It was Tuesday morning December 11, 1973. I awoke with a start, Kevin calling my name, and it barely felt like I had slept at all. My mind had buzzed late into the night with anticipation, it being my last night after eleven weeks in Europe. It was nearly six o’clock and I had a 7:15 AM bus from the downtown Oxford bus station to the London Victoria Coach Station. From there a walk across the street to the BOAC office where I would check my backpack and take another bus to Heathrow for my 11:15 AM flight nonstop to Detroit. Kevin had volunteered to drive me into town.
My last two days had been pretty mellow, just hanging out here at the Clay’s with whoever was home. That is except for a trip to the village pub last night with Kevin, Madge, Bill, and Nana, where they took turns treating me to pints of Watney’s for my final sendoff, each with a toast. Kate was out studying with her friends. Before heading out she had found a moment with me when the others were out of earshot to say goodbye and say that Mackenzie wanted her to pass on a big thank you to “her cousin Spike”.
At the pub, Steve had done the first toast, having us all rise, except Nana. “To one of my mates. See you next in the States!”, pleased with himself to be able to rhyme and envisioning his own future travels taking him across the ocean. For the second round it was Madge, insisting that we stay seated, raising her glass to, “Good family, friends, and lots of love, plus a kiss for your mum!”. For the third Bill, wishing me, “More adventures ahead!”
Even Nana, pretty inebriated from putting down at least two pints, bought Kevin and me one last round, Madge and Bill declining. When she began to conjure up her own toast, I realized that after three days with the family this was the first time I had really looked into her eyes. They were gray like her wispy hair, and as she recalled and recited each phrase of each line, I could see the wheels of recollection turning in her mind. She managed to remember and stumble through what seemed like a traditional toast to a young single man like myself, but one delivered by another male comrade…
Here’s to a long life and a merry one
A quick death and an easy one
A pretty girl and a true one
A cold bottle and another one
Nana’s family members were a bit taken aback by her toast and her ability to remember and deliver it. Madge and Bill tried to contain a spontaneous urge to laugh, Madge finally failing followed by Bill, with Kevin joining in boisterously and calling out “Bravo Nana!” I could see the gears turning again behind those old gray eyes, a scowl on her face that they were patronizing her, and finally a vocalized, “Sod it!”
Pretty ‘wankered’ at that point myself, I stood up at our table at the Queen’s Head pub, and with the remnants of my fourth pint of Watney’s conjured my own toast in response to the others.
“To an amazing adventure indeed”, I said, “and to the four of you for being there for the beginning and the end”. I could feel the tears well up under my eyeballs and the alcohol aided fatigue growing behind them. It was that same play of thoughts and emotions that filled my mind five days ago as I had stood alone on the stern of the big ferry headed out across the North Sea watching the Dutch coast disappear astern. The places would still be there if I ever returned, but almost all the people I had encountered and the circumstances that brought us together would not. Sure the Clays would probably continue to reside in Horspath. But the rest of it was past and gone, except in my memory and hopefully all the array of people I shared those memories with as well.
But again, there WERE things that I could take home with me beyond the Christmas presents and the other contents of my backpack. I could take back that pluckier persona I had developed, that helped me keep my equilibrium, reframing what initially had felt like an ordeal into the adventure it was meant to be. I would take back a commitment to use that pluck in a stronger engagement with my circles of family and friends, to give to them all my love, support and good energy. And perhaps most importantly, I would take back the understanding that, as I had here in Europe, that I would be the designer of my own life going forward – the who, what, where, when, how and why. I would no longer have it designed by other people for me, well intentioned though they might be!
That past Sunday morning, Bill, Madge, Nana and Kate had all gone to church. Kevin stayed home with me, admitting once the others had left that he wasn’t much for church anyway, and my being there was a perfect excuse for him not to go. He made us hot cocoa with little marshmallows floating on top. We sat at the kitchen table and sipped our steaming sweet beverages, smelling the roasted chickens and potatoes Madge was keeping warm in the oven for Sunday dinner after they returned from church.
