George Washington and my Fiftieth Fourth

sites/default/files/Washington.jpgDavey Neipris of Boston, Mass., gave me a left-profile portrait of George Washington. It’s crafted in metal, fractionally short of an inch in diameter, and cost him no more than 25 cents. That was in the days when you could get a cup of coffee, including a refill, for 5 cents. It was my first contact with American currency. At home, I emptied one of my father’s matchboxes – Lion Matches – lined it with cotton, and placed the coin there for safekeeping in a drawer near my bed. It was one of my childhood treasures. By “treasure” I mean not intrinsic value, but much more importantly, fantasy value.

There were other American treasures: an old Parker fountain pen, feeding my fantasy of writing, and a Viewmaster. Mother took me for a walk to Zetler’s Pharmacy. We didn’t hold hands, because I was already seven years old, in my school uniform: shined black shoes, knee socks, short navy pants, blazer, striped tie and an English schoolboy’s cap. She let me choose the one disk she could afford, with its matched diagonally opposed pairs of tiny color film images, which, rotated in the mechanism of the Viewmaster, produced a binocular stereoscopic effect. I chose San Francisco, showing the city, Fisherman’s Wharf, the Golden Gate Bridge, and what was then called the Oakland Bay Bridge. I looked at it thousands of times, wearing out the mechanism, hoping that some day I’d see San Francisco Bay. Now all I have to do is look out the west window of my study as I write, though not with my old Parker, which was lost in the translation from Africa to America. I keep extras of that portrait of George Washington in the car. I’m a patriot.

Growing up in Cape Town, South Africa, was to be inundated with American products, music, movies, cars, and the sense of fantastic huge cities, wide-open spaces, multiple cultures, gigantic opportunities. For me, the attraction was compelling. There was nothing quite as boring as a Sunday in South Africa, with its Sunday Observance Act of 1896, where everything closed down to accommodate the blue laws demanded by the Dutch Reformed Church. It was a perfect opportunity to dream of the vibrancy that dominated my imagination of America. Even now, in my fiftieth year in the United States, Sundays always arrive with a feeling of greater freedom.

As a young political scientist, I was well educated on the South African political system, which, in many of its more beneficial ways, derived from England: the sovereignty of Parliament, and English constitutional history and law. The less beneficial ways - the perpetration of legal racism, the abrogation of habeas corpus - don’t bear repeating here. Not easily available in local academe, I therefore had to take upon myself the reading of U.S. constitutional history, and began with the Federalist Papers, loaned to me by a friend at the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria. This was augmented by visits to the United States Information Service Library in Johannesburg, and by readings in history and fiction. To admit the truth, I also saw movies that starred Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Lauren Bacall, Bette Davis, Lana Turner, Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, Ava Gardner, and someone called Ronald Reagan, who had nice hair, wasn’t very convincing, and I hoped would find another way of making a living.

On a warm Pretoria Friday evening, eleven days after my daughter Judy was born, I strolled to a local corner shop to buy milk. A colleague happened upon me, and said “Did you hear? The President was shot.” Thinking it was the South African President, Charles Robberts Swart, a stalwart supporter of apartheid, I shrugged, not really caring. He said, “No, Kennedy!” I remembered to buy the milk, then returned home to hear the short-wave broadcast from the Voice of America. As did so many around the world, in mourning I deeply felt the tug of the New World.

Then the opportunity arrived. I could apply for a visa to the U.S. if I could land a university fellowship through the Fulbright-Hayes program, administered by the Institute for International Education and the Embassy. An interview with a committee of four, two South African scholars and two American diplomats, had to be endured. I knew that the two South African interviewers, both Afrikaner nationalists, would give me lower scores, not too low to be suspect. The Americans, wise to this, scored me excessively highly, so on December 17, 1964, accompanied by my first wife and daughter Judy, my American adventure began.

That first day, walking down a dressed-for-Christmas Fifth Avenue in New York City, was magical. I was quite sure that I had chosen well, having turned down a British Council Fellowship, thinking that becoming fully British, with its ancient sovereign culture, was going to be harder than becoming fully American. This was borne out, when, some years later, a colleague at the University of California (Davis) remarked, “It’s hard to think of you as a foreigner.”

My first Fourth of July was pleasant enough, but the date, not being an essential part of my own history, passed in a blur of beer-and-hot-dog conviviality. Over the years, my appreciation of the significance of that date has deepened, but I remain indifferent to the beer, hot dogs and fireworks, seduced instead by the courage and foresight of that day in 1776.

