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Born American, but in the Wrong Place


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Title: Born American, but in the Wrong Place

Born American, but in the Wrong Place
  • On Principle, Special EditionApril 2006by
    Peter W. Schramm
  • Prologue
  • My father, William Schramm, was not a mechanic or
    an engineer, but in post-war 1946 Hungary he
    somehow managed to build a car out of scrap
    parts. It was nothing more, really, than an
    engine with four wheels and a flat-bed in the
    back. Apart from military vehicles and Dads
    creation, cars on Hungarian streets were an
    extreme rarity. They just werent available and,
    even if they had been, there were no jobs and
    hence no money with which to purchase one. A
    young man in those days, my dad already had quite
    a few responsibilities and mouths to feed. And,
    of course, I was about to be born another very
    hungry mouth to feed. But Dad has always had an
    enterprising and entrepreneurial spirit. So he
    built this car, and he went around combing the
    countryside for junk to sell or trade. We
  • On one such excursion, he came upon a man
    standing in front of what appeared to be a broken
    down Volkswagen bug. The novelty of the situation
    and the look of exasperation (or maybe
    desperation) on the mans face were enough to
    make Dad stop. The driver of the vehicle turned
    out to be a decommissioned U.S. officer who
    happened to have been born in Hungary. He was
    taking some time off to tour the country. Dad was
    able to help him get the car going again, and the
    man offered to pay Dad in dollars. You must
    understand that, at that time, a few American
    dollars were like bags of solid gold. But Dad was
    too proud to take the moneydespite how much he
    needed it. The man was grateful, however, and he
    offered Dad his business card. It read, "Dr.
    Joseph Moser, DDS, Hermosa Beach, California."
    "If you ever need anything," the man said with
    real meaning, "dont hesitate to call." Dad did
    not refuse this offer. He took the card and gave
    it to my mother for safe-keeping. She would hold
    on to that card for the next ten years.

Revolution in Hungary
  • It is now late 1956 and I am weeks away from my
    tenth birthday. The Hungarian Revolution against
    the Russian Communists is now in full swing.
    According to estimates, more than 20,000 freedom
    fighters and 1,500 Soviet soldiers are killed
    within a two-week period. Wethat is to say my
    parents, my sister (then four years old) and
    Ishared a small apartment on the plaza near the
    eastern railroad station in Budapest with my
    grandparents (Dads parents) and my uncle (Dads
  • Since one of the important things the
    revolutionaries did was to take over this
    railroad station, the Soviets had placed several
    tanks there, and we could not leave our
    apartment. There was quite a lot of heavy
    fighting right outside of our front window. There
    were bodies everywhere. One was just in front of
    our window for more than five days. After about a
    week and half of this, we could finally go
    outsidebut just for the essentials. As we walked
    around, I remember a grim fascination I had with
    the back of a Russian personnel carrier that was
    stacked with skeletons. It seemed that they were
    each covered with about two inches of black
    velvet. I later came to learn that these poor
    souls had been burned alive by a Molotov
  • Apart from these horrors, there were all of the
    ordinary and accompanying difficulties one might
    expect in such circumstanceswhere to get clean
    water, food, sanitation, etc. Worse, it was clear
    that though the Soviets had finally pulled out of
    our immediate area, they were winning. The
    Revolution was going to fail, and they would be
    back. The horrors that our family had faced for
    so many years in Hungaryfirst under the Nazis
    and then under the Sovietsdid not compare with
    what was ahead of us if we remained there. It was
    one thing to tolerate injustice when you were not
    accustomed to anything else. But the Revolution
    had stirred an almost forgotten longing in my
    fathers heart hope.
  • Hungary had not been a pleasant place for the
    Schramms to live for quite a long time. Dad was
    born in 1922, right after an awful war in the
    heart of Europe. Things were hard. His father, an
    active participant in the 1919 Communist
    revolution, was hounded by the Fascists then
    ruling. By the time my father reached his teens,
    the depression hit hard, followed by World War
    II, or what Churchill called the second part of
    the thirty years war. World wars are unpleasant
    for small countries surrounded by large and
    ambitious ones. Hungary was no exception.

