An American Citizen.
Oran, Algeria - 1943
Strong, physical, good looking, choleric, charming a scuffler with the gift of the gab and dark eyes that would petrify the feistiest, Nicolas 22 had many sides to his flamboyant personality. Generous and loyal in friendship, turbulent in love, the man could sweep you off your feet or beat the hell out of you for no more reason than he was feeling that way that morning. I guess that's what attracted Mireille to him. They had a marriage of love and Mireille soon got pregnant of her first born. Exactly nine months after her first child she got pregnant again with her second child, me.
In 1943, Algeria had been a French colony for hundred and thirteen years. However, the political status of Algeria was that of a French province as Corsica or Brittany, although located in North Africa, on the other side of the Mediterranean. Oran is a port-city, the second largest in North Africa. Modern, affluent and effervescent city in which my life started.
1943 was also a time of great turmoil around the world and American troops were amassing in the surroundings of my native city in preparation for D-day. The only remnants of the French army, that was to participate in the landing in Italy was made up of French citizens born in North Africa.
The French citizens of Algeria came from a variety of origins as Algeria in 1830 was to become the Promised Land, to the poorest of the poor from around the Mediterranean basin, in very much the same way as the United States to other Europeans. The citizenry was composed of all these people with origins in France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Malta, Portugal and even Germany as well as Ireland. In this mish mash of immigrants were also Jews and of course Arabs and Berbers who where the real natives. The first group of Europeans was settlers, dominated by the “real French” who in essence were the bosses. The Jews had been there for centuries and most of them spoke Arabic. The settlers spoke some Arabic but the official language and dominant culture was French. So all of this people started learning at school that their ancestors were the Gauls and had to learn the rich French history and the succession of its kings and queens. At home though, most of these French people had a second language. In the case of Nicolas and Mireille, they spoke French, Spanish and Valenciano, which is a dialect of Catalan.
Oran was a very colorful city, buoyant with joy, laughter, tight knit friendships and with its share of Spanish or Italian style drama. Each neighborhood had a dominant culture and the one I was born in had a definite bent towards the Spanish culture.
Nights in the city were often balmy and temperatures remained even for most of the years so people would seat outside chatting with neighbors while some other would do the Boulevard, strolling back and forth, chuckling and making fun of each other as they crossed or walked by. The streets were filled with people day and night and the smell of street barbeques the Arabs operated filled the air in a strange mixture of iodine, rotting seaweed, laurel and jasmine. On one street corner, a woman could be singing a Rumba in Spanish while across the street a man would try to outdo her with his Italian Cantata.
The Arabs fanned their Cannoon to keep the live charcoal going while a million flies, some successfully would try to get through the protective netting loosely thrown over the Shish Kebab of giblets and meats. Old women knitted, keeping the daily gossip going on while men would get together and talk about the war and business. Young men would all speak French and talk about the draft, the war, the girls and invariably would end up fighting over which soccer team was most capable or which soccer player was a shame to the game or if Marcel Cerdan would eventually beat the hell out of Jack Lamotta. However the raging war in Europe was on everybody’s mind and the coming of American troops although welcome got the war closer to this happy city and no one enjoyed facing it.
Business was a big part of life in French Algeria. Because of their humble origins most people immigrated to Algeria for a better life. They were settlers. Rugged, courageous and hard working for the most part they were an optimistic and enterprising bunch. Undeterred by adversity, the Black Feet as they became to be known, the Europeans born in Algeria were exaggeratedly exuberant, colorful and dramatic in the way they conducted their lives. This was my people.
