This morning we were woken by an official calling us to breakfast. I had a deuce of a time waking up. Between the uncomfortable cot and the noise of the snoring I had received little sleep. We were served oatmeal and bread with butter. Not a glamorous meal, but it was free, so I have no right to complain.
I returned to the queue I had been forced to abandon the evening before. The doctor eventually showed up and the line once more began to move. My turn finally came. He asked me to remove my spectacles and read a chart on the wall. I did. The doctor then asked why I was even wearing glasses since I had 20/20 vision. I told him I was a teacher and they made me look smarter. He accepted that explanation.
I was then given directions to the Great Hall. This is a huge auditorium with desks at the far end. There were a few benches along the wall, but those were taken up. I thought there were suppose to be rows of benches, but my computer records show those were not installed until 1903. Theodore Roosevelt saw to that. Good old Teddy! For now though we had to stand, or sit on the floor.
The officials called out names for legal inspection. The person then goes up to one of the desks and the official begins asking the immigrant questions. I wondered where they got the names. I had read they are from the ships’ passenger records. Wouldn’t my name have been called yesterday? After a couple of hours though they did call out “Wendell Howe.” I hurried forward.
The official wore an official-looking uniform and sat on a high stool at an official-looking desk. Even though he was seated, his face was level with mine. His had a pen in hand, ready to record my answers. He asked my name, where I was going, did I have relatives in America, did anyone promise me a job, and a couple of dozen more questions all fired in rapid succesion. He then told me I was free to enter the country and gave me a card. I stick it in my pocket and turn to go.
My way is blocked by a large family at the next desk. They appear to be Russian Jews. The man and woman have six children and an interpreter with them. “So,” their interviewer asked, “Your name is Moses Berlin?”
“Beilin,” the interpreter corrects him.
“And your youngest child is named “Izzy?”
The interpreter asks the father something, then turns and smiles at the official. “It’s short of Israel.”
I look at the little five year old child. Poor thing almost got stuck with the name “Izzy Berlin.” I start to walk off, when I got an odd feeling. Where had I heard that name before? I pull out my computer and check the name “Israel Beilin.”
My computer screen begins scrolling information like crazy. This kid will be famous someday. Dear heavens, can he really be him? Probably the greatest song writer of the 20th century--Irving Berlin? Yes, father’s name Moses. Entered America in 1893.
This frightened looking child will someday write 1250 songs, 25 number one hits, among them: White Christmas, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Puttin’ on the Ritz, There’s No Business Like Show Business, Easter Parade, Always, Blue Skies--the list goes on! They are still singing his songs in the 27th century!
His greatest gift to the country that gave his family refuge is “God Bless America.” It is interesting that whenever Americans are in an emotional state, it’s not “The Star-Spangled Banner” they sing, but “God Bless America.” Perhaps because Irving Berlin meant every word.
I look into those big eyes that look back at me. Yes, he does look like the photo, only younger. I smile at him. Then I turn and head for the exit, wondering who else might be in this room.
Last stop at Ellis Island was to get my pounds converted into dollars. I don’t know what the going rate is, but it seemed fair. I suppose cheating the immigrants and turning us into paupers would defeat the purpose of this place.
I got on the ferry and stood at the railing while immigrants were loaded on. They weren’t American citizens yet, but they were now legal. We got off the vessel at Battery Park in front of the Immigration Office. Now we were really in America. Several people wept. One fellow fell to the ground and kissed the pavement.
America at last.