Tracks of our Tears

Date:                           August 25, 2010


Location:                    Plattekill, NY




            Adventures can take a person to many interesting lands.  The sojourner can discover new and exciting places or events.  The adventure can also be a cerebral voyage through time and emotions.   It was the latter that described our mid week week-end.  The weather was less than perfect as it rained and poured most of the time, but we had a couple of days free and wasting that time wallowing in self pity in our home did not seem very beneficial on any level.  We had places to explore and memories to make and revisit.


            Our first sojourn was a small trip. It was just 40 miles away and forty years in retrospect.  We drove through the Catskills to a small town called Bethel Woods and a chance to examine the local performing arts center.  The more recognized name for this farm field in the hills might be Woodstock.  The simple mention of that word should conjure up visions of the sixties and a time of naive desires of peace and harmony.  The interesting point is that Woodstock is no where near Bethel Woods and peace and harmony is nowhere in sight.  There may be a metaphorical connection there, but I shall save that for another blog, at another time when I am in a much more politically philosophical mood.


            Our drive through the field and area of the orginal Woodstock concert was 40 years and a life time late, and yet it still did touch a memory synapse or two.  We were exploring the area to investigate a future concert by Crosby, Stills and Nash, a performing act on the original Woodstock stage; and it was pouring.  The fields were soaked, the sky was opened up and buckets of water were spilling forth, but the harmony of promised peace and love was missing; as were the thousands of mud soaked bodies.  We did spot a few cows and maybe we heard an echo of a harmonized melody, but then maybe that was all in a sixty year old addled mind.


            The area is pristine, now, and majestically beautiful.  Our exploration took us from the performing arts center, the original location of the infamous concert, to the real town of Woodstock a long distance through the woods and over many bridges away.  Our navigator was set on adventure mode so we made the trek through the Catskills via some very small, very Jewish, villages and by means of some very narrow and exquisitely pristine country lanes.  We even came upon a family of deer having lunch along the road who seemed a lot less interested in us than we seemed interested in them.  They did not ask us to join them and we decided to stay in the car where it was, at least, dry.


            After a slow and peaceful meandering through the hidden treasure of the southern Catskills we did find Woodstock, the real town.  It is a very artsy bohemian community that has already dictated that we return to explore when we do not have to wear winter jackets and rubber clothing to protect us from the weather.  We did not even venture forth to find a quaint eatery; although I am sure we passed many.  It was too cool and way to wet to explore this quaint little escape from the real world, but I am sure that there will, in the near future, be a blog to describe our pleasures and new memories that we will find on our next trip back in time to this retreat.


            Our second day of exploration was to be both a longer trip as measured by miles and much longer exploration as measured by time and memory.  We boarded the train at the Beacon station and traveled into the wonder of New York City.  Our destination on this excursion was Ellis Island and a chance for Connie to search out the footsteps of her heritage.  On this train ride we were traveling 70 miles south and over a hundred years back in time.  Our arrival in New York City was not much like Connie’s grandmother’s original arrival into the city.  We rode into Grand Central Station aboard a very comfortable train.  Her grandmother arrived at a pier after spending a part of her life crossing the Atlantic during one of the largest mass migrations of humanity in written history.  It was during this country’s period of open door immigration policy.  Connie’s grandmother arrived in 1909.  We arrived in 2010, just a mere one hundred years later. After we arrived in New York Connie’s footsteps and those of her immigrant family of some hundred years earlier began to converge.  We, also, took a ferry from Manhattan Island to the immigration processing center on Ellis Island, passing first by the statue in the harbor that symbolizes the promise of freedom and liberty.  It was a promise that was to be kept for some and seen to evaporate in the clouds of reality and unbearable hardships for others. 


            As we strolled from the ferry docking pier to the enormous government building before us, we could not but imagine the angst and fear that must have been in the hearts and minds of the millions of immigrants who had preceded us up the stairs and into the large reception hall of Ellis Island.  The hall was, on our visit, filled with the clamoring echoes of many foreign languages echoing off the cold tiled floor and walls of a room of great enormity.  I feel it was not so dissimilar from historical days when this room was filled with the clamor of many languages as tired and apprehensive immigrants experienced their first moments in a new world and on a new land.  I can not imagine the tremors of fear that must have filled their hearts and souls as they carried the only worldly possessions they had left in small wicker baskets or cloth bags.  Before they could venture on to the mainland and a new life of uncertainty they had to endure a nearly inhuman experience of mass health inspection and an indignant intelligence screening.  A wrong answer or a sign of an unknown illness could cause a uniformed official to place a chalk mark on the foreign visitor who was then led into a separate holding area to experience an unknown fate.  The family with whom the visitor had departed their homeland would be processed and pushed on through the immigration proceedings and the future of the chalk marked oddity was now in the hands of a review board.  The outcome of the review was unsure and the possibility of ever seeing your family again uncertain.  Connie’s grandmother faced this trauma and tribulation at the age of 14.  My granddaughter is 14.  I can not imagine forcing her to live through the hell and insecurity of immigrating and the trauma of processing at Ellis Island.


