Expat Alien: My Global Adventures: Chapter Two

By the time Kathleen was 18 she had lived on five continents. When she starts college in California, she experiences severe “reverse” culture shock. She talks about traveling around Europe, seeing the sites from London to Athens, hiking up Swiss mountains, and living in Africa. She survived a plane crash, a coup d’etat in Burma, earthquakes in Mexico, driving through the Andes in Columbia and army ants in Nigeria. Her college peers talk about football games, high school proms and television shows she never heard of. She can’t relate to them at all and they think she is bragging about all the places she has been. It is like an alien landed in their dorm room talking about visiting the rings of Saturn. Follow Kathleen on her journey through the ups and downs of being a Third Culture Kid.  Read the previous chapters here.

For the next few weeks we will publish a few chapters of her book. We encourage you to purchase the entire book. You can get the paperback or digital format for Kindle, or  the Nook from Amazon. and Barnes and Noble.

  • Paperback edition sells for $15.95
  • Kindle/Nook editions sell for $9.95

When I was three years old my family moved to Ithaca, New York.  My father quit his job in Burma with the Ford Foundation in order to go back to school and get his doctorate in Agricultural Education at Cornell University.  He successfully received his Ph.D. in two years and the Ford Foundation re-hired him and sent him back to Burma as a specialist in agriculture.   This time it would be a little different since my brothers were going to boarding school at Brent in Baguio, Philippines and we were relocating to the capital city of Rangoon.

In the 1960’s, air travel was nothing like it is today.  The planes were relatively small and jet engines were a new development. We drove to Iowa to see relatives before embarking on our trip to Burma.  Our route was to fly from Omaha, Nebraska to Los Angeles, California, with a stop in Denver, Colorado.  We were going to spend a few days in Los Angeles with relatives and then travel on to Manila and Rangoon.  We boarded the plane in Omaha for Los Angeles, and as our United Airlines DC-8 approached Denver, the pilot, Captain John Grosso, came over the loud speaker to say we were having some problems and our landing might be a little rough.  I was sitting by the window with my father next to me.  My mother was across the aisle and my brothers, nearby.  My father took out his briefcase from under the seat, removed his glasses and put them in his pocket.  I thought that was a little strange and I wondered what was going on.

It turned out we had lost all of our landing-gear fluid so the plane came down smack! – hard on the tarmac, no bouncing involved.  The pilot immediately lost control of the plane and we skidded into a truck, killing the driver instantly.  We then swerved haphazardly down the runway, finally careening off onto the grass where the engines burst into flames.

There were no overhead compartments, just open shelves.  Hats, bags, and books sailed through the plane crashing down on people and seats.  As soon as the plane stopped, my father scooped me up and headed for the exit. My immediate concern was for my favorite doll abandoned under the seat and being left behind.  My mother was ahead of us and my brothers Tom (13) and Tim (15) were behind us.

We reached the emergency exit and stepped out onto the wing.  My mother jumped to the tarmac below us, breaking her ankle in her high-heeled shoes. We could see her leaning on another passenger and limping away from the plane.  My father and I stood on one side of the wing feeling the intense heat bursting from the engines on the other side. We turned to make sure my brothers were behind us and my father froze; they were not there.  Several other people came out, but we didn’t budge as my father nervously craned his neck searching for Tom and Tim.  Finally, they emerged and we immediately hit the ground and ran to the other side of the runway to join my mother.

My family portrait.
My family portrait.

My father went into severe shock. He was holding me so tightly that the shock passed to me and I began screaming in terror.  He would not let me go even though my mother pleaded with him to put me down.

I remember looking over towards the buildings and seeing several fire trucks waiting patiently as the plane continued to burn.  There was some construction impasse and the fire trucks could not enter the runway.  Necessary ramps were missing.  After what seemed to be hours, we were herded into a large hanger where we were sorted out.  Each passenger had to tell the airline authorities who they were and what luggage they had. We were then sent off to a hotel in town.  My parents told us that the airline would replace everything that was lost and I had to ask if that included my toothbrush.  I was particularly sad to lose my babydoll, Meredith Ann Diane, because she really could never be replaced which I knew, even at four years old.

Seventeen people died in the crash and many more were severely burned.  My father and brothers had minor burns and my mother had a broken ankle and we were all traumatized.  One of the reasons airlines now have the long safety speech at the beginning of flights is because of that day in Denver in 1961.  The crew was not properly trained and people did not know what to do in case of an emergency. Travel in those days was unpredictable, and could be fatal. We were lucky.

Several days later, my father showed up at the hotel with one of our suitcases.  It was the only one that was identifiable; all the others had burned up.  We opened it and all we saw were ashes and partially burned items.

It wasn’t my first experience with loss.  At three years old I had said goodbye to everything I knew and people I loved to move to Ithaca, NY.  A strange new place.  Up until then I had never been alone. I had a nanny and servants and family members and a community that helped each other.  We moved into a three bedroom house and I would find myself standing in a room alone.  I would scream and scream in a panic until somebody found me and reassured me they were still nearby.  This went on for a long time as I had trouble adjusting to this new environment.

After two years I had become used to living in Ithaca and was starting to settle in when once again, I had to say goodbye to my new friends and many of my belongings to get on an airplane and travel back half way around the world.

Now the few items I had become attached to were gone.  We had to replace our passports, visas, clothes, and supplies for my brothers’ boarding school, and of course, my doll.  My mother’s foot was in a cast during the entire process.

After shopping for days, we took a few days R&R in a cabin in Colorado Springs where we ran into a cousin of mine on the street.  He knew all about the plane crash, of course.  One bright spot was that I got the coolest cowgirl outfit ever in Colorado Springs.  Dang I was one crazy cowgirl!!

Ultimately, of course, we had to get on another airplane…actually several.  We went to Los Angeles and on to Hawaii for a few days to visit relatives, then to the Philippines to drop my brothers at boarding school and finally landed in Rangoon on my fifth birthday – two weeks later than originally planned. Luckily, landing in Rangoon we were greeted by friendly, familiar faces.

While this early experience never dimmed my enthusiasm for travel, I am still a nervous flier and always tense up during landings.