Saturday, August 09, 2008

Back To the Land of the Free

In the early Fifties, Australia re-instituted involuntary military service; in the USA it was called “The Draft”; in Oz it was called National Service or in Aussie slang, “Nasho(e)s”. Being an independent sort and not wanting to mix with the hoi polloi, I had no desire to be ‘called up’ to serve. I had been told, or read, that to preserve one’s American citizenship, you could not serve in a ‘foreign’ army.

I still treasured my American birth certificate and longed to return to land of cheap motorcars. In 1952, I took the train to Sydney and presented myself to the American consulate on the top floor of the Bank of New South Wales, an impressive Victorian sandstone building at the end of Martin Place in the center of the city. (The building is still there and is still a bank – WESTPAC.)

I filled out the necessary papers and was given a US draft card for my trouble! I asked if I could be inducted into the US Armed Forces then and there, but was told that I must enlist in a country where the Army had a presence and the nearest country was Japan. So much for that way out! I then asked for my passport but was told they would issue one when (and if) I had a ticket to the USA. To ensure that there was no doubt as to my intentions to resume my U.S. citizenship, I took my British passport, drafted a ‘snotty’ letter to the Australian Passport Office in York Street, where I relinquished my Australian citizenship and was able to avoid the Australian Draft. (The law was changed in the 1990s so I am now a dual national – able to own property, collect the Australian Old-Age Pension and vote.)

Back in Gunnedah with my head in the clouds, I walked the hot, dusty sidewalk and imagined I was in America. Maybe Texas, or even California. (I didn’t dream of living in Arizona where we now reside.) Living in the Imperial Hotel in Gunnedah, I drank with traveling salesmen and college graduates who knew something of the world outside. They advised me to leave Gunnedah and go to Sydney to seek a new adventure. Why not leave Australia and return to the USA? Yep, why not?

By the summer of 1955 I decided to go to the U.S. as soon as I saved enough money. I was earning a journeyman wage and by reducing the partying and extra-curricula activities, I could minimize my expenses. Besides, my friends were marrying – Bob Cozens the airplane mechanic who had helped me learn the airplane mechanic trade was engaged. My old Riverview mate, Bob Bower was married to his long time love, Virginia and starting to raise a family. QANTAS was a good job but I realized that with my lack of training I would never be able to progress beyond a low technical level job. A free college education was beyond my reach, nor I did not know how to go about it.

“San Francisco, a One-Way Ticket, Please.”

During my insurance days, the Pacific and Orient Steamship Company (P & O) was two doors away on Spring Street; I knew the blokes who worked there and they helped me find the cheapest berth on the ship. I wrote a cheque for £50 and reserved a berth on the S.S. Oronsay to depart Sydney on December 3, 1955. And what a berth it turned out to be! The ‘no porthole’, tiny, six-bed cabin below the waterline reminded me of pictures of WW2 troopships. But my bunkmates were pleasant and we all shared one thing in common: we were off on an adventure! My childhood friends were excited and a bit envious. One of us was ‘getting out of Australia’. In the 1950s, many Australians felt that the only national culture in Australia was to be found in a bottle of yogurt! Most young people went to Europe and began their adventure in Kangaroo Valley the Pommie name for Earls Court in London. It was crawling with Aussies who lived together in much the same way as American kids did in the late sixties– 10 to a room using the ‘hot bed’ principle: there was always someone sleeping in every bed and sometimes two to a bed! But, because I had a U.S. passport, my travels would allow me to go the America, and unlike most other kids, I could legally hold a job!

Before departure, my friends would not allow me to spend and more money than was absolutely necessary. The waitress at the local ‘greasy spoon’ brought me as much food I could eat and charged me only the minimum price on the menu. My mates bought most all the beers and three girls made me a gray pullover wool sweater as a joint project. They presented this to me at a going away party held at Rae Soulos’ apartment. They had made the sweater without measuring me and the arms were ten inches too long. (Several years as an Air Force cadet my friends told me that it would be de rigueur with blue jeans and I purchased my first pair of Levis in Lubbock.)

And what a party it was! John and Shirley Jones, my QANTAS mates, Bob Cozens and his intended, several girl friends and their blokes gathered at Rae’s tiny Coogee flat and we had a great ‘piss-up’. I crawled back to my room in Cowper Street and passed out.
The night before departure was sleepless because of a visit from a psychotic, drunken fellow boarder. I guess he’d had enough of my bragging at dinner and decided to take me down a peg or two. He bashed in the door to my bedroom and as I didn’t wish to get involved in a pre-departure interview with the local constabulary, I yelled for help. Paddy, a nearby friend had been an Irish policeman and knew how to handle drunks. He ‘took him away’ in short order. The landlady, Mrs. Retallack, a tiny slip of a woman set on the stairs for several hours to preclude another visitation. Poor woman - the job was worth more than her trouble of looking after an aging apartment, its staff and twenty rowdy inhabitants.

