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Fred's Story > Chapters > Planning to go to America

Learning about America 

Date Range: 04/01/1949 To 03/04/1952   Comments: 0 Views: 7217
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I'm a refugee boy.

My father's parents were now gone. There was no money for a family burial plot and my grandparents were buried in the plot of the Hämmerer family to which my grandmother belonged to by birth. I also suspect that money could have been found to be paid over time if my parents weren't about to go to America. Grave plots and cemeteries in general are each a garden to be watered and maintained weekly. It was the way it was. We would not be there to do that. With the Hämmerers the needed caretakers were available for no self respecting family would not maintain their family plot. That would be an embarrassment no one could survive. There are customs here.

The little village of Essen lies in the northern part of Germany and became part of the Grand Duchy of Oldenburg in 1803. Before that it was part of the Prince-bishopric of Münster in Westfalia and the population was almost exclusively Roman Catholic. Without going into the 1000 year history of the place let me repeat, there are customs here that are ancient and held to to this day. One of those customs stems from the fellowship of neighbors. There is a rigid system where one has a first neighbor, a second neighbor plus the general neighborhood for support in any crisis or major event. Funerals were one such event. As one after the other of my dad's parents died the neighbors jumped in and handled everything. A funeral becomes quite a party. Any grievance of the past is forgotten and every neighbor has specific tasks to carry out to remove any additional burden from the grieving family.

To my wondering eyes did appear all manner of goodies that smelled and looked delicious. I hadn't seen this much food – well ever. In the East Zone we lived on a very basic subsistence diet. We survived on the basics, mostly flower and potatoes. Here they had sausages, meat, they had cake – oh did they have cake. There was milk, right from the farm and butter. Lots of butter. Even the cake was called butter cake (Butterkuchen). I can still smell the aroma. My memories of these events are rather vivid simply because they were so significant to my senses.

The funeral being over real life began again. Much to my distress I had to go to school. I hated that mostly because I was treated like the refugee and outsider that I was. The only friends I had were fellow refugees who had similar backgrounds of the rough and tumble type. We did many stupid things only some of which will appear in these notes. Children can be very cruel to each other. I was picked on and harassed all the time. I had to wear the customary wooden shoes year around. This was new to me but such was the custom. In the winter they formed stilts in the snow that kept growing until they broke again and again. We would have straw inside them to keep warm. One day, going home from school, I simply cracked up and lost my senses when I took off one of my shoes and batters my tormentors over the head with them. Several ran home with blood running down their faces. After that incident they were more careful about messing with me. Taunts continued but I now felt much better about myself. Strangely, I had almost forgotten the beating I had handed out but on a visit to the town in 1995, several of those boys came over to me and refreshed my memory. They remembered it much better then I. It was all a big joke to them now as little did they remember how much they had caused me. Apparently my father and the police had become involved but I remembered none of that. I suspect my dad did not punish me or give me a lecture as he was really proud of me for standing up to the bullies.

School was a hated and scary affair. Would I be called on? The constant fear of punishment and embarrassment in front of the other 'smarter' kids in class was enough to drive a kid who only wanted to play crazy. I don't really know what all I did to get punished so often but I suspect that it was the typical stuff of not doing the assigned work. Fräulein (Ms) Lieberding was the teacher and she had a selection of bamboo sticks with which she handed out either a few strokes on the buttocks or over the open hand. She could also pull on one's ear till it was about to rip off. One was in constant fear of the lady but with a very crowded classroom mixed with three grades, she kept a well ordered class. That I learned something despite myself became evident when I entered school in America. We had our tricks of which I'm not sure she knew but I suspect so. An extra pair of thick knitted underpants always helped when that punishment was possible. With the hands we would make matters worse by rubbing onions into our hands at lunch time when we all went home. We also held our hands over the inkwell as that was supposed to make the damage appear worse then it was. Don't know if that really worked.

I mention inkwells. We also each had slate boards to write on. Pencil was only permitted for drawing in geography and biology. All writing was in ink with a pen which would be dipped into the inkwell on each desk. I had terrible penmanship. I could draw rather well though. I still have some of my sketches of fish, leaves and maps drawn of foreign countries. My favorite class would be outside on our frequent trips into nature. We would learn to recognize every plant and tree by their leaves and were required to draw copies of some of them. That exercise has left a lifelong impression to try to figure out what this or that tree is by looking at the leaves. Then there was singing. In Germany there are certain songs that every schoolchild learns to sing. The itinerary of folksongs is huge in a country were singing was part of the culture. Many of the songs go back to the late middle ages just as they do in other European countries.

I am reminded of a visit to Hermann, MO (Hermann Historic Museum) where a class room of the 1820s had been restored by the residents. They had copied some text from one of the old text books onto a big slate board to make the experience real. My wife and I were alone and she started singing the verse on the board as it reminded her of her childhood school experience. The caretaker lady heard this and came running to see what was going on.

