My Big Adventure: America

By Adam Martini
Translation by son, Hans Martini

The year was 1956, eleven years since WWII had ended and 12 years since I left my hometown of Bukin in Yugoslavia.  I was having very mixed emotions about leaving my home, my relatives and friends for a new life in America.  As a student and even afterwards, books by the author Karl May and his wonderful depictions of the "Wild West" created a tantalizing image in my mind as to what America was like.  My formal schooling as well as woodworker's training had ended and so did my patience for the locals always telling the Donauschwaben who lived among them they were "outsiders."  So, I decided to leave and talked my good friend Andreas Kovatsch into "seeing the world" with me. 

Once we decided to go everything started to happen rather quickly.  In August, 1956, Andreas and I boarded a train for Bremerhafen (northern Germany) and eventually entered a collection station in that area.  There we encountered throngs of people from every corner of the map.  It wasn't long before we ran into a couple of guys and formed something of a clique.  At 19, I was the youngest of the four and was looked upon as a country bumpkin by the one of the guys who happened to come from Linz, Austria.  Indeed, he seemed to fancy himself as something of a Casanova.  With his quick wit and charm, he endeared himself to more than a few of the ladies.  On the other hand, I was shy and reserved, quite content to watch as the others "operated."  As we waited for our departure, we celebrated a "bon voyage" every day with wine and beer.  The date of our sailing seemed to arrive quickly.   The time of our big adventure was about to begin. 

A big ship called the "General Langfitt" would bring us to America.  Family and friends waved and cried words of goodbye to those seeing them off, promising a prompt return and a speedy reunion.  No one, however, was there to see the four of us off that day.

We left Germany and our "old" lives that day, walking up that gangplank to our new lives.  The ship gently rocked back and forth as we came aboard.  Suddenly our dashing Casanova from Linz quickened has pace, walked on to the ship and directly to the other side and threw up.  He turned toward us, looking quite pale and so very unsteady.  He stumbled toward his bunk, laid himself down and barely got up thereafter.

Our area in the ship was set up with four bunks one on top of each other with a capacity of some 300 people.  My two friends took the bottom two beds, I took the third and our luggage went in the top bunk.   As it turned out, being above my seasick cohorts was a good thing.

For sure, travel by sea had its romantic moments, but there was also the flip side: seasickness.  The ship was really a troop transport - actually one of the well-known "Liberty Ships" - and it was manned by navy personnel who were totally unaffected by the rocking motion of the sea.  The sailors were friendly folks, always willing to help, but there was little they could do for my friends and so many of the other passengers who did not have "sea legs."  In fact, we all carried around a bag for those moments when seasickness would get the best of us. The smell was just awful!  Stormy days just amplified the distress.  You can well imagine the scene of misery in our big room with 300 moaning people!

Showering and going to the bathroom was a learned art.  It was difficult business!  Despite hand-grips, one could easily be flung right into someone else's shower stall since there were no walls to stop you. Though I did feel a bit queasy at times, I really did have a much better time at sea than most.  When we could venture on to the deck, I spent many hours just looking toward the horizon and wondering how this grand adventure would finally turn out.

The journey lasted nine days from Bremerhafen to New York.  On the ninth day we neared the "Big Apple" and laid anchor just outside the harbor around four in the morning.  My friend Andreas woke me and told me to come with him topside.  Looking around, we were suddenly awestruck by the huge number of headlights shining in the darkness.  There were automobiles as far as the eye could see and we had never seen anything like it in our lives.  Where could they all be going?  As I contemplated this thought, a ship's officer tapped me on the shoulder, pointed, and said "Statue of Liberty."   This, I knew, was the welcome sign for immigrants.  We had arrived.

I was very excited and waited impatiently for daylight to make a few photos with my Agfa camera.  Soon a tugboat positioned itself next to our ship and began pushing us toward our pier and to America, more specifically Manhattan, New York.  It was then that, after nine days, we were able to touch "terra firma" for the first time. My state of mind combined a bit of curiosity with fear and anxiety since I was so far from home, my mom and my relatives. I had to grow up fast and become a man without losing my nerve.

The pier in that great harbor was such a noisy place.  In the midst of all of it, immigration officials scurried back and forth, making sure everyone's papers were in order and organizing us into groups.  Many fellow passengers had relatives and friends come and take them away at this time.  The rest of us piled into express buses and headed for the train station.

