In this 4 part series, Kathleen Roos Ph.D., author of the Citizens Journal series “Coming To America”, (a compilation of interviews of immigrants from over 12 dozen countries); recounts her own story of growing up in America, the challenges and obstacles of an average American family. How she persevered, overcame several adversities and achieved what would undoubtedly be considered her American dream.
“We must reject the idea that every time a law is broken, society is guilty rather than the law breaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.” Ronald Reagan
“Because someone repeats something over and over and louder and louder, still does not make it true.” Kathleen S. Roos Ph.D.
“Why do our enemies see us as Americans and we Americans see each other as the enemy?” Kathleen Roos Ph.D.
My Story growing up in America and experiencing through my work, Communism, Socialism, Dictatorships, Monarchies, and Combat Zones where who knows what would happen
My story follows and is multi purposed. First from my experiences and in following common threads through these interviews, I think describing my upbringing in the U.S. is important.
There are many preconceived ideas of privilege or cushy lifestyle about Americans that may not be accurate.
Secondly, I thought it important to address the common thread of education that I felt extremely eye opening. The observation that America’s educational systems fall short of those interviewed and their country of origin truly surprised me. I was surprised, yet as I have discussed with family and friends our educational system has degraded over the last decades. Possibly some history may be helpful to the reader.
Thirdly, following another common thread that in this country one has a choice and there is opportunity for growth and to be creative. Actually, for many, herein, this is the very reason many of these people wanted to come to America. If you are willing to work hard, are motivated, seek out opportunities and not fall to a victimhood or just “gimme” role, America truly is the land of opportunity. However, it is not going to be just given to you.
And finally, I identify a more recent challenge for women especially in sports. For young women to be required to compete against transgender athletes takes us back to the time when there were few competitive sports for women. I think many may remember the outrage expressed by many countries when the Soviet Union and Germany sent women to the Olympics Games who were enhanced by drugs making the competition totally unfair. I could even mention the entire Lance Armstrong ordeal. All nations were put through an emotional merry-go-round by an athlete who took steroids and denied it. When Greg Lemond, a past Tour de France winner stated Lance was taking drugs, Greg was denigrated as a poor looser. Yet he was right all along. Muscle mass, larger lung capacity etc. all benefit a male athlete and saying a transgender male to female doesn’t have a major advantage is irresponsible at the very least. Finally, I close in the lsat chapter with why I think America matters with a couple short stories on the goodness of Americans and the significance of our founding documents and what it means to ‘we the people’.
I was born in a small town in Norwalk, Connecticut (not small now). My parents were relatively poor. Mom qualified for welfare and food stamps and refused them saying she had earning power and would work just like a man. Later, when trying to buy a home, she was refused by the bank. She was told she needed a husband to sign for her. My mother refused to accept this rejection. She always said she had earning power and would purchase what we needed through hard work, be it buying a home in her own name or anything else. She fought the system. She was way ahead of Gloria Steinem (spokesmen for the American feminist movement of the 60s and 70s). Later when she was a single Mom raising two girls, she finally did ask for help through Catholic charities and was denied.
Mom and dad held blue color jobs most of their lives, mom a telephone operator or waitress, dad, a night watchman at a trucking company. They were both talented. Dad, a great golfer and mom a great singer, both had high aspirations but nothing ever came of those dreams.
Mom was selected for two Broadway try outs: Two Faces and Finnian’s Rainbow, then she had a breakdown. I had only two occasions to bond with my dad Ralph who I adored. In the winter he took me to hit golf balls while I would ice skate at a man- made pond the range had built.
I would skate for hours alone, while Ralph hit golf balls. We did this twice and I hung on his promise to take me snake hunting but we never got to. Ralph used to catch snakes, especially copperheads, at Shorehaven Golf Course where he caddied and would toss them into the trunk in a paper bag to relocate from the golf course. This truly scared mom. I am sure I loved snakes and nature because of Ralph.
During the early years, I was about 2, Mom had a mental break down and Mary and I were separated from each other and dad. We were farmed out to relatives to care for us while she recovered and Ralph worked. Ralph had a break down also I am told. I was fortunate to be cared for by my Aunt Beth and Mary went to the Valerie family where they would say prayers before each meal on bent knees on a hard floor next to their chairs. They were a very strict religious family and though we were catholic, our parents practiced nothing like this.
