Ten weeks earlier, I had flown to the United States with hundreds of fresh-faced counselors, all of us eager to teach at summer camps throughout the country. I had never visited the States before and was excited to experience the American way of life. An attractive feature of the program that lured me to sign up with Camp America was that once your camp closed for the season, you had a month to travel on your own before reconvening at JFK to fly back to your normal life in Europe. This hot, late-September day was that day—the end of our American adventure and a scheduled return to normality with a long flight back to the mundane.
Phil Carroll, an athletic, fun-loving twenty-year-old Australian from Sydney, had been an exchange student with a family in Norway when he signed up for the summer escapade; whereas I, at the tender age of twenty-four, had just dissolved my partnership in an estate agency near my home village of Itchenor in the south of England. I had wanted to take some time off to relax and think before jumping into another full-time job.
We had both been assigned positions at Frenchwoods Festival for the Performing Arts—a well-known and respected performing arts camp in upstate New York nestled in the Catskills. Philip’s assignment was camp photographer. And me? I was hired to teach the well-known performing art of sailing! Frenchwoods has a private lake with the uninspiring name of Sand Pond, and even though the camp’s focus was exclusively on the arts, they just couldn’t resist throwing a few Sunfishes, Lasers, and windsurfers into the water. Then, all they had to do was seek out a gullible, foreign sailing instructor from a small sailing village in England to be present on the off chance a fifteen-year-old thespian, in between blocking her role in Annie and attending her advanced tap dance class, might suddenly be overwhelmed with the desire to learn to sail. Needless to say, my summer hadn’t been busy—although “Sunbathing on the Boat as Matthew Sailed it Around the Lake 101” did prove to be a popular course for several of the young female campers.
My only success story of the summer was a young boy called Michael. I didn’t teach him how to sail, but I did teach him how to say “ready about,” “by the lee,” and “jibe.” Michael oozed with pride when he brought his parents to the water’s edge to meet me on Visitors Day. In boisterous nautical fashion, with a distinct theatrical flair and a poorly executed pirate’s accent, Michael recited his six sailing-related words. His parents looked at me incredulously, telegraphing that they had expected more bang for their many bucks. I offered a slight shrug. I thought it better not to point out that they had sent their son to a prestigious performing arts camp, an unlikely breeding ground for Olympic yachtsmen.
Once the last camp session ended and the campers had been safely dispatched to their homes across the United States, we were paid our meager salaries in cash and unleashed upon America. The only rule laid out by Camp America was that we were to report to the British Airways departure desk at JFK on September the 22nd by 11:00 a.m.
Phil and I divided our month of travel between Boston, Martha’s Vineyard, and New York City, staying with friends we’d made during our time at the camp. Our whirlwind northeast tour had been liberally punctuated with beaches, barbeques, bars, baseball games, parties, laughter, and revelry.
At 10:55 a.m., still obscured by our German cover, Phil looked at me and said matter-of-factly, “I’m having too much fun in America. You?” I glanced at the mass of counselors who were now five minutes away from terminating their American sojourn.
“Yes,” I whispered. “Yes, I am,” I repeated more confidently, as if confirming to myself that I had indeed just said yes and that yes was indeed the correct answer. Phil’s brand new Boston Red Sox cap (a purchase he regretted a year later when Bill Buckner’s infamous blunder robbed the Sox of a 1986 World Series title), pulled down snugly, hid all but his unblinking eyes. I froze.
Everything around me seemed still and quiet. Seconds elongated. I felt as if I’d left the airport and transported to a library. The threat of being aggressively hushed by a stern librarian was palpable. The enormity of the choice we were contemplating yawned before us. Crouched down with our backpacks and sleeping bags next to us, without the slightest hint of fear, Phil said as evenly as if reciting a password, “Let’s jump ship.”
“Done,” I responded. I didn’t hesitate. I didn’t question. I committed 100% to the idea. I grabbed my measly belongings and kept my head down as I slipped quietly away from certainty, obligations, and my homeland.