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Feb­ruary 19th will mark the 35th anniversary of my family’s arrival to the U.S. I was 14-years-old and have vivid mem­ories of that day. Growing up in former Yugoslavia, I had been raised to love America and the ideals for which it stood.  My dad often took me to see American movies, in par­ticular Westerns — his favorites due to often cel­e­brating self-reliance and rugged indi­vid­u­alism that he asso­ciated with American ideals.

I also loved American (and British) rock music, which seemed to me an expression of rebellion and per­sonal freedom.

I started learning English in the 2nd grade and was always the best in my classes (the only ones for which that was the case, I should add).

When in the summer of ’83 my dad called from the U.S. to tell my mom and I that shortly after meeting Pro­fessor Russell Kirk, a well-known author and con­ser­v­ative political philosopher, he had invited my dad to come study with him, and that we would be moving to America, I was thrilled!

That fall and winter were highly mem­o­rable for mul­tiple reasons. After the death of Yugoslavia’s Com­munist dic­tator Tito in ’80, the Yugoslav socialist economy had begun its slow col­lapse, accel­erated by the hosting of the Winter Olympics in Feb­ruary of ’84 in Sarajevo. In order to be able to power the Olympics, the Yugoslav gov­ernment started rationing elec­tricity all around the country for months in advance. In my hometown of Zagreb, the second largest city in Yugoslavia, that meant blackouts from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. for one-third of the city every day. My family lived in an apartment on the 20th floor and having to walk up all that way, often car­rying my bicycle, probably made me hate socialism more than any­thing else. At the same time, there was an increasing number of shortages of everyday items. I was sent to stand in line for hours for milk, detergent, and other household staples. Despite all this, I have great mem­ories of this time since I had a group of close school friends with whom I shared many interests (music, chess) and we were just old enough to turn the blackouts into oppor­tu­nities for explo­ration and adventure.

In the months leading to our move, my family had to liq­uidate most of our belongings, so bit by bit our apartment became bare. At the end, I was sleeping on a mat­tress on the floor, with only the very few things that I planned to take with me remaining in my room.

When the big day finally came, we made our way to the airport early on that cold and overcast morning, brightened by my group of friends meeting me at the airport to send me off. I was sad to bid them goodbye, but very excited to make the trip, my first, to the U.S. We flew first to Frankfurt, Germany, and from there to New York City, and then to Detroit. One of the legs of this trip had the U.S. Olympic hockey team returning from Sarajevo, the “Miracle on Ice” team that beat the Soviets in the ‘80 winter Olympics! (Alas, they did not do nearly as well in the ’84 Olympics.) They all wore matching light-brown suede and fur jackets and cowboy hats, and were quite impressive. By the time we arrived to Detroit it was dark and fairly late. We were met by a friend of Kirk’s who was sent to assist us, expecting we would stay the night at a nearby hotel, but my parents decided that it would be easier to simply make the trip to Kirk’s ancestral home in Mecosta, MI (a three hour drive) right away. They rented a big station wagon with typical ‘70s/early-‘80s fake wood side pan­eling and stuck all our earthly belongings in it — there was barely enough space on the back seat for me to squeeze in!

It wasn’t long before the drive turned more eventful than we had expected: my dad, only 40-years-old at the time, came down with heart pal­pi­ta­tions, grad­ually increasing in severity. We had to pull over several times for him to catch his breath and attempt to calm down. My parents feared that he was expe­ri­encing a heart attack — but what cruel fate would have him finally see his childhood dream – moving to America! – come true, only to strike him down mere hours later? My mom was increas­ingly frightened at this point since her ability to speak English was very limited and this was a foreign country, after all. They even­tually con­cluded that his state was due to his con­sid­erable intake of coffee served on our flights, a drink he did not oth­erwise consume. The excessive caf­feine con­sumption had gotten the better of him. The entire episode had delayed us by a few hours and left my parents exhausted. We had to pull into an empty parking lot in the middle of nowhere so we could get some sleep, only to be woken up by a policeman who must have found the entire scene quite remarkable — a family of three sleeping in a station wagon filled to the brim with stuff on a cold Feb­ruary night. After my dad explained what was going on, the policeman kindly pro­vided direc­tions to a nearby motel where we finally brought this long and stressful day to an end.

We woke up to radiant sun­shine the next morning and got on our way. Hillsdale College stu­dents know how des­olate and stark the Michigan coun­tryside is in Feb­ruary, so despite the sunny weather, things looked a bit grim. Mecosta is a very small town, so at one point my dad stopped to go into a restaurant to ask if that was it. My mom had been very quiet for most of the morning; in con­trast, my dad’s mood was ebul­lient — he was feeling much better than the night before, and was finally in the U.S. When he stepped back in the car he happily pro­claimed, “This is Remus — Mecosta is another five miles ahead — and it’s even smaller!” My mom promptly burst into tears. This was not exactly what she expected when she con­tem­plated a move to America. Once in Mecosta we were greeted by Kirk’s irre­pressible wife Annette, which is a whole story unto itself. Mecosta was indeed a tiny, humble place, but it became our home for the next two and a half years. I was in high school two days later despite leaving Yugoslavia as an eighth-grader. Our American adventure was off to quite a start.

 

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