My Journey to America
By: Erin Dear
My name is Gerhard Max Döering. I was born into a wealthy family from Dresden Germany in 1892. My mother stayed at home with us kids while my father owned a turbine factory. I had one sibling, my sister Hilma. After years of conflict between my father my and I; I decided to leave Germany at age 18 and left for the German Merchant Marines. The Merchant Marines transport goods to and from Germany. The ship I was placed on was set to stop somewhere in America where I plan to turn a new leaf. I overheard some men chatting about the size of the ship compared to some of the other Marine ships. The men said that we would not be making many stops and that it would only take a couple of months before we reached America. There was a small crew with a little less than half of them as older men. I was put into a small “beginners” crew. Along with transporting goods the Marines transported military personnel and materials. Our main priority was to protect the cargo of the ship at all cost.
Since we were at sea for long periods of time, the guys and I would play card games and sing ship songs. Most ship song revolved around drinking and falling overboard. I remember one night some of the men had a little too much to drink and started chanting “ah ah we are marines ho ho we sail the seas.” My fellow crew members and I would talk about where we came from and our families. Majority of the men were from Germany or neighboring countries such as Poland and Belgium. Men would pull out photos of loved ones they had kept. On the first night many men cried over a mixture of homesickness and seasickness. Some nights when we could not sleep we would exchange stories about other ships and what we would do if we got attacked. Most of the men bragged they would spring into action guns firing but majority of them didn’t know how to fight much less fire a gun. I on the other hand tended to stay quiet. Alot of my time was spent thinking about America and what I would do once I got there. The last thing I wanted was to live poor on the streets. I would only manage to sleep when I dreamed of the life I could be living.
The sleeping areas were small due to the fact that most of the ship was reserved for cargo. We slept in small cramped cots that had been stacked into bunk beds. The beds were crammed together with barely enough room to get into them. The room reeked of worn clothes and was frigid from the hypothermic sea air. There was a small wooden stairwell that led to the main deck area. At night you could hear the creaking of the wood from the patrol men making their rounds.
The deck was enormous because it took up almost the entire ship. From the deck I could see the black puffs of clouds from the smoke stacks. In my free time I would reminisce on my past life. At my old home in Dresden, most cold nights we would huddle by the fire and talk. I remember watching the smoke rise up the chimney and the fire dance through the air. My sister would watch the shadows flicker on the wall from the fire. The clouds of smoke reminded me of leaving home and watching the land get smaller as the boat sailed away. I remembering seeing the tears in my mother and my sister’s eyes. My dad didn’t have the time to take off work and wave me off.
The captain called us down into a small room about half the size of our sleeping quarters. We were instructed to line up by rank and file into the small room; lowest ranking in front highest ranking in back. I was puny in size compared to some of the other men who towered over me. The higher ranking men were complaining about not finishing their meal and having to start their shifts on an empty stomach. I stood silent in the from with about seventeen other men most of whom I recognized from the other night. The room went silent when a large man started walking to the front. The man wore full uniform and turned to face us.
“Welcome new and returning men to the marines. You will be given your posts tomorrow except for new members. All new members start out as cabin boys. Men return to your posts”
The older men filed out behind me and when I turned to leave the captain shout at us to stay.
“Cabin boys are to report here tomorrow morning. Five o’clock sharp. You will be working In the kitchen either preparing food or delivering food. Dismissed.’ hollard the captain in a voices so loud you could hear the reverberations of his voice off of the walls.
“Döering and Schmidt stay back”
I had met Schmidt last night in the quarters. He was a tall man but still short compared to the captain. He joined the marines to carry on the tradition in his family. I paused and slowly turned my body to face the captain. He was a tall man who puffed out his chest more for emphasis and authority. The captain’s face had wrinkled and his hair was a mix of white and grey. His eyes met mine with a blank almost sad look. He tilted his head down and handed me an envelope and a large duffel bag.