Kevin continued his ongoing ruminations about whether to buy a car or move into his own apartment, citing again for me all the pros and cons of one versus the other. I think the rest of his family had given him their advice and were tired of hearing about it. But I, a fellow young male type like himself, he figured would appreciate the gravity of the decision and the need to revisit it until he got it right. If he got his own apartment, it would have to be nice enough to bring his girlfriend home to it. And there would be no coming back to live at home, that would feel like defeat. Likewise, if he bought a car of his own, it couldn’t be “some old banger”, but a nice sporty, most likely new one, that would impress his friends, particularly his girlfriend, and express who he was. Given his anticipated salary at the new job, at least for now, he couldn’t see affording both.
He had been keen to get my point of view on his dilemma. I told him that I was living at home, didn’t have a girlfriend, and had a car that was “indeed an old banger”. It was technically mine, but I shared it with my mom because the old, even ‘bangier’ one she had had had finally broken down and was sold for junk because it was too expensive to fix. For me, cars were “just a means of transportation”, not part of who I was. My hometown was easily traversed on foot or by bicycle. So my choice would probably be to get my own apartment or more likely, share one with one of my friends, though I had no plans to do so when I got home.
Given his own obsession with what was next for him, that led him to ask what was next for me, presuming a similar obsession on my part, which wasn’t really the case. I said I would go home, enjoy the Christmas holiday with my family, maybe New Years Eve with my friends, and then in the new year find some sort of a job to make money until I went back in September for another year of college, a hundred miles west of Ann Arbor in Kalamazoo. I knew he had made the decision not to go to college, but his sister Kate was intent on being the first person in the family to do so.
The others returned from Church, and after the big midday meal, when I continued to regale them with my travel stories, Kevin’s mates Nick and Steve had come over along with his girlfriend Nellie. The three of them were an exuberant bunch, like Kevin, and they all got along well with Bill and particularly Madge. So much so that Madge was invited by the four of them to join in the game of Risk we all played. Madge actually won the game, grabbing the Australian continent early, while us guys were fighting it out with each other for North and South America. Madge allied with Nellie to defeat the rest of us, and then eventually, with great apologies, took Nellie out as well.
Nellie was quite the character, more force of nature than puny human. Short, slight and feisty, with Little Orphan Annie curly red hair and freckles, she was full of opinions on everything, that she was eager to voice to whomever would listen. She had apparently moved into town with her family a year and half ago and found her way into Kevin’s circle of friends, but only recently transitioned to being his girlfriend. I was used to guys pursuing young women they were interested in romantically, but seeing Nellie in action that afternoon I wondered if it was she who had pursued him. She knew everything that was going on with everybody – Madge’s church volunteer work, Bill’s woodworking hobby, Kevin’s friend Steve’s obsession with heavy metal music, and of course Kevin’s own car versus apartment quandary. It was like she kept dossiers on everybody and studied them before she came over. She had a recipe she thought, no knew, Madge would like. Classes for seniors she thought Nana would enjoy. She even quizzed Madge on how Kate was doing studying for exams.
You could see she was attracted to Kevin, but she also had an entire detailed strategy on how he could both get a good car and his own apartment. They argued back and forth about it until someone in the group started teasing them. I was jealous of Kevin for having a girlfriend, even though she would have driven me crazy with her always in your business style. I did not like people even making suggestions about how to run my life, and that would extend to even my girlfriend, if I had one.
Yesterday was Monday, and it had been a much different day. Bill and Kevin were off at work all day. Kate was at school and then after school at her friend T.J.’s studying. Madge took Nana to a doctor’s appointment in town and dropped me off so I could do some final shopping with the four pounds I had left in my ‘reserve’. That was beyond the four that were pegged for the buses this morning to Heathrow and buying booze on the plane flight home. In the afternoon I had hung out in the kitchen with Madge and Nana.
Madge had been interested in every detail about my mom’s life, having gotten to know her quite well three years ago, and feeling a sort of sisterhood with her. It was an area she seemed only comfortable sharing with me alone, rather than the whole family, except Nana of course. I was happy to spill the beans – my mom and dad’s divorce, her bouts with depression and even suicide. Then more in the good news vein, transitioning to a better place emotionally with various new projects, like her local political work, her budding feminism, and her growing friendship with my ‘feminist aunts’.
