Publisher’s Corner: Summer of 1971

The Best of Times, The Worst Of Times

Forty seven years ago this summer, I was working as an adult psychiatric worker (APW) at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. A fellow APW named Dennis, asked if I wanted to accompany him to Cadiz, Spain to visit his brother. Being 19 years old, with a keen sense of wanderlust, I immediately agreed. It was 1971, and people were still hitchhiking, so we stuck out our thumb from St. Louis to New York to catch a charter flight to London. Today such an idea would be crazy. But those were simpler, safer times. We got a few good rides from some hippies in a micro-bus and some friendly truckers. Two days later we caught our flight to England. We rented a flat in London for 3 weeks just a block from Sherlock Holmes’ digs on Baker Street. We visited many pubs, drank Watney’s Red Ale at room temperature, ate steak and kidney pie, visited The Regents Park and even attended a production of Hair at a West End Theatre near Leicester Square. My companion Dennis was the scholarly sort and planned all our educational outings. But we also enjoyed disco night at a place called Bumpers where we met a few friendly lassies and danced to Brown Sugar by the Rolling Stones. As Spain awaited us, we decided to buy a couple of second-hand bicycles and two-wheel it from London to Spain with a side tour to the Queen’s country castle in Windsor. Then back on the road south to Brighton on the beach where we caught a ferry to Dieppe, France. From there it was cycling through one little French town after another, eating the finest 4 course meals at even the smallest village eatery. We visited a few historic chatueas and stayed mainly in Youth Hostels where we met travelers from countries all over the world. An affordable and safe night’s sleep in exchange for a morning chore was always worth it for us. Hundreds of miles later, and more than a few sore leg muscles and fannies, we heard that a cholera outbreak near the Spanish border would mean we could not enter without shots. And knowing that could not happen in time, we gave our bikes away to some kids and caught a train back north to Paris. Dennis’ brother would not see us that summer. After a dinner in Paris, we decided to skip the bright lights of the city, as we were shy on funds, and headed north to Brussels, Belgium. I celebrated my 20th birthday in the youth hostel in Brussels with some new found friends. And one night when we visited a local bar, an older man heard we were Americans and immediately hugged us and thanked us for the Battle of the Bulge where Americans and allied troops defeated the Germans and halted the invasion of Belgium. As Americans in 1971, we were sometimes confronted on our travels for our country’s involvement in Vietnam, so finding someone who loved Americans was a nice surprise. From Brussels we traveled to Amsterdam where we ran out of money and had to cash in soda bottles we found just to buy a few Belgian waffles. We wired home for money but were not sure help was on the way. There were no cell phones or other communication for the wayward travelers in those days. Luckily, the Youth Hostel let us do extra chores for a few meals. Then finally some money was wired to us and we traveled on to The Hague. We caught a ferry back across the North Sea to England where we made our way back to London to catch our plane back to the states. And yes, we hitchhiked back to St. Louis from New York. I found out along the way via a pay phone call with my mother, that my father had died suddenly during my trip abroad. So my return was bitter sweet as I was glad to be back home with so many stories to tell, and yet I could not share them with my dad. Life can be full of adventures and I will never forget my trip to Europe in 1971. I have lost track of my traveling companion Dennis over the years, but he will always be a part of one of my greatest adventures. I hope many of you get to travel abroad and eat the local food, hug people from other countries and discover roads less traveled. I came of age that summer. My eyes were opened and my shoulders broadened. I saw my dad right before I left on my journey. He gave me a few bucks and wished me well with a warm smile. I never thought I wouldn’t see him again. I will never forget the summer of 1971. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Safe Travels, J.B. Lester