We explained that to this day that song is being sung by little girls in their early school years. Singing and music is still a part of every elementary class in Germany. This was the text on the blackboard:

Wollt ihr wissen, wollt ihr wissen,
wie's die kleinen Mädchen machen?
Püppchen wiegen, Püppchen wiegen,
alles dreht sich herum.

While I'm on the subject of girls – I was painfully shy in their company. Not I was particularly interested other then in the anatomy of these creatures but the concept of dating just didn't exist in my time in the 6-8th grade environment. Whatever happened was in a group setting out in the open. I did have an interest in some of the more buxom beauties but I wouldn't even dare to make any approach. I suppose this had something to do with my status in that society as a poor refugee boy and not an accepted native son. One's self-image is beaten down without knowing why. One girl kept wanting to be friends with me and asking for me to come out and play. She was not my type, flat as a board and a pain in the behind to try to get away from. She was our neighbor. There were four girls next door at the Vogel house. The second oldest was in my class and always bothered me on the way home. The school day was broken into two sessions, morning and afternoon. The students would all go home for lunch and then return. Lunch was the main meal of the day. There was a morning session on Saturday too. I devised various ways to escape the attention, hide or otherwise make myself unavailable.

One of the customs of village life was the annual Schützenfest (shooting festival). This goes back to the days when the farmers formed self-protection groups against marauders and any other threat back in the middle ages. Now the intent was to crown a king and his court. The same event also applied to children. It was a make-believe adult world which dominated by the locals who had the money to fund such events. It was not cheap for the adult king as a lot of expenses were associated with the crown. Mostly it had to do with wining and dining, lots of beer would flow on his account. I was a damn good shot and probably would have won had I not been who I was. Refugees just did not get into this game. We were like foreigners in a strange land. Still I worried about winning and having to pick a queen for myself. I knew exactly who I wanted and it wasn't my neighbor. On the other hand by nature I could not be mean to people or animals. I was and am a kind hearted soul who had empathy for the feelings of others. So how could I hurt my little neighboring girl by not choosing her as my queen? This really bothered me even though my chances of winning the crown were quite remote. But, boy did I struggle with the concept. I don't think I ever came to a conclusion and in the end I was not made king anyway. I was off the hook.

As I write these notes, the little girl next door is my wife of almost 50 years. More on this in a later chapter.

I have already described our house as a rather primitive abode without plumbing of any kind. My father and mother were always working. I'm not exaggerating when I say always. Both were sewing day and night to try to earn some money for our trip to America. I had hoped to play with my newly found father but instead got a stern taskmaster who expected me to work all the time too. That was not my idea of fun. Still, my sister and I were delegated a variety of jobs most of which she wound up doing. My dear sweet sister. She was mother and taskmaster to me and I was so mean to her. I am truly sorry about my behavior back then. She had to grow up much faster then I and as I write this I have tears in my eyes for not helping her more. I was not a good brother. Mostly I had to always provide water for us. I would have a brass bucket too heavy for me to carry full of water. Much always spilled out on my daily treks to the pump at the Ellerkamp house next door. I would then fill other buckets out of which we would ladle whatever water was needed. My job was also to keep cleaning out the weeds in the cobble stones in the street in front of our house. I had to take care of the garden. That meant turning over the soil in a specific way filling the trenches with manure of various kinds. That was a monster job as the soil was like butter, rich and black from generations of manure addition. Everything grew like crazy there. I even had my own little lawn of about 6'x6' in area which I planted for my rabbits. I used my dad's scissors to cut that lawn. I had lots of rabbits in the hutch next to the outhouse. They lived in a covered and fenced area but on top of plain dirt. My rabbits would dig the most ridiculous tunnels into that ground but they'd always come up to get fed. We were the best of friends. Any time we needed food for a holiday of some kind, one of them would be butchered and that was something I simply could not bear. I also never ate the meat. To my dad the rabbits were an occasional meal which he couldn't kill either but to me they were my pets. (a butcher would kill and skin the rabbits for us). One of the most difficult things was to leave my rabbits when we left for America. My wife tells me they were all butchered and eaten at that time.

During the many months of waiting to get our visa, my parents had hired an old professor from a neighboring town to come to our house to teach my sister Annely and myself the rudiments of English. The man was somewhat lame having been injured in the first world war and dragged his one leg along the road. He would walk like this for five kilometers to come to us for lessons. As I heard the shuffling approaching I would make a beeline out the window as if I was never in the house. My good sister would wind up getting double the lessons. The few times I remember actually sitting in class was a total waste of time as I just wasn't interested. Sure I learned a few words like house and mouse because those words sounded the same in German but as far as saying something sensible, that was beyond my skill or interest level. My sister learned a lot but then she was so much smarter then I. She could memorize anything. She knew all the stanzas of a song while I only knew the first few words. Often she tried to get me to sing harmony with her or a learn a round. I just never got it right. She was so much better then I at everything.

