(from “America,” written by Paul Simon or by Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein)
It seemed that the US surrounded us during my youth. The Beatles’ “conquest” of the US in 1964 became an instant legend. Elvis, the Everly Brothers and Bill Haley and the Comets brought the US onto our airwaves, Gunsmoke, Rawhide, Cheyenne filled our evenings on TV with the US, and even the Marlow Regal, the local cinema, had more of the US about it than England. The US hung in posters on my bedroom wall, and seemed to dominate the BBC’s TV news every evening. There was much worry during those years in England about the so-called “brain drain.” Doctors and other professionals were packing up their diplomas and families, and moving to the US where Messrs. Wilson and Heath, our Prime Ministers at the time, could not balefully and systematically deprive them of the financial benefits of their learning, as they were doing in the UK. The message in the Daily Express, mum’s patriotic daily paper, was that it was bad to leave the country that had trained you, basically for free, to make more money elsewhere. But I watched dad continue to struggle to pay for what he wanted, even as his professional success reached new heights. He didn’t seem to me to want that much. What was so bad about earning more if your achievement warranted more? The US embodied entertainment, money and temptation, a winning combination.
America came into my personal life first with impressions of GI’s during the war, which came from my mother as well as the TV. She herself had been engaged to a GI from Arkansas, which was a fascinating fact. I was almost from Little Rock! Mum enjoyed recounting the famous English joke about American GIs during the war: they were overpaid, over sexed and over here!
Then there were all the Hollywood movies about the Americans fighting in Europe, when they weren’t fighting Indians in the Wild West or Asians in the Pacific. There were The Lucy Show, and Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In: “goodnight Dick.” I didn’t understand the commercial or political background, but you would have needed to be the human equivalent of an ostrich as I was growing up not to notice the USA everywhere you were entertained.
America arrived on my wall when I decided to decorate the bedroom myself to bring it with me into the modern world. This was permitted so long as I did the work myself, even though the chosen color scheme, which lasted until the house was sold in 1996, was purple and shades of orange. I thought that paint itself was a little outmoded, even though the colors I chose were designed in part to be shocking, and so decided to cover one wall with posters. They came from wherever I could obtain them without paying. I spent a whole day in London asking in travel agents and the like to bolster the collection before cutting and pasting them into a collage of colors and shapes along one wall of my room. It was off the beaten track, but I asked at the US Embassy’s travel office on Grosvenor Square, which promoted tourism to the US, and was duly weighed down with as many posters as I could carry. The US had money to burn back then. Several of those posters featured the majestic scenery that would become one of the highlights of my life, for example the red rock pillars of Sedona, Arizona, and the Rocky Mountains somewhere in Colorado or Wyoming. “Travel a New World,” proclaimed the slogans above or around these natural wonders, “See the USA.”
Mum cried when the TV told us first that President Kennedy had been shot in the head in Dallas, and then a few minutes later that he had died. She cried out loud, and he was an American. Not that we had anything against Americans, but he wasn’t English, and for mum to cry when he wasn’t English, that was really something. The only other time I saw her cry for someone she did not know was when Sir Winston Churchill died.
In later years I realized that Kennedy had pursued the old guard, even though he was as privileged as they were. Maybe it was the Irish in him, the memory of being the whipping boys of the UK. He had fought in the old guard’s war, and that gave legitimacy to his efforts to move the US into the future. But it was a future that many of the old guard were not ready for, and especially in Texas they could not laugh at him as they laughed at the many would-be reformers who were hobbled by their own whiny paranoia. Marilyn Monroe sang “Happy Birthday” to this would-be reformer, giving him her sexiest whisper in front of thousands. Somehow he had gained so much power, and then so much compassion. As his Presidency advanced, he adopted more and more of the poor huddled masses his country only nominally welcomed. Everything that a certain kind of Texan stood for was threatened.
The whole house was quiet when JFK died. Sue and I didn’t really understand what he stood for until our teenage years or later. I can remember what enlightened me the first time: Life magazine produced a double issue called Life’s Review of the 60s, probably the most enthralling issue of a magazine that I have ever read. It included Kennedy’s inaugural speech: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country;” and the centerpiece of what he stood for and of his appeal: “The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans . . .”. He didn’t write it, of course, his job was implementing the vision, not putting it into words, but he announced the new world that all of the Western World, the war-weary and tired but finally coming out of it generation that was my parents’ generation, was waiting for. The murder of such an inspiration, such a new world in the New World, will always be a great American shame.
