My first year in America
Essay by David George Ball, James City

As I rushed eagerly up the gangway onto the S.S. United States in Southampton, it didn’t occur to me to look back and wave to my uncles and aunts. At age 17, I was about to escape the austerity of post-war England for America. The sleek ocean liner had just won the blue ribbon for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic in 31⁄2 days. I had never seen anything so magnificent, with deck above deck like a manytiered wedding cake. The first class passengers even had a swimming
The Balls, 1958. David is at left.
pool. Of course, my Baptist minister’s family traveled third class. My brother, Jonathan, and I explored the mysterious stairs and passageways and found an untended turnstile. By crawling under the horizontal bar we reached the forbidden pleasures of first class. My heart thumped when we sneaked into one of the dressing rooms alongside the swimming pool. In the privacy of the changing area we laughed hysterically at our daring. As we approached New York an American couple urged us to watch for something important. The husband said, “You must be on deck by six o’clock.” We didn’t have a clue what to expect, but set our alarm for just before 6.

We arrived on deck at daybreak. As the tugboat pulled us into the harbor, Jonathan shouted, “Dave, look!” Upright in the fog, a figure with raised arm greeted us. We hung over the rail for our first experience of America, the Statue of Liberty. On July 18, 1954, our family stood on the dock at 33rd Street with three trunks and five suitcases containing all our worldly possessions. Everything else was sold with our home in Gloucester. As we waited for our friend Sgt. Pete May, who had been billeted in our home during the war, Jonathan yelled, “Wow, look at those huge cars!” Bright yellow taxis whizzed along an elevated highway. We watched eagerly for Pete May’s car. But he arrived on foot. “Where’s your car?” I asked. He chuckled. “I was worried about city traffic, so I left it in a parking lot in New Jersey.”

After Sgt. May took us to see Times Square and Broadway, he escorted us up three different elevators to the top of the Empire State Building. As it swayed in the wind, I wanted to get back to the ground. The temperature soared to 100 degrees. It never gets over 70 in England. Dad asked Sgt. May, “What do you think of President Eisenhower?” May grinned. “Ike’s still the same guy with a big smile, who brought us together for the Normandy landing.”

At the end of the summer I headed for Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Dad was invited to pastor Hartland Baptist Church in the small village of Johnson Creek in western New York. Farmers with cherry and peach orchards filled the parsonage refrigerator with food. A few days before Christmas vacation, I realized I didn’t have any money. I wanted to be with my family, so I decided to hitchhike 600 miles in a massive snowstorm with a sign: “Buffalo or Bust.” I stood on the side of the road with my sign and my suitcase, thumbing for a ride.

Eventually the driver of a tractor-trailer slowed down and said, “Hop in, I’m going to Buffalo.” He barreled along at 60 mph through the night. I arrived home early in the morning to discover 3 feet of snow blown against the parsonage. I tried the door, but found it locked with Mum and Dad asleep inside. Freezing in my skimpy jacket, I waded through the snow to the church and rang the bell. It tolled my message loud and clear across the sleeping village. Dad woke up to investigate. “Well, well! It’s the young man from Moody. I’ll make you a cup of tea and an English breakfast.” Soon the frying pan sizzled with a feast of bacon, eggs, tomatoes and fried bread. Mum beamed as she introduced me to the congregation on Sunday: “This is David. He’s training to be a minister.”

David George Ball of James City received his bachelor’s degree from Yale in 1960 and his law degree from Columbia University in 1964. He served as assistant secretary of Labor 1989-93.