It seems like a lifetime ago when our group converged on Essendon Airport. There we were, the girls dressed in ‘frocks’, stockings and little heels, the boys in smart jackets and ties. Masses of people formed around us: immediate families, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, boyfriends, girlfriends and just friends. They had all come to farewell us on an adventure that, at the time was unimaginable. So young and inexperienced and yet ambassadors for our country, as we headed off to the other side of the world, to USA as American Field Service exchange students where we would each stay with an American family and attend high school for a year.
As we walked across the tarmac to our awaiting Pan Am plane nothing could have prepared us for the experience that lay ahead. We were embarking on a larger life in a bigger world. Most of us hadn’t flown before and soon found ourselves visiting the cockpit. Unthinkable today. Our knowledge of our destination had been gleaned from TV. 1966 America was the land of massively oversized cars, the likes of which were never seen at home. It was where students didn’t wear uniforms to school. Fast food outlets, nonexistent here were prevalent. I remember the novelty of a McDonald’s drive-through, and the amazement when my foster sister stopped her car to withdraw cash from an ATM machine, through the window.
“We were embarking on a larger life in a bigger world.”
Without realising, as perhaps is always the case, we were living through a profound period in history. The 60’s saw the Vietnam War, Civil Rights protests and the assassinations of John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King. We were already back home when the decade ended on a high note with the moon landing in 1969.
Today we gathered again, this eclectic group of people, no longer teenagers but essentially the same. It was Jon, who had celebrated his 17th birthday during our flight over who organised today’s reunion. There were some we hadn’t seen for over 50 years and others who’d kept in touch and been growing old together. There were indeed a lifetime of stories to share. Many talked of careers, families, children and grandchildren. Some shared sadnesses, one very recent with the death of a beloved husband of forty odd years. We outlined the paths we’d taken, reminisced and discussed the profundity of our AFS experience and the impact on our lives.
“When our life journeys do intersect, no matter our differences, it’s the warmth of the human spirit that unites us. At the end of the day, isn’t this what gives our lives meaning?”
The feeling of connectedness was palpable around that lunch table. Before leaving I explained to a lovely young waitress, not much older than we would have been back then, who we were and how special our reunion had been. I drove home with a smile on my face as I reflected on our diverse group, then and now, and the chance encounters that make up a lifetime. How one event can bring us together or lead us in opposite directions. How we all have stories to tell but most of them we’ll never get to hear. When our life journeys do intersect, no matter our differences, it’s the warmth of the human spirit that unites us. At the end of the day, isn’t this what gives our lives meaning?
Janine Joseph, Melbourne writer and AFS exchange student from Australia to USA 1966-67.