At 18 South View Road and all over the UK during the sixties, the US represented brilliant highs and unspeakable lows: NASA honored JFK’s pledge to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade, giving us all in the process the most humbling and beautiful pictures of our collective home; and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King joined the annals of shame, depriving the US of the heart and soul that any civilization needs in order to move forward. This disconcerting background noise, at once full of hope and despair, suddenly came into the foreground in Marlow early in 1970. It was my last year of Borlase’s, and mum and dad decided that I deserved a treat. I’m not sure what moved them to this decision, especially as they had made the Mini available only a couple of months previously, and that was already an incredible treat, but they decided to send me on a short high-school exchange trip to upstate New York. Dad explained later that he feared my leaving school completely, and hoped with the US trip to give me more reason to stay. The logic escaped me, but Easter found me on a Boeing 707 flying across the Atlantic with a group of other secondary school boys and girls from the Marlow area.
We landed in Buffalo and spent our first day in the US visiting Niagara Falls, the world’s natural wonder that was my first taste of the incredible beauty of the land in North America. I barely noticed it on this occasion. The falls were impressive, certainly, amazing even, but I was excited and tired and too distracted by everything else to grasp what we were viewing. I knew none of the people on the trip, and half of them were girls. I was busily trying to get to know a few of them and find my footing in the group. It was the rushed and crowded time of adolescents getting to know each other, looking for kindred spirits and trying to make some kind of an impression. The falls were a sideshow.
The next day, with the strange sense of time and place of the traveler, I began to notice the natural world around us. We had left the falls by this time, which made my timing a little off, and had all fallen relatively quiet on a bus (not a “coach,” as we would have said in England) driving several hours east across New York State. The process of absorption that makes travel so enriching began for me that trip on the bus. We were on the New York State Thruway most of the journey, and I watched fascinated as it carved its way across the land with little regard for hill or valley or other topography, a civil engineer’s fantasy of domination. I had noticed in other countries that roads were planned and built differently in each. Perhaps the differences were little more than their surface or signage. Yet the different ways that roads were imposed on a landscape were a part of a country which you could read for clues about the country itself. What struck me immediately about American roads was that they dominated the land incontrovertibly. There was little in the way of negotiation between the engineer and the land. The engineer was going to do it his way regardless. Or maybe that was incorrect. The roads here had obviously not been built along former footpaths or bridle paths, as roads in Europe had. So perhaps it wasn’t so much a desire to dominate that led the engineers to slash across hill and dale so much more than in Europe. Perhaps it was more efficient. Driving along the New York State Thruway certainly felt good, constantly at the bus’s cruising speed, no pauses or delays due to traffic. I moved from that crooked trail of thought to cars. American cars were very interesting too. They looked like Hawaii Five-Oh and Perry Mason, but in the flesh were enormous and inelegant. Why build cars so big? Most of that additional space fore and aft was completely wasted. So why bother? Did their drivers feel small? Did they need that extra space to feel bigger themselves? Or was it to match the size of the highways, the magnitude of the land? The Mini looked right wandering on its merry way between hedgerows on a country road. These cars did look right on the New York State Thruway.
I was much more interested in these man-made differences than in Niagara Falls. Little looked the same heading east across upstate New York as the US had looked on TV in England. What made it so different? I remembered the “New World” on my bedroom wall. Yes, they certainly got that right. The newness of this world was everywhere. They also called it New England. No, at first glance this had nothing to do with England, not even with what England could have been if it was new. There’s nothing like visiting a new country to open up your internal sensors.