But back in the present, hurrying to head off to the bus station, all that was in the past as I tried to clear the haze from my mind. I put on my clothes I had specifically planned for my trip home, to look the part of the now veteran and storied traveller. The nice, new, not yet worn Heineken Brewery t-shirt with the big red star on a white shirt with green lettering. My bell-bottom hippieesque jeans, recently washed even. My orange down jacket. And finally, my big clunky hiking boots. I had wanted to wear my heels, but there was no way my boots would fit in my backpack.
Madge was up in the kitchen and had made us some breakfast – ham, eggs and toast. Bill was in the shower and Kate and Nana were not up yet. When she saw me she grinned and shook her head.
“Your mum is going to be so pleased to see your face and have you back again”, she said, “And I want you to promise me that you give her a big hug and a kiss and tell her it’s from her best mate Madge.”
“I promise”, I said, enjoying being the intermediary between these two bigger than life women. And I was enough on the ball to be a proper houseguest and thank her again for all the hospitality, these past three days plus those days back in September, when Angie and I had just arrived in England.
“And your friend Angie”, she added, “You give HER a hug and a kiss for me too!”, continuing, “I should hope there are no bad feelings between the two of you because of how things transpired. She is a quality lass, I know my people. You can tell her that as well!”
Steve drove me into town to the bus station in his dad’s VW Bug. He was still all about his quandary over whether to buy a car or move into his own apartment. I suggested that maybe he buy a used car, even one he could fix up with his mechanic skills, then also get an apartment with his friends and share the rent. Maybe even Nellie could chip in on that deal, sharing a bedroom with him. He rolled his eyes, sighed, but then shook his head, saying that her parents would never let her do that. He said that if, “They found out we even shagged, they’d kill me!”, with the implication that he and Nellie had not had sex yet.
He asked me if I had a “girl you’re sweet on” back home. I immediately replied with an, “Actually…”, followed by a long pause while I struggled with how to answer that question. I had a bit of a thing still for Angie but figured based on the whole parting company thing ten weeks ago that was probably not going anywhere. I still had a thing for Angie’s best friend Lane, but god only knows what she was up to now in her first year of college, though she was still living in Ann Arbor. And Natasha, who I had had the total hots for all through the last year and a half of high school was still off going to school at Berkeley in California. I rattled off those three young women and the current situations of each and he listened.
“So Lane maybe?” he noted, trying to fit me into his view of what was important for young men like he and I to be focusing on, that is girlfriends, cars and apartments.
I replied with a shrug and a tepid, “Yeah… possibly”, and the conversation moved on to other areas.
At the Oxford bus station he walked me in but then apologized profusely that he could not wait for my bus to board because he had to get the car back home for his dad, then take his scooter to his morning shift at the garage. I told him that was fine, and thanked him for “taking care of me” while I was there. I was tempted to give him a hug, but hesitated, and he stuck out his hand and shook mine briskly. I gave him my address and phone number in Ann Arbor and he said he would look me up when he made it to the States. Then he was off, and I sat with a handful of other local looking types waiting for the bus to London.
The bus ride was uneventful. I half hoped that Stacey, Jeanie and Mitzi might be on it, headed off to work at their jobs in London, and maybe Mitzi remembering me and giving me some sort of showy goodbye kiss on the lips. Ah fantasy! Not sure she had been sober enough to remember much of anything of our shared bus ride, though I certainly remembered every bit of her, including that body ensconced in her black dress and black panties. I fantasized about her one last time as I watched the wintry scenes out the window on the motorway into London.
It was after nine when we got into the London Victoria Coach Station, and I walked across the street, my pack on my back for one very last time as I entered the BOAC office and finally checked it in as luggage. Separated from it for the first time in eleven weeks, I boarded the shuttle bus to Heathrow.
When the bus entered the airport, it was sobering to see machine gun emplacements, surrounded by sandbags and staffed by soldiers in helmets and full battle gear, on top of the various airport terminals. I had been reading in the International Herald Tribune that the ‘provisional wing’ of the Irish Republican Army, in their armed effort to push the British out of Northern Ireland, had moved their campaign of bombings from Northern Ireland to England. This change in strategy by the IRA came after the failure of talks with the British government in 1972. I had read of several bombings in London and Yorkshire earlier this year, plus one in Birmingham the day Angie and I arrived in London eleven weeks ago.
