In the beginning God said let there be flight
(and there was flight, and jet-lag, and little packets of airline peanuts)
Joint candidacy for TAFF certainly is a liability when the two people in question live at opposite ends of the country. As joint candidates, Lilian and I were quite adamant that we wanted to arrive in America at the same time, and as slightly nervous travellers, we preferred to do so from the same plane. In my southern-centric way, I rather assumed that we would fly from London, but Lilian, after some astute conferences with her travel agents, came up with the irrefutable facts that Glasgow is nearer America than London, and that the plane fares were cheaper (unless we were prepared to fly Kuwait Air, which even at the time didn't seem that good an idea). So, the programme that confronted me as I trundled my brand new extra-large suitcase into Bristol coach station went as follows:
Tuesday 6 hours from Bristol to Glasgow by coach
Wednesday 5½ hours from Prestwick to JFK New York
Thursday 5 hours from JFK to Seattle-Tacoma
Somehow, it was comforting to know that the relatively familiar Bristol-Glasgow coach journey would be the longest stint of the three.
It was also the least interesting. My watch had stopped the day before, and all the shops I tried that morning were completely out of batteries, so I sat there in a timeless void, trying to calculate how well we were doing and how soon I could sensibly eat my sandwiches. At Preston more people joined the coach, and I found myself sitting next to a blonde Australian guy. As anyone who remembers me and Justin Ackroyd at Mexicon 1 will know, I have something of a predilection for Australians. Unfortunately, in this case, the Australian's girl-friend was sitting in the seat in front of him, and every so often he would reach round to grope her leg. I was forced to be philosophical and resolve to save myself for all those wonderful Americans I was -- surely? -- going to meet on my TAFF trip.
The coach arrived on time, which was a minor miracle. After a bit of wandering around, dragging my new suitcase (and discovering that one of its wheels was prone to fall off) I met up with Lilian. "You won't believe what's happened to me today," she announced, rather breathlessly. Somehow she contrived to look immaculately turned-out and hysterical at the same time. I followed her to her car, and in between fighting with the Glasgow traffic, she told me, obviously to her own internal wonder, that she had given up her lecturing job at Strathclyde University and was all set to become a student again in York.
The next morning, Lilian's father drove us to Prestwick airport, where the advantages of Prestwick over London-Heathrow immediately became clear -- we had only one terminal to deal with, and a civilised quantity of people, instead of massed crowds and an endless profusion of airline desk. Once checked In, our major task was to equip Lilian with what she regarded as the perfect holiday reading. It soon became clear that the main criteria were thickness (measured in inches) and print size (only really small considered). That season's crop of blockbusters all seemed to sport single-syllable titles like Possession or Infatuation and promise something only marginally more intelligent then the average episode of Dallas. Not surprisingly it took Lilian a while to find anything she could even contemplate reading.
Lilian's travel agents had managed to get us window seats, but unfortunately over the wing, so we could only see anything by leaning forward and craning our necks. I let Lilian have the window seat because at that stage I still hadn't made up my mind if I really liked looking out of aeroplane windows (particularly when the plane tips sideways) or preferred to concentrate, desperately, on what was going on inside. The stewardess offered us headphones for the in-flight entertainment for $4.00. The excitement of spending our first American money almost (but not quite) made up for the price, which was more than could be said for the film they were showing. It was a really idiotic movie about two men and a garbage truck, Were garbage trucks to be the next Hollywood schtick? we wondered, unconvinced. It was so dull that even drinking the endless airline orange juice became an attractive prospect by comparison.
Admittedly, watching without headphones did improve the entertainment value of the film somewhat. The two men jumped into the shower together. They fought. They cried. They embraced. We began to speculate about their relationship, and even contemplated putting on the headphones again. Eventually I turned to the write-up in the in-flight magazine and discovered that they were two brothers, one a doctor and one mentally retarded. Mentally retarded brothers? Nahh, it would never take off. (And to this day I still haven't wished to see Rain Man)
Having exhausted the entertainment prospects of the in-flight movie, Lilian and I were forced to invent a game to play with the numerous audio channels. We selected a channel at random and with the aid of the list given in the entertainment guide, had to guess which tune was playing. This was pretty easy on the airline equivalents of Radio 1 and 2, and even for the Country and Western channel where the words were a dead give away, but less straightforward on the religious channel, and absolutely impossible on what Lilian came to dub the skating music channel because it reminded her of the sort of music figure skaters dance to.
Despite the longueurs of the film, the orange juice, the juddering wing, the skating musIc, the plane finally made it to JFK. Even I risked looking out the window. America! We were really there! Somehow it didn't quite seem possible.
