Pictured above is our daughter, Tara Patten, as Queen of the World on the upper deck of the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California in 2012.
It was with a sense of impending doom that I left Africa over half a century ago on October 11th 1963. Yet I was comforted by the fact that the sad future, which I foresaw for that huge continent, would not hurt me personally and that two great adventures lay immediately ahead for me. Firstly, I was to spend two months traveling all over the USA. Then, at the start of 1964, I was to join an old established London law firm as a partner.
I had qualified as a lawyer in London in 1959, after which I continued to work for the firm which had trained me since I was fifteen years old. I left them in the summer of 1961, when I was hired as a legal adviser by a major bank in Lagos, Nigeria. I lived and worked in Nigeria for over two years before resigning from the bank.
For a twenty-three year old, and as was normal in the twilight of the colonial era, I was very highly paid by the bank which provided me with rather grand living accommodation in Lagos and with several servants. As an attorney in England, I had practiced law as a solicitor, but in Nigeria I was called to the bar and became both a barrister and solicitor there. I was sworn in as such by the Chief Justice of Nigeria with a white wig perched precariously on my head. I was able to save enough during my time with the bank to finance my US travels and to buy real estate on my eventual return to London. I had decided that my future did not lie in Africa, where Nigeria ran into difficulty even sooner after my departure than I had expected.
Within three years, a conflict between different tribes had erupted. This civil war is now known to history as “the Biafran War”, during the course of which Lagos suffered air raids. Having survived intense bombing from the air as a small boy in London during World War II, I did not need a tropical repeat twenty years later, so my African departure was indeed well timed. It is one of the many instances where I have been lucky in life.
I walked the deck of the cargo ship that was to take me to Savannah, Georgia, as I contemplated the fate awaiting Africa. The vessel had been moored in Apapa, a port in Lagos harbor, while it took its cargo aboard. The crew was American and I was the only passenger.
As I departed, I feared for the future of the individual African for whom I had developed a great affection. I had spent long enough In Africa to know that these people would never be able to operate functioning democracies. African societies lacked the institutions and the cultural level which would have made democracy possible. It had taken white people many centuries to learn about the rule of law. In the late 19th century, the European powers had conquered Africa and had divided it up among themselves. They had then ruled their respective colonies. The colonial era brought stability because of the rule of law.
During those years, the individual African lived in safety, used a reliable currency and had limited access to food, education and healthcare. He enjoyed a much lower standard of living than the Europeans working in the colony and the system was deeply racist.
Yet the individual African was far better off in many ways than either before or after the colonial era, while the Europeans were blessed with a privileged lifestyle in a world that was fading away. That was because, in 1963, the colonial era was ending. Colonies were becoming independent countries and power was being turned over to local African politicians.
I take no pleasure in having foreseen the lawlessness and mass murder and corruption and poverty which has plagued the continent ever since. Indeed, the disaster has been worse than I expected because of the AIDS epidemic, something I could never have foreseen. I have since made brief business trips, to Lagos in 1970 and to Sierra Leone in 1983, and they have confirmed my view that Africa is now no place for a white man to live or to vacation.
Premature self rule was forced upon the colonies by the USA, which hated colonialism and which at that time had the power to impose its will upon European countries weakened by World War II. The well intentioned naivety of the US government is responsible for the disaster that is Africa today. Sadly, the US government has learned nothing from its African mistakes, as its recent democracy building efforts in Iraq, Egypt, Gaza and Afghanistan presently demonstrate.
I had been honored in Lagos by parties with my friends and colleagues prior to my departure, including by a reception at the bank, but I was alone as the ship cast off and headed for the open sea. I therefore retreated to my cabin, which was a splendid room full of polished brass and wood. I saw Nigeria turn into a distant blur on the horizon and then thought about dinner. As the only passenger, I was to take my place in the officers’ mess for all my meals. They seemed happy to have someone new to talk to. I was unused to the African Americans, clearly ex-military, who waited upon us, but I was impressed at how sophisticated they were, compared to the Africans with whom I had lived and worked back in Lagos. The cargo that the vessel had loaded aboard in Lagos was agricultural.
Before crossing the Atlantic Ocean, we needed to put into three other African ports in order to load similar cargo. Those ports were Takoradi in Ghana, Abidjan (the capital of the Ivory Coast) and Monrovia (the capital of Liberia).
At Takoradi, the captain of the ship, who was not much older than I, went ashore with me. We were on our own. We inspected, Fort orange, an old Dutch fort and there was a nice beach. Takoradi was and is Ghana’s premier deep water port.
Throughout my trip, I would send postcards to my parents, (which were returned to me years later). I have kept them all and have inserted them in the appropriate places throughout this post (both front and back).
The monkey (seen below) was the first one to be sent home from Abidjan in the Ivory Coast. I felt a particular affinity to him, as he reminded me of a certain family member who always seemed to have the same grumpy expression and who will remain unnamed. My parents kept a map on the wall and would insert a pin with the arrival of each card marking my many stops along the way. I’ve tried to duplicate that map as can be seen above.
Abidjan was a fine French city with wide boulevards and architecture which would not have been out of place in Paris. I enjoyed visiting the city, where the Ivory Coast had just gained its independence from France. Here’s the link to another post on this blog I wrote about our trip to Paris, France.
Before leaving, the French had installed its own choice as president of the new country. As an African dictator, he became a benevolent despot and ruled reasonably well for over thirty years. When it came to giving independence, the French were much smarter than the British. The French held elections while a colony was still under their control, put into office their own choice of president and left a battalion of French paratroopers to support him. On the other hand, the British simply allowed the most effective rabble rouser among the local politicians to seize power on their departure. Naturally, the former British colonies soon became politically unstable and were plagued by repeated coup d’etats and military takeovers. The former French colonies were more stable and The Ivory Coast was a good example of that.
