I’m standing in the Reitman Camera photo shop on E9th Street, past which I have been regularly walking and ogling the cameras all year. I have ‘THE LATEST’ Canon movie camera in one hand, a Bell and Howell shoulder-carried tape recorder in the other, and a Bell and Howell 469 Super 8 cassette/film projector on the table before me.
The shop assistant is explaining how it all works: first, film my scene for the movie. As soon as I squeeze the camera’s trigger a flash of light automatically travels down the wire to turn the tape recorder on for the synchronised sound. At the conclusion of both tapes they are sent off to a processing lab to develop the film and put light marks on the tape. The two come back in the mail to the owner, who threads film from the reel through the Bell and Howell projector, plugs in the cord from one to the other, switches on the projector and away she goes.
The salesman has a prepared demonstration to show me (of course). I get a sense of how it must have felt to witness the arrival of talking movies in the mid 1920s.
“This is the LATEST, yes?” I ask the salesman.
“The LATEST and the BEST!” he says. “There won’t be anything as good as this for years!”
I’m skeptical. I’m a newspaper reporter, right? But I’ve already looked through camera magazines and seen good reports about it. Filmosound just might be here to stay for awhile. So, at the cost of nearly £1,000, I buy it. And yes, it did work.
……… For about six months. Then Bell and Howell came out with a better processing system, because it did not stand up to repeated use. Basically, I fell for American salesmanship and I’m still a just-off-the-boat sucker.
We did try to stick with Filmosound for several more years, but never got the lip-sync together again.
Its hard to start thinking of the major cultural changes (besides racial) in American life without thinking about Ralph Kramden in The Honeymooners, the CBS situation comedy that dominated TV in the late 1950s and sixties. Kramden, a bus driver played by Jackie Gleason, fills the series with his pretentious scheming and is ALWAYS brought down by his long-suffering wife Alice, played by Audrey Meadows. “One of these days!” he threatens her emptily, “Pow! Right in the kisser! To the moon, Alice!”
We watched the show in 1970, just in time to understand the public appeal of balancing up the sexes, but realizing that was about to change – dramatically – by a new show on the same network that we had essentially been seeing for years in England. This was All in the Family, a straight lift of Till Death Us Do Part, which had been running on BBC TV since 1965.
Among the ‘duties’ of being the only resident Brit in the Cleveland Press newsroom I was to be a resource on all things British, so at the request of the paper’s veteran TV and radio critic Bill Barrett, on Jan 22 1971 I wrote a comparison between the two shows.
If I had the space I’d probably just run my published critique here, but it may be best to start with the Wikipedia entry: “(All in the Family) is often regarded in the United States as one of the greatest television series in history. Following a lackluster first season, the show soon became the most watched show in the United States during summer reruns and afterwards ranked number one in the yearly Nielsen ratings from 1971 to 1976. It became the first television series to reach the milestone of having topped the Nielsen ratings for five consecutive years”
I told Press readers that, basically, Carroll O’Connor, as Archie Bunker, the foul-mouthed bigot star of the show, was every bit as good as his British original, Alf Garnett, played by Warren Mitchell. And so was the ensemble. Maybe the British original was stronger in its use of language, but the transatlantic concept was culturally identical, if more shocking to Americans who had yet to receive the even more acerbic (and hysterically funny) Monty Python’s Flying Circus. In the first episode of All in the Family, I noted, there was heard “shouting matches about sex, blacks, Jews, Poles, religion, liberals, conservatives, crime, justice, age, intelligence, and the economy…. How’s that for openers?”
The opening sequences were similar, I noted; aerial shots of New York descending to the Bunker home in Queens, and aerial shots of houses of central London descending to Garnett’s home in the East End. “I doubt, however, if Alf would have appreciated his American counterpart,” I wrote. “Most probably he would have reached out to his ‘telly’ and turned it off, muttering ‘Bleedin’ Yanks. Wot do they know about anything?”
I’m at the home of Company G of the 107th Armored Cavalry Regiment of the Ohio National Guard. I’ve come to talk to them about joining up, because it seems to be the only viable alternative to being drafted into the regular Army – and Vietnam.
