Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Tuesday Voice: Growing up in America

Into America’s interior

By Rolf Dumke

[Sequel to “Arrival in New York Harbor,” March 17]

Through the Susquehanna wilderness. The growling diesel engines in the front of our passenger train could be heard during every second long bend of the majestic river, which I only recently identified as the Susquehanna.
It is the longest American river east of the Mississippi, and in early American colonization its valley was the initial entry into the magnificent wilderness through the Algonquin mountains. The train tracks carved endlessly on the right bank of the river during our night-time voyage from New York to Akron, Ohio. Our family had a compartment on the left side of the gangway in a cabin at the end of the train. When the train ran straight ahead, there was no sound of engines. On a right-hand turn, the growl was muffled by the gangway and by two walls between compartment and the exterior. But on a long left-turn, the train’s middle cabins no longer blocked the engines’ growls. We could look out the window and dimly see the train’s locomotives charging on between an enshrouding dark forest on one side and the river, lit up by a gleaming yellow moon, on the other side.
    After a while, there was no need to look out the window, as my mother anxiously did at the beginning of our trip along this river. Behind each long turn, the forlorn scenery of dark forests devoid of signs of life had been repeated too many times and we continued to hear and feel each turn in our trip into America’s wilderness.
    “Oh Gott, oh Gott, oh Gott,” Mother murmured. “Where will we end up in this huge new country? Are we on the way to America’s Siberia?” And with the regular groaning of each second turn, yet more anxiety was grated into our consciousness.
    We were afraid of the vast wilderness and scant signs of civilization in this new country, an impression that countered our awe at the magnificent modernity of New York, its giant totem poles to banking and commerce, and its busy harbor, alive with big ships, ocean liners, and ferries docking in the great array of piers on the North River. We had never seen such immense contrasts between modernity and wilderness in the old country.
    Fitfully we fell asleep that long disturbing night.
    Our family’s first impression of the Susquehanna as original wilderness was actually overly romantic. In 1952 the river was already an “ecological disaster,” far removed from its original magnificence.
    Wikipedia has an excellent article on the Susquehanna River, which is an Indian name meaning oyster river, or river running to the bay full of oysters, Chesapeake Bay. It discusses the sad and violent history of the displacement of original Indian tribes by settlers.
    From a recent mournful article about the Susquehanna “Let the River Run Wild” [by John Waldman, Karin E. Limburg, & Amy Roe, The New York Times, September 7, 2014]:

If the Chesapeake Bay is America’s Estuary, then its largest tributary, the Susquehanna River, could equally be called America’s River. But we certainly don’t treat it as a national treasure: this once magnificent watercourse, which runs through New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland towards the coast, is today an ecological disaster – largely thanks to four hydroelectric dams, built along its lower reaches between 1904 and 1931.
    An impending license renewal by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission [FERC] for two of these dams will lock in another half-century of measures woefully inadequate to remediating the dam’s environmental consequences. In turn, all four should be removed.
    The Susquehanna’s 27,000-square-mile watershed was once home to remarkable runs of migratory fishes – and none more so than the American shad, a type of herring...The dams have devastated shad migration.
    The FERC’s “Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Susquehanna River Hydroelectric Projects” [March 11, 2015] describes what the article is protesting. And Figure 1 of the Susquehanna River Anadromous Fish Restoration Cooperative’s “Migratory Fish Management and Restoration Plan for the Susquehanna River Basin” shows the immense Susquehanna basin, as well as the river route, and names main towns and dams along the river [November 15, 2010, p. 63].

Akron and Medina. The next morning started a cheerful, sunny Sunday. The train was chugging through pleasant farmland in northeastern Ohio, passing many small towns. They were wonderful signs of reappearing civilization!
    Just a few persons got off the train in Akron along with us. The “station” was made up of a few train tracks covered by thin long tin roofs to protect against rain. Travelers were picked up by cars that had been driven up almost to the train. This was very casual. In Germany, train stations were public buildings, owned by the national railway, Deutsche Bahn, and run by civil servants. Open access was forbidden. You had to buy a ticket for access to the tracks to be able to take someone to the train or to pick him up and carry his bags. In a way, this protected the job of luggage carriers at train stations and made sure that such service actually took place.
    We were met by our sponsor and his young son with hearty handshakes and smiles. They were dressed in casual clothes, the sponsor with a checked summer shirt unbuttoned at the neck and casual pants, the son in a T-shirt and blue jeans. Our family was dressed up for the occasion, my father with suit, tie, and white shirt, my mother in her only nice, flower-patterned summer dress, and I and my young brother in our dark wool sweaters.

