Our train pulled into the station in Chicago, where we were met by my father’s uncle. He had lived in America since the start of World War II, owned a store selling fur coats on the South Side of Chicago, and still spoke Hungarian. He married a Czech woman, also fluent in Hungarian, shortly after coming to the States. They had two sons. The oldest was four years older than me, and Ricky, the youngest, six months older. The two boys only spoke English. My dad and I were not difficult to spot in a crowd, looking lost, carrying small suitcases not used in the States since the Depression. My uncle hadn’t seen my father in over twenty years, but they had no trouble recognizing each other. It was night, and the train station is not in the best part of Chicago, so initially, I wasn’t impressed with our new city. My uncle escorted us to his car, a shiny new Buick with white sidewalls, and more chrome than on any car I ever saw before. Inside, it had the smell and feel of luxury I hadn’t previously experienced.
When we got to the South Side, my uncle drove into what seemed to be a shabby, narrow street, parked the big car in a garage, and helped us bring our meager belongings up two flights of wooden stairs to their apartment. (I later discovered that what I assumed was a narrow, shabby street was in fact the alley behind their building, and the wooden stairs were in the back of the building for deliveries. The front was on a pretty, wide, tree-lined street, which in the summer had neatly kept lawns and flowers. The building’s front door led into a carpeted staircase, much grander than any I had seen.
My uncle’s wife was a very pleasant, plump lady with a very sweet smile, to whom I took an instant liking. When I discovered that she was also an excellent cook, able to make some of my favorite dishes, the deal was sealed. Bobby, the oldest boy, wasn’t terribly interested in a kid four years younger than him. His interests were focused on girls, rock and roll, and dressing “cool” – all foreign concepts to me at the time. Ricky was more interested, but the language barrier allowed us only limited communications. When he opened the closet in his room, overstuffed with toys, I couldn’t believe my eyes! He magnanimously indicated I was free to play with any of them, as they were all “old”. He had another closet full of his current favorites. The living room contained a large sectional sofa, covered in plastic. I was told that this room was for the adults, and not for us to play in. It contained a large TV in a cabinet that also held a record player, and shelves of albums. Not only was there a television in the living room, but the boys had a small TV in their room, on which Bobby would religiously watch American Bandstand, and practice his dance moves. From my experience at Camp Kilmer, I was already addicted to TV Westerns, but Ricky favored The Musketeers and Annette’s precocious physical development. I was a guest in their home, and not inclined to ruffle the pecking order.
The day following our arrival, my father moved out to a room rented for him by my uncle, where he lived until my mother and grandmother eventually came to the States (more about that later.) A Hungarian engineer owned a small company that refurbished old machinery, and then sold them to Third World countries. He gave my father a job as a draftsman until he was able to learn enough English to pass his exam to obtain an Illinois engineering license. For many years after my father left his employ, he continued to work part-time for him at meager wages in gratitude for having given him his first American job.
To help me learn English, and because I needed to go to school, I was enrolled in the public school with Ricky. The teacher placed me in the back of the class, gave me workbooks used by kindergarten and first grade students, and left me mostly alone to write in the words under pictures, and to become familiar with the meaning and spelling of common objects. Because I was young, and I already spoke German (English being a Germanic language with many common words and roots) I became fairly fluent in three months. I was able to keep up with the class work by the end of the year. The math we were learning I had already studies 2-3 years earlier in Europe, and I began to enjoy the rest of my classes.
On my first day in class, I was surprised to hear the bell ring at 10 AM, and see all the kids get out of their desks, and head out to the playground. “What a great country!” I thought. “They only have two hours of school in the morning!” Since I didn’t know the games they were playing, and I didn’t see my cousin, I decided I might as well walk home. All of a sudden, I looked behind me, and I saw all the kids yelling after me (words I obviously didn’t understand) and start to run after me. When you’re a new kid in a new school, that can only mean one thing – I was about to get a beating. I took off running, as fast as I could, but some of them caught up with me, and dragged me back with them. The teacher then came, walked me back to my class, and had me sit down, along with everyone else. This was my first introduction to recess.
While I was still in the learning phase of my new language, one of the boys came to ask me what my favorite sport was. That was easy – football, I told him. The class apparently had a tradition of giving a gift to each student on his or her birthday, and mine was the following week. When the day rolled around, I was given a big box, nicely gift wrapped, by the teacher. When I opened it, with the whole class looking on expectantly, I found inside an ovoid leather ball, unlike any I’ve seen before. Surely, this was some kind of joke at my expense. The teacher, seeing my expression, told me, “We gave you a football. We thought you would like it. Didn’t you say it was your favorite sport?” This is how I learned the English word for football (as it is called in the rest of the world) is soccer.
My biggest problems in school, especially in my early years in the States, were due to the profound culture shock I was experiencing. I clearly stood apart from the others in my class, not only in the way I dressed (the hand-me down cowboy shirts with fringes from my cousin Ricky may had passed muster in first and second grades, but not in the fifth grade where I was initially placed) but also in the way I spoke and the way I acted. I was not used to the lack of discipline in the class; I didn’t know anything about baseball, American football, or many of the playground games. The idea of boys and girls dating from the 6th grade on was totally foreign to me, as were most of the social conventions of my classmates. Though initially interested in me and my “story”, I couldn’t talk about the experiences of my life in a way that meant anything to them, so most concluded that I was just either making stuff up, or related to my stories as you might to ones you saw on television. This was not their fault, for thankfully they had never experienced my world, but it made me stop talking about my life in Hungary.
To be continued…