A vivid recollection in preschool: I was about 3 and we were required to take naps and not allowed to get up to use the bathroom during nap time. I don’t understand this rule to this day. I had a band aide on my eye brow from an injury and it was pulling on my eye so I got up to remove it. I was caught and summarily brought to the front of the class after nap time, in front of all the kids, my pants and underwear were pulled down and was paddled with a wooden paddle by the female director. Yes, I was very young but this was horrifying, not only the pain but the embarrassment. Mary and I were brought up to respect anyone in authority and to never think hate or even use the word. It was considered worse than swearing. I hated this woman and did so for a very long time. I also questioned God and did become a bed wetter early on. Thankfully I did tell my parents, and to their credit, as there were few options those days, took me out of that facility immediately. I think many events like this impacted my faith and belief in adults and God at the time.
After mom’s breakdown, she was hospitalized for less than a year and dad took his girls to visit her a single time. I really don’t remember much. Years later dad got really sick, he was in terrible pain in his legs. I remember him downing large bottles of aspirin, without water every day. He died a horrific and painful death from a blood necrotizing bacterial disease at the Veterans hospital at Rocky Hill. He was 43.
I had just turned 8 and asked my mom and uncle Bob, with a group of adults hanging around the house, ‘when are we going to see daddy again’? I got this’ look’ and was handed a missile (a Catholic liturgical book that describes texts and masses throughout a year) a passage was pointed to and I was told to read it and sent upstairs. I did not understand, I didn’t know what paragraph to read and a darkness seemed to come over me and I started to cry. I was in hopes the tears would land on the paragraph I was supposed to read. But in that darkness, I knew my dad was gone. I was angry at God and angry at all the adults in my life. This is when I turned to imaginary horses to protect me from adults. It was a survival mechanism I was told later in life.
Mom raised my sister, and me as a single parent. Mom remarried Jack, Ralph’s best friend within a year. Jack sexually abused me though we had been very close. I did not understand. I came to avoid going out on the boat with him or even being around home at all. It was a very hard time for me as I had trusted, accepted and loved him as though my own dad.. I think the secrecy and lies that surround sexual assault and abuse especially when carried into adulthood cause the most damage. When a child is told they should be enjoying something they absolutely hate and despise, and told not to tell for fear of hurting other loved ones. It is so destructive and those lies and secrets I think are more damaging than the act itself.
But in the short span of less than 5 years Jack and I again became a close father /daughter team again. I am not sure how but we did. He always referred to me as his ‘little Harold’ as I would do all sorts of menial jobs helping him with plumbing, carpentry, electrical work and jobs around the house. My mother would only buy me trucks, horses, soldier and cowboy toys. I never got a doll and this was the era of the Barbie doll. I learned a lot. I never told my mom about the abuse and didn’t tell my sister or even my best friend until years later. I felt it was a betrayal and it would hurt my mom too much. In my later years I see much of this sexual abuse as a disease of secrecy.
My step dad told me not to tell. I loved and trusted him so I would not. He told me it would hurt my mom. I would never tell my mom as I didn’t want her to hate or turn against Jack. And I didn’t tell my sister as she already had relationship problems with Jack and I wanted her to love him as I did. What a tangled web we weaved through lies and secrets and I was protecting my late dad’s image of Jack being his best friend. That is all pretty weighty responsibility for a young child.
When I finally did tell my sister, I didn’t think she believed me. When I asked her about doubting me years later, she told me it wasn’t doubting me, it was feeling such guilt that she had left me in that situation. What an immense tear jerker that was. Jack died within less than 5 years of Ralph’s death and I was with him at the end, making him Jell-O, the only thing he could swallow. Though mom tried to keep me away, she told me later he asked that I not see him ’like this’. We all have our stories but I never felt like a victim. Somehow, I knew I had the strength to weather almost anything. Mary always called us the original latch-key kids (working parents and never home during the day) and survivors.
A common perception these days with all the victimhood celebrants is that those of us who have achieved professionally or academically are either privileged or entitled in some way. I have been told by colleagues and some of my students, that my career and life must have been easy by making assumptions that my parents paid for everything. I paid for my education. I worked to get scholarships both academic and athletic. I had a paper route very early on, I life guarded, waitressed, was a hostess, bartender, an exotic dancer, worked in a perfume shop, drove a school and transit bus and taught aerobics, fitness and yoga throughout my career as side jobs.
Many of these jobs were difficult and one had to work at it to get in the door so to speak. I did not enjoy waitressing and wanted something that was more challenging and more like what men did. I saw an ad for the need for bus drivers. I applied in person. I was rejected as I was 21 and you had to be 22. Nothing was said about me being female but I felt it and would not succumb. I returned when I was 22 and said I am ready. Well not so fast, you have to drive a stick and have a Class II license. OK I am willing; how do I do that? I was told as a young woman; I could not be a bus driver. I was not buying it.
