Squeeze right for Baltimore
My father’s family came south of the border from the Scottish Highlands, many generations ago. But Dad was educated in Edinburgh establishing a Scottish schools cricket record. He made steel in Yorkshire, supplied Scottish industry and enjoyed many friends north and south of the border. A description of me could be a Yorkshire/Scots mongrel, pro Team GB and Ryder Cup battles.
Several influences created my desire to visit N.America. My elder brother spent university days at MIT Boston and obviously enjoyed himself, the proof being my lovely sister-in-law from New Jersey. At her wedding I met a wonderful man, Stuart Mott, a founder of General Motors.
At school, in cahoots with a couple of chums, we kept defunct makes of motorcycle in a shed down town. I remember a Rudge, Francis Barnet and a Calthorpe. Bought for peanuts and tinkered with endlessly, we celebrated getting something to work with cheap wine. The empties we tried to drop down the funnels of steam engines starting off from the local station.
Playing truant I rode to listen to the one and only Louis Armstrong. I wrote a thesis on the development of jazz and wanted to visit its birthplace New Orleans and follow its northward spread to Chicago.
My parents chose a remarkable pair of godfathers; one invented the Ambler Super Draft, allowing textile machinery to work significantly faster, while the other, became Captain of the S. African cricket team. Geoffrey Ambler, the engineer, indirectly influenced my decision toward a first trip to America. He had joined up with Dad at the birth of the Royal Auxiliary Airforce in the 1920s. Together they were instrumental in organising its success in the North of England and went on weekend flying camps in redundant aircraft (one called a Wapiti). They got up to all sorts, like flying in to London to take girlfriends out to dinner and flying out again in the dead of night, pre air traffic control, radio, radar, runway lights, any aid beyond a compass and the “Mark 1. Eyeball”.
Geoffrey then did pioneer work on airborne landing lights. He became an ADC to the King and rose to the rank of Air Vice Marshal, as far as I know, the only civilian from the RAAF to reach that rank. After the fall of France, the top brass said “Geoffrey, we have a show about to begin on the south coast needing all our regulars. You have Scotland’s air defence to look after, until further notice.” “Right,” said Geoffrey “what are my resources”? “Uugh, sorry old chap, can’t talk more just now, do the best you can”.
So off he went to the Admiral of the Fleet in the northern eyrie of Scapa Flow, Orkney, asking how best to be alerted when the Fleet was in to allow everything available to be concentrated on its defence, for that period. The Admiral gave him short thrift and was not helpful.
Bild 146-1978-043-02 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Geoffrey soon discovered the Germans knew more than he with a high flying long distance Focke-Wolf Condor spotter plane, based in Norway.
In his best gear, he visited the Shetland Isles, commandeered all road rollers and dragooned anybody able to hold a shovel. They built a runway in the far north (still in use by BP at the Sullom Voe oil terminal). I believe he acquired his first Hurricane, a pilot, an early radar set and operator paying wages himself, before bureaucracy caught up with his Appointment.
The radar was rowed out even further north, to a barren rock called Saxa Voord. When the operator got a signal, and flashed a warning there was just time for Biggles to climb to the considerable height needed to reach the Condor and shoot it down. This was done until Jerry gave up coming.
To quote the address at his memorial service years later “.. on the occasion when 609 squadron was being first equipped with Spitfires” Geoffrey found “nobody had flown one”. He went to collect the first machine .. flew it straight back without any training, reading the instruction manual on his knee whilst he was flying ... “he immediately trained himself how to fly and fight the Spitfire properly and then trained all his pilots.”
Dad and Geoffrey used to reminisce fondly about the Americans. I remember their Rule One was never fly too close to the US Navy even when flying an American machine. (Dad flew US Catalinas in the hunt for U-Boats and had learned that US Navy Identity Procedure appeared, on occasion, to be shoot down, then see who they’d got). The two men acquired a taste for motor bikes and Dad had an American despatch rider’s bike. A huge and wonderful machine called an Indian, very much in the Harley Davidson mould and different in many ways to the English machines I fooled about with at school.
Riding the Indian was like sitting in a wonderful springy armchair. At 17, I passed my driving test on the Indian in N. Yorkshire and, at 18, I drove it to Catterick camp to do my mandatory military service. In spare time I serviced the Indian behind a Centurion tank and re-call the pithy precise service manual "...unscrew air filter, slosh in pale of gas, re-fit." I wanted to see the Indian factory, Springfield, Mass and ride round USA.
