Homeward – Stuck at JFK and Playing in the Snow

I’d had a wonderful and unforgettable year. The end was kinda overwhelming. There wasn’t enough time to see everyone and say goodbye and – mostly – thank you, but all good things do come to an end and there I was on a plane to New York.

JFK Airport
– JFK in the 70’s –

I flew to JFK Airport in New York on a Monday in December and asked for a flight to Johannesburg via London. I’d flown to America via Rio and I fancied flying back across the Atlantic ‘the other way’.

‘Sorry you can’t. Your ticket is non-transferable, and the next SAA flight is via Rio on Friday’. My folks had paid for my ticket on a 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 $19. 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 was worth $1.42 back then. It has gone pear-shaped since. R16 will often not buy you a single dollar note now!

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.

At SAA’s Manhattan street-level office: ‘Sorry, can’t help you’. 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.

JFK Airport2
JFK in the 70’s

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.

Looking for the ‘Y’ I ask a man in the street for directions. He picks up my suitcase, says ‘Follow Me!’ and walks off briskly. Less than half a block later he thumps my case down, points at the ‘Y’ and says ‘That’ll be two dollars!’ I told him Dream On, I’m on the bones of my arse. Here’s sixty cents and that’s tops! He pocketed it and went off whistling.

Suitcase Apache OK 1973 (1).jpg

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”. The cabin crew were on strike and admin staff were doing cabin duty. Grudgingly. Service was non-existent.

Air India 747
– my first flight in a Jumbo Jet! –

I didn’t know it then, but I’d be back! In 1984 to kayak the Colorado river through the Grand Canyon and in 1988 on honeymoon with Trish.

A much older lass I met on the plane – she was probably all of thirty – felt sorry for me as we’d had nothing to eat on the flight. On the way out of Heathrow she bought me a cold pork pie. Best pie ever!

I was on my way to meet a friend Don Inglis who once lived and wooed in Harrismith and was working in London for a year, so he knew the place. Turned out he had a rugby match that day, 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, shoulder-to-shoulder.

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 buses 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.


Diederiks Ront – South African currency the Rand; Diederiks was the finance minister

asseblief! – please! Yirr!

Saffer – South African

boerkies – South Africans

koffie poppie – SAA air hostess


In May 1974 I got this letter from Karen Brower, exchange student to Harrismith the year before, who was back at her home in Shelter Island, on the eastern tip of Long Island: ‘I’m really upset you didn’t come to see me when you spent those four days at Kennedy! Stony Brook (her university) is only about 30 miles out the island. I could have borrowed my friend’s car and come out to get you! Oh, well, c’est la vie (remember what that means?).’


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It's about life, marriage, friends, raising kids, paddling rivers, travel in Africa . . . re-posting thoughts written over decades - at random, I'm afraid.

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