Five months after their hastily planned yet beautifully executed July wedding in Washington, D.C., Lt.and Mrs. Alonzo Smith, Jr. were finally going to be reunited in Germany (Alonzo had to hurry back to his post at Landstuhl Air Force Base shortly after the couple was married and Betty is getting ready to join him).
This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Cloudsmith.
December 1954. Betty was deathly afraid to get on a plane and fly anywhere, let alone across the Atlantic. So, what could have been an eight-hour flight was now going to be a 4 to 5-day trip on the SS America, a grand, transatlantic ocean liner that had carried travelers out of New York Harbor to Europe for the past 15 years (barring a short stint as a troop transport ship during the Second World War).
With its red, white, and blue all-over, steel exterior and stylish interiors, the ship was considered a fashionable way to travel overseas — although it was starting to lose some of its appeal due to competition from newer commercial flights that jetted passengers overseas in the name of advanced travel.
However, Betty had no interest in being a part of the jet-set. No way was she getting on a plane. Besides, after having a conversation with her nextdoor neighbor, she was convinced that her decision was the right one. The neighbor’s cousin, Gene, worked as a steward on the SS America and he was friendly with the Captain. Gene promised to look out for Betty during the trip and that was her confirmation that everything was as it should be.
After five months apart, she was finally going to be reunited with her husband. She wasn’t just leaving Otis Place or D.C., she was leaving the country — going to Europe. Just a short time ago, she could have never imagined that for herself. After all, she hadn’t had a pathway to go away to college yet, here she was. Getting ready to travel overseas.
Her excitement buried any anxiety she felt about going abroad. But there was one problem. Betty was broke.
After the wedding, she’d left her secretary job and Alonzo starting sending her a check every month — a couple of hundred dollars — so she could buy essentials for the trip and start putting away savings for the both of them. He didn’t see the need to give his new wife implicit instructions on how much she should spend or save. He only asked that Betty purchase a new washing machine for their apartment on the base in Germany and have it shipped over, which she did.
After that, Betty had a good time.
She bought clothes and hats, went to the movies, and bought tickets to live shows — because, certainly Germany’s entertainment scene could never measure up to D.C.’s Black Broadway. And what else was she supposed to do with all of her free time?
By the time summer and fall had disappeared into the coming winter and Betty’s newfound joy of frivolous spending was over, she had just enough money left for her travel fare. Nothing more. No spending money, none for incidentals, not a cent left in the bank. What would her new husband think of her?
Too embarrassed to ask her parents for money, Betty asked family friends for a loan. She was certain the couple would oblige since they owned a barbershop in the neighborhood — barbers always had extra cash on hand.
“We don’t have it,” they said. But she knew they were lying. At some point, Alonzo was going to ask her about the money, and she would have to tell him that she’d spent it all.
Betty’s younger brother drove her to New York, to the city’s passenger ship terminal in midtown Manhattan where she boarded the SS America. With much fanfare, the ship pulled out of the port, sailed along the Hudson River, passed the Statue of Liberty, and headed out into the Atlantic. Betty was leaving America on an ocean liner by the same name. Perhaps that was why not everything American was left behind.
On the first night at dinner, as was customary on ocean liners, Betty was assigned a table in the main dining room. Dressed in an elegant evening dress, with flawless hair and make-up, Betty arrived for dinner. Her neighbor’s cousin Gene introduced her to the Captain and escorted her to her table. As one of the very few Black passengers on the ship, she found herself seated with several diners who were all White.
Never before had Betty dined formally with White folks. Still, she was always comfortable no matter who she was around. As she nibbled on her food, she mingled with the guests seated at her table — confident and poised. It appeared that she’d charmed everyone. But appearances can be deceiving.
Later that evening when Betty caught up with Gene (he’d been serving dinner in the dining room), he told her that after dinner, he’d overheard one of the guests from her table complaining to the Captain. The passenger, a gray-haired woman from Philadelphia, wasn’t happy about having a “colored girl” at her table.
The Captain had listened patiently, letting the woman finish her rant before offering a response. “She paid money for her ticket just like you did,” he said. And just as quickly as the conversation began, it ended.
On the next evening and the ones that followed, the old woman from Philly sat at another table, and that suited Betty just fine. For the rest of the journey, she passed the time by reading and lounging on the upper deck, enjoying the sights and sounds of the sea.
Then, before she knew it, the ship pulled into the dock in Bremerhaven, Germany. After taking a train to Frankfurt, where Alonzo had driven to pick her up at the station, Mrs. Smith was finally in the arms of her husband.
“You spent all of that money?!”
Alonzo couldn’t believe it. Yet when he saw how remorseful Betty was, his anger subsided. The couple hadn't been together since July and he wanted their new life together to start off on the right foot; for now, he would let it go. After driving from the train station, he and Betty pulled into a neighborhood in the town of Kaiserslautern, not too far from the Landstuhl Air Force Base.
It was Christmastime, and Betty would soon discover that the German people took Christmas very seriously. As she stepped out of the car, the vivid scent of pine penetrated the chilly air and tickled her nose. She saw Christmas trees standing in the windows of some of the homes on the street and upon closer inspection, she realized that the trees were adorned with candles. Not the electric ones that you plugged in. These were real, wax candles.
Betty wondered how on earth anyone could decorate a tree with actual candles without burning their house down…