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 bused 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, Free State, South Africa 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 that huge NY Airways helicopter in the pic for the hop over to La Guardia airport from where I would be going on to Oklahoma – and adventure!

In Oklahoma my nearby exchange student colleagues were Evelyn Woodhouse from Durban, hosted by Fort Cobb, Helen Worswick from Marondellas in Zimbabwe, Jenny Carter from Bromley in Zimbabwe. They were in Mountain View and Carnegie. Also Jonathan Kneebone from Australia. And then there was the delightful Dotty Moffett from Ardmore in Oklahoma, who had been to Cape Town, South Africa with Rotary the year before.

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), Robbie Swanda at Wichita Mountains Wildlife Preserve

We all met at a festive gathering of Rotary students in Oklahoma and then visited each other’s towns whenever we could.

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New Friends New Families

It was amazing and heartwarming how Apache welcomed me. The town, the school the Rotary Club. Right from when I landed in Oklahoma City I was made to feel at home.

I had four immediate Rotarian families in Apache:

  • Bob & Carol Crews with Rob & Jennifer
  • Don & Jackie Lehnertz, whose adult kids had left home
  • 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, and 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 state – to Paris, Texas – I learned 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 in person and know their grandma’s maiden name 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 ’73 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, the prize goof-off subject! 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 yearbooks! I had ’72 back in South Africa – 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 Rotary gave us 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 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. That feature pic at the top is from 15yrs later when I visited Apache on honeymoon: Jay, me and Robbie At Jim n Katie’s new place outside town.

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

Old Red

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 we’d have a pattern: We’d sing America the Beautiful, pledge allegiance to the flag, ask about what everyone had been up to the past week and ask a medical question of old Doc O’Connor who would reply – every single time – “Not that kind of doctor”. 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. Well, watched some Mexican fellas do it anyhow. I sprayed something on Jim’s lands. I drove in Walter & Pug Hrbacek’s (or was it Gene & Odie 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.

Travel

I got taken to Paris Texas, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, the Wichita mountains, many surrounding towns – even Boone! Lawton, Norman, Anadarko for catfish, Lake Ellsworth and Lake Lawtonka, Fin & Feather on Lake Tenkiller, Muskogee, etc.

Out of state I went to Shreveport Louisiana, Cobleskill New York, Dubuque Iowa, Red River & Taos New Mexico, Las Vegas Nevada, the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, to Colorado, to Utah, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Wisconsin – eighteen states in all. And we drove on parts of the famous Route 66 back from Vegas.

Then Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Lake Superior, Quetico National Park (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 on an amazing trip: The Pattersons took me to Shreveport LA, where Larry & Ginny Wingert fetched me in a VW Bug and drove me to Cobleskill New York; Where Dottie & Dale Moffett and Sherry Porter fetched me in another VW Bug in which we drove through Canada to Dubuque Iowa, from where Don & Jackie Lehnertz drove me home to Apache.

How amazing is all that for a 17 / 18 yr-old from a small town?

Road Trips USA 1973.jpg

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

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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 and smiling in my second school! I was on my best behaviour in the latter and not my best in the former. That’s life. 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. Sadly, memory fails me as far as names go. Another one was Jim Stanton from the lil school, who took me to a rock concert. And I wrote an apology-of-sorts to Rick Hulett too!

I Believe I Can Fly

Colonel Harold 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 as I soared high up above the take-off point like a bird.

What a year! Thank you Apache!

Apache High School Trip

We went to a beautiful resort in north-eastern Oklahoma, about 220 miles from Apache by yellow schoolbus, a fun trip with stops along the way. The lake water was stunning, clear and cold – as was the beer. Lots of laughter, love and hijinks.

Apache 1973 Annual (6)

 

Some facts: Lake Tenkiller on the Illinois River in north-eastern Oklahoma. Named for the Tenkiller family, prominent Cherokees who owned the land and ferry that were bought for the project. The lake covers 52 km² and has a shoreline of over 210 km. Situated in the Cookson Hills of the Ozark Mountains of Cherokee and Sequoyah counties.