USA -- all the way
To paraphrase Mark Twain ( ‘The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.’ ) or, perhaps more appropriately, Bill Bryson (My countrymen think I'm dead) I did manage to make it back to the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave this last September/October only to discover that whilst I may have been missed - I was not entirely forgotten.
I made the first mistake before we even left Norwich. We had a very early American Airlines flight out of Heathrow. Taking the coach the day before was definitely the best option. When we arrived at Norwich Bus Station, we had to double park the car in order to unload the bags. In the rush I left my mobile phone plugged into the car phone charger. I first noticed this when the bus was heading down the A 11. Far too late to do anything about it.
Immediately I was flummoxed. I spent most of the bus ride to Heathrow realising how dependent we are on such communication devices. This would have astounded our not very distant ancestors. Consider - I am old enough to remember the first Television I ever saw. (1950 – Chicago – little Jewish kid on the block had one and let us come over to see it – a round six-inch screen in the most beautiful light-mahogany cabinet you have ever seen). I can remember when mobile (cell) phones were miraculously new and becoming available to general smucks such as I. I remember no email. No text messages. No voicemail. No answering machines. In short, no lots of stuff we take for granted today. Without my phone, (replete with all my contacts) I could not contact Steve or Pete to tell them I had no phone. To make matters worse I cheerfully remembered telling Juliet to leave her mobile at home – we would not be needing it!
I had to rely on Steve turning up at Heathrow at the general time we were supposed to be there. He did. I decided not to buy a new phone just for the trip – again chancing it that my sister would be at the other end when I got to Kansas City.
We were fortunate enough to be invited to dine with Steve and Lucy and catch up with grand-daughter Darcey the evening before our flight. In the midst of a convivial supper, I let it slip that I was not looking forward to the Chicago O'Hare airport portion of the journey. Not only did we have to change terminals (three to five travelling via a kind of overhead tram thing), clear immigration (two lots - one for me one for Juliet) and clear customs with heavy bags; we also had a limited amount of time to achieve this.
Lucy piped up, “Get a wheelchair.” I protested that we were old - but not that old. She explained that the airlines must give you a wheelchair if you ask for one. There is no inquest and no quibbling. They just do it. I explained that I wanted to wander around the airport after checking-in, and she assured me that this was not a problem. Just ask at the desk before boarding I did. It works. It's fantastic. Always ask for a wheelchair when travelling. Apparently many Middle Eastern ladies of youthful appearance demand wheelchairs at Heathrow to carry their shopping, and they get them with no hassle.
I don't sleep well before a flight. We were up at 04:30 and at the airport by 05:00 for a 07:30 flight. Lovely. I had just enough time to buy two books (I have to read on a plane – can't sleep). Off we went to Chicago with American Airlines.
Flying is boring. That's why they feed you. It gives you (and them) something to do for a medium-sized portion of the eight or nine hours you are cruising over the Atlantic. Question: when did they start allowing twin-engined aircraft fly the Atlantic? Apparently it was in 1990. Personally, I think the more engines the better – even though I am not a great fan of the Boeing 747.
Wheelchair at O'Hare turned up miraculously right outside the aircraft. Juliet was duly loaded and we were escorted through the labyrinth of getting to our connecting flight to KC. Absolute magic!
Best part of the trip was sitting quietly waiting for the flight to KC when an announcement asked for Juliet Kauffman to come to the desk. Did she needed a wheelchair in Kansas City? I cheerfully and gratefully said no. At MCI we can manage. An uneventful flight deposited us in KC and, fortunately, my nephew Chris did turn up to drive us to my sister's house in spite of me being incommunicado for stupidly leaving my phone in the car at Norwich Bus Station.
I've done the drive home before. You come out of the airport going generally east and run into Interstate 29/35 going south towards KC. Not now. You go straight ahead onto Interstate 425 which goes south towards Independence. Think of the I 425 as a bit like the M 25 – it provides a circle route around the KC metro area just as the M 25 does for London.
This very neatly illustrates an important point. At any given time somewhere in Missouri some road is being built/improved/widened. And why wouldn't you? Head down the highway and there is nothing on either side except brush/scrub land not much good for anything else. So, why not plaster it in concrete and drive on it? Good call. Damn good call!
The pace of change accelerates. Change breeds more change. In Independence, Missouri not much remains of the old city of my childhood. I wanted to visit the old stomping grounds, but I never quite made it. I was just too busy.
I was jet-lagged. I stayed up as late as I could before staggering to bed, but I still woke up early the next morning. I was still jet-lagged two days later. Finally I resurfaced and managed to contact old friends. I was greatly assisted in this by the loan of a mobile phone which my brother-in-law Mike had spare. (Many thanks). So, the phone disaster actually worked in my favour as I only had to pay for pay-as-you-go calls instead of the overseas rates I would have paid on the mobile I left behind.
