2017/05/20

An Unexpected Encounter with the FBI, New York State, 1948 - "Three Innocents Abroad" (Part One)



While revisiting my blog, we noticed I’d omitted an important facet on the gemstone of my life experiences. It all began in August 1948.  There was a longshoremen’s strike at the Hoboken, New Jersey docks where our ship, Holland America Line’s “Nieuw Amsterdam” was in port. I was a steward, working in the first class, 5-star dining room.  (See blog posts on October 23 and October 25, 2008.)
 "Nieuw Amsterdam", New York harbour, 1948
 
The crew heard it would be at least 7 days or more, meaning those of us who worked in the dining rooms would have lots of free time.

Three of us decided to do some hitchhiking to try and see a bit of New York State.  This went surprisingly well, considering there were three of us guys, age 18.  I would be turning 19 soon, on August 13.

After a few days, we were staying at a motel in Poughkeepsie. At 2 am there was loud knocking at our door. It was now August 13th.

FBI! Open up!”    Two FBI agents hammering at the door!  I was the only one of the three who spoke reasonable English. The two agents told us to get up, get dressed and come with them.

 “Show us your papers”, one said.  In those days, passports of crew members were kept by the ship’s Purser or Captain.  Since we had left the ship without them, we had no papers.

This was 1948, just one year after the start of the Cold War. The McCarthy era of paranoia had just gotten into full swing. (In a way not so different from things today, except now it is a ‘different threat’.)

The motel clerk had overheard my friends and I chatting in Netherlands when we checked in, and thought three fellows travelling on their own was unusual. He also likely thought we were speaking German.  So, as he felt it was his patriotic duty, he called the authorities.

We certainly didn’t belong to any Communist party. But, not having any passports, we were assumed to be ‘guilty’.

I tried to explain to the agents in my not-so-great English about the longshoremen’s strike … that we were crew aboard a Holland America Line (HAL) vessel … and all they had to do was contact the HAL office in New Jersey to verify who we were.

However, this they never did.  And so, thanks to the paranoid motel clerk, we were accused of trying to enter the country under false pretences.

They thought we were Commies or spies! 

From Poughkeepsie, we were moved to a jail in Schenectady, where I spent my 19th birthday in an American jail with my two crew member friends.  Because it was my birthday, the warden gave me a Danish pastry. Yes, sir!

More interviews, more questions, the typewriter going. Then, the next day, we were all loaded into one of those classic station wagons with wood panelling.  We’d never seen one before.  The same two FBI agents came with us.

At first, I thought we were going back to Hoboken and the harbour, but this was wishful thinking.   We were driven to Buffalo – to the Erie County Jail.  I learned later this was the same jail where Jack London spent 30 days in 1894 for vagrancy. (More about this later.)

 There, we had to surrender our belts, watches, etc., all nicely put into bags.  We were not given prisoner’s attire and allowed us to keep our own clothing.

We entered our names into a thick log book.  Then, we were separated.  Each one given our own cell.
And so began a lengthy stay as “guest of the USA”.

Of course I protested, but to no avail.  They took our fingerprints, “mug shots”, and that was that. 
We were now prisoners, far from our ship, and very far from home.

The section we were in was called “Awaiting Verdict”.  Cell mates on this floor was a mixture:  a Norwegian cargo ship officer (who had jumped ship); a US Marine sergeant who did not return to his base (AWOL); a big African-American fellow who, apparently, had murdered his wife and his mother-in-law.  You get the picture.

Erie County Jail had four floors.  I was on the first floor.  The cell doors opened and closed automatically, at 06h00 and 20h00.

We spent our time playing Pinochle, Blackjack, Checkers, Dominos, and just talking. We had showers, under strict supervision. Shaving, same. I had to hand in the razor.
 

We played for cigarettes and O Henry bars.  Matches weren’t allowed of course, and smoking only during the “airing” outings in the courtyard.

I wasn’t on the same floor as my buddies, I only met them during these outings.

If I won a card game, I exchanged my winnings for stamps, writing paper and a pencil.  But I was only allowed to write under the eyes of a guard.  I mailed letters to the Netherlands consul and to the Sheriff, but never received an answer.  They just let us sit there.

Those who’d been in the jail for a while had their own systems.  One was how to ‘iron’ a shirt.  Since our cell walls were metal (green coloured), all I needed to do was wash the shirt under the shower, then ‘paste’ it up nicely against the wall and wait til it fell off.  Presto!  A clean, ironed shirt.  Did the same thing with my trousers, and all laundry.

Breakfast was mostly Shredded Wheat in milk.  Sometimes a boiled egg and toast.  On Sunday a Danish or muffin. Twice a week, meat.  Never any fish.  Potatoes and veg. every day, with a thick brown gravy.

There was a chapel for Sunday services, one for the ‘white’ prisoners, and another for the Negros.  I found the white chapel boring, and so I went instead to the black one instead. Much more lively – singing, spirituals, clapping, even dancing.  Loving music, I joined in.  I was the only white person there. One day, after the service was over, I was chased and threatened by a Negro prisoner.   I ran up the stairs, faster than him, and the guard got ahold of him.  From then on I wasn’t allowed to go anymore.  I missed the singing and intensity of those services.

Finally, after five long weeks, we were released. We received a formal letter of apology on 'Government of the United States of America' stationary, from the Sheriff of Buffalo.  Alas, that document has been lost, after all my nomadic wanderings over the decades.

(Before leaving, the warden showed me Jack London’s signature in the old entry book.  Jack London later wrote "The Road", an autobiographical memoir about his hobo days in the 1890's, including his experience at Erie County Jail.)

Why five weeks?  Because the FBI was waiting for results from all the States about our fingerprints and ‘mug shots’!
We thought we’d be taken back to the ship, but instead they drove us to the train station, where an agent accompanied us to New York City.

From there, another two agents drove us to the ferry, for Ellis Island!

Thus ends another facet / chapter of my hitchhiking episode, which certainly turned out to be some “sight-seeing” alright.

Next:  Ellis Island (see below for the next stage in our adventure.)

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