    Our bags were quickly stored in the sponsor’s blue and "woody" Ford station wagon and off we were to the small town of Medina, engaging in a cheerful attempt at conversation about our trip and the nice weather in broken English/German.
     After driving through Medina, showing us its pretty public square and imposing historic brick Courthouse the sponsor drove us to his small factory southwest of Medina. This was an isolated building complex made up by his metal-working factory and a number of apartment blocks, all arranged around an empty dirt square. Here he housed his other workers, mostly recent immigrants from Germany. They were either single or wed, but without children.
    In contrast, we were to live on a farm six miles south of Medina with easier access to local schools. Our sponsor then drove us to the farm and introduced us to Mrs. Birningen and her son Ernest [not their real names] and paid the first month’s rent for us. He drove off after reminding my father that he would be picked up for work on the morning of the next day, a Monday, and that he should repay his rent for June at the end of the month.
    This was a casual, “short and sweet” introduction to America. I only met the sponsor once more that summer. It was clear, we had to fend for ourselves and learn about America.
     We were puzzled how the country towns Akron and Medina got their peculiar names, a question which was finally answered many years later when I was in graduate school, searching literature on the diffusion of innovations. In the late 18th and the early to mid-19th century, a cultural innovation, the rediscovery of classical ideals and culture, the classic revival, took place in both Europe and America. In the States, with the settlement from the northeast to the plains, classic revival took an unusual form: the naming of new towns with classical names, like Ithaca or Athens. Wilbur Zelinsky wrote a fine article, “Classical Town Names in the United States: The Historical Geography of an American Idea,” in Geographical Review, 1967, where he sings a hymn to this cultural movement in the States and its geographical diffusion.
    Initially Medina started out to be named Mecca, but another Ohio village already had that name, so they switched to Medina, another classical, historical holy place. We have an example of a mixing of religious with classic revival motives in this naming.
    The town of Akron was not named after a Greek city. The word simply means hill in Greek and named the hill between watersheds where rivers flowed either north to Lake Erie, or south to the Ohio River. Canals were constructed around Akron and to Medina by Irish laborers in the early 19th century to cross the wastersheds and connect interior Ohio towns with big waterways, enhancing the sale of farm products and raw materials, and the growth of towns.

The farm outside Medina. The learning for my mother, my brother, and myself started the following week on the Birningen farm – an introduction to America that was complicated by interactions with Mrs. Birningen, who had been an immigrant from Germany herself, in the 1920s with her husband.
    We gained because she spoke German and could translate basic English terms for us, also because her deceased husband had a small library in which we could browse. Mrs. Birningen had experienced much distrust and discrimination after World War I. She often told my mother that she should be grateful not to experience it. In a sense, she felt resentful that, instead, my mother had it so easy.
    It also appeared that our rent was low, leading Mrs. B to expect that my mother would become her unpaid servant and help run her household and farm. I was happy helping out weeding the vegetable garden, and I thoroughly tore out all strange-looking plants from the garden – discovering only later that I had destroyed many unknown beautiful flowers. Mrs. B didn’t mind. She liked my enthusiastic approach to work. But my mother did mind and took offense at Mrs. B’s presumption.
    As a child, Ernest (Ernst) had been taught English at home and hardly spoke any German. He was a giant, gentle man working as a car mechanic in Medina, only doing occasional work on their small farm. I watched him repair an old tractor that would soon pull a plow again. He hoped that our stay on the farm would give his mother company and that he would now be able to date young women in town more often on weekends. But Mrs. B’s companionship with my mother did not work out, and Ernest’s hope for more freedom from his mother was disappointed.
    Still, he was patient to explain why the big apple orchard was run-down, unkempt, with rotten apples in the trees and on the ground, covered with a buzzing blanket of wasps and bees. I used to walk barefoot all summer in Bavaria. That was dangerous here, also because rusty metal parts lay about, left behind from scrapped farm machinery. The farm was too small and there was no profit in running it. After Mr. Birningen died, it had been left alone to rot and rust.
    This was unbelievable to me. In Bavaria, my experience had been that every apple tree was sacred and was tended. Apples had a good market price. On the farm where my parents had been officially quartered in the late 1940s, it was only after big rain storms that neighborhood kids dared to pick up a few fallen apples. My attempt on such an occasion was answered by the irate farmer coming at me with his pitchfork. He chased me around the farmhouse four times before I gained a bit of distance from him and his fork and ran to the barbed-wire fence, slipping under it to escape. One boy’s life for two apples was the price I knew. But in America, the land of plenty, a whole apple orchard was left to rot!

