There is a group of women in Bismarck, North Dakota which has been meeting regularly since 1965.
Yes, you read that right. Not every single one of them has been the same in the group all that time. But some of them have been.
They’re all from England. Some of them were war brides, some simply married American soldiers. And some started as single women looking for adventure. They’re called The British Club.
They were, individually, modern pioneers, hoping to settle down in love and family for a new life.
Mostly, they come to the group through “six degrees of English.” They used to meet in one another’s homes, but after time, decided they’d rather let somebody else do the cooking and dishes. Today, they meet in the restaurant at the Ramkota Hotel.
Here is a slice of their stories.
Lilian Wilson grew up on the isle of White, off the south coast of England. She moved to the United States 71 years ago. But before that, before meeting the American GI who would become her husband, she was a member of the British Air Force during World War II. She worked as a plotter, stationed in an operations bunker 60 feet below the ground, recording the flights of enemy aircraft over London and southeast England. Her base was in charge of the British fighter planes that intercepted enemy bombers. As planes were recorded by radar along the coast, each were given numbers, which were then related to the plotters, where they were recorded on a large table map. Sitting above the map, others would watch where the plotters sited planes and send fighter aircraft orders.
“There is something interesting in that this operations room, 60 feet below the ground, represented a good 70-odd steps. We had no elevator. We certainly had to run up and down,” she says. “I can’t see Winston Churchill marching up and down 70 steps.”
When she was married, she joined with 2,000 other war brides and sailed on a ship to the United States. The trip took 10 days and they slept in the bunks once slept on by their soldiers.
Liz Brocker grew up all over the world. Her father served in the British Army, she therefore educated in British boarding schools. She met her husband, an American soldier stationed in England, in the early 1980s. They had to ask permission of both the military and the state department for the marriage to be allowed. Because of the Cold War, there was a lot of concern about foreign wives, even of allied countries because it was suspected the marriage was only to get a green card. At Liz’s bachelorette party, her friends didn’t even have a drink.
“There was nothing to celebrate. ‘You can do better than marrying an American,’ they said. I had the last laugh. They’re all divorced; I’m still married.”
The couple moved to the Air Force Base in Grand Forks, North Dakota, for what Liz assumed would be a temporary stay.
“I married a military man. I never expected to spend my entire life stuck at one base,” she says. “I didn’t know I’d be in America forever, but I knew I’d be with my husband.”
Her husband eventually took a job with the Bismarck Police Department.
“I was shopping in the mall, and one of my kids said, ‘Mom, I just heard another English lady,'” she says. “It turned out that her husband worked with my husband at the police department. And for months, others were telling each of them, ‘You should let your wife know that there’s another English wife in the department. So I met Ally, and Ally knew Sally, because Sally is a realtor and one of the police department moms was a realtor, and it all kind of turned out to be ‘six degrees of English.'”
Anne Reynolds started her life as an American working as a nanny for a prima ballerina in the New York City Ballet. Her dream was to be a flight attendant, and in those days, flight attendants had to prove they could be away from home for a stretch.
She met an English man, who knew a man who was originally from Mandan. They decided Bismarck-Mandan would be a good place to raise a family because of the wide open spaces and good school system. Their children, raised with two British parents, began to lose their accents when they started school, partly through a natural progression, and partly because they didn’t want to stand out.
Anne was still a toddler when World War II came to an end. Her family lived in Kent, which was an area heavily damaged by German doodlebugs, or flying bombs.
“My mom always said as long as you could hear the doodlebug, you were okay. But when its engine stopped, you had to run,” Anne says. “Once my family heard the doodlebug near our home. The engine stopped, and my mom grabbed me out of my pram and ran. When the bomb hit, it demolished the side of the house where my pram was. I wouldn’t be here today if they hadn’t heard it.”
Hilda Michaelis came to Canada first with friends about 60 years ago. They had trained in England as nurses, and crossed the ocean for “a couple of years, just to see the place, really. See what was going on and what the people were like. None of us were married. We really had fun,” she says. Hilda met a British man, they married and eventually moved to the United States. She learned about the ladies group through her daughter, who works at Bismarck High School, where she and another “British daughter” got to talking and realized their mothers would like to meet.
Sally Zimny and friends answered an advertisement for legal secretarial work in the United States. Forty-two years ago, they hopped a plane, airfare paid for by the hiring company.
