America, August 2021

2006-2021  Gay Military Signal


I'm 74 and not all that well; its time to start writing it all down.  I didn't have a boring life, even before I was born.  My folks were WWII Holocaust Refugees from genocidal Germany.  My mother arrived by steamship as an illegal immigrant at Ellis Island Customs and Immigration at the height of the war.

I was conceived in celebration of the end of the war like millions of other baby boomers.  We lived in a linoleum lined tenement, in the late 1940s, in Uptown New York City which at the time was a huge refugee Community of some 500,000 Jewish-German families with several hundred thousand little American born kids running around babbling in Germ-English.  Things were simple.  There was no air conditioning and in winter there was coal fired steam heat.  In 1947 a two bedroom apartment with a living room and kitchen cost about $20 or $25 a month.

And so it was, I was a stinky little toddler running around the linoleum floors in pajamas most of the time; babbling in German which was my family's language and my first language.  Then, we assimilated in the mid 1950s by the time I was 8, after I spoke English learned in school, with an accent.  We moved way out to suburbia on Long Island, to a town named after a long gone Native America tribe, massacred in the late 1800s.  It was quite a culture shock from having lived among thousands of families just like us.  Our new neighbors called themselves 'Eye-Talien' and were Catholic.  What had happened was that someone made a mistake.  In those days, in the 1950s in the 'liberal north', there were unspoken and unwritten real estate rules and 'restricted neighborhoods': you did not show homes in white towns to Black families, Hispanic families, nor to Jews or other 'undesirable' people.  Well, we looked white and didn't ask the real estate agent if there were kosher shops nearby.  So, it was assumed that we were proper ordinary white Christians.  We bought a house, moved in, mowed the lawn and all was well.  Until friendly neighbors showed up to welcome us to the neighborhood and cheerfully ask if we'd be at church on Sunday.  OOops!  "Er noo, we're Jewish......"  The neighbors' eyes widened momentarily in horror, and then they remembered their manners and smiled a bit awkwardly.  No one threw rocks into our windows, these gentiles were too genteel for that.  Nothing happened.  Some folks even bragged, "We even have Jews living next door."

Life in suburban Long Island was paradise for a little kid.  It was a great place to grow up.  Back then, it was supremely safe.  Nothing ever happened.  There was fresh salty sea air galore!  People from the City would come out to visit on weekends and say, "De ayah is so fresh out heah!"  I loved living 'out heah' where the air was so fresh.  I spoke three dialects: my carefully crafted 'Lawn Guylind' accent,  which my parents called 'Lunk Gailandt.' and broad flat Noo Yawkeese.  In 1957 you could buy a 3 bedroom, two story Cape Cod house with front and back lawns and an attached garage for $20,000 and take 30 year to pay for it.  Today, the SUV in the driveway costs three times that much.

And I learned all about 'Lawn Guylind lawn parties.'  A common thing on a Sunday afternoon, the whole neighborhood could come to a very informal lawn party which featured three very clean garbage cans full of ice.  One held cans of soda for the kids.  Another held cans of beer for the men.  and the third can was full of raw clams!  The guys would stand around talking baseball and pop open the clam shells with butter knives and let the slimy clam goo slither down their throats.  It was the most disgusting thing I ever saw!  Children seeing that would run away to find someplace to throw up!  It wasn't kosher either.  These were not rich folks out in the Hamptons eating steak and lobster; they were ordinary middle class factory worker folks.

I lived the assimilation experience.  Although I was born here, I didn't speak English until first grade.  I spent my tween years assimilating and learning to be American.  On top of that, I spent my teen years learning how to hide being a Gay American.  So, even after assimilating, I was still and outsider.

