Monday, January 28, 2013

Ryner's Immigrant Story - Excerpt Part 1

Today marks 60 years since my father's family stepped onto American soil for the first time.  A few years ago, I worked with my Dad to record his memoirs.   I may have posted a few excerpts before this one, but I wanted to share more extensive piece. Mostly for my family to read and remember.  
Dateline: 1953
...The SS United States was berthed in a huge dock in Bremerhaven.  We arrived several hours before departure with all of our remaining possessions packed tightly into six suitcases. I remember rounding a corner in that old port city and catching a glimpse of the huge ship.  Its sheer size and presence took my breath away.  We were all in awe, for no ship had ever looked sleeker or more inviting to a family of seven than this SS United States looked to us.  Our last hours as a family in our German homeland were spent in a local restaurant for a light meal, an interesting last respite for me since I'd only been to a restaurant a few times in my life.  To satiate our palates before the rocky voyage, Dad introduced us to a special treat there, a new drink we had never tasted before called Coca- Cola.  What a wonderful, ironic sendoff before the bells rung to call us aboard to our future.

Chapter 27
A Rocky Crossing
The hustle and bustle of the dock was Hollywood-like.  Our tickets were checked, paperwork stamped, visas inspected, and luggage loaded away.  Our excited family then joined the throng of passengers climbing up the long gangplanks. Friendly stewards dressed in black tuxedoes and white ties greeted the passengers as we boarded, leading everyone to their cabins.  All seven of our family members fit snugly into two cabins outfitted with bunk beds.  Even though they were the cheapest quarters on the ship, and Dad had warned us they would be small, they still looked great to us!  Our family's passage and those two cabins, nine floors below the ship's decks, cost $1,600  (equivalent to about $12,000 at today's rates.)  Every penny paid for those tickets came from Uncle Joe and Aunt Marie in Grand Rapids.  Dad vowed that that someday we would repay it all. 
Once settled in our cabins, we heard an announcement in several languages that departure was imminent.  We rushed back upstairs to find a place along one of the railings, nudging ahead to get a front row seat for this historic family event.  Soon the ship's horns bellowed, ringing through my entire frame, heralding our departure.  The passengers all waved with gusto to throngs of people below who had come to see off loved ones, some for just a time, others for forever.   I remember Mother and Dad's broad smiles and misty, joyful eyes as the harbor shrunk into the horizon.

Our first stop after departure from Bremerhaven was the port of LeHavre, France where the ship took on more passengers.  The next and final stop before entering the Atlantic Ocean was Southampton, the huge seaport on the southern coast of England.  At each stop, passengers flocked to the decks to see the landscape.  We also marveled at the size of our vessel and its modern sleekness when compared to other ships in the harbors.  Early on the third day of our voyage, England's green coast slowly disappeared behind us and we turned northwest toward the open seas of the Atlantic Ocean. 

As the ship set off into the expanse of the sea, we settled in enjoying the delights of life on board.  The food was absolutely heavenly. We received meal service three, and sometimes four times a day.  Such indulgence was just what we needed after all the post war years of food shortages and constant skimping.  And the best part was that Mother didn't have to cook any of it, she could just enjoy being served for once.  Our fate seemed too good to be true: this family of poor refugees seated at a big round table covered with a fine linen table cloth, sitting in comfortable chairs on expensive carpeting.  Smiling, efficient angels stood by in this gilded heaven, waiting to serve us all the good food we could eat!  The table steward would even give me second portions of dessert if I so desired. Besides eating great food, there were plenty of other activities to enjoy, like billiards, ping-pong tables, shuffle boards, lounges with live music, and on and on.  As passengers in the "cheap seats," we could only wonder what first and second-class passengers might be enjoying! It seemed that nothing could dampen our joy.

On our second day in the Atlantic, the wonderful, sun-kissed weather we had enjoyed began to change.  The sky turned dark and ominous and soon the giant ship began to move up and down in a precarious manner.  Dad assured us that all was normal, telling us that the oceans may roil up a bit, but everything would be fine.  His assuring words made us feel better because we knew he had been at sea often, and surely had endured worse than this.  However, no sooner had Dad calmed us with his words than the storm's turmoil grew.  With alarming speed, the weather worsened as dusk fell.  A few short hours later the ship was rising and falling with incredible force, digging its bow so deep into the dark, heavy seas that the triple screws propelling the ship in the stern would come clear out of the water and shake the entire ship.  Soon everyone realized that we were being gripped by a mighty and dangerous Atlantic storm.   Herman, Bernie and I, who had been walking topside, were told to go below.  We took one more look outside before our descent and could see only huge ocean waves all around, boiling to heights nearly as high as our enormous vessel.  It was an awesome, frightening spectacle.  The ship's crew strung ropes along stairs and hallways for passengers to hang onto since attempting to walk up or down stairs was like boarding a county fair ride with constant jostling.  The dining rooms cleared as people ran to their cabins as quickly as possible.  With the constant rocking and rolling, rampant seasickness was unavoidable, and it struck with the same fury as the seas!  With the exception of most of the crew and a handful of passengers like my Dad who had been at sea before, all became very, very sea sick.  I have few memories as miserable as those sixteen or so hours being cooped up in our cabin, all of us expelling every last bit of all the magnificent food we had indulged in to that point.  The cabin stewards would knock on our door offering food and anti-seasickness pills, but nothing helped.  Our insides were losing this battle to the raging Atlantic.  We could only pray that the boat would hold up better. 

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the seas began to calm.  What we didn't know at the time was that the SS United States, its passengers and crew had just endured one of the most violent storms ever observed in the Atlantic Ocean.  In fact, that same storm front continued eastward towards Europe, gathering even more strength.  It struck the coasts of England and the Netherlands with awesome fury killing almost 3,000 people and doing incredible property damage to both nations.  The great Atlantic Ocean Storm of early 1953 was one of a kind, and I still marvel that our family went through it.  But it is also unsurprising that my gallant father had yet another sea survival story to tell. 

Go to Part 2

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