“Your father gave me this. Do with it what you please it is not my concern. DISMISSED”
The captain waited to speak until I left. I was free to go anywhere but I decided to go and open the mysterious envelope and bag. Most of the men had gone back up on deck. As I opened the envelope a photo fell out. I smiled it was a picture of my sister and mother. The letter was a short update story.
Mother and I have missed you. I have been the center of all of mother’s attention since you left. Father is still angered by your decision. I think it is fantastic you have decided to make something of yourself on your own. Mother has been teaching me the ways of a good housewife and how to be a good cook. On the brighter side cooking has been absolutely delightful. I worry for father though. He spends more time in his study than he should and yells at mother when she knocks for supper. I feel he may be ill with anger. Please write back.
Best wishes Hilna.
Hilna was candid about her worries for the mental state of father. She worried that he was going to work himself into hysteria.
I let my mind wander a little longer on the subject before moving on the the bag. It was a large grey duffel with the family name stitched into the top. Other than the name the bag was blank. I opened the bag to see a large pile of American and German currency. On top of the piled laid a small fragment of paper with my dad’s handwriting. His message was short and to the point “use wisely or face the consequences of your carelessness. Sir Döering.” My father wasn’t keen on affection especially in his writing. As I explored more through the bag I only found more money.
A loud crashing noise came from the corner of the room. I looked up startled to see two men who had previously been roughhousing managed to knock over one of the bunk beds. I zipped up my bag and jumped off of my cot. By this point a crowd of men had gathered to help lift the bed back into place. The men had apologized and once the bed was put into place the crowd dispersed. I followed the crowd up the stairs to the main deck that was flooded with people. Pushing through people; I found my way to a railing and watch the sun set over the glistening blue waters. Most of the crowd stayed away from the railing for fear of falling overboard but, I liked the quiet. There is an unexpected calm about watching the waves fall and the sun set.
The next morning I got up at four. I had an hour to get ready and report to the room where we had met the captain yesterday. All of the older men had left to do their morning rounds and drills. Almost all of the first years were still asleep. I got up, put my slippers on and walked down the long corridor to the restroom area. The boat was an all men crew so you could use any bathroom except for the bathroom in the captain’s room. After I had gotten ready, I followed the rest of the crew into the room across the hall. The captain was there chatting with a few other men; I believe they were the main chefs.
“Men this is the head chef and his three main cooks. Those of you with last names M to Z will follow the chef and his cooks to the kitchen to start lunch preparations.” said the captain in his stern voice. The men filled out the door and down the hall to the kitchen. Four other men and I were left in the room. The captain looked around and smirked.
“You five men have the important job of transporting food to various men around the ship. Peterson and Döering you are to follow the gentleman at the door to the engineer’s room. you will be delivering food to the most important part of the ship. You will respect them and there food request will be taken straight to the chef. Dismissed.”
I turned around to see two men at the door caring what had to be at least six trays of food. The one man looked at me then handed me two plates of food.
“You think you can handle that” he said chuckling to himself.”
I could still hear the captain’s booming voice as we walked up the stairs onto the deck. Various men were scattered around the deck all chatting or working on some part of the ship. The thing about the marines was that everyone had a job and you didn’t get in the way of that person’s job. I followed the men to a small staircase in front of the boat that led to a large metal door. The men knocked twice and screamed “feeding time” as if the men were animals. The door squeaked open and a large man stood in the doorway. He moved from the door and we walked in. The engineer’s room was darker than the other rooms and much louder. I wondered how these men did not become deaf from the constant clattering noises. As we walked further into the room the air became humid. We opened another door and steam came pouring out. I walked in to find three men sitting by a large furnace. We dropped off two meals and left. I don’t know how these people could stand the heat and the air was saturated to the point where I thought I was drowning. We followed the men back to the main room and dropped off the other four meals on a large table. Each meal had a name label on tape. We followed the men each time for every meal.
