My immigrant journey began, innocently enough very early in my childhood with a visit to a library. The year was 1959.
I was nine when my father decided to take me to the United States Information Services (USIS) library, the only library in town.
It was not an ordinary library, and we did not live in an ordinary town. We lived in Asmara at the time, which is presently the capital of Eritrea, but back then, it was the second largest city in Ethiopia.
Asmara was a modern city in so many ways. The Italians had a big hand in building it into a beautiful cosmopolitan city with wide boulevards and wider sidewalks with trees and flower bushes planted on both sides, as well as in the middle of divided roads. There were water fountains with statues of children and fish spewing water from their mouths, gardens, parks and piazzas. A large catholic church was built on the main street to resemble the ones in Rome and Milan with 15 or 20 steps to the main basilica and a tall clock tower beside it.
The main streets had modern shops with large glass windows with mannequins selling European dresses for women and suits for men, pizzerias and restaurants with sidewalk cafes, gelaterias, espresso and cappuccino bars, camera shops, flower shops, music shops selling the latest tape recorders and TV sets, Fiat and Volkswagen car dealerships. There were also pristine white marble butcher shops with freshly cut goats, cows and pigs hanging for everyone to see, and skinless chickens laid out in the windows. Most streets in town were paved, and kept clean by sweepers. Even the carrossas, the one horse drawn carts which can seat a driver and at most two adults or three children beside him, were kept clean of the horse’s droppings.
The USIS library was an oasis for me. It was a 5 to 6 minute bicycle ride from where we lived. On our first visit to the library, I signed out a large book about dinosaurs. Membership was of course free. I began going there as often as two or three times in a week after school. I was more interested in the magazines section than the books. They had a nice corner with glass walls and comfortable chairs. I spent many hours reading Popular Science, National Geographic, Time, Newsweek. But my favourite magazines were LIFE and LOOK. They were bigger in size, and had lots of pictures of celebrities and events from around the world. My journey of discovery into faraway lands, current events of the day, science, technology and space exploration began when I was nine.
In Asmara, the Americans had built a base housing about 200 American servicemen and their families. The base, called Cagnew Station, was a walled compound of probably twenty acres, situated on the western edge of the city. Within these walls, which were about ten feet tall, with barbed wires on top, they had created a mini American town complete with a large grocery store, a movie theater, a bowling alley, elementary schools for the servicemen’s children, gas stations and all other amenities needed to make life as comfortable for the servicemen’s families as possible.
The base had its own radio and TV station. The radio broadcasted news and American music during the day, and the TV station broadcasted news, cartoons and comedy serials in the evenings from 6 pm to 11 pm weeknights, and all day on Saturday.
The local citizens benefitted immeasurably from these services the Americans provided for free. A local radio station and a local TV station broadcasting in English, albeit with a thick American accent, were unheard of in most parts of the world in the late fifties.
The Americans were there because they were establishing telecommunication stations around the world to track their satellites, a technology they were pursuing with vigour in those days and the government of Ethiopia under the rule of King Haile Selassie realized that courting the Americans would be of great benefit to the country, not just militarily, but socially, as well as economically.
Fast forward four years to 1963, and we moved to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, and a beautiful city with cooler climate, being over 7500 feet above sea level.
I began attending grade 10 in an American school called St. Joseph Secondary School, run by the catholic Jesuit priests who wore black robes and taught all the classes. We referred to them with the title of Brother in front of their last name. The school was a large and modern two storey glass and concrete structure, very similar to any modern high school building of today. The school was attended by students from the U.S., Europe, Africa, and a few like me from Asia. My best friend that year was from Armenia. It was a 20 minute bus and taxi ride from where we lived.
