
Our destination, several hours away, was a country station at the end of a branch line. It backed up to something that the English call a moor, and, suitably outfitted with boots, we were anxious to explore it.
There was a certain incongruity between John Henry's giant figure and a tiny English village. A child, on seeing him, ran screaming for its mother. The mother, hardly more sophisticated than the child, simply stood and gaped. John Henry said to me,
It was a joke between us to make up our own language, sometimes combining bits and pieces of existing languages. On this occasion, mother and child retreated quickly, perhaps under the impression that our language was Satanic.
We then walked the short distance to the end of the town and encountered the huge upland expanse of the moor. Covered with bushes of a purplish color, it was hard to make progress because their branches were so intertwined. It looked quite an improbable place for a farm and John Henry asked,
"What crop does Stewart hope to grow here?"
"I don't know, but he's probably worked it out."
"MacRitchie had another idea that might be better."
"You mean, apart from the vegetarianism?"
John Henry smiled in a way that reminded me a little of Mac and replied,
"Yes. The London parks could be made into farms much more easily than this. Hyde Park alone would probably feed thousands of people."
"But that's where Vignis and I play soccer golf."
"So you also have some things you put ahead of having enough to eat. I told him I didn't think it would work out."
"I hope he doesn't mention it in front of Sigiloff."
"I urged him not to."
After struggling around in the moor for a bit, John Henry said,
"Let's try Stewart's ground clearing method and see if it works."
We ran the engine up to the end of the track and had the work crew attach a heavy chain we had brought to the front buffer beam. We then laid the chain in an ellipse through the bushes for a hundred yards and brought the other end back to the locomotive. Stewart's idea was that, when pulled backwards, the chain would uproot the bushes. I was afraid that it would be pulled over their tops.
When we backed the engine, the chain did start at ground level, and some bushes were pulled up. The engine then came to a stop. When more power was applied, the drivers spun.
Climbing the ladder to the nearby water tank, we could see, by the torn-up and distorted bushes, exactly where the chain lay. But, even when the engine came forward slightly to create slack, and then took it up with a jerk, the chain moved only a little.
John Henry, hanging above me on the ladder, signalled the driver to stop and said to me,
"At this rate, we'll only break the chain."
When we got to the ground, I pointed out,
"We could get a local freight engine with much more tractive force."
"There's a Mogul over there in steam."
It was assumed that I would be the one to make the approach. I wanted that engine very badly, more than I had ever wanted anything for Christmas as a child, but I knew that it could be fatal to be pushy. I was prepared to explain, at some length, what we were trying to do before suggesting that they might hook on to the end of the work train that was still coupled to our engine.
Before I could get rolling with my explanation, the driver offered to help. I climbed aboard, and he yanked at the regulator.
The 2-6-0 was of the old style without any side window in the cab, and it was hardly bigger than our engine. But my hopes rested on its small drivers and their greater mechanical advantage.
After the Mogul was coupled up, I went to stand on the buffer beam of our engine while John Henry, still up the ladder, gave the signal. Just as the drivers behind me began to slip and spin, I felt the jolt as the Mogul took up the slack in the couplings. Then, to my relief, the 4-4-0's drivers caught and we kept moving. In front of me, there was a slow eruption as bushes were compressed together and pushed up into the air until the chain passed under them. I could see both ends of the chain being jerked mightily, but nothing broke or came loose. Indeed, as we got up to something like five miles an hour, the chain seemed to cut more cleanly with fewer jerks.
In our enthusiasm, we carried away the buffer stop at the end of the track. John Henry jumped down from the ladder and came running over. I hadn't quite realized how much I had wanted Stewart's scheme to succeed until I found myself pounding the puzzled driver of the Mogul on the back and thanking him effusively. I suppose he must have put it down to my being American.
The end product of our trial was an oval with bare earth in places and huge mounds of uprooted bushes in others. It had been shown that we could clear land with a locomotive, but, to do it on any scale, we would have to be able to lay a whole series of temporary tracks across cleared areas to the uncleared ones. John Henry said,
"Let's throw these bushes out of the way, and then just drop the ties on the ground."
This was a radical suggestion. It generally takes ten times as long to create the roadbed as to lay the track, but I was aware that the logging railways in America laid temporary track with very little preparation. It was good enough to allow a speed of five or ten miles an hour.
Since the bushes were all intertwined, they couldn't simply be thrown out of the way of our track. We dragged, pushed, kicked, ripped our hands to shreds, and swore. Even John Henry could only occasionally rip a bush loose and throw it off to the side. He said to me,
"We'll eventually figure out a way to get the engine to do this, but I want to get some track down and see what happens."
It took a while to find a track-laying crew. When we did, they were in the local pub. Having started before dawn, they had just finished work, and were relaxing visibly. It's not easy to get a dog-tired plate-layer out of a pub, but, having found that American dollars had a special appeal, we carried them in quantity. It also helped that the pub was about to close for the afternoon break.
The next stage was much quicker than it would have been with American track. The English bullhead rail, shaped like a squashed figure eight in cross-section, fitted exactly through "chairs" that were already fixed to the ties. In this case, we had only to lay the ties on the ground, thread the rails through the chairs, and bolt them to the existing rails.
The men were used to doing this, and I quickly realized that I would only be in the way if I tried to help. On the other hand, they quickly took advantage of John Henry's strength, and had him on one end of each tie that had to be carried. Some ties hardly touched the ground, but we hoped that the weight of the engine would settle the track. John Henry said,
"If we can do it with this engine, we can do it with any."
Our engine was, after all, an old express one, tall and slim with eighty inch drivers and a high axle loading.
We began by inching the engine slowly over the new track. The rails bent, but didn't break, The ties were driven down, but the springy ground pushed them back up. The engine swayed, but was never close to tipping over. It looked as if we could run over the track at some five miles an hour, faster with an engine like the now departed Mogul. We agreed that Stewart's method worked, and that we could clear the moor.
When we arrived back at Neasden, we were surprised to find, not only Vignis, but Andrew Stewart waiting for us. I said to him,
"We pulled up a great many bushes, and the engine didn't fall off the track we plunked down."
He was, of course pleased, but we knew that he wanted more detail. After we had provided it, he concluded,
"Then it will work. It seems absurd that so much should rest on our ability to uproot shrubs, but I think that it may."