Judith in California: Part 4 – LA & San Diego

Sunday in Los Angeles…

Dad investigated the phone book again and made a phone call. This time we attended a Presbyterian church. On that particular Sunday they were having a joint service with a Mexican church who met in the same building. The Mexican pastor was a delight. Looking at our serious Sunday faces he said, “Everybody smile, now!” It did the trick. We all smiled and lightened up.

After the service, whilst chatting with members of the congregation, we were asked if we’d seen the Crystal Cathedral.

“No,” we replied.

“Oh, you must go,” they said.

A map was produced and we set off, not knowing what to expect.

I don’t know if I can convey to you just how amazing it turned out to be. The cathedral is a huge structure made of glass with twelve fountains along the length of the aisle to represent the twelve disciples. It was built by the Reformed Church in America, but they sold it to the Roman Catholic Church in 2012. I’ve no idea what it’s like now, but they used to have magnificent dramatic performances at Christmas and Easter, with flying angels and massed choirs. What I remember about my visit is the way that the wonderfully clear Californian light made all the glass sparkle so brightly that even I could get some idea of the beauty of the place.

We finished our trip by driving down to San Diego, stopping off for the night en route at a Motel 6 in a place called Escondido.

We got out of the car and found ourselves next to an open-top car with a huge Rottweiler sitting in the back. We edged by cautiously.

“He’s just a puppy,” the driver assured us.

Really? Well, he was an alarmingly large puppy!

Later that evening we heard the man calling, “Put it down!” and imagined a small child or hapless member of staff dangling from its jaws.

The next morning was also the only time my father drove on the wrong side of the road. It happened as we were coming out of the motel parking lot. Fortunately there was no harm done.

Once we arrived in San Diego, we took a boat trip round the bay and looked at some very expensive shops. We were initially puzzled by signs outside these emporia saying, “No strollers.”

“Does that mean we can’t even go in and browse?” we wondered.

It took a while before we realized that what they actually meant was, “No pushchairs!”

On the whole, we didn’t find the language barrier to be too much of a problem. We got used to the fast-talking waiters in diners who reeled off lists of salad dressings and different kinds of toast at top speed. Whether they understood us was a different matter. My father’s London accent was sometimes mistaken for an Australian one.

Before we left, we felt we should at least dip our toes in the sea. What you don’t realise when watching TV programmes set in sunny California is just how cold the Pacific Ocean is! It is also very rough, or at least it was at the place that we chose. We paddled in but were soon freezing cold and hardly able to stand up.

We decided to call it quits. It had all been a lot of fun but it was time to go home.

Judith in California: Part 3 – Los Angeles

Dad had never driven a car with automatic transmission before we visited California, but he eventually got the hang of it.

I had judged that, if my father started driving in San Francisco, he would be thoroughly acclimatised to American cars and American roads by the time he’d driven the hundreds of miles of coastal highway to Los Angeles.

He proved me right.

He might have been a nervous flyer, but he was not at all phased by the huge LA freeways with their multitude of lanes and endless lines of traffic. A former colleague of his from his days working for Bible Society was now living in LA. Dad looked up the address and drove us from one side of the city to the other one evening just to see him and his family.

And there were so many other things to see in Los Angeles!

Our first outing was to Universal Studios. This was great fun. We took the tour which, among other things, involved driving through a flash flood and watching the shark from “Jaws” jump out of the water nearby. I couldn’t see him, of course, but I did experience the spray from the flood!

Fay Wray shows Judith how to get on well with animals.

Following in the footsteps of Fay Wray, I had my photo taken with King Kong while I was there. We also watched an exhibition of the talented animals who are trained so brilliantly to act alongside their human counterparts in many films, and went to a show where members of the audience were invited to participate in the filming of a scene from “Star Trek”.

On another occasion, we made a trip to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, where the footprints of many stars are imprinted for posterity in the pavement. We got a little lost at this point, however, and my dad, being a typical male driver, wouldn’t ask the way himself. Instead, he sent Mum off to enquire of two members of the LAPD. This  wasn’t a bad idea in itself but they appeared to be arresting a young man at the time and might not have appreciated being interrupted. Luckily they were of the laid-back variety of policemen and patiently stopped to give her directions before returning to the business in hand.

