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Casual Acquaintance

 

It began on a beautiful sunny afternoon in early September 1950.  

 

"God was in His Heaven and all was right with the world."

 

The quiet steady beat of my trusty Triumph Thunderbird was reassuring as I banked this way and that around the curves of the hilly Scottish Perthshire road. The heather was in full bloom and covered the hills with shades of greens, browns and purples. Cotton wool clouds drifted in the clear blue sky that caused light and dark shadows to move across the hills. My fishing rod was slung across my back as was my bag that held some fine fat trout. It was one of those absolutely beautiful idyllic days in early September. I was minding my own business and doing my own thing.

 

I rounded a curve and came upon an elderly couple whose car obviously had a flat tire. It appeared that they were having trouble with the jack. I stopped and did my boy scout deed.

  

Little did I realize that in addition to the car I was setting wheels in motion that would change my entire life.

 

After getting the tire changed and the jack stowed away we sat by the side of the road to admire the view and exchange a little about each other. They were Americans who were in their 70's and lived in a small town near Seattle in the Pacific Northwest State of Washington. This was their first trip out of the USA. They were on a mission to find their roots and the home places of their Scottish ancestors. I told them who I was, where I was born and a little about the beautiful little village of Earlsferry where I lived. After about a half hour we went our ways.

 

At Christmas time a letter with my name and only Earlsferry, Scotland for an address found its way into our letter box. It was a Christmas card from my American friends with words of thanks for helping them and the best wishes of the season. The envelope had their address so I sent them a similar card back. For two more Christmases the same thing happened. No correspondence, just the wishes of the Christmas season. Then in April of 1953 a letter arrived from them.  "We would like to sponsor you to come to the United States to make your life here.  We have a guest cottage that you're welcome to use for as long as you want. We will assist you in all ways possible as you settle in the USA." Wow! as my life at this time was in somewhat of a turmoil I gave this unexpected offer serious consideration. At that time, my place of employment was The English Electric Company in Stafford England but leaving Scotland was the last thing I ever wanted to do.  Earlsferry and Scotland was it for me. I had absolutely no desire to go or be anywhere else.  I finally answered, thank you very much, but, no. They didn't reply.  Christmas again came and another card arrived and I returned one back.

 

In April 1954 a second letter arrived with, again, "Our offer is still open. If you don't come to stay we'd like you to come to visit."  I thought about it again then responded, "Thank you very much but, again,  no."

 

The products that we designed and manufactured at The English Electric plant in Stafford were precision electrical instrumentation and huge turbo alternators such as are installed at very large  hydro-electric dams for the generation of electricity.

 

It was a day in June.  Rather than leave the plant in the middle of the day I always carried a brown bag lunch. On this particular day the plant was stiflingly hot. Rather than eat inside I decided to discard my bag and go out for lunch to quite a pleasant little restaurant that was just down the street.

 

As I walked out of the plant I had to step aside to allow a huge truck to exit the gate. On the truck was one of our completely assembled alternators which was roped down and covered with a heavy tarpaulin. A large placard attached to the side declared, Another Product of English Electric. Destination, Seattle, Washington, USA. I looked at that sign, and I looked at that sign and I looked at that sign.  It seemed like an omen. Right next door to the restaurant I was going to was a travel agent. I forgot about lunch.

 

The travel agent informed me as to a big problem in visiting the USA at that time, namely money. Britain was still paying down its World War II Lend/Lease debt to the United States and severe currency restrictions were in place as to the frivolous spending of Britain's balance of payments and it's stockpile of dollars. At that time in order to visit the USA the cost of the round trip had to be paid for in Pounds before leaving and a total of 10 Pounds to convert into Dollars was all the money that was being allocated for non essential visiting expenses.  Essentially, at that time, as a visitor, all of ones expenses within the United States had to be paid for by American friends. The travel agent suggested an alternative. Unlike other European countries the annual British quota of immigrants who wished to live in the USA was never filled.  If one went with Immigration status then the British Government, at that time, would allow the immigrant to take the dollar equivalent of 200 pounds per year for each of 4 years out of the country.

 

It would take Britain 60 years, until December the 24th 2006, to make the last and final payment to the USA for its 5 years, 1940 to 1945, World War II incurred war debt.