I had been inspired to embrace at least the wannabe fantasy of radicalism in 1968 when I was just thirteen, watching the young hippie activists demonstrating and challenging the police outside the Chicago Democratic convention, and the black power salutes of the American sprinters on the medal podium of the Summer Olympics in Mexico City. I saw myself as a budding radical, above and beyond but related to my embrace of the whole hippie ethos. I was supportive of, sometimes even idolized, or was at least intrigued by, various more leftist radical groups and movements.
In Mr. Peacock’s Modern Russian History class my last year of high school, him an avowed communist himself, we had studied the 1905 and 1917 Russian revolutions, including the life and travails of Lenin and Trotsky, but also the story of the Russian anarchists and nihilists who plotted to and eventually succeeded in killing the Russian Czar. I had developed a particular interest in anarchist thought, and had read with great interest works of some of the most famous Russian anarchists, particularly Mikhail Bakunin and Pyotr Kropotkin.
In more contemporary times, I was intrigued by various radical leftist groups. The Black Panthers and the Weather Underground in the States. My hometown radical group, the White Panthers, formed as a means for young white activists to support the Black Panthers, that my friend Avi’s older brother was a key leader of. In a similar way I was intrigued by the IRA and their campaign to liberate Northern Ireland from British control, as part of a larger historic effort for Irish independence from England. My embrace of the hippie ethos of ‘peace, love and joy’ and ‘sex, drugs and rock and roll’, also included a healthy dose of ‘damn the Man’, and challenging the existing establishment order of my parents’ generation.
Indeed there were logical inconsistencies in my belief in ‘peace’ and ‘antiwar’ versus my fascination with groups like the Weather Underground and the IRA, who were committed to using violent means, bombings in particular, to achieve their liberationist ends. The Panthers were more about defending the black community, with guns as needed, from what they saw as the violence of institutional racism, as often enforced by the police. From my wannabe point of view, I fantasized about being a freedom fighter or insurgent myself, as I had fantasized about and played at being a soldier as a young boy, after having heard my dad tell stories about his participation in World War II. I wanted to be part of a revolution, or better, THE revolution. It certainly seemed much more glamorous than my mom’s community organizing as a Democratic party precinct chair, supporting local candidates and getting people out to vote for them in local elections.
All that was running through my mind as I stood in line waiting to show my ticket and get my boarding pass for the flight home. It was BOAC flight BA523, scheduled to leave London Heathrow at 11:15 AM Greenwich Mean Time and arrive at Detroit Metropolitan at 5:00 PM Eastern Standard Time, eight hours and forty-five minutes later. Once I had that boarding pass in my hand, and I found my place in the waiting area of my plane’s gate, my mind, though feeling that headachy cloudiness from lack of sleep, started buzzing with different thoughts. Thoughts that in some ten hours from now I would actually be home. I rejiggered the Beatles lyric in my head to my own situation…
Back in the U.S.
Back in the U.S.
Back in the U.S.S.A.
Every little milestone in the preflight process from that point was loaded with excitement and significance for me. The boarding call on the public address system. Giving my boarding pass to the blue uniformed BOAC attendant and entering the jetway to the plane. Stepping through the hatch onto the plane itself. Finding my seat and sitting in it, a window seat as I had requested, sitting next to two men, both in business attire but flying separately from each other. Clicking closed the latch on my seat belt. The plane jerking into motion as it started its slow journey out to the runway. Engines revving as the plane began to move again from a dead stop down the runway. Wheels finally separating from the ground, meaning I was no longer on European soil, if still in its airspace. The plane gaining enough altitude that we were above the clouds and I could no longer see any bit of Europe below.
In that state of purgatory between earthly realms time for me seemed to stop. When the flight attendant came around for the first time, I noted she had the short coiffed hair and cute little blue cap like the young woman who printed out my ticket at the BOAC office in Amsterdam, when I and my comrades had been totally stoned. From my three remaining pounds, now bills in my pocket rather than stashed in my money belt, I purchased headsets for 10p, so I could listen to the audio of the onboard movies. Then she asked me if I wanted something to drink, preemptively placing a little cocktail napkin on my open tray table.