It was October 19th 1963 when the ship made its final African stop at Monrovia, Liberia. This city was a slum, compared with the rest of Africa and there was a reason for that. Liberia was almost the only part of Africa that had never been colonized by Europeans. It had been settled in 1830 by freed slaves from North America, who had already combined with the local Africans to produce the kind of corrupt and lawless hell hole that the rest of Africa would develop into over the next half century.
I went ashore there very briefly and was thankful to get back on board ship. Monrovia had been named after James Monroe, the fifth president of the United States and the creator of the famous Monroe doctrine. Monroe had played a large part in setting up the new country. It took its name from the word “liberty”, which had long been absent from that country in 1963. The current president was a monster of a kind that would soon be seen in other parts of the continent. It simply happened here first.
We left Monrovia and at last I was at sea on the way to America. I saw no hurricanes and the surface of the sea was placid as I ran around the empty deck each morning. The ship docked in Savannah, Georgia on October 30th 1963, which meant that we had been at sea for 11 days.
I had already obtained a Visa from the US Embassy in Lagos permitting me to enter the country but, despite that, I was closely questioned by the immigration authorities in Savannah. In those days, America cared about what aliens it was admitting to its country. Finally my British passport was stamped with permission allowing me to remain in the country only until December 20th 1963 and no longer.
In my British passport, my occupation was listed as “Solicitor of the Supreme Court”, because that was exactly the kind of English lawyer I was. The immigration people in Savannah, who were all good old boys from the Deep South, seized on this. “We hate the Supreme Court down here”, they told me. In 1963, recent rulings on desegregation by the US Supreme Court were highly unpopular in the south. I quickly explained that the Supreme Court with which I was connected was a quite different one and that Britain had been very sympathetic to the Confederacy during the US Civil War. They asked me if I was talking about the War of Northern Aggression before sending me on my way.
I trudged into downtown Savannah, weighed down by my single suitcase. In those days, they had yet to come up with the bright idea of putting wheels on suitcases. Even in October, it was too humid for me as I searched for The Greyhound Bus Station.
I was the proud possessor of a $99 ticket which would allow me to travel by bus anywhere in the United States during the next 99 days. I paid no attention to Savannah, which is an old city full of Georgian architecture. I had not come to America to see what I was used to seeing in Europe. I wanted new experiences, such as seeing my first skyscraper. In 1963, the height of buildings in London was limited to 100 feet, so a skyscraper was entirely foreign to me. The rule in London was that every floor of every building should be accessible by way of a fireman’s ladder.
On this visit, I was a fool to ignore Savannah and the romantic story of how General James Oglethorpe built it, when he arrived from England in 1732. Fortunately, I have been blessed by several opportunities in later life to visit Savannah and l have since written about the city at length on this blog. Yet, had you told me then that I would one day be blogging, I would not have understood you and it would have made me fear the future.
I eventually found the Greyhound bus station and inspected my first Greyhound bus, equipped with something called “a restroom”. The phrase was new to me and made me giggle. At that time, the station and the bus were clean and smart, as were my fellow passengers. Towards the end of the 20th century, these stations and buses tended to attract vagrants and a generally scruffy clientele. It was certainly not like that in 1963. As I write this in the year 2017, I am pleased to see that bus travel in the US is making something of a comeback. It really is a cheap and pleasant way to travel, compared to travel by rail and air.
I hesitantly allowed the driver to take my precious suitcase and to store it in the belly of the bus. I tried out the restroom and was most impressed with its workings. I found a comfortable seat and settled back to admire the landscape of Georgia, as the bus headed inland from Savannah to Atlanta.
Funding for the building of an interstate highway system had been authorized by President Eisenhower in the 1950s. It was one of the achievements of his presidency of which he was most proud.
By 1963, much of the system had been or was being built. While I was grateful that such good roads enabled me to travel over 10,000 miles around the United States within a few weeks as planned, I soon found the scenery to be rather boring. There was nothing to see. As I intended to travel hundreds of miles daily, this presented a problem. I could converse with my fellow passengers, always eager to make friends at the slightest hint of a British accent. Indeed, Americans were so kind and welcoming towards me that it was hard to remember that there was not, within a radius of thousands of miles, a single person who even knew me. Who would have helped me in an emergency? Fortunately, I never needed to discover, because I never became ill or lost my money during my travels.
Then I solved the problem of boredom. I quickly realized that these buses traveled throughout the night and that the seats on the bus were comfortable enough to sleep in. Thus, for the next few weeks, I slept at night as I traveled through such emptiness as West Texas and the cornfields of Kansas.
On the other hand, when travelling through the Rockies or the Pacific Highway from San Francisco to Los Angeles, I made sure to travel by day and to see everything. This strategy left me with extra cash, since I had budgeted to stay in a hotel every night. I spent the extra cash by ensuring that, whenever I did sleep in a hotel, it was a really good one.
In 1963, a British pound could be exchanged for US $2.80. That was not as good as the US $4 rate that applied at the end of World War Ii, but it was a lot better than what followed. Today, the rate is around US $1.30 and falling. I had been paid in Nigeria in British pounds, so I was comfortable with my finances during my American odyssey.
There were skyscrapers in the distance, the first that I had ever seen. We were arriving in Atlanta, then as now the premier city in the south eastern United States. Every Fortune 500 company has an office in Atlanta, which was and is that important.