Nicolas had his own business. He had a tire and automobile spare parts store with its own gasoline pump. He also owned a fancy car, an Hotchkiss. Women were after him like flies on a honey bowl and he took full advantage of it to his young wife’s great chagrin. Nicolas also enjoyed drinking Anisette with his group of friends most of whom were his brothers in law Jules, Vincent, Antoine, Michel and the young one Francois. The last of his brothers in law Joseph was still a teenager then and did not participate much in the activities of this family gang. Anisette is also known as Ouzo in Greece. It is almost pure alcohol flavored with anis seeds. It was drunk in Algeria before meals as an aperitif while munching on Kemia, an Arab name for Tapas or appetizers. Because the Algerian coast was rich in marine life, the Kemia which was given away for free so you would drink more anisette, consisted mostly of mussels, shrimp and all types of crustaceans as well as fish, fried, boiled or braised depending on the catch of the day. Portions seemed to be gigantic, as people did not want to have anything to do with the poor past of their forefathers. Abundance was sine qua none in Black Feet’s life. The problem though was that anisette would go straight to your head and would get you drank out of your mind in no time. They were three types of drunks. The criers, the vomiters and the brawlers. Nicolas belonged to the later although he never staggered or looked drank in the slightest way. However Mireille knew it only to well as she was on the receiving end of it.
The American army arrived with great fanfare. To the Black Feet people who thought a great deal of themselves and their affluence, so much wealth in an army was unimaginable. GI’s were stationed on the flanks of the Santa Cruz mountain. This volcanic mountain falls abruptly into the sea west of the city. On the East side of the mountain lays the modern city of Oran with its skyscrapers, its sea-front boulevard bordered with thick Saharan palm trees and its majestic empire style city buildings. The mountain top is crowned with an old medieval crusader’s fort, lower down the slope, the French had built a grandiose cathedral adorned with a large statue of the Black Virgin of Africa. On the other side of the mountain is the Port of Mers-El-Kebir, the largest naval base of the Mediterranean.
When the GI’s entered Oran throwing packages of chewing gum at a population that had heard about the horrors of German behavior. It was better than Alice in wonderland particularly when the army would set up camp and in a few short days later would change location leaving behind all sorts of material and equipment that made the joy of many a man. Cigarettes and Spam were plentiful and life was great except for the fact that soon, very soon perhaps everything could change for the worst.
That unusually chilly and wet morning day in January a group of armored vehicles stopped in the middle of the street of the neighborhood. There had been an accident ahead and the victim was no other than Helene, Mireille’s older sister. She had slipped and fallen on the wet paving to roll on the tramway tracks in the middle of the street just as the tramway was passing. The machine had severed Helene’s left leg right at the middle of her thigh. Nicolas who happened to be close by when this happened did not lose his cool and quickly garroted the amputated leg, loaded the poor screaming woman on his shoulder and rushed to the nearest Jeep. Nicolas did not speak English but the two men aboard the vehicle who did not understand French quickly assessed the situation and without hesitation embarked him and Helene who had now passed out and rushed to the US army hospital unit. Outside the military hospital tent, one of the men in the Jeep, with the help of an interpreter congratulated Nicolas for his swift reaction to a potentially dangerous situation. Helene was ok.
Instantly Nicolas liked the man. The American officer had a distinctive aquiline nose and a light mustache. Very dark deep blue eyes and dark eyebrows gave the man a air of strength and shrewdness. His large communicative smile and his strong handshake were greatly appreciated by Nicolas as an immediate bond formed between the two. Somehow they would become friends. The man’s name was Barney. When Barney found out through a translator that Nicolas was in the automobile business the bond cemented faster as he introduced himself as the head mechanic for this particular unit and offered him a tour of his operation at the camp.
Nicolas was amazed by the quality and the quantity of automotive material and parts such a small unit was carrying. As he marveled at a pile of tires, they exchanged a knowing accomplice look. Soon they would become partners in crime. Barney stilling tires from the American army and Nicolas selling them on the black market in Oran and throughout the region, neither of them ever understanding each other’s language. This operation lasted up until mid-May of 1943 , a few weeks before I was born.
My grand father was a barrel maker. He owned a workshop in which they would fabricate about fifty barrels per day. Most of his workers were from Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Arab origin plus his own children, Jules, Vincent and Francois, my uncles.
