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Displaced In America, An Adventure by Eileen Scramuzzo

When newcomers arrived in this country around the 1920’s they were called immigrants but when these families sent for their relatives and friends, they called them D.P.’s or displaced persons. My dad said that was my new name because no one was more displaced than I was. I was on my way to my fifth temporary in a year and agreed it was a tough situation. We were not alone. In the depression many families had to farm out their children as jobs and living spaces could not be found without income. My mother had been in a hospital for two years and I stayed with whomever could take me in. I kept my Polish suitcase packed at all times. A Polish suitcase was not intended as a slur but a common understanding among many Polish Americans was that it was a brown shopping bag.

The old model-T moaned with protest at the bumpy unpaved mud road as I bristled with anxious anticipation, as any seven year old would do. My great grandmother was in front of her small house that had been built by my great grandfather who at that time was dead for a number of years. My father warned me of the language problem I would have as everyone spoke pidgin English. I couldn’t figure out what pigeons had to do with talking and he explained that many nationalities had settled in the same community. These nationalities were similar but not the same. They were Russian, Polish, and Slovaks and made themselves understood as best they could. What resulted from this need to communicate with each other was called pidgin English.

Not many cars traveled up this road to nowhere and when one approached my grandmother would stand there and wave. The dust flew in all directions and since we had never met, I tried to wipe my face and look half decent to make a good impression. My dad took my Polish suitcase and quick “hellos” were exchanged the best they could giving me a first experience of pidgin English.

A tiny lady all dressed in black with a red babushka on her head smiled broadly even though she had no teeth. Her skin was very wrinkled and leathery brown from long hours gardening in the sun. Her pale blue eyes were bright with happiness and I took this as a good sign. My dad made a hasty exit after a few dollars were exchanged and I wondered how he managed to have any money at all. I silently prayed he had gas money to get him back to Pittsburgh. I definitely felt like a D.P. My mother was in Michigan, I did not know where my brother was and my dad in Pittsburgh. I had no concept of where I was and felt that maybe I never would unless I quickly learned this confusing pidgin English.

The house was as tiny as my grandmother. The living room had two wooden, hand made rockers with leather seats and backs. My grandfather, who made the chairs, must have been a big man because they were too big for both me and my grandmother. I thought how ridiculous we must look because when we sat back in the chairs, our feet stuck straight out.

My grandmother and I just stared at each other and smiling. Just then I remembered my father telling me never to smile when I had nothing to smile about as it was a sure sign of being an idiot. I got up as I didn’t want to look like an idiot; certainly not until she got to know me better.

The kitchen had a huge stove was used for cooking and for keeping the place warm. A pot of water was always hot for tea and a pot of Croatian soup always ready to eat. Meat was not to be had as we had no ice box. No one would deliver ice up there in the mountains. Our soup was made from a roux of butter and flour with vegetables from the garden. In the winter deer meat was plentiful and the neighbors were generous with their kill. Russian neighbors had cows and would have a goat pulling a red wagon up our road with milk. I learned to listen for the tinkling bell and ran out with a metal miners pail to get a penny’s worth. O loved the goat but few words were exchanged as I was the strange D.P. from another world who couldn’t even talk pidgin English.

Our morning fare was coffee mixed with chicory and half a cut of boiled milk and wonderful thick pieces of homemade bread, slathered with strawberry jam made from fresh strawberries. The remainder of the milk and butter were left in the miners metal pail and lowered into the outside well to keep cool.

Like all other youngsters, I fell into the routine of “early to bed and early to rise.” I had a steep climb to an attic room that had a small window. Every night I watched the sun disappear at dusk. As far as I could see out that window was a long green field where every night that huge orange ball went somewhere out of sight and I was sure that I was at the end of the world. I was never lonely until I saw the sunset and wondered how long I would be in that place where I was not able to speak and make myself understood.

A rooster crowing and birds chirping woke me in the morning. I quickly dressed and a pan of warm water waited for me with a cake of yellow soap. A towel from the clothesline and a comb made me look and feel human again. I knew the outhouse was outside but I couldn’t figure out why it was across the road behind a fence. I later learned that the road was put in after the shed was built.

The field was endless and I meant to explore it all. I picked some wild flowers and handed them to my grandmother and I was puzzled why she cried when I handed them to her. I figured old people did odd things like that and I better remember for I may be old with no teeth someday and maybe even sad too.