 

Next thing was a visit to meet with the United States Consul in Liverpool. After hearing my story and the problem of money, the Consul looked me straight in the eye and said, "I would like you to come to the USA and to make the USA your home. You can always keep your Scottish status and have dual nationality." With the Consul in agreement I elected to have 200 pounds converted into Dollars. (times 4.8)  I stated that I could easily earn the dollars within the USA to replace those that I'd spend. Besides mechanical know-how I had other tremendous assets; health, skills, a gold mine between my ears, empathy and a good Earlsferry Scottish tongue in my head. Added to all of that and in my favor I had the well earned good reputations of the thousands of Scottish  men and women of integrity who had gone before me.  I was well equipped. I would pull my weight. I would be an asset to the USA. 

 

 

Me in 1954 when I was 28.

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 My brother, Noel, took, developed and printed this photo of me that I used to get my British passport. 

The backdrop is the harled outside wall of our Earlsferry home. 

 

At short notice the travel agent booked a one way passage for me to the USA and I wrote my friends that I was coming but only to stay with them for a short time. The ship I was booked on was the 20,000 ton Greek liner, The T.S.S. Neptunia, which would be sailing from Southampton on the 17th of August for New York, with stops at Le Havre in France and Cobh in Ireland.

 

 

My friends at English Electric threw a surprise going away party for me and the next day I returned to Earlsferry. I spent three days visiting my favorite places in and around the village then set out on my Triumph on a two week trip going up and around the north of Scotland then down the west coast. Seven of these idyllic days I spent living with salmon fishers in their thatched cottage on the shores of  Cuil Bay, in Loch Linnhe, Appin, in the County of Argyll. Somehow I had a premonition that it was going to be quite some time before I'd get back. The salmon fishermen had heard and seen me crunching  along the shingle of the shoreline and came out of their cottage to greet me. After I explained to them what I was doing and the journey that I was about to undertake they invited me to stay for a time with them. Each day I helped to row the cobble as we tended and emptied the salmon nets. After packaging the salmon we rowed the cobble with the salmon across the bay then loaded the packaged fish into the guards van of the 4 o'clock to Edinburgh train.  By daylight next morning these salmon would be on the work counters of London's hotel chefs.  It was hard to leave the wonderful men who had befriended me but when I did they lengthwise  wrapped a just caught salmon in sheilisters (long wild iris leaves) that grew by their door and laced the leaves over with net mending twine to form a mummy like protective enclosure. Lastly they  attached a sprig of purple heather and gave the packaged fish to me as a farewell gift. The eyes of these fine west highland men were as teary as mine as we said our goodbyes and I moved on.

I left on the last leg of my journey to return home. Like Earlsferry this idyllic place in future years would draw me back. 

 

My English Electric Surprise Going Away Party

I'm the only one without a jacket and tie, back row, center.

 

 Tranquil Earlsferry at high tide.

 

 

1954. Salmon Fisher's Cottage. Cuil Bay, Loch Linnhe, Appin, Argyll.

Note the sheilisters.

 

Finally the day came for me to leave home. All of my possessions that I left with to venture out into the great big world fitted into one hand bag. A change of clothes, an extra pair of shoes, a sprig of wild purple heather that grew by the salmon fisher's cottage, (which I still have) a few tiny pink cowrie shells from my Earlsferry beach  and a book that I was in the middle of reading, by Maurice Walsh, "The key above the door." A simple love story with a setting in the heather clad Scottish highlands.  What was I doing? It seemed like an invisible force was propelling me.  The last thing I did before I left my Earlsferry home was to take some small but prized possessions that I could not take with me to the grassy knoll atop the Croupie Rock at the cliffs where I dug a hole and buried them. In case I didn't get back to my favorite lookout perch something of me would stay there forever.

 

My mother gave me one last hug. With misty eyes and in a soft spoken whisper she said, "The Lord will take care of you." As I moved away she tucked something into my shirt pocket. I was to find that it was a limpet shell from our beach and a small New Testament. Pasted inside the front cover of the little book was a picture that my brother Noel had taken of her holding a rose from her garden and a place mark card which had a picture of Jesus holding a lamb as he tended his flock of sheep and with the words from the Book of Genesis, 

 

"In the beginning God made the Heavens and the Earth."

