It was with a mixture of fear and trepidation that I boarded American Airlines flight 55 from Manchester to Chicago. I had never travelled abroad on my own before and I had never been to America.
I passed the eight-hour flight chatting to Ollie, a second-year medical student at Keele University who told me he was visiting his girlfriend in Tennessee.
Tennessee? How things have changed. The furthest away any girlfriend of mine had ever lived was Tunstall.
Stepping off the plane at Chicago O’Hare was a daunting experience.
I had just over an hour to collect my luggage and catch a connecting flight to Indianapolis.
Of course, I hadn’t realised that O’Hare is the fourth busiest airport in the world and handles more than 66 million passengers each year.
The sheer size of it was what hit me – something which would be a recurring theme during my time in the States.
As I arrived at immigration a stern-looking bloke who was the spit of Poncherello out of CHiPs! (how are you on your Eighties TV trivia?) asked me whether my visit to the U.S. was for business or pleasure.
“Pleasure,” I replied.
“And what’s your pleasure?” he asked, raising a quizzical eyebrow.
“Playing Dungeons & Dragons and Call of Cthulhu,” I replied, with utter sincerity.
“Oh,” said Poncherello.
Nothing quite ends a conversation like telling someone you’re attending a games convention.
It was sod’s law that my plane to Indy would be delayed but nothing could diminish my enthusiasm.
As I waited by the departure gate, soaking in the sights and sounds, a woman sat next to me, leaned over and said: “Excuse me. Would you like a hamburger?”
As chat-up lines go, it was a new one on me.
“I don’t know why but they gave me two,” she added – motioning inside a McDonald’s paper bag.
Well it would have been rude to refuse and for the next hour and a half I chatted to Pam – a 59-year-old psychologist.
She was so friendly and so interested in everything from the royal family and the Titanic to the Olympics that I actually enjoyed being delayed.
By the time we boarded the plane we had swapped business cards and she had invited me and my family to her farm in Nebraska where she and her husband breed horses.
That has certainly never happened to me while waiting for a PMT bus up Hanley.
Pam sort of set the tone, really. Almost everyone I met – with the notable exception of Poncherello (who, to be fair, is paid to be miserable) – was incredibly friendly. People of the south of England, please take note…
Take, for example, Herschel – my 70-year-old taxi driver.
He brought me up to speed on the trials and tribulations of the Indianapolis Colts American Football team and gave me the heads-up on their new quarterback.
This was to come in handy the next day when I toured the impressive Lucas Oil Stadium – the 63,000 seater home of the Colts which comes complete with a retractable roof and artificial turf.
I learned that the Colts had only won two games last year and their fans had endured a torrid time.
As a Vale fan I could empathise and I adopted the Colts there and then.
That is where any similarities between the Hoosier state’s finest and the Valiants ended, however.
In light of their terrible season, the Colts were given the first NFL ‘draft’ pick this year – allowing them to choose from the cream of the crop of young players coming out of colleges and universities.
As a result, they picked up Andrew Luck – the best young quarter back in the country – for nowt, on account of how bad they were last season.
It’s the equivalent of the worst team in the Premier League being given first dibs on the best teenage footballer in England – irrespective of how much money Manchester City or Chelsea wave in his direction. Can you imagine?
Having ticked off a top-flight football stadium, a visit to a genuine diner was next on my list.
I finally settled for Johnny Rockets and enjoyed chilli beef sandwiches and a strawberry milkshake at the bar while throwing money into my own personal five cent jukebox.
Eat your heart out, Fonzie.
It was while walking around Indy that I realised that everything in the U.S. is BIG – from the blocks and the skyscrapers to the vehicles.
I was told that Indianapolis is a relatively modest, mid-western U.S. city, so Lord only knows what the really big ones are like.
Then there are the people.
We think we have an obesity problem over here but I can tell you it is nothing compared to the epidemic America is facing.
I was genuinely gobsmacked at the sheer girth of some of the folks waddling down the street and how many of the people were grossly overweight. It made me think long and hard about portion-sizes and the kinds of food I shovel down.
Not that I had much time to eat.
I had booked myself in for four solid days at Gen Con – the world’s largest gaming convention – showcasing tabletop games, board games, card and computer games.
Yours truly and 40,000-plus other geeks met authors, game-designers and artists, play-tested new games and took part in competitions.
I actually won the blue riband event – the Cthulhu Masters tournament – a horror roleplaying game based on the writings of American author H.P. Lovecraft.
It was a special moment and the perfect end to my first Gen Con Indy. I was taking home a trophy which had never before left the U.S.
When I arrived at customs at Indianapolis airport I wondered how I would explain the large, heavy rubber-plastic brain I was carrying in my hand luggage to the nice men with guns.
Sure enough, when my backpack went through the scanner one of them said: “Sir, I’m gonna have to ask you to step this way. You have something organic in your luggage. Can you tell me what it is?”
“It’s my trophy for winning the Cthulhu Masters tournament at Gen Con,” I replied, nervously.
The customs man gingerly removed the brain case from my rucksack. “Joe, come look at this!” he shouted, beckoning his buddy over.
He then turned to me and exclaimed: “Dude, that is awesome!”
“I know,” I said, with a very relieved smile.
Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel