The year was 1940; practically everyone in England was expecting a Nazi invasion, and feverish preparations were being made. The Home Guard, recruited from those who were too old, too young or too unhealthy to go into the regular armed forces, were drilling with muskets, pitchforks, anything that might slow down the Germans, however briefly. Winston Churchill made stirring speeches that may have been the tight little island's strongest weapon. And all over England, parents were debating a terrible choice: to keep their children at home or send them overseas, where they might live to fight another day.
The overseas evacuation program never really amounted to much; 211,000 applications were received in less than a month, but only about 16,000 children in all were sent out of England. The ocean trip in wartime was even more dangerous than staying home through air raids and the threat of invasion. Large-scale evacuation was halted after the liner Arandora Star was sunk. Later in the war, when the invasion failed to materialize and the air raids lost some of their punch, parents began to want their children back, and many made the return trip before the war was ended, crossing again an ocean still dangerously infested with U-boats.
Seven-year-old Tony Bailey was one of the few who did leave, and he returned in October 1944, meditating anxiously on a petty officer's warning: "These are real coffin ships. If they're hit by a torpedo, they go down like a stone." "America, Lost and Found" is his account of those eventful four years, spent at the home of Otto and Eloise Spaeth on Runnymede Drive in Dayton, Ohio. The experience drastically changed his life; he did not recognize his mother when she greeted him at the dock upon his return home, and more than a quarter-century later he says that "the experience has left me with a sense of being different, of being a passenger still on a special sailing." He returned to the United States frequently, and after finishing his university studies in England, he lived here for 15 years. He now lives primarily in England, but his four children (all daughters) were born here, and he still maintains a home in Connecticut.
"America, Lost and Found," like most nonfiction originally published in The New Yorker, is an attractive and unusual piece of writing. Its attraction lies partly in the writer's easy, readable style, but even more in his subject-matter: the discovery of a strange new world by a bright 7-year-old boy. His memory is good, although he complains of how much he has forgotten, and his perceptions are acute, with a sort of double-vision effect as the experiences of the child are reviewed through the eyes of a mature man who has become a professional writer.
Much of the material deals with double or changing identity: the strange experience of a spelling bee where he lasts almost to the end and then fails because he forgets to take the "u" out of "neighbor"; the drastic transformations implied when he ends his letters home with "So long," rather than "Your loving son."
But a large part of the story is not dependent on nationality; he recalls experiences that will be familiar to many others: hating to eat vegetables; making model airplanes; working as a newspaper delivery boy; school and sports and friendships and his early adolescent fascination with girls.
Part of the strangeness he felt on reaching Dayton was that of a very young foreigner, but practically any American would have felt strange on moving into the home of Otto Spaeth. At first, young Tony, having no basis for comparison, might have thought that most American homes had 10 bedrooms, nine baths, three cars and a handful of servants, but he might have become suspicious when he heard Otto make "occasional references to his 'first million.'" Otto Spaeth was a minor inventor and a major improver and developer of other people's inventions, an industrialist, an art connoisseur and the largest stockholder in the Pabst brewery, from which he routinely expected a quarter-million per year in dividends. One year, when there was no dividend, the family managed to squeeze through by selling one of its Gauguins. The experience was traumatic; just before the picture was shipped out, "Otto twice went down in the night to look at it." But there was some consolation in what was left: "A Corot, a Courbet . . . a Pisarro and a Picasso, a Cezanne and a Mary Cassatt" and another Gauguin, not to mention Martisse, Rouault, Chagall, Leger and various leading American artists.
Bailey also resurrects some of the flavor of wartime America, the slogans, the hopes and anxieties, the special fervor that has disappeared in later wars. Many of his memories will be familiar to those who were there, and should be known to those who were not. No doubt Tony Bailey owed America something for its hospitality during those anxious years, and with this book he has simply repaid the debt.