I found out a lot about myself at my visit to the town when speaking to class mates I had forgotten but who knew me quite well. Apparently I was a leader of guys who, because of me, always got into trouble. I was the instigator. I was the kid looking for a challenge who wanted to bend the rules others abided by. Yet they followed and took the consequences. What did I do? Sunday morning the main mass would take quite a long time but was also the best attended. I would sneak out, others followed and we'd do stuff we weren't supposed to. It was like free time as no one was around to watch us. There were motorcycles we borrowed, there were coaches with horses from the farms. There were even horses without coaches. It was available for the taking. After the mass the folks would see their animals but first make a beeline to the local pub for a drink or two while the sweat on the horses would slowly go away.

The church itself also presented its challenges. It had an attic high over the population below. One could watch from above or climb up into the steeple which was the highest thing man had ever built. Way, way up there one could see the whole world. The risk was that one of the bells go off and your eardrums would burst. At least we thought they would. There was a 16 ton bell up there which was only wrung at special events but that sucker was big.

Stupid things like chasing milk cows around was also part of the game. There were also the annual floods behind our house which made everything into a giant lake or it would form a thin layer of ice to risk playing on. One fun thing was to find several fuel cannisters such as were used by the allies and deposited here. We would tie these together, find some boards to lay on top and we had an instant boat. All we needed was some long poles to push ourselves around. Sometimes these poles got lost and we would merely float to who knows where. That was not good as there were deep parts to the water. But a little fear is always part of the thrill of being a boy.

Other customs I learned about were strange to me as I couldn't speak the local dialect or Platt. The language is low German and very close to Dutch. It was what the people spoke until high German became the language of the educated class. In school everything was in high German but as soon as class was out Platt would be spoken by the other kids. Some families who wanted their children to sound educated would not permit Platt to be spoken in the house. My father-in-law was one of them. He himself was a champion with the lingo but his kids should have none of it. So at the various events throughout the year that language of old came out into my world. I would just mumble it along. On the Palm Sunday it was the custom for the kids to go from house to house to ask for gifts. It was something like our trick or treat at Halloween. Well, I wanted the eggs they handed out and sang the thing the other kids did. Klein Eiken pumpkeiten is all I remember. Then there were other occasions of local lore were the older kids would shoot off the caps of big metal milk bottles with carbide. They made quite a noise and this was called bollern. The great big Easter fire was also a memorable event. Everything burnable would be carried to a giant heap which would be lit early Easter morning., This goes back to pagan times when the did the same thing and Christians made Easter out of the event. What else? Oh yes, the collection of things to be piled up in the town square. This was a New Year custom. On New Year's day the strangest contraptions would have been 'collected' from the surrounding farms. Stealth was the name of the game.

Then, of course, came the processions which lead to various places at different Holy Days. Pentecost probably had the biggest one as that was sort of like the new Spring had come after a long hard Winter. It was at this time that all the houses and streets were decorated with mostly fresh cut birch branches. It was also the time there had better not be even one weed poking up out of the cobble stones in the street. May brought the may pole and the search for Maikäfer or what we call June bugs.

As an altar boy I also had to play second fiddle as I didn't know all the Latin prayers and was not as senior as some of the other boys. We all wanted to serve at marriages and funerals as these always brought us tips for leading the procession. There would always be processions at every occasion even if only once around the church. Funerals were the best as these went all the way from church to the cemetery and required three altar boys up front with the cross. All this stuff was new to me especially all the Latin stuff. The constant indoctrination made you afraid to turn around lest you go to hell for it. Confessions were absolute murder. If you really, really weren't sorry and would promise to never, ever do whatever again, the whole process was a waste of time and you were not forgiven. Missing mass as I often did was a deadly sin. I was a really bad person for it. Being new at the game of altar boy'ing I was often given the 6AM mass where I had to get up like at 5:30 which was a struggle all to itself. But I'd be there hungry and a few times fainted at the altar. I was not all that strong yet. I was not yet ready for the big time high mass but I did want know all that stuff and be in front of all those people even though I was still only mumbling the responses to the priest's prayers. I just had a hard time with all that memorization.

Christmas time was quite special and holy. It was a joyous occasion as children everywhere know. The church would be decorated beautifully with a life size crib set up at one of the altar stations. One could really get into the baby birth and admire the crowns of the three kings as if they were real. But the best part was the expectation of what was to come. The candies and chocolates were displayed so temptingly in the store windows that I often dreamed of having a glass cutter to cut a square hole in there to grab all those goodies. Oh, how I longed for some chocolate. But that was not to be as it was always too expensive. I would get an orange and maybe an apple or two. I can't recall any toys at all except for a soccer ball I got one time. It was my pride and joy. I really wanted a new bicycle as the one I had was an old ladies model which even for me was an embarrassment.

