CATEGORY: Alcorn County
'Australian by birth, American by choice'
War bride, now widowed, returns to make husband's home her own
By Jane Clark Summers
Daily Journal Corinth Bureau
CORINTH - As the wife of a serviceman, Australian-born Billie Ridings moved all over the United States and traveled the world, leading a National Geographic lifestyle.
At 79, she is content to live near her late husband's roots as well as the place where the magazine she has enjoyed since childhood is printed.
Iris Scott Corderoy, born Nov. 17, 1916, grew up in Alstonville, New Southwales, Australia. Her father, who was expecting a son, called her "Billy" from birth.
The continent of Australia is a world away and quite different from the red clay hills of Northeast Mississippi. Growing up, her family's pet menagerie included marsupials: a kangaroo, wallaby and burrowing wombat. They had cockatoos and colorful parrots, birds so plentiful in Australia, they were often cooked in meat pies.
"I can remember lying on the back porch and watching a flock of parrots fly over, blocking out the sun," said Ridings, whose once red hair has turned to the color of snow.
Her father once brought home a baby koala, whose mother had been hit by a car. Raised on milk mixed with eucalyptus leaf juice, the koala lived in a tree in the back yard. When "Teddy" disappeared about four years later, her father told the children that he had gone off to get married.
Her father kept horses and the tradition of raising Billie like a son. He instilled in her the love of sports. In her younger years, she played hockey, football and tennis and rode horses.
She gave up surfing at age 61. While paddling out to catch a wave on a California Pacific Ocean beach, she caught the eye of younger surfers, who warned her about being out so far.
"They said they had never seen an old lady surf before," she said. "I didn't think I was so old."
On the sidelines now, she still enjoys her sports, vicariously and voraciously, on television.
Recalling her travels
In a thick Aussie accent, Ridings regales family and friends with stories about her travels. She met James Cooper "Jim" Ridings during World War II at a U.S. military hospital in Archerville, Australia, where she worked as a nurse with the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force.
In February 1943, Ridings came in as a patient from New Guinea, suffering from malaria and jungle rot, she said.
"I was going off duty and I saw this good-looking American soldier," she said. Although she had been cautioned about the Americans, "I hung around," she said. "He was too good looking to let go."
Ridings was discharged the next day but called her and made a date. They were married Aug. 4, 1943. Their daughter, Judy, was born in Australia in 1944. When the baby was 2 years old, the couple came to America, arriving by train in Corinth on Nov. 17, 1946, Billie's 30th birthday. They had a son, Scott, in 1947.
Jim Ridings, who served in the army for 25 years, took his family all over America. Ticking off states on fingers, she mentions Illinois, Wisconsin, Colorado, Alabama. "We didn't pay rent, we moved," she jokes about life as an Army wife.
After his discharge, Ridings worked as a field engineer for Raytheon. The company sent him to Saudi Arabia, where they lived for 5 1/2 years in an American compound. "It was wonderful," she said. "I loved every minute of it." Attended by a Nigerian man servant in the villa they shared, she said she didn't have to lift a finger the entire time.
The only restrictions on the American women were that they couldn't drive a vehicle off the compound and had to wear long dresses or skirts. "They had religious policemen who would pull you over if you had on a short skirt," she said.
Fishing in the Red Sea kept her busy during the weekdays. Her catch included barracuda, yellow fin tuna and a 30-pound cod. It's no fisherman's lie. She's got pictures to prove it.
On long weekends, the couple would fly to destinations such as Tokyo, Germany, Korea, Panama, Paris, Egypt, London, Holland, Lebanon and Australia and even went on a 10-day African safari. A street artist's sketches, brass lamps and curios decorating her small quarters are daily reminders of her exotic travels.
Thirty-two years after their first meeting, Jim Ridings died in February 1975 in El Paso. Later, Billie moved to California to be closer to her children. The grandmother of one had lost touch with Ridings' relatives.
Rekindling fond memories
But 53 years after her fateful meeting with Ridings in Australia, she again traveled to Corinth, alone this time. She believes that being back among her husband's relatives in Alcorn County will help rekindle fond memories.
"I think I came back to live it again," she said."It felt like my life wasn't complete until I came back and lived where he went to school and had all of his friends."
A small house next to her nephew Bobby Dalton and his wife, Nelda, in the Wheeler Grove community is her new home.
"I watched Bobby grow up," she said. "He is like a son to me."
Dalton called his aunt last November and invited her to spend Thanksgiving with the family. After that visit, "I fell in love all over again," Ridings said. "Who wouldn't fall in love with this part of the country." She wakes to the music of beautiful songbirds and quietude of the pastoral country setting and falls asleep to the soulful calls of the whip-poor-wills and resonant croaking of frogs in a nearby pond.
Sworn in as a naturalized citizen in Oxford many years ago, Ridings said she feels like Mississippi is her home.
"I am Australian by birth and American by choice," she said.
Like the widowed Ruth in the Bible, her husband's people are her people.