Fresh in the USA-ay

Fresh from the City of Sin and Laughter (Harrismith, Free State, South Africa – you didn’t know?), where I’d spent my first seventeen years, I arrived in New York with Great Expectations.

I was READY – more than ready! – to see the big wide world. After landing we – the gang of Southern African Rotary Exchange students -were bussed to a hotel in Queens. Someone (a Rotarian, I guess?) checked us in and then left us to go to bed for the night. Early the next morning we’d be boarding different planes to the various states we’d been assigned to.

Go to bed?! Fuhgeddaboudit!

But most did! I was horrified. “Excuse me, no WAY I’m going to bed. I’m in New York, the city that never sleeps!”. Even in Harrismith I would not have wanted to go to bed in case the Holiday Inn was still open! Only one other guy (was he Gary or was he heading to Gary, Indiana? It’s so long ago now) joined me and we went to the night porter. “Right! Where can we go for a night on the town, sir? We want to go for a walk, which way shall we head?”
Oh, I wouldn’t advise you did that, he drawled, I’ll get the hotel bus to take you someplace.

So off we went, noses plastered against the windows, fascinated. Our personal chauffeur dropped us off at a brightly-lit truck stop and asked when we wanted to be fetched. “Three Ay Emm” we said, pushing our luck. Check, he said without blinking. So we sat and watched a New York night go by drinking beer and eating burgers n fries till he fetched us as arranged.

After three hours sleep, we were taken back to JFK where we split up. Some of us boarded a HUGE helicopter for the hop over to La Guardia airport from where I would be going on to Oklahoma – and adventure!

Here’s my truckstop mate striding to the chopper:


In Oklahoma my nearby exchange student colleagues were (memory sketchy here!) Evelyn Woodhouse from Durban was stationed at Fort Cobb, Helen Worswick from (I think) Marondellas in Zimbabwe, Jenny Carter from Bromley in Zimbabwe, Jonathan Kneebone from Australia. And there was Dotty Moffett who been to Cape Town, South Africa the year before. She was from Ardmore in OK.

Dayne & Kent Swanda, Helen Worswick, Jenny Carter, Jonathan Kneebone, Evelyn Woodhouse, Robbie Swanda at Wichita Mountains Preserve
Dayne & Kent Swanda, Helen Worswick (Zimbabwe), Jenny Carter (Zimbabwe), Jonathan Kneebone (Australia), Evelyn Woodhouse (South Africa, Durban), Robbie Swanda at Wichita Mountains Wildlife Preserve

Friends n Families

It was amazing and heartwarming how Apache welcomed me. The town, the school the Rotary Club. I had four immediate families:

  • Bob & Carol Crews with Rob & Jennifer
  • Don & Jackie Lehnertz
  • Danny & Mary-Joyce Swanda with Robbie, Kent & Dayne
  • Jim & Katie Patterson with Mary-Kate & Jimmy

I had twenty Rotarians willing and eager to teach me America the Beautiful ( I have sung it on road trips ever since – my kids look at me weird), and show me around Apache and Oklahoma and beyond on their trips, business or leisure. On my first trip out of town – to Paris, Texas – I learnt to greet strangers. Being of faraway English, Scots and Dutch extraction I was insular and reserved. You had to formally meet four of someone’s family before you could say hello to them. Well, in Paris Texas I missed the first greeting and even the second. Surely strangers weren’t saying ‘howdy’ to me!? Then the penny dropped: They were and Why Not? I have greeted people ever since. I get a lot of funny looks but what the hell, ignoring people is not on. I no longer have to meet someone’s grandpa before I say ‘Hello’.

I had a new senior class which would graduate soon, and then I’d join the ’74 senior class after the summer. They took me in and – besides English and American History, which were compulsory – let me choose the easy subjects (I was even in Annual Staff!). And they bought me a class ring – how’s that? I had said no thanks, so they secretly chipped in and bought me one!

Few people are lucky enough to be in three high school senior years! (I had ’72 back in South Africa as well – in the southern hemisphere we do it right – we start in January and end in December of the same calendar year!). Then I joined the Apache senior classes of ’73 and ’74 for half a year each.

Robbie Swanda, Jay Wood and David Lodes showed me the ropes. As a seventeen year old I couldn’t drive back in the RSA (and we were under strict orders NOT to drive as exchange students!) but in the USA Robbie & Jay could. And I could be a passenger in their blue Ford Mustang and green Chev Camaro. Once Jay even made the mistake of letting me drive. Bad. Again, I am sorry Jay and you were amazing the way you forgave me! I was better in the passenger seat. You know: beer.

Jim let me drive a tractor and Ole Red, the WW2 Willys Jeep. But on the farm! Sober!

In Canada that summer Sherry Porter made the mistake of letting me drive on a Friday on the way to a TGIF and I wrecked the rear fender of her red VW Bug. Thank goodness I hit a great big fullsize Dodge pickup with a fender the size of a cowcatcher on a steam train and didn’t leave a mark so we could drive off without guilt. You too were amazing the way you forgave this African-who-wouldn’t-learn, Sherry! I was better on the back seat. You know: beer.