  • Forced to take a side, Hungary chose Germany, all
    the while hoping for (what they called) the West
    to win. My father was placed in the air
    artillery. He liked it there because they could
    pretend to shoot down American planes, all the
    while knowing that the B-17s were flying well out
    of range. They couldnt hurt the good guys, yet
    they did their duty. That was as good as life got
    in those days. Besides, the Americans usually
    just flew over western Hungary on their way to
    Germany. They very rarely dropped their bombs in
  • The only thing worth bombing in Gyor where I was
    born and where we lived (it had a population of
    about 100,000 and was just east of Austria on the
    road to Budapest) was a factory that had been
    converted to build Messerschmitt planes. It
    employed about 10,000 people by then, my father
    among them. When the Americans decided to bomb
    the plantin 1944, I thinkthey first dropped
    thousands of leaflets informing people not to go
    to work that day because they were going to level
    the plant, and they didnt want people to get
    hurt. They said the bombing would begin at noon.
  • My father believed the Americans. He didnt go to
    the factory. The Germans, however, insisted that
    everyone go into the factory and start
    production. They rounded people up, including my
    father, at bayonet point. The Nazis explained
    that those who wouldnt go in would be lined up
    and shot. Everyone but about a dozen people went
    in. The recalcitrant dozen were lined up against
    a factory wall. The Germans prepared a firing
    squad. As they were about to commence their
    grisly work, the American bombs started to fall.
    It rained fire and steel. Everyone ran away from
    the factory grounds, including the German
    soldiers lined up as a firing squad. Almost no
    one who had gone into the factory survived. The
    dozen, my father among them, survived. It was
  • The war was hard on everyone and the wars end
    brought little relief. When the Communists took
    control of the country in 1949, my parents
    little textile shop (about half the size of my
    living room) and everything that was in it, was
    taken from them. They were considered the
    "bourgeoisie," and therefore dangerous to this
    new kind of tyranny now in control. My father was
    later sentenced to prison for a year for "rumor
    mongering" (someone claimed he called a Communist
    a tyrant, which he did). He got out, washed
    windows for awhile and made illegal whiskey. He
    lived, and his family survived.

  • In that same year, 1949, my grandfather was
    sentenced to ten years hard labor by the
    Communists for having a small American flag in
    his possession (much like the kind we wave at
    July 4th celebrations or with which we decorate
    the graves of our fallen heroes). Dad tried then,
    unsuccessfully, to persuade my mother to leave.
    But their ties to family and friends were too
    strong, and she would not hear it. At my
    grandfathers "trial" they asked him why he had
    the flag. Was he a spy? He replied that it
    represented freedom better than any other symbol
    he knew and that he had a right to have it. When
    my grandfather got an early release from the
    labor camp in 1956, he came back to us looking
    like a victim of the Holocaust. Still, the first
    thing he wanted to know was whether we still had
    the flag. Of course, we did not. It had long ago
    been confiscated. But my father did not want to
    break his fathers heart so he somehow managed to
    secure another one. We took it out of its hiding
    place and at that tender age I learned the very
    adult lesson of the complexity of telling the
    truth. Seeing that flag somehow erased much of
    the pain and torment those years of imprisonment
    caused my grandfather. That flag restored in him
    something like hope. In my father, it also
    stirred up righteous anger.
  • Now, with the revolution failing, came the final
    straw for my Dad. On one of his trips out to
    secure some bread, a hand grenade landed next to
    him but, miraculously, it did not go off. The
    spark that should have set off that grenade set
    off my father instead. He came home and announced
    to my mother that that was it. He said he was
    going to leave the country whether she would come
    or not. Mom said, "O.K., William. We will come if
    Peter agrees. Ask Peter."
  • My mother tells me, though I dont remember
    saying this, that I told my father I would follow
    him to hell if he asked it of me. Fortunately for
    my eager spirit, hell was exactly what we were
    trying to escape and the opposite of what my
    father sought.
  • "But where are we going?" I asked.
  • "We are going to America," my father said.
  • "Why America?" I prodded.
  • "Because, son. We were born Americans, but in the
    wrong place," he replied.

