by the Rambler 07/12/2001
LONDONDERRY/Derry is seldom out of the news. This year, Lundy was the focus.
This has brought back memories of wartime sojourns in the 'Maiden City' when the blackout and rationing made life difficult for anyone looking for comfort in a strange town teeming with American troops.
Happily, I had the help of a charming young lady from Derry who had taken up work locally as a school teacher.
She had a brother, a publican at Orchestra Street, and a younger sister who was at least equally attractive as herself, living at home and ready to mother a youthful stranger.
I travelled on the early morning GNR mail train via Portadown and Omagh, and my first thrill was the lurching of the dining car as the driver sped across the Sperrins.
Happily, the couplings held, but the chasm which yawned underfoot, as one negotiated the corridor linking coaches was awesome.
Seated at one of the small tables in the dining car, as we hit the rough part of the permanent way, with my cup and saucer safe (sic) on the bench, I was amused at the total inability of a fellow traveller to gain a sip out of his cup.
Each time he raised it to his lips, the coach gave a lurch, and his lips and the tea cup, parted company! Hilarious!
My amusement subsided when I turned my attention to my own repast and found my almost empty saucer overflowing with spilled tea.
The GNR permanent way was rocky around Pomeroy, very rocky. But not too rocky to present the driver hooking the mail bags which were suspended within reach of the grappling device protruding from the side of the engine.
As we approached Derry, I was startled when three American GIs hit the deck as the train slowed to a halt at St Johnston.
Later, I discovered that the soldiers-in-uniform were concealing themselves because the train had made an unscheduled stop in a neutral country, ie, the Free State, where, according to law, they ought to have been interned as prisoners-of-war.
Actually, no one around St Johnston gave a tuppeny about war time regulations of that kind, so long as GI's kept their heads down. They were out of bounds and taking a chance.
Some of their colleagues got their heads down even faster in the Diamond one evening. A fracas involving some GIs broke out.
It was difficult to see what was going on in the black-out conditions, but when 'The Red Caps' homed in in a jeep and without getting off the rear platform, started flailing all round them with their over-sized victims (ie other GIs) livened things up.
It was a kind of smash-and-grab procedure. Heads got smashed and victims were grabbed and cast into the jeep with impressive speed.
In a flash, the Diamond was cleared, sort of rough wartime justice. Very rough for the troublemakers who failed to get their heads down before the truncheons connected.
On another occasion, as a GI emerged from an air raid shelter supporting an unsteady young lady, my chaperon whispered to me that the female had probably imbibed.
Guilty or innocent, the GIs were blamed for drugging young women. That was sixty years ago, when spiking drinks was unheard of elsewhere.
Far away from the banks of Lough Neagh, I learnt a thing or two during my wartime sojourn in Derry. I have pleasant memories of house parties, no invitations were made. I was just taken along and introduced. Then treated to music and craic, plus a light supper in the home of a complete stranger - a lovely Derry custom.
Of a pleasant evening we joined the throng of strollers on the road to the border post at Muff (was it). It was pleasant strolling of a May evening, but even after dark the enjoyment was there.
I spent a week in Derry on some six or eight occasions, at six monthly intervals, during 1941/43 and my memories are entirely pleasant.