Saturday, October 1, 2016

The American Dream

The upcoming Presidential election has many of us questioning ourselves and others on many topics, the 'American Dream' being a common one.  I met, Nancy Newcomb, while engaged in one of these discussions with her and my mother at the dinner table in their retirement home. "My father immigrated from Siberia", Nancy said, and  I became instantly intrigued.  Feeling certain that I could find some answers, I arranged to meet with her the following week to learn more.

My mother joined me on the day of my visit, and we entered Nancy's quaint and cozy apartment which overflowed with family photographs and meaningful momentos.  A small stuffed porcupine sat next to the television set, reminding her of childhood days and growing up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.   The three of us sat in a circle of comfy chairs, surrounded by framed memories on every wall.  I jotted down some notes, and this is Nancy's story.

Her father, Michael William Barenow, was born in Irkutsk, Russia, in 1895, one of fifteen children whose family operated a granary,  Tsar Nicholas ordered Michael's father to stop giving his extra grain to the peasants living in nearby villages.  More than 100 million peasants toiled on small plots of land in Russia at the time, living in abject poverty and misery.  Michael's father refused to obey and Tsar Nicholas exiled him and his entire family to Siberia.  Leaving their middle-class lifestyle, he became a captain of a sea-going vessel...sailing up the rivers to the North Pole.

Michael's cousin, who married the cook that worked in Michael's childhood home in Irkutsk, immigrated to the United States and settled in Detroit, Michigan.  Michael followed him in1913, at the age of eighteen, and journeyed by Trans-Siberian Railroad and sea to the New Jersey shore.  Michael lived in a boarding house and learned the Tool and Dye trade in Detroit, Michigan.  WWl began less than a year later and he enlisted as a volunteer in the U.S. Army.  "He wanted to be a good citizen of America and fight for his new country,"  Nancy told us.  Michael fought in France, where he sustained a gunshot wound in his back and Mustard Gas poisoning, which he never completely recovered from.  

The end of the war brought him to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he met and eloped with Lorraine Schable.  The Barenows raised three children in Kingsford, Michigan, a small village near Iron Mountain, in the Upper Peninsula.  Henry Ford opened a factory in Kingsford, because the tall Pine trees growing on the hillsides fulfilled his need of wood for the station wagons he would build there.  Ford built three city blocks of small houses in the forest for his factory plant workers and their families.  He even put swings in the trees for the kids, and tennis courts that were lit up at night!  Michael and his family worked and lived here very happily.

When Nancy was in the 7th grade her family moved to Ypsilanti, Michigan, where they lived in a rented house and her father worked in the new bomber plant that Henry Ford had built. WWll was in full swing and his factory made B-24 planes and later, C-119 planes.  Michael told his family that even when the men were away at war, and all the plant workers were women (hense the term Rosie Riveter), they completed 8 planes per day, from absolute beginning to end!  Ford sold the plant to Kaiser-Frazer at the end of the war and Michael continued to work there.

In 1948 Nancy and her family moved into a brand new home that the entire family worked on after school, on weekends, and after dinner until dark.  They pounded and straightened nails after pulling them from used boards, and they pounded mortar from used bricks.  Michael made sure that every un-needed board was kept in a wood-box under the porch, so it could be burned in their fireplace. "He didn't believe in throwing anything away,"  Nancy explained, "He wanted to show people that you can do a lot with a little."   The fascinating house was featured in Popular Science magazine in 1951.  The article is featured below and it is amazing to read!  When Michael retired as Manager of the By-Products Store of Ford Motor Company, he sold the house and he and Lorraine bought a cabin on Otsego Lake, in Gaylord, Michigan.  

Nancy is holding a picture of her family standing in front of the house; everyone is gone now and she misses them very much.

Before I left I noticed this poem on the wall; I was not surprised to learn where the 'man of the house' got his strength.

Michael never saw his brothers and sisters and parents again after he left Siberia. He fought in a world war for his country, though his citizenship was less than a year old and he built a house for, and with, his family; all the while demonstrating how to make a lot out of a little...remarkable!  I think that is my answer, the American Dream is faith, family, freedom...the freedom to make a lot out of a little with dignity and hard work!

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