Fifty years ago a few intrepid adults gathered a flock of teenaged girls and took them on a tour of Europe. What were they thinking??? The group primarily comprised members of a Girl Scout troop from the little village of Scotia, New York. That had been my own troop until my family moved to Wayne, Pennsylvania after my freshman year of high school. But we had been working for this trip for years, and didn't let the move keep me out: I joined the rest of the gang at JFK airport. The longer I live, the more I marvel at the energy and courage of the chaperones, especially "Mrs. B.," an extraordinary English war bride turned American citizen who was our troop leader. What a world-expanding, eye-opening opportunity that was for a group of small-town “innocents abroad.”
It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I was sure. Whenever else would I have either the desire or the opportunity to return to Europe? That’s how little we can imagine what the future holds for us.
While we were walking through lands that were strange and new to us, Neil Armstrong took the first steps of a human being on our moon. The world available to travellers has continued to expand—though not, alas, to the moon.
July 16, 1969 was an extraordinary day. Having already visited Paris, several places in Switzerland, and Lake Como, Italy, we were then in London. The day began with a tour of Girl Guide headquarters, of which I remember nothing except that near the end someone mentioned that it was nearly time for the liftoff of Apollo 11. I still have the little notebook in which I kept a brief journal of our trip.
We entered a room where we could sit down, so I snuck out the earphone of my radio and turned it on just in time to hear, "We have liftoff!" I jumped up, pulled out the earphone, and we all [in my tour group] listened until the station left the Cape, after Staging. Everyone shouted and waved a U. S. flag Mrs. B. had bought. I learned [then] that we weren't supposed to have radios, but no one minded.
From there we walked to the U. S. Embassy. The Embassy visit was my baby, because Robert Montgomery Scott, special assistant to Ambassador Walter Annenberg, was from the town where my family was now living. How my mother persuaded Introvert Me to contact him I have no idea—but she did, and he responded gallantly, inviting our group to the Embassy for a tour. We were wearing our Girl Scout uniforms. Mrs. B., though often relaxed and informal, was firm about protocol.
We arrived about 3:20, changed shoes [from our walking shoes to heels], put on gloves, and entered.
I was embarrassingly naïve, and easily impressed. But it was a fine experience.
I told a man at a desk who I was; he knew I wanted Mr. Scott and said he would get him. A man came later to take me to the Ambassador's Office—at first I thought he was Mr. Scott and shook his hand. Oh, well. He took me up to "hallowed ground." Mr. Scott took me into his office—a very nice guy. We talked over his plans for the group. He got a call from Mrs. Annenberg. He took me on a sneak preview tour of part of that floor, including the Ambassador's office. Very nice. Then downstairs to meet the rest. Another man was to conduct the tour (although Mr. Scott came with us), and it thrilled me no end when Mr. Scott introduced me as "a neighbor of mine from Wayne." Wow! The tour was great but short, and we ended up in the basement for Coke (with ICE) and cookies. It was sweltering, and our first ice since home. We next went next door to the Embassy Auditorium to watch on color television a program on Apollo. Unfortunately, they showed no shots of the liftoff and we had to go. But a very successful visit, I think everyone decided.
But the day wasn't over, not by a long shot.
In other cities we had stayed in youth hostels, and once in a convent, but in London our group was parceled out in different lodgings. My own, with a few other girls and a chaperone, was a small private house. It had seemed delightful, but when we returned around dinnertime the atmosphere had changed drastically. I never did get the whole story, but apparently there was some misunderstanding and/or disagreement between the woman who had welcomed us, and her husband who showed up later. Things got loud and scary, and we were hustled out of there and onto the street with barely time to stuff things randomly into suitcases and coat pockets. We did find another place to sleep that night, though I have no memory of it.
All that excitement meant that we missed the first half of the first act of Mame, starring Ginger Rogers. It was still a great experience, and I had my program autographed by a few of the cast members, including Ginger Rogers. We caught the last train, missed the last bus, and had to walk a long way—but we were young. As I said, it's the chaperones who impress me.
And the moon landing. More on that later.