American Melting Pot!

March 8th, 2011

It was August, 1956.  I was nine just having completed the third grade in a peasant area of post World War Two Italy. The school…well, it was a single room over a general store, bar and pool hall. It had three windows looking out into the fields of Tuscany. On the walls were two yellowed maps…one of which was the USSR and the other, SouthAmerica.  In the front there was a chart of geometrical figures. That was it! This room housed five grades.  Two teachers…five grades. The morning teacher would have the first through the third and the afternoon session was for the other two. We would all wear black smocks with white collars over our clothes and the grades were denoted by the different colored ribbons tied in a bow about our necks. Our teacher would arrive by bicycle daily, crank the door open with an old fashioned key and we would run up the marble stairs to our wooden desks with inkwells. One year we all went on a field trip by bus to Collodi to visit the home and park dedicated to Pinocchio. Collodi was about three miles away. Another year the teacher brought a projector and showed Laurel & Hardy. We all howled. One primer had all subjects and we had homework daily. School was six days per week. Had I remained in Italy my life pattern would have followed that of my brother, Moreno. Complete the fifth grade and then be apprenticed in a trade…probably a butcher, as my brother.

But…this fine summer day of August I sat on a train at the station of Borgo A Buggiano next to my aunt, Mary Alice, and I was crying uncontrollably. I was leaving the only home I had known. My father’s helpless image with hands holding his navy blue beret disappeared in the distance. And… I continued to sob. A couple of well dressed gentlemen sitting nearby looked on and asked, “why the crying, young man?” “I’m going to America” I blurted out in-between sobs. They both laughed. You’re a lucky little boy they both re-assured me.

So, my journey began. I penetrated not only the geography but the cultural envelope, the poverty, the backward-ness…but most of all the mind set. Our first stop was Naples and the luxurious Hotel Royal. Everything was neat, clean and delightful. The tables with white table cloths and waiters in crisp uniforms. I delighted with the breakfast butter done in leaf form and sitting in ice cubes and silver dishes. Decades later my nephew, Giovanni, while sipping cocktails at the ritzy Harrah’s Hotel at South Shore Lake Tahoe described his first visit to America….with typical Tuscan pithiness….’dalle stalle allle stelle!’  ‘from the stalls to the stars’.  That’s how I began to feel after a couple of days in Naples…from the stalls to the stars!  We boarded the Saturnia and sailed to New York…the Empire State Building and Statue of Liberty. There was the train across America…It was all too much. I remember the Vista Dome cars of the California Zephyr as we viewed the Colorado River. It was hot. Then we arrived in Oakland where my uncle, Bruno, picked us up. We lived in the avenues in San Francisco; I was to enter Francis Scott Key Elementary in a week…so, my American education, formal and informal, began. I entered the American Melting Pot.

My aunt, Mary Alice, was a first grade school teacher at Francis Scott Key elementary on 46th Ave. in San Francisco. She was a dedicated teacher and disciplinarian. Her classes were well organized, orderly and most of all one could hear a pin drop as her twenty something first graders went on about their tasks. All one could hear was…Mrs. Ercolini…this or Mrs. Ercolini..that. I had been raised in a large family, farming environment. We all lived in the same farm-house…parents, grand-parents and my brother and me. It was a warm, closely knit and doting environment. There was a lot of yelling and screaming but there was little or no discipline. So, the first few weeks of life under my new parents’ roof was an aggravating re-adjustment. School, homework, bath, pajamas and off to bed by nine. Eventually, I was able to worm my way into staying up till nine-thirty on Monday nights to watch Michael Ansara in Broken Arrow on our family’s 27″ Muntz television.

I was also introduced to a toothbrush and Dr. Radke. I was nine and had never brushed my teeth. Can you imagine the condition of my mouth. Life on a farm in Italy had been rudimentary. We thought that we were clean but out standards were different. But…now in America it was brusha-brusha-brusha with Ipana and bathe and wash my hair every night.  What a chore! For the first few months my Saturday mornings were spent in Dr. Radke’s office on Taraval St.  cleaning teeth and filling all those cavities I had accumulated. I am certain that now I would be smiling toothless had I not been privy this stoke of fortune.

One day before the start of the school year we all went to Stonestown off of 19thAvenue. It was a large shopping center…another first for me. We were to buy my school clothes. They bought me stuff but I liked none of it. I had been used to better Italian styling. Finer leather shoes, a good suit, tailored to fit and generally clothes to the latest styles. In Italy even though in a peasant and poor area all were concerned with style and each year there was the latest. We may not have brushed our teethor bathed or washed our hair but we sported the latest fashions. But now I went off to school withdesert boots and corduroy pants and some sort of busy shirt with a clunky windbreaker. I believe it was a Pacific Trail windbreaker. Yep..I looked like my parents dressed me. And…am sure that my classmates laughed at me. I could not tell, though, cuz I could only speak two words of English…’yes’ and ‘no’.

