By – Harry Hall
There have been many stories lately of legal and illegal immigration. It is also an era of “political correctness,” where if you disagree, you are punished for your thoughts. Whatever your views, immigration IS a part of American History! Most of us have had family members only a few generations back, or know of others who have found their way to America, “The Land of the Great.” Many immigrants have contributed hugely to our society, such as Albert Einstein, and others. Others (especially recently) have come to our shores very ill-prepared, and have suffered socially and economically, and indeed can be seen as dragging down our society.
This story is not necessarily a unique one. However, it is important to tell it as it shows how many immigrants who came to the United States after WW2, have actively participated, assimilated, and contributed to our society! Thus, here is the story of Alex, who is 84 years old. He lives in my community of El Dorado Hills, California, and is a member of my men’s exercise group at a local Fitness Center. After our one-hour work out session, 3 days a week, we meet for coffee. Alex has told us bits and pieces of his story over many sessions, and I have tried to capture the essence of it here.
Alex was born in a tiny Hungarian rural town (Bud St. Michael). His family lived on a farm just outside of the town. His home had dirt floors and 1 foot thick mud walls. It was very tight and a fire in the furnace could keep the home warm during the winter months. Alex had to walk or ride a horse to school, about 3 miles each way. One of the horses was trained so that after it pulled the sled in winter to school, it would go home by itself after Alex and his 2 siblings got off. Then it would come back by itself to pick up the children after school.
Unfortunately, WW2 interrupted the children’s lives. Bombing runs were frequent, and everyone had to take to bomb shelters when the sirens went off. Hungary was overrun, first by the Germans and then by the Russians. When the Russians occupied Hungary, they put out warnings that anyone who had a gun MUST put it out by the street. Anyone who was found with a weapon was immediately shot. Alex remembers that weapons of all kinds were on the street for days before being picked up, because they knew that the Russians would follow through with their threats. When Russia took over, the soldiers robbed them of all their livestock and farm produce, even taking the window frames in their homes. When there was a bombing raid, everyone would go into the bomb shelters. When they came out, the Russians would make “everyone” strip off their upper clothing. They were looking for an “SS” tattooed under the arm, signifying a German Nazi. If they found one, he (or she), would be immediately shot.
Alex remembers going to a dentist during the war, and his parents paying for it with a duck and 2 chickens. After all of their livestock were stolen, Alex and his siblings would go to the marshes and pick up duck eggs. These would be incubated and then the family would raise the ducks for food (meat and eggs).
After the war, Alex continued his education, and was trained in a technical school as a Railroad Technician. However, Russia then invaded Hungary in 1956. Alex (age 19), did not want to live under the Communist regime, so he and a friend (classmate) tried to escape across the border. They did not tell their parents of their plans for fear of someone finding out. On their first try, they were caught on a train as it was near the border. Since Alex was a railroad technician, he was able to convince them that he was “on assignment,” but he did have to stay. On their 2nd try, they did cross the border by foot into what was then Yugoslavia. He and his friend had to slog through knee high snow. As a result, Alex suffered frostbite in his feet, which bothers him to this day. However, they were detained on the other side of the border, and placed into a refugee camp for 6 months.
Alex applied for and was given the right to go to the USA. He did this by applying for and accepted into the US Army, with the understanding that he would be allowed to immigrate and receive citizenship to the US after his service was completed. He did aggressively study and started to learn English during this time.
After serving his time in the Army for two years, Alex remembers showing up in New York City with $37.50 in his possession, and an obligation to continue his service in the National Guard. He was pretty desperate, so went to an airline counter and talked with an agent who spoke French, a language which Alex knew very well. He essentially asked the lady behind the counter some questions on where could he find work and find a place to stay. A lady nearby heard him. She approached Alex, and offered him a place to stay and provided food. For two weeks, she showed him New York and helped him to understand the culture….all without charging Alex anything. Alex was naturally grateful, but he did want to find employment. She arranged for him to talk to some people at a warehouse. He was asked if he could drive a forklift. He had never driven one, but assumed that he could figure it out. The foreman asked him to pick up a pallet and place it on a high shelf. Alex figured it out and did so, and was promptly hired. He began his work and found a place to stay. He did maintain his friendship with his lady benefactor. She turned out to be related to Leo Tolstoy, the famous author, (War & Peace). She ran a program that helped to settle refugees into the US.
After some time, Lydia suggested to Alex that he needed to move to California, as that was where the jobs were. She paid his airfare, and off to California he went in 1960, settling in the Stockton area. Alex did later try and return her money, but she refused to take it, so he later donated the funds to his church. Again, Alex sought to further his education, and enrolled at a local college in Stockton. He also continued to study English. He held a number of jobs, while he went to school, all the while continuing to serve in the California National Guard. He served a total of 13 years for the National Guard and was a Sgt. E-6 when he left the Guard. He also met his future wife, Jackie, while in college. She was a local gal from the Stockton area and worked at the college. They soon married, and started a family. Alex’s main job then was working as a switchman for the Railroad at the Stockton rail yard. To supplement his income, he also worked at a local Tire Store, selling tires. Interestingly enough, he sold many tires to the US Military. His and Jackie’s first home was tiny, less than 1000 square feet.
Alex later joined the FAA, (in 1975), as a technician that serviced all of the Pacific Region airport navigation aid stations, many located in remote areas on incoming flight routes. He did very well in his work and was promoted several times in his career, ending up serving as a supervisor in the FAA. He has regaled our local coffee club with tales from driving his snowmobile off a steep, mountain side road, to exotic trips to Hawaii and to Guam to service the remote facilities. Servicing the equipment was a one-man job, and often located in very rugged areas, such as mountains, in the flight paths to major airports.
Alex and Jackie had 2 children, and now they have 4 grandchildren and 2 great grandchildren. (One of his grandchildren’s husband plays professional baseball in the Majors!) After a satisfying career in the FAA, (30 + years), including stints in Reno, and San Francisco, CA, Alex retired, and they moved to El Dorado Hills, CA in 2000.
Alex, despite not knowing English when he joined the US Army, has had a great life here in America. He did bring some technical skills, but he applied himself, learning English and German, working very hard. He became in every sense of the work, An American! Now, he enjoys the fruits of his hard work. He has taken many trips back to Europe over the years, but he is a staunch supporter of the ideals that has made America great. Alex saw firsthand, the atrocities of communism and socialism. Now he worries that many in our country, having never really experienced socialism, do not realize the danger in moving toward it!
About the Author: Harry Hall is a registered Professional Engineer (MS, LA). He worked for Chevron for 33+ years, in a variety of positions in Refining, Chemicals, and Marketing. After retirement, he set up a small consulting firm, HLH Consulting, LLC, and has provided consultation in the Oil and Gas business. In addition, he has written several published, technical papers. Now mostly retired, he stays active with golf and exercise, and lives with his wife in El Dorado Hills, Ca (to be near their grandchildren).