Immigrant Soldier: The American Journey of Albert J. Heim

Memories of Albert Heim (Part 3)

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Life with my relatives in the U.S.A.

As a rule, just before one undertakes a journey or a trip, one usually visualizes what one’s destination might look like and what kind of people one will meet.  I am certain, all emigrants  who arrive in America have thoughts of this nature running through their mind.  Of course the nature of their thoughts depends on how much knowledge they have about this land, whether they received this knowledge in school or from others in their respective home land.  Naturally my idea of what American might look like came from what ever I learned in school and the books I read about America.  However, to most every one who comes from the old country America projects a picture of wealth and newness, of very tall buildings, big cities, large farms, and plenty to eat for every one, very good jobs and good pay.  It must be considered that this was the way foreigners looked upon the U.S.A. in the year 1911.  The thought of seeing Indians and the exciting adventures that one heard about the cowboys and the Redman especially in the western part of America were really strong in my mind at that time.  Of course the more serious thought of the prospect of raising one’s family in a home that you could call your very own and perhaps even start a business after a few years in this country and more important of being able to bring parents, sisters, and brothers to also enjoy the freedom of this great country, all these beautiful and wonderful thoughts, I experienced at the time of my arrival in America.  It is all well and good to look ahead and formulate plans for the future but the present means reality and this certainly can give one an entirely different outlook and this makes the future look all together different and some what disappointing.  Of course not being  fully matured, this is what happened to me. - - -   

We lived in a small community called Milltown, N.J. and every day I began to notice and learn the American way of life.  I gave up the thought of becoming rich overnight for I found out, that in order to get a job one had to be of age.  To be able to get a good job, one had to master the English language and I also discovered that  that even in American no one can get anything for nothing.  I saw every one going to work every day from seven o’clock in the morning until six at night, just like the folks in the old country.  I used to hear so many stories  about finding gold in the new world, like in other places, here too one has to work quite hard to get this precious metal.  About finding things, I did not do bad at all the second day I came here, for right in front of the house we lived in, I found a nice shiny quarter.  Perhaps it wasn’t gold but enough of this silver would not be bad at all.

As I mentioned before, I indeed had dreams of what I wanted to do, but living with my aunt and uncle, I soon realized that I had to accept what ever each day held in store for me.  I was still a minor and had to comply to the wishes of my relatives who really were responsible for me in this land.  It is only natural that youngsters like me would like to be with other youngsters.  They love to play, have lots of fun, and enjoy a certain amount of freedom.  I was always used to this and my dear parents always let me enjoy this freedom at home.  My relatives were good to me.  After all it was through their effort that I was able to come to America and experience that wonderful trip through Germany and the exciting voyage across the Atlantic.  I slept in my own room and my aunt was quite a cook, and I certainly enjoyed her delightful meals.  Just before Christmas that year, they took me to New York City.  Oh, how I marveled at the wonderful sights of this great city.  We also attended a performance at the world famous Hippodrome and after this exciting show we had an excellent dinner at a German restaurant.  It was a very happy day for me and I still can remember every detail of this, my first visit to New York City.

As the days went by, I sort of got tired of my daily routines.  Of course during the day I was with my aunt and we talked so much about home.  However when my uncle came home from the office, things were some what different.  I noticed that he was more serious and sort of on the strict  side than the time I met him when he visited us in Europe.  He also made it very clear to me, that I was to do certain chores around the house and to help my aunt who was then expecting her first baby.  I did not mind this at all.  In fact I was only too happy to be of help, especially at this particular time because I loved my aunt very much.  Knowing, that a baby would soon arrive, worried me quite some especially on days when my aunt did not feel well.  She always assured me that every thing would be all right and it was just normal to have some bad days.  Many times during the day I would look out the window and like in all neighborhoods a lively gang of youngsters had a real good time, playing in their noisy way on the empty lots on our street. A few times they came to the fence around our yard trying to hold a conversation with me.  I could tell by their faces that they really wanted to be friendly and it made me feel very glad.  It was indeed so much fun, trying to understand each other by making all sorts of  signs and gestures.  They made me repeat different words  in English and how they would laugh, when my German tongue just would not cooperate and my pronunciation no doubt was out of this world  - - - This was what I really was looking for and I enjoyed it immensely.  I shall never forget one afternoon.  I left the yard and joined these youngsters playing their game.  I felt like a canary out of his cage and that is a pretty good feeling  But, it just so happened, that at this particular time my uncle came home from the office and of course he saw me right in the middle of this noisy crew.  He called me and at once I noticed that he was not too well pleased. He then asked me if I ever received permission from my aunt to be out on the street with these noisy kids.  I never even thought that I had to ask for permission to play , it just happened and it really was fun, for it’s been quite some time that I had a chance to play with youngsters my age.  I guess for some reason or other I was wrong , because when I got into the house, I experienced my first bawling out.