“If you break your (six month) contract, you’d have to pay them back,” she says.
There was a shortage of secretaries and nurses in the United States. The friends flew into Chicago, where they’d be staying in apartments with other English women, mostly all nurses and secretaries.
“When you get off the plane I just remember walking out of the airport and seeing these huge cars. I mean, they were 1976 cars, they were 30 feet long,” she says. “When my sister came over from London, and they had American cars in England at that time, she said, ‘You know, American cars aren’t as big here as they are in England.’ In England, they must look ginormous, and here they just fit in.”
Bev Keesey was born in India, her father a soldier in the British Army. Bev had been trained as a midwife in England.
“I wanted to go somewhere foreign like Thailand where the language and nursing diseases would be different. My friend wanted to go to America, and she won on the condition she would go to the country of my choosing afterwards,” Bev says. “That never happened. We arrived in Chicago, worked for six months, then bought a car. We traveled Route 66 until we ran out of money; that was in San Francisco. We had seen a hospital on the way to San Francisco in San Jose. We went back and said, ‘We’re here, can you use us?’ And they said, ‘Oh yes!'”
That’s where Bev and her friends were introduced to American GIs, one who ended up being her husband. Bev says even though she spoke English, the way Americans use their words is quite different.
“I remember having a boyfriend, and we had a day off, and he said he would take us to the science museum. And I said, ‘Okay, knock us up at 10.’ And he looked, and said, ‘I beg your pardon?'” she laughs. “And I remember Marjorie, in the middle of the cafeteria, saying ‘I’m going to go powder my puss.’ And everybody went silent. People were shocked, because, well, you know (she motions powdering her nose). Little things that you learn very quickly not to say ever again.”
Ann Miller was one of the first members of The British Club. She says it started out as an official club of the Transatlantic Brides and Parents Association. Funds derived through membership paid for things like flowers delivered to members as congratulations or get well bouquets.
Ann came to America in 1962 as a nanny for a family who had adopted children in Minneapolis. After a year, she went back to England. When the family had a third child 18 months later, she came back.
“That’s when I met my husband. Toward the end of my time with the family, I had bought a ticket back to England. My husband was from Mandan, and he wanted to get married,” Ann says. “I told him to see if the travel agency would refund my money. They did, and I stayed.”
She says The British Club was a lifeline. “We were living in a basement apartment,” Ann says. “The club gave me the choice between a baby shower, a playpen, or a stroller. I chose the stroller, and it was my ticket out of the apartment and being able to walk around.”
Marie Elhard is another of the founding members of this group. Back in 1965, there were about 20 women who’d meet, dwindling over time to about eight to 10 women. They meet once a month, except for in the early years when they’d take summers off. Marie’s memories of England are tied directly to the war and bombing. She grew up in Liverpool.
“I never liked where I lived, never. It was always ugly and buildings were bombed, and I hated where I lived,” she says. “The war started over there in ’39 and they started to bomb in ’40, and our house was bombed to the ground. And we had to be on people’s floors for quite some time, and then we got another place.”
Her friends try to bring up the bright point.
“But that’s where the Beatles are from!” one says.
“Yes, but Liverpool was a town where they did the boat building, and where they had freighters,” Marie replies. “They didn’t announce how much we had been bombed because they didn’t want the enemy to have that information.”
Lilian chimes in. “Where I lived, everyone was given a metal table so everyone could crawl under it if you were bombed. We were also given a gas mask as soon as the war began. Everybody got these boxes containing gas masks. You had to try it on and make sure you could breathe properly in it,” she says. “We also had a bayonet on the end of a stick, which was given to my mother because my father had died some years before. She was frightened to death of this bayonet and she hid it behind a door.”
The women meet to talk about their lives in America today, and to reminisce over what they miss from home. But, especially for those whose life experience hold wartime, and for those whose trips to America were linked to the soldiers they fell in love with, World War II holds an intense set of memories.
They meet to connect.
“After 30-some years of being in America, I still think in English,” says Liz. “My idioms, my phraseology, my base reference point culturally is English. So is theirs. You don’t have to [translate phrases in your mind]. You can just talk.”
Tracie Bettenhausen is a senior staff writer/editor at Basin Electric. She gives a warm home and regular meals to two once-foster, now-adopted kitties, Basil and Sweet Pea. She is a meditation wannabe who spends too much time on Twitter.