USA Here We Come: Living in the ‘70s

All the leaves are brown and the sky is gray

I’ve been for a walk on a winter’s day

I’d be safe and warm if I was in LA

California dreaming’ on such a winter’s day

California Dreaming – The Mamas and the Papas – 1966

It started over pasta at Barnie’s Restaurant. Joanne wanted to know when they were going to travel and Leo said the problem was their summer holidays were no good for overseas travel in the northern hemisphere.

‘In England the days are short, grey and miserably cold. You wouldn’t enjoy it at all.’

‘Well, how about we go somewhere else? We’ve got friends going to Canada this Christmas and other friends who’ll be in Los Angeles. Then there’s your aunt in Muskegon.’

They talked about it some more and began to get excited. An ad in the paper sealed the deal. It was for a fly-around ticket which would take them to up to 20 destinations in the United States, paid in advance. All they would be up for was accommodation. With the excellent exchange rate (the Australian dollar was worth considerably more than the greenback in those days) and a number of friends to stay with, the holiday might be affordable. There could be no expensive side trips once they got there but at least they were going.

In 1976, on Christmas Day, Leo and Joanne arrived in San Francisco after an 18 hour flight via Fiji and Hawaii. It was their first experience of America and Joanne’s first big overseas trip (you can’t count New Zealand). There she is in her inadequate orange parka braving minus 20 Celsius (minus 4 F). They were staying with Leo’s aunt (a war bride) in Muskegon, Michigan. Looking outside at the bright blue sky they decided to take a walk, so borrowing scarves and gloves they set off down the road. After about ten minutes the cold penetrated their clothes and they started to shiver. A car pulled up and a friendly face looked out.

Joanne in her inadequate parka

‘You must be the Australians,’ he laughed. ‘No-one else would be out walking in this weather.’

They gratefully accepted a lift as he turned out to be a cousin and were soon back in the warm house. Never had they seen so much snow. Leo enjoyed shovelling snow from the path each morning so they could get out the door.

Leo getting some exercise

They had already visited friends in Seattle and Vancouver and were on their way to New York. Walking home from Broadway one night after seeing Richard Chamberlain in “The Night of the Iguana”, the snowflakes falling gently on their heads and shoulders they couldn’t believe how different this was to life at home in Wollongong.

Of course the Twin Towers were there then. They were still relatively new but they didn’t go to the top, choosing to go up the Empire State Building instead. They had a good view from the ferry as they forged their way through ice to the Statue of Liberty. They were too cold to get off so waited in the heated boat until it returned to Battery Park.

Too cold to leave the boat

After three days in New York they looked at the map to find somewhere warm. Unfortunately Florida and New Orleans were not listed on the fly-around so they chose Las Vegas via Los Angeles. It was a bright, brassy town even then, although they stayed in a cheap motel close to the action and not a casino. First priority was getting tickets to a show! There were legends like Sammy Davis Junior and Dean Martin performing but everything was booked out. All they could get was ‘Bare Touch of Vegas’, a topless dancing act which was quite entertaining as they had a table at the front. They were beginning to tire of wearing the same clothes as their luggage had gone missing on the flight from L.A. Joanne wore her black striped dress and black boots hiking the Valley of Fire by day and to the Casino at night. She watched in horror as people put whole dollar notes in a slot machine. She would only ever put in 20 cent pieces.

Back in L.A. they looked up some Australian friends who had a three year old boy. What better excuse to visit Disneyland! Joanne’s strongest impression was how clean and well maintained it was. Most of the theme parks she had visited in Australia were in a run down state but this was a world apart, with an army of young people continually sweeping and picking up rubbish.

They were less impressed by Universal Studios and thought Jaws looked decidedly unrealistic as they viewed him from a little train. It was interesting to watch the stunt men and women perform and seeing Lucille Ball’s old studio and cowboy movie sets brought back glimpses of the past.

Their last excursion was a drive from San Francisco to Monterey where they experienced the best weather so far. Driving through Castroville they were introduced to the artichoke. Avocados were cheaper than they had ever seen before. They remarked on the gum trees and how the coastline reminded them of Australia. After reaching Carmel they reluctantly drove back to L.A. All that remained was a long flight home, a new year of teaching and some wonderful memories.

Looking back on that holiday Joanne marvelled at their lack of planning. The only night’s accommodation prebooked was the Mark Twain Hotel in San Francisco. She remembered them standing in a New York City street, hailing a taxi and asking the driver to take them to a reasonably priced hotel not too far from the action, which he did. At some airports they scanned the pictures of motels on the wall and picked one, ringing the number on the wall phone, only to be picked up minutes later. They were impressed by American efficiency. It only took a phone call for things to happen and nothing was too much trouble. In fact everyone was so nice. They all said Happy New Year and Have a Good Day. They decided Australians could learn a lot about service with a smile.

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