My American Pie

“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!

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12 Responses to My American Pie

  1. Judy Fowler says:

    Eric
    This was so interesting to read…especially as I worked and lived in England for 7 years. On the one hand it saddens me that you had such a difficult time…especially as a teen when I think most of us did one way or another! I would like to know what you had hoped for in applying to become an exchange student. Yes, this has been challenging to live with such an obnoxious and disrespectful man in the premier leadership role of our country. I hope this finds you and and your family well

  2. Pamela says:

    I do not remember you as a classmate (I lived on 17th St) but your observations are spot on. I grew up in a town with little to no diversity and it was not welcome. Yes I could ride my bike across town to the city pool or walk to football games without much chance for problems and at the time did not appreciate this. In high school I began volunteering as a tutor for children living in Akron off Howard St. That’s when I realized my life was not necessarily the norm and became interested in other’s ideas and lives. I grew up thinking that the US was the best country, NOT a great country among many. I worked in many restaurants to pay for college and always said people should not be allowed to eat out until they had worked in a restaurant. I think that would apply to those folks still living in the Midwest who have never traveled far from home. We are not better or different, just trying to feed our families and making a better life for them same as all those families from other countries and religions. Extremism comes from fear of the unknown.

  3. Claudia Stephan says:

    I was in the class of ’68 and lived at 1752 19th street. This is a 52 year too late apology that I didn’t go out of my way to be friendly to you. I was very self-conscious, insecure and immature. I was on the reunion committee and I agree that it was a great weekend. I’m so glad you made the trip. Once again, sorry we didn’t get to talk. Guess that’s the disadvantage of being in such a large class. It is interesting to read about Cuyahoga Falls in 1968 from your perspective. I’m glad to hear you are doing well. Claudia Leiter Stephan

  4. Roger Williams says:

    Hey Eric,

    I was a classmate and 68 graduate. Unfortunately, our paths never crossed, and we had no classes together. I think everyone knew who you were, as you obtained a sort of “celebrity”status. But, with nearly 3000 kids in the building, meeting and knowing everyone wasn’t likely.

    It is sad to read the issues with the host family. That must have been exhausting and a heavy load to bear. It is interesting to read of the social and cultural aspects of your stay. Cuyahoga Falls was a different place back then. Many things have changed, but there is still a long way to go. The city is more diverse now, and more accepting, at least to my eyes. But those with those attitudes still exist, and still reside here. But that is not exclusive to the Falls.

    Interesting read. Thank you!
    Sorry I didn’t meet you back then. You are welcome back anytime.

  5. Don Pesich says:

    Eric, I read this with great interest. If the reverse were true, and I had been an exchange student in England, I may have had similar observations about jolly old England, without the extra ‘e’ on the end of certain words. I don’t know the family you lived with, but I’m wondering what would have qualified one to be a host. Size of home? Family income? What you described in your host family was like nothing my family had. We had a small home on Oakwood Drive. For most of my life, we had one car (a cheap Chevy), and we were a blue-collar family. For the longest time, my father held three jobs, leaving to go to the next, and then on yo the other. We were hardly conspicuous consumers…tbe mantra was ‘do you want it, or do you need it?’ I recall taking you up to watch a Indians baseball game in Cleveland Stadium. That’s my biggest memory of you. Where your visit could have been better or more fulfilling, I’m still happy the opportunity was there for you and was happy to have met you! Don

  6. Mark Noonan says:

    Eric, I did not know you in high school at all, but with a graduating class of almost 800, I guess that is to be expected. As part of the 50th reunion committee however, I was determined to find all our classmates, and I am glad we found you. And certainly I was pleased that you attended. It was enjoyable to meet you finally, I only wish we had more time to spend together.

    Regarding your story, I think perhaps that your interpretation of the “typical” family was somewhat tainted by the host family you were living with.

    Much like you, once I left Cuyahoga Falls, my connection with the community and those that stayed there disappeared quite quickly. I am not sure that in a country such as the US, where the living and working options are so diverse, that it is surprising that we end up distancing ourselves from our roots.

    For me, it was not until I retired from a full time job that I found the time to reconnect with the Falls and my classmates. Since then, I have rekindled many relationships, with many much stronger than they were in the high school days. I have enjoyed reading your FB messages and your blogs. I am hoping in 2022 to bring my granddaughter to your part of the world, and perhaps we can meet up and continue the conversation.

