Peter Jelito: An Adventure?

By Guest Contributor December 7, 2014 01:40

Another FANtastic Tale of Adventure Peter-Jelito-4

By Peter Jelito   

Some of us undertake an adventure with intent and others are falling into it by accident. My adventure was the former but it also could be called “Taking a Chance.” Some chances have severe consequences while others have not. In my case as related below, the outcome could have been dire, albeit not life threatening but costly, financially as well as emotionally.

I grew up in Germany with strict parents, my father being a physician and my mother a homemaker during the time of World War II.   It was a fatal attraction, when I came in touch with the American culture at the end of the war.

The first incident was a rather strange encounter with an American GI, who stood watch at an ammunition depot that had been blown up by the German Army, shortly before the American tanks rolled into our village. Not being able to utter one word of English at the age of eight, my friends and I however connected with the soldier to the point, when he tried to explain the function of a hand granade which was interrupted by the appearance of his sergeant.

In the following years the exposure to American culture expanded from the 1940s and 1950s music on the army radio station, American Forces Network, to cultural exchanges with American families, which were by then brought over by the occupation forces.

When I entered high school in 1946, I remember the first English teacher I had, who aside from the regular assigned books, used the U.S. Army Newspaper “Stars and Stripes” as a learning aid. It was a stark demonstration between the king’s English and American idioms and pronunciation. While in high school, I experienced my first hamburger and Coke while earning some extra money as caddy at the U.S. Military Golf Course. The nine-hole course had been transformed from a former horse race track and was near our home in the suburbs of the city of Mannheim. Other examples of American culture were a jazz concert by Kid Ory, square dance lessons at the American Library and Information Center in town and friendships started with Quaker workers, who did relief work in the bombed out cities after the war.

By 1953 my knowledge of the English language was passable but not earning a “B” grade. During my apprenticeship as an electrician, my employer landed a job at a local U.S. Army base dental unit, and with his knowledge of English being zero, I came in handy to translate, however slowly. Later, while attending Engineering, I joined a square dance club on one of the local U.S. Army bases and became good friends with most of the couples in the club. The fact that a sergeant and his wife danced in the same square as a major and his wife, was new to me. In the German society this mixing of different social classes could not have happened at that time.

Sometime in late spring of 1958, the director of the American Library and Information Center, Ms. Denise Abbey of the U.S. State Department, presented a slideshow of one of her trips through the United States with the result of my enthusiasm about this country literally exploding. Previous thoughts about emigrating to the U.S. were strengthened at this time and I followed it up with a visit to the American Consulate in Frankfurt, without letting my parents know of my intentions. My fear at that time was that they would have strenuously objected, and I was afraid that waiting any longer would derail my hopes and dreams for my future.

My cousin, Fritz Plenge, who had emigrated to the U.S. some years earlier did give me a guaranty letter, that I would not fall as a burden on any local, state or federal government. I did receive a visa under a quota for engineers and with it a packet of other useful information, like living expenses, modes of transportation and the functioning of the political system. My farewell to my family happened in the latter part of August 1959, when at our last dinner together my father received a phone call to make a house call at a critically ill patient of his. Instead of coming with us to the train station to say farewell, he attended to his patient, who survived the heart attack.

An overnight train trip to Bremerhaven brought me to the port area, where I boarded the passenger liner M.S. Berlin. After nine days of crossing the Atlantic Ocean we passed the Statue of Liberty and entered the harbor of New York. I had about $200 in my pocket, an alien registration card and my German passport. After two days and three nights on a Greyhound bus, I arrived in Los Angeles early one morning, where my cousin Fritz Plenge met me.

There was no job guaranty and it was a hard lesson when I made many fruitless phone calls to companies after my arrival in Los Angeles. Small doubts started to appear about my decision to go on this adventure, but those soon faded when I did land a job, not as an engineer, but as a draftsman at a small electronics company. At least I could swim and did not sink and hopes of a better life replaced the doubts.

As a resident alien I was not exempt from the draft, as I found out in January 1960, only four months after my arrival. A letter from the local draft board arrived which started with “Greetings.” Rather than being in the Army for two years and possibly being in Germany as a part of the occupying forces was not very inviting. Instead I joined the U.S. Navy, which had better opportunities for me job wise. It also was a faster journey to citizenship and during that process, I did receive help from a lady Major at the Judge Advocate General’s office at the Pentagon. I was sworn in as a U.S. Citizen in the U.S. District Court in Washington, DC on October 8, 1963, wearing the uniform of a Second Class Petty Officer of the U.S. Navy.

After being discharged from the U.S. Navy I started to work as a field engineer with General Electric Co. in Los Angeles. After 26 years at General Electric I retired and my wife Penny and I moved to Tuolumne County. We live on a small ranch and enjoy retired life.

I never had any regrets to my taking a chance to come to America. As a matter of fact, as of this day it gives me goose bumps when I see the Star Spangled Banner being raised. The dice I had rolled in 1958 had an outcome that I have been satisfied with.

 Retired electrical engineer Peter Jelito lives in Tuolumne, California.

 To read our Tales of Adventure Contest winners’ stories, see the Winter 2014 issue
of Friends and Neighbors Magazine, available at these locations and by subscription.


By Guest Contributor December 7, 2014 01:40
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