Tag Archives: USA

on the road again

(Post by John Allan, from Bridgetown, Western Australia – March 2021)

It’s 1979 and you’ve just turned 21. You’ve got a bit of cash in your pocket from working and still have your redundancy money from your previous job. Your mate Russ has finished his degree in Psychology, Philosophy, Podiatry or some such thing. What do you do ? Go west young man, go west !

And so, after a month of visiting Russ’ relatives in Vancouver and Vancouver Island and friends in Alberta, we find ourselves on the outskirts of Calgary, LA bound.

With thumbs up these two ‘Jock’ Kerouacs were on the road. Our first two rides took us about 10 miles short of the Canadian/US border so a 3 hour hike was required to get to the border crossing. Nobody walks into the United States especially brazenly down the main highway with rucksacks on their backs. At least we brightened the immigration guys’ day.

Our first night was spent in a wooded area in St Mary, Montana. Nature’s alarm clock were some furry critters throwing nuts at us. Squirrels, chipmunks, ewoks who knows, but it was time to roll up the sleeping bags and look for some sustenance.

One of the greatest institutions in the US of  A is the diner and to quote those scallywag supertrampers “Breakfast In America” is a real treat for a weary wanderer. Many a morn we’d pick the detritus from our hair, brush ourselves down and enter the warm and welcoming world of the fresh fry up.

As you sat down at your table you were presented with a glass of icy water, a cup of coffee and a menu that unfolded like a road map. Eggs any which way – scrambled, poached, sunny side up, dark side of the moon down. Bacon with pancakes and maple syrup and hash browns. Never quite figured out what a hash brown was but gobbled it up anyway. Then off to the rest room for a shite and a shave, back for more coffee and as it was approaching noon, reluctantly back out on the road.

St. Mary (Montana) to Couer D’Alene (Idaho)

One of our longer rides was from a guy called Rick who had all these carpentry tools in the back of his pickup truck. He explained how he had been in the military, honourably discharged for being a conscientious objector (Vietnam I suspect) and had studied carpentry on his GI bill. He took us to his house on a lake – a converted bus – and offered us mint tea as if we were old friends.

I related this encounter with Rick to our next driver who had picked us up assuming we were military with our short haircuts and moustaches. Our host was a Spencer Tracy doppelganger in a suit and hat whose head appeared not to rotate, staring straight ahead as we sedately motored along at 50mph. Just as I was getting to the ‘conshi’ bit of our tale about Rick, Spencer slammed on the brakes and launched into a diatribe about how Jimmy Carter was a commie, how Thatcher would be great for our country and how virtuous the John Birch Society was. (Russ had to explain to me later that the JBS was a far right anti communist organisation – well he did have a degree in Pedagogy !)

Four trees and a piece of cardboard 200 yards from the road was that night’s accommodation.

Red Bluff to Stockton (California)

After drinking too may beers and convincing ourselves there were rattle snakes on the ground, we spent the night in the back of a stationary pickup truck in a car lot.

Our next ride took us about 200 miles to the town of Lodi, San Joaquin County. It must have been almost 40° C and we were desperate for a beer. We stumbled on a hostelry and ordered our drinks. The drinking age in California is 21 so we had to whip out our passports for proof. That perked up the interest of the few locals and they graciously stood us several rounds. I noticed the barman on the phone who then presented us with another 2 beers. “These are from Don. He’ll be here in a minute” Sounded ominous but hey, if the beers keep coming.

A well heeled couple appeared, him with crew cut and gaudy sports jacket and her dripping in jewellery. They greeted us like long lost family which I think they thought they were as they shared the same surname as Russ (but I doubt they had degrees in Philately !) Before we know it we’re having cocktails with their friends at a huge lakeside mansion, going for boat rides and swimming. We were then whisked off to Don’s place with it’s copper bar, tartan carpet and coat of arms. After devouring huge steaks were then tucked into our warm comfy beds.

Next day with my least creased and relatively clean T-shirt on, we were given a personal tour of the Bank of Stockton by it’s president, Don. There we were sitting in the boardroom with all these suits while an anxious looking dusky gentleman was remonstrating with a secretary outside the door.

“Mr Abdul would like to speak to you Don”

“Tell that f**king camel jockey I’m busy with my Scottish friends !”

Then it’s back to Don’s mansion and a dinner party with building company owners, architects and the who’s who of the county with snippets of conversation buzzing about:

“Buy me a Rolls Royce, please, you promised……………”

“Out at my ranch………………..”

and the best one,

“Did you have to learn English to come here ?”

Too much. We have to move on.

“You just picked up a hitcher
A prisoner of the white lines on the freeway”

(Coyote by Joni Mitchell)

John & Russ – USA roadtrip, 1979

school daze

(Post by Andrea Grace Burn of East Yorkshire – February 2021)

Andrea, aged ten, in Virginia.

Born and raised in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the early 1960s, I was on course to to live an all-American, Appalchian, apple-pie life with high school, hot dogs and homecoming queens; catching lightening bugs and eating watermellon on the back porch steps on humid, languid summer evenings and dodging icicles under the eaves that could take your eye out in winter. At the age of ten I knew that I would become a cheerleader with the high school football team, the Virginia Bearcats, and that one day my prom date would ‘look sharp’ in a plaid jacket, tan slacks with a crease, Brylcreem-ed hair and be called Brad.

My older brothers and I had idyllic, secure, happy childhoods with Mom and Dad, Friends, Good Neighbours, School, Church and the Great Outdoors; where we played with our ‘dawg’, climbed trees, skinned our knees and didn’t come home until Mother called, “Suppertime!” Life was good.