The bus drove through lower Manhattan and into the Bowery.  All along, whenever the bus stopped for a red light, it caused the doors to open automatically although no one actually came aboard.  During our drive through the Bowery a drunken man with a backpack attempted to jump aboard at one of the red lights.  He was already on the first step of the bus when the light turned green.  The driver then stepped hard on the gas causing the doors to close as he drove off.  The would-be rider was thrown from the bus, tumbling off to the side for a short distance with his backpack not far behind.  This made me very anxious and all of my dreams for a better life seemed to evaporate quickly.  I wanted to turn right around and go back to Austria. I was deep in thought over what just happened when yet another down-his-luck type tried to get aboard and was tossed to the wayside.  I concluded then and there that life in America was unforgiving and I would have to rise to meet the challenge! if I was to succeed.

So we finally came to the train station and assembled in the big hall.  Local students, eager to practice their German skills, helped us with our tickets and made sure we got on the right trains.  I then discovered that I had a big problem.  My job and my sponsors, the family of Jakob Eppli from my hometown of Bukin, were in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.  But, my student-helper gave me a travel document that said "Trenton, New Jersey."  I knew Wisconsin was a thousand or so miles away and yet this fellow said I was to travel just 45.  My friend Andreas and the others could not help me either as they had already departed.  And, so, I resigned myself to my fate and just waited to see what would happen next.

It was in fact a very hot day, unlike anything I experienced before.  The temperatures were in the 90's and I was soaked with sweat.  It did not help that I was warmly dressed and even had my new raincoat on. Our student-helpers had hung various papers on our jackets telling us that people would help when they saw the documents.  So, despite the heat, I felt I had to keep my rain jacket on in order that all the papers were properly visible!  Back "in the day" there was no such thing as air-conditioned railway cars either so you can imagine how hot it got.  So I sat, rain jacket on and sweating, while the train took me to this place called "Trenton." 

As you may suspect, no one helped me despite the documents hanging visibly from my jacket.  People saw me, saw the papers, and laughed.  The conductor just ignored them, punched my ticket and let me sit there.  It's not hard to imagine that soon I became nervous about missing my stop and going right past Trenton.  So, I bravely ventured over to the conductor, pushing my chest out as far as I could so that the documents were most visible.  After some hesitation, I finally asked the whereabouts of Trenton in my school-taught Oxford English.  He looked me up and down and said in a machine gun like fashion, "Tren-in", "Tren-in", and walked away.  I then decided to just look out the window and hope to see the station sign.  It was a great relief when I finally spotted the sign and got off the train. 

Many people got off at Trenton Station.  Very quickly however they all disappeared from the platform.  I stood alone, looking around to see if anyone could help me. I finally spotted what turned out to be a soldier but he just shook his head "no."  So now what?  Far from Wisconsin and quite at a loss as to what would become of me, I was not a happy camper!

With suitcase in hand and still sweating most profusely, I slowly went up the stairway to the waiting area. I walked along with my head down trying to figure out a plan of action.  What should I do?  Suddenly and to my complete surprise, I looked up and spotted a group of four guys by the exit door.  One of them had a black hat on and looked very much like a Schwob.  He looked at me and said, "that's him, he looks just like his dad."  And so it was that Mr. Josef Stiller from my home town of Bukin identified me based on how he remembered my late father.  He was accompanied by Franz and Paul Walter, as well as Rudi Wilhelmi.  Salvation at last!  I felt immediately better about everything. 

I then found out that my sponsors, the Eppli's, had moved from Wisconsin to Trenton but couldn't inform me in time.  This, then, was the reason why I ended up in Trenton.  I then had a great tasting dinner at the Walter household.  My hostess, Apolonia Walter, told me we would all be going to the "Liederkranz" club in Trenton for a dance event.  This was not what I had in mind to do after such an exhausting day.  All I wanted to do was go to bed!  But, I felt I needed to go and meet the "Landsleute" so off I went. 

This then was my first day in America.  It was the most important day of my life.  Since then, fifty years have passed and I have learned to love my adopted home.  The possibilities here are limitless and I'm thankful to have ended up in such a great place! 

[Published at DVHH.org, 31 Dec 2006]


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