Although I could not imagine it at that time, it was a city that would become hugely important in my own life. My eldest child would marry and obtain her PhD in Atlanta. My first two grandchildren would be born there. My younger children would attend high school there. I would one day have my hip replaced there, surgery unheard of in 1963. One of my children still lives there. Yet these people, as yet unborn, and this surgery as yet not perfected, were not on my mind as I scrambled off the bus and went to explore Atlanta. I went shopping and was pleased with US prices. Wages were so much higher than in Europe that I feared that prices would be higher too. They were not. Indeed, certain items such as clothing were much cheaper than in Europe.
I was working to an immovable deadline. I simply had to board the transatlantic liner, The Queen Mary, in New York City on December 13th 1963 when it was sailing to England. That day was the 14th birthday of the girl with whom, later in life and unknown to me then, I was to enjoy a long and happy marriage.
For me, that date was set in stone and could not be altered. This meant that, if I was to see as much of America as I hoped, I could not dawdle in Atlanta or anywhere else. I had to push on, so I took the bus to Chattanooga, Tennessee. This city was little more than 100 miles northwest of Atlanta, just over the Georgia state line, and was very famous in England for a most peculiar reason.
During the dark days of World War Two, we kept our spirits up in bombed out London by singing a cheerful new song from America entitled “Chattanooga Choo-Choo”. It was performed by the Glenn Miller orchestra using its big band sound, as seen in video above. It made Chattanooga seem cool. Thus, as the bus pulled in, l felt that I was arriving at a familiar and happy place rather than at a strange city.
I became even more at home, when I saw that the skyline was dominated by a high rise building topped with the letters “Hotel Patten”. Could I get a free room there by claiming to be the owner’s long lost cousin from England? I had already decided that Americans were much more credulous than Europeans. They would believe anything! However, I finally decided not to try it on and instead spent that night asleep on the bus as it headed towards St Louis, Missouri.
Standing on the western bank of the great Mississippi River, St Louis was in the 19th century one of the largest cities in America. They even held the Olympics there in 1904.
At the time of my visit however, there were dozens of larger US cities. The locals had just started building what they claimed would be the world’s largest arch. Nobody could tell me why it was needed. Little progress had been made and there was not much to see, but it was completed within two or three years.
I went to the main court building in St Louis, since I wanted to see the US trial system at work. I saw few trials, but instead made friends with several local lawyers of my own age, who took me on several tours of the best local bars. They teased me about the British habit of wearing white wigs in court. They were very proud of the fact that the city took its name from King Louis of France, so I decided to tease them in return. I told them that the whole world outside the United States believed that the city was named after “Satchmo” – the trumpeter Louis Armstrong.
They decided to teach me a lesson and served me with a court order requiring me to report to the chambers of a local judge, who was one of their buddies. I did so and His Honor lectured me for an hour or two on world politics. Then he told me all about Miranda, a rapist from Arizona who had just been sent to jail for several decades on the strength of his confession, obtained by police interrogation, before which he had not been advised of his right to counsel nor of his right to remain silent. Miranda‘s appeal against conviction was making its way to the US Supreme Court at that very moment. It was a matter of great interest to attorneys across the nation. How did we handle such matters in England? When I began to explain, His Honor stopped me. The local bar association were meeting tomorrow night, he said. I must attend that meeting and tell them all about it. I did so and, if the Q & A session afterwards was any indication, my lecture was a great success. His Honor was very pleased with my performance. He then told the meeting that I would be attending next time to talk about the operation of England’s legal aid system.
In those days, US legal aid was limited to serious criminal cases only, but in England it was available for most civil cases also. How did that work? Our guest from across the pond will be here to tell us. This judicial pronouncement was met with a ripple of applause and I made my exit. I checked out of my hotel at once and kept going until I reached the bus station, where I flung myself onto a bus headed for Denver, Colorado. I figured that His Honor’s jurisdiction was limited to the great state of Missouri and did not extend into the Rocky Mountains.
I never returned for a repeat performance but, every time I hear a mention during a TV legal thriller of the defendant’s Miranda rights, I feel uneasy. Are there a bunch of lawyers in St Louis still patiently hoping that their speaker will re-appear? Is there an ancient Missouri judge, furiously signing court orders that apply to me? At that time, I never expected to return to the US and thought that I could safely escape.
On the bus, I had a lengthy sleep during which we traveled through Kansas City, home of that girl in her early teens whom I have mentioned above. I did not even notice her hometown, nor did I pay any attention to the hundreds of miles of cornfields that occupied the state of Kansas. However, I took more notice as high mountains appeared in the distance.
We were approaching the Rockies and, in particular, the state capital of Colorado which is the city of Denver. It’s nicknamed “the Mile High City”, because the State Capitol building stands exactly 5,200 feet above sea level.
I arrived there on November 6th 1963 and spent three days there.
All I can recall at this distance of time is enjoying a tour of the US Mint, already over a century old even then. The scenery on the mountain roads in and out of Denver was spectacular. I spent three days there before pushing on. My next destination was Salt Lake City, state capital of Utah.
When I first arrived in Salt Lake City on November 11th 1963, my focus was upon The Great Salt Lake on the shore of which the city stood. This lake was and is the largest in the United States outside the Great Lakes. I was told that the saline in the water created such buoyancy that it was impossible for a swimmer to sink. I rather doubted this and hoped to disprove the theory. However, November in northern Utah is no time for an open air swim. Moreover, the lake stank! Its water level was at a record low and the land at the edge of the lake was like a beach with the tide out. On that land, lay many rotting insects killed by the saline. This was no place to spend my time, but fortunately there was a more agreeable sight to see.