I became a despatch rider on Royal Enfield 350s and later an officer in charge of road testing Mechanised Transport filing on a report form 406 and add my comments, limited to about 3 words maximum. Thus trying to start a huge Scammel diesel powered recovery truck, which was seldom used, I achieved much spluttering and lots of fumes. I wrote in the box labelled ENGINE, 'missing'. My commanding officer wrote in his box 'Driver to pay'. Poor devil!
My interest was kept warm by the film High Society, with opening song by Louis Armstrong in the bus; he of the amazing gravelly voice.
Then, somewhere in Aldershot, I spied an odd shaped handlebar sticking out of dense stinging nettles. Climbing the fence, I found it attached to a WW1 era motorbike whose Licence plate indicated it had last been on the road in 1927. I acquired this 1915 AJS, for £6 and pushed it up the Mess staircase into my minute bedroom where I took it apart and began to get it into working order. When de-mobbed in 1958, I left the army on the AJS at first light, wearing Dad’s old RAF flying jacket and goggles, like DCI Foyles son in Foyles War. I phut phutted my way toward university life.
On the way, I entered The Bath Club in London. The Porter sniffed at the sight of a dirty young man (there had been repairs on the road). I said I wanted to see a member. He bridled, ill prepared to expose eminent members of an august establishment to the likes of me and asked me to leave. I gave it one last shot, lent toward him and said quietly; “look at your eminent members hats on those pegs; one has a bullet hole through it, (a spark from the steel furnace) please go get the owner. I will ensure we both leave quietly.” He looked where I pointed eyes widening, slunk off and Dad appeared directly.
At Pembroke College Cambridge, opportunity to cross the pond arose with two others. David Richmond was reading medicine and Chris Murray engineering. We planned the trip in 59 and flew to Idlewilde by Air France charter in 1960, hoping to earn enough to pay for a look round. Enroute, we marked cartoons in The New Yorker. Nothing scored much until after free drinks courtesy of the bonny French stewardesses. I re-call an elephant sketch. The big cheeses on top wore disgruntled scowls, clutching their sagging howdah and big game rifles as the mahout tried to pump up a collapsed and crinkled back leg. All of a sudden that was funny.
Then, in the airport, came my first mistake. I lost my wallet and the police started a search. I stood with the Chief on a balcony in case I saw anyone who’d been near me. The force gave up, I thanked them, put on my jacket and found the wallet had slid out of its pocket and was stuck in the neck of the tapered sleeve. I ate a whole heap of humble pie, the Chief muttered about “Limeys” and I congratulated him on an efficient training session.
Someone lent us a flat in Manhattan for a couple of days. Mistake number two. I took a short taxi ride. For some obscure reason I noted the name of the driver whose mugshot was in the cab. I paid and, as he was very quick to drive off, I checked; finding l’d been short changed by $20. I reported this and, on returning to the flat 8 weeks later, was summoned to the local precinct.
“Is this the man ?"
“Did you short change this guy?”
“No, no I never would do …”
BAM! - a heavy cuff landed on the unfortunate cabby’s cheek.
“Yes, yes I short changed him”.
I got my $20 and left feeling sorry for the cab driver. He was so unlucky, my memory is never normally that good.
Back to the start; after seeing the sights, we went to a run-down address in Brooklyn. Those guys speak their own patois and it sounded to me like “Dirty Turd Street”, We acquired a Ford for $50, started by being rammed from behind by what they called a “Strungemobile” (Studebaker).
We proudly set forth, forgetting the old song about “You’ll never get to heaven in an old Ford car …” Sure enough, on a multi, multi, lane highway, under the traffic sign heading this Memoir, our purchase, seized and stopped abruptly. We were in hell not heaven and endured 30 minutes on the edge of a traffic tidal wave, blasted by the air horns of speeding Mack trucks. We had no telephone and little money. I wondered if we should, like those couple of swells, asked out to tea by the Vanderbilts, tramp into town for tea with the Wallace Simpsons.
Then I idly pressed the starter. Amazingly, the engine, having cooled and the battery now energised, gunned into life, albeit with a regular tattoo of hammer noises. We decided one piston had separated from the other 5 and got tapped every revolution of the engine by disconnected parts. Knowing it was death to speed up the engine, we stuck it in Overdrive Top and proceeded with copious clutch slipping.
