Tuesday, July 15th 1986
For the first time in my life I walked through airport security and into the area beyond. I purchased some duty free and then had a quick vodka and orange juice in the bar.
At about 11am they announced the plane was ready for boarding and I made my way to the gate. Through the window I could see the British Caledonian Boeing 747 waiting outside. I know I was supposed to think it was massive, but actually it looked quite small to me. Perhaps I was expecting too much.
The lady at check-in had told me that the only chance of me getting the window seat I wanted was to sit in the smoking section. I had agreed to this and had received a boarding pass for seat 39A in return. The tartan-clad stewardess now greeted me at the plane entrance, checked my boarding pass and pointed me in the direction of my seat.
Even when I got inside, the plane’s size didn’t really surprise me. My uncle, who had flown on the Jumbo twice, had already explained all about the 10-across seat arrangement and had paced out the width of the 747 on his apartment floor to try to impress me. Now I saw it for real and I was positively underwhelmed.
I stowed my luggage and sat down. The captain came on and told us that the aircraft had a small technical fault and we wouldn’t actually be leaving until about 12:15. He also mentioned that there would be a nice strong wind behind us and we would only be arriving into New York 10 minutes late.
Eventually we taxied out onto the runway and prepared to depart. I found the acceleration before take off simply amazing. Sitting towards the rear of the plane I had a great view of the left wing as it swept us up into the air. The flying sensation was easy to get used to, and soon we were up through the clouds bumping along with very little awareness of speed at all.
I felt quite contented and comfortable. There was a lot more legroom than I had expected. I was handed the menu and after a while I was served lunch. I thought the food was excellent; Scottish smoked salmon starter followed by roast lamb.
Immediately to my right were a middle-aged couple going on holiday to New York. They didn’t seem too talkative. Happily they didn’t smoke until after we had finished meal, and then only two or three times in the flight.
I tried to watch the film “Back to the future” but I wasn’t really interested. I could only see the right hand side of the screen and I found that the ear plugs hurt my ears. I gave up and listened to my Walkman instead.
If I thought the plane was smaller than I expected, I found the toilet quite amazing. I had been used to dinky little train toilets, but the aeroplane version was a lot smaller still.
I dozed off for a while and when I woke up I saw they were serving an afternoon tea. It was quite delicious and was complete with sandwiches, raspberry fool and fruit scones. I ate it whilst filling out my US immigration and customs forms, and was careful not to get jam or clotted cream on those important documents.
As soon as the afternoon tea had been cleared away the pilot announced that we had entered United States airspace and we had begun our descent. I watched, fascinated, as we descended into the cloud, bounced through the cloud and then continued to lose height as Long Island stretched out down below us.
I watched, again fascinated, as the wing started to dramatically change shape as we came in for final approach into JFK International Airport. At 2:20pm, only ten minutes late, the aircraft bumped down onto the tarmac. Just one week shy of my 22nd birthday, I had completed my first flight.
Being near the back I was one of the last off the plane. I followed everyone else down a long corridor brightly lit by fluorescent lights and eventually emerged into a large hall decorated by the United States flag. I got through the immigration process with no problem and then managed to a escape customs check altogether. I walked out into the arrivals hall.
I should explain at this point that although I was embarking on a solo round-the-world adventure, I was not without contacts in the USA. Written on an envelope that was wedged inside my USA guidebook were five names and numbers of friends, or friends of friends, who had agreed to look after me during my first visit to the States.
I had two American friends that I had met at University: Mike in Pittsburgh and Glenn in Albuquerque, I had a contact of my uncle’s for Dallas and another one of my mother’s for Los Angeles. But my first contact was the most important one; it was for Bill and Mary Kowalski.
Mary had been one of my mother’s friend’s growing up in Lancashire in the 1940’s. She had met and married a Polish-American GI, Bill, when he was stationed in the UK during the war. She had become a GI bride and moved to the USA in the late 1940’s. They had settled just outside New York in the New Jersey suburb of East Rutherford and eventually he had bought himself a gas (petrol) station.
Bill and Mary had had two daughters, Kerry and Tanya, who were only a few years older than me. They had all visited us in Blackpool one or two times when I was growing up. They had flown over on Pan Am and had, to me at least, seemed tremendously glamorous; our very own rich Americans.
As I emerged into the arrival’s hall at JFK I managed see Bill and Mary waiting for me near the entrance. I hadn’t seen them since the early 1970’s so we had a bit of a “is that really you?” experience. To me they hadn’t changed much in 12 years, but I had been 10 the last time they had seen me.
The first thing that struck me as we walked across the parking lot to their car was the heat. Not just the heat itself but the thick air and the humidity. It felt heavier and denser than I had ever experienced before.
I was shocked and happily surprised to see that Bill’s car, which looked just like the large American cars I had seen in the films, was air-conditioned. This was indeed a day of firsts: my first flight, and now my first air-conditioned car.
We set off towards New York along the freeway and after about 40 minutes dived into the Queens-Midtown tunnel and then suddenly popped up in the middle of Manhattan. I hadn’t been expecting to see Manhattan quite so soon and the whole experience just blew me away.
We drove across Manhattan crossing the wide avenues that, lined with tall buildings, looked just like canyons. It was an urban landscape I had never experienced before. We drove through busy streets full of taxis and then almost immediately back into another tunnel towards New Jersey.
After another 20 minutes we reached the Rutherford turn off on the Freeway and after a few twists and turn’s we came to Bill and Mary’s large bungalow-type house. It was set in a lovely green suburb. It was a world away from the city we had just passed through. Mary had prepared the spare room for me. I was in the USA, but it felt just like home already.
It was still only 4:30pm, but in the UK it was already 9:30pm of course. I was beginning to feel a little tired. I perked up enough to be introduced to Kerry and Tanya when they came home from work. We sat in the back garden enjoying a few beers, I caught up on what they were doing in their lives and I told them the plan for my trip.
In the evening we went out to the Red Lobster seafood restaurant and I had my first ever lobster tail. Kerry’s Italian boyfriend joined us for the meal and we spent the evening talking about the differences between the UK and the USA. It had been just a few hours but the USA already felt a hell of a lot richer than the UK to me.
Back at the house I tried my best to be polite and stay awake to watch the baseball game between the American league and the national league, but after a very long day I gave in and retired to bed. I fell straight to sleep.