Immigrant Stories: Growing up in Brooklyn
Danny Gallacher died in 2003. When I was going through his things, I found a legal pad full of his memories of growing up in Brooklyn. This was one of those memories.
Introduction: When my father, Danny, was seven months old he came to the United States from Scotland with his mother and his two-year old brother, John. His father had gone ahead, found work in the shipyards and rented a cold water flat and sent for them. During the next few years Danny’s parents had four more children, a boy and three girls.
When Danny was seven his grandparents offered to take him and his brother back to Greenock, Scotland for a month. The trip was supposed to be a holiday for them and a relief for Danny’s young parents. That isn’t the way Danny saw it.
Gallacher: This trip “back to our roots” was probably supposed to be a reward, but to me it was a catastrophe. I thought, at the time, that we were being sent back for repairs or that we had not worked out in our new land. My feelings were of fear and dread rather than rejoicing.
But it didn’t matter what we thought, we were going, there was no discussion. We boarded the S.S. Caledonia, a ship that had made a fortune for its owners over the years transporting immigrants from Europe to New York.
My brother John and I had a cabin, one deck below main. Grandma and Grandda had an outside cabin on the main deck. I wasn’t that fond of Granny, but being separated from her and Grandda at a time when I was already feeling rejected and shanghaied was really difficult.
I got seasick even before we left New York. Three days into the voyage, my brother John got really sick. They took him to the infirmary and I didn’t see him again for at least a month. He was diagnosed with diphtheria and quarantined for the rest of the crossing. When we landed in Glasgow he was taken to an isolation ward where he had to stay for the entire trip. My grandparents took me to Greenock and I was “put off” at my paternal grandparents candy store.
This was not working out as a grand tour. It was more like a sentence to be served without parole. One of the few nice things that happened was meeting my Aunt Peggy, my father’s youngest sister. She treated me like a little king. She was disabled and lived with my grandparents and ran the candy store them, so she became my sitter.
The streets were all cobble stoned and so there was no roller skating or running like I was used to on the paved streets of Brooklyn. Just down the street was the slaughterhouse where farm animals were herded throughout my stay. The neighborhood had a very earthy smell.
We lived simply in Brooklyn but we always had hot and cold running water, heat and paved streets. Here I was in a place with a one-faucet stone sink, an outside toilet and a coal stove.
I slept in what they called a “hole in the wall bed” in the kitchen. Grandma and Grandpa and my Aunt Peggy slept upstairs. I was left alone again! There was not much communication with or about my brother Johnny so for all practical purposes I was an only child living with strangers. My Aunt Peggy made life there bearable for me by looking after me and treating me kindly.
One incident stands out clearly to this day. Grandda Peter came home drunk one night. I was asleep in the hole in the wall bed. He went to the icebox and in the process he disturbed Aunt Peggy’s cat nursing a litter of kittens. The cat jumped him. He grabbed her, tossed her and her kittens in a burlap sack, threw them in the sink, turned on the faucet and drowned the lot. I was hiding in my bed ten feet from him while he did this. I was terrified.
After two weeks, Peggy told me my brother was coming home from the hospital. I was overjoyed. That same day, though, I stepped off the curb outside the candy store and got hit by a motorcycle with a sidecar. I was looking the wrong way in this left handed country. I didn’t have any broken bones but I was scraped and bruised pretty badly. It took another week to heal me, and then it was finally time to leave for home.
It was a rough crossing on the high seas and I spent most of the time lying down. I did the only thing I could do for seasickness, sip water and eat soda crackers.
To say that I was happy to return home is an understatement. I was euphoric. My brother Johnny hadn’t died like I feared he would. I was even happy to return to school after the misery of Greenock. Eighty-fourth Street and Fifth Avenue never looked better. I was back with my family after experiencing what I thought was total rejection. The world was, once again, a good place to be for this seven-year old.
Immigrant stories runs every Monday in the Post Independent.
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