Dark murky water churned 'round the ship as it slowly headed out on its journey across the Atlantic to the land of opportunity. Hoping for a last glimpse of the emerald English countryside, I stood on deck, clinging to the guardrail while scanning the view. All I could see was the Southampton dockyard, with its outline of tall cranes and other ships in port. As the dismal gray sight receded, a loudspeaker bellowed instructions for passengers to stay in their cabins as we headed into a storm.
The cabin was lined with narrow bunks intended for servicemen's wives. Three other women occupied these bunks. A small central floor space contained a crib for my 10-month-old son, leaving barely enough room to stand and turn around. As the pitching of the ship increased, I soon learned to balance by planting my feet apart and rolling with the motion.
Ferocious winds and mountainous waves relentlessly battered our vessel as it tossed and rolled. Rising and dipping, we rose to the crest of huge walls of water only to plunge down, then up to the next. Most of the crew and passengers were seasick. Daily fire drills became our only exercise. We grasped handrails along the gangways and desperately clung to cold iron ladders while climbing between decks. After days of battering, a short lull between storms made it possible to go up on deck.
The bitter, salty wind stung my face and turned my cheeks apple red. Reclining in a sturdy, slatted wooden deck chair, I gazed at the azure horizon where sky met ocean. The sun glinted on choppy waves in the never-ending sea. From the clouds in the sky to the angry water to the rising and falling of the deck, all was motion.
The only distraction from the monotony of sea and sky was spotted midway on our journey. The loudspeaker announced that a ship could be seen passing on the horizon about five miles away.
The storm returned with a vengeance and was with us for the next week, until we finally arrived in New York on January 23, 1956.
New York was a bustling city filled with people who hated each other. Taxi drivers yelled obscenities, people pushed as they rushed by and hotel rooms had rows of locks on each door. All this was in stark contrast to the Kentish people and a countryside of green meadows and blossoming orchards. New York was a place to leave as quickly as possible. We left in an old blue Willys that we prayed would carry us to our destination.
As the scenery rushed by on this long, straight highway, I was astonished to see rundown houses with large cars in front and TV antennas on the roofs. The road seemed endless. With only a few stops along the way for bread, milk and cheese, we drove through New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia and finally arrived in Orange Springs, Florida.
As the old Willys chugged to a stop in front of a small grocery store, I looked around in dismay. Once-white paint was peeling off weathered wood siding; faded signs were barely legible even in the bright Florida sun. Beside the entrance stood a rusty and dented cold drink cooler with 5 cents printed on it. Scruffy men slouched on benches near the cooler, chewing tobacco.
A short, sprightly old woman ran from her overgrown jungle of a garden across the street and introduced herself.
"I'm Miss Mary," she exclaimed. "You'll have to excuse my appearance, I've been picking blackberries."
Getting out of the car, my high heels sank into the sand. While extending my hand, I saw the remains of past meals dribbled down the woman's flour-sack dress. Declining an invitation for 'possum dinner, I waited to see where we would go.
The townspeople gathered in front of the store to meet me. Not understanding my English accent, they asked each other what language I was speaking. I slowed my speech to their southern drawl. They gradually began to understand me, and I was bombarded with questions.
"Do they have TV in England?" "What 'bout 'frigerators?" "Where is England?" "Is it in Russia?"
It was decided that we should go to the only other store to find a place to stay. We rented a one-room cabin built of rough-sawn cypress, containing a bed, table, chair and hot plate. Water was obtained from an outside faucet. For $10 a month, this little cabin became our first home in the United States.
When we were able to afford $30 a month in rent, we moved into a large house that had probably been a fine home during the Civil War. Unused for years, it was in disrepair. The walls and ceiling were covered with small holes, but I was happy to be in a house with a kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and living room. As we moved in, I kept wondering about the mysterious holes in the plaster. Falling into bed exhausted after a day of cleaning, I finally discovered what made them. As I gazed at the ceiling, rats peered through the holes. I jumped out of bed in revulsion and ran to the kitchen. When I turned on the light, roaches scurried away from the brightness.
Our next home was a pest-free garage apartment in which the lumber was rotting. This home lasted until my first hurricane. The building swayed all night but remained upright.
We were finally able to purchase some $50-an-acre property, where we lived in a small trailer while building our home. Each payment for doing odd jobs bought material for the house. Our groceries were what we grew, gleaned from the woods or obtained on credit at the general store.
Almost 40 years have passed since my early impressions. The extreme poverty is only a distant memory. I now write from a comfortable log home in the scenic Bitterroot Valley. This is the Land of Opportunity. It is my home.
Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then CAPPER’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from CAPPER’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.