While we were going up the escalator it the department store, another first for me, I did create somewhat of a stir. There is a sharp angle created by the rise of one escalator and the crossing of the adjacent one. Well…I was hanging my head over the hand- rail and…you got it…my neck got caught in the acute angle forcing me to knock down some folks behind me. Mary Alice got the manager over and I think that she was giving him ‘what for’ …I think??? I was still working with my limited vocabulary. But…now when one goes up the escalator there is a plastic insert filling in that acute angle.  So, even though I had been in America for only a few weeks I did make a contribution to American society.  I think of that every time I go up an escalator now.

Fleishhacker Zoo, now San Francisco Zoo

There was the telephone and phone numbers, the kitchen appliances-toaster, oven, vacuum cleaner, the car in the garage, Golden Gate Park a couple of blocks across 44thAvenue, Stowe Lake and the remote powered toy boats and the bison in the park. It was a fantastic new world. Then the first day of school came. I stood in front of room 23 and waited as the teacher introduced me to the class. I sat next to Becky and while all were shuffling their papers and doing stuff…I sat there in bewilderment. Not one word did I understand. They put a sheet of paper on their desk and so did I. They wrote something down and Becky turned to me and kept saying ‘name’ while pointing to the top of the paper. So…I looked at her paper and wrote her name on the top of my paper. Each day I became more comfortable withthe routine. The girls would come and ask me something, just to be friendly, and I answered with one of the two words I knew. So, it became somewhat of a thing…go up to Luciano and ask him something so that he can reply…’yes’ or ‘no’.  In mathIwas way ahead of the class.  English stuff came more slowly. But…by Thanksgiving I did get 16 out of 20 words right on the weekly spelling test. By early spring we were in reading groups and I was participating. I would learn words daily as I would follow while one of my mates read out loud. I remember a great epiphany when I saw the word ‘before’ and coupled it with the strange sounding pronunciation. I was getting the hang of the strange English spellings and pronunciations. Each day one of the students began class with a news

Golden Gate Park

 clipping in front of the class and I was participating also.  There was another foreign student in our class, Zaida, who had come from Panama. Her progress was similar to mine. We all wanted to learn English and progress and be like the other kids. By the end of the year we both spoke English well enough to blend and carry on as normal American kids. The next year we moved to Marin County just north of San Francisco and a new school and new kids….no one knew that I had been a recent immigrant, other than my strange sounding name.

New House in Fairfax foothills

It was 1957. Ike had just been elected president for his second term; the Giants took over Seal Stadium; and…Amercia was moving to the suburbs. Mary Alice was retiring from her forty year teaching career and Bruno had been retired for several years from his grocery store business. We were moving to the suburbs too. To Fairfax in Marin County. We left behind the tightly packed, bungalowed, fog-ridden neighborhoods for the spacious split-level, hilly environs of perpetually sunny Marin. Looking back, though, my year in San Francisco was of utmost importance to my development. I learned English. I learned the cowboy world from television. I learned breakfast cereals and thought Battle Creek was a huge place. I was acclimated to and comfortable with the America I knew thus far. Marin was to provide expansion, growth and marvellous experiences in every direction. There were new neighbors with swimming pools and barbecued hamburgers, little league baseball, grammar school basketball, hikes in the hills, Marin Catholic High School, football, all star games, and college, the University of Santa Clara, ROTC and the military. Marriage…baby Gina…business…divorce…etc., etc!!!

I had gone through the American Melting Pot. I was American. I first realized that fact in 1961 when Mary Alice and I went back to Italy in the summer for a visit. The farmhouse I had grown up in was small and dingy. I was glad to be back but as I looked about the farm and the nearby towns and spoke to the people I had known…Italy was no longer my home. America was my home. And…that feeling became stronger with the passage of years.

Imagine my surprise! Upon doing a bit of research I discovered that the concept of ‘melting pot’ was passe’. No longer in vogue. Replaced. Here I was the product of the fine American Melting Pot and while I had been going through it the concept had been discounted. Yep!! The intelligentsia looked at the whole business thought better of it. Too much flag waving. Too jingoistic. Too conservative. Too much Americana. Too establishment. And…looking back at the era and placing all into context. Now, it’s not surprising. While I was walking off to Wednesday morning ROTC marching at University of Santa Clara, a conservative institution, many of my counterparts at more liberal campuses had to sneak onto the marching fields lest they be harassed. There were the anti-Vietnam marches…anti-military, anti-government, anti establishment, anti-everything. The mantra was join a commune, drop out, do pot! So, why should something so Americana survive? It couldn’t. It had to  be replaced by something more in vogue with the times.

