I’ve spent the decade since my father’s death piecing together a timeline of his life. While I know my father discussed the details of his freighter trip from the UK to America during my childhood, I sadly have forgotten most of those details. It bothered me I couldn’t learn more about the ship that he was on, but my initial searches turned up dead ends.
Then I took another look at his naturalization records on Ancestry.com, and discovered the name of the ship, SS American Inventor, was printed right on the form! I don’t know how I missed that initially. At first I turned up little information with the ship’s name, but then discovered that the ship had changed names over the course of its service.
The ship was originally christened the USS Theenim and functioned as a cargo attack ship during WWII, according to NavSource. (Reports say the name was a misspelling of Theemin, a star in the constellation Eridanus.) It served in the Asiatic-Pacific Theater during wartime and earned one battle star. After being decommissioned, it began its merchant service duties where it became the SS American Inventor. The ship’s name changed a few more times before it was sold for scrapping in 1970.
It was neat to see the images of the ship on NavSource. The very last image is of the ship in New York City in the mid-1950s. My father arrived in New York in 1957, so it was really neat to see an image of the city’s skyline during that era, to have a better understanding of the first glimpses of America my father saw on the ship. What an exciting moment for my father, who was just 25 years old and about to step foot in the country he would adopt as his second home.
With the profile of the two Tsarnaev brothers who are suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing evolving, it appears they were once grateful immigrants to America. Of course, they were children then. As they grew up, something apparently changed, especially for the elder brother. I’ve been thinking a lot about Dad and his own experience as a young man immigrating all by himself to America from Northern Ireland. He would have been about the same age as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving suspect and the younger of the two brothers.
Like the Tsarnaev brothers, my father hailed from a war-torn region which had seen a lot of bloody conflict with the government that controlled the area. Dad spoke openly about his hatred for the ruling British system in Northern Ireland and his deep-seated belief that Northern Ireland Catholics should be free from British control. From time to time, he would make vague mentions of IRA membership and how he couldn’t return home to Belfast because of his past activity. I’ll never know for sure but I will guess this was just a bit of paranoia on his part. I do believe that if he had stayed in Belfast and never immigrated to the U.S., he likely would have become heavily involved in the IRA. Dad was a very proud Irishman and while not a violent person, I do believe he would have been willing to lay his life on the line for the cause.
The only thing this made Dad a member of was a bar.
The IRA is of course designated a terrorist organization, though Dad always defended the group whenever there was an IRA-sponsored bombing that caused casualties and made the world news report. The U.S. government has played a mediator role in negotiations, with a mixed record of success. Still, I can’t imagine Dad being involved in an attack against his adopted country to make some sort of statement for the IRA.
Certainly, radical Islam and the IRA are two very different beasts. America was a very different country when my father arrived in the early 1950’s, though still heavily broken down by ethnic groups where he lived in Brooklyn. In the light of the tragic Boston Marathon attack, I wish I could ask Dad more about his experiences as a young immigrant trying to find his way in a rapidly developing America. Did he have doubts and frustrations? Did he ever want to leave and return to Ireland?
America’s diversity in race, religion and culture has been a unique and overall successful experiment. But tragedies like the Boston Marathon also highlight the struggles the melting pot creates.
My mom was talking to my dad’s sister recently, who is still spry at 90 and still living in Belfast. She mentioned that she was going to visit their grandmother’s farm, where she said Dad spent a lot of time as a child. It made me think about the drastic changes in geography in Dad’s life.
He started out in lush, green Northern Ireland, though perhaps the scenery was a bit grittier due to growing up in Belfast, which was rocked hard by the Nazis in WWII. Then he moved to England when he was just 17, where he lived the city life as a young working man.
Mom and Dad in Ruidoso
Then came the big change. He immigrated to the U.S. by hopping on a freighter for a two-week journey by water to New York City. The sights and sounds of the urban jungle must have been overwhelming. Then he spent some time in storied New Orleans before settling down in Los Angeles. Hollywood no doubt allured my Dad out West. The suburb he ended up raising his family in, Downey, was nice enough but not particularly special.
My parents retired in Ruidoso, NM about a decade ago. Some family members at first thought that my parents had moved to Mexico. Most people probably envision a desert-like environment when they think of New Mexico. A good deal of the state is arid, but Ruidoso is actually a mountain town, and known for its snow skiing. Dad mainly liked the climate there, though it got a bit too cold for him in the winter and he didn’t like the blustery winds the area is known for.
Dad spent the last two months of his life in Albuquerque. The city possesses an arid beauty, but we could also see the majestic Sandia mountains from my dad’s hospital window. So Dad was able to experience many different climates and ways of living over his lifetime. I’m guessing if he had to choose, he would return to the pastoral serenity of his grandmother’s farm.