‘Life has been good’ Jackie Fillebaum, English war bride, now a Bovina gal

Published 1:01 am Sunday, November 20, 2011

Though she has lived at Bovina for 65 years, Jackie Fillebaum occasionally speaks with a bit of a soft, almost musical, British accent — a hint that she’s not originally from around here.

She was a war bride, arriving from England at Edwards, Miss., on July 7, 1946. Her husband, Jack, was waiting for her at the depot. At the Fillebaum home on Warriors Trail near the Big Black River she was in for “quite a shock.”

She grew up in rural England where her parents’ home had running water, indoor plumbing, “and there was none of that here.” The rural Warren County house to which she came had electricity — but it was a light bulb hanging by a cord in the middle of the room.

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“Can you imagine?” said the petite lady who has been 89 “for about two weeks.”

That’s not the way Jacqueline Ward had planned her life. She had just graduated from high school in 1939, had a job at the office of a dairy and was ready to start a career.

“I was all set to discard my school clothes and get a nice navy blue suit and high heels and start a normal life where I was going to be dating and life was just beginning,” she said.

But on her first day at work, England declared war on Nazi Germany, “and everything went just the opposite of what I had planned.” She never got that suit, she said, and because of the rationing of gasoline she had to ride a bicycle to work — a seven mile round trip — for several years.

“And it’s hard to ride a bicycle in high heels.”

Just about every necessity of life was rationed. Because of the bombing of supply ships from South America and Spain, items in the stores couldn’t be restocked, so the English had to grow what they could to feed their families. Coal mines in Wales supplied fuel, but there was little gasoline.

Jackie’s job was to check on the delivery of milk, to record all sales in big ledg-ers, for milk was strictly rationed with children and adults receiving specified amounts and, as a result, “We raised the healthiest bunch of children in that five years.”

The nation was subject to blackouts from 1939 until the threat of Nazi invasion was over several years later. The houses had black curtains. A home guard of older men, including Jackie’s father, patrolled the roads to make sure no lights could be seen. Jackie remembers spending many nights at her bedroom window looking out — but she couldn’t see anything, not even lights of the town three miles away. She could hear the German planes overhead, and finally the sirens would go off signaling all clear. She described it in a few words: “It was a bad time.”

Rays of hope were when Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressed the citizens. “He kept us going with his talks,” Jackie said. “And, when we heard him speak, my father would not allow us children to say a word. Churchill was a great man.”

Everything changed for Jackie when she was working in the office at the dairy when, “One Wednesday afternoon, I looked through my window and this American soldier was standing there. He said, ‘Good afternoon, Miss. It’s a nice evening, and I’m enjoying the town.’”

She politely closed the window and thought, “That was the end of that.”

A week later, the following Wednesday, there was a repeat of the scene. and “I shut my window again.” When he didn’t show up the third week, she admits, “I was a little disappointed.” But, when she got off work and started out the back door, there he was. He walked her to the bus for her ride home, and every day when he had time off — usually on Wednesdays — he was there. She laughingly admits that when they met she was very interested in him — but was determined not to show it.

Until they met, life had been pretty routine for her. There were six children in the family — she was the oldest — and on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, during her lunch hour, she took the ration books to the butcher shop to pick up what her mother wanted for the evening meal.

But, “when I met this American, we’d walk and talk and I’d miss my bus. My family was waiting while I had the bag with the liver — we were going to have liver and onions. Mother would have the potatoes cooked and the onions chopped — and I missed the bus. An hour or so later, I would get home to those poor, starving children!”

Meeting Jack became “a regular thing,” she said.

“We talked and went for walks along the river for almost a year,” and though her father had told her he had better not find out that she had been seeing an American soldier, he gave his blessings when he met Jack, who asked permission to marry Jacqueline.

“My mother would never allow a nickname. I was always Jacqueline. But, when I met Jack, he said he was going to call me Jackie,” she said.

They married in England and honeymooned in London where they went to the British embassy to put her name on the list of war brides who would sail to America.

Jackie arrived in New York on July 4, 1946, after a 12-day trip on a passenger ship filled with brides headed to America. Red Cross workers had escorted them, but as it was a holiday they all took off, leaving the girls on the ship. The next day, they were put on a train going to their respective destinations. It was 2 1/2 days later that the train pulled into Edwards.

Before leaving New York, the brides had undergone an orientation and the speaker for those destined to live in the South were told that the area was made up mostly of old families who had lived there for years and years and they didn’t like outsiders and it would be very difficult to get acquainted. But Jackie “never found that to be so. For me, it didn’t happen. I was welcomed here.”

Though she was welcomed by family and community, there were some changes — the differences being mainly the food.

“I had to learn to eat some things that I had never tried before,” she said. “I didn’t know you could eat corn. I had always fed it to the chickens. I thought that was all corn was good for. I’ve learned to eat it, but I’ve never liked it very much. Greens? That’s another story. I’m not very thrilled with them. And corn bread? No. And the same for grits.”

But she will sometimes eat hashbrowns.

Her mother-in-law was a wonderful cook and really excelled at pies. Jackie liked baking cakes, and the two cooked vegetables, most of which were grown on the Fillebaum farm. Her father-in-law had marketed much of the produce he grew, and Jack told her that before he went into the army he had to spend Sunday afternoons with his dad cutting the greens and preparing them for the grocery store in Vicksburg, “which kind of took away from what a young man does on Sunday afternoons.”

When they married, Jack promised he would see to it that she got to go back home for visits. The first trip occurred in 1954 — eight years after their marriage — but by that time she had sons Roger and John and had become an American citizen because “Jack was afraid, if I went on a British passport, I might not come back.”

Since then, she’s gone about every three years, and daughter Cathy celebrated her first, eighth and 15th birthdays in England.

In America, Jackie has never worked outside the home She’s just about a stone’s throw from the Big Black River, and for years Jack read the gage each day at the bridge.

He’d park the car, walk to the middle of the bridge and lower the gage, but Jackie sat in the car and waited for him.

Her time was spent, she said, raising children, gardening, attending and helping at Bovina Methodist Church and “being the usual school mom — I’ve done all that.”

What does she miss most about England? The flowers, the beautiful countryside, castles and homes, “but mostly the flower gardens.”

And what does she like most about America?

“The people,” she said without hesitation.

She keeps in touch with her family overseas, talking frequently to her sisters. She has been back 19 times and jokes that she wasn’t invited to Prince William’s wedding but she is seriously toying with the idea of going in April, for she has a grandson who wants to go for the Olympics.

Since her husband’s death several years ago, and since her car has been taken away from her after she broke a hip, she sits in her favorite chair and reads a lot — “and there’s usually a knitting project nearby.” Family and friends call on her frequently, and somebody is usually available to take her to church

“Life,” she said, “has been good.”

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.