My uncle told my aunt in French what he expected of me.  Of course she had to tell me in German and I knew at once that she felt about this more than I did. I really could not see what was so terrible wrong in what I did.  But no matter, I was told that one could get in serious trouble by associating with the wrong crowd and so on and so forth - - - also, due to the fact that my uncle was responsible for me, I was never to do this again, unless I had his permission.  I was indeed surprised after this lecture and it really put me in my place.  I did not let my aunt know how I felt but I just could not help but feel so alone and it took quite a few nights of tears, before falling asleep to sort of console myself that perhaps in the future things would become a little more tolerable.

The beautiful Christmas holidays were here and 1912 took the place of 1911.  This was my first Christmas away from home.  Although  there was a yule tree in the house and my aunt prepared a fine holiday dinner and Santa even left a few gifts for me, never the less, something was not the same and I guess I was just plain home sick.  I tried not to show my feelings in front of my relatives but Christmas night was a long night for me.  In my thoughts I pictured what Christmas used to be at home.  Now I saw the empty chair at the table when my folks would eat the traditional Christmas Eve supper.  And across the snowy landscape I’m sure one will see a light in the window for the one that is not at home this year.  While thoughts of this kind may be unpleasant, yet it is so nice to be able to remember them.

One day, I believe it must have been towards the end of January that year, my uncle really surprised me by informing me that he thought it would be very good for me to attend the public school here in Milltown.  I could hardly believe what I heard.  I also explained to him, that I already finished my schooling at home.  As a matter of fact I would have liked it much better if I could have gotten a job and earn some money.  This idea of mine was immediately dismissed by my uncle and I was told that according to law I had to be 16 years of age and until then I was required to attend school.  So that settled my yearning for a pay envelope and off to school I must go.

My first day in an American school was interesting.  The first person I met was the principal of the school.  He was very friendly and to my amazement, he too spoke German.  He asked me about my education in Germany.  We must have talked for more than an hour and what made it amusing, my uncle could not understand a word of our conversation.  He then informed me that it would be best for me to enter the 8th grade.  There was nothing more my uncle could do for me, so he left and I was introduced to the boys and girls in the class room.  They all smiled and no doubt they noticed my strange style of clothes I was wearing.  Of all things, the principal seated me right between two girls, not because I was good looking but because these two young ladies could also talk German and they were to act as my interpreters.  I asked the girls how they acquired such good German and they explained that Milltown was an old German settlement and their parents always talked German at home.  They also informed me that since the Michelin Tire Company, which is a French firm settled in Milltown, many French families made their home here also.  Going to school was really very nice and I was pleased with my present surroundings.  My class mates were very nice to me.  Of course now and then some wise guy would make fun of me.  I was pleasantly surprised, how quick I learned to converse in English.  No doubt I would have gotten very low marks in English grammar but the fact that I could communicate with the other kids made me feel pretty good.  I distinctly recall, during my first weeks in school a certain few of the boys would always smirk and laugh when looking in my direction.  It really annoyed me and I asked my lady interpreters what caused all the amusement.  They of course hesitated.  How ever I insisted and explained that I wanted to be like the rest of the gang in the class, perhaps I was doing something wrong?  I could see, they really were concerned and finally they told me, that it was the clothes I was wearing that amused these characters.  This I just could not take and I know what I would have done at home so I thought I would try the same here.  I approached the laughing class mates and sat along side of them.  There were two of them and perhaps they did not expect this for the smirk on their faces had disappeared.  I told them in the best English I could muster that I was rather glad that I could make them laugh but the trouble is, that these are the only clothes I possess and when the time comes and I can get American clothes I am afraid that they then will have nothing to laugh about.  And further more, if they come to my home town in Europe, wearing the clothes that they had on, my friends would rather admire  their clothes, because they were American.  I do not know how it sounded to them, but to me it sounded loud and clear.  I came back to my seat and I guess I was shaking all over, because I really felt hurt.  No one, not even my two interpreters, said a word.  When the bell rang and the afternoon session was over, I picked up my books and I could not get out of the class room fast enough.  However, to my surprise, two other boys from my class stopped me and asked me not to be angry.  Then of all things, the two smirking characters also came towards me, stretched out their hands, and asked me if I could forget their stupidity, that they were sorry and did not want to hurt my feelings.  What amazed me, they did this in front of the entire class and I never found out, did they do this on their own or were they made to do it.  From then on I spend many happy hours in the public school in Milltown.  It was the only contact I had at the time with boys and girls my own age.  My English became better and better, even my relatives took notice.  Then early one morning I was suddenly awakened.  I heard persons moving around the house and I saw the doctor’s car in front of our house.  I knew at once what was happening.  Some time later my uncle informed me that a baby girl had arrived, but my aunt was very sick.  I felt terrible, I wanted to help, just do something but I could not and I only would be in the way.  A house keeper  was called in and for many weeks my aunt was unable to do anything.  Finally the day arrived when my aunt felt much stronger and the house keeper was able to leave.  Of course my aunt could not be  left alone especially with the baby and all the house work, so I stayed home from school and gave her all the help I could.  Now a new career started for me.  I became first class house keeper, getting a job, making an important decision and learning to take care of oneself:  cook, laundry man and even a nurse maid.  At first I did not mind it and I knew I was good company for my aunt and I really fell in love with my niece:  Mariechen - - How ever this type of work, for one that is almost 16 years of age can indeed become very revolting.  Luckily my aunt’s health improved and on my 16th  birthday I was able to apply for a job in the Michelin Tire Company.

