Forty-nine years ago today, I flew across the Atlantic at my own expense to begin a job that didn’t exist.
Other players in this episode were: Franz Cyrus, the bureau chief for United Press International in Zurich; Danny Gilmore, UPI’s European news manager; my Swiss-born first wife, Anita, and our daughter.
Here’s what happened during two memorable days in 1969, as recounted in an excerpt from The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism:
On July 1, Anita and I and baby Kate, now nearly seven months old, took off from Kennedy Airport – and came down for refueling in Bangor, Maine, in a thunderstorm. As the plane wobbled and bounced through the clouds, I screamed and puked. Once on the ground, I told Anita we were getting off.
“We can’t get off here,” she said.
“Why not? We’ll take a boat or something. There’s no way I’m going up again in this plane.”
“I didn’t know you were afraid to fly,” she said.
“I wasn’t – until about twenty minutes ago.”
She went off to talk to a stewardess. I stayed with Kate and began gathering our carry-on.
Anita returned with a cup filled with scotch. “Drink this,” she said. “You’ll calm down.”
I gulped some scotch and looked around the cabin. A few passengers were staring at me. Some had been screaming and puking too, as the plane rocked and rolled. But they didn’t seem ready to get off. I felt embarrassed enough to settle back into my seat with my family and my scotch.
We landed at Gatwick airport just before midnight. The tourist bureau in the terminal sent us to the nearby Russ Hill Hotel, in Surrey.
The night clerk opened the bar for us, illegally poured us a couple of beers – I never did figure out England’s drinking hours – and fixed some thick-cut ham sandwiches on pumpernickel. I was starving after having my appetite arrested by fear.
The next morning, we took a taxi to Heathrow where Anita and Kate caught a flight to Zurich. Her father would pick them up and drive them to her parents’ home in Bern.
I went into London, after the tourism bureau at the airport got me a reservation at the Cadogan Hotel, near Sloane Square.
I checked in, left my bag with the porter, had the doorman hail a cab and rode to Bouverie Street, off Fleet.
I took a rickety lift to the UPI office and asked for Mr. Gilmore. He invited me to his office and asked, “Who are you again?”
“Ken Becker. From New York. Franz Cyrus told me to see you on my way to Zurich. He offered me a job there.”
“I know nothing about this,” Gilmore said.
He asked me to wait in the newsroom while he phoned Cyrus. I stood alone, amid the clatter of the teletype machines. Men in white shirts and ties, their sleeves rolled up, pounded on typewriters, cigarettes dangling from their lips. A London fog of smoke rose and settled near the high ceiling. I loved it. I couldn’t wait to start working here, to be back in the news biz.
Gilmore came out and led me into his office. “I’m afraid there is some misunderstanding. There is no job for you with UPI in Zurich. All we have in Zurich is an inner-Swiss service – in German, for Swiss papers. There is no UPI correspondent there. And there can’t be one there unless I hire one.” He paused.
“And, if I wanted a correspondent in Zurich – which I don’t – I wouldn’t hire you because such a plum position – if there was one – would be for a seasoned reporter transferred from another bureau.”
“But,” I pleaded, “Mr. Cyrus told me to stop and see you, that I would get some training here and then start working in Zurich.”
“That’s not what he says. He says he has been in touch with you but never offered you a job.”
“But I packed up my wife and baby in New York and we came here – she’s on her way to Switzerland now. What do you suggest I do?”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
I found a cab on Fleet Street and told the driver to take me back to the Cadogan.