My mother knew how to enjoy life

Ethel McPeak and her Harley Davidson in 1946.

Ethel McPeak Thompson Bolt had a varied, interesting and often exciting life.

Born Ethel McPeak in Meadows of Dan in 1923, she graduated from Willis High School.  She and her best friend Gaynor traveled the country to areas that both had read about in school.  One of the places they visited was a Mississippi River town in Illinois — Alton, just up the river from St. Louis — where she and Gaynor spent the night at the Mineral Springs Hotel, a resort built atop healing springs deep in the building’s bowels. She kept a brochure of the hotel in her scrapbook.

Many years later, by quirky coincidence, I became a reporter for the newspaper in Alton, after five years at The Roanoke Times.  The Mineral Springs had closed but later reopened as an antique mall, during my 12 years in Alton.

The patriotic Ethel McPeak moved to Norfolk to work for the Navy Yard during World War II.  She rose quickly through the ranks to take charge of the gas rationing office there, handing out coupons and deciding who deserved more than their normal allotment during emergencies.  One was young sailor and Electrician’s Mate William Douglas Thompson, who wanted extra gas to ride his Harley-Davidson motorcycle home to Tampa, Florida, to visit his parents after his ship put into the yard for repairs.

Ethel McPeak also rode a Harley, often with the Motor Maids women’s motorcycle club chapter in Norfolk.  She talked bikes with the young sailor, whose nickname was “Tommy,” and granted the extra coupons.  When he returned, he ran into her at a motorcycle enthusiasts’ hangout in Norfolk. She was there with Norfolk resident and motorcycle racer Joe Weatherly, also working at the Navy Yard during the war.

He asked her out on a date. “You have to ask Joe,” she joked, so Thompson challenged Weatherly, a two-time national bike racing champion, to a race through the streets of downtown Norfolk for permission.

Sailor Thompson won that race and they began dating and exchanged letter after he shipped out again to fight in the Pacific against Japan in World War II.  After the war’s end, he proposed and she accepted.  

She remained friends with Weatherly, who became one of the early stars of NASCAR but died in a crash at Riverside, California.  One of his best friends and a pallbearer at his funeral was another NASCAR star — Floyd County’s Curtis Turner.

Ethel McPeak hadn’t told her parents about her exploits with a motorcycle or her plans to marry a sailor they had never met and were shocked when their daughter, dressed head to toe in motorcycle leathers, rode home with her husband to be — each on their Harleys.

They originally planned to ride their bikes together down to Tampa to meet his parents but she needed to stay behind for a few days to calm down her parents. Tommy told her to take the train down but she climbed aboard that Harley and rode, by herself, from Meadows of Dan to Tampa to meet her future in-laws.

“I took along everything I needed for the trip,” she later remembered. “An extra set of spark plugs, a file to keep the points clean, a carburetor rebuild kit and materials to patch a flat tire.”

At a diner in Georgia, she sat in a corner booth after breakfast and rebuilt the Harley’s carb.  The grandson of the owner of that diner later told me that his granddad said the diner smelled of gasoline for two weeks afterward. A photo of her riding the bike still hangs in that diner.

After their marriage, Ethel and Tommy Thompson lived in Gibsonton, Florida, south of Tampa, and continued to ride their motorcycles and performed in motorcycle thrill shows.

I never knew my dad because he died in an industrial accident in 1948 at U.S. Phosphorus south of Tampa when I was nine months old.

Gibsonton, called “Gibtown” by the locals, was the winter home of “carnies,” those who worked in carnivals and sideshows. The bearded lady and her husband lived just down the street. My mother taught me to not “look down” at those who appeared different than us.

With me in tow, mom returned to Floyd County in 1952.  We lived in an apartment over the Hoback’s Furniture Store on Main Street in Floyd, space now occupied by the employee parking lot of Bank of Floyd.

She married Floyd Countian Truman C. Bolt when I was eight. We, along with his three children from a previous marriage, lived in Farmville, where a racist school board and board of supervisors closed the public schools to avoid integration and provided white kids with a private school for several years.

“This is wrong,” my mother told me. She considered sending me back to Gibsonton to live with my grandmother so I could attend an integrated school and live among people of different races and beliefs. Instead, we all moved back to Floyd County in 1961, where the schools were not closed and a new county-wide high school would open a year later.

I left Floyd County after high school graduation in 1965, spent five years reporting for The Roanoke Times and then headed to Illinois for significant pay raise. At the time, I had no idea she had visited Alton.

After Truman’s death in 1994, mom’s adventurous spirit returned and she traveled the world, going to Australia, on cruises to exotic ports of call and other countries.

She continued live in Floyd County, stayed active in Floyd, volunteering at Angels in the Attic and at The Jacksonville Center (now the Floyd Center for the Arts).  She played piano for church services.  

Amy and I left our then home in the Washington, DC area and moved to Floyd, in part to be near her. Deteriorating health and a fall at home put her in a Radford rehab facility, where another fall broke her hip. Confined to a wheelchair, we had to move her into an assisted living facility, with around the clock health care. We were there with her almost every day for the last three years of her life.

She told other residents of the facility about her days riding her Harley and we celebrated her birthday in 2010 with my Harley in the lobby of the facility, along with best wishes from those attending.

I held her hand until she died quietly in her sleep after a quiet night on August 28, 2012, at 89.

Mom had told me she wanted to rest in peace with both of her husbands,  so half of her ashes were shared with Truman at the cemetery of Buffalo Mountain Presbyterian Church and I planned to take her remaining ashes on my bike, following the same route she rode in 1946, to be with my dad in Tampa.

But an encounter on my motorcycle with a cow on U.S. 221 at the bottom of Bent Mountain shortly after she died — delayed that trip.  It took more than 18 months of recovery before I was finally cleared to ride again and take her home to Florida to be with my dad.

Happy Mother’s Day mom.  You taught me to enjoy and make the most of life.

Ethel McPeak Thompson Bolt with her son’s Harley Davidson at her 2010 birthday.

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