As a kid, I spent every Fourth of July celebrating with my dad's family. That clan included many cousins with one common thread: our fathers stowed away on a ship together.
In the late 1930s, my father and his three first cousins brought jugs of wine to the docks near their home on the Adriatic Coast. When it was dark, they approached a sailor guarding the gangplank to a large steamship. The cousins shared their wine until the guard passed out. Then they snuck onto the ship and a great adventure began.
My father was 25 years old, married and a father of two. He, his wife Anna, and their son and daughter lived with his parents in a small fishing village of 600 residents. My father was a furniture maker and Anna a seamstress who worked from home.
Like others at that time, the time between two world wars, when poverty, oppression and despair were closing in on them, they dreamed about America, land of opportunity, where the streets, if not literally paved with gold, at least offered promise. And if a man worked hard, there were no limits to the possibilities. If you could get to America, certainly it would not take long to save enough to bring your family there.
New York was the cousins' destination, but the steamship docked in exotic and dangerous ports of call along the way: Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Gibralter. The crossing was rough and food scarce. The four young men hid among the coal bins, sneaking bananas that were hung to ripen in the hull. A crew member spotted them but kept their secret. He brought them fresh water.
Winter in New York City was harsh compared to the Mediterranean climate they'd left behind. My father found odd jobs as a handyman and studied English at night school. He came down with pneumonia twice and, discouraged and missing his family, he turned himself into the immigration office and waited to be deported.
No one ever came for him. Europe was at war. The Axis powers occupied his homeland. He received a letter from home informing him that his wife had been kidnapped. She had joined the underground, the Partisans, and had been caught sewing coded messages into the garments she mended, and passing them on to the underground network.
Two German soldiers on motorcycles rode up to the house, grabbed her and threw her into a sidecar. She was never seen again. (After the war her remains were uncovered in the mountains above the village.)
The cousins learned of steady work and a more favorable climate in southern California. A sardine cannery owned by a fellow countryman was hiring. The cannery would become Star-Kist Foods. My father and his cousins made it to San Pedro, went to work, attended citizenship classes and soon became naturalized citizens. My father married my mother and began the process of bringing his other two children to America.
Every Fourth of July, the families of the four immigrant cousins came together to celebrate their good fortune. America had lived up to her reputation. Despite hardships and setbacks, their gamble had paid off. America had come through for them and they were forever loyal and grateful. My father often said, "It may not be perfect, but America's the best country in the whole world."
We'd meet at a park or beach early on the Fourth and spend the day together. We'd play soccer, cards, swim, barbeque, eat watermelon, sing songs by the fire. At nightfall we'd pack our cars, hug and kiss our relatives good-bye and head home. I don't remember ever seeing fireworks. But what I do remember is the joy and pride that lit up the faces of those four men by the fire. They have all passed away, but that light still glows from sea to shining sea.
Reach Michele Thomas, The Daily Triplicate's publisher, at mthomas@
triplicate.com, 464-2141, or stop by 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.