Mar 19, 2010

Going to America

The Mauretania II

Length: 772 feet (235.8 m)
Beam: 89 feet (27.2 m)
Tonnage: 35,738 gross tons
Engines: Steam turbines turning two propellers.
Service speed: 23 knots
Passengers: Originally 1,360 people, reduced to 1,127 people during 1962 overhaul.

Going to America, or, Remembering Myself at Nine

It must have been April, and I was nine, and the only entry I had made in my little red diary, a Christmas gift, said simply: “Going to America”. From what scanty records I have somehow managed to save I can determine we were approved for travel to the United States on March 24, 1952. Then on April 26th my father took 100 pounds from a bank account [probably provided by my grandparents] for travel purposes, and on May 6 we were officially admitted into the country at New York.

Of our departure from England I remember little. A word or phrase caught accidentally in my young mental net. My father mentioning at the railroad station the hammer he had stored within reach, (I now use it) in case he was asked to open the trunk or trunks in which we had packed our meager lives. I think I remember feeding the pigeons in Trafalgar Square in London (I have a picture) though I don’t know whether we spent the night in London (very unlikely) or if we were simply waiting for our train to leave for Southampton. I don’t remember boarding the Mauritania, though I do remember a lot about the ship itself. If it had not been dismantled for scrap in 1965 I think I might even be able to find my way around its decks today, fifty-eight years later. I remember being given two or three of those colouful paper coils, streamers, that I happily and dutifully unfurled as the boat slipped quietly from its English berth. I most likely waved, but to who I can’t imagine. Of our stops in Le Harve, France, and Cork, Ireland, I have no memory. Asleep perhaps. Of the weeklong voyage there is much I remember, but I will keep those memories to myself for the moment.

I don’t remember passing the Statue of Liberty, or docking and disembarking in New York. I vaguely remember my mother and father, my two sisters and myself being driven by my father’s brother, Ronald, up the Hudson River to his apartment in Dobbs Ferry, New York. It’s a little strange, but although this would have been the first time in an automobile, [we may have been driven to the train station in Stourport in a cab] my memories of the ride are questionable. I remember my uncle, as he jockeyed his car back and forth, back and forth into a curbside parking spot saying: “This is where I get my daily exercise”. [Strange the things our minds decide to retain.] My uncle’s apartment was on the second or third floor, perhaps higher, and I remember how I immediately asked my cousin Judy to take me up and down in the elevator, many times. I had never been in an elevator before and thought it very posh, very exciting. After staying a day, perhaps longer, we continued our journey toward Pasadena, California where my father’s parents lived.

I do not remember getting on the train in New York City, nor anything of the trip to Chicago where we changed to another train, the Super Chief. My mother told me years later how a Negro porter (this was 1952) had taken a fancy to us and doted on us the entire way, [this was most probable the Chicago to Pasadena leg of the journey]. Perhaps we were the only children under his charge, or maybe our curious English accents intrigued him, but whatever the reason he apparently took very good care of us during the journey.

My first real memory, after Chicago, is when we stopped in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We got off the train to eat, and stretch our legs but the only thing I remember is the Indians. In my memory they lined the platform, dressed in colourful feathers, shiny beads, silver and turquoise jewelry, the type of dress tourists were expecting, especially those arriving from foreign countries. English boys knew a lot about the American West, all garnered from Hollywood movies and reading western comic books. I was most likely mesmerized by their presence.

So what did my sisters and I do for three, four, or five days on the train? Did we read or colour books? Play “I Spy”? I must have spent considerable time simply looking out the windows, or running up and down the aisles, delighting in the windy and noisy vestibule between cars. Why don’t I remember vast amber fields of grain, or at least newly plowed fields almost as large as England, as we traveled through the Midwest? I can’t recall noticing the deserts of the southwest? I don’t even remember going to the bathroom, or eating, and only once do I have just a hint of memory about walking to the dining car.

My next real memory is of looking out the window at a boulder-strewn, ruddy-coloured mountain side with patches of snow lingering in the shade of large rocks and under the gnarly, widely spaced firs.

I have no other memories until our arrival in Pasadena. I remember the train had slowed and buildings lined each side of the track and then, suddenly, the train was crossing what I later determined was Colorado Boulevard. I got a quick glance down that magical avenue and was astonished at the lines of shiny automobiles and the towering palm trees. Palm trees. Trees I had only read about in books of fantasy, or perhaps seen pictured in a magazine or encyclopedia. Then, just as suddenly the view was blocked by buildings once again until, a moment later, the train arrived at the station in Pasadena, California.

I don’t remember getting off the train, or what must have been the short ride with my grandparents to their home on Hudson Avenue. Had I questioned my parents when they were alive I could have filled in much of my early life, which must now, and forever, remain unknown.

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