Coming to America
An unexpected trip to LAX
In 1976, I lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Santa Ana, California, like this one:
in one of those Deluxe Apartment complexes with pools, jacuzzi, clubhouse, and tennis courts that every single person in Orange County in the 70s yearned for (it’s now a condo complex):
I was working as a programmer at my first job out of school, at Burroughs Corp. in Irvine, a short walk away. The rest of my family was back in the Chicago suburbs.
My brother Bill had come home from almost five years working overseas. He’s the guy in the black sweater, from this picture about nine years earlier:
He was a computer hardware technician, and he had been working on two US spy bases, the first in Turkey and the second in Thailand. The military and CIA operated these bases, which didn’t have a major Army or Air Force presence, but they did have tons of high-tech electronics to keep track of the Soviets, North Vietnamese, and Chinese.
His job was 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, because there was absolutely nothing to do there and the military wanted to keep the civilians out of trouble. In exchange for the all-consuming hours, the pay was exorbitant, and the only thing you could do with it was save it. So he came back with a lot saved up. There weren’t many legal ways a guy in his 20s without a degree could make that much money.
After I started my own career, he offered to get me a job like that. My Dad encouraged me, saying how I’d have “this nice nest egg to start life on.” I thought, “So you’re saying that what I’m doing now is not ‘life’?” I passed.
Bill and I were not especially close. He had learned electronics in the Navy and gotten into computer repair when he got out. Let’s just say he was not the sharpest knife in the drawer.
What’s Up With Bill?
My mom complained that Bill, after he got home, was even more closed off than usual, which was saying something. He got mysterious phone calls late at night, which he refused to explain. Finally he sprang it on them: he had gotten married over in Thailand! I was shocked, since I had never even known him to have a date. Naturally he wouldn’t say anything about her, except her name (Suchada). We didn’t know where he had met her, what she did, how long they’d been married; we knew nothing.
She was flying from Bangkok to LA, and he was driving out from Chicago to meet her at the airport. He gave her my phone number in case anything went wrong.
Well, you can guess where this is going: one weeknight about 11:00 pm I got a phone call, with a female Asian voice on the other hand: “Bill not here!” Somehow they had not connected at the airport. I had no idea what to do: LAX was an hour’s drive away, and I wasn’t keen on driving there at that hour of the night. I had no idea why he wasn’t there, but all sorts of dark possibilities came up: what if he’d been in an accident on the drive out from Chicago? What if he’d changed his mind? “An accident” seemed the most likely answer, but I really didn’t want to tell her that.
The Game Plan
Finally, I formulated a plan: I would make a reservation for her at a hotel near LAX, and have her take a cab over there. I neglected to tell her to stay by the pay phone, though, and you will recall that people didn’t carry cell phones then. I figured I could always have her paged by the airport, though (“Will Suchada please go to the white courtesy phone?”). After all, I was always hearing those announcements when I was at the airport.
I called my parents, waking them up, it being 1:00 am in Chicago. I knew it would worry them, but I didn’t see much choice. If they knew anything about where Bill was, I needed to know. They didn’t.
There were no hotel rooms available anywhere near LAX, as far as I could tell! Here again, you have to remember: there was no Internet. Making a hotel reservation required a phone call. I made some calls, but no one had vacancies. Maybe there was a convention going on, who knows?
Then I tried to reach the airport to have her paged. No luck there, either! It turned out it was impossible to have people paged at LAX that late at night! So I was stuck. There was no way to reach her again.
OK, Scratch That
I waited around for her to call again, and after an hour she did: “Bill still not here!” At this point, I didn’t see any alternative but to go to the airport. I found out what terminal she was at, and told her to meet me outside, and I’d be there in a hour. I called Mom and Dad again and told them the new plan.
I picked her up at the airport. Her English was not very good, and we had an awkward conversation on the 405 freeway back to Santa Ana. My apartment had one of those fold-out couches that everyone had back then, so she slept in the living room.
The next morning, I wanted to call the Highway Patrol and see if Bill had been in an accident. But I didn’t want her to overhear that call, so I figured I’d do it as soon as I got to work. When I arrived, my officemate was holding out the phone for me! It was Bill on the line. He’d called my parents, who told him what happened. I went back home, he arrived, and 46 years later they’re still married!
The Post-Game Analysis
So why didn’t they manage to meet at the airport? You would think, wouldn’t you, that they’d have arranged to meet in Baggage Claim, or near an Information desk, or something obvious like that. Even in the days before cell phones, people managed to arrange meetings.
I don’t actually know what their “arrangement” for meeting at the airport was. All I know is, it didn’t work. Bill thought she had changed her mind about coming to America, and went to a bar and played pool all night. I don’t think he had a very good night. Fortunately he called my parents in the morning and learned the truth.
My parents had never considered the possibility of their sons marrying someone from another culture, but my Mom said, “Well, I guess as long as she loves him, it’s fine.”
Hanging out with them in LA, I acquired a taste for Thai food long before it was trendy. When I first moved to the Bay Area, I had a personal goal of trying every Thai restaurant in the South Bay (two of them were attached to bowling alleys, for some odd reason). Now there are too many to even attempt it, and “Thai” is a standard genre on Grubhub.
They have two kids and two grandkids. Here they are with their kids, one of whom had just graduated college, plus Mom and me.