My first illegal journey

I’m not sure if I should admit to this, but just over 50 years ago I was in the United States illegally. For a fortnight – and I hope that will confuse the authorities enough to let me get away with it, because Americans have no idea what a fortnight is.

It happened when I worked, fairly briefly, for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. They had just bought a very old British newspaper called The Christian, and by an amazing coincidence, the previous summer I had been on holiday at a guest house in Minehead, Somerset.

Not an obvious coincidence, unless you know that a Scottish journalist with four theology degrees was staying at the same guest house. I don’t know why. Somehow, he and I got talking, and he discovered that I enjoyed writing. I showed him some short pieces I had written, and the following autumn he gave me a ring at my home in Norwich.

He had just been appointed editor of The Christian and was looking for writers. At the time I was training to be an accountant. I don’t think I would have been a very good one. Dr J D Douglas (for it was he) asked me if I would like a job in London, and I – or whoever was inhabiting my body at the time – said yes. I soon found myself in a bedsit with shared toilet and bathroom in North London. I was on my own.

It was the start of my journalistic career. I made my way each morning to Bush House in central London and reported on various meetings and events. The first press conference I went to was in French. Fortunately there was a translator.

J D eventually decided that it might be a good idea if I went to a writing school. The one he decided on was in Minneapolis, headquarters of the BGEA. It was my first flight. I had been outside the UK before, but only on school trips.

And there was some kind of strike. Instead of flying straight to Minneapolis, I had to travel via Prestwick to Toronto. From there I had to find myself a flight to Winnipeg – also in Canada – and from there a train to Minneapolis. It was not straightforward.

I did however manage to get a flight on a rather shaky old propeller-driven job from Toronto to Winnipeg. It went via Thunder Bay, which was appropriate, because there was a lot of lightning around at one point. Quite spectacular, if I remember.

It was about midnight when I arrived. I found a taxi and asked the driver, who came originally from Horsham in Sussex, to take me to a hotel near the station. I didn’t have change; so we had to into the hotel to get it. To my young and cynical eye, the hotel seemed rather less than trustworthy; so once in my room I propped a chair against the doorknob and put my passport under the pillow.

You may wonder where all this is leading. But no, I was not robbed – not at that point, anyway. The next morning I trotted over the station and bought a ticket to Minneapolis, which was pretty much due south, across a very large number of wheatfields. Just over 450 miles. The cost? Ten dollars. I was deeply shocked, and very pleased.

And of course during the rail journey I passed from Canada into the United States. I don’t know exactly when, because there was nothing to indicate it. But eventually the conductor came round, looked at my ticket, and I explained I would be here for a fortnight. There was a long conversation, and eventually I twigged that in the US, two weeks do not make a fortnight.

Probably confused by all this, he said I needed to sign some kind of form, and he would come back with it. But he never did.

So when I came to leave the United States, a fortnight or two weeks later, it could have been tricky. I did not have the paperwork. Thankfully, someone was looking after me. I met a man who knew a travel agent, and she sorted it out.

I have been to the Unites States since then, once via Canada to Florida, and twice directly there. I can recommend Captiva Island. It was all perfectly legal.