Archive for the ‘Ellis Island Immigrant Story’ Category

My father in law, Nick Romick, immigrated to America when he was 15 arriving at Ellis Island in 1906. Coming into the harbor the fresh-faced boy stood at ship’s rail with other newcomers as the Statue of Liberty came into view, his young body full of emotion: excitement, trepidation — he wasn’t sure. The awesome thing about his trip was that he came alone with only a pack on his back.  Fortified with a burning desire to “come to America,” he left Austria with the blessings from his widower father and a loan of $50. to pay for the voyage, which he promised to return. From that point he was on his own.

Through the long process of immigration with thousands of other Europeans who poured through the Island’s gates, Nick stepped into New York City with his last name Americanized from Romic’ to Romich, the first of two changes. Furthermore, his only knowledge of English was, “Mr. Man, Give me job.” Fortunately, a farmer from upstate New York answered his plea and offered him work. For the next few years the industrious young man repaid his benefactor with an honest day’s labor for an honest dollar. He studied, taught himself English, saved the dollars, and then struck out to explore the new immense land.

Nick rode the rails in boxcars, worked in Detroit as a sandhog and in the mines of Montana and Bingham Canyon. Always moving on, he continually looked beyond the next horizon. It wasn’t by chance that he found himself in Pueblo, Colorado where there was work at the steel mill. Still loving his new country, he also missed the old country; the people, the customs and the language of his youth. During his wanderings he had heard of a large Slovenian community in Pueblo and at 22 he thought it time to settle down.

New man on the job, Nick was befriended by the Perse brothers, who invited the lonely man to their home for dinner. Other than the two older brothers, the offspring of Pete and Mary Perse numbered 14 in all, seven boys and seven girls. Comfortable in their midst, Nick couldn’t help but notice beautiful Rose, then only 10. With eyes for no other, Nick left his new-found friends and joined the U. S. Marines. Knowingly, the choice took him away from Colorado and through his enlistment Nick earned his citizenship.

Six years later he returned again to visit the Perse family after serving in Guam and China where the corps guarded the American Legation. Rose was 16. The two developed “an understanding” while he was on leave.  Returning to China for an additional two years before his discharge, Nick returned to Pueblo where Rose was waiting.

The two married in spite of the 12 years age difference with the family’s blessings. “You’re not going back to the mill,” Rose told her new husband, “We’re going to California.” Loretta was their first born with Kenneth following two years later. Nick worked at several odd jobs, eventually, finding permanent employment at Block Tannery in Berkeley where he remained until his retirement, never losing one day’s work throughout the depression.

When I met Ken I also met his family. I found Nick’s stories fascinating and agreed with Bob, their neighbor, who advised Ken and Loretta to write down, or  record in some way,  Nick’s adventures. “He’s a remarkable man,” Bob reminded the two. Young and foolish, they dismissed the advice complaining they had listened to their father’s stories all of their lives and if they didn’t hear them ever again, it would be too soon.

Years later, the editor of the magazine section of our local newspaper assigned me to write about an immigrant who came to America with a pack on his back. Search though we did, we found none — other than my father in law. In spite of the nepotism, Jerry said, “Do it.” I knew that Nick was forgetting the present, but hoped he would recall enough of his early life to make a good article. Through the years I heard most of Nick’s stories myself. Sitting together, I began my interview.  He was pleased that someone wanted to listen and spoke freely about China and his father, of his voyage, but when I asked detailed questions about Austria, upstate New York, Detroit, Montana, Bingham Canyon, his answer was always the same. With furrowed brow, he would say, “I don’t remember.”   The brief article of Nick’s life which spanned the better part of a century was a perfect size for the magazine. However, for the family it was only a portion; the rest of the story, like my mother’s recipe for rolls was gone — held captive within the prison of his padlocked brain.

Somehow, we believe that memory will last, sharp and clear, as long as life itself, and by some kind of self-imposed denial we also believe that life itself will continue day after day just as it is now; that there will always be time to sit and listen to the tales of those who came before; that Alzheimer’s and other devastating brain diseases are something that happens to other people, but none of  that is true.  Loved ones pass on, time for doing runs out and for so many, memory is stolen away like a thief in the night leaving all to wish and wonder about the past, our own roots and remembering the hundreds of curious questions which were never asked and will forever remain without answers.

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