So, the red, white and blue ‘melting pot’ was out and multiculturalism was in. The sociologists had great fun with these new concepts. The mosaic, the salad bowl, cultural relativism, cultural pluralism. As long as immigrants retained their foreign-ness it was cool. If left to their own devices the all encompassing ‘americanismo’ would engulf their native culture so they needed help. In came bi-lingual education and hosts of other programs that focused on immigrants retaining their native culture. What confusion! What a mess!

It’s difficult to make sense of it all. Arguments for all points of view seem to make sense to some fashion. The politicos point fingers at he opposition; the sociologists-intelligentsia point to esoteric studies and then paint with fancy words. It’s no wonder that the whole body of work has resulted in a byzantine system producing compromised results. However, since I have a simple mind…I go to the basics for understanding. One extreme is xenophobia and the other is balkanization. Neither is acceptable or desirable.  The melting pot lies on one side of the fifty yard line and multiculturalism in its many forms resides on the opposite side. Of course the pendulum swings from one extreme to the other and…now I would guess that we have registered with the multicultural extreme and are beginning to retrace toward the center. The culmination of that extreme was recently heralded by European leaders, Angela Merkel,  David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy with their declaration that multiculturalism was a failure. Yep!…the super-socialist European leaders put multi-culti in the casket ready for burial. And…when one looks at the state of Europe, all one can say that it’s about time. And that retracementh as been gathering strength in America also with the crescendo of the ‘tea party’ folks waving the American flag and singing the praises of American culture.

For some personal insight into the topic I look back on the halcyon decade of mid-fifties to mid-sixties,  my fist decade in America where I was exposed to Americana and the world of the Italo-Americano sub culture in the San Francisco Bay Area. This was Bruno’s world. He had emigrated to America after WWI and had come to live with his sister in San Francisco. His first job was as a laborer in the trolley-car barn. He would talk about getting up at 4am and working in cold, damp conditions. He experienced a different America. He got to know terms as ‘wop’ or ‘dego’ the hard way. But…he worked, saved  his money, met my aunt and married and started a little grocery store business. They both prospered and developed a good life. I had the benefit of coming into the scene at this stage.

Bruno & Rino Luchetti hunting in the early fifties

Bruno would take me to meet his friends at different areas of San Francisco. They were all Italian immigrants and all by this time owned businesses. There were the Luchetti’s, Rino and his son, Lawrence. They owned Luchetti’sMeats and their ads were omnipresent in the Chronicle with their continuing offer of a free Amana freezer with the purchase of a side of beef. There was Frank Petrini who started Petrini’s Markets one of which I ended up working in during the latter years of high school. There was Willie Gherardi who owned and operated fish and poultry departments in all Petrini Stores and other fish stores about San Francisco. There was Frank Crosetti, the third base coach for the Yankees who one day came to our house and delighted me with a hand full of baseballs. There was Signor Figone who owned a funky and eclectic hardware store in North Beach. There was Signor Rossi and Johnny Valerga who owned nurseries just south of San Francisco. There was Bill Viola, Signor Mongo, Arthur Luchetti and wife Cora who was interviewed some years ago for her recollections of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. All these boys loved to hunt and formed a hunting club, bought a club house and would revel in each other’s company over sumptuous meals and hunting lore. The hunt would be near the Delavan Game Flyways in the central valley north of Sacramento. Bruno, who was now retired, would take me for the day to San Francisco and travel to the different businesses, talk to his friends and go to lunch. When they met they would revel in each other’s good fortune and would smile and say, ‘ai trovato l’America! eh?’ You have found America! Haven’t you? They would talk about the misery that they left behind in Italy and would just

A happy day at the hunt!

 beam at their good fortune in this country. They all loved America. And…although they were immensely proud of their Italian roots and culture, there was not one iota of doubt…they were Americans through and through.

What a contrast this scene is from the present. Some immigrants are coming into this country with no intention of integrating into our society. They establish centers which are a microcosm of the old country. Their culture is to be preserved. It is not to be blended and watered down. They tend to view America as decadent. Their culture is superior. They take the best that America has to offer to promote their own agenda. In France there are ‘no go zones’ (zones urbaines sensibles) where non-Muslims dare not enter. As a matter of fact, they’re all over Europe. We have the beginnings of such zones too. And the politicos and intelligentsia…yep, the same multi-culti group from the sixties are now trumpeting  ‘islamaphobia’ along with ‘mea culpa’ America. There is La Raza and La Reconquista crowd that wish open borders and to reclaim territory that used to belong to Mexico. In some areas we are at the gateway to balkanization.  But..and for good fortune…the pendulum keeps moving and its now beginning to swing back toward the center. Maybe the ‘American Melting Pot’ is not finished yet.

