There is no question, that life was so much simpler when I was young.
As a child in London, I had a Post Office book. It was a savings account. Occasionally, loving relatives offered donations that were solemnly deposited in it. 2/6 or 5/-, perhaps as much as 10 shillings. The money accrued interest at a regular rate and as I was taken overseas at the age of eight, I had no access to the account, nor any need for it.
So, when I returned to the chilly shores of my homeland aged 14, my savings account looked good. I hadn’t had to invest in anything or take risks. It was just lovely.
One day when I was about fifteen, I was required to take the underground from where I was staying in Hatch End, into London to have a visa entered into my passport for my summer visit to my parents. Finding myself in Earl’s Court, where my Post Office account was, I went in to withdraw something like ten pounds. Hard to believe maybe, but in those days it was a dizzying amount for a teen-aged child and the teller asked if I had proof of identity. Presumably, she expected a library card or some such thing as no one carried id in those days.
As I presented my passport, she silently produced the ten pound note.
The 747 had not been invented then (or not built, anyway) and the masses had not yet begun to travel, so maybe it was unusual for a young teen-aged girl to be toting a passport and “at large” alone in London. I never really thought about it. From the age of nine I had been allowed to come and go from our home in Phnom Penh. Was London any different? Everyone spoke English and the underground was easy to navigate. It was perfectly safe and I never thought twice about it.
The following year, I made my application for immigrant’s status to the United States, also by myself.
It was a big deal. The questionnaire was exhaustive…
…Had I ever had venereal disease?
…Did I intend to seek employment as a prostitute?
How I had come to know about these things, I’m not sure, having spent so many years in Catholic schools, but I did and I was able to offer acceptable answers.
A chest x-ray was required as proof that I did not have tuberculosis but I have no memory of how this was accomplished. In due course, off I went to London again, mounting the stairs of the embassy beneath the dauntingly massive eagle that appeared to dominate Grosvernor Square and seriously impressed me.
A pompous official (is there any other kind?) looked at me sternly. As I recall he spoke very little and did not question that I had come alone to the appointment. He made me stand and hold up my right hand to swear an oath. It seemed a very serious thing to be asking of someone so young, never-the-less, I did it in good conscience.
Then I went back to Hatch End, and a day or so later I was on a flight to New York and my new life.
On arrival at JFK I was happily finding my way through “formalities” when, to my annoyance my uncle appeared on the scene, having been granted admittance on the strength of being a member of the impressive-sounding Power Squadron (a boating club). “Oh,” he said to the officials, “she’s just a kid.”
From the age of nine I’d been treated as an adult and now I was being demoted to being a kid.
There was good reason for me to have felt daunted by that eagle in Grosvenor Square.
Leaving England (and my brother) at age eight and becoming little more than a street urchin for a year, then progressing through 4 schools that required me to learn French; flying back and forth unaccompanied from age 11, all of that was nothing compared to the total culture shock and others that awaited me in New York.
When I took employment with an airline, one of the assignments I most dreaded was being put in charge of unaccompanied children. I was terrified of losing one of the little buggers. Many of those kids were frightened and stuck to us like glue but the older ones and especially the children of British Embassy officials were devils that loved evading us and watching us panic. One time, early on when I was still nervous myself, we counted heads and there was one missing. I called my supervisor to convey this information and was told “FIND HIM!” (We did)
It was serious stuff, being in charge of kids. The funny thing was, when I travelled alone, with the exception of one Alitalia steward who thought to fill out my landing card for me, incorrectly, as it turned out, no crew member ever seemed aware that I was on my own. Which was fine by me.
All of which is not at all where I meant to go with this.
But it does prove the point I was making about how easy things used to be.
How often I was to wish later on, that I had the confidence of that young child, but the things I had accomplished alone really were quite simple.