One day I was sent to the store for what sounded like cement kakes. I took my time as I dreaded talking crazy on my first trip to the store. The store was called CLOVERLEAF and was an adventure in itself. Tools were outside with cans of kerosene for lanterns, barrels of chicken feed were stacked on the steps, yard goods and yarn were haphazardly stacked on a countertop. A heavy-set lady was trying on a dress that was much too small for her and I tried not looking at her as her bloomers were exposed for all to see. I saw a boy about my age kneeling on the floor for a better view. Knowing that I saw him, he got up as I glared in anger at him for being such a brat. The store was busy so I waited beside the brat until the grocer had time to wait on us. I peeked at the boy when he wasn’t looking. He wore bib overalls that were frayed at the bottom and one end of the straps held together by a huge safety pin. His bare feet were very dirty and he tried to hide them when he became aware that I was inspecting him. I had hoped he would smile but his face of stone told me he didn’t want to bother with a dumb D.P. that couldn’t have a conversation.

The grocer leaned over the counter and motioned to the boy who mumbled what sounded to me like penny robbutts. My mouth was wide open as the grocer reached over for the tightly held penny in the grimy boy’s hand and from the counter gave him two chocolate covered rabbits. The boy’s smile told me that the grocer guessed right. The grocer now motioned for my order and I stumbled over cement kakes, said partially under my breath. A long reach to a top shelf brought down a package of cinnamon rolls. Then he said, and I thought it was magic, “you’re the kid staying with Rose Skonier, right?” I nodded my head as I did not know my grandmother’s last name. I told him that I had no money and he said, “no problem, we just put it on the book.” I thought to myself, “I think I will like it here,” as I unwrapped a cinnamon roll that tasted especially good since it was free. Penny Robbutts was waiting in front for me. While we didn’t speak, we both knew that we would have a most curious friendship.

The huge green field where the outhouse stood, now had company. Since my grandmother could no longer farm that field, a Russian family named Sopper, used the land for their Bull, Hottetta. In return, they helped her out in winter with firewood and out of season produce. I had never seen a bull before but knew enough not to get too close. A huge stake with a chain on it was dug into the middle of the field and at the other end of the chain was Holletta. Penny Robbutts and I would sit on the steps and try to talk with our hands and were both frustrated at how difficult it was to communicate. We threw stones in the stream, played ball and helped weed the garden. I ran in my bare feet to the post office every day for mail that never came. I had to assume that all was well with the rest of my family.

A pile of stones had accumulated from the garden and one day Penny Robbutts decided to impress me by throwing the stones at Holletta. Because it frightened me, he threw all the more until Holletta started to paw his front feet into the soil, steam from his nostrils made me look for a place to hide but P.R. stood shaking his skinny arm at the maddening bull. He climbed the fence and threw his last stone. It hit Holletta in his eye. In a split second the chain snapped as Holletta crazily ran at P.R. who was caught halfway over the fence and the only place to run was to the outhouse. P.R. got inside just as Holletta hit the outhouse full blast and knocked it down. With his head he pushed it about 75 feet. He would have continued to push it but the railroad tracks coming from the coal-mine stopped him. P.R. was able to climb out of the top and ran around the bend and I didn’t see him after that. Neighbors heard the crash and ran to help with shovels and picks as my grandmother started to hit Holletta with her broom. Mr. Sopper, calmly came from the barn with his favorite cow lady. I swear this cow blinked her big eyes at Holletta as she sauntered slowly moving her hips like Mae West. Holletta froze at the sight of Lady as Mr. Sopper put a rope over the bull’s head and under two of his legs. Neighbors opened the fence and led Holletta in as they guided Lady close to him but kept her outside the fence. Once the stake was positioned, Holletta was calmed with a barrel of fresh clover. Grandmother and I walked silently up the road as she sobbed quietly, lifting her dress periodically to dry her tears. I never told her how the bull got loose as my pidgin English was never perfected. The next morning the Sopper family and neighbors came and built a new outhouse on our side of the road.

P.R. and I found a discarded roll of wallpaper and decorated the interior and the grocer sent a new toilet seat cover. Grandmother put a hand made rug on the floor and all passers-by stopped in to see our lovely outhouse. In the shape of a heart, carved into the outside wall of this better-and-improved product is the legend, “P.R. loves D.P.”

Originally Posted (Jul 02, 2002)


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