(aside – when I got back I discovered that Pete had found my phone in the car, brought it into the house, put it down in the kitchen and forgot about it. The battery was flat as a lizard drinking, as the Aussies would say. I plugged it into the mains charger, but it stubbornly refused to charge. I took it to Norwich and they had to give it a “boost” charge to get it going. Moral: don't let your cell/mobile phone get completely out of charge!)
My jet-lag persisted. For a few days I felt decidedly under the weather. I was functioning but only at 80%. I did feel well enough to attend two baseball games at Kauffman Stadium and the Chiefs game at Arrowhead.
In the UK we get extensive coverage of the NFL. We have done for more than a few years now. We had three regular season games at Wembley Stadium this season and will have three more next year – including a Chiefs home game for which I will move heaven and earth to attend!
Baseball is another story. There is very little coverage other than, perhaps, World Series highlights. You have to pay an extra subscription to the broadcasters to enjoy regular season baseball. Even then it's a sort of “game of the week” type situation – not conducive to following the KC Royals. Therefore I was completely out of touch when I arrived in KC. Take me out to the ball game!
The first game I saw was a Royals loss. This is not surprising as I hadn't seen them win a game with me in the stadium since the 1970's. Most notable event was Juliet's new-found aversion to heights. We trudged up into the upper deck only to be informed that it was too much for her. I took her down to the mezzanine level and bought her two hot dogs (that cheered her up no end). A kindly steward asked if she could help and I explained the problem. She offered to try to find Juliet a seat in the lower deck. I decided to walk her around a bit first and we ran into my sister who decided to take Juliet shopping behind the right field bullpen. A result for Julie!
I finally saw a Royals win on my next trip to the ball park (I went with others and left Juliet at home!) To cut a long story short, they made the play-offs, had a remarkable run all the way to the World Series and lost the seventh and final game 3-2!
The weekend saw my 50th Anniversary High School Reunion. Go Bears!
On Friday we played golf at Drumm Farm Golf Club. I knew the course, for I had played there with Larry Dean the last time I was in Independence. Unfortunately, they have gone up-market. The rough was extensive and it was deep. I found it regularly. I even managed to hit one in the pond.
I played with Terry Galloway and his wife. One of the great things about the reunion was seeing how folks had changed in fifty years. Terry had not. Of course, in a class as large as ours (600+ kids) There were hundreds of people you did not know, even by sight. Terry was a star on the basketball team, so even though I did not have any classes with him I “knew” him. Disgustingly, he had not changed a bit. Just less hair. I'm sure he could still shoot hoops with the best of them. He and his wife were extremely competitive – with each other fortunately. They were content to watch me hack around the course in my usual style. I shot about my usual – 120-ish but everyone had a great time.
On Saturday morning we went back to the old school for a guided tour. How memory fades! We were warned that the building had undergone a complete make-over recently, but; nevertheless, as the outside looks just as it did in '64 perhaps we expected the same inside. Not so. At various points we were able to place old classrooms, old rest-rooms and old views. I particularly enjoyed the wall-mounted plaques “honouring” WCHS graduates who had achieved something notable throughout the years. Very impressive – though I was suspiciously absent.
After a nice box lunch we had the afternoon to rest up for the main event – the reunion dinner. Larry got himself double-booked. One of Connie's nephews was getting married in the late afternoon, so he went to the ceremony and then changed and picked us up. Imagine the scene - 150-odd old folks who don't really know each other, though they may have done 50 years ago, sitting down to dinner at tables for 12. Point One for the reunion committee, the names tags needed to be far larger. At our table, I recognised Peggy Townley, who was one of the reunion organisers, and also a fellow sufferer from Sophomore History class in 1962.
(This was a very interesting class. The teacher, I believe, was Mr Davidson. Point Two for the reunion committee, the reunion booklet should have included the names of the teachers and what happened to them. He must have been new to the job. Certainly, he didn't look very old. His methods were suspect to say the least. We went through the history text book chapter by chapter. We were supposed to read the chapter for homework and be prepared to answer questions in class. I've always liked History. I've always been a very fast reader. I had read the whole text book by about week two. I was bored. He would ask questions and then call on someone in the class to answer. In the beginning, I would put my hand up if I knew the answer – which was almost always. He would avoid calling on me. Then he couldn't resist the challenge. He'd call. I'd give the answer. Soon he more or less gave up. I upped the ante. I would only put up my hand when I wasn't 100% sure of the answer. He never called on me in this situation. When I knew the answer, I'd sit at the back with a puzzled and distraught look on my face. He couldn't resist. He'd call on me. I'd struggle, seemingly, and then give the correct answer. Poor man – he never figured it out.)
The dinner was a great success. A very nice meal and a chance to mingle. The highlight was the class reunion photo. I got on the back row and tried to get my head between the two ladies in front of me. I failed. You can see about 75% of my splendiferous visage.
