Leah Francis : Finding the Way contents

Getting to the US

Theme: Being active and happy when blind is not easy but it is manageable.

I was just twenty-five when I was offered a study trip to the United States of America.

In 1954 Mercy Griffin (now Dickinson), teacher in charge of the section for blind children in the Queensland Department of Education's School For The Deaf and The Blind and herself blind, won a Fulbright scholarship enabling her to complete a Master of Science in Education at Hunter College in New York City and to live and work at the (then) New York Institute for the Education of the Blind.

She returned late in 1955 and visited Sydney and Melbourne where she spoke at conferences and to private groups. I believe she inspired Gwen Ringland to promote a similar opportunity for me.

Gwen was a pianist and voluntary transcriber of braille. She had helped to procure braille resources for students at the New South Wales School for Blind Children, Wahroonga, where I taught.

Gwen had interested Mrs Lefevre, a chemist, in blindness. She wrote a scientific, non-sensory description of colour, hoping to clarify its meaning for blind people. I reviewed the book and was invited to discuss it with Gwen and Mrs Lefevre and their husbands. It was the first Sunday in May, 1957.

To get to the Ringlands' home in Cremorne I had to walk to the railway station, then catch two trains and a taxi. Before leaving my flat I lunched with my former fiancé whom I still found attractive. We lingered.

I missed the train. There wasn't another for half an hour. To save time I decided to catch a taxi from Town Hall in the heart of Sydney. As I climbed the steps from the underground railway to the street I was confused to hear no traffic in George or Park Streets.

I felt challenged, defiant, excited, striding up the middle of Park Street among a vast, orderly crowd. No chance of being run down. As I strode, people on the footpaths began heckling and shouting abuse, obviously at me.

Why? Of course, I remembered! This was the first Sunday in May – the traditional Mayday procession was at its height. This was a different kind of danger. Reluctantly I moved to the footpath.

After a long wait, I found a taxi in Elizabeth Street near Hyde Park. It crawled all the way to Cremorne. I arrived more than an hour late and received an icy welcome.

As I sipped tea I recounted my journey, omitting the long lunch, of course. Everyone was amused. We relaxed and amicably discussed the book. Following that meeting I was asked to speak at many Rotary dinners.

In March 1958 I was awarded the first scholarship in a new International Student Exchange Project initiated by Rotary clubs of greater Sydney. Unlike Rotary's prestigious Foundation Fellowships, this project was for non-graduates. I believe it was designed to enable me, a two-year-trained teacher, to study overseas.

As with most Rotary initiatives, my major brief was to "promote international goodwill and understanding". Beyond that I was to study special education, particularly for students who were blind.

A condition of the scholarship was that I travel unaccompanied and meet my own expenses. I was provided with a round-the-world air ticket. However, I received half pay from my employer, the NSW Department of Education, as well as college fees and board from the New York Institute for the Education of the Blind in return for part-time teaching and supervision of residential students.

The next six months were busy and gloriously exciting. I continued to give talks to Rotary clubs and gathered information about the US. I revelled in farewell parties and travel gifts and bought a pure Australian wool overcoat with a removable wool lining. My aunt, a thoughtful supporter and the ideal shopping companion, helped me to choose this coat. I know she was afraid for me but that never showed as she shared my planning and fuelled my ambition.

On Thursday 21st of August 1958, the day before my departure and my final day at work, I received by special delivery forms from the NSW Department of Education, requiring me to provide guarantors for the repayment of my half-salary should I not return to my job.

Without hesitation two friends and colleagues, Paul Percy and Fred Skead, chose to be my guarantors. I owe them so much – for trusting me and for relieving me of tension and confusion. Few people are free or willing to make such a commitment. Each had young children. I believe neither consulted his wife before signing those forms.

I sent most things to New York by sea in Paul Percy's battered old trunk, but nevertheless left with seven pieces of luggage, including a brief case, travelling rug, Qantas Airways bag and a portable typewriter. I kept this Hermes Baby typewriter with me, writing letters to family, friends and Rotarians during most of the flights across the Pacific and the vast United States of America.

A Rotarian took me to dinner in Nandi, our first stopping-place. The live band was good, as was the tropical food, especially the fresh fruits.

afterward we walked among the airport gardens, refreshing in the still, warm air, redolent with sweet and pungent fragrances.

Planes flew slowly then, but the time certainly seemed to be out of joint, because after a short night and breakfast we had crossed the date line and the equator. At noon on 22nd of August, exactly the time and date of leaving Sydney, we landed in Honolulu. A careless, surly customs officer threw everything out of my bags and left me to stuff them in again. I had to run my hands carefully over the entire bench to search for strayed items.

I forgot about that when the charming wife of a local Rotarian took me to lunch. She introduced me to many tropical delights including delicious ice cream. Was it one of Howard Johnson's 28 flavours? I hadn't yet heard of Howard Johnson.

After lunch and with her cheery help I bought a few tropical clothes and some unusual shell jewellery. When I took the mu-mu's home a year later, Aunt made it into summer pyjamas. They were comfortable and attractive, and nobody saw them but me.

We ended the afternoon with iced tea and seafood in her elegant, timber garden-home deep in the hills above the Pacific, cool and lush, refreshing and restful. The pacific? I knew it surrounded the island but on that visit I neither heard, smelled nor touched a drop of it.

They had double-booked my seat in the economy class for the over-night flight to San Francisco. I was promoted to first-class – a never-to-be repeated, once-in-a-lifetime luxury. The stewards and hostesses were meticulously attentive, describing the items on the dinner menu, graciously introducing me to all the facilities, and even some, like the galley, that a passenger is not meant to see.