  7. Jane says:

    I found this really interesting, it says a lot about an 18 year old boy, the 1960’s and the difference between the USA and Great Britain at the time, and you came from London. I grew up on cartoons and felt closer to the Flinstones because they were cavemen than Americans.

  8. Hans Wernhart says:

    A great read! I travelled (not stayed) in 1971 for the 1st time in the US. Stayed mostly with people / students / TCs I know from work. Had very similar experiences – not just in one place but most everywhere.

    I liked the comments you received to this report.

    Looking forward to the next Ericle

  9. Ericle says:

    [From: Fiona]
    Another good piece. I have also spent time in the States, and was shocked at the degree of conformity and authoritarianism. I later found Hannah Arendt had it all covered in ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’, especially the way coercion actually attracts people.

  10. Richard Grant says:

    Really interesting read.

  11. Ericle says:

    [From: E.]
    This was very insightful about mid- America in the late 60’s. I am certain that it characterizes the essence of the political divide which allowed Trump to capture his base. And I am also totally convinced that had he gone to a large city, such as the Denver in which I grew up, his experience would have been, if not totally different, certainly as much different as is today’s divide between the liberals and conservatives. Rural versus urban is a huge divide. The small town/village mentality of conformity exists all over the world. Although I must admit that its particularly materialistic bent, of which I am myself most guilty, is a uniquely US characteristic! And at this point it might be useful to illuminate the type of thinking that allowed England to vote for Brexit!

  12. Ericle says:

    [From: Pat]
    Thank you for that rich account of the land where opportunity was held to be limitless and where only lack of effort would prevent a person from achieving the heights of good fortune – to  be measured in terms of the acquisition of wealth, and for wealth, read money and its accoutrements! Your account of your Ohio experiences has echoes of some iconic imagery  of the 60s and 70s – The Graduate comes to mind as does the Simon and Garfunkle sound track. As the Graduate is wondering how to proceed with his life the overpowering and unwelcome advice comes from a senior and experienced and worldly-wise family friend  – ” Plastics, Plastics ,that’s where the future lies!! I recall laughing aloud at that and with some scorn – don’t look to self – identifying”successful” adults for any kind of worthwhile guidance, being the reinforced conclusion. The prevailing view of the younger generation was one of disillusionment with establishment values, which seemed at best crass.

    It is interesting to see you revisit  Ohio, both mentally as well as by way of your recent  reunion.I also caught up at a 50th school reunion in Ireland in 2018 and had not met about 25 of the other 28 present in the intervening 50 years. It was a great and jolly and a moving  event and it provided a sort of reconciliation, not between my fellow attendees, which was not needed, but between time past and time present, with a cold eye on diminishing time future. It has sometimes crossed my mind that these intense revisits may have the effect of projecting  a ghost- like figure into the past…now there’s a thought, the possibility of a spectral Pat shimmering through flocks of somewhat unsuspecting observers…

    But back to your real – world analysis of America  and its beloved Pie. Inwardness is the childlike illness that prevails with all its lack of sensibilities and therefore sensitivities. My own engagement comes via my grandparents and mother who was born in New York in1909 and, fortunately for her and her sensibilities, was raised in rural Ireland.. neither she nor they were there long enough to be insensitized to the general human plight in all of its multilayered representations … in short she remained and grew up in a world of understanding and compassion and with my likeminded father allowed us all to be also nurtured in that way. My 40 year love/ hate relationship with the business environment of the USA has left me with a great sense of affection towards my American friends and their families, as well as with a concern for their incapacity, it would often seem, to be able to understand the values  and needs of the outside world in an idiom which is not dominated by ” we”, and”our” self interest. This incapacity is close to being infantile, which is  a worrying thing for me to think about with respect to these very intelligent and highly educated people…Something, I always felt was missing….what could account for this,I have often wondered.Perhaps the early immigrant experience of struggle to survive,a blindness or failure to admit the gross injustices suffered by the Native Americans,the reliance on slavery for large parts of the economy,the aftermath in terms of segregationism and underlying racism that persist, and the endemic habit of refusing to face these unpleasant truths.All of this reinforced by an automaton capacity to break into group renditions of the national anthem.

    Having said that there are signs that maturity is developing and a self-questioning of America’s self-image is underway…whilst Trump has suffered what is possibly a mere set -back his supporters, who may see themselves as disenfranchised and excluded, will need to be presented with a path that allows them to rejoin the democratic route forward, and engage constructively in building a better America. A similar challenge lies with their non-democratic and incensed opponents.

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