Reflections in the Immigrant Train

As an immigrant it’s hard not to be pulled into the national debate about immigration, the Other, and the murders at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh. I arrived in Pittsburgh at age thirteen with my brothers and mother, settling in with my father who would die three years later of throat cancer.

We lived in Lincoln Place, a white suburb, where we quickly became known as the outsiders, the Limeys, who were subjected to vicious harassment from the neighborhood bullies. We fought back against the harassment and would eventually outgrow it and get away. I had never heard the term “Limey” before and eventually discovered it was a reference to British sailors eating limes to ward of scurvy during long periods at sea. This insight had nothing to do with me joining the U.S. Navy after high school.

My brothers and I were children of the north London streets, survivors of the war, and were obliged to fend for ourselves from an early age. We weren’t going to accept teasing and abuse from some neighborhood louts. Nonetheless, it left a mark on us. Lincoln Place was a working-class neighborhood with the Pittsburgh steel mills hovering literally and figuratively over the place. Gangs were a part of this suburb. But it had a heart; I recall the throngs of students and teachers from my school who came to the funeral home to pay their respects when my father died. He was a gate guard at Continental Can, working class and one of them.

For some reason my brothers and I went to Taylor Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill, two streetcar rides away. At the time the school was about eighty percent Jewish and I felt like an outsider in this tight neighborhood of posh homes and tree-lined streets. At the time I knew little about Judaism or Jews in general. In London I lived in a Catholic neighborhood where the “enemy” seemed to be the Anglican kids. Nonetheless, even as a kid, I detected hints of antisemitism, such as when my parents or neighbors cautioned about the Jewish owner of a dry goods store close to our flat. This message was out there, in the air.

At Taylor Allderdice I was the immigrant, from another neighborhood, an outsider in a sense, with a heavy accent. I didn’t really understand all the Jewish holidays but I was grateful for all the time off from academics. My brothers and I wouldn’t be called serious students. With my father dead, my mother basically wanted us out of the house. My older brother quit school and joined the Army. I soldiered on, as it were, with a plan to join the Navy on graduation.

In the meantime, I was taken under the wings of a couple of female Jewish students who helped me with chemistry and other subjects. I don’t know if I would call this a friendship.; they seemed to know I needed help and provided it. They were relentless in getting me to do my homework. One observation has remained with me: the intense academic focus at this high school and the eagle eye focus on college. I would not take that path for some time but the insight stayed with me.

I wept when I heard about the synagogue shootings in Squirrel Hill. I felt all over again connected to and grateful to the school, the place and the culture that fundamentally changed my views about life, education and the professions. I wept because the dead were the community.

One of my first memories after boarding the USS Mount Baker AE4, an ammunition ship, in Port Chicago, California, up the Sacramento River from San Francisco, was a gathering of Hispanic men in the berthing compartment where my bunk was located. I subsequently learned many of them, as well as some Filipinos, had entered the Navy as a path to citizenship. I would take the same path within a year, being sworn in at a San Francisco court house in full dress uniform. I recall the judge calling me to the front of the gathering and thanking me for my service.

I’ve often thought of the Mount Baker’s crew, with its heavy immigrant population, a strong contingent from West Virginia, Mississippi, and a few dropouts from Officers’ Candidate School. Of course, there was the below-deck chatter, the bullshit and the jokes but not once during my four years did I witness racial animosity directed against another. I recall watching the sun coming up the morning after our ship almost sank during a violent typhoon in the South China Sea. Booms were down, the superstructure was damaged and much of our communications lost. The crew was weary, bent but not broken. There were no nationalities in sight.

I write this in honor of the precious dead in Squirrel Hill dead and the effect that community has had on my life and education. This piece is also a thank you to the U.S. Navy that accepted me, an outsider, shaped me and forced me to grow up.

This is the America that adopted me and to whom I owe my love and allegiance. Decency, fairness and opportunity has been a part of the country’s fabric for a long time, and the current political aberration will not change who we are.

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Personal essay, memoir, photography, poetry, humor — what’s going on in your community? What’s the world like where you are? I don’t request stories — or edit them! — but am happy to consider your piece. @JustThinkingNow or annaherrington2@gmail.com

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