He Is Us, pt. 2

     As you may recall from our last episode, we are glancing in the direction of immigrants to the United States through the experiences of the Ruppels, four Hessians in their mid-teens to early twenties, making their way out of the country ahead of the Hessian draft officials, in the distant year of 1843.  When we left them, they had made it to the coast, in good spirits but totally broke, without a pfennig to pay for transport across the Atlantic Ocean.

     Jacob, the oldest and the only male in the group, handled negotiations.  Finding a well-dressed ship’s captain and made the proposition: could an honet young man work his way across the Atlantic.  The captain asked if he’d ever been to sea before.  Jacob felt there was no use for a farm boy to pretend, and said no.

     “Then I won’t waste time trying to make a sailor of you,” the captain said, “But I have plenty of cargo to load and unload along the way, so I’ll take you across if you’ll join that crew.”

     Jacob was glad it had been so easy, but the captain raised one finger.  “But for one man’s work, I can’t ship four people.”  He looked over the Ruppel girls.  “We haven’t had a decent cook on this tub in out last three trips.  Can any of your sisters cook?”

     Well, of course, one sister said she’d been the family cook.  When she affirmed that, yes, she had certainly cooked fish before, she was signed on to the crew.

     “I like a clean ship and a tidy crew,” the captain went on, “So there’s always plenty of laundry.”  He nodded to the next sister, and then considered Magdalena, the youngestand smallest, a sixteen year-old who stood just four feet tall.

     “I have to go ashore at every port and talk to the port authorities and I need to look good,” the captain said.  “I have special suits of clothes for that, with lacer and gold buttons,.  That kind of laundry takes someone with small fingers and a delicate touch.”  And Lena was now a part of the crew as well.

     It sounded all right at the time, but in later years, Lena recalled that all she really saw of the voyage was soap suds: the captain DID have a lot of washing to do and, as they were still working their way along the coast of Europe, lots of stops to make requiring the use, and washing, of those special jackets.  But the trip, once onto the ocean, did not take long, and soon they were within sight of the New World.  And there they stopped.

     See, it was, naturally, a sailing ship, and they had encountered the fate feared by most experienced sailors: a complete lack of wind to make the ship go.  “Ve sat for two veeks looking at KOOBA!” as Lena told the story, still resenting Cuba for the way it had sat there, just out of reach, tantalizing them with the nearness of port, and the end of the voyage.

     The Ruppels said farewell to the captain, and his laundry tubs, in New Orleans, where they stopped at the Ursuline Convent, a well-known refuge for immigrants.  Not only were the sisters of the convent willing to help the confused newcomer to the United States, but they were also skilled nurses.  This was essential because New Orleans was in the grip of a cholera epidemic, a seasonal affliction of many large cities until the days when the importance of sanitation standards for drinking water was established.  (The hazards of proximity between sewers and drinking water…you get the idea.)

     One of the Ruppel sisters came down with cholera, and died in the convent.  Another sister was so touched by the sight of the sisters of the convent caring for dying strangers impressed her so much that she decided to sign on as a lay sister at the convent.  Jacob and Lena, however, had no desire to stay in New orleans, and got busy finding a way to get themselves farther north, perhaps where heat and disease were less common.

     Jacob found a barge captain who was headed up the Mississippi (I always heard barges did not move that direction, but this is the way I heard the story, and my grandfather had studied his river history and saw nothing wrong with the story.)  It was familiar work: Jacob would do loading and unloading while Lena….well, all she really remembered of the trip up the Mississippi was soapsuds.  The captain had his wife and kids along with him, so there was plenty of laundry..   At length, Jacob came to Lena and confessed, as she had been guessing, that he had fallen in love with the captain’s daughter, and intended to marry her.  This meant turning off the Mississippi and going with the captain and family to Ohio, which had not been their plan.  Lena opted to stick to the original plan alone and so, one merry day in 1843, set foot in GFalena, Illinois: four feet tall, sixteen, as mentioned before, speaking barely a word of English, and without any friends or acquaintances in this new place.

     But Lena had made it this far (I wonder if she didn’t do a lot of Jacob’s hob interviews for him) and Galena was a bustling, international center for the lead ore trade (lead ore is known as galena; no points for guessing where the city got its name).  She meandered through the crowds  riverside until her ears caught the sound of German being spoken.  It was slightly foreign German, not being a hessian dialect, but she could understand it, and she understood that something was going on.  She followed the German speakers to see what was so interesting.

     She wound up in front of a store where the proprietor was explaining, in German with some English mixed in, that it was expensive, but worth it.  Workmen were installing a big glass window at the front of his store (ion installments: glass was rare and delicate, so his window was actually dozens of small panes set into compartments of molding.”  Lena worked her way to the front of the crowd.

     There she noted to the storeowner, “Das ist ja ein’ grosses Fenster.”  (I have bnee withholding my high school German bravely so far.)  “That is one honking big window!”

     “It is,” said the owner, his chest swelling with pride.

     Lena looked him in the eye.  “You’re going to need someone to wash that window.”

     In very little time, lena had become the latest employee at the store, and, in return for room and board, doing the laundry for the storeowner’s family.  Lena was starting to pick up a pattern to American life.

     All went well until the day that Lena, running errands for the storeowner, felt herself flushed with fever, dazed by the sunlight, and intensely tired.  She thought it she sat down for a moment, she might recover, but Galena was not overly supplied with spots for servant girls to stop and rest.  She curled up on a pile of hay at the livery stable, waiting for the fever to pass.  It didn’t pass.  Galena had been gripped by cholera, and Lena realized she had caught it.

     “Hilf mir,” she called to passersby.  “Help me.”  But realizing what the problem was, the passersby passed by.  Two women put handkerchiefs over their faces and moved on.  Three white men crossed the street, and a black man turned and ran the other way.  Lena realized that after all her work to get to America, she was going to die in a pile of hay for rental horses.

     On Wednesday: Lena does not die, and if you looked closely, you saw the reason why in that last paragraph.

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