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July 3, 2013

Greg Kesich: July Fourth, baseball and an immigrant's welcome to America

There is a test that immigrants have to pass before they can become naturalized citizens.

They have to know the difference between the House and Senate, how many judges on the Supreme Court, what rights are promised in the first amendment.

But the book doesn't tell them when it's appropriate to bunt or invoke the infield fly rule. To really understand America, they need their children.

My father wasn't born here, and from time to time my sister and I acted as unofficial ambassadors to American culture. Sometimes we coached him on slang, ("Hey man, what's happening?") or explained Johnny Carson's monologue. Usually, we just helped him with his English by making fun of his accent. When he and his friends got together for family barbecues, I sometimes had to represent the whole culture myself.

Once when I was in high school, Dragan Naidanovich motioned me over to the circle of men.

"I hate baseball," he said. It was a provocation. He knew I was a big Yankee fan. "I been 30 years here and I don't understand it."

"What's to understand?" boomed Zoran Milkovich. "Three strikes you're out, three outs to a side -- that's the ballgame."' He was a master of idiom.

"It's a very logical game," offered my father, who never really understood it either. (World Series, Game 7, tied after nine, he changes the channel. "Nine innings is enough," he said.)

"Who needs it?" said Milorad Trifunovich, dashing with his prematurely white hair combed straight back and a Marlboro dangling expressively between his fingers. "Baseball is too slow. Why do you care so much?"

"Because I don't understand it," Dragan persisted "I want to know what it is that I hate."

All of them, along with Father Sole Sokich, had come over in 1949, stateless and penniless but happy to be alive after the Communist takeover of Yugoslavia.

They had all spent time as displaced persons in Italy and refugees in England and then were selected to come to America as students in an Eastern Orthodox seminary.

They all shared an apartment on the West Side of Manhattan and took turns cooking. At least until it was my father's turn.

"I simply put some ham and some potatoes in a pot with water," he recalled. The others had him washing dishes full time after that.

They worked the kind of jobs that immigrant students could do. My father mopped up operating rooms in a hospital for a while. Then he was a cashier in a cafeteria.

Dragan eventually became a civil engineer. Zoran got a job as a bank teller and parlayed that into a vice presidency at Chase Manhattan Bank. Milorad worked in the finance department for the city of New York and lived in a building with a doorman. My father became a professor of religion.

Of the five seminary students, only Sole became a priest, and he also worked as an engineer on road projects.

They would all get together at my parents' house in Yonkers, N.Y., and eat grilled meat cooked on the barbecue. The women would be in the living room speaking English, and the men out back talking rapidly in a native language that they didn't get to use enough.

I never learned to speak it, but there were words my sister and I could pick out. They were English words that had come into these men's lives long after they had left the old country and for which they had no equivalent.

Phrases like "mental anguish" and "parking space" would come bubbling out of a otherwise incomprehensible stream.

But sometimes, for my benefit, the men would switch over to English and quiz me about this culture that could at times confuse them.

I'd like to think that I could explain baseball to them now. How 90 feet between the bases and 60 feet 6 inches between home plate and the mound were links in the chain that binds us all together -- not only us in the present but to others back through time.

I wish I could have pointed out to them that Lou Pinella in left field played for Billy Martin. And Billy Martin played for Casey Stengel and Casey Stengel played for John J. McGraw and John J. McGraw played for the old Baltimore Orioles in the 1890s -- an unbroken string reaching back a century, of men playing a game before millions and millions of cheering immigrants' kids.

My father and his friends are all gone now, but with tomorrow being the Fourth of July, I imagine that there will be immigrant families around Portland, relaxing by smoldering coals, grilling some meat, celebrating the birthday of a country that they are still getting to know.

And they will turn to their kids -- maybe one wearing a Red Sox cap -- to explain the finer points.

 

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at gkesich@pressherald.com





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