Cliff Gardner Journey of our lives
The 2nd June, 2000. I am in my wheelchair on the front path of our new house in Wretton. My wife Doreen and I, and our Great Dane, Boromir, had been staying with my friend in Billericay. A 3 day stay had turned into 5 weeks while the house was completed. These good friends had put us up magnificently.
The removal truck turned up with our 84 boxes – stuff from Switzerland and from storage in Chester. A job, finding places for it all! Then we explored our new neighbourhood. Due to my worsening MS, I had had to retire early from my job in Bern, Switzerland developing telecoms systems.
Multiple Sclerosis affects people in different ways. I’d had my first real episode in 1970, ‘cured’ by a series of steroid injections. I lived normally for the next five years until another episode necessitated injections in my bum. This pattern repeated itself for 25 years, but by the 1990s the injections did not work. My MS had become Secondary Progressive – the natural redundancy built into the central nervous system was exhausted and a gradual downward trend was foreseen.
So here we are moving into our new house in Wretton. We discovered the brilliant Cut-off Channel, the walks through the Stoke Ferry Common, the River Wissey and its aqueduct over the Channel. I bought an off-road electric buggy, a single-seater golf buggy, which I could transport on a modified 5′ x 3′ trailer. Having wheels equals freedom and independence.
My life’s journey began in May, 1943. I was born in Winchester but lived in Eastleigh. My father was a skilled machine tool engineer. When I was 6 months old, my parents took me to live with my grandparents as my father was sent to India, near New Delhi, to manage a munitions factory. They returned to England four years later and decided to emigrate to Canada. They brought another creature with them. He turned out to be my younger brother!
So my first journey which I can positively recall began on a Trans-Atlantic liner whilst I waved goodbye to my grandparents, standing somewhere dockside. It took 8 days to sail to Canada and 3 nights on a sleeper train to Toronto. My father had flown out earlier to take up a job and find accommodation. I enjoyed Toronto. Winter was long and cold and summer was hot. But my mother was home-sick, so we sailed back to England in late spring of 1949. After seeing nothing green since the previous summer, the green leaves on the trees were stunning, even to a 6 year old.
My father got a job with an engineering company near Petersfield in Hampshire and we moved into a 250 year old thatched cottage. The rent was 10 shillings a week. If you think that was reasonable I should let you know that we had no gas, or electricity, or telephone and only a cold tap in the kitchen. The lavatory was a small hut 10 yards outside the back door – but fortunately brick built..
This must have been a violent culture shock for my mother having come from the city life of Toronto to rural Hampshire, miles from anywhere. We stayed in the cottage for 6 years. I did my 11+ homework using Alladin paraffin lamps until the Company built new houses which brought electricity to our part of the village.
We moved eventually to a beautiful house in Petersfield where I attended the local grammar school. It was not just an ordinary grammar school. It had been founded in 1722 by Richard Churcher, of the East India Company, to train young men to become navigators and officers to sail tea clippers to Calcutta. When I started there in 1955, it was a state-aided Independent School with about 1/3 of the boys fee-paying boarders.
Though I mostly enjoyed school, I’d found life in a small-town claustrophobic. Now I began a new life as an apprentice with GEC (Telecoms) in Coventry. I gained an HNC in electronics, then continued student life at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne where I gained an Honours Degree in electronics. As a young lad from rural Hampshire, being deposited in the middle of Geordie country, I needed an interpreter, and became friends with John from Doncaster. We remained close friends; I was his Best Man and he was mine at our respective weddings.
After 15 years of scholastic work and annual exams, I thought I needed a break. I chose America and flew to New York. There I met John, this time from Scarborough. We bought bus tickers to Philadelphia, where I started a temporary job. We had only £50 as this was the limit which we were allowed to take out of the country at that time and stayed at the YMCA. I went to work in New Jersey for the grandly named company, United Electric Inc. which consisted of a guy of 40, his 65-year-old father and his 14 year son – and me! We installed the electric wiring and flood lights in new gas (petrol) stations, and also work for domestic customers. I was paid $2 an hour for a 40-hour week. John spent his time looking for work and for somewhere cheaper to stay as I was funding both of us on $80 a week. When he found work changing tyres in a ‘kwik-fit’ garage and a room in an old house near the university, I nearly kissed him! John eventually took a doctorate in robotics and was head of Department at Bristol University.