One of the highlights of the trip for my father was visiting the decommissioned passenger liner RMS Queen Mary, which is moored at Long Beach. He had travelled on her when she was in use as a troop-ship during the Second World War. Strolling round her in the LA sunshine was a very different experience for him. We sat eating ice-cream whilst a group of young women entertained us with songs from the 1940s. This helped conjure the atmosphere of that period for me, though perhaps not the 1940s shipboard life that Dad remembered.

Walking round gave me some idea of the size of the ship. It can be quite difficult to visualize just how huge these vessels are.

Judith in California: Part 2 – On the road

Having spent a weekend in San Francisco getting over our jet-lag, on Monday morning we called a cab to take us to the airport to pick up a hire car, or what Americans would call a rental.

The taxi driver was very chatty and, for some reason, he told us all about his exploits in his high-school orchestra. He had had the fun role of clashing the cymbals at the end of a piece of music and demonstrated what he’d had to do by taking both hands off the steering wheel, turning round in his seat and clapping his hands together.

Somehow, we arrived at the airport in one piece!

We were amused to see horoscopes and zodiac signs adorning the walls of the car hire office. Were they lacking in faith in their customers’ driving abilities and looking for higher assistance?

They took us to the car. My father, who wasn’t in those days accustomed to driving a vehicle with automatic transmission, asked for some instructions, so they showed him how to turn the radio on. Apparently no other knowledge was required. Off we set.

My mother expressed her concern fairly early on that Dad wasn’t adjusting his position on the road sufficiently to take account of the fact that she was on the side of the car next to the sheer drop down to the ocean. After a while he got the hang of that but decided to turn the air-conditioning on. The next thing we knew, water was pouring down the inside of the front windscreen. He couldn’t pull over so we continued to drive on while my mother delved in the glove compartment to find the manual, which she then flicked through to find out how to rectify the situation. Eventually everything settled down and on we drove. 

Photograph showing a driver's-eye-view of cars on a highway in rural California.
On the road…

We spent our first night in Monterey.

I had suggested we use the Motel 6 chain as I had stayed in them on a previous trip. Basic but perfectly acceptable. We discovered we were a “1, 2, 3”, which meant one room, two beds, and three adults.

The most entertaining aspect of Motel 6 was the vibrating bed. Usually, one bed in each room would, for the price of a quarter, start vibrating in a very untherapeutic manner. I would love to know if anyone has ever actually found this helpful, but it was certainly amusing.

The coastline was stunningly beautiful. From the wharf at Monterey we could watch otters lying on their backs in the water, their shellfish dinners on their chests, which they would then clasp in a paw and eat.

We sat on the beach at Spanish Bay, listening to the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean and soaking up the sun.

At this point my father broke a tooth on an apple, (newly purchased to replace the one confiscated at the airport). We decided not to try and get him any help as we felt that a trip to the dentist might turn out to be quite expensive!

At Carmel we lunched in a country park which, my parents assured me, contained miles and miles of spectacular scenery. We watched ground squirrels scurrying about and observed, with the bemusement of the British abroad, a small child attempting and failing to eat a triple-decker sandwich. Why had her mother given it to her in the first place? What strange customs these people had!

We also visited the Mission Basilica at Carmel where Father Junipero Serra once lived and worked. In the 18th century, he travelled much of the Californian coast, preaching to the native Americans and others, and establishing mission churches along the way. The church was lovely. Father Junipero’s quarters were very basic. He seems to have been a very humble and sincere man.

We stayed at Morro Bay that night.

I should mention a couple more aspects of our stays in Motel 6. I had warned my parents, great tea drinkers that they were, that they would not like American tea, so we brought our own. We also brought our own electric jug kettle so that we could have our customary morning cuppa before setting out to face the day. However, we found the low voltage of the American power supply made the boiling of the jug a long slow process. We also found that the position of the socket meant that it was necessary to balance the kettle on something so that it didn’t pull the wire out.