  • My father said that as naturally as if I had
    asked him what was the color of the sky. It was
    so obvious to him why we should head for America.
    There was really no other option in his mind.
    What was obvious to him, unfortunately, took me
    nearly 20 years to learn. But then, I had to
    "un-learn" a lot of things along the way. How is
    it that this simple man who had none of the
    benefits or luxuries of freedom and so-called
    "education" understood this truth so deeply and
    so purely and expressed it so beautifully? It has
    something to do with the self-evidence, as
    Jefferson put it, of Americas principles. Of
    course, he hadnt studied Jefferson or Americas
    Declaration of Independence, but he had come to
    know deep in his heart the meaning of tyranny.
    And he hungered for its opposite. The embodiment
    of those self-evident truths and of justice in
    America was an undeniable fact to souls suffering
    under oppression. And while a professor at
    Harvard might have scoffed at the idea of
    American justice in 1956 (or today, for that
    matter), my Dad would have scoffed at him. Such a
    person, Dad would say, had never suffered in a
    regime of true injustice. America represented to
    my Dad, as Lincoln put it, "the last, best hope
    of earth."
  • I would like to be able to say that this made Dad
    a remarkable man for his time and his
    circumstance. For, in many ways, Dad truly is a
    wonder. But this is not one of them. He was not
    remarkable in this understanding. Everybody in
    Hungaryat least everybody who wasnt a true
    believer in the Communiststhought that way. For
    some it was instinct. For others, it was habit or
    family teaching. For some it was through book
    learning. Indeed, most Hungarian kids at that
    time (myself included) had read Uncle Toms
    Cabin, Last of the Mohicans, Tom Sawyer, and
    Huckleberry Finn. Jefferson understood this too
    when he penned those famous lines in the
    Declaration. The wonderful thing about
    self-evident truths, in a way, is that they dont
    have to be taught. Or do they? They dont have to
    be taught in the same way, for example, that we
    teach grammar. It isnt an artificial order of
    things that we impose upon ourselves. Still,
    these truths must be understood. For if they are
    not fully understood (as they frequently are not
    by those who take them for granted), they are
    easily forgotten. Dad just never had the luxury
    to forget.

Journey to America
  • Of course, we could not tell anyoneincluding my
    grandparents and unclethat we were leaving. To
    do so would have put both them and us in danger
    in tyrannies you really cannot trust anyone. It
    was better for them that they not know where we
    were so they could answer honestly and
    convincingly when questioned. We therefore had to
    leave with essentially nothing. My sister and I
    each had a doll and a small bag of clothes. My
    parents had one small bag between them. And my
    father had seventeen dollars in his pocket in
    single dollar bills, which he had been hoarding
    for years good as gold he always said. The
    trains were packed with many other people
    similarly outfitted. Everyone was headed for the
    Austrian border but we all kept our heads down
    and said nothing to anyone. The Russians were
    stopping the trains and looking for people. As
    young as my sister and I were, we knew what that
    meant. We tried to keep quiet. I remember that
    many people exited the train at one particular
    stop, and Dad shook his head. He knew what they
    were going to try and he knew that, in all
    likelihood, it wasnt going to work for most of
    them. He had a different plan for us to get to
    the border.
  • When we exited the train we had a fifteen mile
    walk ahead of us. We meandered through a large
    expanse of agricultural land, avoiding, as best
    we could, all haystacks (where Russians were
    known to lie in wait). We came upon nearly 200
    people along the wayall doing exactly the same
    thing and all saying virtually nothing about
    itjust nodding and pushing along. I remember a
    particularly difficult thing we had to do was to
    avoid the sound of a crying child. That was a
    well known Russian trick. We did, however, come
    upon a boy whose father had been shot. He was
    immediately welcomed into our growing and
    informal group of which, it seemed, my father had
    become the leader. His plan had been sound.
  • We crossed a little bridge in the middle of the
    night. Someone heard the sound of German on the
    other side of the bridge. It was the Austrian
    border post! As we stepped over a line, the
    Austrians asked us to show them our weapons. I
    remember being utterly surprised to discover that
    every single man in our group immediately began
    to drop pistols, knives, etc. We had just
    finished an expedition of the brave.
  • We had entered the town of Nickelsdorf, Austria.
    They proceeded to move us to a big barn for the
    night where we slept, and slept soundly. The next
    morning we were moved to an Army camp near
    Innsbruck. For nearly a month, we were fed and
    housed there. Dad went out and got a job. I
    occupied myself in the normal pursuits that
    occupy 10 year-old boys. I even managed to get
    myself into a fight with another boy who had
    taken my belt. In the scuffle I ran through a
    plate-glass swinging door and sliced open my
    chin. This caused my mother to faint, and my
    father to have to rush me to an Austrian
    emergency room for treatment. As if my parents
    didnt have enough problems!

