“At New Year 1972 … we’re driving through the night in this big, old car and listening to AM radio. I still remember the station call letters, WLW Cincinnati, WLS Chicago. That you could go for hundreds of miles traveling long, long straight roads, Interstate 70. I’d never seen a road that goes on for a thousand miles. And I’m thinking, “Oh boy, this is America” and it was all the little kid’s fantasies of the space and the distance.”
Photo by Lisa U’Prichard
My father’s father emigrated from Northern Ireland to Glasgow in Scotland where I was born and spent the first 20 years of my life. My mother was German and she and my dad met in 1945 when she was 19. It was the end of the war – my father was a captain in the British Army during the occupation – and he had to find an English-speaking secretary. So he interviewed a whole variety of young girls and he liked my mother. Well obviously, he liked my mother’s looks, but also she was really, really smart and she spoke decent English. My dad brought her to Scotland a year later. Eventually she ended up going back to college and teaching.
So there was immigration on both sides, which gave me a feeling of “well, I’m not exactly rooted here.” There’s more to that. I had to defend my mother’s honor as a kid in Scotland after the War when feelings still ran high, and kind of got beaten up quite a few times. When I was 22, I immigrated to London like all little Scottish boys with any sense — because the opportunity there is so much greater. I was going to grad school at University College London, and I met this American girl, Eleuthera (Terri), who ended up being my first wife. Terri’s father was an American spy, and her mother a young French resistance fighter, then living in Istanbul. We fell in love, and I got a bee in my bonnet about going to America.
How do I describe my immigration? Well, I was not a refugee. It wasn’t even for economic reasons at all. I was a hippie. I didn’t care where I landed in America. I thought, “Okay, I just want to go there and experience it”. I expected to finish my PhD degree in a couple of years and then we’d go back to Britain. Well, that didn’t happen.
I said to Terri, “Where should we go?” She said, “Why not Kansas?” She grew up as a little girl in Florida, but she somehow wended her way — she was a hippie too — to Kansas and she worked in the KU Pharmacy School in Lawrence. I said, “Why not?” Terri and I meanwhile got married in the summer of 1971 in Scotland and all of her tribe came from America and Istanbul. The mother, the mother’s young fourth husband the artist, Terri’s sister and younger brother, and their spouses. They all looked really, really strange in the Scottish setting. My mother and father were startled, but game.
So I told my dad in the fall of 1971, “Well, I’m actually not very happy down in London, I want to go to the States.” I told him that I was going to go to Kansas and his response was, “Well, watch out for the Indians.” And he was a serious, well-educated man, and that was not a joke. Foreign perceptions of America can be really strange at times.
I was a student. Terri wasn’t earning a lot of money. We kind of tilted that university stuff off so that we could work part-time in a bar in London to save up a few hundred pounds to get on a ship because we couldn’t afford airfares or anything like that.
We did work in a strange little bar for six months. It was a bar for Australians in London, just around the corner from the Australian Embassy. In Australia, they had just changed their liquor laws. It used to be — the bars were only open for one hour, five until six. And so, young Aussie boys and girls would go to the bar at five o’clock and they would drink like a fish for one hour, and get totally smashed. The bar was run by a flamboyant, gay manager and it was raucous every night. And in the middle of the flower fights and tossing cans of Aussie lager, a kind of point of stillness was a little old, English lady who came in every night and sat nursing a small glass of sherry for five hours.
We saved up some money and got a passage on a very famous old ship called the Stefan Batory, a Polish ship named after the Prince of Transylvania. It had seen service as a troup ship in World War II. The ship left Gdańsk in Poland with 700 Poles heading to relatives in Toronto and Chicago, and stopped in Southampton to pick up a few British people.
My father drove Terri and me from Glasgow, Scotland down to Southampton in the south of England. That was then a long 10-hour drive and we superficially chatted but there was a great weight in the air – not great sadness, that would be too strong – but a weight in the air that something was irrevocably changing.
