TWICE IN AMERICA
Pradip R. Das
Attempting to produce a narrative of one’s life events that occurred over sixty years ago not only requires a Herculean effort but is a daunting task as well. Excavating from the recesses of my memory those long past events, mostly in bits and pieces, and then striving to string them together to form a coherent story has resulted in what follows. However, it behooves me to mention that the facts and events narrated, especially those occurring during my stay in Corvallis, Oregon from August 1958 to December 1960, are not necessarily in chronological order. Nonetheless, I am fortunate to have in my possession, even now, some photographs from that era which have profusely aided me in bringing back memories.
2018 marked the sixtieth anniversary of the year I first came to America. In August of 1958, I came with my parents to Corvallis, Oregon which would be our residence for the next two and a half years. My father, who was then employed by the West Bengal Government Agriculture Department, had been awarded a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship for graduate studies at Oregon State College (now Oregon State University). The Government thus granted a leave of absence to him to pursue his higher studies in America. Apart from my father’s own fellowship, my mother also separately received a stipend of $125 per month (at that time!) as part of the family fellowship. My mother later told me that she had enrolled in “spoken English” classes in Calcutta prior to making the trip. My wife, Anindita, also tells me that my mother had revealed to her that she adapted herself to eating chicken before leaving India in anticipation of what would be her main staple in this country. Going vegetarian was not an option for us.
I remember some sketchy aspects of our trip from Calcutta to Corvallis, Oregon. We left Calcutta on August 10, 1958 (confirmed from my late father’s diary), traveling by train from Calcutta to Bombay and then by ship from Bombay to London. SS Canton was the name of the ship which took us to London in seventeen days making its way through the Suez Canal. I remember some “first times” on the ship viz., having my first chocolate ice-cream, attending on-board day care and participating in children’s sports activities. I do recall suffering from seasickness on the ship. Again, my mother had disclosed to my wife that she did not bother enquiring what she was eating at the ship’s meals; she just didn't want to know.
In London, I recall us spending a few days with my maternal cousin who worked and lived there, in his glum flat. Nothing of note comes to my memory of that brief stay in London. To my recollection, from London we took a PAN AM flight to New York, whose international airport was called “Idlewild” airport then. It was renamed JFK airport in 1963 as a tribute to the 35th President. My obscure memories of that flight bring foremost our awe and wonder to be flying over the fluffy white clouds and over the vast Atlantic Ocean. I do not recall how palatable we found the airline food. The experiences of a six-year-old child making his life’s first ever plane ride with his parents (also first-time experiences) and that too from London to New York was indeed a thrill of his lifetime. The only memories of Manhattan that I have from then are the skyscrapers, and a visit to the top of the Empire State Building (the world’s tallest building at that time). I do not recall which hotel we had strayed in. After spending a few days in the Big Apple, we flew to Portland, Oregon and then took the train into Corvallis, Oregon.
I have vague memories of us being met at the Corvallis train station by some representative of the University Department where my father had been enrolled.
The entire trip from Calcutta to our final destination, Corvallis, Oregon, took well over three weeks, with the majority of the time being spent on the ship journey from Bombay to London.
Corvallis is a small and friendly town nestled in the heart of the Willamette Valley. In 1958, it had a population of approximately 18,000. The first apartment we lived in was on the second floor with the staircase to the second floor running up along the exterior side of the house. It had one bedroom and a huge living room, at one corner of which my small bed was placed. A rather large sunroom in the front served as my playroom. It was an old wooden building; although typical for America, it was new to someone coming from India. The ancestral house we used to live in Calcutta on Rash Behari Avenue was a large brick and mortar and concrete two story bungalow which my grandfather had built in 1932 after retiring as a “Rai Saheb” -- having served as a forest officer in Bihar and Orissa for the British Raj.
On a side note, my grandfather did not play any role in my father’s decision to come to this country with his family. And of course he did not incur any expenses either, as the Rockefeller Fellowship that my father was granted also provided round trip travel costs from India to America and back for both him and my mother. My father had to come up with only my travel money. But I do have fond memories of exchanging hand-written letters with my grandfather during my entire absence from Calcutta and how moved he was, with tears in his eyes, to see us return home that day in Calcutta in 1960.