It was the Mormon tabernacle. This huge building had been erected a century earlier, when the Mormons had fled west from persecution in Illinois and had stopped here to settle. “This is the place”, their leader (Brigham Young) is said to have proclaimed, when they arrived at the edge of the great lake. The tabernacle that they then built is to this day a triumph of architecture and engineering. I remember sitting in the back row, while someone climbed into the pulpit at the front and dropped a pin. So perfect were the acoustics of the building that that I heard the noise made by that dropping pin.
Wagon trains taking pioneers from “back east” must have passed by this tabernacle in the 1850s on their way to California. What must those pioneers have thought at the sight of this newly built wonder in the middle of nowhere?
The US government had tried hard in the late 19th century to stamp out the polygamy practiced by the Mormons, who then still suffered unfairly from a bad reputation. This made me rather wary of them at the time. Who would have dreamed that, half a century later, that same government would be a supporter of same sex marriage, and be eager to stigmatize as homophobic those doubting its desirability. I had to move on. I had little more than five weeks before my ship sailed from New York and had so much more to see, so much farther to travel. As I headed west, my next stop was to be Reno, Nevada.
The bus made its way westwards from Utah and then moved on though the Nevada desert, empty save for the occasional ghost town. These were abandoned mining communities, where it was no longer worth looking for gold and silver.
The two big cities in Nevada are Reno and Las Vegas, both of which are located in the extreme west of the state just before the California state line. The reason for that was simple. These cities allowed gamblers to do under Nevada law what is forbidden in California.
Reno served the San Francisco area in the north and Las Vegas served the Los Angeles area in the south. In 1963, Las Vegas was in the process of overtaking Reno as Nevada’s major gambling center, so I wasted no time on the casinos of Reno. I could “do” casinos later when I passed through Las Vegas.
What was novel to me about Reno were the little wedding chapels, where one could just show up and ask to be married. Of course, one needed to provide one’s own spouse, so I had no use for these chapels personally, but they fascinated me because it was all so different from England, where one married in a church or in a government register office. The private enterprise system had no part to play in the process in the UK. The other big difference lay in ease of divorce. In Reno, getting a divorce was almost as easy as buying a burger. Such was Nevada law at the time. Fill in a few simple forms, pay a small fee and one was free to remarry. If an American husband or wife wished to warn a spouse that they were in danger of marriage breakdown, he or she would threaten to take a trip to Reno.
How different from England, where in 1963 divorce involved lengthy and expensive court proceedings and a so-called “guilty party”, against whom evidence of wrongdoing had to be proved by evidence in court. One could not even co-operate with one’s spouse in England to arrange matters. That would be deemed to be collusion, which would invalidate the divorce.
Divorce by consent was not permitted in England. Those in England, with the misfortune to face marriage breakdown, were required to face the stress and expense of contested legal proceedings before they could move on with their lives. I saw several happy marriage ceremonies take place in Reno as I passed through. At the time, the puritan in me was shocked at the ease of divorce compared to England and at the ease of re-marrying. Was this not an attack on the sacred institution of marriage?
At this distance of time however, the humanity of the Nevada procedure appeals to me much more than the cruelty of the English way of divorce. The sanctity of marriage is not strengthened by giving a tough time to those struggling with the hardship of marriage breakdown. Over fifty years on, I can finally understand that. The multiple recordings of Mendelssohn’s ”Wedding March”, that I had so often heard in Reno, were still ringing in my ears, as I climbed aboard the bus out of town. I had never heard the tune so often in such a short time.
However, I took comfort from the fact that I was now on my way to San Francisco. Would I leave my heart there?
Apparently someone called Tony Bennett had done so and, in 1963, had climbed to the top of the charts with his song telling the American public all about his loss.
On November 14th 1963, I caught my first sight of the Pacific Ocean. It was not blue as I expected. I celebrated my arrival in San Francisco by crossing The Golden Gate Bridge on foot. The bridge runs across the entrance to San Francisco Bay in a north/south direction. At that time, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world and I walked on it for nearly two miles. It seemed to me then like a pleasant stroll but today, when it’s an effort for me to walk out of the house to empty my own mail box, I realize that it was quite a distance. If my plan to repeat this trip over 50 years later ever comes to fruition, this “stroll” is something that I won’t be doing again.
As I walked, I was distracted by the ships passing underneath me and by the sight of the island of Alcatraz, sitting in the bay quite near the bridge. A few months earlier, US Attorney General Bobby Kennedy had ordered the closure of the famous penitentiary located on the island. Thus, the grim prison buildings that were visible to me in the distance had just been emptied.
The authorities famously claimed that no prisoner had ever escaped from Alcatraz, but that may not have been true. One or two prisoners had disappeared and it is claimed that they then drowned in the cold waters surrounding the island. This may just be a face saver. As a strong swimmer when young, I could probably have covered the distance to the mainland, currents permitting. Then I tested the November water temperature in the Bay. Compared to England, it wasn’t that cold. Perhaps an escapee actually made it and is presently enjoying an octogenarian life in the sunshine somewhere. Who knows?
My other memory of San Francisco is of the streetcars, which were deployed on the city’s very steep streets. Traveling uphill and downhill on them was such fun, because the many street intersections were on the level. Therefore the vehicle was one moment on a steep incline and the next moment on the level and these variations were rapidly repeated as the journey proceeded. I loved the architecture in San Francisco.
