On my way back home to South Africa from the States, I flew to New York on a Monday in December and asked for a flight to Johannesburg via London.
‘Sorry you can’t. Your ticket is non-transferable, and the next SAA flight is via Rio on Friday’. The old man had paid for my ticket on his shiny new Barclaycard and had put it over 12 months, so one last payment was still outstanding.
Ooh shit, four days in NY with no money. Well, about $25. I got $25 a month allowance in Apache from the Rotary club. Seventeen South African Diederiks Ront it was back then, and sixty cents. (R1 = $1.42)
I put my suitcase in a locker, put a quarter in the slot and took the key. Hopped on a bus to Grand Central Station ($2) in Manhattan to look for the SAA offices. ‘Sorry, can’t help’. Hey asseblief man! ‘OK, we’ll try’.
Back to JFK airport to sleep on the floor (the damn benches spitefully had armrests for each seat so you couldn’t lie down on them). Fitful sleep broken by a huge sit-on vacuum and polish machine that roared up at 3am. ‘Move along there’, said the cleaner.
Tuesday I did the same locker-bus-SAA office run, but now I was rather peckish so I strolled around Manhattan looking for something cheap to eat. I found a burger for $3. Not cheap in ’73, but that included as much beer as you could drink, so I thought OK. Big glasses, though, so I could only drink two. Wandered the Manhattan streets with a nice beer buzz going.
Wednesday I did the same locker-bus-SAA-hamburger-with-beers run but this time when I go into SAA at the end of the day they told me ‘Good News, you’re free to go!‘ To celebrate I booked into the YMCA so I could have a shower. $11 for the smallest room I have ever slept in.
Thursday morning squeaky clean on the bus back to JFK and I took the first plane to London: Air India. I grabbed a discarded newspaper lying on a bench before I boarded. Settling into my seat I read: – “Air India has just been voted ‘Worst Airline in the World’. Again”.
A much older lass I meet on the plane (she was probably only thirty) felt sorry for me and bought me a cold pork pie on the way out of Heathrow. I was on my way to meet an acquaintance Don who once lived in Harrismith and was working in London for a year, so he knew the place. Turned out he had a rugby match (playing for some Saffer team against the London Irish) so we scurried around Buck House circle and somewhere else where someone lived or died or married someone, and headed off to Wimbledon for the game in his little Austin something – with five rugby okes squeezed into it.
At the ground the players huddled in a cold shed to change and noticed they were a couple of boerkies short could I play? Sure, I said, but only half the first half, then I had to catch a tube to Heathrow. Thank goodness (it was sleeting outside) Don said ‘Rather don’t risk missing your flight’. So they ran out onto the mud with one blade of grass every ten yards without me and start puffing out steam and shoving some fat Irish blokes around. Between scrums Don shouted out which tubes and busses I should catch and I left before the halftime whistle to head South after a year in foreign climes. I was very much looking forward to getting home.
Once in the air the SAA koffie poppie gave me lip when I ordered a third beer so I was feeling at home while still thousands of kays away.
Forty years later (2014) daughter Jessie called out: “Dad why are these people playing in the snow?”
Playing what, Jess?
“I dunno, running around in the snow”. So I go and look: Rugby. London Wasps playing Northhampton Saints. The pinkish poms don’t seem to notice there’s a blizzard swirling around their short-pants knees, but I see there’s a Wentzel playing and he’s probably feeling it.
So I explained to her the madness of Poms, and I explained how I hadn’t played rugby in the snow in London long ago. In Harrismith the u/11B’s played first thing Saturday mornings, so I had played on frosty white fields, kaalvoet – but not in an actual blizzard.
She looked at me as if I was stark staring mad. I think she was sorry she asked.