Snapshots by Gloria Freeland -- March 16, 2007
Alfred and Tony
He stood on the fringes of the crowd, almost reverent in his demeanor, holding his tan hat. Everything about him - his blue and white plaid shirt, dark blue vest, brown tie and weathered green jacket - said he was British.
He hadn't come with our group, but he seemed interested in everything that was going on -- the words of the retired Royal Air Force pastor, the framed portrait of a B-17 bomber given by the members of the 457th Bomb Group that husband Art's uncle had flown with, the dipping of the flags in respect to those who lost their lives in World War II.
Then, while we waited in the graveyard for the rededication of the memorial, he shyly approached Art.
"Are you an American?" I heard him ask.
"Yes, I am," Art replied with a grin.
An animated conversation ensued while I snapped pictures of the two men leaning on a tombstone.
"I was just a lad of 12 or 13 when they were building the base," he said.
He explained how he rode his bicycle from his home down the road to where the base was being built. When it was complete, he went in the morning before school to watch the B-17s take off. He went nearly every day, but never told his mother because she thought it was too dangerous.
"You know how mothers are," he said with a smile.
After school, he returned.
"Everyone would be out watching the sky - to see who came back, you know," he said pointing up.
The ceremony began, interrupting their conversation. Afterward, we had to leave for a scheduled lunch. Art asked him if he'd come to the afternoon ceremony so they could talk more.
"Do you think it would be OK?" he asked, "I haven't been invited."
Art assured him that it was open to everyone.
During the afternoon ceremony, I asked his name.
"Alfred Smith," he answered.
"Alfred -- a great British name," I thought. It fit him well.
He related more memories, including the time he and other local children sat along the old Roman road as a convoy of tanks, jeeps and other military vehicles passed by on their way to London.
After the ceremony, we made our way to a local couple's home for afternoon tea. I was hoping Alfred would come with us, but he declined, certain it was just for the reunion group.
We didn't see him again, but both Art and I spoke of Alfred after our trip and so Art decided to contact him to see if he'd share more stories. But while there were many Smiths in Sawtry, none was named Alfred. So Art e-mailed the minister at the Sawtry All Saints Church for help. The minister, Malcolm Griffith, replied that he would make inquiries. Art sent the photos I had taken to make the search easier.
Then, in November, Malcolm wrote: "We have your man. He is: Mr. Tony Smith, 67 Fen Lane, Sawtry."
How could that be? How could I have turned Tony - even Anthony - into Alfred? It bothered me that I could have gotten his name so wrong. But I was happy we had found him.
Late in February the mystery was solved. An e-mail from Dean Quantrill said:
"Dear A. Vaughan,
My friend Tony Smith has asked me to send a letter he has wrote to you as detailed below; he does not currently have an e-mail address:
Thank you for your letter, I hope that you and your wife are well. Yes, I am the man you are looking for, my name is Alfred Anthony Smith. But today, hospitals and all papers use first names only; therefore, Alfred Smith, hence the confusion. I will try to sort something out for you. My friend has sent this for me as I have not got a computer yet. Yours faithfully, A. A. Smith"
We were excited. The confusion was resolved and Alfred, or Tony, was willing to share some of his recollections. It would be fun to visit him on our next trip to England.
Then, just two days later, an e-mail arrived from Malcolm:
"You will be sad to hear that Tony passed away over the weekend. He was discovered on Monday morning in the chair in his house and had suffered a major
heart attack. I only spoke to him on the phone on Thursday and we talked about you.
"I have had meetings with his closest family who are farmers in Norfolk and his funeral will take place here at All Saints Sawtry on Friday 9th March. His relatives found the exchange of correspondence with you and asked me to notify you. His family described him with four words - proud, recluse, eccentric and a countryman. That sums him up. Thank you for the contact you made."
And we are indeed sad. It was also somewhat ironic. As with so many others more than six decades ago, the base had brought strangers together, made them friends, and then separated them.
Our encounter with Tony - whom I'll always call Alfred - was all too brief.