Monday, May 14, 2018

'What Happened to America?': An Ireland Native Poses the Question

By John Joe Baxter

Wow! Did I have it good.... or did I have it good? I wasn’t alone.

I came to America in 1954 on the final voyage of the M.V. Georgic II. I will never forget the sea sickness I experienced, but that’s a story for another day. My main focus is to point out how I adjusted from being raised on a farm in Ireland and how well I remember the good times in early America. You see, while living as a 17-year-old in Ireland, there was no electricity and no running water or bathrooms in our thatched cabin. When I arrived in the United States, it was a country that seemed to have everything. When I disembarked, I saw people of many different hues. I immediately thought something was medically or physically wrong with them, and fear began to take hold of my body and senses. Having to search for my Aunt Lilly (McCabe) in the crowd was terrifying, to say the least. After locating her, we headed to her apartment on 103rd Street and Columbus Avenue. My only experience with this type of structure was when I had to travel to Dublin to get my passport and was introduced to electricity for the very first time. I thought it was some sort of gift from heaven.

Once I set foot on American soil, I was expecting a farm with cows, pigs, horses, sheep, chickens, roosters, donkeys, cats and dogs. I couldn’t wait to see all the beautiful animals similar to the ones I left behind. I was so lonely and longing to be with the animals that I started to cry. I did so silently, which was part of an effort to conceal my sorrow from Aunt Lilly. Eventually, she took me to a building that was located downtown. A man came out and spoke with her for several minutes. She introduced me and told him I just arrived in the country and was looking for a job. He told me to be there at 8 a.m. the following day. I thought, "That's kind of late to start milking cows." I also thought it must have been a very small farm because at that time of the morning I would have finished milking the cows in Ireland.

I reported for work and the man escorted me to an assembly line. A conveyor belt with women's handbags encircled the area. Four Spanish women were standing at different locations rolling newspapers into a ball and placing them into the handbags. The women looked like some of the ones I saw when I exited the ship. I was totally disappointed and shocked because I expected to see the animals. I soon realized that was never going to happen. One of the bosses showed me how he wanted the newspaper rolled and placed in the bags, and I was forced to accept the fact that life as a farmhand was over.

Later, I discovered the girls were doing different things with the bags and I was the only one stuffing them. One girl was checking certain things on the bags and pulling the zippers closed. Another girl was putting straps on the bags. A third girl was putting a buckle on the bags. I don't recall what the fourth girl was doing.

I wasn’t long there when Aunt Lilly’s brother, Joe McCabe, offered me a job as a carpenter apprentice. Joe was a delegate in Local 1162 United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America. At this point, I was getting used to the American way of life and didn’t know what to do with my money. It seemed like it was coming out of the walls since Aunt Lilly was only charging me ten dollars a week for room and board. In those days, the mid-1950s, there were huge dance halls where hundreds of people would meet dance and enjoy the bands. Places like City Center, The Jager House, The Caravan and Ireland's 32, to name a few, were often filled to capacity. People loved to dance, and I was no exception. The jitterbug was the most popular because it was fast and lively. Then, there was the Fox Trot and the old-fashioned Waltz. It was the big band era, and I spent many nights dancing with some of the most beautiful and spirited Irish women in New York.

The months passed, and I began to realize how much I liked America. However, I still longed for my homeland and the animals. I missed them so much. I was at a dance in Brooklyn when I met my wife, Theresa Cole. She was working as a telephone operator. Basically, she would scour the phone book if someone called in looking for a telephone number. We decided to pool our money and purchase our first house, which was located at 1415 Troy Avenue in Brooklyn. We never lived in an apartment.

I’m writing this to simply point out how good times were in those days. A week’s wages was a month’s rent. The minimum wage salary of one family member was enough to support the entire family and people lived accordingly.

What happened to America? Where did we go wrong? Here’s what I think happened. The fifties, sixties, and the seventies were good. Then, Ronald Reagan was elected president and working class families/salaries became a thing of the past. The situation has only gotten worse, and there's no end in sight. What's the solution? What I would like to see happen will most likely never happen. I would like the tax rates to be reinstated to what they were before Reaganomics. I also believe the wealthy wouldn’t mind that in the least. After all, even Warren Buffet believes his secretary shouldn’t be paying more than he is in taxes. 

John Joe Baxter is the author of the critically acclaimed book "From the Mountains of Munlough".

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