“A long, long time ago
I can still remember how that music
Used to make me smile.
And I knew, if I had my chance,
That I could make those people dance.
And maybe they’d be happy for a while.“
Founded in 1915, over 2 years prior to the American entry into WW1, The American Field Service (AFS) was a volunteer ambulance service started by American emigres in Paris. After the ‘War to end all wars’ AFS, sponsored academic exchanges between the USA & France in order to foster greater cultural understanding between the 2 countries. At the heart of the programme was an acknowledgement that the isolation of the United States was detrimental to its own and international well-being. This expanded to a full international programme after the 2nd World War. By the centenary of the service, in 2015, more than 450,000 young people had participated in the programme.
In 1967 I applied for an American Field Service Scholarship to spend a year in the USA, to live with an American family and attend the local High School. At my interview I was asked where, in the event of my gaining a scholarship, would I like to be sent to. I replied: “Something totally completely different to London; not urban and certainly not staying with a Jewish family”. I gained the scholarship and was sent to Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.
It would be hard for those beneath a certain age to fully appreciate how much bigger the cultural and socio-economic divide was between both sides of the North Atlantic in 1967 as compared to what it is today. Though when, in late-August 1968, I boarded an Air France Boeing 707 I had notions of big cars, blue jeans, t-shirts, skyscrapers etc, nothing really prepared me for the true cultural shock that I was going to encounter. Nor, in a world where a telephone call back to the UK had to be pre-booked and cost a fortune, how isolated I would come to feel.
Dreams and fantasies rarely deliver as expected and my year in Ohio did not turn out quite as I had hoped for. It certainly was a difficult one for me framed by the poor relationship I had with my host family. Nobody’s fault, we were just ‘oil and water’. I could, and should, have moved to another family – the local AFS people certainly suggested this to me – but my immature obstinacy that I could make it right was very misguided. For a long time, I could not admit this to myself and for even longer to my parents, to whom I wrote only about positive things and continued to speak similarly for many years following my return. This speaks to my immaturity in not wanting my experience to be viewed as anything but ideal and perfect – a psychological disposition that will not be lost on the Facebook generations. Nevertheless, it was a formative year and – though, on some dimensions, not a comfortable one – filled with a multitude of positive experiences; especially during my year at Cuyahoga Falls High School, where I took some great classes and enjoyed student life immensely. I was also the recipient of many acts of generosity – in fact, somewhere in the annals of civic Cuyahoga Falls it is recorded that May 31st, 1968 is Eric Wilton Day – and I was afforded many (over 30 most probably) opportunities to speak at gatherings and on the media.
It is not my intention to produce an account here of my AFS year, rather to record and reference an experience from the past to the present and from the personal to the general. Today, at the dusk of the Trump Presidency and the dawn of the Biden one, I am especially thinking about that year in Ohio in the mid-Sixties and whether, anything from my experience back then, could have foretold of what was to come about half a century later. Thinking about it now, I believe that there were indicators – strong contributing factors – but that these were directions of travel towards ‘forks in the road’, from which things could have gone other ways
Wealth. I cannot overestimate how wealthy Cuyahoga Falls appeared to me to be – and remember, I had lived the first 18 years of my life in the one of the world’s leading cities. Cuyahoga Falls had been founded as an industrial city in the mid 19thcentury, to take advantage of the power of the Cuyahoga River. By the time I got there it was a residential satellite community of just under 50,000 inhabitants to Akron, then known at The Rubber Capital of the world which had headquartered at various times all the major US car tyre manufacturers. Wilbur, my AFS host-father, was a general manager of a packaging company based in Akron. The household had 3 cars – a large family one that Wilbur used for his daily commute, a slightly smaller one used by Anita, his wife, and a Corvette Stingray owned by their oldest son, Greg, who worked as a medical assistant in a local hospital and who was to be drafted to Vietnam in the year after I left. They were, in essence, the typical white middle-class family that spoke, back then, for the backbone of what America worked and cared for. However, compared to my similar background in the UK, the family appeared to be inordinately wealthy. They seemed to own so much … and they had a colour television! During that year Jack, my AFS-Brother who was a Junior, passed his driving test and began to drive to school as did a large number of the other students. In England not one of my schoolmates owned a car, let alone drive one to school! I had brought Jack a gift of the Sgt Pepper album, which it transpired he already owned together with a record collection of seemingly a hundred LPs and a most impressive stereogram. These teenage impressions may seem peripheral but they were real, nonetheless. When I returned to Cuyahoga Falls in 2018, for the 50threunion of my class, the town looked very different to me. The Rubber Giants of Akron had mostly left town and Cuyahoga Falls certainly did not have the lustre which it appeared to me to have had in the 60’s. A great swathe of the homes, that had seemed magnificent and well kept to me, had fallen into neglect and most of my former classmates had travelled from elsewhere to attend the reunion. To mix-up the elements, it was quite clear that the rubber had melted-away from the rims, which themselves had become decidedly rusty.