We made our way to the docks in Southampton. I still remember my father standing very straight at the end of the pier — he had good posture from his army days — stoically waving to us as the boat left. I was excited about this whole adventure about coming to America. And my father was happy for me, but also sad because he knew he was losing me. My mother had a far more balanced view of things because she had done this, separated herself from her country and her family and now she was seeing me do the same. It weighed less heavily with her. I’m not saying she took it lightly but unlike my dad, who I could tell was infused with feelings of loss. She was more hardheaded about it, saying, “Okay, he’s taken off on his adventure.” My dad died in the mid ‘90s at the age of 86. He was a strong father and I left him when I was 20. We never were tremendously close after that. I was always closer to my mother, but 3,000 miles distance over decades loosens ties.
This was December 1971. The ship was going to Montreal so we sailed across the North Atlantic and then down the Saint Lawrence River. December, you start to get icebergs, so we’re kind of all a little nervous about the icebergs. That was a very riotous week of sailing. All the Poles drank a lot of vodka, danced a lot of polkas, and threw up over the side of the boat a lot between drinking bouts. I learned to play bingo in Polish but I could never win because I couldn’t remember the numbers in Polish fast enough.
So, halfway across the Atlantic, I was a smoker in those days, I’m up on the deck and I’m sharing a cigarette with the only American on the boat, a nice fellow. I’m telling him my life story and about heading to Kansas and he says, “Well, I guess your first stop is going to be with your local draft board.” And I said, “Do what?”
I had gotten a green card already in London. It was a whole lot easier in those days if you were married to an American, but it wasn’t plain sailing, I had to go to the U.S. Embassy in London maybe half a dozen times, getting seriously interviewed. And I remember one time, some embassy attaché or whatever — with a three-ringed binder and he flips it open and he looks me in the eye and he says, “Look at these pages. Are you or have you ever been a member of any of these organizations?” I came from a left-wing family and had seen the McCarthy hearings in TV when I was little. I’m thinking, “Holy moly!”
What I had no sense then was that green card holders were eligible for the draft. So I said to myself — I said if I get a number lower than 200, I’m out of here. Well. I got a 280.
Coming over, I had $200 in my pocket from working at the bar. We had one steamer trunk that was full of kitchen utensils, pots and pans and some clothes. That was all we had. I was going to Kansas on the vague prospect that I might get a teaching assistant job. Nothing was guaranteed at all but I didn’t care.
The boat made it to Quebec City, and we got on the Greyhound Bus to Columbus, Ohio to stay with Terri’s sister, a grad student there. Our US port of entry was Detroit. So, we get to the bus station in downtown Detroit at about one o’clock in the morning and we have a three-hour layover before the next bus to get to Columbus. That was the only point where I said, “I might turn around” because the Detroit bus station in 1971 in the middle of the night was a not very nice place to be at all.
In Columbus, I spent 125 bucks out of that 200 getting a ‘62 Buick Electra station wagon. It was a wonderful old thing, only five cylinders worked. It was all black, about 23 feet long, with fins. Already it was almost 10 years old and not in good shape, but it was big, lots of chrome, red velour interior and power everything – windows, steering, brakes; you could just rotate the red steering wheel with one finger. I had never seen this before! And the reason that we got that big station wagon was basically to hold the steamer trunk. I sold it the following spring for $75.
We spent about a month in Columbus. To make some money, I tried telephone sales but my Scottish accent was too strong. I had no luck at all. As soon as they heard me, they said, “No, you’re not going to make it in sales.” For a few days, I did get up looking for manual labor at four o’clock in the morning and this was a really cold winter. I didn’t have a lot of luck with that either. In fact I had no luck. Terri was doing better because she got a job at the local Polish Men’s Club in Columbus, waiting tables. That Christmas we spent dancing polkas, and I will admit that in the backroom there, that’s where my daughter Zoë got conceived.