I had already done a lot of pondering what alcoholic beverage to buy. I recalled that on the flight over it had been Screwdrivers, that is vodka and orange juice. I decided this time I wanted something that was sophisticated, decadent and potent. In honor of Madge and my mom I ordered a “Scotch on the rocks”. The flight attendant responded with that practiced modulation, and not missing a beat, listed about four different Scotch whiskies including Cutty Sark and Chivas Regal. Regular non-brand mixed drinks, like a screwdriver, were 30p. But Cutty was 40p and Chivas a whopping 50p. My first thought was to go with Madge and my mom’s favorite, but I decided in this one last purchasing decision, to throw thrift completely to the wind and get the top stuff.
“Chivas,” I said with my big hair, Heineken t-shirt, bell-bottom jeans and big hiking boots. The flight attendant with her little blue cap gave a perfunctory nod as she dug in her cart drawer for my little bottle, but also cracked just the slightest smile.
Lunch was next and I was given a ham and Swiss cheese sandwich on a croissant with little packets of mayonnaise and mustard on the side, also with a bag of ‘crisps’, potato chips to us Yanks, plus fruit compote for dessert. Then with her next visit another Chivas.
Now a bit deliciously buzzed, I watched my first in-flight movie, Live and Let Die, which I had not seen. It was the familiar to me realm of James Bond, though notably for the first time starring Roger Moore rather than Sean Connery. Comparing the former’s work to the latter’s, as I sipped my Scotch chilled from the ice cubes, I thought both renditions of the Bond character were duly suave and sophisticated, but Moore’s more bombastic than the more familiar, underplayed Connery.
Inspired by the movie, I thought maybe I’d ask for a martini for my third drink, but I thought that the attendant would be laughing at me behind her measured smile, me still with my timidity kicking in. So it was a third Chivas instead. Dinner was a choice of beef, chicken or fish, I choosing the former. It was roast beef au jus with grilled potato wedges and julienned green beans, a creme puff for dessert.
The second movie was Paper Moon, which I had also not seen, about a con man who gets hooked up with a precocious nine-year-old girl, Addie, and the two become a team of petty swindlers. I felt immediate kinship with the Addie character, played with great pluck by Tatum O’Neal.
As the movie continued, I could feel the plane starting to descend, which finally dragged me from that purgatory outside time back to the reality that I was now flying over my home continent and would soon be on the ground. I ordered a fourth Chivas, breaking the last pound note giving me a nice pocketful of British coins. I had stashed away in my pack a bag of coins I had collected from all the countries I had visited, looking forward to sharing them with my family and friends.
Finally the seatbelt light came on and the pilot announced we were beginning our final descent to Detroit. My body shivered with excitement, goosebumps up and down my arms as I clicked the lap belt into place, and stowed my little tray table. The first verse of the little ditty I had thought up leaving Rome went through my head again…
I want to see those faces glad
I want to see my mom and dad
To feel accomplishment and then
The mellowness of home
I looked out the window but could see nothing but clouds which our big descending plane submerged itself into, shuddering slightly. I felt the slight jolt and mechanical growl of the landing gear deploying below me. As I continued to look out the window the ground began to appear through breaks in the clouds, gray and wet with highlights of melting white snow here and there. Then we crossed a road and the runway was now below, and with great anticipation I felt the landing gear engage the pavement and then heard the air breaks low howl as we decelerated to taxiing speed and turned off the runway and headed to our gate.
It was not a full plane but a big one, and it seemed to take forever standing in the long aisle before the line of deboarding passengers in front of me began moving forward. As I started to move forward myself, I felt a sudden unexpected pang of sadness that once I stepped off the plane my odyssey would be over. That odyssey of living day to day from one locale to the next, with a changing cast of characters, particularly all the major league young women I had encountered. Certainly Lane and Angie were cool and all, but they were not quite like Ashild and Bublil, or Miranda, or Zo, or Jen and Sarah, or Trix and her crew, or Monika and Ragna, or Angelica, or Gwendolyn, or Stacey and Mitzi, or even Kate and hers. I wanted to live my life among those kind of passionate, adventurous young women, particularly those who were bold enough to leave the safety of their homes to travel halfway across the world. I wanted to be their ‘Coopster’. But would the same old same old back home drag me back to being ‘Clubius’ again, the dubious chickenshit.