The second (and last) apartment we lived in was a two-story, two-family house where we lived on the second floor. This time I had my own bedroom. Our new landlords were the Labharts, Bob and Betty. The first-floor tenant was a woman with three adult daughters, Sue Ellen, Margaret and Mary Ellen. I remember the eldest played the trumpet, the middle one the piano and the youngest was kind of tomboyish. The eldest practiced her instrument at home; it is not hard to imagine how it was living above the blasting of the trumpet at various times during the day. I now wonder if we got a discounted rent because of this handicap. But they were all wonderful people and we also shared a Thanksgiving meal with them one year at their apartment.
Our first contact with a local American family was with the Lahti’s, who were also our first landlord. Emil and Gertrude Lahti and their daughter Mary Ann lived in a simple dwelling the next block over, Emil’s mother also lived with them. They had another daughter, Sharon, who was older than Mary but was married and lived elsewhere. Emil was a fisherman by calling and once took us to see his boat, “Seneca'', docked at a harbor nearby. As the photo below shows, my father did not seem prepared to go on a fishing trip on the boat that day. It was at a harborside eatery during that visit where I also had my first clam chowder soup.
(On Emil Lahti’s fishing boat with my parents, Newport, Oregon, 1958)
Mr. Lahti quickly and affectionately nicknamed me “buddy” since it appeared that “Pradip” was a name not easily pronounced by either him or many others in Corvallis. That was a time in small town America, especially in the West and Midwest, where if one said, “I am Indian”, the expected question to follow from a stranger would be “Which tribe?’. (Although, I should add that I had such a personal experience on a Greyhound bus ride from Des Moines, Iowa to Lincoln, Nebraska in 1980). The Lahti’s were very helpful and helped us adjust to our new surroundings and life in a foreign country quite seamlessly. I remember during the first snowfall (luckily for us coming from India, winters in Corvallis were mild), my mother and I rushed out with great delight to walk on the fresh carpet of white precipitation and feel the snowflakes drifting down from the sky. But we did not have the proper winter attire, which Mrs. Lahti quickly corrected by getting some warm outerwear for us and appropriate footwear too. We were swiftly taken care of. Mrs. Lahti was particularly helpful to my mother who she took with her to local groceries and other shops. For dinner, chicken curry or “deemer dalna'' were our usual meals, the only fish available locally were all sea fish and not amenable to Indian recipes. That is something both my parents missed very much. At American friends’ houses, we did try baked swordfish or tuna as I remember. My father relished the baked swordfish in particular.
Our first thanksgiving dinner (1958) was also with the Lahti’s. I have a photo to remind me of that day: Mr. Lahti sitting at the head of the table with his buddy to his immediate right and my father to his left and my mother next to him. That was the first time ever I saw an entire bird roasted and served on a table as such. That was also our introduction to one of America’s oldest family traditions and also learnt it was perhaps the most important occasion for American family gatherings, some say even more so than Christmas. For my parents and I, to be welcomed into the home of a local American family and be part of such an intimate family gathering, it had a profound and long-lasting sentimental value. My father’s name was Chittaranjan and my mother’s name Geeta and they were swiftly renamed affectionately as “Cheeta and Geeta” by all our friends in Corvallis.
The care and love and help we received from each and every American, young and old, who we came in contact with during our entire stay here not only filled us with gratitude but also love for the country and its people. My parents, all through their lives, kept in touch with several of the friends we had made in America and I still do, even now, with a few.
(Thanksgiving with the Lahti’s, Corvallis, Oregon, 1958: my parents on the right, Emil Lahti at the head, I on his right, Mary Lahti and Emil’s mother. Mrs Lahti took the photo)
My first schooling in this country started in Corvallis, Oregon where I was admitted to the first grade at Washington School. The school, I recall, was across the street from where we lived in our first apartment. It was of no surprise that I was the only student from India in the entire school at that time. My only school experience before then was going to kindergarten (Infant III) at a small school in Calcutta, named “Children’s Corner”, very close to our house on Rash Behari Avenue, but I did not get to complete an entire school year there. So it would be correct to say that my life’s first formal school experience started in America in 1958. I attended First, Third and partial Fourth grades in Corvallis public schools, Washington School and then Harding School for my third and fourth grades. I got a double promotion from first to third and could not finish fourth since we left to return to India in December, almost as soon as my father had submitted his doctoral thesis. I also remember that, while in the third grade, I attended fourth grade math classes. I was, by nature, a shy child and I remember in once instance, I was asked to conduct my 3rd. (or 4th.?) grade musical presentation at the school concert in the auditorium. In keeping with my bashful demeanor, no amount of coaxing by my music teacher could embolden me to conduct and I was content to play on my flute inconspicuous amongst my classmates. On my last day of school, sometime in late November 1960, I remember the farewell party that my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Dorothy Tennis, had put together in the classroom. Popcorn and fruit punch were served, and I received, as memorabilia, a softball signed by all my classmates and Mrs. Tennis. To this day, even after sixty years, I still possess that ball. A lot of names have faded but some are still legible...
