Alice Stallings defies one’s expectations of a 93-year-old. Her style and humor are positively contemporary. Through her voice, the World War II era doesn’t seem so removed and separate. During the war, while her husband, PFC James Stallings, made his way through North Africa, France, Germany and Italy with the Army Medical Corps, Stallings operated one of Conyers’ first salons, Nifty Beauty Shop, on Center Street.
The couple was married only 15 months before he shipped overseas. It would be four long years before she set sight on him again. “I had no earthly idea it would be that long,” she said, “I didn’t have hopes of any certain time, but I figured he would make it back to me.”
To this day, a little over a year after he passed away, Stallings glows when she talks about her partner of nearly 70 years. They met crossing the street in his hometown of Lithonia. It was love at first sight, for him. “The little old ladies of the town had been going on about him and thought we would make a good couple.” James had been away attending mortuary school. It took a few more dates for her, but eventually she discovered what all the fuss was about.
“He always thought I was the most wonderful thing in the world, but of course I knew better,” she laughs. When girlfriends inquired what her secret was, she told them, “He thought that when we were courting, and I never let him find out any differently.”
Correspondence in war time was often spotty. She would go through long periods without a letter, and then receive a big batch all at once. Many portions of the letters were blacked out – intelligence monitored mail and removed any sections mentioning location and other sensitive details. Fortunately for her, James, was an excellent letter writer. “It was just as though he were saying it to me.”
Another way they communicated was through wounded soldiers. Before seriously injured men were shipped home, James would tell those destined for Lawson General Hospital in Atlanta to contact his wife. Stallings would often receive calls from the soldiers, and she lived vicariously visiting them in the hospital. “They were so thrilled to see somebody and tell me where he was and what he was doing there,” she said. Never one to arrive empty-handed, Stallings came bearing home-cooked picnics.
She decided not to inform her husband she had bought a beauty shop because she didn’t want him to fret about home front happenings. “I never told him until I paid it off,” she said, “I knew he had enough to worry about over there.” Her clientele was largely women coming off their shift at the mill. Another accomplishment Stallings acquired during the war was cooking. She learned during her boardinghouse stay at Kate Smith’s house on Milstead Avenue.
The war-time rationing that most affected Stallings was gas and shoes. To make the journey to her parents’ cotton farm in Carlton, Ga., she and a friend would pool gas rations and still have to buy bootleg gas, at the inflated rate of 25 cents per gallon, to make it home. Shoes were limited to two pairs per year. “It wasn’t a hardship to me at all,” she said, “I worked at keeping up my spirits, and I was fortunate to have my girlfriends.”
Though she said their reunion was “next to heaven,” it didn’t exactly come off according to plan. Expecting him to arrive via bus, she didn’t count on his impatience and ingenuity finding fellows to pool in for a taxi. With a new dress laid out, but still in an old chenille robe with her hair in curlers, she heard footsteps on the stairs hours earlier than planned.
She thought the war might change him, perhaps make him bitter, but it did not. “He was the same sweet considerate person,” she said, “He always made the best of every situation and had a bushel of patience.”
One of things Stallings attributes her longevity to is genes – both physical, her mother lived to 97, and mental. “I’ve always enjoyed life. No matter how bad things were, mother would convince us it would get better, and it usually did.”