American Scene: From Ellis Island to Lax

From Ellis Island to Lax

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In Wung drove them to the Western Inn, where the boys turned on the television and settled in with Woody Woodpecker. This would teach them English, the father explained. They were familiar with Woody Woodpecker in Seoul; now they could follow the story line in their new language. He said they would be at the hotel only for a couple of days. He had rented a $750-a- month, two-bedroom apartment in Glendale because he had been told the schools in that northern suburb would be good for his sons.

In a month, Park said, he planned to expand his business interests with a one-hour photograph-processing establishment near the billiard hall. He had just purchased a $41,000 French-made processing machine. His only regret, he said, was that he had to make a 20% down payment; if he had been in the U.S. longer, he could have qualified for the financing with only 10% down. These little businesses, Park explained, were just stepping-stones toward getting into high-tech research -- analytical chemistry, immunology, protein chemistry, cell biology, molecular biology -- with Korean scientists as partners.

Soon, Park said, his wife would go to school to train in interior decorating and he would go to study English and broaden his knowledge in liberal arts. And, oh yes, he nearly forgot: after Korean cars are introduced on the West Coast this fall, he intends to open a repair and parts shop.

Sung Joon's attention strayed from the TV to his father's key ring, a great metallic wreath. Why, he asked, so many keys? "Are there so many thieves in America?" In Seoul, they had lived without locks, and the father had carried only car keys. As Park explained that keys were necessary in this country, his wife drew a visitor aside. She said she was certain she would enjoy her new life, but for now it was something of a strain. They had had to sell their home and furnishings, coming here carrying only clothes. The worst part, she said, was leaving her relatives. Then she ran her index fingers from the corners of her eyes down her cheeks, showing how she had cried.

The faces in the faded photographs of the immigrants on Ellis Island are sad too. "I never managed during the years I worked there to become callous to the mental anguish, the disappointment and the despair I witnessed almost daily," said a young interpreter named Fiorello La Guardia. "At best the work was an ordeal."

By 1907, after the facility had been functioning 15 years, 5,000 was unofficially regarded as the maximum number of immigrants that could be processed in one day. However, during that spring, there were days when maximum capacity was exceeded twofold. They were jostled, pulled, pushed and misunderstood. There is the story of the Jew who cried out "Shoyn fargessen!" -- already forgotten -- only to have his name set down upon his documents as Sean Ferguson.

Given the confusion and the size of the mobs, it is astonishing that 80% got through within hours. Felix Frankfurter got through. Knute Rockne's health, mind and abilities were found to be acceptable. Irving Berlin, Bob Hope, Sol Hurok, Samuel Goldwyn and Elia Kazan were examined at Ellis Island, as were Louis Koch, the mayor's father, and Immaculata Giordano, Governor Mario Cuomo's mother.

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