In Rotary every Tuesday (I think it was Tuesdays) we’d have a pattern: We’d sing America the Beautiful, pledge allegiance, ask about what everyone had been up to and ask a medical question of old Doc O’Connor who would reply “Not that kind of doctor”. Every time. (He was a dentist).

I became a farmer – A certified Future Farmer of America and I can still hear how Schneeburger would say EFFIFFAY. I welded a cattle feeder on an axle and drum with birdshit welding which fell over in the first little breeze. I went to hog shows. I planted peanuts in Fort Cobb (or watched some Mexican fellas do it anyhow). I sprayed something on Jim’s lands. I drove in Walter Hrbacek’s (or Gene Mindemann’s) airconditioned cab in his harvester (or tractor?) with an eight-track tape overhead. I took part in the catching, de-horning, castrating, branding and inoculating of the bull calves, then in eating the produce and washing it down with beer. Mountain oysters.

I learnt to type – Peaking at a blistering nineteen words a minute with ten mistakes.

I got hauled up in front of Mr Brown with Jay & Robbie and cowered as he read us the riot act for some misdemeanor, and then listened in wide-eyed awe as Jay said “You’ll get over it!” as John Brown turned bright puce.

I got taken to Paris Texas, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, the Wichita mountains, many surrounding towns – even Boone!, Lawton, Norman, Anadarko for catfish, Lakes Ellsworth and Lawtonka, Fin & Feather, Muskogee, Shreveport LA, Cobleskill NY, Dubuque Iowa, Red River NM, Las Vegas, the South Rim of the Grand Canyon (drove Route 66 on the way back), Colorado, Utah, Bryce Canyon, Zion NP – eighteen states in all. Then Montreal, Toronto, Lake Superior, Quetico NP (canoed on the Lake of the Woods and got eaten by 40 million mosquitos) in Canada with Niagara falls on the way. Saw the Mississippi where you could throw a stone across it. How amazing is that?

I played football and track for school and basketball for a Rotary pickup team.


Somehow the teachers in Apache were all wonderful and friendly! Why is that, when the teachers in my first senior class were not so enamoured of me? OK, let’s be truthful, I was a bit hard-to-take in my home school and very co-operative in my second school! I was on my best behaviour in the latter and not my best in the former. Sorry, Harrismith teachers!  Colonel Dennis, Virginia Darnell, Bob Schneeburger, Dan Chandler, Jeanne Setzer, Billie McDonald and L’Roy Campbell were all very good to me – as were all the others (memory fails me as far as names go). Another one was Jim Stanton from the lil school, who took me to a rock concert (I wrote about that further down this blog). And I wrote an apology-of-sorts to Rick Hulett too!

Colonel Dennis taught me how to fly – in theory – in night classes. Many years later I flew solo off a mountain in a paraglider. I’m glad I paid attention in his classes. It was stunning. And the Colonel’s knowledge really did help – I knew what was happening. I soared up above the take-off point like a bird.

What a year! Thank you Apache!

Basket Weaving

When I got to Apache Oklahoma I had already finished high school. Minimum effort had gone into my matric and I was keen to put minimal effort into this second matric, or ‘senior year’ at Apache High. In my mind I had been sent to America to socialise and be an ambassador, ‘period’.

So I carefully selected my subjects –

I had to take American history and English (compulsory according to Rotary as we were ‘foreigners’). I chose typing, ag shop (agricultural workshop – farming, welding, etc making me a member of the FFA – Future Farmers of America), annual staff (making the school annual, acting as a journalist, selling ads in town – a hoot!).

Here’s me focusing on my typing. I reached a blistering 19 words a minute with ten mistakes.

pete 50005.JPG pete-50008

Fellow annual staffers Robbie Swanda and David Lodes slave over their hot typewriters.

When I told host Dad Jim Patterson my subjects he grimaced then grinned and said –

“Peter, are you sure they didn’t offer basket weaving!”

Jim was a great teacher. He taught me all about ‘counting fence posts’. He would pack a sixpack of Coors into a cooler on ice and we would drive around the district in his old red Ford F150 pickup along the farm roads with Jim recounting all the tales of who lived where, what they farmed and some history of the area.

We were ‘counting fence posts’.

Here’s Jim and that pickup.

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Granpa Crews also took me fence-post counting. He just didn’t call it that. A memorable incident happened on one of those drives. Before we left South Africa on our exhange student program we had a weekend session here

Greystones Veld&Vlei

where they told us what to do and not do (“Don’t fall in love”; “DO NOT DRIVE” and other valuable lessons). Also, they said “After six weeks you will get homesick and lonely” and I quite clearly and consciously thought Ha! What rot! Not me!

So we’re driving along a country road and Granpa Crews says “What’s wrong?” and I chirp a bright Nothing! I’m fine! and a flood of nostalgia washes over me and my eyes welled up with tears. Weird! Experienced old Granpa Crews had noticed something I hadn’t.

