I was born in Stockport on February 14, 1945 – St. Valentine’s Day. I grew up believing my father was a man called Walter Hulme.
He married my mother in late 1944 when she was heavily pregnant with me. A short time into the marriage, Walter discovered he couldn’t be my father. He was a sailor during war-time, and it was his parents who worked out that their son was away at sea when my mother became pregnant. They went as far as contacting the Ministry of Defence in an attempt to get the marriage dissolved – of course, the MoD had more pressing problems to deal with.
Under pressure from his parents, Walter walked out of the marriage. The family joke for years was that he went out to the corner shop for a loaf of bread and never came back. It was a joke that was lost on me as I grew up wondering where my father was.
It was only recently that a cousin told me that Walter was actually willing to stay in the marriage and be my stepfather – but his parents prevailed.
I never attempted to meet Walter, something I regret, even though he lived elsewhere in Stockport. I might have learned the truth so much earlier, but it was made plain in my family that to meet Walter would be a betrayal of my mother. Of course, she and others in the family had a secret to keep.
After Walter left, and before I was three years old, I was put into care for a while when my mother abandoned me to head south and into a new relationship with a man who already had several children. Nothing was ever explained to me – when and where was I put into care? Who was this man with several children and no wife living in Dagenham of all places?
My earliest memories are of being in care. Two places come to mind, but it is guesswork, as no records exist. One image places me in a large house, possibly in the Heaton Moor district of Stockport and another large house in what may have been the Edgeley district of the town. I am sat in a large kitchen asking for a smaller spoon because the one I had was too big to fit the porridge in my mouth. I am in bed totally alone in a large room clutching my little blue elephant with the wire poking out of the end of its trunk. They are like snapshots.
I was eventually re-united with my mother at Stockport bus station and taken down to Dagenham to join her ready-made family. Another snapshot of a memory is being terrified as I passed a garden newly sown with grass seeds and covered in white paper flags to scare off the birds….and me!
My mother’s new relationship eventually ended and we returned to Stockport. As I grew up I would ask my mother about my father but I was always fobbed off. I endured a lonely and insecure childhood, with its incidents of domestic violence and the arrival of a half-brother who would tease and bully me. My mother, you see, had already given birth to a son four years prior to my arrival. Before my brother came to live with us, my mother allowed an absolute sadist to enter her life. His name was Bert, and he enjoyed cruelty. He figures in some of my poetry.
Fast forward now. I was middle-aged when an elderly family friend told me my father was an American GI. It came right out of the blue over a cup of tea at her tiny flat in the Reddish area of Stockport. She said his name was John Bell and that he came from Texas. I was flabbergasted. I simply had no idea. Other family members, of course, knew the truth but no doubt in a misplaced effort to protect my mother they never shared this information with me.
I went to face my mother with this shocking news. Our relationship wasn’t a good one – it was strained and brittle. All I got were tears – and one more piece of information. She said my father was taller than me. I’m a small guy, and I can tell you – that stung.
So began my long search to identify my American soldier father. It was to take more than 25 years.
Two major obstacles stood in my way. The first was that my father used a false name and state in his contact with my mother, and it was 2016 before I discovered this.
The second obstacle was a disastrous fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1973 which destroyed most of the USA’s military records, all on paper, pre-computer, and with no back-up.
Even if I’d had the correct details for my father, the chances are that they would have gone up in flames.
It took years for the NPRC to build up records from government sources, using pay slips and hospital records, and retrieving information from charred scraps of paper. A senior analyst, Dr Neils J. Zussblatt, tried to help me, but it all came to nothing – we were chasing a false name after all.
I’d been put in touch with the NPRC by a UK organisation now calling itself GItrace (http://gitrace.org/).
As the name suggests, they try to help people like me. Their assistance years into the future was to prove crucial.
In 2014 I’d managed to obtain the services of a military researcher in the USA who agreed to try to trace my father pro bono. But again – failure. I remain thankful, though, and I have to say I have benefited from the kindness of strangers in the search for my father.
In late 2015 I decided to try DNA testing as the final throw of the dice, having given up the search for my father many times and reconciling myself to the sad fact of never knowing who my father was.
I did an autosomal test with Ancestry – more popularly known as a family finder test – which throws up many cousins, both male and female. (I have an estimated 1,250 cousins first to fourth on the Ancestry website, most in the USA.)
Through a second cousin who had tested, and with the help of GItrace genealogists, we eventually settled on the name of Allan Russell Edwards, part of the large Edwards family of Detroit, Michigan. He had served in the 837th Ordnance Depot Company, an ammunition supply unit and part of Patton’s Third Army. The unit had been stationed in Stockport in May-June, 1944, the period when my mother had become pregnant with me.
Put that military information next to the strong genetic links I had established with the Edwards family – I had identified my father at last!
We were never destined to meet. My father died just before his 44th birthday in 1964 from MS which developed following his war service. It is thought by his family that the scenes he experienced at the Ohrdruf labour camp – a sub-camp of the notorious Buchenwald concentration camp – in April, 1945, just before his 25th birthday, somehow triggered his illness. The camps were liberated by Third Army troops.
I am now in touch with my half-sister, Judy Clough, in Michigan, and we hope to meet one day. I also have a half-brother – my father’s second son – but he prefers not to communicate.
Judy tells me my father sold real estate after his war service and was good at what he did. He had the gift of the gab, she says, and was known for his honesty. That’s something I have to square with the fact he used a false name in his affair with my mother, but then, it was war-time, and my father was about to enter the European theatre of war not knowing whether he would survive. I don’t hold it against him at all.
He was an extremely handsome man. To young working girls like my mother, all American soldiers were attractive….their accents, their swagger, their style, their smart uniforms. They were also better paid than British soldiers. They might as well have walked straight out of a Hollywood movie. My father, though, really did have film star looks. His photo – in uniform after just enlisting – takes pride of place on my dining room table.
Judy shared another piece of information with me that moved me to tears. You see, I’ve written poetry for most of my life, and my son Andrew is a poet, too. I’ve often wondered where this ability came from, something I’ve had since childhood.
In the long search for my father I would put the name John Bell, poet, into search engines with the wild hope that somewhere in the USA there was a poet of that name, and that he might be my father.
Of course, it came to nothing because it was a false name. But it turns out that my father loved to read and write poetry himself. His older brother, Dale Edwards, was also a poet, remembered as his high school poet laureate and orator who met his future wife in a creative writing group.
So I had discovered the source of my poetry, this thread that runs from my uncle, through my father, through me, and through my son.
It was the sweetest of discoveries. I have now included my American family name of Edwards in all my writing. This part of my life has rhymed at last.
David Edwards Hulme.