As night fell, we were dropped at a parking lot in Saratoga Springs to meet our host families. That’s where I met the Roys for the first time, Paul and Marie, the parents, and Jean and Will, the two younger children still living at home. They were all full of smiles, and we instantly got along very well on the trip back to Cambridge. In the three weeks I was there, the Roys became America for me, and a second family. They were big-hearted, easy-going and the real thing. Marie was a tough Yorkshire woman from Leeds, all five foot two of her. She had met Paul in England. He was her GI. They married on Valentine’s Day in 1945, and embarked on a new life across the Atlantic. She cannot have objected much to leaving the industrial north of England. I never did learn much about Paul. He would divert questions or give one word answers: not so much taciturn as preferring not to talk about himself. Marie did the talking! She worked as a nurse in the local hospital, and Paul managed the local A&P supermarket. Although same sex exchanges were the norm, I was exchanging with Jean, my age and a senior at High School. Will was a few years younger. Jean was in love with Bud, a guy she had met in Lake George or one of the other local tourist spots. That and her mother’s eagle eye kept us suitably apart. Jean was even-tempered and fun, another down-to-earth Yorkshire woman, and cute too.
I spent three weeks at Cambridge Central School accompanying Jean to her classes. Unlike at Borlase’s, there were girls as well as boys at school. Wow! The academic level was significantly lower than at Borlase’s, but on my scale of priorities that came in right around zero. The level of the social world was so much higher. Not just were there girls, but they talked to me as if I was normal and generally acted socially the same as the boys. This was extraordinary. I had not lived it in England since leaving junior school at age 11. American teenagers were friendlier than most of their English counterparts, and most seemed open and extrovert, not forgetting wild. Not all of them could fit that description, but relative to the restraint of my generation in the cafés and pubs in Marlow, our cold and intellectual discussions, this was a dream. I could feel my terrible uneasiness with girls evaporating, or at least moving into the background, as they treated me like a regular person. How could it be otherwise?
I was particularly taken by the kindness of the Americans I met. Of course there were exceptions, but so many were solicitous of their English visitors that it must have come naturally from the inside. External authority could not have produced such systematic kindness. And in being kind, the young Americans managed to offer exactly the experiences that I craved. One of Jean’s friends, Alan Greene, drove me at over 100 mph in his car, just because I asked him what it was like to drive so fast. Lance Bentley, another of her friends, took me into the boys’ bathroom at school to smoke cigarettes during recess. We held them up to the vent in the ceiling between drags so that the smell would disperse: well, that was the idea! Jean and various of her friends took me several times to Hoosick Falls, the next town north of Cambridge on New York State Route 22, to drink beer and party in Johnny’s Bar. They may well have wanted to party themselves, but they were conscientiously entertaining their “limey” guests, and easily hit on some of the better means of doing so.
I think that it was the second Saturday of that three-week stay when their constant hospitality led to a minor incident in Anglo-American relations. This time, Jean and her friends had taken me to a party in a private home. The parents had obligingly disappeared for the weekend, and we were all having a great time, drinking heavily. When I drank, I smoked heavily. The two went so well together. I was sitting on a sofa, feeling the alcohol swill around my already befuddled brain, and wondering what to do about having run out of cigarettes. Young people were swirling around me, some smoking, but I didn’t seem to recognize any of them. Jean, typically a good source of cigarettes when I ran out, as I was for her, was nowhere to be seen. A muscular youth in a Tide-white T-shirt passed across my field of vision. He had a crew cut, military looking, and as a self- respecting hippy I may not have accosted him but for the alcohol swilling around inside me and the red-topped box visible trapped in the sleeve of his T-shirt. “Marlboro,” it read. I asked him for a fag.
He looked at me as if he could not believe what he was hearing. In that split second I realized that he was pretty drunk too. In no time at all he pulled me up off of the sofa by the scruff of my neck with his left hand, and with his right punched me hard in the nose. I was marveling at the ease with which he picked me up and didn’t even see the punch coming. It was so unexpected, but I did feel it arrive! For the first time in my life, I saw stars. They were bright dots that flamed in a sea of blackness and then slowly disappeared as the world around reappeared. “What was that all about?” I thought to myself, trying to sit back up. I had landed flat on my back on the floor, and was for the moment more flabbergasted than hurt. From the look on his face he might have carried on, but people were grabbing him and yelling at him, “he’s English, from England!” If that was all it would take to avoid a beating, I was certainly going to agree!
