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Ship's manifest evokes memories and mysteries

  • Author: Ken Landfield
    | Opinion
  • Updated: September 9, 2016
  • Published September 9, 2016

(Facsimile courtesy Ken Landfield)

My cousin the genealogist sent me an email last week. Attached was a facsimile of a ship's manifest "of inbound passengers (aliens)." The ship was the SS United States, an exceptional vessel in its day, which even now holds the Blue Riband for the fastest westbound transatlantic crossing ever by a passenger ship. The record was set on its maiden voyage in the summer of 1952. The "Big U" is still afloat today, but its future is uncertain; the SS United States Conservancy continues its efforts to keep it out of the scrapyard. While it was designed to be converted in time of need to a troop transport or a hospital ship, it was a commercial ocean liner with a capacity of more than 1,900 guests.

Two of the 20 passengers on the manifest page my cousin sent were my dad, returning from his studies on the GI Bill at the Sorbonne in Paris, and his new bride, my mom. It was her maiden voyage.

On this page, all the passengers were aliens, non-U.S. citizens, with the exception of my dad. Eight were German, four were French and one each were Austrian, Swiss and Dutch. There were three couples, a pair of teenage siblings and a widowed mother, the oldest listed at 76, with her single adult daughter. They all had specific destinations in the U.S., ranging from Park Avenue in New York City to Chicago, El Paso and Calexico, California. One couple had seven pieces of luggage; one single voyager had only one bag. They all paid the "head tax" (except my dad, the lone U.S. citizen). It's remarkable how much information is on that sheet of paper, mostly typed with some handwritten notations.

But what particularly struck me were the four passengers, a married couple and the mother/daughter pair, whose nationalities were listed as "stateless."

Stateless. No place to call home, no place to go back to. Rootless. Adrift. The very essence of a refugee. It was October 1952, seven years after the end of World War II, and people were still looking for a place to call home, a place to be. I wonder what their stories were. They were older than my parents, who are now deceased, so it's likely that their journeys have come to an end too. I hope they were able to find peace and happiness in their new homes, to settle and establish themselves, to start new lives that brought them some joy.

I've heard that my dad spent a fair amount of time telling my mom of the wonders that awaited her in Chicago, such as peanut butter and root beer, a taste for either of which she never did quite develop. While she was very proud of having become an American, she never lost appreciation of or affection for where she came from, and went back often.

I wonder if those stateless wayfarers ever got to go back to wherever they came from. I wonder how they felt about root beer.

Ken Landfield has lived in Homer since 1980.

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