After working in New Jersey for 8 weeks it was time to ‘hit the road’. We bought go-anywhere Greyhound Bus tickets for $99 for one calendar month, so timing was critical. We began by heading for Niagra Falls and then on to Montreal and Ottawa. Apparently in Quebec and Montreal, you stand no chance of a decent job unless you are fluent in both French and English. We then headed for Chicago on overnight buses so we could save money by sleeping on the bus. We rode the ‘Elevated Railway’ and had the most delicious beef burger in the world – but in 1968 Chicago had seen student and racial riots, and policemen seemed to keep an uncomfortably close eye on us. So after just 12 hours, we left on the next overnight bus for the Rockies and Yellowstone National Park.
To get to see Yellowstone in 24 hours, we hired a car with 3 other guys and drove to see the ‘Old Faithful’ geyser and the bears. We camped in the open overnight and had breakfast in a roadside restaurant. In 1968, the Mid-west seemed a remote region. The 18 year old waitress hadn’t heard of The Beatles.
Now another bus took us down to San Francisco, and in 4 days we rode the famous tramways and visited the giant redwood forest as well as seeing the usual sights. After which we wanted to get to Los Angeles. The quickest and easiest way to do this was with a hire car. Rental companies sometimes need their cars to be delivered across America. So we got 24 hours free hire if we delivered a car from San Francisco to LA. No problem! We drove down through Yosemite National Park, which I thought more spectacular than Yellowstone.
In Los Angeles, of course we went to Disneyland, then took a bus to San Diego, and on to Tucson , Arizona, where the bus station manager was a real live Wyatt Earp with a touristy version of the OK Corral Next to San Antonio where Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, William Travis and company, fought at The Alamo and lost to the Mexicans in 1836. Our next stop was New Orleans which was such a change from the usual American cities. We did the tour and heard Dixieland Jazz played by ageless musicians. Finally east to Florida for a dip in the Atlantic.
John’s return flight from Boston to UK was a couple of days before my flight from New York. All the same, we squeezed in a visit to Richmond Virginia and Washington DC. We had travelled through 35 States in a month, and left with very fond feelings for the USA which have remained strong in my memory after nearly 50 years.
Down to earth! My first post-graduate job in 1968 was with GEC Hirst Research Centre in Wembley. My electronics degree was no use at all as I was placed in the Software Systems Team to develop programs to model the operation of electronic telephone exchanges. I shared a house with 4 other guys. We had parties and went to parties. At one of these I met my wife. I still can’t believe how lucky I was. We looked for a place to live but even though Doreen also had a degree, a BSc Honours from London University, our two salaries wouldn’t pay the mortgage on a 2 room apartment in Ealing. When young people today complain about the cost of buying or renting a place of their own, nothing has changed in 50 years.
So we became economic migrants, and started our married life in Bern, Switzerland. I had applied for and got a job with a telecom company developing computer controlled telex exchanges, I worked on the design and implementation of the database and operational control of the world’s first stored program controlled telex exchange for Cable and Wireless to be deployed in Hong Kong. Doreen got a job in the Ovalmaltine laboratories as a research scientist and we rented a flat like most Swiss people.
We commuted to work on 2 mopeds and took them on the train to Ticino in the Italian canton of Switzerland. We toured for a week, convincing the B & B owners that we really were married. In 1970, women still didn’t have the vote in Switzerland. After 18 months, it was time to take the telex system to Hong Kong for final development by which time Doreen had acquired an impressive command of Swiss German. We were given 2 open return tickets, and decided to make stop-overs on the way. This was our first major journey together.
But I think I will share it with you in the next edition of the Pump. Hope you have enjoyed my life’s journeys so far.