It turned out that I had stumbled on one of those words which means different things in the two versions of English. In England, fag is slang for cigarette. In the US, it is slang for a gay man. My marine in a Tide-white T-shirt thought that I had insulted his masculinity! He looked very sheepish as soon as his little misunderstanding was explained to him, and with a sidelong glance at me slunk out of the party. The incident was over as soon as it had begun, and I enjoyed the extra attention that ensued. He came back a while later with a bottle of Johnny Walker Red, and insisted that I accept it as his apology. Even this American was kind, once he thought about it and got over his prejudices. My nose hurt for a week. Mrs. Roy peered at it from behind her glasses, the squinting way that she liked to peer, and giggled.
Cambridge is in the middle of nowhere, relatively speaking. Its principal claim to fame was that the Hotel Cambridge in the center of town invented pie à la mode. This is not exactly a verifiable claim. Despite their isolation, my hosts still wanted to introduce me to American culture. They took me to the large local mall on a couple of occasions, perhaps in Albany, where young people like us from all the high schools in the area were strolling around in blue jeans, the girls tight, the boys loose. I remember acres of polished floors and incessant written sales pitches. Another time, Jean, Kathleen and Bernie decided that they should take me to a McDonalds, not yet in every town and on every highway, but already a staple of local culture. Kathleen and Bernie were a couple. She was a cute brunette friend of Jean’s at Cambridge Central School, and he lived and worked just across the State line in Massachusetts. North Adams boasted a McDonalds, then the closest to Cambridge, and it was duly elected the place to take the English exchange student. My first Big Mac cost around 40 cents, I think, and was wonderful. This was how a hamburger should taste, with sugar in the special sauce, pickles and lettuce! I was staggered that the local Wimpy Bars in the UK could not do better. From my very first Big Mac in North Adams, Massachusetts, I was hooked.
Kathleen gave me a dose of the downside of the American frankness that I loved from day one: not the downside, the frankness. The Americans I met starting with the Roys seemed almost uniformly direct and up-front. They were out there. The constant coldness or at least coolness of the English, their incessant filtering of experience through the intellect first and secondarily, if at all, through the heart, was rarely to be found. I don’t know where my dislike of the English reserve came from. Perhaps from mum, who was full-blooded Irish and broadcast her emotions almost unfiltered. Perhaps from my dad, who was very English and did the opposite, hiding his feelings as he hid his womanizing, behind a veil of discomfort that looked like armor. Perhaps from boarding at a minor public school, where emotion was supposed to be brought under control as part of the process of being made a full participant in one’s own abuse. If I only knew. As soon as I discovered the American way, in Cambridge, New York, I knew that I liked their way better. Whatever Americans did, they did it differently from the English, which was a big plus for me from day one.
We were in North Adams one evening, and for some reason I was obliged to take off my shirt. Maybe we had all gotten wet through in a rain storm. It was something banal and trivial like that. Taking off my shirt was in itself an unusual move. I was very self-conscious about being skinny, and rarely allowed situations to arise when that skinniness was visible to others. This extended to avoiding the changing rooms at Borlase’s after school sports, so that even boys could not see me. As for girls, forget it! I was so sure that I would be found failing that I never gave them the chance to do the finding. But I was responding to the openness and honesty in Cambridge with an automatic increase in my own openness. That happened to me in the US. Maybe it would have happened in England as I grew older, but I’m sure that it happened more quickly in the US, despite the occasional setback inherent in American honesty.
Kathleen took one look at my bare chest that evening and started laughing her head off, in front of Bernie and Jean, unable or unwilling to control herself at all: “what a bod!” she exclaimed between guffaws. It was precisely the kind of reaction I dreaded. I wilted inside, trying to laugh with them and not show how she had effortlessly and accidentally hit on my worst fear. But maybe I did not wilt as much as I had feared. Over time as I thought it through, my being skinny became less important. It was a noticeable physical trait. Some girls like Kathleen might not like it, or even laugh at it, but others would not care. It was a part of the way I was, but far from a determinant part. America helped me confront my demons too. Even as it could hurt.
