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Great America, what my first twenty four hours in America taught me

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The former TWA terminal in JFK was many travelers first
encounter with American style
Sunlight breaks over the beach at Far Rockaway and over the endless rows of tiny summer houses with their freestanding backyard swimming pools. We’re so close I can see the cars speeding on the freeway below us. So this is America.

We dip down over the Brooklyn borough and I have a closer look. I have never seen so much activity in one place. Momentarily I’m afraid I’ll be swallowed up by it all, but the fear passes and curiosity takes its place.

The plane banks to the left then as though the pilot wants to give us a better view, and for the first time I see the epic profile of Manhattan. How strange it is, how beautiful.

It shimmers in the afternoon humidity as the wheels connect with the ground and the engines roar beneath us. We’re landing and the seatbelt signs are turning off.

Waiting in my seat I rehearse the steps I must follow -- clear immigration and then transfer to the TWA terminal, catch the connecting flight to San Francisco. Thirty minutes from terminal to terminal. No bother.

It’ll be like flying all the way from Dublin twice, my Aunt Bridie said. But it’s not a bit like Dublin here. The heat and humidity are unlike anything I’ve ever felt, and the biggest cars I’ve ever seen are passing through it. 

The immigration officers at JFK all look like they've skipped their lunch breaks and worked past closing time. They don't smile, they don't banter like us.

I don't care. Even my skin seems alive with anticipation. I’m 14 and my father is sending me on a haji to Mecca. He doesn’t know this, but I do, and it makes me laugh.

It’s the first time I’ve ever been this far from Ireland. Now I’m in the TWA terminal. It looks like a spaceport or an opera house on Mars. There’s a long, wide staircase, a soaring roof and lots of empty space everywhere. America means elbow-room, I see.

Outside the windows, the biggest cars I have ever seen drop off departing passengers. The afternoon heat is unlike anything I’ve ever felt.

In Ireland I’ve already learned there aren’t any words to describe who I am or what I want. Well, not words to give it any dignity. My country only has the words to strip it away. Odd that.

Because I just want what we all want, but in my case it’s forbidden. It’s turned me into a boy that things happen to. Today things are finally happening for me.

When I arrive in Terminal One, the double doors open and it hits me again, afternoon heat like a wall. Ahead of me, two more assembly points like islands lead directly to waiting cars the size of buses, and on to America.

Directly opposite me a minibus arrives and stops and the young cabin crew of United Airlines step onto the pavement. They look smart in their neatly pressed uniforms, they look tanned and at their ease.

Most of them are in their early twenties. There are as many young men as women in their line. Latino, Asian, African American, white. All huddled together in small groups laughing. You'll wait a long time in Donegal to witness such a sight.

They're all so good looking I can hardly believe it. As I stare at them one of them winks at me, making me blush.

Later, on the endless approach to San Francisco it looks like we'll be landing in the bay. But land appears just before the wheels touch down and the kinder climate of northern California says hello.

It's America in the 1980s, and the New Wave music is so good they'll never stop playing it. It's an ideal time to be a teenager and I can already sense my own luck.

Ahead of me are Great America and Disneyland and Santa Cruz Beach and Boardwalk and my first American kiss. Although I'm still just an awkward teenager halfway between Pac Man and my first real nightclub, I already know that the promise of the future in contained in two words -- United States.

It's not just what is here. It's everything that could be here.

It's a nation full of stories and storytellers. Irish people know how to respond to that. Irish people can't help but respond to that.

But there's something more, something Ireland hasn't presented me with. America is giving me the opportunity to create my own story.

I can already feel that story coming alive under my skin. Words are forming. I'm finding my voice.
I've only been here 24 hours but I'm already certain I'll be coming back.

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