I’d been in Apache six weeks exactly. Every now and then (not often) as a youngster you had to acknowledge there was something to be said for the wisdom of experience.

Pow Wow

Some of my classmates were Native American and I loved that. I had come from apartheid South Africa where we were strictly segregated and I loved meeting and learning from other people. Melvin Mithlo filled me in and pumped for what I knew about the Zulu people back home. He even learned a few Zulu words.

He was chairman of the school’s American Indian society and invited me to a Pow Wow one night. Here’s a teepee in the Apache showgrounds.

Apache showgrounds

At school the American Indian society presented me with beautiful gifts. Debbie Pahdapony Grey does the honours:

The Apache Indian Society presented me with a special hand-made shirt

Oklahoma was Indian Territory before we whites stole it from them, and there’s a lot of sad Indian history about. Read something about it here.

For more, read Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn, who has revealed the very ugly, savage treatment of the indigenous Americans in his book The Barbarous Years.

European settler colonial projects unleashed massively destructive forces on Native peoples and communities all around the world. These include violence resulting directly from settler expansion, intertribal violence (frequently aggravated by colonial intrusions), enslavement, disease, alcohol, loss of land and resources, forced removals, and assaults on tribal religion, culture, and language. More here

Here Melvin Mithlo readies Joe Pedrano for an event.

Museum stuff at Fort Sill north of Lawton, south of Apache. Apache chief Geronimo died here, 23 years after being taken captive. His Apaches were about the last of the tribes to be defeated.

Brief History

Earliest Period – 1830
The tribes usually described as indigenous to Oklahoma at the time of European contact include the Wichitas, Caddos, Plains Apaches* (currently the Apache Tribe), and the Quapaws. Following European arrival in America and consequent changes, Osages, Pawnees, Kiowas and Comanches migrated into Oklahoma, displacing most of the earlier peoples. Anglo-American pressures in the Trans Apalachian West forced native peoples across the Mississippi River; many – including Delawares, Shawnees and Kickapoos – found refuge or economic opportunities in present Oklahoma before 1830. However, some of those tribes split in the process.

*Naisha-traditional reference to the Plains Apache

1830 – 1862
The Indian Removal Act of 1830 culminated federal policy aimed at forcing all Eastern Indians west of the Mississippi River. The Choctaws, Cherokees, Creeks, Chickasaws and Seminoles–the “Five Civilized Tribes”– purchased present Oklahoma from the federal government, while other immigrant tribes were resettled on reservations in the unorganized territories of Kansas and Nebraska. Passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 precipitated further Anglo-American settlement of these territories, setting off a second wave of removals into present Oklahoma, which became known as “Indian Territory.” In 1859, with the state of Texas threatening genocide toward Indians, several tribes found refuge in the Leased District in western Indian Territory.

1865 – 1892
The Civil War (1861-1865) temporarily curtailed frontier settlement and removals, but postwar railroad building across the Great Plains renewed Anglo-American homesteading of Kansas and Nebraska. To protect the newcomers and provide safe passage to the developing West, the federal government in 1867 once again removed the Eastern immigrant Indians form Kansas and Nebraska reservations and relocated them on Indian Territory lands recently ceded by the Five Civilized Tribes. The same year, the Medicine Lodge Council attempted to gather the Plains tribes onto western Indian Territory reservations. Resistance among some resulted in periodic warfare until 1874. Meanwhile, the last of the Kansas and Nebraska tribes were resettled in present Oklahoma. Geronimo’s Apache followers, the last to be defeated, were established near Fort Sill as prisoners of war.

‘My’ Famous Tornado

In Apache Oklahoma in 1973 I lived with the charismatic funeral home owner, fire chief, ambulance driver, hearse driver and tornado alert man, Robert L Crews III. In the funeral home. While I was there we sounded the siren for tornadoes twice and watched them approach. Once we even went down into the basement as it came so close. But both times it went back up into the clouds – didn’t touch ground. The clouds on one of those days:

ApacheOK73 (7).JPG

In May we heard of the Union City disaster. We drove there to look-see. The image that stuck the most in my mind was the main street with many buildings completely gone. One shop had some shelves still standing – with product on the shelves – but the roof and walls were gone.

I found this recently:
Union City Tornado Makes History
NSSL revisits its past as it celebrates 40 years with NOAA – by Rachel Shortt


On May 24, 1973, a tornado rated F4 struck the Union City area and was the first tornado widely documented by science as part of storm chasing field research. NSSL out of Norman, Oklahoma placed numerous storm chasers around it to capture the life cycle on film. As the devastating tornado tore through the small town of Union City, no one knew the tremendous impact it would have on the development of weather radar. Researchers from the NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory now look back on that day as a significant event in the history of severe weather research and forecasting.

And I was (sorta) there!

For a human interest story, see the New York Times article written in 1993 on the 20th anniversary of the disaster.