Note: This column originally appeared June 30, 2007.
As a kid, I spent every Fourth of July celebrating with my dad’s family. That clan included several cousins with one common thread: Our fathers stowed away on a ship together.
In 1936, my father and several of his cousins brought 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 steamer. The cousins shared their wine until the guard passed out. Then they snuck on the ship and a great adventure began.
My father was 25, married and the father of two. He, his wife Anna, and their son and daughter lived with his parents in a fishing village of 600 people. My father was a furniture maker and Anna a seamstress who worked from home.
Like others during this time between two world wars when poverty, oppression and despair were closing in on them, they dreamed about America. It was the land of opportunity, where the streets, if not literally paved with gold, at least offered promise. And if a man worked hard, the possibilities were limitless. If you could get to America certainly it would not take long to save enough money to bring your family there.
New York was their destination, but the ship docked in exotic and dangerous ports of call along the way: Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Gibraltar. The crossing was rough and food scarce. The young men hid among coal bins, sneaking bananas that were hung to ripen in the hull. A crewman spotted them but kept their secret and brought them 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 battled 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 village. A letter from home informed him that his wife had been kidnapped. She had joined the underground Partisans and someone turned her in. She had sewn messages into garments she mended, then passed them on to the underground network.
German soldiers on motorcycles rode up to my grandparents’ house, grabbed Anna 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 heard there was steady work and better climate in Southern California. A sardine cannery owned by a fellow Yugoslav was hiring. The cannery would become Star-Kist Foods. My father and his cousins came to San Pedro, found steady jobs, attended citizenship classes and became naturalized citizens. My father married my mother and began the process of bringing his other two children to the U.S.
Every Fourth of July, the families of the immigrant cousins gathered to celebrate their good fortune. America had lived up to their expectations. Despite hardships and setbacks, their gamble had paid off. America had come through for them and they were forever loyal and grateful. Dad always said, “It may not be perfect, but America’s the best country in the world.”
We’d meet at a park or beach on the Fourth and spend the day together. We’d play games, swim, barbecue, sing songs. At nightfall we’d pack our cars, hug and kiss our relatives goodbye and head home. I’ll never forget the joy and pride that lit up the faces of my father and his cousins when they celebrated American holidays. The men are all gone now, but when my cousins and I get together, we like to retell the story of our fathers and how we came to be born in America.