Coming to America

The following is another excerpt from my upcoming book with the working title, Cowboy from Prague:

              Less than one month after landing in America with my two-word English vocabulary—“sank you”—my father hit me with a bombshell.

“Tommy is going away for three weeks to be a summer-camp counselor in a place called North Carolina,” he said in Czech. “He’s been able to work things out so that you can go with him as a camper.”

Tommy was the elder son of our friends and sponsors, the Eisners, with whom we were living temporarily on Long Island. He was going to supervise a group of New York City kids at High Valley Camp near Canton in the summer of 1949.

“But Papa,” I protested. “I can’t speak English!”

“That’s the whole idea,” he replied. “You won’t be able to speak Czech. Being around nobody but American kids for three weeks will help you learn English quickly. By the time summer will be over, you’ll be ready for school.”

I ran upstairs to the room I was sharing with Tommy’s brother, Steve. There, I buried my head in a pillow and cried.

            Papa told me I’d have to swim for my life, I whimpered. Now, he’s throwing me in with a bunch of sharks. They may not eat me, but they’ll be laughing at me because I won’t understand them and they won’t understand me. Why couldn’t we have stayed in Czechoslovakia?

            A few days later, Tommy Eisner and I boarded a train south. Born in Prague several years before the war, Tommy remembered perhaps a hundred Czech words, so we were able to communicate on an elementary level as we headed toward North Carolina. The following day, we arrived in Asheville, where we and the other campers were picked up and driven to Canton.

At High Valley Camp, the kids were divided into groups of six, by age and gender, with each group assigned to one of several small cabins scattered along a hillside. Each cabin was supervised by a counselor. Mercifully, Tommy was the leader of our group of boys, aged twelve to fourteen. We were the second youngest kids; the oldest were boys and girls going into their final two years of high school.

After selecting our bunks and unpacking, we walked down the hill to the main building, which housed the dining hall and several recreation rooms. Once we picked up our lunches, the camp director addressed us. I suppose he explained the rules and the daily routine, described the facilities and made clear what was expected of us. Of course, I did not understand a word. When he handed out written instructions, I stared at the hodgepodge of meaningless sentences and wondered how I could possibly fit into this alien world.

Tommy attempted to explain the contents of the hand-out, but his hundred-word Czech vocabulary failed him. Finally, he managed to give me instructions that I understood:

“Just follow what I do. If I’m not around, follow the guys in your cabin.”

Much to my surprise, not only my cabin mates, but nearly all the kids in the camp, came to my rescue. They did not laugh at my inability to converse, nor did they treat me as an inferior immigrant kid. They took me under their collective wing. They spoke to me in sign language, encouraged me to participate in camp activities, took me swimming and horseback riding, taught me the rudiments of the strange game of baseball. Most importantly, they made me feel welcome—just one of the New York City kids spending the summer in the Great Smoky Mountains.

One game my new friends did not have to teach me was table tennis. My father was an expert player and, after the war, I spent many hours volleying back and forth with him in back of our factory in Kojetice, our home town a few kilometers north of Prague. High Valley Camp had several tables and, each evening after supper, white balls were flying back and forth in fierce elimination games. The winner of each match remained at the table to take on the next challenger, while the loser sat down. Evening after evening, I was the last one standing, having beaten all comers—campers and counselors.

One day, the camp director pulled me aside and, using a combination of words and sign language, informed me that we were going to drive to Asheville “to play ping-pong.” I failed to understand his explanation of the reason, but I was fine with it. I was happy to play, no matter where or against whom.

The following day, a number of us piled into a bus and headed for the city. When we arrived at a school gymnasium filled with ping-pong tables, I was surprised by the fact that all the other campers climbed into the stands, while Tommy Eisner led me to a desk where he filled out some papers. Soon, my name was called, and I began to play. Just as in the rec hall at High Valley, I kept winning, and new opponents kept on coming and going. All the while, my friends in the stands cheered. Following my fifth or sixth victory, the High Valley kids came streaming down from the stands. They picked me up on their shoulders and carried me to the front of the gym, where a man dressed in a gray suit handed me a silver trophy. I had no clue what he meant when he announced:

“Congratulations to Charlie Heller, the 1949 junior champion of North Carolina!”

I returned to camp a hero, although I was not quite sure why. But whatever it was that I had accomplished, I now felt that I had taken a major step toward my father’s directive to become “a one hundred percent American.” I was sufficiently emboldened to join the chorus in two plays we performed for an audience of Canton citizens. Although I understood no more than perhaps every third word I sang in “The Pirates of Penzance” and “South Pacific,” I enjoyed myself immensely.

Upon my arrival at High Valley, I would have given anything if someone had offered to take me out of the place and back to the safety of my Czech-speaking family. But now I did not want camp to end. I was sad that soon swimming, horseback riding, hiking, tennis, baseball, and table tennis with my friends would be replaced by the rigors of school in another new, foreign place.

When Tommy and I returned to New York’s Grand Central Station in late July, I spoke passable English. So far, I had managed to swim. I found out that Papa, who had been owner and general manager of a major manufacturing firm in Czechoslovakia was back working in his industry—clothing. The only difference was that, instead of being top dog, he began at the very bottom, as a pattern-cutter. McGregor Sportswear, at the time the world’s largest firm in its sector, compensated him with the princely sum of $37.50 per week.

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