Sunday, April 02, 2006

When I Think Of Immigration

My father in law came over this afternoon for Sunday dinner as he has for the last, oh, twenty some odd years or so. Since his wife died it's really not the same. She was quite a lady and a delight to be around. We ate with them twice a week ever since we were married in 1982. It's funny, if anyone ever mentioned that I would spend so much time with my in-laws I would immediately think, what a major PITA! But it wasn't like that at all. They really treated me as a son and I never tired of their company.

My wife is an only child and she was extraordinarily close with her mom. It was very hard on her when Francis died. It was worse on her dad as they were married for 55 years. Mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in April 2003 and died three weeks later on April 22. My wife's dad, John, will be eighty this month and suffers from congestive heart failure.

I listened again to some of his stories as we sat at the kitchen table after pasta and sauce. It's a tradition, we almost always have pasta and sauce on Sundays. My wife's recipe for tomato sauce is the one she learned from her mom, who got it from her mom, etc. The recipe is Calabraise (Calabria is the instep of the Italian boot) because that's where Francis' grandmother was from. John's parents immigrated from Bari which is the heel of the Italian boot. John's parents are from the same Italian city, Monopoli, and came to the US on the same day on the same boat, the La Touraine, on October 12, 1920.

I have copies of the ship's manifest with both their names on it. They were not married at the time, in fact they barely knew each other. They signed in at Ellis Island. Cosmo went to live with his brother at 344 N. Salina St. on Syracuse's North Side and Anna, aged 16, stayed with her uncle Vito at 212 8th Ave., in NYC. Vito's sister ended up marrying Cosmo's brother and that's how Anna ended up in Syracuse. She married Cosmo in 1923. My father in law was born in 1926, one of five brothers.

The Depression was very hard for the familia. Cosmo was a cement finisher and managed to get some work. The boys all helped out as best they could. John used his wagon to pick up stray pieces of coal dropped from delivery trucks and was paid a nickel for carting groceries home for neighborhood women. He started working full time when he was 16 and was drafted in 1944.

Over the decades John has shared his experiences serving in Patton's Third Army. As the smallest (5' 1/2") man in his outfit he showed up in France still wearing some of his civvies. The US Army didn't have uniform shoes or a coat small enough for him. When he showed up on the front just before the invasion of Germany, one vet looked at him and said "Christ, they're sending children now."

He was a turret gunner on Sherman tanks and armored half tracks. He called the Shermans "Zippos" after the lighters because of the way they would explode and catch on fire when hit by German cannon fire. He spoke in awe of German armor and sadly remarked on the numbers of his battalion killed by accurate German tank fire. But he defended the honor of the Shermans; they were much faster and could shoot while moving. As he said, they had some Tigers but we had thousands of Shermans.

He has related how the sky would be filled with over a thousand American B-17 bombers on a daylight bombing mission and the ground almost shook from the sound of their flight. The very first time John saw a jet aircraft it tried to kill him. A German ME262 flew over his unit while they were resting after a battle. The soldiers were at first amazed to see such a thing but the same thought struck them at the same time... it ain't one of ours! As they were all combat vets by now, they knew the armor would get hit first so they ran like hell away from their vehicles. The jet circled back and strafed the area with cannon fire, destroying several vehicles. John jumped in a nearby stream and ruined his watch.

When the war ended John found himself in Czechoslovakia facing jubilant Russian troops. He still chuckles at the memory of a Russian who had tied a giant alarm clock around his neck. These people had nothing so whatever they could steal was somehow carried around with them. Some had wrist watches going up both arms that they had taken from German POWs or corpses.

John had to stay overseas for another year before he had enough "points" to return home. The Army offered him a month's furlough at home, but then would ship him to the Pacific to fight the Japanese. His response was, "If you send me back home you'll never find me again." So he ended up spending a year in England as a camp guard for Wehrmacht POWs awaiting repatriation. When John returned home from the war he found a brand new baby sister awaiting him. His mustering out pay helped him find a 1936 Packard with his name written all over it.

(Aside- we won't mention the craps tent he ran in France while waiting to go back to England - throughout the war John managed to send home more than his salary, alot more. Anna saved every dime of it and used it for a down payment on the first home she and Cosmo ever owned)

What got my attention this afternoon was that he talked about the prison camps his unit liberated. He never really talks about this. He was angry because he heard that some Germans were denying that the holocaust ever existed. He still would not describe in detail what he saw, it was as if words failed him. But he was adamant, they could not lie their way out of it, he saw those poor 90 lb bastards, walking skeletons. Sixty-one years after the fact and he is still indignant about it as if it happened yesterday. He sounded as if he would strap on an M1 Garand and go after them again.

And this is my impression of immigration. People entering a country, standing in line with their papers, hoping that they are well enough to pass the health inspection, anxious that their relatives will speak for them and hopeful that things will be better here. They believe that their adopted land is a better place and raise a family who believe the same thing. And their children serve as they can, where they can.

I could barely understand the English that Cosmo and Anna spoke. I would smile and nod, smile and nod. My wife or my mother in law would translate for me. But they loved this country and they raised their children with the same love.

Cosmo died a year after I married his granddaughter. Anna died on the same day in August 1986 that my wife found out she was pregnant with our second daughter.

There is a cycle that I see here, life reaffirms itself in the children of those fortunate enough to have survived heartbreak and difficulty to settle in a free land. That is why so many millions have come here from all over the world. Immigration statistics show that between 1820 and 2004, some 69,869,450 persons have entered this country legally. They all filled out the forms, saved or borrowed the cash to travel to America and sweated out whether or not they would be accepted. My own great grandfather, James Arthur McKevitt, did the same thing after the Civil War and settled in Brooklyn, NY. But they all stood in line and eschewed climbing over the fence.

Compare this with the current immigration mess on our borders. Our national boundaries are nothing but a broken, unlatched screen door. First come, first served and don't bother cleaning up after yourselves. It disgusts me.

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