In Addis, the American library was on top of a hill and it was bigger and newer than the one in Asmara. It also had a bigger collection of books and magazines. And it was conveniently located half way between the high school and home. I used to get off from the city bus near the library after school, and I would spend at least an hour or more reading the wider variety of magazines and encyclopedias. John F Kennedy and Jaqueline Kennedy were in the White House. It was Camelot. Then, in November, Kennedy was assassinated. Our school was closed for four days to give respect and in mourning. King Haile Sellesasie was in the front during the funeral procession in Washington DC alongside Charles De Gaulle of France. I followed the U. S. current events with more interest as a result of the assassination.
The following year, we returned back to Asmara, and I returned to Comboni College, my high school which was an Italian missionary school run by Catholic Fathers who wore white robes and taught all the subjects in English and Italian. In Grade 12, in our History class, we had to do a current events topic. I chose the U. S. civil rights movement, which in those days was in the news in a massive way. Martin Luther King was organizing and leading marches and protests. Police dogs and water cannons were used to frighten the marchers and protesters. I spent hours reading about the movement, and wrote a huge 10 to 15 page report with pictures cut out from Time magazine and inserted them in the report.
In those days, I also began to listen to U. S. pop and rock ‘n roll music. I went to see The Beatles’ movie A Hard Days Night, and I sneaked in my portable Philips cassette player to record all the songs. I also began reading DC Comics and Marvel Comics. Superman, Supergirl, Batman, Aquaman, and other Super Heroes, I read as many as I could get my hands on. I bought them from a courier who brought sandwiches for the students at the high school, and probably collected the comics being thrown out by the U.S. servicemen from Cagnew Station. I used to buy them from him for 5 and 10 cents each. And he also sold Playboy for $ 1.00 and more.
In 1965, Ford released the Mustang, which was also featured in Goldfinger with James Bond. Little did I know then that in about four years, I would be a proud owner of a 1967 Mustang.
In 1966, I was finishing grade 12, and my parents were not sure where to send me for college. Would it be India or England? I had appeared for the General Certificate of Education ‘O’ level entrance exams of the University of London that year, and had received good marks. That is when a family friend, Chandubhai Patel from Canada was visiting Asmara, and told my father that Pravin should attend a university in the U. S., and study Electrical Engineering. That is exactly what he had done a few years before.
I went to the USIS library, and began researching through a couple of books they had and found the addresses about universities in the USA. My father was also talking and getting advice from a few U. S. Peace Corps volunteers who happened to be working in Asmara. President Kennedy had started the Peace Corps in 1961, a bold initiative to attract young men and women to volunteer all over the world and promote friendship and goodwill.
After selecting and applying to about 8 different smaller universities in the Midwest that we could afford, I accepted the admission to Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, Tennessee. It was over 13,000 km away from Asmara. But my father and mother were brave, and I was naïve. I was the first one from our friends in Ethiopia to go to the USA. And the first one from my father’s village of Padgol in Gujarat, India.
I hopped on a plane to Aden in the last week of December 1966, and from there to London, New York, and finally, I arrived in Nashville, Tennessee on December 30, 1966. After spending the night in the Downtowner hotel, I took the Greyhound bus the next day around noon for a 2 hour bus ride to Cookeville, Tennessee.
It was a cold and cloudy grey New Year’s Eve. There were only about 3 or 4 passengers who got off the bus. The place looked so deserted that it felt as if everyone had left the town. I asked the taxi guy to take me to a hotel. He grabbed my two heavy suitcases, and drove around the block to the Greenwood Motel, a very small motel with about 10 or 12 rooms.
I signed in, went to my room, and after freshening up, walked over to the center of the town five minutes away. I saw a restaurant, but it was closed. In fact, everything was closed. So I walked back to my room, opened up my snacks that I had brought with me, and I had my first meal in the U.S.A., all alone, with a coke bottle I bought for 10 cents from the coke machine outside my motel room. I turned on the 13 inch black and white TV, and fell asleep right away.
Whitby, Ontario CANADA
“Libraries store the energy that fuels the imagination. They open up windows to the world and inspire us to explore and achieve, and contribute to improving our quality of life. Libraries change lives for the better.”