I’ve had my call-up papers and told to report for duty by the end of May. My Lady of Light at the draft-board office has done her best to help, I’m sure. But now it’s up to me – or rather me and Anna. Do we move to Canada and start again? Do we quit and return to England? Do I sign up for the National Guard and spend seven years of training, two-week annual Guard camps, two-week or monthly meetings – and be ready for call-outs such as that at Kent State University last May?
Or do I just submit to the draft, do my duty as a non-American (yes, I know), resign myself to ‘Nam and be back as a Veteran within two years? But what and where would that leave Anna? I wasn’t a quitter, so the National Guard looked to be the only real alternative.
I find a recruiting sergeant who gives me some forms to fill out, and he indicates a likely job because they have vacancies: tank turret operator. That’s one of the four-man crew inside an M60A1 tank. It didn’t seem very pleasant. I hate close confinement.
I ask the sergeant where I should take my forms because the armoury seemed pretty quiet.
“Oh, they’re not here,” he said. “They’re in Vietnam.”
In mid April the Cleveland Press subtly reminded me where my work family is: with them, not the army.
“Transplanted Englishman keeps tabs on 16 suburbs” reads the headline on a little info/promo blurb that pops up in the paper every so often about individual reporters and their ‘beats.’
“Considering the ground he covers it should surprise nobody that Peter Almond is a strong advocate of metropolitan government. Peter, who came to The Press from England about 16 months ago, covers 16 eastern communities for our suburbs department and even his little old Mustang sometimes rebels at the expense of real estate it must traverse.
“However, Almond’s reasons for consolidation transcend any selfish desire for personal comfort and convenience. A practical young man, he frankly admits his thoughts on metro government are far from original. Still, it is refreshing to hear this recent transplant digress on the ramifications and awkwardness of an unwieldy conglomeration of autonomous municipalities.
“Metro government works well in England,” says Peter in his pleasant accent (grrr-ed). “It just doesn’t make sense to me that intelligent, reasonable people can’t get together and work out a system of government that would be so beneficial to so many.”
“Getting down to specifics, Almond’s foremost priorities would be safety forces and transit. He cannot comprehend why each suburb and township must support individual police and fire departments, nor why the communities could not be linked to the central city by an efficient yet moderately-priced transportation network.
“Peter also is finding his early enchantment with the City of Cleveland becoming tarnished. He deplores its divisiveness and he finds it difficult to understand the reticence of many of the immigrants to learn the English language.
“I can understand why they would want to retain their native customs in food, culture etc,” he says, “but I should think that one who adopts America would be eager to converse in its tongue.”
Oh, wot wisdom from a 25-year-old immigrant! Almond for president!
Two days later: The draft board has sent me a letter: Oh Gawd, what now?
It says I’m 4F. 4F! NOT REQUIRED!! 4F!!! I’m no longer wanted for the army, navy, air force, marines, street cleaning, sausage making, window-washing, you name it!
They don’t give a reason, but I hear on the grapevine that it is probably a hardship call. Hardship for Anna, certainly: spouse left without family support, particularly as she has missed two periods and her gynaecologist has written a letter (not sure to where) saying she appears to be pregnant. (Actually, it was a false pregnancy, and it would not be the last of a series of reproductive problems we would have).
It could be because I was now 25, possibly in the ‘too old’ bracket. Or that the military was starting to cut back a little on Vietnam deployments.
I never did find out. But when Anna’s brother Rob invited us to visit him and girlfriend at his rented house in the Bahamas, we jumped at the chance. Late April in Nassau. Perfect! Snorkelling in beautiful clear waters, Margheritas by the pool. What’s not to like for a few days?
As for Cleveland’s problems? Well, I see I have a certificate from Cleveland State University, dated March 29, 1971, that says I have completed the City of Cleveland’s Institute of Urban Studies and Community Relations Board’s First seminar on urban problems for mass media personnel. So there. (I don’t remember it).
AND I have a copy of a letter dated Mar 1 ’71 from one professor to another at Ohio University that accords me 20 hours’ college credit for my school work on fiction, poetry, drama and Shakespeare. PLUS, in the words of one Prof Lawrence Bartlett, that I write ‘exceptionally well’ and that my work ‘manifests a sensitive and mature approach to literature.’
So there, again! Like the Scarecrow with his Diploma in the Wizard of Oz, I am now a Doctor of Thinkology. I have a brain!
