Ethel McPeak, a native of Meadows of Dan, worked for the Navy as a civilian employee in Norfolk during World War II. At the war’s end, she met Navy Electrician’s Mate First Class William D. (Tommy) Thompson when his ship put into the Navy Yard for retrofitting.
They found a lot in common, including a love of Harley-Davidsons. In early 1946, the young seaman proposed to the girl from Meadows of Dan on a moonlit beach. A few days later, they rode their motorcycles to Meadows of Dan to meet her parents.
Walter and Zelda McPeak didn’t know their daughter had discovered motorcycles while in Norfolk and were shocked to see their only child dressed head to toe in leather, accompanied by the tall, handsome sailor destined to become their son-in law. The engaged couple had planned to ride from Meadows of Dan to Tampa together to meet his parents but the bride-to-be decided to stay behind for a few days to calm her parents down.
“I’ll be down there as soon as things are straightened out here,” she told her future husband.
Tommy didn’t want his fiance to ride that distance alone on her Harley Knucklehead and told her to take the train.
“I’ll meet you at the train station in Tampa on Wednesday,” she said.
On Monday, she left Meadows of Dan and headed to Tampa — not on the train but alone in the saddle of her Harley.
“I had everything I needed,” she said. “Two extra sets of spark plugs, two sets of points. a file to clean the points, extra chain links and a carburetor rebuild the kit.”
She would use them all on the three-day, 850-mile trip to Tampa. In Georgia, she rebuilt the carb on the table of the diner where she had breakfast.
“Some didn’t like the smell of gas while they were eating breakfast,” she remembers.
On Wednesday, she pulled into the parking lot of the train station of Tampa where Tommy waited. His surprise at her decision to ride alone led to their first fight but they go over it.
They married later that year. 14 months later, she gave birth to a son. Nine months after he came into the world, Tommy died in an electrical accident at the U.S. Phosphorus Plant in Gibsonton, Florida.
The son was five when the young widow decided to leave the Tampa area and return to her childhood home. They settled in Floyd, living in an apartment over the Hoback Furniture Store on Main Street. She worked as a bookkeeper for the store while her son went to school at Floyd Elementary.
Three years later, she met Truman Bolt, another Floyd County native. The divorced father of three lived in Farmville. They married and she and her son joined the family. Two other children would come along.
Her second husband died in 1985. She decided to travel and see places she hadn’t visited — going to Australia, Alaska, Hawaii and other locales. The independent streak that led her to take that motorcycle journey 39 years earlier remained.
Ethel McPeak Thompson Bolt is 87 now. Severe osteoporosis, advanced emphysema and complications from a hip broken a year ago have confined her to a wheelchair and she resides in an assisted living facility.
But I see her several times a week and cherish those occasions when her independence surfaces.
She’s my mother.