At New Year 1972, we got in the car heading off from Columbus to Lawrence, Kansas. That is still a magical moment – we’re driving through the night in this big, old car and listening to AM radio. And I still remember the station call letters, WLW Cincinnati, WLS Chicago. That you could go for hundreds of miles traveling long, long straight roads, Interstate 70. I’d never seen a road that goes on for a thousand miles. And I’m thinking, “Oh boy, this is America” and it was all the little kid’s fantasies of the space and the distance. So we get to Lawrence, Kansas, very charming collage town, a bit of a hippie hotbed at that time.
I was able to resume my studies. We couldn’t afford normal housing so we lived in a 60 by 12 foot trailer on the bad side of town. The previous owner of the trailer had thrown an ax at his wife right in the trailer. We couldn’t afford to fix the hole from the ax, so we just hung a picture over it. It did let in a lot of wind. And then a year later, we graduated to a 14 by 70 trailer and finally to an apartment before we left Lawrence.
So in Kansas, I like to tell people I learned to sail. How do you learn to sail in Kansas? Well, back in the Roosevelt era, the Army Corps of Engineers, as part of the WPA project, damned all of these rivers, and it created large lakes. You needed to watch out for the tornadoes and stuff, but you can sail. I’d never done that before. I learned to ride horseback, and I’d never done that before either. I would do those three years in Kansas all over again. It was like parachuting into the most American America that you could imagine. Kansans are absolutely wonderful people. They were really, really curious about me. They didn’t see a lot of foreigners back then.
I learned that I had to consciously modify my English. They’d say, so polite, “Excuse me, sir. Could you repeat that? Can you say that again?” They wanted me to take the TOEFL test, the Test of English as a Foreign Language. That insulted me. I considered myself very well read. My father especially spoke English beautifully. He knew all the big words, knew how to use them. So, TOEFL, you got to be kidding me.
The intention had been to be there for two or three years, wrap up the degree and go back. But life happened and my daughter came along very soon in Lawrence. Little by little, we stayed. I finished my PhD in pharmacology. I wanted to do a post-doc and — it was a real shot in the dark, but I applied to some very famous laboratories in area of neuroscience and a famous neuroscientist named Sol Snyder at the Johns Hopkins Medical School out of the blue said, “Yeah, okay. Why don’t you come?”
We lived in Baltimore for three years. In 1978, I got an academic faculty job at Northwestern University in Chicago, and my son Gavain was born. During the 70s, we were able to save money to go back to Europe in the summers, two or three times, to see our folks in Scotland and Greece.
Five years in Chicago as a tenured associate professor, I was doing fine. I had students and visiting scientists in the lab and grants from the NIH. But, I wasn’t satisfied. Actually I liked the teaching and research and I loved Chicago. I got into the Chicago Blues. I could even tolerate the weather and we saw some heavy duty winters about then. It was the narrowness of the academic career. I kind of had a crisis and said to myself, “I don’t know what I’m going to do next, but I don’t like what I’m doing now.”
So I went in to my department chairman, a famous scientist, old-school Japanese, Toshio Narahashi. I said to Toshio, “I am resigning my faculty position.” He said, “Where you going?” I said, “I don’t know.” And I’ll never forget what he said. He said, “David, you are a samurai” and I didn’t quite know what he meant then, but now I fully understand what it meant. And I think now that was a perfect response.
My old mentor Sol Snyder called me up and said, “I’m starting a company. I have money to start a biotech company.” This was the beginning of biotechnology. “Do you want to come back to Baltimore to help?” Sadly, Terri and I, with the strains and stresses of married life, not much money, were separating. And I said to Sol, “Yeah, I can come back.”