For my spare time I would read adventure stories and I do remember receiving a book or two for Christmas but I could only read when my chores were done. The local library was a one room affair where you could keep a book only one week lest someone else would miss it. I read about American things. Horatio Alger and cowboy stories. Mark Twain and the Mississippi produced images of America for me that produced great disappointment at seeing Philadelphia's row house style of homes. I swore every house would have great white columns in front of it. The first book I owned was given to me by Aunt Annie in Erkner back in East Germany. It was about the ancient Phoenicians and their travels. I still have the book as it was my personal treasure. I read Karl May, Tom Mix and various other cowboy authors. I read so much that my dad tore up some of the small comic book style adventure stories. There would be issued in series and would go on and on from one adventure in some foreign land to another. The set of Rolf Torrings books I completed even while here in the states. The entire 'Quo Vadis' book by Henryk Sienkiewicz was read by flashlight under the bed covers lest my dad would discover me reading again. Of all the books it was the stories of Horatio Alger which left the greatest impression. From newspaper boy to wealthy man via hard work and a frugal life. Why couldn't I do that too? Many boys have dreamed that dream but few have been able to match the fiction. America, the land of sugar and honey where one could gather gold off the streets. There was that dream. It is what drew so many people from all over the world to this country – the possibilities were there.

Ok, so I was a mediocre student who rarely got to sit at the head of the class because I knew all the answers but I did like to read and dream of what can be done. I still do.

So what was the emigration process like? As I mentioned my dad had applied to come to the US via the Displaced Person's Act of the Congress which offered refuge to people displaced by our involvement in the ethnic cleansing of Eastern Europe. The arbitrary boundary drawn was the Oder-Neiße line. If you were born on one side you could come to the states on one of the military transport ships which still took materials to Europe but returned empty. If you came from the other side you were out of luck. In my dad's case he simply assumed that he came from the displaced person's side because he was a displaced person. Trouble was red tape is red tape and his birth certificate said otherwise. His emigration was denied while at the same time his wife could re-apply and then he could come along under her name. So a year and a half of processing and waiting was wasted. Now the whole process was repeated by my mom. We had to go to Hamburg several times again and undergo medical tests again and on and on everything needed to be repeated. They could have just rewritten and reversed the two names and all would have been well but that was too simple for a bureaucratic mindset. Eventually all the paper work was in order. My dad's boyhood friend Alphonse Ellerkamp, who was a successful real estate broker and newspaper editor among other things did not want to be our sponsor. His brother Theodore, the cleaning store owner did. So that was set and we had no further problems with the application until a medical exam discovered a spot on one of the lungs of my sister. Tuberculosis was a big fear back then and the rules said that if such a shadow appeared a certain amount of time would have be spent to do another check to see if the spot was encapsulated or spreading. By this time my parents had made all the last minute preparations and it was difficult to back out of getting on the boat. We had spent 6 weeks at a holding camp in Wentorf near Hamburg where I saw my first Donald Duck etc comic films. I couldn't understand a word but wouldn't miss a scheduled showing. My parents decided that surely the spot was old and that my sister would follow us very soon. They made arrangements for her to work as a housemaid in Münster at the house of the Ellerkamp's sister until her visa came in. She was treated much like a slave there and left to live with relatives of my dad's in Werl, Westphalia. Her spot did get worse and she had to spend time in a sanatorium in Tecklenburg where she met her husband whom she married while there. Her visa finally arrived in 1957, five years after we left her in Germany.

Wentorf showed me that there were kids in the world who could actually speak English. It was fascinating to see little American boys and girls speak in some strange language only they could understand. So if they could do it, so could I. That was a turning point. I guess I previously thought that it was an adult thing and I wasn't interested. The six weeks there were of great interest to me. Lots of new stuff to investigate. They gave us hot chocolate to drink and the food was all new to me.

On March 4th, 1952 it was time to board AP-137 USS General S.D. Sturgis in Bremerhaven and sail for New York. The ship had been decommissioned by the US Navy in May 1946. It had only come into service in July 1944. The Navy reacquired the ship in March 1950 and assigned her to the Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS) under civilian command. She shuttled UN troops back and forth during the Korean war and then transported troops to Europe while taking refugees back the US. She made many such trips between Bremerhaven and New York. She remained in mothball in the Defense Reserve Fleet in Beaumont, TX until 1967 when she was sold and renamed SS Green Port as a cargo ship. In Feb 1980 she was scrapped in Taiwan. During her trips she carried somewhere around 880 people to their new home in the US. She also made many trips to Australia doing the same thing.

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