Sunday, 18 March 2018

Early Days in the US - and the Cuban Missile Crisis

Standing at the rails of RMS Sylvania in the pink and grey dawn of Sunday, 8th October 1962, I was choked with emotion as I caught sight of the Manhattan skyline. The tall buildings reached for the sky while the more mundane waterfront buildings were lost in the murky grey and blending into the background. It was, without doubt, one of the most memorable moments of my life.
            Despite the seeming nearness of the skyline, it took hours before the ship finally docked and hours again before we were finally allowed down the gangplank, having been told to wait in the Customs shed till I was reunited with my trunk, which had been stowed in the hold. Mr Peters, a tall man with thinning hair and a wide grin, was waiting for me. Somehow he got that huge trunk in his car on his own.
            Being a Sunday, Manhattan was comparatively quiet. I say comparatively because, of course, Manhattan is never really quiet. It truly is the city that never sleeps. There is often a pre-dawn lull in the ever-present traffic when the streets are quieter. But in fact, there is a steady hum all the time from the traffic, probably because it is trapped between the tall buildings on either side of the wide streets. Driving through Manhattan on that very first day seemed like we were driving through a canyon. To me though, the most noticeable sight was the steam rising from manholes in the road. Mr Peters told me that these were the ventilation shafts of the subway. In my fanciful dream-like state, the whole seemed like a vision of hell, made even more noticeable with the speed of the cars flashing past us and weaving in and out of the traffic in a lunatic way.
            Soon we were going through the Lincoln Tunnel under the Hudson River to bring us out into New Jersey. As we came out of the tunnel and swung round 360°, Mr Peters told me to look over towards Manhattan. It was the most spectacular view of the city from the New Jersey shoreline over the Hudson River. It was a view I always looked out for, even more spectacular at night when everything was lit up and one I never tired of. Then we were on the New Jersey Turnpike.
            After about an hour’s driving, we were in the leafy suburbs of Princeton, where the
The Peters' comfortable home in Princeton
Peters lived, mainly notable for its University, one of the so-called Ivy-League universities. Soon, we were pulling up outside a typical clapboard house, built on several levels, which I learned later was a split-level house, and I was being ushered through what Mr Peters called ‘The Den’. It was a sort of family room with several easy chairs or sofas, all well-worn but comfy looking, and a TV in the corner. Up a few stairs was the kitchen which, it seemed, was full of people although there were only four of us, including me. Mr Peters introduced me to his wife, a tall angular woman, wearing a wrap-over denim skirt and a pretty flowered blouse, a typical uniform for her. The third person was a man, wearing tennis whites, perched on one of the worktops, who was introduced as a cousin. I was instantly smitten and had a crush on him for the remainder of my time in Princeton. The odd thing is that I can’t remember his name.
            I do remember that he thought it was ‘kinda cute’ that I wanted a cup of tea. Mrs Peters had to rummage in one of the cupboard that lined the wall before she was able to produce a packet of tea bags, unknown to me at that time. Back in England we were still using loose tea. Even odder was their reaction to my wanting milk and sugar in my tea instead of lemon.
            I don’t remember too much else about that first day. I must have been introduced to the children, who were called in from the yard, what we would call a garden, a large expanse of grass with a few shrubs dotted around, where they had been playing. Rick, the eldest, was about eleven, a stock lively-looking boy with very short spiky hair; Jonathan, who was seven, was a quiet-looking boy with a dreamy look about him; and David, who was three, was a typical toddler, sweet-faced and chubby.
My room was next to the den and overlooked the drive and car port. The single bed was covered in a pretty orangey cotton patterned spread that matched the curtains. There was a chest of drawers-cum-dressing table, a wardrobe and a low table on which was, joy of joys, a record player. It was a lovely restful room and I was thrilled with it.
            My room was to become a haven to me over the following months. It sheltered me in many moods, weepy, happy, sad, lonely. That first night, I cried myself to sleep, overcome by the awesome realisation that I was on my own in a strange land, missing Mum and Dad, even my pesky little brother, Mark. I didn’t recognise it at first as homesickness but that was what it was. It was a feeling I was to become familiar with over the next few weeks. I honestly didn’t believe I was going to be able to settle down and more than once wondered about the possibility of going home. This feeling mostly came over me on a night when the children had gone to bed, the Peters were having their own dinner and I was alone in my room listening to music, writing in my diary, or letters home. I could have watched the TV in the Den but in the early days I wasn’t familiar with the American TV schedules. I kept that diary faithfully all the time I was there and afterwards, only getting rid of it when I married. I’ve regretted that so many times.
            Fortunately, during the day, I had much to occupy my time, new things to experience, new sights to see, the children to look after. Mostly that was seeing to the two youngest, Rick, being older didn’t need much looking after, getting all their breakfasts, seeing Rick and Jonny off to school (or at least to the end of the street from where the yellow school bus collected them). The daytime consisted of keeping an eye on David while doing some light household chores, like the children’s rooms, their bathroom, my own room and bathroom, washing and ironing. For the first time, I became aware of a clothes’ dryer and how much easier it made life.
            I often had an hour or so to myself in the afternoons because David still had a nap. Soon after, the two older boys would be home from school and it was all action stations from then on till they went to bed.
A particular bonus to me was the fantastic central heating. Coming from the freezing cold house in Brunswick Avenue, central heating was a revelation. The temperature was set at a constant 75°F which meant that at most I needed to wear a cotton blouse and a denim skirt (a wrapover style like Mrs Peters, one of my first purchases) in the house. The heating didn’t go off at night either; it stayed on at a minimum of 68°F. The thermostat was located in the den, adjacent to my room, and it was one of my jobs to turn the thermostat down before I settled for the night. The constant warmth was, to me, pure bliss.
            Mrs Peters showed me everything I needed to know, that first few days, and took me around the town. It was a pretty town, still with many old buildings, some of which had been incorporated into the University, and it reminded me very much of Cambridge. As it was early October, the students hadn’t started back yet, though would do so in a week or so. She explained that the town would then become much busier. Mr Peters was an investment broker in Manhattan and commuted there daily. Not by car, though, it would have taken too long. Instead, he drove to Princeton Junction, caught the train to somewhere on the New Jersey coast, then crossed the Hudson River by ferry.
  I hadn’t been in America very long when I began to pick up, from the TV news and from the Peters’ conversation, that there was some kind of crisis facing the US over Cuba. What I did understand, when I delved a little deeper, was that Cuba had installed Russian-built missiles aimed at the US in general, and Florida in particular, only 80 or so miles away. America, feeling understandably vulnerable, made threatening noises to Cuba, who turned to Russia for back-up. They, in turn, sent some of their fastest ships heading towards Cuba. For about ten days, there was a stand-off between Russia and America, when the threat of a nuclear war was very real. There was much hysteria on American TV and I was frightened, being so far from home. If anything was to happen, I wanted to be home with my family. Impossible, of course, but this, combined with my homesickness, made it a difficult and anxious time. I would have given anything for the measured tones of a BBC news reader reading out the news. Then, just as the situation became more tense, the Russians backed off and the missiles started to be dismantled.

The Cuban Missile Crisis appeared to be over.