The rare roast beef came with all the trimmings and a half-bottle of good red wine, deep and mellow. Dessert was followed by strong, aromatic coffee, after-dinner mints and a liqueur. I could not know I would not taste tender roast beef for a whole year! Best of all, replete and soporific, I stretched into sleep on a smooth, crisp, comfortable, full-length bed.

A shy boy from the Association for Friendly Relations To Foreign Students met me at San Francisco airport. I complained of a severe earache. He offered no advice and that ache revisited me until I splurged on a specialist in Israel, almost a year later.

The taxi-driver showed me to the entrance of my hotel. I registered, and a porter walked to the lift (I should say elevator) with me. In Australia most lifts had a driver. They were not automatic. The door of the elevator opened and I told the driver my floor number. He said nothing. He must be a negro, I concluded as the porter carried luggage to my room. I had read about slavery and how the negroes were treated in today's United States. These negroes must be appallingly intimidated.

For three days I was alone in that famous west-coast city. Someone had made me promise to sleep through my first day, so resentfully I went to bed. I needed that sleep.

It was early evening when I woke, and time to eat. I ventured into the street, but first I examined the walls for clues to locate my room on return. A fire hose. That would do, and mine was the third door beyond it on the right.

Where were the lifts? (I must learn to call them elevators.) Nobody was about so I waited, listening for whirring motors or opening doors, and alert for the draft of moving air that would signify an approaching lift.

At last, a tell-tale sound. I walked to the next corner, turned left and began to look, or feel, for the smooth, recessed metal door of a lift. Nothing. I tried the other direction, checking both sides of the corridor. At last another lift announced itself. I hurried toward the sound and too late, heard the lift disappear.

While waiting for its slow return I mentally reviewed my route and rehearsed it in reverse. The door opened and I stepped in, again making small talk with the driver. Again he was silent.

I examined the exterior of the hotel, noting with my feet the slippery texture of the "sidewalk". The hotel was on a corner and under an awning. The walls were dirty-gritty painted brick. There were steps at the wide entrance. It would be easy to locate.

I walked a block or two this way and that, asking for help to cross roads and checking street names. These Americans were friendly, but like Patterson's crowds in "the dusty dirty city" of Sydney, they had "no time to waste."

At last I heard the sound of plates and cutlery and sniffed spices and vegetables. Chinese cuisine drew me into a bustling little restaurant.

I had been warned about US money. The notes were all the same size. There was no way of distinguishing denominations. I kept them in separate compartments of my wallet, and avoiding using high denominations such as hundred, or even fifty dollar bills.

It was easy to get home. My memory was good, my mind quick and logical and my senses sharp. Again, a porter showed me to the lift. When the door slid open he left. "Eleventh floor, thank you," I smiled. Again I tried to make conversation with the driver. Again he made no response, even when I mentioned that unfailing ice-breaker, the weather. Surely these drivers must be black – were they not allowed to speak to the patrons?

When the door of the lift opened I assumed it was my floor, thanked the driver and found my room.

Next day, Sunday, I took a tour of the city. I marvelled especially as we walked through the tall forest of aromatic redwoods. The wind and the birds high above, and the shade created by the almost touching branches showed me their height and majesty.

I was intrigued when the guide mentioned Alcatraz, "most notorious hotel in the United States." The other passengers knew what the guide was referring to, but it was months before I learned of the island-prison, and thirty years before I took a boat ride around it. Still, I have neither walked in its grounds nor touched its walls.

On Monday morning I managed to "ride" a cable car up and down some almost vertical hills. The scenic railway in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, sky-ways and cable-cars all over the world thrill me, especially when they speed.

Buying lunch at a down-town cafeteria was bewildering. The food was presented in plastic containers or glad-wrap - not identifiable by touch or smell, and there were no shop assistants. The only person providing service was the cashier. To locate and identify a reasonable meal I had to get help from others in the lunch-time rush and crush. Chopped salads, cottage cheese, fresh or preserved fruit, sliced sausage and other meats were displayed, hygienically and hermetically sealed. Australians were not yet familiar with that labour and cost-saving ploy, self-service.

In the afternoon I "rode" a bus across the Golden Gate bridge to Berkeley and the California State School for the Blind, which adjoined UCB, the University of California, Berkeley campus. There was neither student nor teacher at school. A gracious secretary showed me round the buildings and told me about this well-known school whose principal was Dr Berthold Lowenfeld, a leader in vision impairment.

Back in the city I managed to follow detailed directions up and down steep, narrow streets to an apartment block for dinner. It was good to be among friends and to gather facts and impressions about this fabulous, foggy city, already known for its bohemian lifestyle and its earthquakes, especially that most destructive one in 1906.

After a little wine I gathered courage and asked about the silent elevator drivers. Everyone laughed. "Our elevators are automatic," they explained. "There are no drivers. No one in the elevators except passengers. That's why nobody answered you!"

How much I had to learn about this vast, fast country which was so much like mine, yet so different.

Comments: more on smell: roast beef, sheets, more sensuous detail.

More detail.

"I want to read the book."

Pervasive smell of india."

Explain 20th of may. Too many short sentences. Staccato.

1 pp.: Repetition of afternoon tea. My fair lady explained. Age when travelling? ("Walking through the world") Presence of lift drivers: Australia had them. Was the lift voice-activated? Clarify attitude negroes." More reality of my experience.

Description of going to America confusing. How do you know the trees were tall?

Could put acknowledgements at back? Mention helpers at the back?

More concepts and images are derived from what others say and how things are used.

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