The man at the immigration desk was of much the same opinion, and looked us over with mounting suspicion and disapproval. He didn't like the way the only address we had to offer was a hotel at JFK itself. He had never heard of Prestwick airport. He didn't think much of the way we spelled our names. He didn't believe his computer when it said that we were not international drug thieves. But in the end, and much against his better judgement I'm sure, he gave us a permit till November and we were finally allowed through into America.
Science Fiction Chronicle editor Andy Porter had bravely volunteered to meet us at the airport, but there was no sign of him as we emerged battered but triumphant from our ordeal by immigration officialdom. Admittedly, since we didn't know Andy and he didn't know us, it was hard to be. sure that he wasn't there, but scanning the crowd of people trustingly holding up signs for strangers, we couldn't see anything looking remotely like "America welcomes the triffic TAFF twins". We realised we were going to have to go it alone.
All around us was chaos. People and trolleys fought to occupy more space than was physically possible, and out on the forecourt the burning sun of the New York summer heatwave beat down with all its customary afternoon force. By dint of great intellectual exertion, we did manage to work out how to call the courtesy bus for our hotel, but we could not for the life of us discover where we should actually stand to get it. In the midst of all this I spotted someone with a sign and a green shoulder bag whom I was convinced must be Andy Porter. I set off after him at a run Amazingly, the sign did actually say 'Welcome TAFF winners', so I felt pretty safe to greet Andy and lead him back to Lilian. Lilian was impressed at my fan spotting abilities. "How did you do that'?" she said. "She went running off after you just because you had a green bag," she added for Andy's benefit. Andy is fairly large with a beard and glasses, but for a busy American airport this was hardly sufficient to mark him out as a fan. "Serendipity,' I said, and shrugged my shoulders modestly. Whatever the truth of the matter, we were glad to have Andy's assistance. He helped us find the elusive courtesy bus, he tipped the driver for us and told us how much to tip the porter in the hotel ($1 per case). We boggled a bit but did as he said.
Our hotel room had a fine view over a sewage works, but just to prove we were really in New York we could see the Empire State building on the horizon. The aeroplanes flew by so close that if you watched at the window you were half-convinced they might actually come in. Andy took some pictures of us at our jaded and jet-lagged best and we exchanged reading material: a couple of issues of Science Fiction Chronicle for the latest issue of the Caprician. Then Lilian and I dropped all pretence at being fannish and reverted to normal behaviour which consisted of turning on the television and trying to watch as many channels as possible, simultaneously. Andy looked on with weary tolerance as we exclaimed over the discovery of EastEnders on Channel 31 at 8.30, groaned as we identified Little House on the Prairie, and grew less and less excited as we realised that all the remaining channels were showing either the Republican Congress or the news. The news programmes were really strange -- the news-readers put so much expression in their face that you expected them to burst out with their own opinion on the events in question at any minute. Andy, in desperation, reverted to examining the quality of the duplicating paper in our fanzine. This was to be our first indication that nothing fascinated American fans more than the quality of one's duplicating paper (and the question of what would happen when all the twiltone ran out.)
Eventually, we dragged ourselves away from the television set and went downstairs to explore. Lilian thought that the dining room was cute to which Andy retorted that it was over-priced. We wandered into a shop and marvelled at the candy bars. "They're all in the wrong wrappers!" said I, wondering if they would sell me a conversion code along the lines of Mars = Milky Way, Kickers = Marathon etc. The only ones that looked the same as back home were the M&Ms.
Andy decided he had to get back home and left Lilian and I to eat at the hotel with the aim of an early night (in terms of American time at least). We ate chicken salad sandwich with potato chips and gherkin in the bar and consumed too much ice-chilled wine. After all that, it was eleven o'clock American time (4 a.m. British time!) when we finally got to bed.
I woke up at about four, and again at intervals until six. Lilian did the same, so eventually we gave in and watched the television, A Canadian front had just come in and New York weather was forecast to be pleasant (only in the low to mid '80s). I discovered that my watch had gone missing, but could only be philosophical about it: at least I hadn't invested in any new batteries! Breakfast was sausage, scrambled egg and hash browns.