I visited the Chinatown area of the city and enjoyed a dinner of sweet and sour pork followed by lychees for dessert. I ranked San Francisco as being the second most beautiful city that I visited during my American odyssey. I guess that, when great chunks of a city have been consumed from time to time by earthquake or fire, the city planners have plenty of opportunity to get it right.
By now, I was still way behind schedule and thousands of miles away from New York City, from where I was due to sail in little more than a month. Early next morning, I therefore took the bus onto the Pacific Coast Highway headed towards Los Angeles, a few hundred miles to the south. I took care to do this in the daytime because there were sights to be seen as we traveled down the coast. The highway stayed mostly close to the coast, even though the hilly terrain created cliffs by coming right down to an ocean, which was becoming more blue or was that my imagination? The twists and turns of the highway created spectacular scenery. I broke my journey exactly midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles at the Hearst Castle at San Simeon.
This overlooked the ocean and had been built by William Randolph Hearst, the famous newspaper mogul, whose career is said to have inspired the film “Citizen Kane” with Orson Welles in the title role.
Hearst Castle wasn’t like any castle that I’d ever seen before. It was more like a wonderful great museum, but one cannot deny that it was palatial and worthy of inspection. I scrambled back aboard the bus, which by twilight was rolling into the City of The Angels – Los Angeles. It was November 16th, 1963. Hollywood was what I wanted to see.
I succeeded in seeing a real film star, when I was allowed onto a studio lot to become part of a studio audience for a TV panel show. She was Dorothy Lamour, whose career by 1963 was in deep decline. Nevertheless, she had been a big star in the 1940s when she made a series of films with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope entitled “The Road to …”. Of course, the place name altered for each film.
My only other connection with the stars was at Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. Here the stars were honored by having their footprints and handprints etched in cement and thereby preserved for posterity.
These days the stars, celebrities, even US Presidents, are honored instead by a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, which is nearby but which was then only just getting started.
I visited the famous Brown Derby restaurant and the Disneyland theme park. The latter was then a minor edition of what Disney would later create in Florida, but it impressed me at the time. Then I was stopped by the police. My crime was jaywalking.
I had sprinted across an empty street with no traffic in sight, but I had not used a pedestrian crossing. I explained to the cop that jaywalking was not an offence where I came from. That was true in those days, but the explanation did me no good and I duly received a ticket. The cop then became friendly with me and proceeded to tell me his life story. He had just completed a Master’s Degree in some obscure subject and was very proud of this achievement. I acted impressed, but it was then that I first became aware of America’s strange preoccupation with college degrees. This was quite different from Britain, where only a tiny percentage of the population chose to attend university. Employers there were far more interested in the job applicant’s work experience and other qualities. Yet nearly all Americans see a college degree as essential to success, despite the fact that the world’s richest man (self-made Bill Gates of Microsoft) does not have one. Graduation ceremonies are a big deal in America and Americans willingly obligate themselves to repay huge student loans in order to obtain a college degree, which in many cases is worthless. At the start of their working lives, Americans handicap themselves with big debt which cannot even be discharged by bankruptcy. It’s not a bit like that In Britain.
I never paid that jaywalking ticket, so it may be that I have a California criminal record dating back to 1963. I simply left town and headed for Las Vegas, which is in Nevada just across the California state line.
The casinos in Las Vegas were very stylish in 1963. They were full of blackjack and roulette tables. The customers were well dressed and dignified. I was admitted free of charge to sophisticated cabarets at which nationally known artists were performing. When I visited casinos in Las Vegas fifty years later, it was a different world. The casinos were full of slot machines and the customers were mostly slobs. I count myself fortunate to have had the opportunity of enjoying Las Vegas in its prime.
When I arrived in Las Vegas and just as I was leaving the Greyhound bus, I was approached by a studious looking young white guy of about my own age. “Will you be checking into a hotel here?” he asked me in perfect English, even though he claimed to be a tourist from Central America. When I replied that I would need to find a hotel, he told me how terribly expensive all the Vegas hotels were. “Why don’t we share a hotel room and split the cost?”, he suggested. He seemed to be respectable, educated and not homosexual, so I agreed to save some money in this way. I must have been mad !!! We checked into a twin bedded hotel room and I went to bed. This guy did not. He sat around reading, apparently waiting for me to fall asleep. I was not afraid of him physically, because I was much more powerfully built than him and in those days I had no fear. But what would he get up to after I fell asleep ? Would he steal all my money and disappear? My American journey was being financed entirely by cash and travelers checks that I carried on my person. I carried no credit cards and was not in touch with any bank, either in the US or in England or in Africa, that would help me if I lost my money. And I had nobody to turn to in an emergency. Nobody within a radius of thousands of miles even knew me. My solution to my problem was to stay awake all night, which I managed to do. In the early hours of the morning, my suspicious roommate fell asleep and I checked out of the hotel before he awoke. Dawn was just breaking in Vegas as I headed to the bus station and scrambled aboard a bus. I slept all the way to my next destination, which was Phoenix, Arizona. I was never again tempted to save money by sharing a bedroom with a stranger.
There was little to see in Phoenix, which was hot and dry, despite the fact that it was now mid-November. The city was small and provincial compared with the cities that I had recently visited, so I spent my time in an air conditioned cinema watching a famous film, newly released. It was “West Side Story”, the highlight of which was a song called “Maria”. I could not get that song out of my head as the bus rolled out of Phoenix and headed towards Texas, where an event was to occur during my visit that would stun the world.
My destination was El Paso, a city in the extreme west of Texas and situated on the Mexican border. I checked into my hotel there on the evening on November 21st, 1963.