Sometimes The Press clippings library outdoes itself. Here’s one I have absolutely no memory of:
“Press suburbs reporter Peter Almond will give a slide talk on Wales, France, Germany and Austria to the Live Long and Like It Club tomorrow at 1.30pm in the Main Library. The program is free and open to the public.”
It includes a mugshot of me and a date stamp of May 24, 71.
?????? Not a clue. But it sure beats crawling through a Vietnamese jungle!
That summer of ’71 seemed to be full of action and passion around the world. India and Pakistan fought battles across their borders; A huge and long postal strike in inflation-hit Britain was the start of ever-worse labor strikes that would cripple the country two years later. And my family’s money went decimal: no more pounds, shillings and pence.
At least the Rolling Stones released their next hit, Brown Sugar. John Lennon, fresh from the disbanded Beatles, sang ‘Imagine’, David Bowie released ‘Life on Mars.’ Don McLean recorded ‘American Pie,’ and kept people puzzled for the next 50 years (Was it, or was it not, about the death of Buddy Holly in 1959, marking the end of an ‘innocent era of the fifties?’) McLean himself says there is much more after that. His original 16-page manuscript of notes about the lyrics were sold to an anonymous bidder for $1.2 million in 2015.
“February made me shiver, with every paper I’d deliver. Bad news on the doorstep, I couldn’t take one more step.”
Even paper boys have a heart.
We got away as much as we could: to Niagara Falls, Toronto, and down to Cincinnati and Wright Air Base and its US Air Force museum, followed by a domestic air show as the National Air Races returned to Burke Lakefront airport to mark the 175th anniversary of the founding of Cleveland.
And friends Jim and Marcy introduced us to the Mohican River at Walhonding, central Ohio. It became a special place to us: a small campsite on the banks of the secluded Mohican River, a tributary of the Walhonding river which led ultimately to the Mississippi. There we would set up our tents and stake out our campfires, then arise in the morning to the sound of a pickup truck towing a rattling canoe trailer. With packed lunches our hosts would take us 10, 15 or even 20 miles upstream to a quiet spot and a slow, peaceful paddle downstream back to our campsites. We will never forget the silence, broken only by a splash of a jumping fish or the call of a Hawk or Red Cardinal, the state bird of Ohio.
And not far away the rolling, quiet roads of central Ohio, much of it occupied by the devout Amish, with their horses and buggies. The small town of nearby Sugarcreek hosts the ‘world’s biggest cuckoo clock shop,’ a tourist center relatively few Clevelanders appeared to know anything about.
But across America the news was still Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam. In April half a million people packed the streets of Washington DC to protest the war. Another 700 Vietnam veterans threw their medals onto the steps of the Capitol. While President Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger were trying to work up ‘Peace diplomacy’ Daniel Ellsberg was leaking the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. The secret Papers revealed a history of American involvement in Vietnam that was filled with the lies and misinformation the government told over many years. Wounded veteran John Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “Someone has to die so that President Nixon won’t be the first president to lose a war. How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
Sixty per cent of Americans told opinion pollsters they were against the Vietnam War; Australia and New Zealand announced they were pulling their troops out of Vietnam;
But in September my mother came to visit.
We’re in our soft-top Mustang. Anna is by my side, Mum is in the back with her suitcase. (There isn’t room for it in the trunk). We’ve driven the Finger Lakes route to Buffalo and Boston. Now we’re coming into New York City and deciding we can’t just go straight through to our overnight stop at Atlantic City, we’ll stop for half an hour and look around Times Square.
Hold on. This isn’t Podunk. This is the HEART of the Big Apple. I wouldn’t dream of looking for a parking space at Piccadilly Circus in London, would I? But where, for half an hour? Around and around we go, down side streets, up main streets, every parking garage and vacant space full.
And then I spot a car moving out next to a restaurant. No obvious restrictions. I go for it. We alight, Mum pats her suitcase and I get a nice, assertive smile from the uniformed door guard of the restaurant. Yes, he says, you’ll be Ok for half an hour. I’ll keep my eye on it. We do our tourist stuff, agog at the sights and sounds of Times Square, cameras flashing, video whirring. Then back to our car 30 minutes later.
