Voluntary Aid Detachments
My head is spinning!
Today was another one of those days that seem to turn one’s life on a pivot. One moment one is firmly headed in a specific direction, plans made and course charted, and then inexplicably, an about face happens, and suddenly one is heading the opposite direction.
After spending the new year at Bray Manor with my in-laws, and a lovely week with Daniel whilst on leave, I was on my way to see an agent about booking my rail travel to Liverpool and then a ship back to Boston.
But by the time I got to King’s Cross station, the thought of leaving Europe seemed unbearable. Boston is so far removed from the very real troubles happening here. The whole country of England feels like one big wave that is forming and rapidly gaining momentum; or rather like one big muscle that is now starting to flex. I think I understand now why Daniel also felt like he could not return to America. The only sound everyone hears here is a clarion call to decisive action. I hear it too, and I cannot ignore it. It took the distance from Bray Manor to King’s Cross for me to come to grips with it.
Besides, I wanted remain closer to where Daniel is. I wanted to feel in some way, what he is feeling, and to lend my own energies to the struggle. I couldn’t imagine sitting in my room at Father’s Brownstone in America and pray. I need to act.
I marched directly from King’s Cross to the nearest Red Cross station and asked to speak with the person in charge of volunteer enlistment.
I was directed to a Mrs. Wallace-Chamberlin and although she didn’t wear a nurse’s uniform of a nurse she told me she was one, and I believed her. Everything about her spoke of efficiency, skill and proud bearing.
“I’m one of the people in charge of enlisting volunteers for our Voluntary Aid Detachments,” she said, “or VAD for short.”
“I’ve heard about these but I’m afraid I don’t know that enough about them,” I said.
“These are volunteer efforts organized by the Joint War Committee. The VAD’s job is to provide support to naval and military forces. The Red Cross name and emblem are often used in our work. The purpose for this is to provide a legal covering and also to provide protection to our workers in the field.”
I asked, “In what ways do the VAD’s offer support?”
“Nursing, in the main,” Mrs. Wallace-Chamberlin replied, “but also transport duties, the organization of rest stations, and now more recently, communications support.”
This all sounded fascinating to me.
“If you truly are interested in joining us, I’ll need to learn more about your background.”
I was happy to tell her about my education in arithmetics and sciences, but she seemed far more interested in my fluency in languages, particularly French.
Mrs. Wallace-Chamberlin wrote my details down including my name, which I gave as Georgia Gold, but added that I preferred to be called Ginger when on a familiar basis.
“Do I detect an American accent?” she asked.
“Yes, I have been living in Boston for many years. I’m London born, but moved to Boston with my father when I was eight. My education for languages is from Boston University.”
Mrs. Wallace-Chamberlin looked up thoughtfully and tapped her pencil on the page. “I assume you are married?” She pointed to my ring.
“I am. To Lieutenant Daniel Gold, currently enroute to France where is serving. He is known as Daniel, Lord Gold in civilian life.”
“That makes you Lady Gold.”
“Yes,” I said. “Is that a problem?”
“No, no. It’s just curious.”
I still don’t know why she thought it was curious. She seemed to be lost in thought for another moment and continued to tap her pencil on the paper.
“Do you consider yourself a good communicator?”
“Yes, I think I am.”
“Reasonably, yes. I am certainly not disorganized.”
“Do you get frustrated easily?”
She gazed at me over her spectacles. “If a man were to be rude to you on a telephone line, would you lose your composure? Could you ignore his brashness and get to the matter at hand?”
“Well, if it were important enough,” I said, musing at the strange question, “I suppose I could get straight to the matter, yes.”
“Have you ever seen a telephone switchboard?”
“I must confess I have not.”
“The Americans have really upped the rest of the world in electrical communications. The days of waving signal flags, morse code and carrier pigeons are quickly coming to a close.” Mrs. Wallace-Chamberlin put down her pencil, leaned forward and interlocked her hands in front of her on the desk.
“Borrowing the knowledge from the Americans, we have installed hundreds of miles of telephone line all across France and they are connected through telephone switchboards. The person at the switchboard has an awfully important job to do, and—as we are now quickly realizing—it takes a lot of skill. I personally think it’s a job better suited for women than men. Women seem to have a knack for being cognizant of several conversations at a time.” She dropped her chin and looked knowingly at Ginger.
“I agree,” I said.
“These switchboard operators have to interact over French lines with French men and women. Generals on our side have. to communicate with their counterparts on the other end for example. So, the switchboard operator has to not only field simultaneous calls, but act as instant translator as well. In addition, commanders go through the switchboards to keep in contact with men on the front lines and so on. So as you can see this is very important work. ”
I had to admit, it sounded challenging.
“I am of the mind,” she started as she leaned back again in her wooden chair and regarded me with an intense gaze. “…to recommend you for aptitude tests for this line of work. How does that strike you Lady Gold?”
“Y-yes. That sounds… “ I didn’t really have the word to describe it. ”It sounds like something I could do,” I said finally. I didn’t want to say that it sounded exciting. That would make it seem like I was perhaps romanticizing the whole idea.
“If you pass the aptitude test you will be sent to one of training units in South England. After that you will be shipped to one of our detachments in France. The exact location won’t be revealed to you until you are enroute.” She jotted something in her records book. “I have to add that for security reasons you will not be able to inform your husband about your location or the nature of your posting.”
I left the building and boarded the train back to Bray Manor feeling like I was about to dive off of a very high diving board and uncertain if there was water in the little bucket below. I have set my foot on an unknown and profoundly life changing path.
I’m still wondering about how I’m going to tell Daniel that I didn’t go back to America. He might try to talk me out of staying, or even worse, forbid me to take the tests. I’m going to have to give it some thought before I write to him.
I hope I can sleep tonight.