Ethel McPeak, a country girl from Meadows of Dan, Virginia, helped dispense gas rationing stamps at the Norfolk Naval Yard during World War II in 1944, her then-latest stop in a young life of exploring the country after graduation from Willis High School in Floyd County.
She had visited much of America during the early 40s, often alone and sometimes with her high school friend Gaynor. She rode a Harley-Davison motorcycle when she arrived in Norfolk and dated young motorcycle racer Joe Weatherly, a local boy who also worked at the Navy Yard.
Ethel McPeak was a free spirit, and independent woman and handled the gas stamp desk when Navy Electrician’s Mate William D. (Tommy) Thompson came in, seeking additional stamps to travel down to Tampa while on leave while his ship remained at the yard for repairs.
“Gas is rationed to help the war effort,” she remembered telling the young sailor. “Why should I give our extra stamps for a pleasure trip?”
He said he would save gas by taking the trip down to Tampa, Florida, because it would be on his motorcycle.
That was a good answer, she said, and gave him the stamps he would need for gas down to Florida and back.
Three weeks later, she ran into him again at a Norfolk bar popular with Harley riders, thanked her for the extra gas stamps, and asked her out.
“I’m here with my boyfriend,” she replied. “You will need to take that up with him.”
So Tommy Thompson challenged Joe Weatherly to a motorcycle race through the roads around Norfolk. That seemed a long shot because Weatherly was a champion bike racer.
It wasn’t. Thompson beat Weatherly easily and took McPeak out the next night, then the night after that and they became “an item” before new orders sent him to the Pacific for a new assignment on the U.S.S. Missouri, the massive battleship built to avenge Pear Harbor.
On that deployment, Electrician’s Mate First Class Tommy Thompson stood at attention in his dress whites in 1945 when the Japanese surrendered to Gen. Douglas McArthur on the deck of the Missouri in Tokyo harbor. He came back to Norfolk to Ethel McPeak while awaiting assignment to another ship, but the war ended and he proposed to her.
They rode their bikes to Meadows of Dan to meet her parents, who did not know she was engaged or riding motorcycles until their arrival.
“Let’s say my daddy and momma weren’t quite sure what had happened to their little girl,” she later remembered. She and Tommy had planned to ride together down to Tampa to meet his folks but she still needed to quiet her parents down so she told him to ride ahead and she would come down “in about a week.”
“Don’t try to ride down there yourself,” he said. “Come down on the train.”
Ethel McPeak was a stubborn woman who had traveled the country by herself and showed up at the Tampa train station on her Harley, not on the train.
“I had what I needed for the ride down there,” she later said. “Two sets of spark plugs, two sets of points for the ignition, a file to clean the points, two tire repair kids and a carb rebuild kit. Turned out she needed most of those items, repairing a flat in South Carolina and rebuilding the carb at a diner in Georgia after breakfast.
Ethel and Tommy married in 1946. I came along in December of 1947.
“Yeah, the relatives on both sides counted the months before you were born,” she told me many years later. “I wasn’t pregnant when we married.”
They lived in Gibsonton, south of Tampa, known as “Gibtown” and as the winter home of the “carnies,” those who worked on carnivals. They continued to ride their motorcycles and often rode in thrill shows in the late 1940s until my father died in an industrial accident on the job in 1949.
My mother raised me as a “single mom” for much of the earliest years of my life, teaching me to read before I started school, advising me to respect the rights of others, even those of different skin colors or beliefs and to “go your own way in life and not follow the path of others.”
She remarried when I was eight but, by then, I was the son of a father I only knew from what I had learned from her. I kept his name and was the oddball of the family, the one with a last name not shared with five brothers and sisters or my stepfather or mother.
We lived just outside Farmville, in Prince Edward County during the racial turmoil that closed the public schools after the Klan-controlled government there refused a federal court order to integrate. We left the area and moved to Floyd County in 1961. I graduated from Floyd County High School in 1965 and left the county for a career as newspaper reporter, photojournalist and — for a short time — political operative.
She outlived both her husbands and returned to traveling in her later years, visiting Australia, the Grand Canyon, Alaska and cruised the Caribbean.
As her health started to ail, Amy joined me when we left Washington, DC, after 23 years and I returned home in 2004 to help take care of her and provide primary care of her in her last years. I remained by her bedside before she died at age 89 in 2012. Motorcyclists led her funeral procession and her remains are shared with both of her husbands — my dad in Tampa and Truman Bolt at Buffalo Mountain Cemetery.
Ethel McPeak Thompson Bolt was my mother, my friend and often both mentor and critic. She was one hell of a woman.