Next morning with my Val Pak (a B-4 leather bag which I kept for years) and briefcase in hand, I called a cab, and boarded the SS Oronsay, a Clyde-built, single funnel, P & O two-class liner which was doing service in taking Poms and Wogs to Oz, and disgruntled Aussies to Canada and the USA. By today’s standards of cruise ships, the Oronsay was small. My below-the-waterline cabin had no porthole and six bunks. This was home for almost three weeks—and after New Zealand, I was the only occupant.

The Oronsay was docked in Pyrmont adjacent to the dock where the family had landed 18 years ago on the SS Mariposa. The dock and the deck were jammed with partygoers envious of those of us who were ‘getting out’. There were confused noises of music, laughter, sobbing and ‘chundering’. The gang from Cowper Street showed up with booze and small goodbye gifts. I remember none of them except a bottle of Cointreau from a girlfriend (I think it was Jacquie Trigg) who remembered that we had enjoyed champagne cocktails in her room on some forgotten evening orgy. We hugged and kissed until the ship’s siren blasted and the crew announced, “All visitors ashore, all visitors ashore!” I stood with hundreds of other escapees by the railing throwing the traditional rolls of streamers to my friends until the gap between the ship and dock was a solid paper wall. The tugs took hold, the streamers parted and the sliver of water in the gap grew larger. I turned my back to the wharf and went downstairs to unpack. I didn’t look back.

First stop, Auckland, and by then I had made new friends over coffee in the lounge with my new shipmates. They were a mixed bunch: old friends were quickly forgotten in the spirit of the moment. Next stop, Suva, Fiji where in 1938 my father had been forbidden to go ashore for fear he would jump ship and leave his wife and two children to fend for themselves. Next stop, Honolulu and for the first time in my life, I knew I belonged to a great country; the Immigration and Naturalization Service of the US Government had set up two tables labeled U.S. Citizens and Others. The line to the U.S. Citizens table was short, and I was home!

I had made friends with a Canadian couple returning from a six month walkabout in Australia and they allowed me to share a car rental. We toured the island until late afternoon. It was in downtown Honolulu, a place which I would frequent with my wife and children 5 years later, that I saw my first TV. I stared like a country bumpkin through the window of a department store until they dragged me away to a fast food restaurant several blocks away. We walked a little way further and I tasted my first American hamburger slathered in relish.. My Canadian friends were quite amused as they were ‘world travelers’ raised in Canada and used to the American diet.

Little did I know that in three years I would visit Honolulu as a commissioned USAF pilot and eat in the Officers’ Club at Hickam AFB.

Mid way through the voyage, I found that I had friends in First Class—two Armenian sisters from Coonabarrabran. They were the daughters of a modestly well-to-do haberdasher and had been on several Gunnedah YCW outings I attended. The 21 year old was rich, but chubby but I knew a good thing when I saw it. She had invited me to her cabin several times during her afternoon nap and was generous with drinks and squeezes. She suggested that we visit the night spots before our midnight departure. Heck, I didn’t own the proper clothes but she took care of that and a blazer was borrowed. On her nickel, we hit several clubs and as the ship was scheduled to cast off at midnight, we left the joint at a quarter to twelve, hailed a cab and the five of us tried to pile in.

“No way brudda!” said the cabbie, “You need two taxis for this load!” I panicked—I had no money for a cab, but the others thought it was a great joke and decided to run to the wharf. So we ran. The two girls were in heels and the three boys were nine sheets to the wind. We arrived the minute prior to their raising the gangplank to the cheers of those already on board. Being always the gentleman, I was the last on board.

The weather became very cold. The leg to Vancouver was a bit rough, but we were now seasoned mariners and walked the rolling decks in the rain and cold wind of late November. I walked the decks with my new friends, kept my sea legs and my meals. During evening coffee there was much talk about Canada and finding jobs—none of the Australians seeking work were permitted to continue to the USA without an appropriate visa and these were in very short supply.

In Vancouver, I said goodbye to all of my new friends except the sisters. But, as fate would have it, a young Sydney honey, already in love with the USA and American boys in general, boarded en route home to Oz via San Francisco. I forgot my Armenian friends and quickly became entangled with this new Sydneysider.

Alas, the trip ended far too soon.

Under the Golden Gate

The morning I arrived in America was foggy but passing the Farralone Islands, the sky cleared and the Bronze Bridge was dead ahead. Packed and ready, I went to the pointy end and, just as in the movie “Titanic” many years later, I stood on the fore-peak and was first to pass under the Golden Gate.

Thus began my American adventure.