Traversing the jetway we were immediately routed down stairs to a special baggage claim area for international flights where we would get our luggage and then proceed through customs. Around the baggage carousel I noted other long haired young adult types like myself waiting. And several other backpacks appeared on the conveyor from above and dumped onto the carousel before my red Kelty pack appeared. I looked at each of my fellow backpackers as they shouldered their pack and wondered if any of them were trying to smuggle any hashish into the country. I wasn’t of course, but it sparked my imagination, and Arlo Guthrie’s song, which I had heard so poignantly sung in that dicey youth hostel in Paris, played in my mind’s jukebox…
Coming into Los Angeles
Bringing in a couple of keys
Don’t touch my bag if you please
Mister customs man
My ‘customs man’ took my passport then opened and rummaged through all the compartments of my backpack, plus asking me to empty my own pockets. To his queries I told him I had been in Western Europe for the past eleven weeks and I was coming home. He welcomed me back as he handed the passport back to me.
I stowed my down jacket that I had worn on the plane into its spot in my pack. I had on my hiking boots but my poor toes felt numb from sitting in the plane with them on for eight hours. I found a place to sit and took off the boots, my feet throbbing with the sudden freedom. And I noted with irony that these boots, purchased just before my European odyssey and never properly broken in, were still stiff and uncomfortable, even after my eleven week journey.
I dug in my pack for my two-inch heels, now dirty and stained. It hit me that I had probably logged more miles walking in them than my boots. When my boots had given me painful blisters, my heels had provided relief. They had also added to my stature physically, adding two inches to my height. But more subtly and profoundly, they had added to my stature metaphorically, giving me a strut that with my lean body and big frizzy hair had become my sort of trademark. In Rome, my backpacker comrade Jen had first seen me as ‘The Coopster’ and complimented me on my shoes, making a reference to my ‘low spark’. She was referring of course to Traffic’s hit song, ‘The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys’. Later in Amsterdam my comrade Butch had picked up on the same theme, referring to me as ‘The Manster Coopenstein’. So it was only fitting that the shoes that had sustained and somehow transformed me should be on my feet for my grand reentrance. My big black hiking boots would just have to dangle from my pack and clunk against each other in protest to their secondary status.
I had left so many compelling places and even more compelling comrades behind in Europe, but that new persona that Jen and Butch had intuited in me was still with me, smuggled back through customs where no ‘customs man’ could find it!
My old persona of little ‘Clubius’ was definitely in need of retirement. That nickname my mom and dad had given me as a shy, diffident, precocious little kid with delusions of grandeur. That made up, noble Roman philosopher that my parents had fantasized humorously that I was the contemporary incarnation of. ‘Clubius’ had given way to a more palatable nickname for me, ‘Cooper’. That was the name I chose for myself at age three when I had gained a fuller measure of my sentience. The name going forward I would tell people was mine when asked rather than my official first name of ‘Jonathan’.
I was determined to keep hold of that new persona of ‘The Coopster’ that Jen had christened and others of my backpacker cohort had seconded. All that went into being ‘The Coopster’ was still to be worked out, but it was somewhere along the lines of my own incarnation of the Tarot deck Fool, always ready to journey to explore new realms with all I owned slung over my back, going over cliffs and plunging into new deep ends, whatever was necessary to push forward life’s adventures.
Now in my heels, bell-bottom jeans and brand new Heineken Brewery t-shirt, ‘The Coopster’ indeed, without a cue from any stage manager, I shouldered my pack and strode out of customs and emerged into the main terminal area, my life’s big stage de jour, with a big grin plastered on my face. My mom was already waving at me when I caught sight of her and my brother David, standing behind the stanchions and rope. She had a huge smile and her big blue eyes sparkled in her round face. My brother nodded and grinned knowingly. They looked both familiar and strange to me, memories from some past life.
The three of us navigated the crowd and the barriers to reach each other. My mom put her hands on my shoulders and looked into my soul in that uniquely intuitive way of hers.
“You did it, Sweetie, you really did it!” she said emphatically.
I tried to reply but couldn’t. Feelings welling and totally choked up, I only managed to nod as I hugged her.
I really HAD done it.