 

 

And so I set out from Earlsferry on my what was then quite a journey.

 

The cabin that I was to share with others was down in the bottom of the ship, right by the propeller shaft. After stowing my bag there was but 10 minutes until casting-off time. I made my way up on deck and joined all the others who were lining the side rails. Then it hit me. What madness had come over me to place me where I was? What was I doing? My eyes misted over and I could no longer see the pier. I made a wild dash for the gangplank to get off the ship before it was too late. When I got there the ships crew had just thrown ashore the last of the mooring lines and the ship was edging away from the dockside. The gap was more than I could jump. The die was cast.

 

The ship's schedule was to go to Le Havre in France to pick up more passengers then go on to Cobh in Ireland to do the same thing. The only thing I remember of going to France and to Ireland is of standing by the railing near the stern of the ship with quivering lips and tears in my eyes as I watched the wake of the ship fade into the distance behind. 

 

After Cobh the ship set out in earnest for the Atlantic Crossing. Ahead lay America and a big unknown.

 

In no time I made the acquaintance of three young lady school teachers who were in the next cabin. Their thread of togetherness was the years they had studied together at Hiram College in the State of Ohio. They had spent their entire summer in Europe and were now heading back to the US to go their own separate ways. They had first landed in Southampton, England where they bought three speed Raleigh bicycles.  With these they traveled around the south of England then on to France, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Italy. Occasionally they put their bikes on to trains with them. They seemed to be charmed by my Earlsferry accent and insisted that I keep talking and telling them about Scotland. They invited me to spend the nights of the crossing with them. This happy adventurous threesome suggested that since the weather was clear and calm that we each take a blanket and spend our nights in deck-chairs on the topmost deck instead of in our stuffy cabins by the noisy, out of balance, propeller shaft.  Each night we eventually fell asleep as we watched Polaris  conduct his symphony of the stars as the earth rotated to cause the great constellations to do their apparent grand dance across the heavens.  By day my favorite place to go was right up on the forward bow  of the ship, which really was an off-limits place, where I would stand on the railing and "fly".  (As Leonardo also did in Titanic)  What a sensation it was to step up and balance on the bow railing of the ship as I  hung on to the rigging  with my knees, my arms straight out like wings and the throbbing ship forging ahead with the stem below me cutting the waves and all that was out in front was the horizon.   

 

And of course, being of a mechanical bent, I had to find my way down to the engine room to check on the inner workings of the coal fired boiler steam engine. (It was a vertical triple expansion.)

 

On the crossing I met several influential business people and in no time I had a handful of business cards and  offers of a number of interesting, demanding and responsible jobs. I was also invited to their homes. One family from New York insisted that I spend  at least a week with them before I headed west. They went to great lengths in taking me to see the wonders of the city including the top of the Empire State Building, a show by The Rockettes in the Radio City Music Hall and dinner as the guest of Joe Louis, the boxer, at his restaurant to name a few.

 

Eventually on the evening of August 26th the Neptunia made its way up the Hudson River to anchor for the night at Hoboken, New Jersey, right opposite the Statue of Liberty. The word quickly spread throughout the ship; There she is, The Statue of Liberty, the symbol of free people.   Evening turned to dusk and the lights came on. No one went to bed that night. The ship took a definite list as everyone on board huddled together, awed and mesmerized, by the inspiring and  magnificent sight of the Lady with the light in the darkness. 

 

 

On the ship were a number of European immigrants who for years must have been thinking about going to America to begin a new life.  Many were so overcome with The Statue and the final realization that they had arrived that  emotional sobbing was heard all night.

 

On the morning of the 27th of August 1954 I stepped ashore. The first thing I saw was a man with a broom sweeping the sidewalk. As he swept he was smoking a huge fat cigar.

 

Then, it was true what I'd heard.

 

The streets of New York must indeed be paved with gold.

 

And so I set out to hitch-hike my way to the Pacific Coast another good 3,000 or more miles away.    I saw a bill-board that said, "Go west young man, go west."

 

No looking back now.  You never know where life will lead you.  Adventures lay ahead. And did they ever.

 

"There is a tide in the affairs of men-------------."