            The immigrant’s first taste of new freedom was to be herded like cattle or hogs heading into a processing plant.  The indignation of group physical exams, questions of a demeaning nature asked to verify their minimal ability to process thought and all of this done in a cacophony of noise and foreign languages with the threat that a minor error or mistake on their part could cause them to be refused entrance into this country.  A mistake or error could cause a family to be broken up and separated as part of the group headed toward the “Kissing Post” and freedom while an unsure future awaited a child or an aged relative as they were directed to a holding area to await a decision by a review board of uniformed officials.  Only 2 percent of the open door policy immigrants were refused entry to America.  2 percent meant that over two hundred and fifty thousand people, families, friends and fellow countrymen were turned away at the reception center at Ellis Island.  Turned away and forced to return to the situation that had been so terrible that they had packed all they had in small cloth sacks and ventured to a foreign land with only the clothes on their backs, the few pennies they could save in their pockets, and the dreams of a better life which were now destroyed.  Only two hundred and fifty thousand were turned away, the other 12 million were allowed to proceed and face the uncertainty of life in a land of foreign languages, foreign customs and harsh realities that they were just beginning to understand.


            As we walked in the actual footsteps of Connie’s grandparent it was a difficult task to understand the emotions and thoughts that ran rampant through our minds.  A feeling of pride, I am sure, filled my wife as she began to more honestly understand the strength and desire of opportunity and freedom that must have filled the hearts of her earlier family as they withstood the indignation of inspection to enter this country.  Would we, today, be able to walk fully in the footsteps of a hundred years ago as we were deloused, given silly mental exams and had our eyelids rolled back with a button hook?  Is life in this country truly worth the demoralizing cattle herding that our forefathers suffered or was the life they left that severe and terrible?  Could or would we do that today or would be expect our family and loved ones to suffer that humiliation to join us in this land?  Questions I am not sure I am prepared to answer.


            We also felt a sadness and anger for our earlier families as they were forced to suffer this humiliation.  How could we, as a country, subject honest immigrants attempting to find a better life for their loved ones and family to suffer the hell called Ellis Island.  And yet those who have walked before us through these halls wear that privilege with honor and reverence.  An honor and history on which the power and prosperity of this country has been built.  We felt all of these emotions as we traced our heritage footstep by footstep through the newly renovated halls of history on Ellis Island and yet neither Connie nor I could find a word or phrase that described what we felt.  Was it pride or was it anger?  Was it disgust for the way our officials treated the new visitors from Europe or was it reverence for the faith and courage exemplified by family after family who walked these halls and went forth to build the most powerful nation in the world?  What were the emotions that we felt, or did we feel them all? 


            It was a day for Connie to trace her family’s footsteps and it was she who summed up our joint emotions and soulful feelings.  “Ellis Island elicits emotions and feelings of poignancy.”  A sharp feeling of sadness or pity and yet harshly a new perspective on what it has taken to build this country into what it is today.  We are not yet a perfect country of laws and people nor have we ever been.  Yet when the KGB opened their records at the end of the cold war the one weapon that they feared most was our open door immigration policy, as we were informed by a National Park Ranger at our introductory movie about Ellis Island.  Our biggest and fiercest enemy was not fearful of our soldiers, for they had soldiers.  They were not afraid of our bombs and guns, for they too had bombs and guns.  They feared the open door policy of immigration which opened our doors to every man, woman, and child who yearned to be free.  For if we allowed that policy to again be implemented we might again gain power and prestige in a world in which they were competing and could not win.  Opportunity and freedom on a bad day will always trump a dictatorial régime on a great day.  This may be a lesson that we need to relearn in this country.  The world seems to understand this tenet and yet we may have forgotten.


            We did walk in our memories over the last two days.  Some steps were more nostalgic than others.  Some steps were much more soul wrenching and emotional than others.  And yet we did walk in the tracks of our tears, the tears of our family as they faced an uncertain future in a strange and unfamiliar land and the tracks of the tears of our own past lives of sixty plus years.  Each tear, we pray, led to a smile of accomplishment and each cloud led to a day of sunshine and promise.  The tracks of our tears have led us to a very poignant reflection, to say the least.