The digital release of U.S. military records a few years back helped me fill in an incomplete family story. This Veterans Day seems a good time to reprint my resulting blog post:
In August 1900 a man ended a trans-Atlantic voyage at New York Harbor. He was 25, a farmer, and spoke only Italian. He’d a vague plan to settle in Pittsburgh, but no money to get there.
Within months the man was in yet another country, serving in the Army of Occupation Military Government of Cuba, by which the United States ruled a spoil of its 1898 victory in the Spanish-American War. By 1902, the year formal control of all but a base at Guantánamo Bay was ceded to Cuba, the man was managing a hotel not too far from Yale College.
He’d received U.S. citizenship for his service.
He might’ve helped rebuild after the ’06 earthquake in San Francisco.
The 1910 census found him in Denver, where a widow rented him a room. He’d married an American 15 years younger than he, the Buffalo-born daughter of immigrants from Poland. They’d a son, whom the census-taker guessed was somewhere between 6 and 12 years old. In 1913 another son was born, in Hartford, Connecticut.
Within years the man was alone again, waiting tables at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C. His wife kept house for an old-line Connecticut family, with whom she and the eldest son, a “boarder,” lived. Records place the younger boy with neither parent. He was to be found, rather, with a middle brother, whose birth in New York available records overlooked. (It’s said that a 4th child had fallen ill and died, without benefit of Last Rites because a priest refused a sibling’s plea that he leave his dinner to minister to a poor family.)
The 1920 census lists the younger boys, ages 7 and 8, as “inmates” at the Washington Emergency Home for Children. Both already could read and write English; indeed, while growing up at the D.C. orphanage, the middle son would win a medal in an interschool track and field contest, the American Legion award for leadership, and a leatherbound copy of Kidnapped inscribed with academic praise from his principal.
Secondary education was, of course, out of the question, and so by age 19 the middle son was waiting tables in Philadelphia. His mother having died from diabetes just before doctors learned to treat the disease with insulin, he lived with his father and eldest brother. The youngest brother was nowhere to be found.
Eventually the middle child would move to Chicago. He and his wife, both members of labor unions, would raise a family of their own. They would see grandchildren attend universities. One of those grandchildren, I have stayed on business at the same hotel where I now know that my great-grandfather, now buried in a V.A. cemetery in Milwaukee, worked as a waiter.
This is a story of military service, for it emerged quite suddenly from discovery of Angelo Bruni‘s draft registration card, pictured below — registration not for the Spanish-American War era in which he served, but rather for World War I, which his country of choice expected him, at age 43, to be ready again to serve. It is a story of immigration, of the opportunities and limitations that 20th C. pioneers, if you will, confronted in a new land with unfamiliar customs and culture.
Columnist David Brooks recently wrote of a “Catholic Boom,” attributing successes of today’s generation to some essential evolution among Roman Catholics of European ancestry. Even making the dubious assumption that all members of this group indeed have succeeded, the story just told points to far different reasons for that success. It points, 1st, to the hard-scrabble tenacity with which newcomers worked to overcome odds. It points as well: to the end of prejudices against ethnic Catholics, such as the stereotype that equated Italians with gangsters; to a GI Bill that rewarded those who served in uniform not only with citizenship, but also with the means to better themselves after service ended; to the expansion of public education institutions at which they and their descendants could excel; to advances in medicine that made it less likely that they would die young of treatable diseases; and to the enactment of hard-won laws that secured for hard-working people a living wage and a pension should they live a long life.
In pointing to those 20th C. factors for success, this story points too to a 21st C. framework for treatment of those who seek opportunity in the United States of America.