Junior Year Abroad

by John Delach

Both of our children chose to spend a semester of their junior year in the United Kingdom in different colleges located outside of London. Curiously, circumstances made their experiences completely different. The good news is I was totally available for our daughter Beth who traveled first, spending her semester at Reading University during the winter / spring of 1990.


One year later, our son, Michael, was preparing to spend the second semester of his sophomore year at New England College’s UK campus in the town of Arundel when the sh** hit the fan; Desert Storm, President Herbert Walker (41) Bush’s war. The United States led a coalition of allies from far and wide in a conflict designed to kick Sadam Hussein out of Kuwait.


A daughter is a daughter and not being available for Beth would have been a disaster especially at that point in time, I seemed to spend almost half of my life in London.


In the same sense, a son is a son. When it was Michael’s chance to go overseas, few were flying. My own company, Marsh & McLennan, prohibited us from going overseas without the chairman’s permission; I kid you not!


My experience with Beth:


Reading University will never be confused with the elite so called “public schools” like Eaton, Cambridge or Oxford. They called Reading a “red brick university,” one of nine colleges established at the turn of the Twentieth Century to open higher education to Britain’s middle class. Reading was spartan by our standards to say the least, especially for a young American woman’s toilet needs.


Say no more; Daddy is on his way! Having immense flexibility at that time, I invented reasons for three business trips to London during Beth’s stay that included expanded weekend stays. My game plan was simple, I’d book the 10 AM TWA flight out of JFK on Friday mornings enabling me to make it to the Sheraton Perk Tower in the West End between 10 PM and 11PM, London time.


I booked the room for an early Friday morning arrival. This allowed Beth and her new friend, Debbie Parrot, another American girl from Indiana to check in early using my account. This way, they could enjoy the luxuries of a four-star hotel; mini bar, full bath and room service including high tea.


On arrival, I went straight to the room. First order of business was to hand Beth and Debbie treasures from America that they had requested. After I freshened up, I escorted these two pretty women to a late dinner. Our usual destination was a curious little place with the moniker “Foxtrot Oscar,” (F.O.)

To the day I die, I will treasure the leering looks I received from guests and staff as we walked through the lobby and into a taxi. As a bonus, my status and treatment at the Park Tower improved immensely. After dinner, we’d deposit Debbie at the Paddington Railway station, where she could catch the train to Reading.


Beth and I would spend the weekend together. Shopping and sightseeing on Saturday, the theatre that night and brunch and walks in Hyde Park on Sunday. Late afternoon we’d say goodbye and Beth would take a taxi to Paddington to return to Reading with a collection of the Park Tower’s bath products.


It was only after Beth came home that a friendly secretary at our London office took me aside and admitted, “Some of us thought you had a girlfriend in London because you started taking the ‘boyfriend flight.’ That’s what we call the Friday morning flight from New York. You Yanks, who had a squeeze over here took it, so you’d have a full weekend together.”


My experience with Michael


The extent of my physical contact with Michael ended when we dropped him off at the Virgin Airline check-in at the International Building at JFK. It was a cold Monday night in late January. Desert Shield, the buildup for Desert Storm, the shooting war was well underway. Super Bowl XXV would be played the following Sunday. There were only three other cars in the vast parking lot. Intense security forced Mary Ann and I to say our goodbyes outside Virgin Airline’s vestibule. The night’s chill intensified as we watch Michael walk away with his over-sized hockey bag.


Of course, we were worried by the same concerns that made my company ground all of us from flying internationally. But Michael wanted to go, and I agreed this was an experience not to be missed. We picked Virgin as they were not a high-risk target like British Airways, Pan Am or TWA could be.


Knowing that I wouldn’t see him again until he was back in the USA, I offered Michael three pieces of sensible advice for him to follow during his time in Britain: “Look left before stepping into a two-way street. Watch your head, you are a 6/5 person in a 4/5 size country. The Queen and the Royal Family are none of your business. Whenever the subject comes up, walk away.”


Fortunately, I was able to send Michael anything he needed via my company’s overnight pouch. I addressed these parcels to a friendly senior secretary and she forwarded them unopened via the Royal Mail. Michael received his goods in two days without exception. I would include a copy of a now defunct daily sports newspaper called The National. Inside, each copy I included a $20 bill with a note, “Andy Jackson says hello.” Michael’s school was in the town of Arundel and he and his mates made additional spending money by participating in lineups for the local police.


I also had him bring most of his belongings up to our London office, so he didn’t have to lug them home. I was glad to see him when I met him at JFK in late May, even after I realized he was sporting a pierced earing with the skull and crossbones.


“On the Outside Looking In” will not publish next week as I will be traveling.