  • Occasionally, officials from the various
    embassies of different countries would come by
    and attempt to catalogue where the refugees were
    planning to go and why. It was not as simple as
    finding a ride to the place you wanted to go,
    after all. Much was involved. First, they wanted
    to know if you had any relatives in any other
    country. We did not. The man from the German
    embassy encouraged us to settle in Germany. We
    would be made citizens immediately because our
    name was German. Dad told them we were not
    German. He was sure of what he wanted. But we did
    not, as I said, have relatives in America. The
    representative from the American embassy asked
    Dad, "Dont you know anyone in America?"
    Eventually, my mother reminded my Dad that we did
    know someone in America. She ran back to the
    bunks and out of her little satchel pulled out an
    old and rumpled business card. This reminded Dad.
    "Yes," Dad said, "I know this man." He showed the
    business card of Dr. Joseph Moser, D.D.S.,
    Hermosa Beach, California, to the man from the
    embassy. Dad explained that we had had no contact
    with him in all those intervening years. Anything
    could have happened to him, and it was possible
    that he would not have remembered his offer to
    help. As luck would have it, he was still where
    his card said he was and was willing (thank God!)
    to sponsor us.

California Here We Come
  • Within a week of contacting Dr. Moser, we were
    shipped off to Munich and then took a plane to
    New York City. We landed just before midnight on
    December 24th, one day after my tenth birthday.
    Because the plane landed for refueling in
    Newfoundland, the children on board were given
    Christmas presents. My sister got a doll, and I
    got a toy Army jeep. This was the extent of the
    presents for that Christmas, except for the
    freedom that we were about to enjoy. On Christmas
    morning we were taken to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey,
    for processing.
  • One of my early and poignant impressions of
    America came when a number of the Hungarians at
    Camp Kilmer were groaning and moaning, in
    Hungarian of course, about the food they were
    served. They were particularly appalled by the
    cornflakes, which, in Hungary were not considered
    fit for human consumption. I recall that there
    was a soldier there who was mopping up the
    floors. He was quietly doing his work as the
    Hungarians carried on and ignored him in their
    typically boisterous manner. Finally, the soldier
    could not take it anymore, and he turned to us
    and said in perfect Hungarian, "If you dont like
    it here, then get on a plane and go home." A
    deafening silence followed the shock. Although I
    suspect he may have been an intelligence officer,
    the soldier later claimed that he had grown up in
    Hungary because his parents had been travelling
    musicians and that they had died there in a car
    accident. Whatever the case, his point was well
    taken. We were humbled by this man, and the
    complaining stoppedor at least leveled. We were
    grateful to eat our cornflakes.
  • A few weeks later we took a train to Los Angeles
    where we were met by Dr. Moser and his family.
    Sponsorship meant that they had to guarantee that
    we would never become a burden to the American
    people. He had to house us and feed us for
    awhile. Mom and Dad both got jobs right away. Dad
    got a job at the local newspaper lifting heavy
    things, and Mom cleaned houses. Soon we had a
    little beach shack where we lived for about a
    year and a half. By that time, my parents had
    managed to save a couple thousand dollars and
    were able to purchase their first restaurant. We
    were on our way to the American dream.
  • Dad came into the restaurant business because it
    was his impression of Americans that they seemed
    like nice enough people but they were lousy
    cooks! He bought the restaurant on Pico Boulevard
    for 3000 with a bank financed loan. The whole
    family went to work right away. We had to tear
    the place apart before we could open it. After it
    was opened, my sister and I washed dishes as Mom
    and Dad cooked and waited on tables. I remember
    that "stuffed cabbage" was one of the most
    popular dishes on our menu. I had been typing the
    menus for my parents for nearly two years before
    a regular customer who had been eating this
    dishthe most popular on the menufor the same
    number of years finally pointed out to me that
    the menu actually read, "stuffed garbage."
    Clearly, English was not our native language.
  • Since I didnt speak a word of English when we
    arrived, I was placed in the 6th grade based
    solely on my math scores. There I was put into
    the back of the room where the teachera nice
    man, who, I am almost certain, was named Mr.
    Friendassigned a red-headed and freckled boy
    named Jeffrey the task of teaching me how to
    read. I would read the words according to
    Hungarian phonetics. Jeffrey would correct me and
    try to explain what they meant. I would imitate
    him. After a few months of this painstaking
    labor, I began to understand some things. The
    first English sentence that I remember
    repetitiously saying was, "Get out of here!" This
    I mimicked from some kids who screamed it at me
    after I stole their foursquare ball, which
    happened daily. Somehow, without the help of
    advocates clamoring on my behalf for "bi-lingual"
    education, I managed to get on that year. My
    triumph came at the end of the school year when I
    beat the class bullywho had been beating up on
    me as if I were a punching-bag and was amazingly
    named Butchin a fight. All the kids were
    applauding as they gave me a book of baseball
    heroes and everyone, including Butch, signed it.

