Go West Young Man! (Part One)

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Booksie Classic
I've decided to post here some excerpts from my memoirs, as well as some oddball stuff, mainly written some time ago, since lately I've been concentrating on the novels. For more info, visit http://www.clydedonard.com

We'll start with my arrival in the USA at the age of 26. I thought this might interest my fans, who are probably American. (Please excuse British/Australian spellings and word usage.) I've changed people's names, otherwise it's a factual account.

If you find this interesting, there's plenty more where it came from. On the other hand, if you're bored by it, I'd welcome some constructive criticism about how it might be improved (if indeed it isn't beyond such hope).

Submitted: April 11, 2009

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Submitted: April 11, 2009



Go West, Young Man!

Journey to the New World – Part 1


When I left for America, I was already quite well travelled. I’d been to France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, The Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and (albeit very briefly) Finland. I’d also visited most parts of the British Isles. But I’d never lived away from home. And I’d never crossed the Atlantic. Both those things were to change in September 1970, as I embarked on a term as a post-doctoral research fellow at Harvard College Observatory (part of Harvard University). This was to be for a period of up to three years, although the appointment had to be reviewed annually.

It was not before time. I was 26 and still living at home. I guess there comes a time for most people when the urge to leave the nest becomes extremely strong, no matter how well one relates to one’s parents (and my relationship with my parents was good by any standards). Nevertheless, I had to get out. Partly it was Belfast itself, which, having been a peaceful place for most of my youth, had in the last twelve months become a place of dreadful violence. Partly it was the claustrophobia of living on a small island. No matter what direction you go in, Ireland comes to a soggy edge before long. You are trapped, dependent on a ship or aircraft to extricate you from your predicament. Of course, in many ways it’s a pretty nice island to be trapped in, but even if Belfast itself hadn’t gone pear-shaped, I’d have wanted out. Great Britain had the same problem, but it was bigger. America was bigger still.

And then there was my social life, or lack of it. Of course I had a door key. Of course I could go where I wanted. But some experimentation was needed. I didn’t want to be questioned, and I didn’t want my parents to worry.

The New World beckoned, although, to be honest, I didn’t think I was going to like America all that much. But as a career move it would have been foolish to reject the opportunity, and as an chance for personal development I knew it had to be good.

I don’t pretend to know how Mum and Dad felt on the day of my departure, but I can be pretty sure it wasn’t easy for them. They kept their emotions well under control as we set off for Aldergrove Airport at six-thirty on the morning of Tuesday 15 September 1970. The flight to London was called at 07:45, and as a precaution against bombs, all passengers had to identify their own bags as they boarded the aircraft — well, no one would want to blow themselves up on an aeroplane, would they, now?

By nine o’clock I was at Heathrow. It was warm and sunny. Terminal 3 was a huge new building, but there was nothing that interested me in the duty-free shop.

I’ve always liked looking out of aircraft and trying to identify places if possible. My BOAC VC10 aircraft offered brief glimpses of Windsor Castle and Reading, and then there was cloud. Over central Ireland, peat bogs were visible, but I couldn’t pinpoint the location. There was a brief glimpse of Eagle Island in County Mayo, and just after two o’clock, British Summer Time, I had my last sight of Ireland for a very long time. I put my watch back five hours to US Eastern Daylight Time.

There were brief glimpses of the ocean, but for the most part it was just cloud. For lunch, BOAC provided chicken, mushrooms and butter onions in red wine sauce, with sliced green beans and marquise potatoes, followed by fruit flan, cheese and cream crackers, and coffee. Afternoon tea consisted of ‘Scotch pancakes’ with butter and strawberry jam, fruited Genoa cake, and tea.


My first sight of the New World came at 12:45 — the coast of Labrador in the vicinity of Cartwright Island. There was still broken cloud, and the intermittent views of lakes and tundra gave not the slightest hint of any human habitation. After another half hour I was over the St Lawrence Estuary. The cloud was all on the northern shore, so for a while I had some good views. Flying over the western end of Anticosti Island, I saw long, straight forest roads. On the mainland there were huge clear-felling operations. As the plane passed near Dalhousie and Campbellton, I could still just make out the St Lawrence River far to the north-west. Then the flightpath crossed into New Brunswick, and we were back over cloud.

I later found out that this was the day that an Alitalia DC-8 had landed heavily at New York’s Kennedy Airport, the premature use of reverse thrust being suspected as the cause. The aircraft was damaged beyond repair but there were no fatalities. In any event, Kennedy was partly closed, leading to heavy congestion at Logan Airport. Also, visibility was very poor. The VC10’s first approach was aborted — I knew this because I saw the same island, embankment, jetty and parking lot go by twice. I was finally on the ground, in continuous heavy rain, at three-fifteen.

I was to stay, initially, with Dot and Bob Stirling. Dot was the sister of our next door neighbour in Belfast. Bob, her husband, was a Scot who retained a thick Glasgow accent even after many years in the USA. Both were considerably older than me; Bob was already retired. Dot met me after an easy passage through immigration, but we had to wait three quarters of an hour for Bob to show up from an appointment elsewhere. After that we had a 45-minute drive to Milton, a suburb on the southern fringes of Boston. The Stirlings’ home was a pleasant timber two-storey house in Central Avenue. Dot and Bob lived upstairs, in a flat with separate outside access, while Bob’s three unmarried sisters had the ground floor. Dot and Bob had never had children, and didn’t understand the concept of untidiness. Everything was always in its proper place. Dot kept the interior immaculately clean and tidy. I would have liked this place so much more if just occasionally there could have been a magazine or a few books strewn casually around. After dinner, I turned in for an ‘early’ night around eight-thirty — but it was one-thirty in the morning back home!

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