(3rd grade class photo, Harding School, Corvallis, Oregon, with class teacher, Mrs. Oatness, next to me on my left)
I cannot help but reminisce about some of the things concerning my mother from that time. She was a homemaker and our family's social contact with our neighbors and other friends. In the 1950’s small town America like Corvallis, there were perhaps not too many Asian Indian families to be found, or for that matter, Bengalis. The few that existed were connected to the University in some ways; two names come to mind, “Paul” Puri from Punjab who was married to Lucy who became a very close friend of my mother’s and Jogananda Das, my father’s colleague at the department, from Assam and a candidate for a master’s degree. Paul and Lucy Puri had also visited us in Calcutta perhaps two years after our return. I do not recollect meeting any person or families from Bengal in Corvallis during our stay so our social contacts and friends, bar a few, were almost entirely local Americans. My mother, even with her limited fluency in spoken English, especially at the beginning of our stay, was never deterred in her efforts to assimilate. In one instance, she was invited by a middle school girls scout group and asked to say a few things about India. My mother, with relative ease and with her manageable English, not only said a few things about India but also entertained questions from the girls. The young girls, my mother told me, showed much curiosity about her saree. I doubt any of those girls had even seen a saree clad woman before. She anticipated this and had taken an extra one to demonstrate on one of the young volunteers how this traditional womens’ wear was draped around the body.
On another occasion, in a “dress as you like” event, she dressed several American girls and ladies in outfits from different regions of India, she herself adorning the typical “Bangali Bou” saaj with a red bordered saree. Needless to say, there were not enough Indian women to participate, so my mother had to dress American women/girls in indian attire. The local newspaper printed a photo covering that event. My mother took a keen interest to learn and assimilate into her new life in America, albeit temporary, and had a wide array of friends who also accepted her as one of their own. In return, she shared some aspects of Indian culture with our American friends in small but meaningful ways.
Neither of my parents drove a car so many of the neighboring places and spots we visited on occasional weekends were with American friends. During one of those car trips to Albany, a neighboring small town of Corvallis, my parents and I had our first taste of pizza. We all thought it was delicious and were somewhat amazed in the manner it was being prepared and put into large ovens. So many food items on one surface covering all the major food groups! It was not known to me on that day, pizza was not American but was endogenous of Italian cuisine. Didn't matter, it still tasted delicious!
Another trip was to Salem, the capital of Oregon, where I believe we went to renew our visas. That was the town where my father bought his first camera, a Kodak, and the very first picture he took was that of the Capitol Building. With that camera, my father took numerous photos, both during our stay in America and on the journey back to India. They were converted into slides and my father had also bought a Kodak slide projector. On our return to Calcutta, he projected those photos on a white wall at the end of our second-floor verandah for many of our friends and relatives who came to see us. Many photo tours of our visit to America were screened, I remember distinctly that I, too, took interest as a narrator. Among other electric appliances we took back with us, courtesy of my mother, were a Westinghouse oven and a toaster.
Crater Lake in the Crater Lake National Park was another site we visited, and I remember in particular the lake’s blue and glass-like clear water. The lake was formed years ago by the collapse of the volcano Mount Mazama.
We also went to Mt. Hood, another well-known Oregon landmark, but I do not have sufficient memories of that visit, or whether we visited on the same day as Crater lake.
I am certain my mother and I went back to India knowing more about this country and its people than my father. My poor father hardly had any spare time from his arduous doctoral degree requirements which he was also trying to finish in near impossible time because the West Bengal Government would not grant him more than two years' leave. With extremely long hours spent with school and research work and with the help and cooperation of the professors of his department, particularly his major professor and advisor, John Milbrath, my father finished his degree in two and a half years. Because of this, we could not get any true “vacation”; we never made any out-of-state trips, and on the rare Saturday or Sunday he could manage to get a reprieve, we accomplished the day trips described above.