Waited till I was of age, went on to get all the licenses, and came back and handed the bus company owner all my documentation. He stood amazed and impressed and said ‘We’ll we start now’. I was trained by Harold; a great guy and the rest is history.
My first lesson driving stick in a 44 ft bus was to apply the brake a bit too hard which sent Harold flying into the rear-view mirror. He came out with a bloodied head but smiling.
I worked those jobs both part and full-time throughout college and graduate school to be able to afford my tuition and boarding. When I still could not afford my tuition or room and board I walked to the bank, took out a loan in my name only, and paid it back as soon as employed. My mother could not afford to pay for anything related to college and didn’t. She was proud of my efforts to seek out scholarships and loans and pay them off with hard work.
I started my career in 1973 as Assistant Director of Biological Sciences at Environmental Analysts with a Masters in Marine Biology, at 22. That was a big title with big responsibilities that I learned to grow into. I had only men working for me. I was head of a sampling crew that performed a major field investigation of the Great Lakes, the Hudson River and the first field investigation of Love Canal. The Captain of the Canadian boat and the U.S. crew answered to me and there was total respect for how I performed. I was fortunate to work for companies that provided academic reimbursement. This is how I went on to complete my masters and earn my doctorate in Environmental Engineering.
All came with having to maintain high grades or no reimbursement. This is all while working full-time and part time jobs and attending school at night. I can’t really remember ever not working. I started at 12 years old helping mom and Jack in their furniture cleaning business and recall my mom and one of the head workers saying I worked harder than any of the men they hired. I loved it though.
I was one of four women early in my career who attended major Environmental, water pollution, Engineering and oil spill conferences. One became my mentor for years. Dr. Geraldine Cox first from Raytheon and later CDM (Camp Dresser McGee), one of the top environmental consulting firms of that time. I was guest speaker at major national and international environmental conferences, published over 20 publications in major environmental and scientific journals and went on to design environmental training programs for the US Navy and other military services. One such publication was with Mahidol University in Bangkok, Thailand that I was very proud of. I was fortunate and had opportunities but most often I sought those opportunities out.
Over my career I spent 17 years working with industry, environmental protection agencies and the EPA. In 1989 I was provided the opportunity to establish an entire environmental protection program at a military base; Naval Air Station Miramar, known then as Top Gun. I jumped at the chance though it was a major reduction in salary and here developed the first only Environmental Protection Symposium at a military installation bringing in Federal, State and local environmental regulatory agencies, private environmental protection groups, industry, the surrounding community and public with an effort to communicate mutual protection goals. This effort was met with rave reviews but was never funded again.
I had done the reduction in salary several times in my career. It was never about the money. It was what I would truly enjoy working hard and best achieving my goal of protecting the environment in concert with industry and military operations. I was never naïve enough to think one could just ignore industry and economics.
Today many young and older people forget or do not know the battles women have been through not only to vote but to be considered equals in employment and in sports. My mother’s house buying experience is a perfect example of women being denied privileges afforded to men in the not so long past. Yes, ‘we have come a long way baby’ and I don’t mean the ability to smoke a cigarette where the saying comes from. Many don’ t realize how far. My first career job as Assitant Director of Biological Sciences, I was paid $9,600. Within that first year several other scientists were hired, all men and their starting salaries were $12,500. I fought back. I was told I had to understand they had families and I was single. For one thing this was not even true except for one guy. So eventually my salary was adjusted as appropriate and being a director but not without leaving that bad taste about equality in salary.
Women treated equally to men has been an evolution. My dream career ever since I was 7 years old was to be a veterinarian and I wanted to attend Cornell, known as the best vet school in the country at this time. When the time came I found that Cornell did not allow women into its veterinary school. In the early 70s I attended a meeting where the school presented on opening several hundred slots to women. The dean actually said we are opening but ” we don’t want you”! I thought, did I just hear that? I did, I was there. Obviously times have changed and women have succeeded very well. I did not go to Cornell, or become a vet. While at Hartwick College, one of my greatest biology professors, Dr. Earl Deubler was a Cornell graduate. I relayed my desire to become a vet and go to Cornell. He introduced me to fisheries and marine science and environmental work. He set me up on an interdisciplinary study where I took my summer to do fisheries investigations, got arrested by Fish and Game, a student permit was issued and my career took on a whole new meaning and exciting direction.