What handy object did we find for this purpose?

The Gideons’ Bible.

It served us well throughout our trip. We were intrigued to find that not only did occupants of the motel read said Bible, they also wrote comments in the margin. It was sometimes possible to follow an entire discussion by reading the notes and following instructions such as “but also read John 1:2 -5,” or words to that effect. Sometimes the trail would take you through huge chunks of both the Old and New Testament.

What better basis could there be for brewing a good strong cup of tea?

Judith in California: Part 1 – San Francisco

The lovely sunny weather we’re enjoying here in England at the moment is bringing back memories of past holidays. The one that particularly comes to mind is my second trip to the USA…

Many years ago, I used to work for the braille production unit at the RNIB. When the organisation moved this unit from London to Peterborough, however, many of the staff, including me, took the redundancy money and ran for the hills or, in my case, the United States, because I used my money to take my parents on holiday to California. I thought they would enjoy it.

We flew out of London Heathrow, appropriately enough, on Ascension Day. My father was not a happy flier and so it wasn’t an auspicious start when take-off was delayed. The laid-back American pilot assured us that said delay wasn’t because the crew were getting nervous, though Dad clearly was. After this unpromising start, he survived the flight quite well, but was then thoroughly alarmed by the plane’s sharp banking round some tall mountains on our approach to LAX. Despite Dad’s fears, though, the pilot brought the aircraft down smoothly and taxied us to the terminal without incident.

I had booked assistance because of my mobility issues and my parents were very grateful for this. They said they would never have found their way round the airport on their own. Fortunately, they only had to follow me in my wheelchair. Apart from my mum having to surrender her apple to customs, there were no dramas and we made our connection to San Francisco without incident.

Why San Francisco?

Because a friend of mine from college was living there. She met us at the airport and took us back to her house for a cup of tea (and it was real tea too, not the Americans’ idea of tea!).

I thought it would be a good idea to spend a weekend in San Francisco acclimatizing and recovering from the journey before picking up a hire car, so my friend booked us into a motel.

Photograph of San Francisco
San Francisco

San Francisco is known for its restaurants and we did have some excellent meals out. (I also recall eating KFC in the motel room on one occasion, but you can’t live it up all the time!)

The first place we visited was Fisherman’s Wharf. We bought clam chowder from  a street stall and ate it sitting on the kerb. Well, we were on holiday, so we were letting our hair down!

One day it rained but, no matter, we sheltered in the Cable Car Museum. Basically, this was a room under the streets where you could see the mechanism that powered what we would call a tram system. After trains and buses, trams were my father’s favourite thing. Mum and I just sat on a bench and let Dad revel in the excitement of looking at a load of cables.

My father was a clergyman and it was his custom to find churches for us to attend when we went on holiday. California was no exception. He searched the phone book in the motel, made a couple of calls and Sunday found us at the First Congregational Church.

We were warmly greeted at the door and had pink rosebud stickers affixed to our coats to show we were visitors. During the service, visitors were invited to stand up and it turned out that we made up a large proportion of those present. It was Memorial Weekend, when the dead of all wars are commemorated in the States. We were interested that candles were lit for members of the church who had died, but most of them were not military veterans but people who had died from AIDS.

That evening, we attended choral evensong at Grace Cathedral. It couldn’t have been more different from the studied informality of the morning’s service with the Congregationalists. This was worship on the grand scale: formal, liturgical and awe-inspiring. It was a wonderful experience.

Reading Law

In my last two blog posts, I’ve been casting my mind back through the decades and telling you about my long-ago time as a visually impaired law student in London.

In those days, the only support you got when you went to college was a grant from the RNIB for buying equipment you needed for your studies. For most of us this meant purchasing a variable-speed cassette recorder. This was regarded as cutting-edge technology in 1978. It enabled you to record your lectures and then play them back at double speed in the evening whilst you made braille notes. This was a laborious process but it did mean I got to hear everything twice, which probably helped me retain more information.

