I am an immigrant. Actually I am twice a “chain” immigrant, a term I never took into consideration until recently.
One morning at breakfast in 1955, my father announced that he, his wife — who herself was a war refugee from Poland — and my brother were emigrating to the United States. Did I want to come? I was 14 then. My answer was quick: I was born French, I would live French, I would die French. I went on to live in Paris with my mother, whom I loved dearly, with her husband in a two-room apartment — not two bedrooms, two rooms.
My father, who was a chemist/metallurgist, was being sponsored by his wife’s aunt and uncle who lived in Minneapolis (chain #1). A year later, my younger brother, as part of a court agreement, came back for a two-month vacation in France. While we never lacked the basics, such things as telephone (only the well-connected got them), television (we could not afford it), refrigerator (no need, we shopped every day), a car (sheer luxury, a dream, don’t even think about getting one), or owning a house (perhaps as an inheritance) were never envisioned. In one year in the U.S., my father had not only the telephone but also a television, a refrigerator, a car (never mind that it was a 1951 Chevy), and was buying a house.
What was wrong with this picture? Here I was sharing a two-room apartment with my mother and her husband, who was a well-regarded chemist (also bi-polar who, one night, threatened to kill her). What was my future? So I wrote my father and asked if I still could come. The answer: Yes (chain #2).
I was quickly sent to my paternal grandparents while waiting to process to emigrate. My mother’s husband did not want to see me any longer as I had turned my back on France.
I waited, but I was horrified when I saw French newspapers plastered with pictures of Americans being beaten, dogs snarling at them, not really comprehending this civil rights issue. Should I reconsider? However, the sirens of the Promised Land, America, won over. I emigrated; it was a bit of an adjustment.
In 1957, my father was offered a job in California, so we crossed the U.S., on Route 66, in July in that ’51 Chevy without air conditioning. I marveled at the prairies, the majestic Grand Canyon, the heavenly voices of Mormon Tabernacle Choir. We settled in the Los Angeles area. My brother and I continued our education. My father discovered an alloy that was stronger and lighter than anything before; his invention was used in airplanes.
I joined the National Guard and volunteered for Vietnam, no bone spur here. In fact I should have been “4F,” medically unfit to serve due to my myopia. I got a reverse deferment, a waiver. I served two tours, got a bunch of medals, eventually retired as “a telephone colonel” with seven years of active duty and 13 in the Reserves.
My American-born partner and I built a successful business and eventually retired. Oh yes, I am gay. We just celebrated 40 years together. Over the years, we have not only volunteered but also donated generously to many charities. We created a foundation to assist and house LGBTQ homeless youth as another way to give back.
In today’s political environment, my family probably could not have immigrated using family “chain” connections. My America of today is not the America of yesteryear. I have the utmost admiration and regard for individuals such as Senator John McCain, Representative John Lewis: what they endured, what they accomplished, and what they stand for deserve praise. I firmly believe that compassion, love and respect for others will eventually trump and defeat discrimination, intolerance, prejudice, and hate.
In my heart, I weep, yet I hope. I cannot be silent. I am an American.