Next day, Sunday, I went to the Chiefs game with Stoner (Juliet, convinced she had vertigo, forestalled) and saw them whip the Patriots big time. The first week was rounded off more than successfully.
One thing that puzzled me was the absence of “ethnic” faces in the crowd at both Kauffman Stadium and Arrowhead. It was explained to me that the pricing of tickets for both baseball and football was now so up-market that poorer people were effectively excluded. I heard what they were saying, but I'm still not entirely convinced.
I was even more disgruntled to learn that some states are placing restrictions on voting and wondered if this tied in with what I was seeing? I checked out the Texas voting procedures. They do not present much problem to the citizen who is only relatively well off. If you have a photo driver's licence you are in. Ditto for passport. So, if the intention is to avoid voter fraud, then fine. But what about those who are so poor that they don't have access to any qualifying documents? It still smells a bit like Jim Crow. I believe the courts are looking at this as I write.
We look down the long lens of history and think we learn. Sometimes we do – sometimes we don't. Current events in Ferguson, Mo show how fragile a democracy can get. Is the lack of black faces in the crowd at Arrowhead some kind of cultural apartheid? Are the NFL and MLB consciously pricing blacks out of the market? I just don't know. I do know there were not many blacks at the games I attended. That's a fact.
Is the current apoplectic furore regarding President Obama's plans to use an Executive Order to allow millions of illegal immigrants, mostly Hispanic, to obtains residency rights but not voting rights a symptom or a cause? “President Obama is announcing his executive action on immigration, and some conservatives are raging with ... Right-wing claims aside, the President's immigration order won't give voting rights to unauthorized immigrants.” Whether this will prevent them from voting in practice remains to be seen.
Don't forget America is the home of voter fraud (and the hanging chad). We probably invented it. The colony of Rhode Island was founded by after a split from Massachusetts because of voting irregularities. America is the home of Boss Tweed (NY), Boss Pendergast (KC Mo) Mayor Richard Daley (Chicago) and Boss Butler of St Louis (The King of them all), who was occasionally known to call out to his men, in full hearing of the police at the voting station, “Are there any more repeaters out there that want to vote again.”
So, what is the President up to? Lame duck Presidents are always looking to protect what they see as their legacy. One way for Obama to do this is to make sure that Hispanic Americans know which side their bread is buttered on. He's probably just electioneering for the Democratic Party. All Presidents do things to favour their own party.
I wonder how many folks in KC know anything about the immigration issue here in the UK? I suspect not too many. The UK has its own “problem” with immigration. The UK even has their own political party on the subject – UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party). They are currently riding high (about 16%) in the polls and threatening to be a real force in the next general election, which will be in May 2015. Their main platform issue is withdrawal from the European Union.
One of the central tenets of the EU is the free movement of capital and labour. So by being a member, the UK has no control over who or how many people from other EU countries may come and live and work here. UKIP want to change this by withdrawing from the EU. The other three parties, Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrats all want to stay in – but change various aspects of the free movement of labour policy. The Conservatives are promising a renegotiation and a referendum afterwards – provided they win the next election. The anti-immigrant vote is on the march. Supporters of withdrawal say that current levels of immigration (about +260 000/year) are unsustainable. (This is a small, overcrowded Island already.)
The best analogy would be if the USA, Canada and Mexico formed some kind of Union where workers and capital could move freely between each. The EU is far more complicated as it involves countries as diverse as Germany and Spain or Greece and Latvia. By this comparison, Obama's initiative on immigration looks pretty tame.
Into the second week and it was definitely family time. Brother Jim and brother Mark drove in from Illinois for my nephew Mike's wedding. Before the festivities could commence we had to play golf in the Kauffman Championship match.
Off we went to Royal Meadows. I actually played my first game of golf here many, many years ago. It was called Stayton Meadows then. The golfing gods decreed that I missed the golf-talent gene when I inherited my left-handedness from the Old Man. That is a bit of a shame, cause he was quite a good left-handed golfer. Brother Jim got most of the family talent, but Brother Mark is pretty much in my mould. Nevertheless, with family pride at stake it was a hard-fought match. Nephew Mike Kauffman made up the foursome. He's young and fit and hits the ball, as my Uncle Ray used to say “out where the big dogs pee”, and occasionally in the correct direction. The most amazing part of the entertainment was a golfing tip I got from Jim. Whether or not it was the cause I managed my best score ever – exactly 100. As usual with golf, I can think of ten ways I could have shaved just one stroke off and broke the hundred barrier!
The wedding was wonderful. Mike married Bradee Risen – two good German families reunited after many generations. I enjoyed the whole thing – it was excellent. The venue was very good and I met lots of new folks.
The remainder of the time was spent visiting friends, shopping and going out to dinner.
I've now maxed-out my brain, so I will stop boring you.