Another girl was much kinder to me during that first trip to upstate New York. When people back in Marlow asked how I’d found the US, I typically told them that it was an extreme place, and that everything seemed to happen in extremes, never by halves. The good and the bad were all unfiltered. So Kathleen happily blurted out the words I had spent years dreading to hear without ever before hearing. And another friend let me make love to her right of the blue, on her front porch at 2 or 3 am one morning. That’s why I don’t give her name. We never dated again: I returned to Marlow shortly after. I don’t think anybody in Cambridge knew. We had been drinking or smoking, not a lot, and conversing as young people do when they find a kindred spirit. She was so smart. Looking back, this was another blown relationship, one which she probably experienced much more negatively than I. There is not a lot of opportunity during sex on a cold wooden porch for romance and the kind of enjoyment that warmth and a bed with a cuddly comforter create. I was cold, and so she must have been colder. She was simply being very kind, spontaneously and without reservation, the reverse of Kathleen when it came to my “bod.”
Back home I found that my enthusiasm for the US was rarely shared. The draft and the Vietnam war bothered me, of course, as they bothered many of the young Americans I’d met. US foreign policy generally seemed ham-fisted and dumb. But the expressions of contempt and derision that I heard were not really directed at these obvious American weaknesses. They were apolitical expressions of derision. I didn’t yet know a lot about the US, but I already knew enough to perceive that the American people did not merit such contempt from English people who did not know them and had never been there. Friends would cite Americans’ brashnesss and loudness and hopeless dress sense, based on sightings of American tourists in London, I suppose. This had a superficial appeal as an explanation, but to my mind those Americans who were uneasy and insecure enough to become almost a parody should have evoked sympathy. Why attack or despise a buffoon?
I began to realize that the British were jealous of the US. The reasons was harder to follow. Perhaps because the British Empire was steadily shrinking into oblivion at the same time as the American Empire was at its zenith. Perhaps the resentment was a holdover from the war when British men could not compete with the cigarettes and silk stockings offered by the GIs, and when the Americans ran D-Day after the English had run Dunkerque. The proud rarely forgive those who gave them a helping hand, however much they needed it. There’s certainly no single explanation for all that contempt, which was almost a unifying thread among the British. I liked the Americans I’d met, especially the Roys, and said so, for which I was often treated as being disloyal, and even at times as a buffoon, one of those tourists in London with hopeless dress sense and loud voices.
The English hostility to Americans of course fueled my enthusiasm for them, and for American music and for American culture. Since boarding, I had felt that the English were hostile to me too. Each English comment that American culture was an oxymoron confirmed my affection and interest. I watched the movie of the Woodstock festival, “three days of peace, music and love,” in the Marlow Regal two or three times after it was released in 1970. What a chronicle! Knowing rock festivals from the inside, I sensed that the film was idealized and a little manipulative of the audience, but loved it regardless.
Changes that were stirring in me fueled my enthusiasm for the “Yanks.” I learned something difficult to define from the Roys, Lance, Kathleen and the girl on the porch, something about being yourself and about feeling first and thinking second. It was something that would take many years to come to fruition, but the seeds were sown in Cambridge, New York. There was an English girl I met on that exchange trip, a pretty brunette who was a bit of a snob. She threw a party one weekend at her home in Beaconsfield or Gerrards Cross after we all returned to England, and invited several of the people in the US exchange group. She was totally in command of that party. I had a secret crush on her, and watched as she first chatted, then flirted and then danced with a clean-cut, smooth and well-dressed boy from her wealthy neighborhood. He was clearly a cut above me, even I could see that, and at first I went through my heavy intellectualizing, putting him down in my imagination, putting her down with succinct jibes and digs.
I let it go. I wanted that, what they were finding, pressed together and moving easily around her living room floor to the tune of the Rolling Stones. I wanted someone like her, some day. I didn’t want to keep looking down on people because I felt less than them. The US helped me begin to perceive that I was on the outside looking in on the world of boyfriend and girlfriend, and to feel the lack keenly. It was still a long way off, but as I began to realize that I was not above it, the long process of approaching real intimacy began. It was going to be a very long and hard journey, with as many missteps as dead ends. I had no idea then how hard it was going to be. But I was already dreaming of finding a fantasy girl one day, dancing and wild, and it occurred to me that I’d probably find her in America. Only the next time I wouldn’t leave her late on a cold night at her porch door.
© Ian J. Stock
Next chapter: Chapter 24 “Head out on the Highway”
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