Of course, this is a momentous date only for me, and for my mother. I just wanted to hare what being an American means to me after 50 years! This piece was first published in the Los Angeles Times, pre-Internet, I believe!
AUGUST 15, 2014
An Immigrant’s story
My first experience with the America I had read about in magazines took place in late childhood. My father, who ran commuter buses for the men working on American air bases, sometimes obtained permission to take us to the bowling alley in the military outposts outside Casablanca. It was while listening to the continuous roar of bowling balls, that my brother and I discovered the addictive crunch of corn flakes and chicken in a basket.
When I reached the age of fourteen, my parents sent me to America for the summer to visit my grandparents in Milwaukee. I fell in love with my new freedom, the tall Dutch elm trees lining the city streets, a new dance called the twist, and turkey club sandwiches. I tried hard to convince my parents that I should remain in the US to finish high school, to no avail. Little did I suspect that three years later, my mother, brother, and I would cross the Atlantic for good to join my maternal grandparents who had emigrated to Milwaukee a decade earlier.
Our vessel bore the unpronounceable name of Hravtska. It proudly proclaimed its Yugoslav registry with a bright red star on the funnel. This did not bode particularly well I thought when we embarked upon our transatlantic adventure in the Cold War days of 1964. We boarded the New York bound Hravtska during a stop in Tangier. She was also scheduled to stop in Lisbon to take on a load of cork.
In retrospect, the tearful farewell to seventeen years of happy childhood in Morocco would prove less painful than the two weeks of permanent seasickness I endured on that aging Yugoslav tub. While my younger brother occupied himself making friends with crew members, my mother and I sailed across the Atlantic flat on our backs in an effort to maintain seasickness at bay. Our fluttery stomachs excused us–thankfully, I can safely say–from sampling the heavy handed creations of the galley cook whose culinary expertise was limited to stuffed peppers, cabbage rolls, and greasy escalopes of leathery meat. Revolting smells insinuated themselves throughout the passageways and under the door of our cabin. To this day, I feel my stomach beginning to turn at the mere mention of stuffed peppers.
“You just sit on deck and look at the ocean. That’s how you get accustomed to the ship’s motion. Your stomach will settle in a couple of days,” promised the crusty cook in his heavily accented English.
We tried to follow his advice. We dressed in all the warm clothes we owned, wrapped ourselves in blankets, and went on deck that afternoon to inhale the brisk marine air. The experiment failed. Our stomachs still rebelled at the rolling motion of the ship. Two days west of Lisbon, however, worried cries from fellow passengers lured us on deck, almost making us forget our plight. Two American military jets were drawing menacing circles high above the ship. Had the sight of the red Communist star on the funnel sounded the alarm on some far away American base? With the rest of our bedraggled travel companions, we stood on deck, and waved madly at the planes in an effort to convince the pilots that we had no intention of invading the Azores.
Our fluttering stomachs calmed down as the promise of setting foot on dry land grew near. The night before sailing into New York harbor, however, I thought the sea gods would swallow us whole. Our freighter heaved and croaked like a tired beast. I clung to the sides of my bunk, too terrified to even wretch. I remain convinced to this day, that had it not been for the tons of cork in its hold, the Hrvatska and its human cargo would now be resting on the bottom of the ocean.
The next morning, sea and sky joined at the seam in a steely line. Upon entering the port of New York, the captain invited his passengers to gather at the bow to watch the Statue of Liberty come into view. She radiated reassurance as yet another load of hopeful immigrants basked in the glow of her torch. A chorus of sea gulls joined in the welcome, drawing wide circles around her crown. For the older passengers, a new life in America was the fulfillment of a long awaited dream. For the younger set, accustomed to westerns and rock and roll, the adventure ahead held a multitude of promises.
Not much activity enlivened the dock on that Sunday afternoon in August. We stepped off the ship’s gang plank into a nondescript processing area, where customs officers officially proclaimed us “resident aliens,” a status I had thought until then described visitors from outer space (a status I retained until I acquired my US citizenship nine years later.) We sat on our trunks, waiting to embark upon the next leg of our journey to Milwaukee to join my mother’s family. What would our new life in America hold for us?
That first afternoon on American soil set the tone for things to come. My encounter with the generous stranger took place at the stamp machine. I had fed it my only dime. It swallowed it but gave me nothing in return. As I stood in front of the dispenser wondering what to do next, the woman handed me a coin.
“Here, you need another dime,” she said. “Just insert it here, and the stamps will come out there.”
I thanked her as she walked away. I did as she said, and the machine cooperated. I was able to purchase the stamp I needed to send my first letter from America.
In later years, my American life evolved into so much more than I could ever have envisaged. I often think of the stranger’s spontaneous offer of help on the day I started my new life.
For me, the dime still shines!