Culture & Rituals. To put it bluntly, Americans seemed ‘strange’ to me. When the Greyhound bus deposited me at the end of the front lawn of 1734 18th street, my home for the next 10 months, some sort of disaster seemed to have come down as the house was covered by toilet paper. This TP-ing had been undertaken as an honour to welcome me to the community. 9 months later I joined in TP-ing the High School as part of the Senior graduation festivities. I never really understood the fun in all this; it seemed to be a huge waste of paper and the clean-up effort was not inconsiderable either. TP-ing, for me, became an abiding symbol of a real cultural divide that manifested itself on many dimensions. Space does not permit me to refer to many others, but predominant among them was my continual misreading of the social signals of friendship. In a country where the stranger serving one a cheeseburger & fries at McDonalds, signs off the exchange with “Have a good day!”, I suppose that I should have taken my clues from there. However, in 1967, where none of my UK teachers ever uttered my first name, it was hard to read the informality of my American hosts. So often I mistook their familiarity, not only of address but also of topic, to be an initiation of friendship. My confusion on this dimension was great. In the USA, I came to understand that life was undertaken in transactional terms and that if the pursuit of wealth and happiness could be eased by familiarity then it all made perfect sense. Moreover I came to realise that consumption was not simply an indicator of quality of life, it was the lifestyle itself. Today, Europeans have become much more transactional in our approach to day-to-day existence – as evidenced by the pursuit for legal redress when life disappoints – but back then this was not the case, or so it seemed to me. Leaving Cuyahoga Falls in June 1968 I really was in some sort of state of perplexity as to what it all had amounted to: I had enjoyed many moments of great ‘friendliness’ but did they equate to ‘friendship’? It certainly was the case that within 12 months of leaving Cuyahoga Falls I had lost contact with everybody, (with one single exception, and if she reads this, she knows who that is), including my American host family. Looking back on it now, I could put this down majorly to a disinclination towards letter-writing; but I think this would be to gloss over some major truths.
Scale & Conformity. It’s a huge place. Size and scale require organisation. The US machine is oiled not only by the authority that implements it but also by the willing personal & social compliance that accompanies it. It seemed to me that there were very few exceptions to the rule and the rules were everywhere. I’ve never forgotten how wrong I felt it was when one of my more individualistic classmates was refused attendance at the graduation ceremony because he was wearing the wrong kind of shoes. It’s not that my European home was a hotbed of anti-authoritarian behaviour; rather it was the enthusiasm with which Americans seemed to embrace rules and social uniformity. And talking about uniforms, I was truly amazed, that in a country where personal choice was touted as the epitome of its very existence, how many individual decisions resulted in the same choice being made: especially in terms of what people chose to wear and how they looked. Soon after I arrived, my host family made it crystal clear to me that my hair and trouser length was an embarrassment and made arrangements for my crop and attire to be suitably changed. You will note the effect of these changes in the picture below! Also, language followed this path with expressions such as “neato torpedo” appearing from somewhere and then achieving a ubiquitous presence. Today, this may not seem strange given the widespread verbal deployment of “cool”, “wicked” and “bad” but, at the time it all seemed highly dubious to me. As did the pragmatism of the (quite frankly, brutalist) design of public buildings and the right angled numerically-sequenced street layout of Cuyahoga Falls. I appreciate that finding yourself on 17th or 19th Street is a helpful guide to finding 18th street but for myself living at an address defined by the Dewey Decimal system was something that never quite hung right for me. No biggie but lots of little things add up to a meaningful whole and those little things had the effect of contributing to my feeling that I was a very long way from home.
Parochialism, Nationalism & Religion. In order to supplement the $10 per month stipend, provided me by AFS, I took on 2 after-school/weekend jobs. The first as a paper boy and the second at the Worcester Public Library. As paperboy, I can assure you that my neighbours did not read The New York Times or The Washington Post; occasionally perhaps The Cleveland Plain Dealer. Everybody read the Akron Beacon Journal and the free Cuyahoga Falls weekly, whose name I’ve forgotten. One day, I can recall that the front page of The Beacon Journal announced that an Akron psychotherapist gained great insight of his female patients by way of the shape of their legs. On page 7, I discovered that the Greek King had been overthrown! Meanwhile at the library, you can imagine my joy at discovering that there was an off-the-shelf collection that could be borrowed by request. One day coming back from school I was greeted by a very angry Wilbur Medkeff, with a copy of a book by The Marquis de Sade in his hand, who told me in no uncertain terms that ‘this pile of filth’ needed to be gone from his home without delay. I was also taken by surprise by the nationalism in evidence. Back in the UK the national anthem was played at major events, at the end of the TV schedule and after the last film at the cinema but it seemed to me that Americans sang their anthems and declared their patriotism on many more occasions; such at the start of every school day. Similarly, the Union Jack was hung from public buildings on public occasions, whereas Cuyahoga Falls citizenry flew the flag from their own homes with regularity. Similarly Christianity was stitched into everyday life. Saying grace at mealtimes was a norm for most and, for families like the Medkeffs, going to church on Sundays was an inviolable weekly occurrence. I had no qualms about accompanying them there on occasions, but the fact that they it was expected of me do this every week came as a rude shock. I complied but, to this day, I find it difficult to understand their insensitivity to the possibility that this may not be the thing that a Jew would care to do. I, in no way feel that they were being anti-Semitic or ecumenical, rather that this was part of their way of life, as much as 3 meals a day were.
Today, at the dusk of the Trump Presidency and the dawn of the Biden one, I am especially thinking about that year in Ohio in the mid-Sixties and whether, anything from my experience back then, could have foretold of what was to come to pass. Thinking about it now, I believe that there were but that the USA could have taken any number of directions of travel and that there were ‘forks in the road’ which could have taken it another way. In my recent piece on American history I suggested there are enough seeds in place that the Trump era should not really have come as a great surprise. Similarly, looking back to my year in Ohio, I really would have to say the same thing. When I returned to the UK in 1968, I was often asked about how things were in America. I tended to answer that I found the USA to still be a very young country and, though as Europeans we might find them to ‘lacking in some sophistication’, I was optimistic on the basis of their enthusiasm and interest and that over time and, given greater overseas contact, Americans would evolve positively. Today, I would have to say that the USA is now old enough to know better. Let’s hope & pray that it does.
Postscript: 2018. I almost didn’t attend the 50th Reunion on the basis that I hadn’t been in touch with any of my classmates since leaving the area, so why would I want to be reunited with them? However, when approached by The Class of 1968 to do so, and in terms that were expressed in terms of genuine warmth, I decided to go – if only to expunge my demons. And I am very glad that I did as it was a truly marvellous occasion with many follow-up contacts which have already lasted longer than those which followed my year spent in their midst. So, perhaps, the difficulties of keeping in touch back then were the devils in the piece after all. And, hey, I also discovered that they’d pulled down the Public Library and put up a parking lot!