A week had past and the boat was buzzing with chatter of America. The predictions were anywhere from two hours to a day. I ran up on deck to wait. I had been told that we would be docking in a large city called Philadelphia. I watched as the set over the horizon. Most of the men had gone down to their corridors to sleep but, I stayed up until the moon was overhead. There was a faint glow of lights in the distance but it was a struggle to keep my eyes open. I got up, went down the stairs to my bed and let myself sleep. I awoke the next morning to the sound of singing and an odd sensation. I grabbed my bags and hurried up to the deck that was swimming with people. I pushed my way through the crowd until found what I was looking for, the railing. It took me a moment to realize what was happening, were had docked! The atmosphere was different in America. People were racing around; everyone had a place to be. At that moment I realized I had to find my place.
It took hours to unload the cargo and people who were leaving to start a new life in America. The captain had given us a farewell and best of wishes speech as we were leaving the ship. I followed various men down a small platform that led to the ground. There’s a strange pleasure that comes from the stableness of solid ground. I looked out past the docks to the crowded city. The roads were filled with people walking and chatting. I had talked to the captain about a finding a person who could find me a comfortable place to live. The captain had given me a piece of paper with an address. I kept walking looking road signs to try and find the correct street.
After wandering around for what felt like thirty minutes; I decided to ask someone where to find the building. I spotted a nice looking lady who directed me down a road and to the right for three blocks. As I waked, I noticed a large building with white columns. I was called the second bank of the United States. The lady had told me that the bank was on chestnut street. I wonder if most American roads were named after trees, plants and nuts.
Three blocks later I was at the address. It was a tall building that seemed to be in good condition. It had an open sign hung in the corner of the left window by the door. I opened the door and what sounded like a chime came from the door. A man with broad shoulder walked up to meet.
“Hello sir how may I be of service?”
I looked down at the paper in my hand and tried to remember the advice my father had told me years ago.
“Good day to you sir. I was looking into buying a fine house in this land.” I said struggling to fake an American accent. My father told me to act as if I have lived here my whole life. He said that some of the natives may treat me different if they knew I was a foreigner. The man smiled and gestured me to a small cube like area. I sat down in a chair and watched as the man pulled out photos and lists of houses all around the Philadelphia area.
“Where were you looking to live and or do you need to live close to your job?” the man looked at me for a while and when I didn’t respond he reached down under his desk and pulled out a map. The map was in black and white ink and had small blank areas that were land for sale. I pointed to three areas. The man pulled out there photos and information. The first home was a takeoff on an Victorian style home. I was beautiful but had five bedrooms four bathrooms and two giant social rooms. I will be living alone for a while so the extra space was not needed. The second home was a nice brick layed home near a small area of the city. It would do for the time being.
“I will take this house please.” I said trying to make a convincing smile.
The man smiled and grabbed more papers from the back room. After I filled out the papers, I gave the man my money. He looked at me than the money and back up at me. His eyebrows moved up along with his forehead contorting his smiling face into a confused one.
“Why do you carry this much money on you?”
I smiled and tried to hide the fear I was feeling.
“I have just come back from a long trip with the United States Marines. I was forced to carry all I belong with me at one time and that includes money. Our boat just docked today and I took an interest in moving to the lovely city of Philadelphia.” I had to change a few facts in order not to raise suspicion. His face relaxed back down into a calm one.
“I am sorry sir I did not mean to make you out as a thief. Thank you for your service to this fine nation. I will grab a car and load up your luggage. If you follow me I can drive you to your new house.” he spoke with a toan of guilt in his voice.
The house was only five blocks away. There weren’t many other cars on the road. I assume most people enjoyed walking in the city after all everything was close by. The car was nice with a furnished interior. I watched as we turned around the corner pulled into the driveway of the house. The man who had loaded my bags into the car jogged around and open the door for me. I watched as he ran around to the back trunk and pulled out my bags. I followed the man to the from door of the house. He pulled out a key and put it in the knob. The door opened into a main area with a small chandelier and two staircases that lead up to the second floor of the building. I followed him to the right into a large room with lighting and a large table with chairs surrounding it.
“The man who used to lived here moved about a year ago. Almost all of the furniture is brand new and the house has full plumbing and electricity”.