My grand father was a tall and stern man who everyone called the Judge. His pronouncements were the final decision and the whole neighborhood would come to his shop to solve business, social and sometimes matrimonial disputes. He was a powerful man who managed his business and his family with a iron fist as his young wife had been taken away by tuberculosis at age 39 leaving him with eight children to raise, four men and four women. The family quickly grew with the addition of husbands or wives.
Barrels are very difficult to make and are physically extremely demanding which made all my uncles physically strong and fit in the process. You first have to unload the wood and the hoops from the trucks. Then you have to saw that wood into staves. Then you must even and plane them. Then you must nail onto both edges of the staves a leaf of rush, which will waterproof the space between the staves. Once ready you built a wood fire inside of a hoop, which you had previously riveted. The fire must reach a very high temperature because the object is for the heat to allow the three inches thick staves to bend under the pressure of the tourniquet. One by one you place the staves vertically inside the hoop on the ground. As they fan out you wrap around the top a rope with a tourniquet. This process takes place while the fire is raging. It gets hot and takes Herculean force to close these thirty some staves to get together at the same diameter as the bottom hoop. You then place the top hoop and now have two ends to your barrel. Four more hoops are needed to properly tight-fit the barrel, however you must first fit the two bottoms at each end of the barrel and this is no small matter. The hoops around the barrel must be extremely tight and to do this, in those days the tool consisted of a ten pound hammer. Men would walk clockwise around the barrel, pounding the hammer on the hoops and would walk counter clockwise after each circumference and this around ten times back and forth for each hoop. A very good barrel maker would take sixty minutes to finish one barrel. My grand father would do one every forty-five minutes. No wonder the man was feared.
At the very Northern edge of the courtyard where the finished barrels were piled up awaiting to be paraffined and pick up by transport trucks on their way to the wineries in Algeria or the ships bound for France, was a tall palm tree. On Friday nights after a week of difficult labor, my grand father’s favorite past time was to go fishing with his children so they would look at the palm tree. The branches of the tree would let them know in which direction the wind was blowing therefore which would be the best area of the coast to go fishing to the next morning. The dominant winds in Algeria are the westward winds, the best ones for fishing as the waters would be troubled but not muddy. No wind, no fishing. Sirocco is the Southern wind that comes from the Sahara desert. When the super hot and sandy Sirocco was blowing, the sea was like a plate filled with oil as my grand father would say and the sand filled sky was red. No fishing either. Fortunately the Sirocco does not blow too often.
As the winds of war became stronger, my grand father summoned his children to grab picks and shovels to dig an underground bomb shelter. There recriminations where short lived at the sight of the cold deep green eyes of their father. The family was growing as women were giving birth and no, no employee had to know how and where the shelter was built and above all they did not need to know what was inside. My uncles worked for 40 nights to build the shelter but when it was finished it could have sustained a great deal of punishment. My grand father wanted his family shelter to resist a direct hit.
The French and American army, were preparing the civilian population to an eventual air attack by the Luftwaffe however it was not the German air force that would attack Algeria first but the British navy who decided to bomb anchored French ships commanded by an Admiral faithful to the Vichy government. Although the population had to suffer the consequences of this night of bombing, everyone was happy that French ships had been sank in the harbor of Mers-el-Kebir, an adjacent harbor to Oran’s harbor. The reason was that Black feet people as well as Arabs did not agree with the defeatist French Vichy provisional government and everybody wanted to fight the Germans and the Italians alongside the Americans.
Barney invited Nicolas and Mireille at a Mess dinner. The interpreter was very busy and when Barney put his hand on my Mireille’s swollen belly, the interpreter quickly tried to explain to Nicolas that it was only a friendly gesture. As Barney spoke, the interpreter translated: “ I had a baby. His name was Dean. He died at birth but this one will be healthy like an American baby.”