In 1967, our first American daughter was born. Ruth Ann’s arrival gave us an even greater stake in our chosen home. But the struggle to become American was just beginning. There had been no choice but to accept an Exchange Visitor Visa, which required repatriation after a course of study. There was no way in hell that I was going to return to the racist police state that South Africa was still then. The alternatives were to hire the services of an expensive immigration attorney, or to do what a good student of politics might do. The campaign was on, Shevelev for Citizen (or at least, for immigration status). No posters, buttons or public speeches. For the next two and a half years, the Campaign became a passionate, desperate commitment. I knew it was a waste of time to appeal to the bureaucracy of the Department of Justice’s Immigration and Naturalization Service. Civil servants are bound to follow rules. When I did approach them, they agreed that my American-born daughter was welcome to stay, but that the rest of us would have to leave.

Politics became my choice. I used every contact I could, in government departments, Congressional offices, and the media. I had lunch with Senator Alan Cranston (D-California), Congressman Robert Leggett, whose daughter Diana was one of my students, and, with the help of a congressional staffer, lunch with the brilliant and courageous Senator Margaret Chase Smith (R-Maine), the “conscience of the senate,” enemy of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. Broadcaster Edward R. Murrow called her “the only Senator with balls.”

Late one afternoon, an agitated Congressman John Moss of Sacramento called me and said “Get your students off my telephones, and I’ll help.” I had no idea that students were calling from the student government offices to jam the Hon. John Moss’s telephone switchboard.

Professor of Microbiology, Donald Montgomery (Monty) Reynolds, whom I didn’t know at all, summoned me to his house. In my presence he called Congressman Leggett at his Washington office, and said “Bob, if you don’t help this guy, I swear you’ll never run in this district again.” In his kitchen, Monty gave me a bottle of Champagne, “to celebrate your citizenship.”

Nevertheless, I started to investigate the possibility of an escape to Canada. This became more urgent when I received a letter from Immigration, summoning me to Federal Court in San Francisco, “to show cause why you should not be deported.” Then, three days before the hearing, while I was alone in the department office, photocopying materials for my students, the phone rang. Owen Chaffee, legislative aide to Congressman Leggett, asked to speak to Professor Shevelev. When I’d identified myself he said “BINGO! You’re getting your green card. No court on Monday. But I need your alien registration number immediately.” That number was, is, permanently engraved on my memory. The relief of that moment signaled the beginning of recovery from years of anxiety, overwork, sleeplessness, migraine headaches, and a heart irregularity diagnosed by a campus physician who told me “You need a holiday.”

sites/default/files/Bridge passport_0.jpgThe green card arrived, and, from a separate address, so did my draft notice! Vietnam? Was Canada still an option? No, at 30 I was classified “over age.”

Five years later, on December 17, 1974, the tenth anniversary of departure from South Africa, a Federal Judge entered a hushed courtroom in San Francisco and said, “Of all my duties as a judge, this is by far my favorite,” then administered the oath of citizenship to a hundred people. Immediately afterward, I took the prepared form and two small portraits of myself down by elevator to the passport office. Three days later my passport arrived. I had finally made the transition from a country, which, like many others, regarded a passport as a revocable privilege, to one where a passport is a right.

In the ancient Roman world, if a citizen were accosted or threatened, saying the words Civis Romanus sum – “I am a Roman citizen” – would virtually guarantee his safety. On the day I received my citizenship, I sent a telegram to Congressman Leggett: Civis Americanus sum.

Happy Fourth.

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© Raphael Shevelev. All Rights Reserved. Permission to reprint is granted provided the article, copyright and byline are printed intact, with all links visible and made live if distributed in electronic form. 

Raphael Shevelev is a California based fine art photographer, digital artist and writer on photography and the creative process. He is known for the wide and experimental range of his art, and an aesthetic that emphasizes strong design, metaphor and story. His photographic images can be seen and purchased at www.raphaelshevelev.com/galleries.

Comments

I know a good part of this story, dear! I wasn't aware of the long, stressful struggle to receive your green card, and must confess that I marvel at your unflagging appreciation of the USA. Keep up your fine writing and photography art and THANK you for including me in your postings. SOMEday we shall reunite!

Dear Raphael,

Once more you've touched my heartstrings, but more so with this piece than any other. You are still so courageous and persevering in who you are and what you do. Thank heavens, in this case, or I would never have been blessed with your friendship for these last few decades of our lives. You've turned my 4th around today into something extraordinarily special. Thank you my friend.

Too many Americans take what you appreciate so dearly for granted. Thanks for sharing a beautiful story!

This is one of the most beautiful and touching pieces of writing that I've ever read. It's personal (and knowing you makes it more so), historical and political. Your artistry is infused throughout. I've copied it and will reread it many times….And thank you for bringing back the full meaning of the 4th of July holiday. I will be at an old friend's house tomorrow in San Rafael where there will likely be beer, hotdogs (or the like) and fireworks. I'm thinking of reading your piece to them so that we can all revisit what it means to be an American.

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