A bizarre twist of fate catapulted us into a grey 1930s semi in a cul-de-sac on the edge of the Black Country in Birmingham – Britian’s industrial heartland – in the autumn of 1970; just in time for three-day weeks, a national bread shortage and homework by candlelight. Like Dorothy Gale, I knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore.

On the Trail of The Lonesome Pine: from this, The Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia …
… to this – The Bull Ring Shopping Centre, Birmingham in the Seventies.

I failed the Eleven Plus as soon as we landed and was thus despatched to the God Awful School. Where I came from, money was in decimal units of ten, which made perfect ‘cents’. I sat at my wooden school desk in Maths at the ‘thick’ table faced with counting apparatus in units of twelve; pounds, shillings and pence. It was completely alien – what on earth a Threepenny-Bit? Halfpenny? Farthing? Half-a-crown? Ten-Bob? Two-and-six?

I was an alien in every sense – culturally and linguistically. I also had an exaggerated squint, which didn’t help the kids take to me straight away.

“Oi! What ch’ow lookin’ at Scarbra – me or the f***ing wall? (A regular playground chant as my surname was Scarboro.)

The Brummy accent and local idyioms were confounding, as exemplified by a large boy who farted a lot and sat with one foot under his backside on his classroom chair:

‘Sir! Sir! Can I goo? Can I goo to the toylit? Sir! Oi’m des –p – rit!”’

My mother would have said he was ‘vulgar’, for back in Virginia I was only allowed to use toilet words in the bathroom. If caught short in public, it was referred to in hushed tones as the restroom.

A group of boys with short trousers would regularly form a circle around me in the playground:

“Speak American.”

“I am.”

“Naw yam not – not loike on the tele. Goo on – I dare yer.”

“Who d’yow support?”

“Say what?”

“Who d’yow support?”

“What d’ya mean? My dad supports me.”

“Am yow yampee Bab? Yow know, loike the  Villa”?

“Villa? What’s a Villa?”

 “The Villa football tame!  Villa! Villa! Villa!”

I wondered whether the Villa had cheerleaders?

********

I was an instant hit with the gang of girls who terrorised the Lower School playground and corridors, led by Lisa Wentworth and Cheryl Cross:

“Yam dead, Scarbra!”

“Yea, dead! Yam gunna get it afta school!”

“Why d’ yow sit with yam knees apart? Slag.”

(I’m sure I kept my knees together at all times like my Southern Mama had taught me – and what was that word again?)

“Oi! Teacher’s Pet! Yam a scrubber, yam am!” I ran the gauntlet between lessons, ducking in and out of classroom doorways.

********

Miss Fanshaw, my French teacher, had a terrible time with Form 3B. The kids couldn’t care less about learning French (always useful on the cusp between Halesowen and Dudley). They would stand on their desks throwing rulers, shouting and swearing. Miss Fanshaw had no control over the class and no hope of ever achieving any. Sometimes she refused to enter the classroom at all, as missiles were launched towards the black board.  It became sport to goad her until we could see the veins in her neck bulge in the (vain) hope that one might actually pop. We watched her run along the corridor in tears to fetch the Head Master, who would come down to our form room with his cane. The same boys and girls were hauled out and thrashed daily but it had no effect. These were tough kids, from tough backgrounds who didn’t expect to finish school anyway. To be fair, all I remember of Science was singing the ‘Monster Mash’ around  the Bunsen burner with Caz and Julie,

“I was working in the lab, late one night.”

Andrea, aged 14, at school in Birmingham.

I witnessed a school fight once between Rachel and Jack on our way to Geography in the Fourth Year. They were flirting and playfully pushing each other until Rachel got accidentally pushed down a flight of concrete steps and broke her front tooth; whereupon her mother filed a complaint with the police against Jack and it ended up in the Juvenile Court. I had witnessed the whole thing and was prepared to say that it was not entirely Jack’s fault; they were as bad as each other.

 My statement at the Juvenile Court prevented Jack from being sent to Borstal. His parents held my hand with tears streaming down their faces.  Rachel’s mother sent me to Coventry.  While Dad and I were at the Court House we were evacuated by an IRA bomb threat. Dad was proud of me for “standing up for the truth, justice and the American way”.

“But Dad  – we’re in the West Midlands.”

“What the hell difference does that matter, kid?”

Sitting on the upper deck of the Number Nine bus on the way home, as we swung past the Bull Ring Market and the Rotunda, Dad wiped away tears of pride mingled with relief that we hadn’t been blown up.

Most of the kids at school left at fifteen to work because they could. Jobs were plentiful in Birmingham’s car factories so most of the boys walked straight into apprenticeships, where they donned ovealls over their flares and traded platform shoes for steel-cap boots. Caz and Julie traipsed into typing pools with Farrah Fawcette flicks perfected on their mum’s Carmen Rollers and a hint of Charlie.  I wanted an education and had the audacity to think that I could get one.  I got three O’Levels: two in English and one in History. Well, Dad was a History teacher!

The most impressive thing I learnt at school was that my Spanish teacher was friends with Ralph McTell. And I will never again wear big brown knickers after years of torment from the boys on the hockey pitch:

“Oi Scarbra! Did yow fall in a cow pat or ‘ave yam shat yamself?”

A few years ago I saw a headline splashed across a tabloid newspaper about my old God Awful School; its reputation had finally hit the headlines:

‘SEX, DRUGS AND ALCHOHOL’

… the only thing missing was Rock n’ Roll.

********

Ironically, thirty years later when I was teaching Primary School, I became the Sex Education and Drug Awareness Co-Ordinator. 

Oh yeah – here’s one for the boys in the playground: a few years later, when I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar, I met Villa football player Andy Gray.

Villa! Villa! Villa!

(Copyright: Andrea Burn 27/02.21)