There were few textbooks accessible to me. I think I had one in braille and a couple of key ones on cassette. Studying Law involves a lot of reading but quite often you need to read bits from several different sources. It would not have been practical to have had all those books in braille. For one thing, where would I have put them? Braille books are huge.

The rooms in hall weren’t big. To me, having been at boarding school, they seemed quite reasonable. There was a bed, a wardrobe with drawers, a desk, and a few shelves. It was said that a boy on one of the upper floors was building a motorbike in his room and had filled all the available space with the bike parts. I never heard whether he completed the task.

To access the print works that I couldn’t find in braille or on tape, I advertised for readers and a goodly number of volunteers came forward. Some were from the year above me, which was great, because they could explain what they were reading. Even with this help, I still had to work out a system whereby I decided what was absolutely necessary for me to read. I would start with that and, if I had time, I would then read around more fully. Many of my fellow students took the view that they had to read the material anyway, so why not read it aloud? I owe a great debt of gratitude to these wonderful people, without whom I would not have been able to complete my degree.

I found studying Law absolutely fascinating. It’s true that some topics were more interesting than others but overall I really did enjoy it.

Mind you, we had our share of eccentric lecturers. One, who smoked a prodigious amount, once dropped a lighted match into his matchbox and caused a light show which even I could see. Another, who, shall we say, “enjoyed a tipple,” once gave a whole lecture with one leg stuck in the wastepaper basket.

Despite their vagaries, the academic staff were all very supportive, although it was hard to get them to give me handouts in advance so that I could braille them or have them read to me.

This was back in the age when nearly every student social took the form of a disco but once a year we held a seriously posh dinner at the Law Society. The girls wore long dresses and the boys smartened themselves up and we had some great speakers including John Mortimer and Lord Denning.

When it came to graduation it was decided not to have a ceremony. I think there was some talk of not wanting outdated rituals. A few of us eventually rebelled, however, and faked the ceremony so that we could have pictures of ourselves in gowns. One of my friends hired a gown and we took turns to wear it and be photographed. It was much too big for me and miles too long so I stood on a table so that it hung properly. The scroll in my hand, immortalised in a framed photo, is not actually my degree certificate but a conveyancing tutorial handout.

Student on the move

In last week’s blog, I began to tell you about my time as a visually impaired law student at what was then the Polytechnic of Central London and is now the University of Westminster. Let me pick up where I left off…

Having been to boarding school, I was used to looking after myself. I had been changing my own bed sheets at school since the age of seven and I was accustomed to being away from home. I think this all helped to make the transition from school to college less traumatic than it was for some people.

Finding my way around was still a real challenge, though.

The Law School itself was not too difficult to navigate. The canteen and library were on the lower floors but from there on up all the floors were laid out identically. When I started my studies, the corridor walls were white while the tutorial room doors were dark blue, which made it relatively easy for me to distinguish them. I simply had to count the doors along the corridor to the room I needed. In my third year, however, they painted the doors a light mushroom colour which I found much more difficult to see. Fortunately, by then I had got a feel for how far along the corridor each room was.

The lecture theatre was on the 11th floor and the lift only went to the 10th so I did have to do some stair climbing. This was a bit slow with crutches, but not insurmountable.

If I had to go far outside the building, I used a wheelchair. I think it is to my friends’ eternal credit that I was never tipped out on our way back from the pub last thing at night. On the other hand, I did make a convenient carrier for stolen goods and a purloined salt and pepper set would occasionally be concealed about my person.

One of the disadvantages of being at a central London college with widely scattered facilities rather than being on a campus is that you regularly have to travel long distances from the hall of residence to your particular faculty. I couldn’t use the Underground without a lot of help but, after advertising, I did find fellow students with cars. As I had been issued with a parking permit, a benefit normally restricted to staff, they got the perk of being able to park in the Law School car park and I got a lift to and from my place of learning.

It was a good system, but I still didn’t manage to get a lift every day. I had to hire a lot of taxis and minicabs in the course of getting my degree.

College Daze

I have written a few times about life at school but I don’t think I’ve talked about my experience of higher education.