The Education of an American
  • I was about high school age when we moved to
    Studio City and bought a bigger restaurant.
    Schramms Hungarian Restaurant was right across
    the street from many of the movie studios, and we
    catered to many actors. But it was not the lure
    of the film industry that prompted me to go to
    Hollywood High School rather than North Hollywood
    High School, which was just a few blocks from my
    house. It was their ROTC program. Hollywood High
    had one, and North Hollywood did not. Ironically,
    my last semester of ROTC was cut short because of
    another Hungarian student. He had just
    transferred in from another high school, and we
    were the same rank. He was determined to be
    Battalion commander and so we squabbled over the
    title. It seemed a ridiculous fight to me after
    awhile, and I had had my fill of it. I dropped
    ROTC and took an international relations class
    that was offered the first thing in the morning,
    the same time as ROTC, so that I had not yet had
    the opportunity to take it. I enjoyed the class
    the teacher was much more serious than most.
  • Apart from my ROTC experience, I can remember
    only one other important lesson from high school.
    I had an English class that was taught by a poor
    lone woman, a spinster. No one liked her because
    she was serious. We scalawag students (the boys,
    I mean, for the girls were of a sweeter
    disposition), in whom the quality of mercy was
    strained, mocked this woman behind her back. But
    in class we were the mirror of all courtesy
    because we knew she was a serious teacher and a
    demanding lover of her subject. We were attentive
    and gave her her way. Her considerable presence
    demanded it.
  • As the class was nearing an end, after we read
    both Caesar and Hamlet, she told us we would have
    to memorize 40 lines of Shakespeare and recite
    them in class. I choseunimaginatively
    perhapsthe lines by Hamlet that begin, "To be or
    not to be, that is the question/Whether tis
    nobler in the mind to suffer/The slings and
    arrows of outrageous fortune,/Or to take arms
    against a sea of troubles,/And by opposing, end
    them. To die, to sleep." Unimaginative or not, I
    worked hard for many days to master these lines.
    The process of memorization was difficult and,
    when I finally got around to reading it
    aloudletting my ears really hear the words, the
    cadence, and the rhythmI recall a wonderful
    moment when the monster ignorance left me. I
    understood what I was reading, what I was
    hearing. I dont mean that I understood the deep
    metaphysical meaning, but I finally understood
    that these were not wild and whirling words. They
    were beautiful, they had meaning, and I
    understood them. I was about 17 years old, and
    through learning Shakespeare, I knew that I had
    finally come to understand English. While I would
    still think in both Hungarian and English, my
    dreams were now in English. And Shakespeare, in
    and of himself, was a wonderful and magical
    discovery for me.
  • But what did I learn in school about this great
    country to which I had emigrated? Unfortunately,
    even in the early 60s (before the onslaught of
    "political correctness" so popular among the
    faculty of my generation) I am sad to report that
    it was nothing very serious or substantial. In
    some cases, it was probably even untrue. While my
    interests turned toward history early on, oddly,
    I was not very interested in American history. It
    was not made to seem interesting. Further, I had
    learned, to my surprise and against my own
    inclinations and perceptions, that America was an
    amazingly hypocritical place. I was told by a
    history professor that all I needed to know about
    Abraham Lincoln was that he was a racist. Nothing
    else needed to be known about him, he said. I set
    my sights on studying European history because it
    had great stories about straightforward tyrants
    who were unaffected by hypocrisy.