In most circumstances the strongest bonding force is language. Again, if I draw from my personal experience, the year in San Francisco where I learned English was the pivotal point to my life in America. The language was the vehicle that lead to all the other wonderful things. Without it my life pattern would have been much worse and certainly different. And.. the method used was ‘total immersion’. Yep, they threw me into the pool and allowed the natural forces to stimulate the learning process. There was no concern as to whether I was going to lose my Italian culture or my Italian-ness. This was before they initiated the bi-lingual education programs. Million and billion of dollars were spent to teach English and maintain native culture with equal importance. Each school had to have appropriate language proficient staff…what a bureaucracy. The end result was that the kids did not learn English or reading skills and probably aided in maintaining separate groups within schools. Bi-lingual education could not do in ten years what I and Zaida accomplished in nine months with no additional cost.

It’s a fine example of government over-reach. The nanny state sticking its nose where it has no business. The intention is noble, but the results are to the actual detriment of the very people that it was intended to help. Again…the intelligentsia has fine studies and theories and initiates programs with lots of money and builds constituencies with vested interests and amazingly enough….the very people who were the center of the whole business…they do not learn English skills. But now there is a constituency and so the vested positions must be protected. If the immigrants can’t read, speak or write English proficiently…then, the answer is more money. More money. More money. The maintenance of the native culture is not a government function; that is a family function. At our home we spoke English and Italian as the mood struck us. We reveled in Italian food. Read about the great Renaissance Masters. The wonderful cities about the Tuscan countryside. Fine Italian leathers and shoes. Italian sartorial styling. That was all our family culture. We lost none as I learned English. That was our family business and we blended the richness of our family culture with our American-ness.

I said that in ‘most cases’ language is most important. I think that there is a corollary to this point. Some immigrants come into this country with a different idealogy. An ideology which is ingrained and inborn and runs counter to the freedoms which are keystones to our society. I speak of Islam. The all encompassing Islam. The geo-political ideology  promotes Allah and Sharia  to rule the world. All must submit. Sharia is immutable and incontrovertible. That Islam! And..it’s problematic for these folks to accept our American Constitution with its freedoms. Ideologically…it’s man-made law versus god’s law. Specifically, it’s freedom of speech which allows us to speak freely about anything and everything…including criticizing Islam and Muhammed. That, of course, is taboo and is subject to punishment in the world of Islam. Look at what’s happening in the UN with the OIC running amuk. The Organization of Islamic Conference is and has been trying to get enacted Hate Speech and Defamation of Religion Laws. To what end? To have a prestigious international organization recognize the limitations of free speech. What’s next? You got it….America’s First Amendment. That would be the grand prize. And…with the good-guy/bad-guy team of Obama-Holder in power, I fear that the OIC’s  push would be received with some sort of accomodation. And…this must NEVER happen!

But…then again, the great American silent majority is pushing back . It can be evidenced by the Tea Party movement for the past several years. A grass-root  seemingly leaderless expression of current policy rejection. They say ‘No’ to the surreptitious spread of Sharia; they say ‘No’ to Islamic Fundamentalism, no to unbridaled government growth, no to endless cradle to grave programs, no to fancy-schmancy multi-culti programs and no to the ‘mea culpa America’ crowd. Yes!…move the pendulum back toward the Great American Melting which recognizes the greatness of America. The greatness of America as expressed by those few little words,

 ‘That all men are created equal endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. To protect these rights governments are instituted among men deriving their just power from the consent of the governed’

That’s why immigrants need to learn english and be mainstreamed so that they can learn and live the meaning of these words and realize the power which these little words give them. We are not the ‘little people’ of the Leona Helmsley worldl. We are not the weak, deprived and helpless people that drive big government socialists like the Obamas and Clintons and Boxers and the rest of the socialist-big government folks  to make rules and regulations that act as training wheels so that we can live our lives without hurting ourselves. These are the words which unleash us from government bondage and every other type of bondage and state to the world that WE ARE THE OWNERS OF THE USA and lease power to politicos to do our bidding. That is the mission of the American Melting Pot. All the other goodies which are part of Americana emanate from those little words.

I close this article with the words which I saw at the Statue of Liberty while coming to America in 1956:

“Not like the giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand,

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp,” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses YEARNING TO BREATHE FREE,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Luciano

The Cycling Tuscan

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