We got past the staggering Niagra Falls and well into Canada when, with a huge bang, we again stopped in a redundant mechanical heap, outside a garage cum scrap yard. A cheerful Canadian agreed for 20 bucks, not having a “Straight 6”, to swap our engine and install an old V8. He told us the “Dirty Turd” men had put sawdust in the sump to ensure we saw a good oil pressure on the dashboard meter when they “Shopped” us. It is impossible in UK to swap engines and type in 30 mins.
David, we left in Toronto. He tried selling Encyclopaedias then graduated to testing urine samples in a research Lab. Chris and I kept going and worked in a nickel mine, many hours further north. On arrival, that oil pressure meter was saying “0”. We borrowed an Inspection pit and spent our evenings under the Ford. We took the sump off and uncoupled the main bearings. We hand filed metal off each half bearing cap which had the effect of exchanging an over sloppy circle for a less sloppy ellipse, approximately a fit in two places. We filled the system with the stickiest oil “STP” and it worked; well, sort of.
My memory of our work place was a huge underground hole below a vast empty landscape. The main east/west highway went across a frozen lake in winter to save hours of driving time. The nickel ore we mined (used in the production of stainless steel) was packed in old whisky barrels which gave off a marvellous odour. We had several weekend outings. In Kingston Ontario we befriended a family, played quoits, shopped by boat and fell for the girls.
The local mine manager took us to his country “cottage” away from anywhere; it might have been on the moon. He leapt up to see the first Sputnik cross the sky, while we were naughty, altering his cards behind his back. Chris came up with a new Bridge convention the “Smith & Wesson”, slamming his cards down on occasion with an oath saying “mis-deal, one short” I had to follow very quickly and muddle things to avoid a post mortem.
On another occasion I caught a black bass. It towed our boat all over a lake and then broke the gear. The experience hooked me and my love of fishing dated from that moment.
The mine food was plentiful if hardly a la carte. The enormous miners drank Carlsberg black label beer with added salt; quite disgusting. One gave me a lift in an old Chevvy. The clutch had long since packed in. He shoved the stationary car in gear with engine running and we lurched away. Our Ford, was totally different from UK cars. Enormous, with everything fitted as Standard while, in UK, a heater, radio, fog lights, overdrive, all those things, were optional extras in those days.
Work experience complete, we picked up David and set about the considerable drive to New Orleans; following in reverse the migration path of the original jazz greats who, came north to Chicago, in Mississippi river boat bands.
At the US border Chris’s bag of oranges was refused entry, some weevil problem. But he secured the option of peeling them all (lesser of two weevils) and off we went. (No Ash disease in UK if we had had such controls!!). We slept in that huge car. I remember outside a Chicago night club, finding a kindly guy had left us milk beside the rear wheels.
In St Louis, hard by the Mississippi, we began the evening by attending a classical concert conducted by a world famous conductor. The legend raised his baton and then, in the silence, a bunch of seats rose like popping guns as a late comer made his way down a row. The conductor drooped. There was silence and he tried again. This time the guy shattered the moment by opening his popcorn with a bang. The Maestro stormed out. There was going to be a lynching but, M. Popcorn was ejected and the Mastro finally returned. The rest of the packed auditorium stopped breathing for an age. Then suddenly he was off with a wonderful performance of Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony.
After that excitement we resumed our routine with another jazz nightclub. The drummer sat in the corner of two walls and could throw his sticks over his head. They banged the wall in time and he caught them on the rebound; very different but magic nevertheless.
We eventually got to the levees of New Orleans where we were summarily pulled out of the car and spread eagled against it by cops one of whom queried his buddy “Is he clean?” We dived into all those streets vibrating with jazz and more. I remember Al Hirt’s band. My education continued with a near naked lady strip dancing on a bar top. Two propellers turned on her bosom. With practiced contortions, she feathered one prop and re-started it backwards while the other continued as before. My eyeballs windmilled, I was riveted. The Air Marshall would have been riveted too.
Halfway back to NY we realised the car was soon for the grave. We sold it in Chattanooga at an “Eat all you want for a dollar” chicken bar. We made Plan B and drew straws. One ticket on the Greyhound Bus fell to David. Chris elected to thumb lifts and I decided to go to the end of the longest platform and try to hobo a Chattannooga choo choo. I took up my post and waited for the sun to go down.
