Fresh Off the Boat

Tess with her mother and brother on their one-way passport (photo by Sarah Whiting)

My little brother and I huddled against Mother’s body, clutching fistfuls of her skirt. That morning we had seen the Statue of Liberty, from her feet up. We watched men take all day to unload the baggage from the boat, before all the immigrants were conveyed to the inspectors.

Mother said America didn’t want sick, bad, crazy, or stupid people coming in, so we had to stand up straight. We knew not to cry.

The immigrants with “DP” on their tags were from nowhere. The war had erased their countries. Displaced Persons. We were not DPs. We were Greek. Father was already in a place called Boone, Iowa, so we felt lucky.

Inspectors in dull uniforms frowned at a growing stack of papers written in a language we could not read. We guessed the papers told them how much to question, probe, and search, because that’s what they did.

All morning, we had watched from the deck while men below carried bags and trunks from the ship across a gangplank to the land that was America. Everyone was anxious to see a trunk or bag they recognized.

While we waited, we exchanged addresses and information. “They’re going to look in your eyes, so wash them before you get off the ship.” “If they give you a flag, don’t use it as a cushion.” “You’re going to a cold climate, so put newspapers inside your kids’ clothes to keep them warm.”

The stairs were narrow and steep, and the gangplank was slippery, so Mother carried my little brother.

Tess Galati (photo by Sarah Whiting)

I kept my eyes on my feet and clutched her skirt more tightly.

Inside the huge room, everything was loud, fast, frightening. A procession of immigrants frantically circled the enormous pile of bags in the center. People were pulling out bags, throwing suitcases aside, calling across the room.

 “The Americans will think we’re animals,” Mother mumbled.

The inspector didn’t tear up our trunk and throw all our belongings on the floor, like he did another family’s ahead of us. So we could go on. “What do they do to us next?” asked Mother. Somebody said they look at your body.

At the top of the stairs, a man looked over our papers and pointed us to one of the lines. “What does this mean?” asked Mother, but nobody answered. I felt safe because Mother knew what to ask.

We were led to a tiny room with a big lady in a white dress sitting at a desk. She didn’t like the way we smelled, even though Mother had washed us the night before in the sink next to the toilets. The lady stuck a stick into my mouth and looked into my ears. I stood straight, like Mother told me. Then the lady grabbed my arm and, in a quick motion, pulled me over her lap and pulled down my pants. I screamed and pulled away when I realized she was going to put a thermometer in my butt. Mother stopped her. She politely showed the lady how we put it in the armpit.

The lady looked even more disgusted, but she did what Mother showed her. “It’s all right,” Mother whispered in Greek, her arm protecting me. “These people don’t know any better, so they’re acting like animals. We’ll show them.”