I studied Law at the Polytechnic of Central London, which is now the University of Westminster. As well as my visual impairment, due to my arthritis, I was walking with crutches at the time. This meant I couldn’t carry a long cane either for mobility use or to indicate to others that I couldn’t see. As you might imagine, this complicated my life a little.

I was allocated a room in a hall of residence in Marylebone Road.

You may have seen the concrete jungle opposite Madame Tussauds. That monstrosity housed the School of Management and the hall of residence. The latter was 21 storeys high and in high winds people on the upper floors could see ashtrays and mugs move across their desks.

I was originally given a room on the 15th floor but when it was mentioned that in the case of fire the lifts would be turned off, I pointed out to them that I would never make it out of the building. They then moved me down to the 5th floor. I explained that, in the event of a fire, I still wouldn’t be able to get out of the building alive. The Law School’s answer to this was to warn me in advance whenever there was going to be a fire drill. No one ever answered my query as to who was going to warn me in advance when there was going to be a real fire!

I shared a galley kitchen with 11 other people. There were six girls’ rooms on one side of the building and six boys’ rooms on the other, with a common room in the centre.

I will come back to the kitchen in a moment.

On the first night I plucked up courage, knocked on my neighbour’s door and asked if she was going to the canteen for breakfast the next day and, if so, could I come with her. She said yes and the next morning off we went. I did eventually learn my own way there although it wasn’t easy. You had to go down to one of the lower floors, up some stairs, and across the area linking the hall to the School of Management. This last sometimes contained moveable stands displaying students’ work, which conveniently served as unexpected collision hazards for visually impaired students like me. (I seem to recall exhibitions of work by the students on the photographic arts course, so perhaps they were housed there as well as the management students. I can’t remember!) You then had to go upstairs again and, finally, you came to the canteen.

It was all of a bit of a trek and after a while I started getting my own breakfast. I did use the canteen sometimes in the evenings though.

The Law School also had a canteen. Obviously, I couldn’t identify the food on offer or carry a tray so, if I was on my own, I just turned up at the counter and one of the staff would help me. They were really good about this.

I remember one particularly cheerful guy – I think his name was Bernard – who was great. One morning I turned up for breakfast in the canteen and, as far as I could tell, seemed to be the only person there.

“Hello beautiful,” he said.

I turned round, thinking that someone had crept up behind me, before realising that it was Bernard addressing me from behind the counter. In those days, this sort of banter came without consequences. I didn’t mind. His cheerful demeanour was reassuring to me as one who very much needed his assistance.

I said that I’d return to that student kitchen I shared with 11 others…

I am amazed we didn’t all suffer regularly with salmonella. Piles of dirty plates would sit in the sink, sometimes for days. I once had to sit on the floor to stir my scrambled eggs because there was literally nowhere to put the pan down.

One day, one of the boys came into the kitchen whilst I, the blind girl, was trying to cook on the inadequate oven, and asked me how to boil an egg. He must have been truly hungry.

Somehow, we all survived!

USA

Last week I told you about my flight to the USA to visit my niece, who was studying in the small college town of Ithaca in upstate New York. I thought this week I would mention one or two highlights of the trip.

Sitting in my niece’s flat, sipping water after having just arrived from the airport, I could hardly believe that I’d done it. I had got there, and it was an amazing feeling.

Our first outing, apart from shopping, was to a parade which was the climax of a local festival. This was a fascinating event. Every institution and community group in Ithaca seemed to be participating and there was an abundance of colourful floats. There was a “Seventies” theme to the parade so many of those taking part were wearing Star Wars costumes which my niece described to me as they rode past.

The prize for the most unusual costumes, though, must go to those worn by staff and volunteers from the local family planning clinic who did an interesting line in dressing up as contraceptives. Somehow, I can’t imagine that happening in the Swindon Spring Festival!

A couple of days later, we hired a car and set off for Niagara Falls. It was a large vehicle which I had to climb up into, (I think I have mentioned that I’m quite small). On seeing a picture of it on Facebook, my brother’s comment was, “You didn’t have to hire Thunderbird 2!”

We bought doughnuts, my niece’s customary way of starting a road trip, and off we went.