Two white drunks joined me. They produced guns, said they were going to shoot themselves a hobo, would I like to come along? I didn’t enjoy the next few minutes but mercifully they weaved off. Half an hour later a live hobo freight jumper came across the tracks and asked me about them; he’d clearly been watching. Then he helped me. He gave me two bits of wire and we set off into the marshalling yards. He opened the side of a Box Car and told me the freight train being assembled would leave for the north around 11pm but this car would remain empty. Just in case of trouble, I was to wire myself in and, should anyone try to slide open one side, I was to slip out the other side.
It was a wonderful trip. I found a small door at the end of the wagon which allowed me to sit out over the couplings or climb up a ladder and sit on the roof. The lead engine of several had a searchlight that swivelled side to side and the eerie distinctive horn went off continually as the massive miles long ensemble ground its way over the Appalachian mountains. In the early hours it got very cold. I practised sprint starts and fiery cricketer Fred Truemans run up to the wicket, both to keep the blood flowing.
A few days later, I handed my dollars to my Cambridge bank. Nickel mine pay had covered all leaving me in pocket to the tune of an old Ford car. Not trusting my wallet again, I had my money in my shoes. Some had been there for weeks. The banker wrinkled his aquiline nose and wondered aloud about the disgusting paper some countries printed their money on these days. I probably put him off cheese for weeks.
Thinking back, we encountered wonderful hospitality and kindness, if blunt to a point. A Toronto man, only briefly met, lent us his flat for a weekend. “Do as you will”, he said, “just don’t mess the sheets”. He was job hunting, punching above his weight. He would research a firm, hire shirt, tie, suit, car, chauffeur, briefcase and stop out front of the head office at the CEO’s parking slot, to ensure the rig was quickly noticed. Time was of the essence and the hire over as soon as he was again out of sight. I hope he’s running a multi million dollar business, he had the balls and the eccentric drive.
In N. America it is possible to buy a plot, design a house and receive planning permission to build, within a month. We don’t understand how that can be and they don’t understand why things take us so long. UK (DVLA) has lost my driving licence for motor cycles. To them that’s not possible, I cannot have passed the Driving Test my family remember. Something wrong in our national mind set, if the first step is to doubt the individual.
UK Tax law has mushroomed so collection cost has mushroomed. I had to do one Tax exam on Evasion v Avoidance and remember a tome called “Potter” of so many pages it was best transported with both arms. “Concise Potter” was still too dense. “Potters Potted Potter,” was the limit of my little grey cells and I grappled with it in the bath, big toe controlling the hot tap.
One day Nick Faldo came to try his luck salmon fishing here. Conditions were poor. He caught and saw nothing until he reeled in, when a salmon leapt at his feet. That’s angling, a great leveller but fishermen understand. Nick told me that, if he had a bad round of golf in UK, the papers were apt to splash headlines like “He’s Gone, I told you so”. In America, if someone shook his hand and he said “but I’ve just had a lousy round”, the response was likely to be “we all have those but you are a legend and I am so proud to meet you”.
In N.America, they don’t knock people so quickly and there does not appear to be so much envy about wealth. People accept that few make it, lots depend on it, politicians borrow it, and spend it, not always wisely. I doubt Americans would allow them to sell the nations gold or raid company pension plans or try a “Nick Leeson” gamble, to spend their way out of their own financial hole.
I asked my “MIT” brother how Americans would counter the irritating argument from ditherers that 'Boris island' in the Thames estuary for a new London airport might indeed be a good idea but we now have no time left to do it. He replied “Nonsense, float the first runway quickly like an aircraft carrier”. If people dithered to Churchill he stuck a yellow sticker on them “ACTION THIS DAY”. Apart from being half American, they liked him in N.America as they are essentially 'Doers', eschewing negative argument, from 'non-engineers'.
What did the ladies think of our 1960 working holiday? Did we shave? How much luggage? Did we fraternise with local girls? What did we look like in those days? Was I frightened by the two drunks? Yes to the last but, for the rest, I really cannot say much. I obviously had a jacket when I started and would have been issued with overalls at the mine. I don’t think we took a camera and probably just had a spare drip dry shirt.
Chris, sadly no longer with us, looked and was big. He played golf at university level hitting the ball harder than anyone l’ve known.
Armed with an Arnold Palmer driver he fancied reaching short Par 4s from the Tee.
David was a very good tennis and squash player. I could beat lots of people at squash, as long as I won 3-0, otherwise I plum ran out of puff. I obviously enjoyed the girl with the propellers. Anyway, we three undergraduates never had serious cross words with anyone. We saw the New World from the roots, a greatly enjoyable and valuable experience.
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