Exchange Program To Western Australia – A Personal Story From My Youth
This post includes some stories of my life and some advice. It also includes some serious details of my younger life with real names and real schools, organizations, and places. There are good links ahead. I might regret this. Oy vey.
It was early 1980. I was a senior in high school. It was a fancy private high school outside of Boston, Concord Academy. I had decided to take a year off between high school and college and needed to embark on some adventures during that gap year. Losing my virginity was part of that. At 18, I had at least had the foresight to plan a little bit ahead. This included applying for an exchange program through American Field Service (AFS), a good organization that had a strong presence at my high school. I got interested because I had a crush on the girl (Korean-American) who was the liaison to AFS. Almost every time I do something that involves travel or relocation usually involves a girl. Yeesh. That included up until my mid-40s.
Concord Academy was originally an all-girls high school. The Queen of Jordan, Noor Al-Hussein, was a graduate of my school as were both Kissinger kids. Sebastian Junger was a good friend in my graduating class and we had many outdoor adventures together. New England private schools are where the young elite swim upstream to spawn. I was just an upper middle class kid and a day student, not a boarding student. But still, there were parties in Manhattan penthouses my senior year because these young people were the elites. I’m only in touch with a few of them now. That was a long time ago.
I went through the AFS application process that included written essays and several interviews. I was prepared to use my own money but my mother and stepfather stepped up and funded me. I remember at the time it was $1,500 and that included airfare. Settle down readers, it was 1980 so it wasn’t that cheap considering inflation over the past 35 years. But after working every summer in high school and saving my money, I did have the available funds.
After being accepted into the AFS program, I was informed that I would be going to Perth, Western Australia to live with a family and attend the Church of England school in Guildford. My departure would be just a few days after I graduated high school. Yes, I would be re-attending an Australian high school after graduating from an American high school (#facepalm). I had purposely requested an English-speaking country because I knew my skill with foreign languages was profoundly limited. My high school French did not count.
As for that school, it was all male and I was required to wear a uniform as well as attended chapel services three times weekly. That was quite the change from my experience at an American private school where things were co-ed and not nearly as regimented. There was even corporal punishment there at Guildford Grammar.
For the record, the flight was this – Boston to New York to San Francisco to Honolulu to Auckland (NZ) to Sydney (AUS) to Melbourne to Perth. I was in the air for a total of 27 hours and ended up on almost the opposite side of the earth from Boston, my home town. All those to be on this exchange program in Australia first met up in San Francisco at a hotel. We were each assigned a room and a roommate. I vaguely remember a nice guy who shared the room with me for a night. I think he was from Vermont.
While there, I met some girls who were accepted into the program during the overnight San Francisco stop over. Sadly, I was seriously deep in the miasma of the unknown of how to operate a girl. I had little such experience in high school despite the fact that two thirds of my graduating class consisted of girls. However, there were only 63 graduating seniors at my school so it was all rather too close and we were all very circumspect about hooking up.
During the stop over in San Francisco I remember making out with one girl on my hotel bed while my roommate was out for a couple of hours. It was rather intense. But my serious attraction was to Jackie Kenyon, a comely blonde from rural Minnesota. Being so young, so hormonal, and so far away from home accelerated attraction to warp speed levels. It was clearly mutual between Jackie and me. There was no sex because of time, logistics, and my own insecurities.
I was now on the last leg of one of the longest airline journeys on the planet. While at the lengthy stop over in Los Angeles, I made a point to try to sleep at the terminal in a pile of carry on luggage . I had barely slept and remember how the other young people talked about me as I tried to sleep. Everyone was talking about me. It made me feel both uncomfortable and proud of myself but mostly uncomfortable.
What I didn’t know at the time is that I was the center of attention in the group for reasons that I now understand. I was being kind of cocky and funny with the group as I journeyed so far West that I crossed the international date line and the world became East. I guess that being on such an adventure – my first real international experience – gave me a sense of confidence that went against the “be yourself” mindset as taught by my mom. But still, I fell back on my “be nice” foundation to often during that experience. That was my comfort zone at the time.
From SF, we flew to LA to catch the Air New Zealand flight across the Pacific, via Honolulu. It was a fun group. We figured out how to to sleep across the vacant seats and even on the floor. Jackie and I were together for the whole flight. The flight crew was amusingly cooperative with it as we were a well behaved bunch. The flight was impossibly long although I had worse a few years later when I flew from Bangkok to London.
I flew into Sydney from Auckland, New Zealand. In Sydney, AFS had organized a stay over at some sort of young person’s camp. The jet lag was beyond awful. We all tried to stay awake through dinner. I have a distinct memory of a meeting where a small group of us was meeting with a local AFS volunteer. A very attractive girl in the group was asking questions as she sat next to me. She then pointed to me and asked “Is he going to be in my city?” I think I actually blushed when she asked that. No girl had ever been so forward with me and it freaked me out (NiceGuy™ training!). I wasn’t comfortable being the center of attention, especially from attractive girls. This particular girl actually escalated me. During a break in the meeting – we were all sitting on the floor – the girl talked with me about how she was a runner and complained about shin splints. I had no idea about that condition but she asked me to to feel her shins to find out. Oh, what I really needed to know back then.
Finally, the group dispersed to our various destinations within Australia. Jackie and I exchanged addresses for an eventual weekly correspondence via written letters. There was no electronic communications back then, just paper, pen, envelopes, and stamps. I communicated with family and friends back in the US with aerograms. I received a new letter from her every week for the three months I was there. I did meet up with her in Los Angeles during the return trip but we didn’t have sex. But was prepared with condoms which she referred to as “mouse sleeping bags”.
The flight attendant on my flight from Melbourne to Perth was young and attractive. I was sitting in an aisle seat and she paid special attention on me. Perhaps it was my accent. Perhaps it was my looks. I had no idea because I had the mind of a nice guy and had no idea that she was seriously flirting with me. In a flight of a few hours duration, she was actually kneeling in the aisle looking at the photos I had in my carry-on bag. For you youngsters, photos were actually produced on a special paper so as to be shared without the aid of technology. Damn, what a concept!
Back then, I didn’t know shit about how it all worked. Granted, it was a grand adventure and I was the final leg of a 27 hour in-flight experience from Boston, MA to Perth, Western Australia. I might have been fatigued or distracted. But dammit, I was 18 years old and horny as fuck! But I was still mostly clueless. Worse, I didn’t know how to flirt back. I was being polite and deferential to a young woman who was clearly interested in me. A player I was not.
The three months in Perth were interesting. The family I lived with were good people. There were indeed times of conflict. I understand the social mistakes I made with them and hopefully I have learned from them. It was an emotional time for me, for better and worse. School was quite the experience and I did make some friends over there.
I did a lot more when I returned home… working in the camping equipment store (EMS on Commonwealth Ave in Boston, being a ski bum in Summit County, Colorado, working in a state mental hospital, riding my motorcycle from Boston to northern British Columbia with hopes of reaching Inuvik via the Dempster Highway. The motorcycle was stolen and I was forced to hitchhike and fly the rest of the way after my bike was pinched. But those are stories for other blog posts. The zenith of my youthful adventures was working on a wildcat, oil exploration oil drilling rig in Ras al Khaimah, United Arab Emirates.
There’s also the story of my brother and I prowling about Asia in 1983 where I taught my brother how to ride a motorcycle on a road in northern Thailand. He did OK but he never rode a motorcycle again. In 1983, China was quite Communist and there were no private businesses.
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