If you have been to Niagara Falls, you will know that the spray fills the air for miles around. If you take a trip on the Maid of the Mist, the boat that takes you right to the foot of the falls, you run the risk of getting absolutely soaked, so they issue you with a plastic waterproof garment that feels rather like a large bin bag. I wrestled with this briefly before giving up and letting my niece dress me like a toddler.

How can I describe our trip on the Maid of the Mist? I said last time that sensation is important when you can’t see. Well, I got sensation! As well as the movement of the boat, there was the roaring of the falls – and they are loud!

Then there is the water. It’s everywhere. The air is full of it.

We got pretty wet!

It was all worth it though. What an amazing experience!

We stayed in a nearby hotel overnight and the next day visited an aquarium. This specialised in rescuing injured marine mammals, including visually-impaired seals. Yes, they are very prone to cataracts, apparently. The keeper had to make a noise to let them know where to come and get the fish. I felt a sense of empathy for them and was glad they were being cared for by such lovely people.

After that we returned to Ithaca, only to set off the next day by bus to New York City.

The journey takes four or five hours so we passed the time playing cards. My niece likes a game called Dominion. Prior to my arrival, she had found a US company which produces adhesive braille labels for various games and had sent for a set of labels for Dominion. Earlier in my stay we had spent a whole evening sticking them on the cards. Now we reaped the reward of our labours as we whiled away the hours playing several rounds of the game. It is quite  complicated, but by the time we reached the city, I think I was just about getting the hang of it.

We stayed at the Cornell Club. I had never stayed in a club of any kind before and it made me feel like someone in a P. G. Wodehouse novel. We had a huge room which boasted a sofa and a desk besides two large, and very high, beds.

My niece had arranged for me to have a touch tour at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or “The Met”, as everyone calls it. This seems to be the New York equivalent to the British Museum and we had a guide all to ourselves showing us round the Egyptian exhibits. I do like to get hands-on with a sarcophagus!

Later, we took a horse and buggy ride in Central Park. I leaned back on the cushioned seat and imagined I was a lady in a Henry James novel. The guide kept pointing out places where various scenes in films and TV shows had been filmed. I hadn’t seen any of them but, fortunately, my niece had, so I let her chat to the driver while I pretended to be a Victorian lady of leisure.

Among our other outings was a trip to have ice-cream and coffee on the East Side. This, apparently, is a trendy thing to do, so I put aside my genteel 19th century persona and, just for a while, pretended I was a cool dude instead.

It was all a great adventure and I thoroughly enjoyed my trip.

Flying

In previous posts, I have written about what it’s like for me, as someone with a visual impairment, to travel by bus and train. This time I’m going to say something about flying.

My first flight was with the Royal Air Force. (No, they weren’t recruiting blind pilots!)

I had always wanted to fly and during my teens my grandmother happened to live in the same retirement village as the mother of the Community Relations Officer at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. A conversation took place and I was invited as a passenger on an RAF VC10 on a training flight.

It was amazing! I was even given a set of headphones so that I could hear what was going on in the cockpit, not that I could understand a word of it.

We flew to Scotland and did several “circuits and bumps” round an airfield there, diving down towards the runway and then pulling up again sharply. To a visually-impaired person, sensation is very important, and I certainly got plenty of that!

I was fed pork pie and orange juice, which I duly tucked into and thoroughly enjoyed, while the poor nurse they had sent up with me, in case I was ill, spent the whole flight being sick.

Afterwards they gave me a copy of the flight plan, signed by all the members of the VC10’s crew.

The first time I travelled on a commercial flight on my own was when I went to visit a friend who was living in Utrecht. I flew British Airways from Heathrow to Amsterdam and was well looked after by their staff throughout the journey. On the aircraft itself, I was in the care of a steward called Cliff. Despite the shortness of the flight, we were still given drinks and snacks. Cliff kept bringing me the uneaten chocolate biscuits left by other passengers. I was much slimmer then and could afford to eat such luxuries!

Over the years, I took flights to various parts of the world with family and friends, but my longest solo flight was to the US. Two years ago I went to visit my niece, who is studying for a PhD at Cornell University in Ithaca, in upstate New York.