(Photo taken by my father at the residence of the Young’s at Corvallis, Oregon, December, 1960, after he had submitted his doctoral thesis. From L to R : Roy Young, Marilyn Young, my mother, Lucille Milbrath, John Milbrath. I am on the floor with the Youngs’ son and daughter on either side. Dr. Roy Young was my father’s department chair and Dr. John Milbrath my father’s research advisor)
Although I was too young to understand or be aware of the political situation then, I knew Dwight Eisenhower (saw live on TV) was the American President during those years. And the election in November 1960 had made John F. Kennedy (also saw live on TV) the President-Elect who was inaugurated the month following our departure from this country. The charismatic John Kennedy, who in his inaugural address, uttered the historic words “Ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country”.
Our journey back to India started early December 1960 from the same railway station in Corvallis that we had arrived one day in August 1958. Among our friends who had come to see us off, I remember was John Milbrath, my father’s research advisor and his wife Lucille Milbrath. He embraced us one by one and bid us goodbye with a choking voice and moistened eyes. Ours were the same. Parting from dear friends, away from home, with the real possibility of never seeing them again was indeed very hard and emotional.
We took the train across America, stopping at a few places to visit friends we had made in Corvallis but who had later moved out of there. For once, it was my father’s turn to enjoy some vacation time on our way back to India, so we stretched the return journey. Our final destination in America was New York from where we would fly out to Europe first. An incident that happened just prior to flying out of New York by a TWA flight still haunts my memory. It was a mid-air collision that occurred over the skies of Manhattan, killing all people on both the planes, one of which was a TWA flight,. Naturally, our scheduled flight was postponed by a few days. Later, I learnt that the collision on December 16, 1960, was the worst aviation disaster in the world at that time. My parents and I were in Manhattan, over whose skies it happened, on that eventful day.
In Europe, we had made stops in London, Geneva, and Paris that I can remember and we landed in Calcutta’s Dum Dum airport around New Year's.
Little did I know when we left America in 1960, that after a gap of nineteen years living in India, in August of 1979 I would come back to this country to begin my own story. The first which started in 1958 was being a part of my father’s story, and who I accompanied as a child; the next would be my own to complete my life’s experience of “Twice in America”. I would return as a graduate student and complete a doctoral program in Chemistry at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. After obtaining my PhD, I moved to New Jersey which has been my home ever since and where, professionally, I was involved in pharmaceutical R & D for twenty-five years. In 1986, I paid a visit to Corvallis, Oregon, my childhood home for two and half years, and met with some of our friends from 1958-1960. Most memorably, I met Mrs. Lahti, our first landlord’s widow now, and their daughter Mary. I also met Mrs. Lucille Milbrath, the widow of my father’s research advisor, Professor John Milbrath. She showed me, with nostalgia, the brass center table in her living room that my parents had gifted to her and her husband before we left Corvallis for India. I did not remember this. That was twenty-six years ago! Through Mrs. Milbrath, the foreign student counsellor at the University when my father was a student, Clara Simmerville, came to know of my visit. She invited me to lunch with her one day. I did not know her personally while at Corvallis as a child, but she remembered me as the son of one of the University’s alumni and had extended this warm invitation. My father, in Calcutta, was thrilled about being told of this gesture from her. These old friends of ours from the past had last seen me when I was eight. I now realize that was a good opportunity to attempt to catch up with my fourth-grade classmates, those who were perhaps still living in Corvallis, but I failed to seize the moment.
I got another opportunity to see Mrs. Lahti in 2007 after I attended a conference in Seattle and then drove down to Oregon. She was living in an assisted living facility in Lincoln City, close to where her daughter Mary lived. Mrs. Gertrude Lahti, whom I had known for fifty-four years dating back to 1958, passed away in 2012 at the age of ninety-six. She had exchanged letters and Christmas greetings with my parents in Calcutta and then with me here in each of those years. Thereafter, her daughter Mary and I still do.
The major difference between my second visit to America and the one made as a child was, unlike my father, I made America my adopted homeland and became its citizen. Nonetheless, I will cherish forever, with loving nostalgia, the heart-warming introduction to America that my father, personally, had the opportunity to give to me.
(Posted February 1, 2021)
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Comments received from Kanakendu C. on Feb 6, 2021: "It was a nice drive through the memory lane. Thanks to Pradip for taking us on the ride. Like a good wine, value increases with time."
Comments received from Toopan B. on Feb 10, 2021: "Nice story on Oregon!"
Comments received from Ratanabali B. on February 13, 2021: "Pradip Das's reminiscences took me back to 1960s when I had gone to Cornell with my parents. I had to just cross the street from our apartment and reach school. There were a number of Bengalis at that time in Cornell University. -- Thanksgiving Dinner, demonstration of wearing a saree -- all seem so familiar. Thank you, Pradip Das, for your pen picture!"