When I awoke the following morning, my plan was to visit Mexico and in particular the city of Juarez which was separated from El Paso by a dried up river bed. It was called the Rio Grande and served as the border between the US and Mexico. Juarez was within easy walking distance of my El Paso hotel and I headed there on foot. I joined the queue waiting to pass through the border checkpoint. Everyone else in the queue was short and dark and Mexican. I guess that my appearance suggested that I was the only American in the queue, which might be why an American border guard walked up to me saying “The President’s been shot”. It did not occur to me that he was referring to US President John F Kennedy. I assumed that he was referring to the Mexican president. Were not assassinations routine occurrences in Latin American countries ? “So Is the border still open ?”, I asked. “Can I still cross into Mexico ? ” The guard turned his back on me, clearly disgusted at my lack of concern for President Kennedy, but still I did not get it. Soon I was walking into downtown Juarez, which was a delight, quite different from the hell on earth that murderous drug cartels would turn the place into a few decades later.
I spent the day enjoying Mexican food and music and architecture, which were all new to me. I mailed a postcard to my parents in London, complaining at how “unromantic” the dried up Rio Grande was. I affixed a Mexican stamp to the postcard and looked to see if the stamp contained a picture of this Mexican president who had supposedly just been shot. The picture on the stamp was of President Tito of Yugoslavia, who was making a state visit to Mexico at the time. Tito’s Yugoslavia has now split into at least eight different countries and it is remarkable that Tito was strong enough to hold Yugoslavia together during his lifetime. It is also remarkable that the Mexican stamp containing his picture was able to get that postcard to my parents in far distant London and that I hold that same postcard in my hand as I write these words over half a century later. The Mexicans around me, as I sat in a pavement cafe, were friendly and did not seem in any way distressed at the fate of their president. I felt safe and happy, but it was time to walk back across the border to my hotel in El Paso, Texas.
Soon I could see El Paso in the distance on the other side of the border with many of its buildings flying the Stars and Stripes. All these flags were flying at half staff and then it hit me and the penny dropped. I realized for the first time that it was President Kennedy, who had been assassinated. The entire Texas-Mexico border had been closed, even though the President had been murdered in Dallas, which was hundreds of miles away at the other end of Texas. I was not allowed back into the US that night and had to spend the night in Juarez with not so much as toothbrush to help me. Fortunately, I found a good hotel in Juarez for the night and the border was re-opened the following morning because it had been decided by then that the assassin was not going to escape to Mexico. Lee Harvey Oswald had already been captured and was in police custody.
Returning to my hotel room in El Paso, I could not tear myself away from the television, as I watched the American nation react to the assassination of their president. I was fascinated by all the conspiracy theories that were advanced. This is what I was doing when Lee Harvey Oswald was shot to death while in police custody. I actually saw it happen live on TV.
Here’s the link to “How Juarez Mexico Has Changed,” a post I wrote several years ago in greater detail about my visit there. It was and still is our most widely read post on this blog.
My next planned destination was the city of Houston, hundreds of miles away in the east of Texas and quite close to Dallas, where the assassination had occurred. I debated whether to visit Dallas instead, but decided to stick with Houston. After all, if the Dallas Police Department could not protect Oswald while in police custody, how could I rely upon them to protect me. So I left El Paso for Houston.
On my arrival in Houston, I visited what was then being hailed as the Eighth Wonder of the World. It had been under construction for over a year and would shortly be finished and open to the public. It was of course the Houston Astrodome. If this particular sports stadium was to be built today, it would be no big deal, but in 1963 it was a very big deal. It was a pioneer in so many ways. It was the world’s first multi-purpose domed stadium. It would host baseball and basketball and NFL football. It would host concerts and political conventions.
Playing under a roof was a novelty, as was the use of artificial turf. It was even air-conditioned and the lack of wind made it perfect for baseball pitchers. No longer would sport in Houston be at the mercy of heavy rains and fierce heat.
While it is sad to know that today, in 2017, this stadium is obsolete and unused and too expensive to demolish, one can take heart by remembering all the major events it hosted during the past half century. And I saw it being built !!!
My next destination was New Orleans, a city that I fell in love with. Indeed, it was my favorite American city with San Francisco a distant second. I stayed in a hotel on Basin Street.
Everyone everywhere had heard of the Basin Street Blues, probably the most famous jazz song of all time. I enjoyed listening to the jazz and the cajun cooking. I admired the architecture in the French Quarter. I would have liked to stay much longer, but it was already November 29th 1963 and my ship was to sail from far distant New York in two weeks’ time and I has so much more still to see and to do. So I took a bus to the east and soon arrived in Mobile, Alabama.
My memory of Mobile is of encountering a crowd of angry white people, while I was walking in downtown. They were calling for a boycott of a white owned restaurant which had just started to serve people of all races. If I had had more guts, I would have spent some money in that restaurant but I nevertheless hated what I was seeing and left town immediately. I have not mentioned race relations in this tale of a journey across 1963 America, because there is really nothing to say. Relations between the races in America seemed to me to be very relaxed, compared to my experiences in Africa. Apart from this sad incident in Alabama that I have just mentioned and even though civil rights legislation was then moving through Congress, the races in America seemed to treat each other decently in 1963 as I far as I could see. It was a long way from the toxic racial polarization of 2017.
Now I had to cover some miles quickly, so I traveled hundreds of miles from Alabama to Miami in the extreme south of Florida without even getting off the bus. I did not even get off the bus to see Orlando, which was then a sleepy little town in citrus country.