Terri and I were separating — I was going to Baltimore and she was staying in Chicago. I got this call from my laboratory and it’s a woman, Lisa Swerdloff, a freelance medical and science writer hired by the new company, who said she wants to interview me. She said, “Can I interview you over the phone?” And so, we conducted this interview and I got totally schizophrenic because a part me was very professional and was giving her the story and the other part of me was saying, “This is one sexy voice.” I am a romantic, and I imagine this young New York freelance reporter girl with a kind of smoky sexy Lauren Bacall voice. So I said, “This is not working. Get the first flight out of LaGuardia to O’Hare tomorrow morning so that we can finish it off in person,” and she did. We continued the interview and both of us realized we didn’t want this to stop. The rest is history. I brought her to Baltimore and here we are 34 years later, happily married.
Fast forwarding in my career, from 1983 to 1986 I helped set up Sol’s company. I then got attracted to one of the big pharmaceutical companies that was based in Wilmington, Delaware. We get in our car, Lisa and I, she is a Manhattan girl, and we’re driving up I-95 and the job is in Wilmington but we don’t stop, and we get to Philadelphia. We turned off in Society Hill and Lisa’s looking around here and she’s saying, “I like this,” and so we ended up here.
I had a career with two pharmaceutical companies. Starting at Wilmington, running the US R&D of a British company called ICI Pharmaceuticals, nowadays AstraZeneca. In 1990, my English boss told me that he wanted me to come to England, what they call a secondment, like a sabbatical – we want you over here.
It was supposed to be for two years. It ended up being four and a half years, didn’t make Lisa terribly happy but it was a good career step. We moved to England in 1991 and until then for 20 years I had said to myself that when I was old and grey, I would go back to Scotland. I felt sentimental about that. But actually moving back to Britain after having been away for 20 years, it had changed a lot and I didn’t empathize with it. It would be too strong to say, “I didn’t like it.” But a lot had happened in 20 years and it was quite a changed country. I had lived in America, where I could breathe deeply and the idea of going back late in life to “a tight little island” didn’t appeal.
I had a conscious thought. “No. I do not want to finish my life over there. I’ll stay here.” And that was when I applied for my citizenship. I had had the green card for 20 years, and I became a citizen in 1992. It was a very conscious decision at that time.
I moved in the late ‘90s to SmithKline Beecham, another Anglo-American company, now GSK. I have always been happiest having a foot on either side of the pond. It felt psychologically right.
Although I never wanted to go back to live, I actually kept my UK passport. In those days, the Americans were pretty strict. You were supposed to relinquish your old country passport but they didn’t look over your shoulder. The UK passport turned out handy because I could travel all over Europe and the airport lines are shorter! Now that all may change with Brexit. But perhaps Scotland will become independent and stay in Europe. I’m up for that.
Zoë and Gavain, my children, they of course see themselves as Americans, but they have a wider perspective on things. I don’t know if that will last through the next generation. I know second, third generation immigrants generally — people lose their ties to the old country.
When my mother in the fall of 2005 called me up to say she’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer and had six months to live, I dropped everything I was doing here to go back to her and I spent the last five months that she had with her. That was not only a deep immersion into our relationship, but a deep immersion back into Scotland, the Scotland of my youth, because I was dealing with things; I was not just passing through as a tourist or for a day or two. That was probably is the most intensely emotional period of my life. She died away from her original home and I had come from my new home back to her.
I’m very clear about where I want to be, which is right here. But I also feel myself quite European and on occasion, sentimentally pretty Scottish. I can also feel quite German as well and I’ve wrestled with that part of my heritage and having a Jewish wife.
When people think about immigrant stories, there’s a simple motto, “We came from the old country, country A and we move to America,” black and white. But because of my personal life and family, I’m very, very attuned to layers. So I’m Scottish, I’m British, I’m Irish, I’m German, I’m American, my wife is Russian and American. My ex-wife is French and American.
Nobody, at least nobody in the first generation, becomes 100% American. The melting pot is a myth.
Portraits of People on the Move tells the stories of Philadelphia-area immigrants through their own words on the Supperdance.com blog and was first shown as an exhibition June 25–28, 2015, at the Gray Area of Crane Arts in Philadelphia. The exhibition was created as a companion work to Supper, People on the Move by Cardell Dance Theater, a dance inspired by themes of migration.