Published in the Wisconsin State Journal on Saturday, October 29, 2011
If your 50s or 60s are closer than they may appear, this will be familiar.
If this was an American story, it would so closely resemble the plot of Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” that those of you familiar with the novel would instantly recognize the main characters, Lieutenant Frederic Henry and Catherine Barkley. Those names will do.
This, then, is the story of Frederic and Catherine, and it begins as World War II is ending.
Frederic is severely wounded and taken to a hospital where he meets Catherine, a volunteer. They fall in love. After the war they marry, and a son arrives. They look around them, consider their future, envision its years unfolding in the United States and decide to emigrate. They arrive in Wisconsin in the 1950s, and this becomes an American story.
I met Frederic and Catherine in Milwaukee not long after that. I was impressed by how much she resembled Ingrid Bergman, an impression undiminished even now. What I remember most about Frederic were his eyes. Frederic’s intensity, his steadfast determination to succeed in his adopted country was there in eyes that combined all he had witnessed with all he planned to accomplish.
Frederic turned opportunity into success. Did I forget hard work and determination? They were always part of Frederic’s narrative.
Two more sons are added to the story and go on to replicate the success of the parents. Like their parents, they live in Wisconsin. They are part of our narrative, our lives, the lives familiar not only to those of us with 50s and 60s in the rearview, but to all of us.
Here’s a story within this story. There is very little, from woodworking to electronics, that Frederic cannot understand and then build. Of course, woodworking involves an occasional bent nail. Frederic saves them and teaches his sons to straighten them.
My father, who, incidentally, was Catherine’s uncle, taught me to do the same thing. Not only is that a habit of thrift that I suspect is something near to genetic, but it is also a revelation of the kind of determination to succeed against long odds that is the story of Frederic and Catherine.
The micro becomes the macro. The gesture begets the achievement. Those hours in the basement with a coffee can of bent nails, a hammer and the anvil end of a machinist’s vise pay off someday.
Here’s another inside story. While I enjoy visiting Frederic and Catherine in the modest Sheboygan home they’ve shared since the 1950s, I also come away from each visit with a sense of envy. Catherine keeps their home so clean that when I leave I return to a home where I know I’ll never match Catherine. She is also one of those people who can create a meal for many out of thin air in a kitchen smaller than an RV’s. In short, her skills and determination match Frederic’s.
Those skills united to give us the contributions their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren have given us. What they brought to the United States and to Wisconsin they have given back many times over. Their arrival meant our perpetuation. Their success was our enrichment.
As long as the United States is the symbol of hope and the promise of a better future, it will be the singular model by which the rest of the world measures success just as Frederic and Catherine did.
Shouldn’t we celebrate that? Shouldn’t we drop the nasty campaign rhetoric of electric fences and out-of-control citizen patrols of the Southwest and replace it with a proud understanding of what it is about us that makes people want to be part of us?
Shouldn’t we look to the splendid example of Frederic and Catherine, even if now they may be Juan and Rosalita, or Jesus and Maria, and ask ourselves what might have happened if we had said no to their hope just as they were saying yes to our dream?
Link to the essay in the Wisconsin State Journal: http://host.madison.com/wsj/news/opinion/column/guest/karl-garson-immigration-a-wisconsin-love-story/article_d1fa86d4-01a8-11e1-a24c-001cc4c002e0.html