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Gulf coast memories of World War Two become a new book

Lynn Oldshue

A new book out is gathering lots of interest in South Alabama. It’s by a 91-year-old woman who tells the stories of a difficult childhood in Fairhope. APR visits with the writer as she retraces steps from her long life.

“We were hungry all the time. We never hardly ever got what you call a real full meal,” said Lila Pennington Ryals. She lost her mother days before her ninth birthday. Her father disappeared, leaving Lila and her younger brother, Buddy, to care for themselves. They were the youngest of the family’s six children and became orphans in Fairhope during World War ll. Lila says people in the small town couldn’t be bothered with two little kids when they were sending their own sons and husbands to war. Many were hungry themselves.

Lynn Oldshue

“People have their daughters as nurses in the war,” Ryals recalled. “They have their sons, their husbands, their fathers, their grandfathers. Everybody's in the war. So they don't have time to think about us.”

Living without parents wasn’t easy. Lila and Buddy nearly starved to death trying to feed themselves while finding safe places to sleep. They kept going to school like their mama wanted them to do and used the lessons they learned from their mother to survive. One of those was where to find shelter in a storm. Over eighty years later, Lila returns to the cave her mother found to keep her children safe during hurricanes. Wearing boots, gloves, and her favorite Alabama baseball cap, Lila pushes through vines and brush surrounding a gully on a Fairhope bluff overlooking Mobile Bay. She’s 91, almost 92, but still hikes quickly.

“She said, we’ve got to have a safe place when the storms come,” Ryals said. “We always came when there was a really, really bad storm.”

Lila described the sound of a hurricane passing over the cave.

“It had a deep sound to it,” she said. “A real bass sound when we were inside. One time Buddy and I came and there was a big snake and we had to run him out.

Lynn Oldshue

Lila and Buddy called the cave The Hideout. Their codeword whistle meant head to The Hideout. During a rare appearance from their father, the children took him to the Hideout and showed him a submarine in Mobile Bay. Whenever something went wrong, Buddy and Lila asked themselves what would Mama do? The answer ranged from helping a teacher handle a bully, to Lila sewing up the two-inch gash in her foot with a needle and thread. Lila did what she saw her mother do.

“She always said, pray to God for what you need. And it was courage,” said Ryals.

“What Would Mama Do” became the title of the book Lila wrote about their lives as orphans in Fairhope. Like most ninety-one-year-olds, Lila has plenty of stories. There was the time her mother’s best friend tried to feed the children a hot meal. Dinner ended when the husband showed up and scared Lila and Buddy away with a shotgun. Standing on the same ground jumping, Lila remembers jumping from the second floor balcony to escape.

“This was where we had to jump from the top down. This was all dirt then,” Ryals said.

“AC was standing behind us with a 30 aught six deer gun ready to shoot us. He shot and we could feel the bullet go between our hair.”

Lila and Buddy were pulled to safety that day by a stranger who had horses in the pasture across the street. He kept helping the children and paid them quarters to clean his barn. He was one of the few people giving kindness to Lila and Buddy. He also turned out to be the German spy receiving signals from the submarine in Mobile Bay. He was soon caught and taken away. Lila said their savior was the enemy of the world.

Lynn Oldshue

“We found out what he was, we were actually hurt,” Ryals said. “We really were. And Buddy said, you can't trust anybody anymore. He said, we can't even trust our daddy. We sure can't trust anybody anymore.”

Lila and Buddy’s father had deserted them, but the fishing boat he left behind helped them survive. It was named the Grey Ghost and they used it to catch fish and crabs, selling their catch for food and school supplies. There were times Lila and Buddy nearly gave up and considered suicide several times. They thought of eating bad oysters out of season or taking their father’s boat out farther than they could swim and jumping in. Their one attempt was trying to anger a bull into charging at them, but that didn’t work.

Buddy and Lila had each other. That’s how they survived. Both married and had their own families. They remained close until Buddy passed away. He had asked Lila to tell the stories of their life together. So she got to work, writing down memories with a pencil in composition notebooks. That’s where her book came from…

“I finally started writing it ten years ago,” she recalled. “It took a lot of pressure off of me, thinking and feeling like my brother and I were worth something. We're finally grown. We can take care of ourselves. We've been married, we have children.”

Lila’s family helped her turn those notebooks into the book What Would Mama Do? Page and Palette in Fairhope has sold hundreds of copies. Lila is doing book signings and giving talks about her life. She is always asked if there will be a second book.

“No. I'm not going to write anymore. I'm too shaky now. Yeah. My hand's getting,” she said.

Lila has outlasted her family. It’s hard to be the last one left, but she says writing the book brought them together one more time.

“When I read my own book, I get to certain parts and I tear up. I feel it in here too. I feel like we're all together. And mama put us there,” Ryals said.

Lynn Oldshue is a reporter for Alabama Public Radio.
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