I had also always been very athletic and played in almost every sport available to women in high school and college. Most team sports were available only to men during this time, i.e., soccer, swim teams, golf etc., the exception was field hockey. In team sports as a varsity player our women’s team (field hockey, lacrosse, basketball) never had the budget for uniforms or competition travel and support schedules available to the men’s’ teams. That was a battle of the times and women in sports have progressed a long way and many competing today are totally unaware of those battles. They just think it was always like it is today. It wasn’t.
Men and women’s team sports play in leagues of comparable skill level and size of school. Occasionally we were scheduled to play Pennsylvania State or Cornell and these schools, known as’ jock’ schools, were well beyond our league and capability. It was an honor and a challenge to play them though the women stood heads taller, majored in athletics, were close to pros and we undoubtedly would get creamed. My point is that women’s teams played other women teams that were comparable in skill level. A fair playing field we called it. Same with the men’s’ teams. Our men’s soccer team was highly skilled and they did play Tier One schools. The current situation in the women’s sport of swimming where a male, turned female, is competing with other females is appalling to anyone who has gone through all the progression and development in women’s sports. Women in sports have achieved so much to be on equal footing with men’s teams and not to be competing with males.
I ran marathons long before it became popular, especially with women, completing 52. Iron Man competitions came about in 1980, I completed 4 and then onto ultra-events including a rim to rim to rim run across the Grand Canyon (about 50 miles with major elevation changes) and then a bicycle ride from the North Rim back to California, totaling 460 miles mostly along Route 66. Temperatures ranged from 39 degrees on North Rim of the Grand Canyon to 111 degrees in Needles, California and we completed in 3.5 days. Only a single rider continued on with me and we had no support vehicle. The other 8 individuals dropped out at the start of the bike ride. They were too tired and too cold to continue and they had the support vehicles.
Yet another remembrance that escapes many was that the marathon as an Olympic event for women was denied until 1980. It was actually published in news articles that women weren’t considered strong enough, we would faint, would develop muscle mass like men, grow mustaches and other ghastly statements about vomiting at the finish line and having our periods interrupted. Kathrine Switzer was physically pulled out of the Boston Marathon in 1967 and she completed it unofficially. The race manager assaulted her while she ran trying to pull her from the race. Many young women in sports today do not know how difficult it was to compete for years for women. When I completed my first New York City Marathon in 1975 there was about 29 women in the race. Within a few years there were hundreds, then thousands. We have come so far and now women are being made to compete against men who have decided to be a woman. This is going backwards in time people. Where is the #Metoo movement and all the feminist’s now? Remember when 279 mostly Christian young girls were captured from Nigeria by the Boka Haram Islamist Terrorist Group in 2104? All those Hollywood types were all over the social media with a hash tag ‘save our girls’ slogan. Didn’t last long. Most of the kidnapped girls were released seven years later and Boko Haram remains active and dangerous!
Another common thread noted throughout this compilation is that America’s educational system is seriously deficient in comparison to the countries these people came from. This saddens me. My family and I attended one of the best education programs in the country, the Norwalk City school system in Norwalk, Connecticut. My mother, sister and I attended the same high school. Though my mother attended Catholic school early on, she was voracious about us attending public school at that time as the system was well known as excellent. Same is true of my colleges: Hartwick in Oneonta, New York and Long Island University and NYU. I had outstanding teachers and professors and to this day I remember and thank each and everyone of them.
We had no cheat sheets, no calculators allowed, you could use a slide rule in advanced math and physic classes. Much of our grade school through high school educational systems in U.S. are dependent on location, whether that be states or districts, and probably the time-frame one attended. Thus, I can see that many immigrants may have attended schools in other states, and at more recent times when requirements were being lessened with the idea that all should succeed, no one should fail or be held back and everyone should get a trophy. These ideals just work against education not toward making young students think or want what works best for them. The idea that was much touted during Obama’s time that I felt definitely impacted our educational system for the worse was his idea that everyone should go through four years Liberal Arts college and get a Bachelors. I thought what about all the trades schools, ranchers and agricultural farms and kids that are working in trades and skills that benefit all and don’t need or want four-year liberal arts college? It was such a limiting, short sighted policy that I feel did more to damage education than almost anything until maybe now. I had a close friend who attended my aerobics classes who started up a trades and technical school and developed it into one of the most well known technical schools. All his students went on to great jobs in IT and trades when they graduated. With Obama’s policies his trade schools went bankrupt. A disservice to us all.