     What would Johnny Appleseed, the legendary John Chapman, a pioneer nurseryman and preacher who spread apple trees in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, have said of this sacrilege?

Methodist church in Medina. The next Sunday our family walked to a Methodist church in Medina. My parents had been told that this was a good Protestant church community. Six miles was a long way in hot and humid weather, with all of us dressed in our best winter clothing, me in my usual blue wool sweater. We were tired, dusty, and sweating when we arrived at church. We were given a very hearty greeting by the pastor, who had already been told of our coming. He introduced us to the congregation as German immigrants fleeing godless communist Europe, which resulted in a big wave of sympathy. He said that we needed help to get to church and to Medina during the week to shop, go to the post office, and the barber shop. He also asked for a clothes collection because my brother and I needed summer clothes. My father’s first monthly salary would be paid only at the end of the month.
    The congregation’s response was very generous. They had never seen a god-fearing family walk to church over such a distance on a hot day. One week later, the call for clothing was answered by a mountain of clean, used boys’ clothes, most of it fitting and of good quality.
    My brother and I had enough summer clothes for years! Our expressions of joy were evident and appreciated.
    Six miles is about ten kilometers. That’s a lot of walking. Living in a secluded Bavarian village, I had had to walk almost five kilometers to first grade in a school in the next town and was exhausted when I got home. Because I was undernourished largely explains the exhaustion. Still, a ten kilometer walk to church in Medina was a lot for even well-nourished persons. In Bavaria our family had only gone to church infrequently – in the next town, five kilometers from home. We went to the occasional Lutheran services allowed to be held in one of the town’s two Catholic churches three or four times per year – Christmas, Easter, and services for a marriage or death. The congregation was made up of a couple of dozen forlorn Lutheran families and persons from northern Germany who had been displaced from their homes in bombed-out cities, now living scattered in villages and farms in the Bavarian countryside.
    The Catholic farmers and village population resented having to house a strange northern, culturally different urban population, who spoke a classic German (Hochdeutsch) instead of the droll Bavarian dialect and, above all, believed in the damned Lutheran religion. I was teased and perpetually put down as a Prussian pig and Lutheran dip (Saupreiss, Luthernzipfl). Identified as perpetual strangers, our family never made friends with locals over half a decade. Over a period of seven years we only got to know one old Lutheran teacher. There was no community. Everyone held his problems and poverty to himself. The only social bonds of the Lutherans we met were within their own extended families, through letters and the sending of young children from uncles or aunts to Bavaria in the summer.
    A second great benefit from our church attendance in Medina was that a generous family with five children were happy to drive us to church and to Medina for purchases. We were invited to dinner on weekends to their small, crammed house, filled with happy, noisy kids and lots of banter. “Happy spirits” was the apparent motto of our new American friends. What a change for our family, which had experienced so much hostility in the past! This was a friendly family of modest means; the father was a factory worker who was driving an old Ford station wagon that occasionally broke down because of a broken fan belt or a flat tire. On one of our first trips around the Medina countryside we experienced a flat tire. We were worried about being isolated far from town and causing expenses by overloading the car.
    “Don’t worry” was the response. Our American friend, wife, and kids apparently had a good routine for jacking up the car and replacing a flat tire with a spare. Everybody knew what to do and did it in a quarter of an hour, joking amongst themselves while working. What an effective crew, fixing a complicated machine! We had never experienced anything like it in Germany. I had never been in a car before our ride from Akron. The bicycle, bus, or tram and train had been my parents’ means of travel. They had no driver’s licence and insufficient income to buy a car. A car had been the wildest of dreams. But in America car ownership was apparently widespread; simply walking on the street to shop or to meet friends was unusual. We were told that only really down-and-out persons or foreigners walked – suspicious persons, all.
    A third help package, of illustrated children’s books, provided an important introduction to the English language. Mother Goose and other children’s rhymes were both fun and useful. For example: I clearly remember “Jack and Jill went up the hill,” “There was an old lady who lived in a shoe,”
and “The Alphabet Song”:


Q-R-S, T-U-V
W-X-Y and Z

Now I know my ABC’s
Next time won’t
You sing with me
I learned them all. Ernest read the book and gave us an idea how the letters and words in this strange language sounded. There was a lot of nonsense, silliness and a hint of cruelty in these English nursery rhymes, sung in an unusual playful tone for small children, who were treated more strictly in Germany. After all, life is a serious business.