Later in life, I lived happily for many years in Orlando which grew enormously and is now an important city. Its present status as a tourist mecca owes much to the arrival of Disney World but, as my bus passed through the orange groves, that was all in the future. In 1963, Walt Disney was still secretly buying up the land for his massive theme park.
My bus eventually arrived in Miami with its busy port and many waterfront high rise buildings. There seemed to be many Cuban refugees in downtown Miami and they were all demonstrating, but it seemed to me that they had a variety of complaints. Some protesters were targeting Castro, who had recently taken over their island. Others had a quarrel with the US government over its failure to support the recent “Bay of Pigs invasion” where they had hoped to recapture Cuba. Others were marching just because they could, unlike in Cuba from where they had recently arrived. Everyone seemed to be speaking Spanish, so I did not feel at home. I enjoyed some Cuban food but did not even look for a hotel. Instead, I headed for the airport. My flight took me to Nassau, the capital of The Bahamas.
Even though it’s less than 200 miles off the Florida shore, Nassau was a different world from the American mainland. I was familiar with the twilight of the British empire because I had just spent two or three years in Nigeria, which had only gained its independence from Britain in 1960. There was the same atmosphere here, even though the Bahamas were not as far along the road to independence as Nigeria. In fact, the Bahamas did not become independent until 1973. Yet here were the same ingredients in the political cocktail. There was the same overwhelmingly black population, with its politicians jockeying for post-independence power. There was the same white governor supported by white senior civil servants appointed by London. Commerce was still controlled by the whites, although in the case of Nigeria it was by the great European trading companies while in the case of the Bahamas it was by the Bay Street Boys. Bay Street was a major street running through downtown Nassau and the “Boys” were a group of white businessmen born in the Bahamas who then controlled big business. However, one big difference between the two former colonies was tax haven status. Nigeria never was a tax haven, but the Bahamas in 1963 was full of banks, lawyers and accountants specializing in tax avoidance. Nassau lies on the small island of New Providence. Indeed the island is so small that I was able to see most of it during my short stay by hiring a bicycle. Although there are many larger islands in the Bahamian chain, most Bahamians live in Nassau.
I found Nassau – with its perfect climate, British pubs and white beaches surrounded by a turquoise sea – to be great fun. i visited Parliament Square, which was dominated by a large marble statue of Queen Victoria surrounded by pink and white government buildings in the colonial style.
There were unarmed cops wearing white pith helmets. All this made me feel very much at home in Nassau and I wished that I could have stayed longer. Yet my feelings were the opposite of those of another Englishman who, 20 years earlier, had hated it here. In 1940, Winston Churchill had a major problem over what to do with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. The Duke had ceased to be king in 1936 when he had insisted upon marrying an American woman, twice divorced, who was unacceptable to his subjects as queen. A term of the Duke’s abdication was that he could never again live in Britain. Therefore, in the late 1930s, the Duke and Duchess spent most of their time in France. They also visited Germany, where Hitler made a big fuss of them.
In the early months of World War Two, which began on September 3rd 1939, the Duke and Duchess fled from France as it was invaded by the Nazis and ended up in Spain and Portugal. By the summer of 1940, Hitler had reached the English Channel and was poised to invade Britain. The rumor was that Hitler planned to install the Duke as his puppet king, as soon as he had conquered Britain. I do not believe that the Duke would have gone along with Hitler’s plan, even though the Duchess might have. The Duke was not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but even he would have realized that such treason on his part would have led to his certain execution after the war, if Germany lost. However, if the Duke had been kidnapped by the Germans while in neutral Spain or Portugal, who knows what the Germans would have forced him to do. Churchill’s solution to this problem was to appoint the Duke to be Governor of the Bahamas and to send a warship to Portugal to collect him and take him to Nassau.
So the Duke spent the whole of World War Two in Nassau far away from the Nazis. The Duchess thought living in Government House, Nassau, to be beneath her and spent as much time in New York City as she could. She loathed the island. The Duke made a poor Governor. Apart from the fact that he was deeply racist, he botched the investigation into the 1943 murder of Sir Harry Oakes, a leading businessman in the colony. There were murder charges which failed to result in convictions. At the end of the war, the Duke and Duchess made their way back to France and tried to forget their years in Nassau. Unlike the Duke and Duchess, I would like to return there someday.
Time was flying by. It was now early December and my ship sailed from New York City on the 13th. I needed to move up the eastern coast line of the United States at top speed. When my plane arrived back in Miami from Nassau, I lost no time in heading north. By evening, I had reached the city of Jacksonville, close to the Florida/Georgia state line. I spent the night in a hotel there, but my thoughts about that city were the same as my thoughts about Phoenix, Arizona. It was a very provincial city with nothing much to see.
Next day, I made a journey of several hundred miles to the north and finally arrived in the capital of the United States of America – Washington, DC. It was December 6th 1963. The weather was warm. It was like early autumn in London. Before I visited anywhere else in DC, there was somewhere I had to go. It was Arlington, the cemetery where President Kennedy had been laid to rest a few days earlier. I joined hundreds of mourners who were filing past the grave. I saw the eternal flame, which Mrs Kennedy had insisted be a feature of the gravesite. It was all very moving. It was over forty years later before I was to visit Arlington again.
That latter visit was for the funeral of my wife’s only brother, Dale V Lally, Jr.
I saw all of DC’s major attractions, such as The White House and The Lincoln Memorial. I entered the Capitol building, which is the home of the US Congress. I enjoyed the view from the top of the Washington Monument which, for a short time in the late 19th century until the Eiffel Tower was built in Paris, was the highest building in the world. There were nearly a thousand steps inside the monument leading to the top, but fortunately there was also an elevator.
