Byline: Simon Winchester
Forty years ago, this country embraced a broke Brit. On July 4, I'm giving back--with the oath of citizenship.
My love affair with America began with a vast disappointment, back in 1959. My father had been offered a job as an engineer in Tulsa, Okla. My mother and I, overjoyed at the idea of exchanging our shabby little life in north London for the magic of the prairies--all high grass, sunshine, oil wells, and longhorn cattle--sold the house, packed up our belongings, booked ourselves on an ocean liner. And then, the night before sailing, my father got cold feet and canceled everything.
I was crushed--but vowed to go, one day, and see for myself the dream that had been so cruelly snatched away. Four years later I seized the opportunity. I took a year off before Oxford, bought the cheapest ticket to Montreal, traveled to Vancouver, and then crossed the American frontier by way of the Peace Arch into the seaside town of Blaine, Wash.
I then spent the magical days of that spring and summer hitchhiking through every corner of the country, from Los Angeles (dinner with Kirk Douglas, coffee with Johnny Carson), to New Iberia, La. (guests of the Tabasco sauce factory owners), from Sault Sainte Marie, Mich. (shaking President Kennedy's hand) to Topeka, Kans. (horse riding with Harold Stassen), to Wheeling, W.Va. (where at 2 a.m. one frightening night a young man of lustful intent asked me if I wanted a b.j. to which I, quite innocent of such matters, spluttered thanks, but I already have one at home), to New York City, and myriad places in between.
All told, I hitched 38,000 American highway miles, and it cost me just $18. I had entered at Blaine with 200 crisp bills in my pocket; and when six months later I left for Canada by way of Houlton, Maine, I had 182 of them left. Such kindness I had never known.
The experience changed me, profoundly. That summer, somewhere inside me was germinated the vague idea that one day I might make common cause with these kindly, warm, open folk, and even eventually become (as I heard it was possible to do) one of them.
Ten years later I was back, this time as a young reporter, and assigned to cover one of the most extraordinary episodes ever to befall the country: the resignation of a president, over Watergate. For 30 months I watched transfixed as the ponderous machinery of America's democracy cranked itself up to answer, it seemed, the ultimate wish of the public. To get rid of British heads of state had for centuries required execution, the head on the block. Here it seemed, and more properly, it was the people who enjoyed the greater measure of sovereignty. A people I now even more urgently wanted to join.
But there was more. I had come to Washington from Belfast, from reporting on three horror-filled years of hatred and killing. Stripped of its subtleties, the violence there stemmed from a mutual hatred between Ulster Protestants and Irish Catholics--so long as they were confined to Ulster. But then many Belfast friends moved away, to escape. I soon came to reconnect with some who had moved to America-couples who had loathed one another back in the Six Counties, but who now, in Chicago, Seattle, and Dallas, far from hating one another, had married, had produced children, had quite forgotten the need to hate. And still others, people who had arrived here mired in the hostilities of other homelands--immigrants from the Balkans, the Levant, and Indochina were among those I came to know best--soon found their ancient animosities were fading into insignificance, too. Their experience only reinforced my feeling: the argument for my joining this extraordinary experiment in improving the human condition--an imperfect experiment at times, of course--grew steadily more powerful.
The tug …