The interview. The pastor’s words about the Protestant, communist-fearing German immigrants reached the owner and editor of the Medina newspaper, who invited us for coffee and a pie with his wife in their mansion in a woody cove outside Medina. He interviewed my father, who had grown up and worked in Berlin, about the threat of Russia and communist expansion in Europe. This was a main “Angst”of my parents, an important motive in their emigration decision. Interestingly, a similar anti-communist fear was spreading in American politics, media, and society. Everyone seemed interested in my parents’ personal story. Whether in church, the press, or later in school, my father’s emigration and fear of Russian/communist expansion raised sympathetic interest.
    While a reporter with German language skills translated the interview with my father, the owner/editor’s daughter, a college student at an Eastern women’s college – already bored by the impending, long vacation at home – showed me around their house and empty stables and invited me to play tennis on their strangely unused and unkempt clay court – my tennis first. She was a beautiful young woman with graceful athletic movements. I was instantly smitten, and she acknowledged it with a smile. I was also impressed with how casually this rich family wore its wealth, showing little social distance from any person they met. I learned that American uppers are democratic; they do not snub the lowers, as was usual in Europe.
    Only later did I realize that the empty stables, the unkempt and unused clay tennis court, and the fact that the bored daughter was dreading a lonely summer while her friends were off to Europe or American summer vacation resorts of the well-to-do were signs that her father needed to cut spending because the viability of his local newspaper was threatened by competition from big city media. His paper was doomed by this competition to fail in the next decades. He presumably sold it to a conglomerate that now proudly states its old regional origins but is only a cheap copy of the original.
    The fact that the owner/editor was actually interviewing a recent European immigrant to get first-hand impressions of the communist threat in Europe for his audience in Medina County was a heroic stand against economic trends leading to such interviews’ being held in the future only by New York and Washington national newspapers. This meant an impoverishing of the quality of local media, a trend which has now become almost “universal” in the States.

The storm, Dorothy, and the Wizard of Oz. This June was the hottest and most humid month we had ever experienced, the evenings and nights insufferably humid as winds died down. We began to relish the blocks of ice brought by the ice man to cool our drinks and our necks. The climate in America’s midwest was much more brutal than in Germany. But really frightening was the slow coming of an immense storm from the southwest one hot July afternoon. We saw a huge wall of black clouds moving up slowly towards us, with a fragile, gentle, sunlit expanse before it. It was dramatic, with contrasting colors and the slow but inevitable arrival of the impending danger: God’s superb staging.
    At the same time in Medina County this afternoon, the darkening heavens were lit by an immense network of lightning streaking between clouds, accompanied by the distant thunder of a thousand drums. It seemed like the fire and thunder of cannons of a great battle slowly enveloping us. The storm’s night enfolded our plains that afternoon, the winds became wild and wilder, the lightening now also struck the ground in cracking, fat perpendicular zig-zags, their thunder bowled us over and, finally, a waterfall of rainwater made us flee inside. It was a grandiose, threatening and dangerous outlash of natural forces of a kind and magnitude unseen by the European continent. We were truly frightened! On the following morning the radio reported big damage to houses from the tornadoes that raged not far from us the previous late afternoon.
    No equivalent natural forces existed in Bavaria. The most important had been the annual spring flooding of the Inn River, which rose over its channeled, granite-faced banks and spread a couple of hundred yards over the farmland, mostly pastures, for a few weeks and then slowly subsided. Flooding waters first happened where the many creeks flowed into the Inn, spreading up the creeks. But this was a threat against which all the farmers along the river had built double rows of long dikes over hundreds of years – one along the river and others along the ends of the creeks. In the seven years we lived along the Inn River after 1945, no house was flooded, no noticeable damage occurred. People were cautious on where to build and gave nature its course.
    In contrast, the wildness and potentially great, almost unavoidable damage from natural forces in America were really threatening. The most one could do was build a basement under the house and hide in the southwest corner to avoid being sucked up into the sky by a tornado, like Dorothy in Kansas.

1939 Poster
    I later understood the irony of our migration from a Bavarian village named “Windshausen” (place where the winds dwell) to an unknown place afar in rural Ohio, almost as if we had been blown into rural Ohio, like Dorothy from Kansas to an unknown magical land in The Wizard of Oz. But in our case it was the inverse of Dorothy’s trip. For us Kansas/Ohio was the strange destination with surprising and baffling kind persons and threatening witches and unknown wizards. We needed to identify who were the good and helpful persons, who the trouble makers, and who the windbags in our new environment.
    Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz became a good, inverse metaphor to me of our migration to the States.