Then I took the bus north to Philadelphia and the weather began to deteriorate. Africa was hot, my American journey had been pleasantly warm and so had the Bahamas. I had forgotten what it was like to be cold. Now I was reminded.
When I arrived in Philadelphia, I found it to be very much like parts of my hometown of London. I went to Independence Hall to see that iconic symbol of American independence, the Liberty Bell. The bell is no longer kept where I saw it. It is now kept in a special Liberty Bell Center. This very bell is said to have been rung in 1776 at the time of the reading of the Declaration of Independence. It is now disfigured by a large crack, for which I deny any responsibility.
During the Revolutionary War, the British captured Philadelphia in 1777 and occupied it until the following year. They may claim to have cracked the Liberty Bell deliberately during that time. Yet that would be a myth because the crack did not appear until the 19th century.
Another myth occurred on April 1st 1996, when Taco Bell announced that it had bought the Liberty Bell and that henceforth it would be known as The Taco Bell. This was greeted with outrage across the country until it was realized that this was an April Fools Day joke. But it was a highly profitable joke, because sales by Taco Bell of tacos, enchiladas and burritos on that day beat all records.
I then pushed on to New York City and arrived a couple of days before the ship sailed. This was good because it gave me time to see the sights there before embarking on the voyage to England, even though the Big Apple was freezing and covered in snow.
Weather conditions did not stop me moving around New York City and enjoying the sights including Times Square, Wall Street, the Brooklyn Bridge and Central Park. Then there was the Statue of Liberty offshore in the distance and as many skyscrapers as one could possibly wish for. Here’s the link to another post on this blog of a trip I made with my family in March of 2012 and our visit to the Statue of Liberty.
I went to the top of what was then the world’s highest building, The Empire State Building, which has a perfect 360 degree view of Manhattan Island. I gave thanks that there were elevators available to enable my ascent. The Empire State had been the world’s tallest building since it was built in 1931 and did not lose that title until 1971, when the first of the World Trade Center Towers (destined to fall on 9/11/2001) was completed.
Finally it was time to embark on that magnificent ocean liner, The RMS Queen Mary, which took me majestically down river and thence into the Atlantic on December 13th 1963.
I had done it. In less than two months, I had traveled 10,000 miles around the United States and seen so much. Most importantly of all, I had not missed my ship back to England. I had always liked Americans, dating back to my encounters with GIs as a small boy in World War Two London. I liked and respected the US nation and its people even more after my 1963 visit. If I could have seen into the future, as New York City faded away into the distance and then over the horizon, it would have disappointed me to learn that I would not again set foot on United States soil for almost another twenty years. Yet it would have excited me to learn that I would spend the second half of my adult life in the United States and become a US citizen. I would not have been troubled by the fact that I shall almost certainly die in the United States, because in those days I intended to live for ever.
Bad weather made my Atlantic crossing an uncomfortable one, even though I had a spacious cabin to myself. My memories of the liner are dominated by big staircases with lots of brass banisters in the art deco style. The weather was too cold and unpleasant for any of the passengers to spend any time outside on deck. In the past, the RMS Queen Mary had broken all records in achieving the fastest transatlantic crossing, but it was her record breaking during World War Two that is most spectacular. The ship was taken over by the government to move US troops from stateside to the conflict in Europe. She would carry as many as 16,000 troops at a time with the men sleeping in shifts !!!
Never before or since has any ship carried so many passengers. I did not realize it at the time, but the RMS Queen Mary was near the end of its active life and I was one of its last passengers. She had made her maiden voyage back in 1936, but now the jet age had arrived. She could not to compete with much faster and cheaper ways of crossing the Atlantic. She had become a huge financial loss maker for the owners, The Cunard Line. By 1967, she had stopped these voyages altogether.
I was told that the lowest levels of the ship’s interior, which were several feet below sea level, were full of ghosts. During the war, the ship had been accompanied by escort vessels to protect her against submarine attacks. In October 1942, one such vessel (HMS Curacoa) was literally run over and sunk by The Queen Mary, which could not stop to pick up survivors. With U-boats in the vicinity, her orders were to keep going and stop for nothing. Most of the 339 man crew of the HMS Curacoa was lost at sea. When the Queen Mary sliced through their ship, many of the Curacoa’s crew must have died without the faintest idea of what was happening. Thus there is a high level of paranormal activity in the bowels of the Queen Mary, even though I have no personal experience of it. I use the present tense, because the Queen Mary and its ghosts still exist.
The ship is to this day moored in the harbor at Long Beach, California, and is open to the public. I was in southern California for my 75th birthday party in September 2012, when I made a tour of the ship. When visiting the ship with my wife Pat and daughter, Tara (seen in video with me above), a member of the Queen Mary staff told me that I was one of the very few visitors who had ever sailed on her, but I digress.
Let’s return to 1963. After making a stop at Cherbourg in northern France, the Queen Mary finally docked at its home port of Southampton on the south coast of England. From there, it was by train to London and to the home of my parents. I was back in time for Christmas.
Thank you so much for taking the time to read my memoir. It was the memories of this odyssey in 1963 that served as the inspiration for my first novel, Retirement of a Reprobate. It’s a story about a British man, Joe Morrison, whose stolen pension leads him on a path to murder. When a stranger in a bar in Nigeria asked Joe to do him a favor, he never imagined it would involve the theft of fifty million dollars in solid gold bars and being hunted by ruthless Mafia hit men in Chicago.
The book is available in digital and print. Click on image below to purchase the book on Amazon. This is an affiliate link which pays me a commission.
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