I had booked to fly with British Airways but they have reciprocal agreements with other carriers on certain routes and so I ended up flying with American Airlines. I found booking assistance at the airport and on the flight quite a challenge. I kept being batted backwards and forwards between airlines and each number I rang had several menus and no options for disabled assistance. In the end I just pressed a button and hoped for the best. Eventually I got to speak to a helpful young man who set it all up for me.

My sister and brother-in-law kindly drove me to Heathrow. After the initial formalities I was put into the care of a lovely young woman who looked after me very well. Negotiating the various levels of security was fine apart from a slight hiccup when their X-ray machine showed a tall container in my case which they assumed to be liquid. “You can’t take that! Oh, it’s talc, that’s okay,” the official said.

I have to use a wheelchair for huge areas like airports and our second slight hiccup occurred when my assistant wheeled me away from the last security check, where you have to remove your shoes, forgetting that I was supposed to collect them and put them back on again afterwards. I alerted her quickly, though, and we zoomed back to gather up the missing footwear.

The trans-Atlantic portion of my journey was from Heathrow to Philadelphia. I had booked seats at the back of the plane, near the toilets, on the flights there and back, thinking this would be nice and convenient, (if you’ll forgive the pun). However, once aboard my outbound flight, I was told that they had moved me up to a seat near Business Class.

This was great. A steward named Tony looked after me and brought me bottles of water at regular intervals. He also kindly read through all the music options on the in-flight radio and set it up for me. Every once in a while he would check back to see whether I wanted a different option and would read through the menu for me all over again. He even filled out my boarding pass for me and generally made sure I was comfortable and had everything I needed.

One benefit of my new location on the plane was that I was allowed to use the Business Class toilet. This was bigger than the tiny cubicle in Economy. Unfortunately, I forgot that to open the door you had to push it in the middle. For a while I rattled and banged about while Tony helplessly called, “Are you alright, ma’m?” through the door. I had no intention of spending eight hours in a public convenience so I kept going until I finally worked out the answer and released myself back into the community.

At Philadelphia another helpful lady took care of me. She was concerned that I might not get anything to eat and drink while I waited for my connecting flight to Ithaca, so she took me to buy  a cheese sandwich and get a drink, and then waited patiently with me while I enjoyed my snack.

We talked while I ate. I remarked that there seemed to be several people disembarking from my flight who were waiting for assistance. She confirmed that this was the case but assured me that it wasn’t the busiest flight that they’d had. On one flight, 23 people had booked assistance, and all needed looking after at more or less the same time. It certainly made me realise how much pressure these workers could be under.

Once my assistant was satisfied that I was well fed and comfortable, she took me to the gate for the internal flight to Ithaca. This was delayed due to a maintenance issue. There was some banter between the pilot and my fellow passengers including one lady’s suggestion, after we’d been waiting for a while, that we lasso the pilot so that he couldn’t get away. This seemed a little harsh. He wasn’t responsible for the de-icer not working!

At the end of the short flight to Ithaca I was duly met by another airport employee, who was impressed that I had a niece at Cornell. It was wonderful to be wheeled through Security and find my niece waiting for me. Thanks to all the great people I had encountered at airports and on planes, I had made it!

The return journey was uneventful.

At Ithaca’s Tompkins Regional Airport, I was helped by the same assistant who had met me on my arrival. He greeted me with the words, “You’re the lady with the niece killing it doing History at Cornell!” I wasn’t entirely familiar with this idiom, but I took it as a compliment and basked in the reflected glory.

In Philadelphia, I was parked in a wheelchair near the departure gate when a message came over the public address system telling everyone on my flight to proceed to boarding. I was amused and considerably relieved, though, when, after a short pause, the Tannoy sounded again.

“Don’t worry, Miss Furse, we’ll come and get you.”

The flight to Heathrow was fully booked and so this time I did sit at the back of the plane. The staff were very busy but they still took time to help me when I needed it.

Altogether, I was impressed by the level and quality of the assistance I received.