Harvest and freedom. At the end of June our sponsor told his workers that the company was closing for the next months. To support ourselves, we could work on local farms by harvesting, getting paid the usual price of a day laborer. The sponsor was “kind” enough to drive us to and from farms on his open truck. Mutti, my brother, and I went along, also trying to help. These were long, hot days, stacking trucks by hand, raking harvested fields. My parents worried whether our cost of living could be met and rent be paid.
    Other immigrant workers said that this was usual. Every summer the sponsor shut down the firm to avoid paying workers in times of seasonal slack. The harvest help was appreciated by the farmers, who paid him an unknown sum per worker. At day’s end the sponsor paid his workers with the farmers’ money after taking a commission. During lunch-time discussions with other immigrant workers, my parents found wide-spread dissatisfaction among them. Almost every young worker was saving for a return trip to Germany. So, after two years, they left without any knowledge of the rest of America.
    Mrs. B immediately cancelled our lease after hearing of our financial problems, giving my father a great idea. He wrote a clear one-page letter, in German, to the World Church Council, in his precise, clear lettering. He wrote that his sponsor was not supporting him or his family, that soon we would be homeless. He was scraping together money for the return trip to Manhattan, where he would squat with wife and children on the pavement before their headquarters and demand to be sent back to Germany, unless the Council allowed him to respond to open positions for draftsman/engineer in Cleveland newspapers.
    In less than a week the Council’s agreement arrived by special mail! We would be freed from our sponsor if my father were successful in getting a job in an engineering firm in Cleveland. He was; all four firms to which he had written in German wanted to hire him. He chose the firm that employed a number of other German-speaking engineers. The ongoing war in Korea meant that military expenditures were exploding, spilling over to demand for machine-tools, my father’s specialty.
    The war saved us from an ignoble return to Germany. My father got an advance from his new employer that allowed us to look for alternatives to living on the farm. Our troubles were discussed in the Methodist church, where we met the owner of a small lakeside house in the village of Chippewa on the Lake. He offered low-cost rental in the off season, September to May, being mostly concerned that the property was lived in and heated, and not boarded up and empty. The picture of the house was enchanting and the rental low. My parents immediately said okay.
    It turned out to become an enchanting year in Chippewa on the Lake.

[Editor's Note: The author has officially joined the staff and is now listed in the sidebar. On September 5 we will launch his bimonthly column, “First Saturday Growing Up in America,” which will present further installments of his memoir of growing up in America.
    In addition to today’s installment, three have already appeared, on

Copyright © 2015 by Rolf Dumke


  1. Rolf, your poignant story about the apples and their relative value is especially choice. What a gem of an observation! Your piece subtly points up some significant differences between Germany and America.

    1. Hi Morris,
      Differences in relative prices or values are characteristic of different stages of economic and social development.
      In Germany's low income economy and society in the postwar period, apples were valued much more than in the States.
      In more recent times, after Germany's catching up, incomes and values have become more similar.
      Thus, if you trash someone else's BMW, you could expect a similar resonse, either a fork-bearing farmer or an urban owner focusing on you with a gun.

    2. Good point. Not differences between one place and another per se but between places at different stages of their relative development.
          But do "prices or values" fully reflect significant cultural differences? Is this a concern that economists generally have with respect to their desire to capture salient features of whatever countries or continents they are studying?

    3. Recently there has been a flurry of articles in the economics literature which try to measure what kind of institution 'culture' is and assessing its impact on the economy with diffuse results.
      Because culture expresses historically grounded values, it is important. So my economic determinism is excessive.
      Northern vs. southern culturtural conflicts can have violent expressions, not only in postwar Germany, but also in the States in the early '60s when 'freedom riders' - northern college students - went to 'sleepy' segregated southern towns to assist integration and were met, at times, with great violence.

  2. I was told (or read somewhere) that Hector, Arkansas, where my maternal grandparents lived and died, was named after Grover Cleveland's dog, who was named after the Greek hero (presumably). Something like that. Actually, Wikipedia confirms this.

    1. An amazing permutation of the classic revival cultural movement, shown why your maternal grandfather was named Hector.
      Amazing, and solely in America could this happen.
      Priceless example!

  3. A well-told tale, Rolf! Thanks.