Port Elizabeth, South Africa, August, 1960
Goodbye, Port Elizabeth! I was off to college and the day of my departure from South Africa finally arrived! A sturdy steamer trunk was filled with most of what I’d need for school, including outfits I’d sewn from Vogue patterns, some out of Egyptian cotton purchased on the Cape to Cairo expedition I’d made several months earlier with my Foreign Service parents. Certain necessities, like a clock radio, boots, mittens and scarves I would shop for on arrival in the States. A handsome new four-piece red plaid luggage set – with matching hatbox[!] – stood waiting on the front stoep. A “secret admirer’s” fragrant corsage was pinned to the lapel of my fashionable new wool suit. (August was late winter in South Africa.)
Peter and George with whom I’d spent many delightful hours walking on the beach, keeping track of Her Majesty’s frigates and submarines in port, had said their goodbyes. Tessa and Tiki, my two ballet dancer chums from school, had promised we’d reunite in London; they hoped to train for the Royal Ballet there. Deirdre, niece of the charming Austrian countess, had had me to tea in the sweet-smelling garden of their country home one last time. Suzie had gifted me a very small bear. It reminded us of the time homesick crewmembers from a Soviet ship had bought out P.E.’s entire supply of bears. And lastly Elsie the cook who’d been trained by Tommy to prepare a different hot breakfast each weekday, and cheerful Douglas who took care of house and garden chores, had said “totsiens“.
So, we three Ralstons flew off to Johannesburg where we’d spend a night before I headed to the States. In fact, we stayed an extra day because Pan Am’s four-engine Constellation was delayed. Somewhere en route an African walked across the runway as the plane taxied to take-off. An inquest would be held. A different aircraft finally arrived in South Africa.
I was looking forward to a treat. My folks had generously upgraded my ticket to include an overhead berth for the long multi-stop passage. My flight was finally called. I thanked Tommy and Don for being wonderful parents. Off I went to conquer, if not the world, at least four years of a liberal arts education.
Only years later did I learn that my smiling mom held back tears until after I’d ascended the stairs, waved, and disappeared inside the plane. I didn’t feel sad. I had a whole new experience to contemplate, and I was ready. For Foreign Service people moving on was normal, the pattern of our lives, though always before we had moved on together. My folks’ example was to expect good wherever we lived and to embrace change. We knew then that I’d see my parents shortly. They would return soon to the States for home leave before my dad was assigned either to Johannesburg at the ambassador’s request or to the State Department’s Inspection Corps.
At cruising altitude, after serving a tasty dinner, the flight crew prepared the overhead berths. I climbed eagerly into mine. But there was no good night’s sleep for me. Before leaving Africa, we landed every few hours – Léopoldville; Lagos; Roberts Field, Liberia; Dakar – and the ups and downs interfered with my sleep. Finally when we took off over the Atlantic, it was daylight. The berths were stashed away, and I curled up with a book.
Perhaps I also thought back to our safari in Kruger National Park. That was where a buffalo stampede shook the ground behind us; where Jeremy the teenager whose family’d spent twelve vacations there taught me how to identify lions at night with my nose! (They smelled like potato chips. Or was it French fries?) On that same trip we’d travelled on Kipling’s “great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo River” into Portuguese East Africa. There we witnessed a bullfight where the bull was allowed to survive. Then surely I dosed off.
At LaGuardia airport I had to phone a Canadian relative. I handed the cheery woman at the telephone/telegraph counter a $10 bill. She heard the flat tones of my South African accent, that my friend James (a goateed intellectual who came many Sunday afternoons for long discussions on our sun porch) had urged me to record. He said I would lose the accent in America (which I quickly did). The attendant placed coins before me. “We call this a nickel,” she informed me. “This is a dime.” I did not have the heart to tell her I was an American.
The “steady” I’d left behind in Maryland two years before was waiting at the airport. He drove me to his sister’s home. There I caught up on my sleep before we headed down the coast the next morning. Stopping for petrol [as I would have said] I was momentarily surprised that the black man who pumped the gas spoke not Afrikaans, but English – and with an American accent.
Back in Bethesda after a few days of seeing pals and shopping for boots and a thoroughly modern clock radio, my best friend Sue and I set off by train to Principia College in Illinois, she a sophomore, and I, a bit of a curiosity as the in-coming freshman from Africa. Some were disappointed to find that although from Africa, I was not an African.
My college career began with an academic bridge to my recent past. In Government 101 we were to prepare a report on our hometown city hall. I plunged into learning much more than I had known about official Port Elizabeth, not a simple pre-internet task. Fortunately, the parental pair I’d left behind arrived on campus just in time to assist me in the paper’s finishing touches. As it turned out, this was their only visit to the campus during my four years. It couldn’t have been more opportunely timed. My college career was successfully launched and for the time being Africa was in my past.