1000 Words: A Little Girl and War

Antonia Steadman, of Bristol, England, wasn’t even of school age when the German Luftwaffe commenced flying over the cities and towns of Britain and bombing them.

Beginning on the night of November 2, 1940, Bristol was hit by six major air raids and more than 70 less intense attacks. Bristol was of particular interest to the Nazi marauders because it was an important English port and a large airplane factory was located there.

Over the next five months, Bristol endured 548 air raid alerts. The alerts continued throughout the war. Each time the sirens sounded for the next five years, little Antonia was either carried or walked, unassisted, into the concrete, windowless basement of the home she, her older brother, and her mother shared. During much of that time, her father, Anthony, a major with the Gloucestershire 10th Regiment, fought in the jungles of Burma (now Myanmar).

Little Antonia hardly knew that lights could be turned on, either in homes and businesses or on the streets, at night in Bristol. From the onset of the Battle of Britain to the German surrender on May 7th and 8th, 1945, Bristol, like all British cities and towns, was blacked out. The better to avoid detection by Luftwaffe pilots.

Nevertheless, the German aviators were able, with the help of moonlight on clear nights, to follow the path of the River Avon right into Bristol’s center. All told, the Germans dropped tens of thousands of bombs on Bristol.

Here’s a June 1940 photograph of the bombed-out hulk of Bristol’s St. Mary le Port church:

On January 3rd and 4th, 1941, Bristol endured a 12-hour bombing raid. A 12-minute bombing raid must seem an eternity to even the most hardened folks. Imagine how long 12 hours of hiding below ground and listening to the booms above must have seemed to a small child.

When Major Anthony Steadman’s regiment was sent to Burma to fight the Japanese, Antonia had only the slightest understanding of why people went to war. Major Steadman sent Antonia a series of letters from the steamy, insect-infested, ceaselessly wet, ever dangerous Southeast Asian jungle. Time and again he assured her he’d return home and they would play at magic tricks and take swims in a nearby lake. He did his best to shield her from the realities of war.

And so did the people Antonia’s family was staying with. The woman of the house told Antonia that fairies were moving furniture up above as they huddled in the basement. That explained the booms and crashes the little girl heard night after night. She wondered what huge pieces of furniture might cause such a racket. Dining room tables? Dressers? Armoires? No matter. At least she didn’t have pictures of the death and destruction bombings raids cause running through her imagination.

Little Antonia grew up. She married and took her husband’s surname, Matthew. She had five children. Later, she realized she was happier, in her words, “loving women.”

She moved to Bloomington, Indiana in 1968. Over the decades, she gained a reputation as a poet, a writer, and a puppeteer. She produced and performed in her Puck Players Puppet Theater for years in and around Bloomington. She ran a writers group called Five Women Poets. She wrote a book chronicling her mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s Disease. And then, Antonia Steadman Matthew decided to write a play based on her father’s letters to her, as well as missives exchanged between him and his wife, his father, and others.

It turned out to be a bare-bones play, better suited as an audio production. The Writers Guild at Bloomington (Antonia’s a member), specifically Tony Brewer and Joan Hawkins, got hold of it and were enthralled. The Guild staged a live presentation of it in 2019. Brewer contacted his old pal, radio producer and host Richard Fish, and told him Antonia’s play would make a perfect radio theater piece. Fish agreed and, over the next three years, worked with British radio theater producer and writer John Fryer to record the voice parts. Fryer used the members of his troupe, Political Art, to read the lines.

Matthew (L) & Fish.

Fish received the last of Fryer’s recordings earlier this year. Then Fish went about the business of adding sound to the dialogue. Brewer, too. Tony Brewer is one of the Midwest’s premiere Foley artists. The two mixed in the sounds of machine guns, sirens, airplanes, Churchill’s voice, contemporary songs, and other sounds to lend color to Antonia script. Not that it needed any help.

Fish aired “Antonia’s Home Front” last night on his WFHB radio program Firehouse Theater. It lasted about 80 minutes. Fish plans to cut the thing down to a manageable 57 minutes, perfect for a one-hour public and/or community radio time slot. He’s offering it to NPR and other community radio stations around the country. It’ll also be available via the PRX syndicator. For his part, John Fryer is trying to get the BBC to bite on it as well.

I listened to “Antonia’s Home Front” last night. I’d driven out to the peninsula point at Paynetown, overlooking Lake Monroe. I was transfixed. The night was spectacularly clear with a full moon rising in the east and chasing Jupiter across the sky. Toward the end of the broadcast, the voice of the grown-up Antonia tells about remembering the night when, as a little girl, a full moon was so bright that it awakened her in the middle of the night. I turned my head and stared at my own full moon, glinting off the placid waters of the lake, the same moon that Nazi pilots used to guide them to their Bristol bombing runs, the same that stirred little Antonia one night so many years ago.

I sent Antonia an email telling her how much I enjoyed the play and relating my moon story. Here’s what she said in response:

Oh, Michael, I’m so glad you loved the program. When you said that the full moon was the same one that woke Antonia up, I had tears in my eyes. I like to think of you out by the lake, you and the moon, listening together….

Antonia Matthew thanked me for having her and Richard Fish on as guests on last week’s Big Talk. Go here to hear that program. I’ll let you know as soon as the play is up on the syndicator.

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