After having served ten years in America's armed forces and growing old, I became a gay veterans' advocate and began giving speeches at universities and even being invited to speak in high schools.  A high school teacher contacted me asking me to speak to her class about being a Vietnam Era veteran.  I explained that I'm also gay and generally speak about being a Gay Veteran.  She said that was even better.  She noted that she teaches in a New York City 'Newcomers high school.' All of her students were immigrant teen agers.  New York has so many immigrant children that it has eleven Newcomer high schools!  When she wondered how I would reach their reality in life, I said that I was the child of refugees, no worries, I could get their attention.  So, I was introduced as an America Vietnam veteran who was gay. I faced a roomful of rather hostile young people with their arms crossed over their chests, signaling that they were not about to let me contaminate them with my queerness.  They expected me to talk about war.  Instead I began by telling them that my parents were refugees from a country that arrested and murdered people because of their religion and so they fled to America.  I said my mother's first job in this country was cleaning other people's toilets.  BOOM, now I was one of them.  The crossed arms came down, I was talking about their own experience.

So, even more than 70 years after being an immigrant's kid, I'm still connected to that experiential reality.  I was born here, but with just a few years difference, I might have been a 'Dreamer' brought here illegally as a child and might have spent my life as an outsider with legally limited opportunities.  I'm and old man now.  Yet, even 60 years after the 1950s, being a child of refugees is still very much a part of my core being, my identity, who I am.  I grew up here, lived my whole life here, served for a decade as a patriotic member of our American armed forces leaving as a sgt first class.  I'm American through and through, its all I know.  And yet, there's a part of me that cannot forget having been a foreigner, a stranger in my own country.  As a baby and toddler, I got my nursery rhymes and fairy tales in another language.  And American holidays and rituals were as much a mystery to me as they were to my parents.  We got Halloween all wrong, for example; totally ass backwards.  I thought I had to give away candy as a 6 year old.  I had a wonderful time doing it, shouting "trick or treat" without a clue what it meant and handing out pretzels on upper Broadway.  But, when I heard other 'American kids' happily talking about 'all the candy they got last night,' I realized that I wasn't really an American, even though I was.  I can laugh about it now all these years later; but a part of me still burns with the memory of having been a stranger in my own country.

Am I in favor of welcoming immigrants? You betcha.  We are the lifeblood of this country.  My mother was held on Ellis Island for two months and then was issued a Resident Alien Green Card giving her official permission to live and work here.  On the day she was released she was also issued five cents to pay for the ferry ride across New York harbor, past the Statue of Liberty, to begin her new life in America.  That nickel was the only welfare she ever received during her 60 years of life here.  Her first job was as a cleaning lady.  Then she entrepreneurially started her own business.

While we still lived in the uptown slum tenements of New York City, when I was seven, my older brother put me on the handlebars of his Schwinn and we rode across the George Washington Bridge to the Dairy Queen on the other side in Ft. Lee, New Jersey where he bought me and ice cream cone.  At least I thought he did.  Really my mother gave him the money for his and my cone to bribe him not to throw me to my death into the Hudson River below.  For me, the big thrill was stopping in the middle of the bridge where a fat blue line was painted, marking the border with New York painted on one side and New Jersey on the other side.  I straddled the border and jumped up and down with the thrill.  It didn't take much to get me going in those days.  We lived in what we called 'Vashington Heights.'  And our baseball team, just across the river in the Bronx, was the 'Jen-kiss.'  It wasn't until I grew up that I learned the neighborhood was named after George Washington, and the team was the Yankees.  Absolutely everyone spoke German from the little kids, their refugee parents, to the refugee grocer in his shop on the corner on Broadway.  If someone was heard speaking English on upper Broadway, the joke went, a crowd gathered to see what was going on.

The entire Upper West Side was made up of refugees in the 1940s and 50s.  On our uptown block there must have been something like 100 or more kids of all ages filling the apartment buildings lining the street, with mothers leaning out of the upper floor windows watching us play on the street babbling in a German-English mish mash.  Among us refugee community kids 'inclusiveness' was play rule number one.  Winning a game was irrelevant; what mattered was that every kid should have fun.  So, if we were playing stickball, even a teenaged batter from the opposing teem would gently bunt the ball to a six year old guarding the infield of parked cars.  It didn't matter if it bounced or rolled to him; everyone shouted encouragingly, "Eli, pick it up!"  Then, the six year old held up the ball ecstatically, shouting,"I caught it, I caught it!"  He had no idea what to do next, but again, everyone would shout, "tag him out, tag him out" as the teenaged batter jogged slowly towards him to get himself tagged out.  It was the teen batter who was the hero, of course; but six year old little Eli was having the time of his life, and that was what it was all about on our uptown block of refugee kids.