It was always my desire to become a machinist.  However when I applied for a job in the Michelin Tire Company  there was no opening in the machine shop so I was placed in the carpenter shop with the understanding that this would only be temporarily.  Here I learned how to construct tire boxes for the shipping room.  It only took a few days to learn the procedure but I had to acquire speed and this took a little longer.  It certainly was a glorious feeling on my first pay day.  I could not wait to open my pay envelope and here it was, the large amount of $4.80  At once I sat down and used some plain American arithmetic and I began to realize that it took an awful lot of time and work to earn $4.80.  I had to work 59 hours to get this pay which brings it down to an hourly pay of 8 cents.  And to top it off, when I got home I really did get the biggest surprise of all, for my uncle informed me that from now on I would have to turn over $3.00 for my board.  So all I had left for myself was $1.80. - - - According to my arithmetic, it was obvious that at this rate,  I would never become a millionaire.  However I really did enjoy working and my carpenter’s apron looked better on me than my aunt’s  apron.  Each day I tried hard to put out as much work as the older men in the shop and many times in my haste, I would hit the wrong nail and painfully I would call my hammer anything but a hammer. - - -

Practice makes perfect they say and in a few weeks I became a fairly good box maker and my foreman seemed to be satisfied with my work.  For seven months I worked in the carpenter shop and finally the foreman informed me that I would be transferred to the machine shop as an apprentice and this was the news I’ve been waiting for ever since I started to work and of course I was indeed very happy.

It was just about this time that my aunt and my uncle decided to visit their families in Europe.  Of course my uncle’s family lived in Clermont-Ferrand, France and my aunt’s parents made their home with my parents.  Just the thought of my relatives making this trip made my blood run fast and to make matters worse, they invited me to go with them for they thought that I was too young to be left alone in this country.  This was indeed a very tempting situation for me.  One side of me urged, that this was a wonderful chance to see my loved ones at home again, yet, the other side of me cautioned me, how could I know whether my relatives would want to go to all the expense of taking me back to the United States again when their visit  in Europe was at an end.  I knew for certain, that my aunt and the baby would stay longer than my uncle but I was not so sure that my uncle would take me back to America with him.  Of course I was still a minor and I had to handle this matter very carefully.  The more I thought of this situation the more I was convinced, that at present I was doing very well in getting used to the American way of life.  I was also well on the way of learning a good trade and my English had improved considerable.  Only a few weeks ago I enrolled in a night course for a four year high school education and this was all free as long as my attendance was up to the required standard.  I was certain, that I never would have a chance like this in Europe.  Realizing that this was a most important decision I made up my mind that I would stay in America instead of going with my relatives to Europe.  It was indeed not easy, my heart was longing for a reunion with my loved ones but for some reason or other, something guided me and made me decide, that this was the right path to follow.  When I told my relatives about my decision, they were not pleased at all. Especially when I mentioned, that since I started to work, I made many friends and I knew a family that would let me live with them until they came back from their trip.  They seemed to be some what surprised at this, especially my uncle, for he at once looked up this family to see if my statement was correct.  Evidently his curiosity was satisfied, because after a short talk with my aunt, he agreed that I could stay here while they went to Europe.  Well, this was one thing in my favor and I certainly slept well that night.  The next day during my lunch hour at the factory, I wrote a letter to my parents, explaining the entire situation to them, so they would understand, why I made this decision to stay in America.  I mailed and wrote this letter without the knowledge of my relatives.  Perhaps this may sound rather odd, but had I written this letter at the home of my relatives, censorship might have prevented the possibility and after all it looks as though I am already enjoying the blessing of FREE SPEECH, even if it is only in the form of a letter. 

