“Margie,” I said, looking up from the letter I was writing. “Occasionally, I can’t decide, momentarily, which of two common prepositions is correct. It’s the same unease felt by those foreign students who study English as a second language.”
“You learned English as a second language.”
“Don’t be silly, I was born and raised in Philadelphia.”
“Did your mother and father speak English?”
She was right. Of course, my brothers and my cousins spoke English to me, but in those first, intimate, life-shaping exchanges between parent and child, my mother spoke Italian. Later, on the street, we kids spoke an English laced with Italian words “cornuto, culo, accita (a corruption of accidita): acidity, how we described a sour stomach. Maroan (a corruption of madonna): to express wonder.” It was the same in the Jewish neighborhoods: meshuga, putz, schvartze.
Grade school was the great American melting pot. Give it a good stir and up would rise smooth creamy johnnycake. We sang the Star Spangled Banner in the weekly assembly and we pledged allegiance to the flag. Mrs Katz, the third grade teacher, would read from the Bible: “Who is this King of Glory? The Lord of Hosts.” She would, dramatically, stretch glory to “golorerreey.” For us Catholics it was our first taste of the Bible, maybe the last.
We were Italians, Jews, Russians, Poles, and Irish; the Irish kids were nearly American. The black kids whose neighborhood fringed ours were already Americans, mysterious ones beyond the fringe; fringe Americans. There were three black families on our street. Sammy Barber came to my first birthday party, but never again. I don’t remember why not.
Someday we would all be like Joe “Clicky” Clark, the lone remnant on the block of the old English stock. The large Episcopal church on the corner was virtually deserted. Only a small chapel was still active. We had shouldered them out. Or had they fled?
In 1939, my brothers and I, aged eighteen, ten and nine, pushed our parents toward the melting pot. Like our cousins who were chivying their parents, we urged ours to apply for citizenship. After all, they’d been in this country since 1912. We helped them study the booklet supplied by the immigration authorities: “The United States has a President and a Vice President, a Congress and a Senate. There are forty-eight states…” I wasn’t at the United States Court House the day my parents took the test – it was a school day – but they passed, and they got their certificates. It changed little in their lives; well yes, now they voted, always straight Democratic. My mother was permitted to enter the election booth with my father. She could read and write third grade Italian.
I am moved to tears when I leaf through the dog-eared copy book my mother kept when she worked at the dress factory. In it she logged her weekly output and the money due her, all in fractured, third-grade Italian syntax. Third grade, that’s all her village school had offered. She subscribed to an Italian newspaper, Il Popolo Italiano, later to Il Progresso, portions of which she’d read aloud to my father after dinner. In the early evening we’d listen to the Italian radio hour: news, music (Carlo Buti would sing “La Chitarra Romana”), drama, humor. Then Frank and I were free to listen to the Lone Ranger, to Batman and Robin.
Two ranks of sewing machines, in rows ten or twelve deep, flanked a long center aisle. The Jewish women sat on one side of the aisle, the Italians on the other. The foreman was a Jewish man who spoke Yiddish and pidgin Italian. He patrolled the aisle, dispensing technical advice and earthy banter. This was no sweat shop. My mother was highly skilled and worked only in silk. She made the entire dress herself, unlike the women who worked in the piecework shops – those in which some women made sleeves all day, others skirts, others bodices. It took my mother almost all day to make an elaborate dress and she could make one and a half dresses in a day.
One day we took the trolley car to the Lit Brothers department store in center city, to buy me some clothes, and to have lunch in the store’s coffee shop. I was thirteen, not yet too old to resent being dragged to the store by mother. After lunch, we walked up Market Street to John Wanamaker’s, Philadelphia’s elite department store.
We made our way to the elegant, hushed, Tribout dress shop on the third floor. We found the section offering the dresses made by her factory. She pulled one from the rack to show me all the detail, all the work that had gone into it. It was a beautiful dress and she was proud of it. It cost $87.00, a lot of money in 1942, but these were the war years and money abounded. My mother was paid about thirteen dollars for each dress she made, and she could make one and a half dresses per day.
In 1942, Aunt Calicchia’s children finally talked her into applying for citizenship. She was Aunt Jennie’s older half-sister, absolutely unreconstructed, not a word of English. She had nine children, six boys and three girls. Her daughters helped her to study – they cajoled, they bullied, to no avail. She could not learn the few sentences that she would need to parrot in the courtroom. The daughters went to the courthouse with heavy hearts; not Calicchia, she had the serenity, the zeal of the evangelical. Surprisingly, she, her husband and one daughter, Tabitha, were evangelical Christians. The sermons in their little church were in Italian and she loved the singing.
I wasn’t in the court room that day but my cousin Pip told me all about it. Calicchia was called and she strode to the bench accompanied by her daughter Tabitha, also known as Tibby. The federal judge, a courtly, kindly man, asked his first question. No answer. The judge re-phrased the question, speaking slowly and clearly. More silence from Calicchia, whose face darkened. The judge asked a second question, even easier than the first. Silence. Calicchia was seething, her eyes flashed. She turned and muttered angrily into Tibby’s ear.
“What did she say?” the judge asked Tibby, hopefully.
“She said she has three sons in the army,” Tibby answered
“That’s the correct answer!” he sang out. “Congratulations, Mrs. Graci, you are a citizen.” Small applause from the audience.
In high school, our student body was about twenty five percent Italian, twenty five percent Jewish and fifty percent everybody else.. It was a boy’s school, about eighteen hundred of us, reshuffled into four curricula: Academic, Mechanical Arts, Commercial and Industrial Arts. We mingled on the various school clubs, on the school newspaper, on the athletic teams, in the cafeteria and in the hangouts across the street from the school. There were rivalries, but we mostly got along. The black kids were virtually invisible.
Inconceivable nowadays but quite common then, there were no black faces on the football, baseball or basketball teams. But the track team was entirely black except for a couple of beefy shot putters, and for Walt Goldy, our star end, who threw the discus. A life sized statue of Abraham Lincoln stood on the second floor landing. Walt used to jump onto the pedestal to measure up to Abe. It was close. Walt was Irish, nearly American, perfectly at ease with Abe Lincoln.
The student body at Temple University, perhaps fifteen thousand strong, was too big to display a distinctive melting pot effect. It was more a lumpy entropy. We sought out our high school friends, which was both good and bad. We were day students which made college seem like the thirteenth, fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth grades of high school. Temple was on North Broad Street, a forty minute subway ride away from our high school on South Broad.
Early in my senior year, I received my 1A draft notice for compulsory military service. Korea loomed. Come graduation, I was a goner. My brother Frank, then serving in Korea, urged me to avoid going into the infantry.
An old high school friend told me about the Pennsylvania Air National Guard which was stationed at the Philadelphia International Airport. It had been called to active duty, reporting to Fairchild Air Force Base, near Spokane, Washington, on March 1951. A lucky break. I joined up in October and so did many of my friends. We were issued ill-fitting, reconditioned World War II khaki uniforms.
Temple University awarded me my mid-term grades as finals. That was fine with me – my grades could only have gone south. The senior classes of the Philadelphia area colleges were diminished. Ivy League college kids enlisted too, alerted by their friends, our officers, nostalgic World War II veterans who lived on Philadelphia’s Mainline. This diverse bunch, a social experiment in the making, perhaps a potential train wreck, moved west to Spokane, Washington, to Fairchild Air Force Base, the military melting pot.
The End, Part One