We thought we were in plenty of time for our flight, but the Courtesy Bus took ages to reach the United Airlines terminal, calling in at virtually every other major world airline before ours, so that in the end we had only fifty minutes to check in for our nine o'clock flight. The queue for the domestic flight desk was huge, and I was all prepared to panic, but Lilian insisted that domestic flights in America were just like catching a train: so long as we were safely checked in half an hour beforehand we wouldn't lose our seat. Sure enough, we made it to the desk in plenty of time, they took our ticket and luggage and we were all set. We went upstairs to get our seats allocated. There were a couple of queues but they were not particularly long, so we chatted confidently about asking for a window seat and how everything in America was so cute (for such a large country, Lilian would continue to insist, bizarrely, that everything was cute). Then we noticed that our queue had stopped moving. The man at the desk was typing in hundreds of names on his terminal. People began to get restive. The other queue stopped moving too. Suddenly it began to turn into a nightmare. Our plane was going on to Hong Kong from Seattle and there were clearly more people trying to get on than it could actually hold. Officials appealed to people to sell their tickets back. Random names were called out, and some people were let on. We began to get seriously worried. What if they didn't Let us on at all? What would happen to our luggage? What would John Berry do? Time ticked away. Ten to nine. Five to nine. A whole family of Chinese were given seats. I edged as near the front as I could. Suddenly the man at the desk decided to take my tickets. I didn't understand why. But he took them, checked a list and lo we were being given seat numbers. Our names were called and we could board. We were so relieved we didn't even mind that we were not given a window seat!
Once aboard chaos was still in evidence. There was some kind of dispute over whether our cabin should be smoking or non-smoking. It looked like the cabin staff were about to take a vote. Eventually it was unilaterally declared smoke-free -- but would the smokers sue? Breakfast arrived -- our second breakfast of the day. It was some unidentifiably exotic orange fruit and real pineapple on a bed of lettuce. We were impressed. There was also a cake that our neighbour told us was a muffin (in those days you didn't get American style Muffins at every single British Rail station). We struggled valiantly through our second breakfast, mainly because it was too gorgeous to leave. But we did wonder what the salt and pepper were for. We were soon to discover, when our stewardess refused to take away the tray. There was more to come i.e. a choice between French toast and maple syrup or more hash brown and sausage. As before it was delicious but by this time we had only the energy to sample. "This country is going to be hell for my diet," announced a rueful Lilian. Planes are not quite the environment to walk off two hefty breakfasts, but we did our best by going to the window to watch the plane flying over the aerially attractive rugged scenery of middle America.
After a movie, and yet more food, it was almost time to land. As soon as we were off the plane, Lilian immediately spotted the tall bearded figure of John Berry, our host in Seattle. I had never met John before, but was immediately put at ease by his relaxed greetings and friendly smile. As we waited around for our luggage a woman dressed in a clown suit passed us by. She was carrying a placard which said "Marylou is 40. I'm her younger sister." "Do people always do that sort of thing in Seattle?" I asked. "No," said John, "But sometimes."
I didn't take in much of Seattle as John drove us back to his house in an old orange car that would have rusted off the road long since in Britain. I was pleasantly surprised to find that they didn't live in a large apartment block on some long and busy street as I had imagined from the high street number in their address, but in a pleasant individual house with its own porch and yard in a spacious suburban area. There I met up with Eileen Gunn, John's partner. While it was easy to decide on first encounter that I liked John, Eileen with her brooding air of complete self-possession, took more time to get used to, though I soon found myself fascinated by her lively stories and witty accounts of people.
Eileen found us a blanket to take out into the yard to enjoy the lunch-time sunshine. Sitting in the sun, it began to seem to me that the day had been going on abnormally long. For two days we had been getting on to planes to stay ahead of the sun, and it was beginning to catch up on me. I half-dozed on the rug while Eileen talked to us about her time as punk fairy at the fair in Eugene.
Eventually John came back from some shopping and offered to take us all along to a nearby lake to swim. This was the ideal antidote to two days in aeroplanes. We all swam, then lay in the grass, looking at the mountains on the horizon, or idly listening to the extremely paternalistic life-guard shouting at the children, or anyone who dared to swim beyond the pontoon. I think it was in those lazy hours by the lake that Lilian and I first fell in love with Seattle.
Back at the house, Lilian and I were let loose on John and Eileen's record collection, which Lilian proceeded to de-folk. Few people know this, but due to obscure conditions at her birth Lilian is actually allergic to folk music, so is forced to ask very careful questions before risking her delicate health with an unknown record. While we amused ourselves with the record collection, John cooked us a wonderful meal of spicy chicken, accompanied by a nasturtium salad. We looked at the salad with some doubt. Could one really eat flowers? Eileen briskly assured us we could, so we did, but I must admit it still felt like eating flowers.
We then made the mistake of accompanying John and Eileen round to some friends of theirs to see a speech by Jesse Jackson on the television. Much as we would like to understand American politics, there was no escaping the fact that we were far too tired to make much of a go of it. From the moment I sat down it was a fight between myself and sleep which I never quite won. I kept nodding off, and Lilian went to sleep completely, I think. Eventually John and Eileen took pity on us, and took us back to their place to sleep off the jetlag, ready to make a proper start on the city of Seattle -- and America -- the next day.