So finally the day arrived when my relatives departed.  Of course I went to New York with them to see them off.  All the way from Milltown to the pier of the French American Line in New York, I carried my lovely little niece, because I certainly was very much attached to her.  This also gave me the opportunity to see their ship which indeed was a very large one.  It was a beautiful liner and only too soon came the announcement:  ALL ASHORE - - - So, it was time to say fare well and regardless of what happened in the past, my heart was very heavy, for one never knows, it may be for the last time.  For a long time I stood on the pier and watched the ship sailing down the Hudson River and then disappear across New York Bay. My thoughts went back to the day, when my mother watched my ship - - - she must have felt like I did only one more so.

The ship sailed at about noon and this gave me plenty of time to see some of New York. I felt like an important explorer to think that I all by myself was able to wander around this mess of big buildings.  The first chance I had, I stopped and bought myself a nice juicy hamburger and a large glass of soda. - - - Boy Oh boy, for me, this was really a big deal.  Of course, I would have liked to go to a restaurant, but just wasn’t sure whether I had enough of the green stuff one needs to go there.  

I really had a glorious time and I enjoyed it so much that I began to realize  that I was getting pretty well tired out.  Towards evening I found my way to the Penn Station, got on the right train and like a big free man arrived safely at my new home, or perhaps I better call it my boarding house in Milltown.  From now on my daily routine changed some what.  Of course the entire day was spent at work how ever the evenings and especially the weekends were just wonderful.  Once again, I felt just like that canary out of his cage.  Of course, money wise, well that was another matter, and I had to be very conservative.  By this time I received an increase of $ 2.00 in my wages.  But wouldn’t you know, my boarding mistress thought I was now able to pay her $5.00 for my board and that left exactly $1.80 for me.  This situation really annoyed me, there was just no way of getting ahead.  So one day I confided to one of the men who I worked with and told him my tale of woe.  This man was a very kind and friendly person and I knew I could always trust him and of course he told me that I did not have too much of a problem.  All you have to do he replied is make up your mind, that you are going to do something about it.  What would you rather do, he said, wasting your spare time in just having a glorious ball for yourself, or how about looking around and get yourself a little job on the side and make a few extra dollars?  I just looked at him and I was also thinking of that saying:  All work and no fun - - - -  Of course I was not one for running around, so I really took the man’s advice and started looking.  When he found out that I was serious he gave me a helping hand and before long I was mowing lawns, trimming hedges and even white washing chicken coops and fences.  Boy did this really pay off.  Some weeks I earned as much money in my spare time as I did in the factory.  I even learned the art of becoming a real miser and saving my money was my number one project.  I wanted so much to purchase a nice suit of clothes, shirts and underwear, in fact the whole works, every thing that makes a guy look like some body.  In three months time I was able to do just that.  My friend’s wife went shopping with me and big shot me even had enough money left to treat this fine lady to a lunch in New Brunswick, where we did all that shopping.  I even made a friend of mine take a picture of me in all my new finery, to send home to my parents, so they could see what a regular  American looks like.  To me, this was a wonderful feeling and experience.  It is nice to be able to do things for yourself and be independent but I learned one good lesson, independence does not come on a silver platter, one has to work for it and all the hard work did not harm me one bit, in fact life was indeed more enjoyable because something was accomplished that was good.  With all my busy working schedule I still had lots and lots of fun with my young friends and the days just passed so quickly that one evening, when coming through the gate at the plant one of the French gentlemen, who was a very good friend of my uncle informed me that he was on his way back to the United States.  This did not surprise me too much and when I got to my boarding house there was a letter for me from my uncle and just as I suspected, my aunt and the baby were not coming with him until a later date.  Of course my grandparents were getting on in age and no doubt my aunt felt that when she will leave them this time it would perhaps be the last time she will be with them.  So I could understand full well why she wanted to be with them for just a little while longer.  After about two weeks as I came home from work, my uncle met me on the front porch of my boarding house.  His visit to Europe must have been very agreeable to him, for he seemed to be much heavier and he even could smile more often than he used to.  I also noticed, that he surely looked me over very carefully.  And then of all things he told me, that he was very proud of me.  I asked him why.  He replied that he checked with my boarding mistress in regards to my doings while he was in Europe.  It really did not worry me too much about his checking up on me, for I knew he could not get a bad report about me and I was rather glad, because I proved to him that I can get along with others very well. He then gave me a choice, would I want to stay with him at his home and we could cook some of our meals together and so on and so forth. - - - It certainly did not take me too long to make this decision.  I told him, that I like very much where I was and in regards to cooking and other house work I did not have too much time for that because I was doing very well working for my customers in my spare time and it was also a good income for me.  I do not think, that this was the answer my uncle expected and the discussion ended with a very short as you wish.

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