I began first grade in public school around 1952 way uptown where all the poor folks lived.  There were three minorities there back then, German Jewish refugees, Puerto Rican migrants, and Black folks from Harlem.  To the rich school board people downtown, we were all trash, so they didn't segregate us from each other and they forgot to tell us not to trust each other either.  So, there we were on day one, a big bunch of six and seven year olds thrown together and not being able to understand a word we spoke to each other.  We were fascinated with each other and wanted to play, so we melded our Spanglish, Deep South dialect, and German to make up our own uptown kids gibberish that no one over seven could understand.  Lunchtime was the most fun, when we eagerly traded our homemade ethnic lunches with Paella, German meatballs, and fried chicken flying back and forth across the table.  It was a huge mess, but every kid was smiling!  Our teacher, a young white Lutheran lady from Wisconsin had only the 'Dick, Jane and Sal\y' books to work with, but she used them to invent ESL on her own and we all learned to speak proper mid-western American English.  Because of her early effort, many of us went on to college a decade later.

To my young eyes, the early 1950s uptown cityscape was coal soot grey.  You could smell the sooty air.  Then we moved 60 miles out to the fresh air of Long Island and suddenly I discovered beautiful color.  There were green trees everywhere, the ocean down the street was shimmering blue, all the little private houses where covered in clean bright white shingles instead of grey dirty brick buildings, oh my, I was in heaven.  I inherited my brother's hand me down Schwinn and could ride all over town without a care in the world.  In those days out  there, an 8 year old could pop out the front door of his house on a hot summer morning wearing his bathing suit and ride off to the beach cove and not be seen or heard from till dinnertime and no one was worried because it was so safe.  I could drop my bike on  pile by the beach and not worry about it at all, everyone had a bike.  I could buy a hot dog and a coke for lunch from the beach shack, hand over the quarter in my pocket and get a dime back in change!  In the afternoon, I could ride across town across the tracks to the new library and spend hours browsing the books and get back home back by the seaside in time for dinner.

Oh sure, there was trauma.  I wasn't one of the cool kids.  I was a nerd.  Like all the other nerds I rode my bike in the evening to the slot car palace in town and raced my little toy car around the table tracks.  Incredible, because back in the City it wasn't safe to go out after dark!  In Junior High school you had to participate in extracurricular activities.  So, being a nerd, I joined the Audio-Visual Squad.  By my senior year, I was the student director of Audio-Visual services with a squad of 12 nerds.  On that November 1963 morning that Kennedy was shot in Dallas, I was sitting with my feet on the desk in my windowless AV office watching TV.  When Walter Chronkite announced that the President was dead, I suddenly realized that I was the only one in the school who knew the news.  I hesitated for only a second and then ran down to the principal's office, burst in the door and shouted, "The President's been shot"  The principal was NOT amused.  He thought I was being nuts.  I said, "nooo no, Turn on your TV!"  I turned it on for him; every station had the same news on.  He said, "OK, don't move!"  He called the county superintendant and they agreed to close the schools.  He said, "OK, fire up the PA system."  That was part of my job as AV impresario.  I handed him the mic, and he announced the news and shut down the school.  My squad of nerds abandoned my precious projectors all over the school.  I spent the next two hours collecting them and locking them up in the AV room, I knew we wouldn't be back for a week at least.  The principal and I were the last to leave, I got into my car in the student parking lot and drove home.  Yeah, out in suburbia every senior had a jalopy car.  THAT was my generational marker: 'The Day Kennedy Was Shot!'  People my age always ask each other, "what were you doing the day Kennedy was shot?"  Now you know.

More to come.

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