In Transit

Donald Shephard

In November 1785, Robert Burns, while he ploughed, turned up a small rodent in her nest. It inspired him to write his famous poem, To a Mouse, which includes these lines:

The best laid schemes of mice and men

Gang aft agley

And leave us nought but grief and pain

For promised joy

Up to the time I immigrated to America in 1965, many of my schemes had gone askew or agley as Burns put it, but naiveté led me to believe the one for on board ship, stood to succeed.

My plan on the slow ocean liner, the Castel Felice, involved my 24-year old self, and my 18-year old traveling companion, Alan. I reasoned that, if we sweet-talked three girls apiece, we would have six places to stay as we crossed the country. The Castel Felice cooperated with my plan in two ways. It sailed slowly, taking nine days to cross, which gave us three days per girl. The ship carried college students, most of them endowed with delicious American femininity, returning from summer schools at Oxford, Cambridge, Heidelberg, or the Sorbonne.

Alan had attached himself to my emigration while we sat around a table in the Mother Hubbard, our local pub. I told him to quit his underpaid job as an office boy in London and to work on construction, thinking his widowed mother would not agree. To my chagrin, she voiced no objection.

We worked on a building site during the day and hauled hay in the evening. While we earned money for the trip, I navigated the bureaucracy of obtaining a permanent visa from the American Embassy and guided Alan through the process.

On the first day out of Southampton, we joined the young passengers beside the pool. I noticed a girl in a white, one-piece swimsuit, legs crossed, flicking her foot and looking at us. To my eternal regret, I elbowed Alan and said, “There you go.” The one-piece swimsuit soon uncovered a Belgium travel agent who rarely allowed Alan out of her cabin except for meals. Once, at three in the afternoon, I helped him onto the lower bunk in our quarters.

“Have you ever been kissed all over your body?” he asked.

“Well, er…”

“I mean all over, every part,” he slept before I answered.

Meanwhile, I carried out my side of the plan. A statuesque blonde girl, Susan, a petite brunette sweetie, Karen, and, Nancy, tall, slim and red-haired all befriended me. Of course, the plan contained its own doom, because Europeans have no idea of the size of this country. Yes, we learn in school it measures three thousand miles across, but England provides no experience to evaluate against that raw fact.

My selection from the boatload of students presented another problem, the distribution of the girls’ cities. Karen hailed from Ontario, the one in Canada. What did I know? Her accent sounded American to me. Susan and Nancy both lived and studied in California, Susan in Sacramento and Nancy in Berkeley. We hoped for New York, Chicago, Kansas City, New Orleans, Miami, or San Francisco but, in place of their promised joys, we achieved only two unknown, west coast cities eighty miles apart.

Another unheard of city, Joliet, Illinois, provided good-money jobs, which allowed us to buy an enormous Oldsmobile 88. Our discovery that “forty below” refers not to forty degrees of frost, but to minus forty, an extra, unimaginable thirty-two degrees colder, inspired us to move west.

We drove two thousand miles using old Highway 66, Highway 99, where pea-soup fog masked the “Welcome to sunny California” signs, and Highway 50 to Berkeley where jobs proved difficult to find. I sold the car, borrowed $100 from Nancy and sailed for Japan where she followed, after graduation. We returned to the Bay Area and slipped into a cold marriage that contrasted drastically with the talents of the Belgium travel agent.

Fourteen years later, Colleen and I deliberately contemplated our union and the merger of our families. Time proved Colleen a better planner, even schemer, if you will, than I in defiance of the great Scottish poet.

Burns concluded his poem To a Mouse:

Still thou art blest, compared with me!

The present only toucheth thee:

But och! I backward cast my eye,

On prospects drear!

And forward, though I cannot see,

I guess and fear.

Contrary to Robert Burns and his assessment of man’s schemes, and thanks to Colleen’s careful planning, we live in peace and harmony blessed with a happy marriage. And, although, as Burns rightfully notes, we cannot see the future, we guess and smile at promised joy.

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