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WORLD FOCUS: Starting life in America

What better time to celebrate the arrival of an immigrant to America than around the birthday of our nation?

It was one of my columns that triggered the discussion at the salon we held in the past at the now closed William & Mary bookstore cafe, on Merchant’s Square in Williamsburg, Virginia, where I now live.

The discussion was about how immigrants start their lives in America. I recalled that my wife and I arrived in 1958, on the Queen Mary at the port of New York City. Seeing the Manhattan skyscrapers was overwhelming.

Then, we spent, as guests, the first few weeks at the home of my cousin’s home in the Queens borough of New York City.

Dwight Eisenhower was president, and the country was undergoing a mild recession. Jobs were scarce, especially if your English was limited, as mine was. But I had a skill.

During the 1956 Suez War between Israel and Egypt, I volunteered to serve in the Israeli Air Force. There, during my few months of service, I learned to test and repair aircraft instruments. In addition of being a journalist, now I had a practical skill.

Looking for a job, I was told the New York Times advertising pages offers job opportunities in all kinds of fields. Indeed, there were several offers for aircraft instrument technicians, but all through employment agencies. The fee for connecting with an employer was a month’s salary. I found it too high.

I turned for help to the organization, “New Americans,” that assisted my wife and me to immigrate to this country. They said, they are not an employment agency and would not be able to help.

However, I learned the American telephone books have Yellow Pages listing companies by trade. I asked the organization to call several listed aircraft instrument companies and ask them whether they are hiring.

As a result of those calls, I had an appointment. The manager gave me a questionnaire to fill out. I did so, listing my education and previous employment record. When the manager noticed my old country college education and the fact that I used to be a foreign correspondent based in Prague, he said, “Sorry, you wouldn’t stay with us.”

At my next job interview, at Pan American Airways, I avoided answering those questions. To test my skill, I was given an altimeter to repair. To replace the broken part cost Pan Am $25. I asked the manager to give me only a small, glass-bead as a replacement. It cost 50 cents.

I learned this method of repair in the Israeli Air Force. I was hired on the spot.

Alas, my employment at Pan Am did not last long. I was offered a job as foreign news editor at the largest Hungarian newspaper in America, in Cleveland, Ohio. It took me a few years to transition into writing in English.

It was when the polluted Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire that we decided to leave the city. We moved to Lake Placid amid New York’s pristine Adirondack Mountains. But making a living there as a journalist and writing in Hungarian or Czech languages was not too feasible.

We opened a leather goods store, featuring mostly imported goods. We prospered, and I continued to write, now in English.

Fast forward three decades. We established a second home in Williamsburg, first just part-time, followed by winters in Virginia and summers in Lake Placid. Finally, we decided to move to Williamsburg on a full-time basis.

I became a columnist for the Virginia Gazette and developed close my ties with William & Mary.

During the 300th year anniversary of the chartering of the College of William & Mary, at a luncheon given in honor of Prince Charles, my table companion was Najeeb Halaby Jr., a member of the Board of Visitors. Halaby was known as a celebrated aviator who made the first transcontinental jet flight in U. S, history. He was administrator of the Federal Aviation Agency, CEO and chairman of Pan American World Airways, and father-in-law of Jordan’s King Hussein.

We chatted during the luncheon, and I told him my working career in America started at Pan American Airways. He wanted to know how I got my job. I told him because I saved Pan Am a lot of money.

Halaby said, laughing, “You see, you left Pan Am, and I left Pan Am, and the company went bankrupt.”

As Harry Golden would say, “Only in America!”

(Shatz is a former resident of Lake Placid and current resident of Williamsburg, Virginia. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place,” a compilation of columns.)