But….. Is this our car? A green soft top Mustang yes, but there is a large rip in the canvas top next to the nearside window…. And Mom’s suitcase is no longer there. Gone. Stolen. All the clothes for her holiday, much of it hand made. This is her first big foreign holiday, and it has taken so much effort just to get her here: the first jumbo jet may have crossed the Atlantic, but it is much too expensive for the average tourist. My mother had to be a member of the Britons in America Club for almost a year in order to join with other members to charter a plane for them all.
Broad daylight, on a busy street, in the heart of bustling New York City. And nobody sees a thing? Not the shop workers next door, the newspaper seller, and especially not the restaurant concierge, who says he has not moved from his spot, barely ten feet from the car. Not a thing. We call the police. That takes about 45 minutes for a car to arrive. I say we haven’t touched anything, officer, and suggest they might find some fingerprints. I tell them my mother has come all the way from England to see their city.
Neither officer steps out of their car. One simply hands me a piece of paper with a case number on it. ‘Call your insurance company. Give ‘em that,” he says, without a smile.
Naïve. Stupid. Careless. What a fool I am. As we drive away from New York it starts to rain and I have to find a store to buy duct tape for the torn roof. We are all silent, miserable. The rain is misting the windshield, or I have something in my eyes. We don’t go to Atlantic City. We head home to Cleveland.
But one tune keeps running through my head, over and over: the haunting theme from Midnight Cowboy, last year’s Oscar-winning hit movie, starring Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight.
Directed by the British director John Schlesinger (who made the award winning British ‘kitchen sink’ films A Kind of Loving and Billy Liar in the early 60s), Midnight Cowboy is now recognized as a major classic of US social commentary. (I’d like to think I was more Joe Buck than Ratso Rizzo).
Sad to say, but on Sept 27, a few days after Ma went home, we traded in the old Mustang for a spanking new Chevy Camaro: silver gray in color, two doors and two sporty seats at the front and a bench seat for short legs at the back. I sent a photo of it together with Anna and me to my Uncle Bill in Devon. “Cor blimey!” he responded on a tape recording a couple of weeks later. “Bit SMALL isn’t it? You ought to have got a bigger one!” Where he lives, of course, country roads are only six feet wide.
And sad at losing the Mustang because if we had kept it for the next 50 years and brought it back with us to Blighty it might now be worth $100,000, or £80,000. Ho hum….
At least with the Camaro we lived up to Charlie Miller’s challenge: “See the USA in a C. Miller Chevrolet.”
Charlie (already old in 1971) was the owner of a Chevrolet dealership in the township of Willoughby, east of Cleveland, but next to the I-271 and I-7I freeways where all good car sales are made. It was a hammed-up, low-class schlock commercial, but perfect for low-class, rebellious young Clevelanders, and effective because it played over and over on TV. You couldn’t escape it. And being rebellious I decided not to buy my Camaro at Miller’s place, but somewhere else.
Back at the suburbs desk in the Cleveland Press I see I was still travelling a lot – in Cuyahoga County: “State rules would limit Beachwood school,” says one headline about planned changes in the number of minutes taught in classrooms. “Post Office rezoning is rejected’ says another about the South Euclid Plan Commission rejecting a proposal to rezone land on South Green Rd for a new $400,00 post office. Another about new Community Aid Officers, in police-type uniform, helping police at scenes of traffic accidents and civil affairs that do not require training in criminal matters.
And another with the headline ‘A feline felony?’ about Ginger the cat, who has prompted a claim for damages of $57.84 after attacking her next door neighbor’s car in Cleveland Heights. She does that, says Mrs Rose Perla, because neighbors the Littmans allow Ginger to run around freely and then, when she can’t get back into the house again Ginger attacks the neighbor’s Pontiac. And now it has scratches on it.
The lawyer for the Littmans, Philip Kurtz, says: “It shows what’s wrong with this country today when people sue each other for such stupid little things.”
By November 1971 the 101st Airborne Division had withdrawn from Vietnam, leaving only 6,000 combat troops to offer support to the increasingly-ineffective South Vietnamese Army. Just as well I didn’t accept my call-up that previous May: American air power would be running the show from now on, but as a draftee soldier I would probably have been twiddling my thumbs in Nome, Alaska.
That Christmas Eve Anna and I followed Jim and Marcy to Marcy’s parents home in Ashtabula. We enjoyed a fabulous seven-course seafood dinner, made the Italian way with seven different fishes, and left them with many thanks as they made their way to their own church midnight Christmas Mass.