The dining room was connected to a decent sized kitchen with all wood cupboards and a gas stove. There was a door that led into a large room with a sofa and a chess board set up on a rosewood coffee table. The room lead back into the main area where the other man had brought in all of my bags. He stood waiting with his hands folded in front of him. The man who was giving me the tour nodded at the other man and the other man started grabbing my bags. All of us walked up the stairs which opened up into a small lit hallway. There were two rooms on both sides and the man explained that the left side was a master bedroom with a restroom connected. There was a storage closet across the hall. The other side was a large room with a bathroom across the hall. The man put my bags in the master bedroom. I followed the men back down the stairs.
“Congratulations on your new home” exclaimed the man handing me the keys before both men step out and closed the door. I fumbled my way up the stairs pulling myself up the railing with each step. I went to the master bedroom and crashed down on the bed.
The next morning I awoke to birds singing in a choirs and the slight rattling of leaves from the breeze. I rolled out of bed and struggled to walk to the bathroom. The bathroom was small with a large mirror that took up most of the wall. On the left wall there was built in storage for my items. I walked back to the room and fetched my bag of toiletries. Tipping the bag over, I poured out the contents of the bag onto my bed. I picked out my comb and razor. Walking back to the bathroom I glanced out the window. Off in the distance I could see kids roaming aimlessly throughout the grass. Opening the bathroom door, I entered and started getting ready.
After cleaning the restroom, I walked down the stairs to the large room. I sat down on the sofa and let my mind wander. Where will I work? What will I drive? When will I have kids? A sense a panic washed over me as I began to think of my new found future.
I got up from the sofa and walked out the door. After checking to make sure the house was locked, I walked back to the people who sold me the house. As I entered I was greeted with a warm welcome and I quickly sat down with the man who sold me my house.
“I was just about to come over and grab you. You have some papers to sign.”
He spoke quietly as if not to disturb others in the building. I read over the papers and signed them. One of the papers caught my eye and then I remembered. My dad had given me naturalization forms I needed to sign to become a citizen before I left.
“We just got your forms the other day. The forms will be sent to your home in a couple of days” said the man.
After two weeks of living in the constant movement of the city, I felt at peace. I met this lovely women named Kathryn. She was slightly shorter than I but had wore heeled shoes to compensate. Kathryn had short curled brown hair that bounced as she walked. Her family was also from Germany but had moved to America when she was born. Maxwell was her father with whom she knew nothing about because he became ill on the voyage over. Her mother Elaine died when she was fifteen. When her mother died Kathryn moved in with her older brother George. Kathryn had learned the pharmaceutical trade from her brother and took it over when he moved west with his wife. Most morning I would walk with her to the drugstore and help prepare the store to open. Kathryn ran the store with three other lovely ladies named Margaret, Susan and Mary. The ladies would help customers with their needs and I was to handle the financial needs.
The store was sat at the corner of a busily street. It had a large glass pane front and a giant sign that read “George’s drug store” one stop shop for all of your pharmaceutical needs. The store was the first store on a street with a variety of shops varying from food to furniture and clothing. Almost everyone that walked through the street would stop in at least one shop. Many people would stop in the store to talk about the daily up and up of city life.
Weeks had past and business was holding steady. Friday night after closing Kathryn and I got to chatting and decided we would move in together after we got married. I held her hand as we took a night stroke on the way back to my house. The moon was out glistening in a copper orange. I gestured her to sit on a bench facing the moon.
“The simple joys in life are always right in front of you if you just take a moment to look.” Kathryn spoke softly while gazing excitingly at the moon. She turned her head and looked at me. I smile and pulled my grandmother ring from my coat pocket. “This was my grandmothers ring. it seemed only fitting a beautiful lady such as yourself should wear it. I was wondering if…” Her face started tearing up as she squealed yes. She hugged me and we turned staring at the moon. A breeze picked up as a cloud past in front of the moon blocking part of it. I looked at Kathryn and smiled.
“I love you my dear Kathryn” I whispered softly. Kathryn turned and kissed me. I had found my life in America and the rest would become history.