Sport

We have had an exciting summer of international sport to watch here in the UK: tennis at Wimbledon, the men’s Cricket and the women’s Football and Netball World Cups, and much more. So I thought I would share something of my experience of playing sport, albeit with a visual impairment and at, shall we say, a slightly lower level of competition…

When I went to Linden Lodge School, I found that all the boys were football and cricket mad. Everyone got roped-in to playing these games, even those of us who had no idea what was going on. You would be amazed at what kids who love sport can achieve if you give them a ball with a bell in it.

My contribution to the games of cricket was to be a fielder. This meant standing somewhere on the edge of the action, hoping desperately that the ball wouldn’t come anywhere near me!

I did enjoy playing rounders. Having arthritis, I couldn’t run very fast, but I gave it a go and all was well until I collided with another girl, fell and displaced some cartilage in my wrist. It hurt but having my arm in plaster and a sling was also something of a badge of honour and I loved getting people to write on the cast. I had to have help getting dressed and I remember a teacher cutting my sausages up for me in the café at the Science Museum, where we had gone on a school trip. I don’t remember any other occasions when that happened but I didn’t starve, so people must have rallied round.

We had a heated indoor pool at Linden Lodge and I really enjoyed swimming. Sometimes we went twice in a day if we could persuade a member of staff to hang around poolside while we splashed about to our hearts’ content.

Sadly, when I moved on to Chorleywood College, the pool was outdoors and not very warm. I couldn’t swim strongly enough to warm up and my joy in the sport soon dissipated. One of my most vivid memories was our P.E. teacher’s mantra whenever we complained: “No peace for the wicked.”

At Chorleywood we learned both ballroom and country dancing. (All right, they’re not exactly sport but they’re certainly physical activity, so cut me some slack.) I really enjoyed these lessons. I was never very good at doing the steps in reverse but as I am quite small I wasn’t often told to play the male role!

It was while we were doing a lively folk dance, involving couples twirling around and dancing to the end of a line, that another accident occurred. I suddenly found myself on the ground, a little bruised and, in the words of Rudyard Kipling, “greatly astonished.” The next couple had started off before I was standing in line and, well, I’m sure you can picture the subsequent collision.

I don’t think the shock lasted long and it certainly didn’t stop me dancing.

I was excused Games because of my inability to run but everyone else had to join in a game called Sport X. I think it was a cross between rounders and a relay race. I know a lot of my school friends didn’t especially enjoy it. I even used to join them in performing a special rain dance which we did sometimes before Games, though it was never especially effective in getting Games lessons rained off.

Although I was unable to run – and never, despite my best efforts, managed to do a somersault – I still enjoyed climbing wall bars and rope ladders in the gym, though I didn’t venture very high.

There were opportunities at both Linden Lodge School and Chorleywood College to try a variety of sports. I went ice-skating at Linden Lodge and some of my friends went running and horse riding. At Chorleywood, many girls took up sailing. Sailing for the blind has been around for many years now and some former Chorleywoodians have sailed to some very exotic places.

You will have seen from the Paralympics that no disability is a total bar to participating in sport. I am delighted that there is even blind tennis now. I am not mobile enough to try it but I hope one day to at least stand on a court to get some idea of the distances my heroes (such as Rafa Nadal) have to run to get to the ball.

Of course many of these sporting opportunities for the visually impaired depend on sighted people being willing variously to ride on a tandem, climb a mountain or accompany a runner and it is great that they do.

Despite being hopeless at cricket, I am grateful that we were able to play these games at school. I am sure that the details of my fall and trip to hospital were recorded in the accident book but nobody ever suggested that any of us stop participating. Accidents happen when kids who can’t see are all running around together.

Sadly, these days, some children who are integrated into mainstream schools are not allowed to join in games with their classmates for fear they might hurt themselves. They are missing out on a valuable experience. Not only is it fun to run about, and a natural thing for a child to do, but being part of a team encourages you to try your best and gives you a sense of identity.

(Mind you, I don’t think the house I was in at Linden Lodge School – “Champion”, or maybe “Victory”, I can’t remember which – ever won on sports day while I was a member!)