In school, we did have to memorize (which I am told by a current California high school teacher is considered old school and not as much required these days), take other languages, give oral presentations, use critical thinking skills. We took math, physics, chemistry, English grammar, languages, history from ancient to medieval to more current, civics, geography, geology, music, art, theology etc. One could choose to go trade school or liberal arts routes. We were fortunate to go through school at a time when music, art and athletics were also valued and funded. Again, this depended on state and funding. Where I was one had to take home economics if female or shop if male. I did not want to take home economics, was not interested at all. Wanted more science or shop and when I requested taking shop, my request was refused as ‘girls take home economics, only boys take shop.’ And that was then. Though I was not a scholastic marvel I worked hard, loved school and though did not get 800s on SATs made up for it by taking many science classes and participating in extracurricular activities in music and sports. I think my love of learning is demonstrated by college record where the requirement was to graduate with 132 (required) credits and I graduated with 168 and mainly science courses.
I sang in choir and played the violin and continue to this day. My sister and I rented a violin for $15 a month. I played in Norwalk Youth Symphony and Norwalk Symphony orchestras. In the youth symphony, an excellent orchestra under the direction of Mr. John Master we accompanied Pablo Casals, the world-renown cellist (to many today he would be your Yoyo Ma). He was so gracious he actually stood at the end of our performance and turned to the orchestra, bowed and thanked us telling us we were a joy to play with. I so wanted a copy of this recording but knew my mother could not afford the $15.00 for the record, so I never even asked. A regret to this day. I also got to play in our Connecticut All State orchestras and played and sang at the World’s Fair.
The 1950s was the beginning of the Cold War. An era in the U.S. where we were taught to duck and cover under our desks at school in case of nuclear attack from the Soviet Union (like a desk is going to help!) Ultimately there was a major call for people to build bomb shelters. Since my family was relatively poor and did not own property there would be no building of a bomb shelter. I recall vividly going to the movie theater films of what a nuclear detonation looked like and its destructive power illustrated by a simulation of a detonation and what would happen to an everyday neighborhood. Later in life I worked for Dr. Merril Eisenbud, a nuclear physicist and consultant for the U.S Navy, was involved in the nuclear testing at Eniwetok and other Pacific Islands. He was an environmental scientist who was the first health and safety chief of the Atomic Energy Commission and the first head of New York City’s Environmental Protection Agency. Dr. Eisenbud had advised against testing on these islands as he knew his science and with wind drift what would happen to the inhabited islanders, though the testing islands were uninhabited. I also attended to graduate school at NYU for my doctorate years later where Dr. Eisenbud helped establish the NYU Institute of Environmental Medicine at Stirling Forest N.Y. He was also the owner of Environmental Analysts Inc., where I started my environmental career.
As I look back at the 1950s and on, I see now of the sacrifices made by our parents and grandparents, most serving in WWII. Others served in Korea and far more class mates and friends in Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan. I served as a civilian in Iraq as the Chief Environmental Engineer for the Multinational Forces-Iraq (MNF-I). My grandparents were all immigrants from either Ireland, France, England and Holland. My step dad’s heritage is a Dane and my brother-in laws family came from Italy. I listened and learned from their stories as well as my own experiences.
I remember Nikita Khrushchev of the Soviet Union taking offense at an Assembly meeting in 1960 to a comment by a delegate from the Philippines who claimed that Eastern Europe had been “deprived of political and civil rights” and had been effectively swallowed up by the Soviet Union. Khrushchev took off his shoe and began banging violently on the table. He continuously pounded the table with his fists, then took off his shoe and pounded the table with it stating” We will bury you!” Now there is a lot of history here regarding Gary Powers and the U2 Spy Plane but leave it to say it was scary to a young child and an exacerbation of the Cold War.
As I mentioned I loved school and learning, whether from parents or teachers. We had an old dictionary that I would read due to Latin derivations of words and how expressions came about. This fascinated me. Jack had a medical encyclopedia, a book on tropical fish and a veterinarian medical text, and a horrific one from WWII authored by Otto Adolph Eichmann (one of Hitler’s henchmen and organizer of the so-called: “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” in Nazi terminology.) with actual photographs that were beyond horrific but I devoured these texts. A reminder of that book came later from meeting an older runner in my running group who had been with the 101st Air Borne Division responsible for freeing captives from camps such as Auschwitz. When I asked him about his experience he really did not want to talk about it. He did tell me that whatever you could conjure, imagine or have seen, it was much worse.
This ends the first chapter in Coming to America: An American Perspective.