At 5:30 am on June 2, the alarm sirens were frantically howling , the detonations and temblors of the shock waves of bombs shook up the population of Oran. This time, the Germans were flying over the city and were bombing at the outskirts. Nicolas, Mireille and their first son Robert lived a few hundred meters from the barrel shop. I lived in my mother’s womb. My grand father’s home was adjacent to the shop and my uncles lived also very near by. When my mother, father and brother arrived at the shelter it must have been quite chaotic and scary. My mother tripped on the first step and landed flat on her back 76 steps lower. Her sisters knew though that her screams where not from the pains of the fall but rather that the woman, through the shock, had given birth to a bald headed baby boy. It was 6 am on June 2, 1943. In good humor my aunts nicknamed me Fritz on the spot.
Although the shelter did not suffer a direct hit, the courtyard did and the labor of a whole season and my grand father’s workshop was ablaze when the family emerged from the shelter. After a long day at extinguishing the fire the members of my extensive family decided that the best way to finish the day was to celebrate it with a good meal and lots of wine. My father who had a gargantuan appetite pushed the food down his throat with more wine than usual and the day finished in a fistfight among brothers and I-n laws while my impassible grand father was watching. Around 10 pm, beaten and drunk they all decided to go to their respective homes and sleep it off.
My parents were early birds and I think so was the population as a whole. Weekdays started at 5 am. The typical French breakfast was a big bowl of café au lait with chunks of bread and butter swimming in it. Later growing up I would find it quite disgusting but that was it until the brunch break at 9 am. That day on June 6, 1943 was garbage day. As it is customary around the world, it is a man’s duty to take the garbage out. We lived in a two- story house. A Spanish family occupied the first floor and we had the second floor.
As my father was carrying the garbage can, a Jeep came to a screeching halt. Barney jumped out of the vehicle and gave a big hug to my father who had not seen him in a while.
My father was so happy to see Barney that he invited him inside. Looking at me Barney had tears of joy in his eyes when he took me in his arms. The men were celebrating my arrival with a few anisettes when my father had a brilliant idea. “Hey do you want to be the God Father ?” he asked a bewildered Barney. Anisette helping Barney acquiesced and at the same instant I was wrapped in a blanket and transported to the neighborhood church. My mother was still trying to powder her face to look half way decent by the time they would get to church, which was a quarter mile from home. The church was closed and my father started hammering the door screaming his head off at the sleeping priest while inquiring if he would not open the church because his lover was not dressed up yet which had for consequence to make the two Americans laugh whole heartedly when a constipated looking priest picked his head out the window asking why the demon had to disturb the best moments of the day. Recriminating but knowing Nicolas’ reputation as the local rascal he was, the priest preferred to condescend and make preparations for the baptism.
My mother’s family was known atheists. A family of converted Jews that escaped the remnants of the inquisition, which lingered over Europe for centuries. Although no one in my family addressed their origins, vestiges of the liturgy remained as ancestral customs that did not escape the keen sense of observation the lurid priest possessed.
By contrast, although he did not like my father who would not hesitate to hang rats on the altar, the priest had the utmost respect for my father’s family who was the largest benefactor of the community and he knew it only too well. On their way to the church my father had the Jeep stopped to pick up his sister who would become my God-mother. Henriette had learn English at school and could communicate a little with the Americans.
The priest started the baptismal ritual in haste, trying to hurry it so he could go back to bed. He knew my aunt, so he did not have to ask for her name but all the time he had looked at Barney with a very suspicious eye. Finally he asked Barney for his name. When Barney spoke, the priest screamed blasphemy and signed himself. “You’re Jewish!!! In my church!!! You cannot be the God father of this child.” My father got pissed off at the priest and grabbed him by the robe while Barney calmly pulled out his revolver and put it under the priest’s nose. “ You mother fucker, I’m leaving for Italy tonight and I might be dead by tomorrow, so you better baptize the child or I blow your brains off.” No doubt the priest got the message. Hurriedly the priest did his thing and when he asked what would be my name, without hesitation Barney said: Dean.
So Dean it is Amen.
Back home another few anisettes and Barney pulled a few dollars out of his pocket, folded them and pinned them on me.
This is how my journey to America began.
END OF CHAPTER ONE
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