Hello and welcome back! I hope you’re enjoying this story of what life was like for our ancestors as they struggled to make America their home. If you missed the first two installments, you may want to check out this post and this one to catch up.
Thank you for reading, and please do leave a comment so I know you were here!
Nicola met Dominick as he stepped off the launch that ran back and forth from Ellis Island and Manhattan Island. The two brothers hugged and kissed each other as tears streamed down their faces. It had been three long years since the two brothers had last seen one another, and this was a moment they would cherish forever.
Nicola took Dominick back to Mott Street, and as they walked down the sidewalk, suitcase in hand, Dominick saw a very strange thing among all the street peddlers and merchants. What caught Dominick’s eye was something yellow from the fruit stand. It was long and slender, and it came in bunches. He walked over to touch it, to see what this strange thing was, when Nicola leaned down to his brother and said in Italian, “It’s a banana”. Dominick had never seen, let alone tasted, such a strange looking fruit before in his life. He bit into one and loved it instantly. Thus he was introduced to the banana, and I dare say, enjoyed eating them his whole life.
They then turned to Nicola’s apartment building, of which Dominick would share with his brother and three other men: five in all in a tiny room someone called an apartment. But this arrangement didn’t last long. Work was slow, and after one month in his new home, Dominick left New York City and traveled to West Virginia to find work in the coal mines. This was another giant step for Dominick because he went alone with no big brother waiting at the other end of his journey to protect and show him the ropes. One must also realize here that neither brother could speak a word of English, and if the reader has ever been to a foreign land where you did not speak the native tongue, nor they yours, you can imagine the lost and frustrated feelings our two brothers, and for that matter, all immigrants to America, must have felt upon their arrival to the New World. This is why they lived and worked and stayed together. This is why we have the “Little Italy’s” and the “Chinatown’s”, and the “Little Havana’s”. One could venture out, do one’s shopping, one’s work, one’s socializing, and never need to speak a word other than one’s native tongue. In a way it was good. The old culture and tradition were kept alive in their new adopted land where later generations could come to know their heritage and learn who they were, and to never forget where they had come from.
But it also was bad. For many, they never learned their adopted country’s language. They could never, and the Sorgente brothers were no exception, converse well with their grandchildren because the grandchildren were too far removed from the homeland’s language.
But I digress. Nicola followed Dominick one month later for the same reason, no work.
They found work in the coal mines of West Virginia for $1.25 per day; decent wages considering. It was now Dominick’s turn to take the lead and show his older brother around. Preceding Nicola by a month, he had secured lodging in “the men’s barracks” supplied by the mining company for a small rental fee. These “barracks” were actually small shanties lined in two rows separated by a pot-holed dirt street. They lived together and their closeness was what probably saw them through the hard times they faced. Working more below ground than living above it, the two brothers from Bari went through much adversity. At night Nicola would drink and gamble with the other men while Dominick, who was the only one between the two who could read and write, wrote letters of their adventures back home. This arrangement lasted one year. Then the world was thrown into turmoil.
The year was 1914, and the world was at war. The Italian government, needing every available soldier, ordered all Italian men abroad to return home immediately and report for active duty. Many refused, forcing the government to issue a warning, that if any Italian male citizen who refused to comply with their orders would be imprisoned upon their return to Italy in the future. This, of course, meant that if one did not comply with the order, one would not be able to return home ever again without running the risk of being thrown in prison or worst. Nicola, with this fear hanging over his head, and with the pleas from his mother and father to return, complied. So after only one year of working in West Virginia, he set out on a steamer bound for Italy, the armed services, and war.
Dominic stayed. He never told this narrator why, but I have my theory. If you may recall, he tried unsuccessfully to enlist in the Italian Army earlier but was rejected because of his height. This incident hurt him deeply, and I feel, even though he never alluded to the connection, was one reason for his refusal to return to Italy to fight for the Italians. There were probably others, but we will never know definitely. He stayed in West Virginia working in the coal mines until the war was over and in 1918 returned to New York City where he found work on the docks.
In the meantime, Nicola’s service in the Italian Army was a memorable one. It seems that his squad was trapped behind enemy lines, and as squad leader it was his duty to find a way out of this predicament. The night was cold and damp, and the full moon made it almost impossible for the men to escape undetected. Several men had already been killed, and the remaining handful of men was wounded to the extent that Nicola was the only one who could walk. It would have been very easy to surrender. In fact, no one would have thought badly of him if he had under the circumstances. His men were all shot up and dying right before his eyes. Their supplies were low; not much water left and hardly a biscuit between them. As for ammunition-forget it-Nicola was the only one who had enough strength to hold a gun and pull the trigger. What could one man do against many? All seemed lost. His thoughts drifted back to when he was a child and the fond memories of his mother and father in Bitonto. He thought of his sisters and how they would miss his stories of the New World. And he thought of his brother, Dominick, and how they worked in the mines of West Virginia together. And then all of a sudden it came to him as he stared at the hold in the ground where his dead comrades lay. The town they were trapped in had an underground water system, which had a catacomb of tunnels that ran throughout the town. Why not make their escape through these tunnels, he thought. Why not crawl on hands and knees to safety, to freedom, to life. It sounded so easy-for him that is. But what about his poor comrades moaning and drifting into and out of consciousness? They could not even walk. He could not leave them behind. That would never do. He would take them with him through the catacomb of tunnels. He would carry each and every last one of them on his back to safety.
He first started with the heaviest soldier. This made sense, for by the time he would get to the last man, he would surely be tired, and, therefore, the lightest man would be easier to carry. One by one Nicola made his way through the maze of connecting tunnels until he had brought all his men safely to the outskirts of town.
He was given a medal for his bravery; a national medal of honor. And even though his medal has long since been misplaced, all of the Sorgente family, past, present, and future, should feel very proud of Nicola for his bravery and heroic deed. To serve one’s country in its struggle for freedom is one thing, but to put the lives and safety of one’s fellow man above one’s own is the greatest gift a person could possibly give to another human being. When possible death was staring him in the face, when the pressure was on to make the decision, when it was easier to surrender than to fight, Nicola was cool under pressure. Nicola made the right decision. Nicola fought back. And won!
At the conclusion of the war, Nicola returned to Bitonto. Here he met, courted, and married Maria Rosa Piglionichi, a beauty with just the right ‘qualities’ from his native village of Bitonto. They lived for a while in Bitonto, but after the war the Italian economy was slow, and he had no choice but to return to America. Therefore, on November 17, 1920, with Maria Rosa pregnant with their first child and Nicola wanting his child to be born in America and be an American citizen, the young couple boarded a steamer, the S.S. Dante Alighieri, from Naples bound for America. The voyage was very hard on Maria Rosa who was seven months along. But they arrived in New York City’s Ellis Island on December 2, 1920 without complications and their daughter, Madeline, named after Nicola’s mother, was born on February 27, 1921 in a tiny apartment on Mulberry Street in the heart of “Little Italy” in New York City just three months after they arrived from Italy. Nicola’s wish had come true: the first American born Sorgente, my mother.
To be continued…
For the fourth and final installment, please click here.