I was not involved in the decision to come to the USA, and to be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to the move. I had become accustomed to living with Monika’s family, my German was becoming more fluent each day, and I was beginning to make friends at school. While I couldn’t communicate with my mom in Budapest, I knew she was only a few hundred miles away. Moving to a country six thousand miles from her only served to make the separation seem more permanent. There was also the fact that neither my father nor I spoke a word of English.
I had heard fabulous stories about life in America, but I questioned how many of them were true. I remember seeing an American movie about a young boy whose big brother plays a prank on him by pretending to be hit and playing dead after the younger brother asks to shoot his BB gun. (We didn’t have BB guns in Hungary, and I couldn’t believe children would be allowed to play with guns!) Terrified, the young boy runs away. The movie takes place at an East Coast beach town, and shows the young boy surviving by picking up empty soda bottles and turning them in for money. How gullible did these movie makers think we were? Who would throw away bottles that were worth money?
My dad, however, decided that America provided the best opportunities for both of us (after my aunt scuttled our Switzerland deal) so the matter was settled. He had an uncle with two sons, one almost my age, who agreed to sponsor us and have me live with them. I tearfully said good-bye to Monika and her family, thanking them for all the kindness and generosity they had given me. An American Army bus picked us up at the US military base outside of Vienna, and transported us to Munich, Germany. After going through another round of medical examinations and interviews, we were taken to an Army DC-3 airplane, a twin engine craft still with wooden benches used by paratroopers during WW II, to be flown to America.
I had never been on an airplane before, and was apprehensive, but at the same time excited about the prospect of flying. The plane contained dozens of Hungarian refugees, much like ourselves, as well as a complement of American soldiers to look after us. None of the soldiers on board spoke any Hungarian, and only one person in our group had limited English, reducing the soldiers’ communication with us to hand gestures and smiles. One of the refugees in the group, a peasant by his Hungarian accent and manner, was asking one of the soldiers for something for his headache, but was not being understood. The soldier just kept saying “Sorry” to excuse his lack of comprehension. Unfortunately, the sound of the word “sorry” in English is very close to the Hungarian word “szar” which means shit. The peasant, thinking the soldier was calling him a piece of shit, was getting angrier and more belligerent by the minute. Fortunately, the one Hungarian who became our translator was able to come back and intervene, reestablishing peace on the plane.
It’s a long flight from Munich to the States via a twin engine prop plane. We stopped to refuel in Reykjavik, Iceland, but none of us were allowed off the plane. I was starting to get cranky, along with the other children on the flight, and the blankets we had for warmth were not quite adequate for the job. Our destination was Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, an Army base near the Eastern part of the state. The plane was flying over Newfoundland when we encountered a storm that tossed us about as lighting flashes lit up the sky. By now, several of the kids were wailing, and my father was holding me tightly to him. I could tell he also was scared by the grim look on his face. All of a sudden, the steady thrum and vibration of the engines changed. One engine gave a couple of loud coughs, and then stopped completely. We felt the pressure in our ears of sudden descent. A voice in English came on from the cockpit, and we could tell the soldiers were tensing up as much as we were. We apparently lost an engine, and were going to attempt a landing. We later learned the pilot radioed our situation to the flight controllers, who instructed him to land the DC-3 on an old WW II abandoned airstrip in Newfoundland.
We braced for impact, putting our heads down and covering them with pillows. The pilot managed to land his craft on the unplowed airstrip, bouncing over several mounds of accumulated snow without tipping us over, and eventually coming to rest close to the end of the runway. Celebrating the fact we were all alive, with only a few people suffering bruises from loose luggage, we waited almost a day for the storm to lift. A rescue craft then flew in on a runway at least partially cleared of snow by the soldiers on our flight. (This was my first emergency landing, though it turned out not be my last. You’d wonder why I still fly.)
Camp Kilmer, like most Army bases, is not the garden spot of the world, though we were now officially in the Garden State. We were only supposed to be there for a few days to finish the paperwork required to get us officially admitted as permanent residents of our new country, but ended up staying almost six weeks. It turned out my father’s X-rays were mixed up with that of another person with a similar name, and he was told that we were going to be denied admission because his chest X-ray showed that he had previous tuberculosis, a diagnoses that excluded anyone from coming into the country. My father pleaded that he never had TB; he had been given recent prior X-rays both in Vienna and Munich showing no TB, and this was all some big mistake. Fortunately, we were not sent back, and eventually the bureaucracy found the error. I, in the meantime, had my first exposure to television. (Monika’s parents didn’t have a TV, and Hungary had virtually none.) I spent almost all my time (it was still winter – too wet and cold to play outside) transfixed in front of the screen the soldiers set up for us kids in a large room, watching a mix of cartoons and TV Westerns. I had never seen anything like this before, and though I understood no English, I couldn’t tear myself away. The Christmas holidays were already far behind us when we arrived at the Camp, but because of the large number of toys donated to our cause (the press’s description of us as “Hungarian Freedom Fighters”, though of limited accuracy, gave us a certain celebrity status at the height of the Cold War) there were still some left over which were handed out to us. The person giving out the toys kept apologizing that this was all that was left after the best things had been picked out. I thought she must be delusional – these were some of the most amazing toys, and in numbers I could barely comprehend.
We finally left Camp Kilmer behind, were taken by bus to New York City (though not given the opportunity to look around beyond the windows of the bus) and placed on a train bound for Chicago, which was to be our new home. To be continued…