  • When I say I set my sights to study European
    history, you must understand the sense in which I
    mean study. I had always been a voracious reader.
    My ever-growing book collection was long a source
    of exasperation for my father and continues to
    this day to be one for my wife. I started
    accumulating books when I was in my early teens.
    I had always made a little money working for my
    parents, and instead of spending it on cars or
    clothes, I would buy books. There is something
    special about owning and reading your own books.
    I never liked to use libraries. Perhaps it is a
    natural reaction to the communist propaganda of
    my youth, but I think that some things just
    shouldnt be shared. At least not with just
    anybody. I like to smell and fondle books, keep
    them, set them back on their shelf, sometimes to
    just let them fall open to where they may and
    read into them again. I fancied that these books
    became friends, and I just couldnt bear to part
    with them. But my reading was done on my own
    because I enjoyed it. I did not think of studying
    as an occupation or work. I did not contemplate
    the possibility of or even understand what
    college was.
  • When I graduated from Hollywood High School in
    1964, I was one of 740 students in my class. We
    had to use the Hollywood Bowl for the ceremonies
    because there were no facilities on campus that
    could accommodate that kind of crowd. I had no
    idea what college was all about, but many of the
    people I knew were going, and my grades were good
    enough to get in at San Fernando Valley State
    College (now California State University,
    Northridge). I could commute and keep working for
    my parents, so I enrolled. When I started
    college, I just took classes that I found
    interesting. I really had no plan or major in
    mind, but eventually, I discovered, you have to
    pick one. So I picked political science.
  • I took a lot of political science classes from a
    professor named Noonan. He was an ordinary
    liberal, but he seemed like a smart guy, and I
    had enjoyed his classes. He was teaching all the
    classes having to do with European politics. I
    was sitting in the back of one of his classes one
    day while he was pontificating about French
    politics, or some such thing, and a woman in the
    class (she happened to be an Israeli woman)
    raised a question that referred to God. Noonan
    stopped cold and replied with dripping
    condescension, "Anyone who believes in God ought
    to get out of my classroom." The woman was
    speechless. I was simultaneously speechless and
    appalled. I wasnt quite sure what to do. Was he
    serious? In the end, the woman and I were the
    only ones who left the room. She was in tears. I
    was burning mad. I immediately went down and
    changed my "major" to history.

  • Throughout these years, partly out of my
    experience and partly out of genuine curiosity, I
    maintained an interest in American politics. I
    was active in standard Republican Party politics.
    I campaigned for Barry Goldwater in 1964. The
    anti-Communist positions of the GOP were a
    natural draw for my family and me. We didnt
    think the Democrats fully appreciated the enemy.
    But my politics beyond that, obviously, were not
    well developed. As a result of my activism in the
    Young Republicans, I attended a few seminars for
    something called the Intercollegiate Studies
    Institute. They provided an opportunity for
    students from colleges all around the country to
    meet and study with some of the leading
    conservative professors. It was in 1965 at one of
    these summer seminars that I first met Harry V.
    Jaffa. He was teaching a class on Shakespeare,
    and a fellow named Martin Diamond was teaching a
    class on The Federalist. At about the same time,
    I came across the first edition of the journal
    Intercollegiate Review and the still-young
    National Review. Similarly, I came into contact
    with students and teachers from Claremont, who
    were (and are) among the most serious souls I had
    ever had the pleasure to meet. One of the first
    was Bill Allen. I met him at an ISI seminar in
    the Summer of 1966, and we became friends. We
    both worked on getting Ronald Reagan elected
    governor of California, although he had a more
    serious position in the campaign than I. I began
    to see that it was, in many ways, more
    interesting and important to think about politics
    as those in Claremont were doing than to be
    active in politics as I had been. I endeavored,
    in my own way, to do just that. But it never
    occurred to me that I would join them in
    Claremont in any formal way. I thought that what
    they were doing out there was so important and so
    elevated that it was in many ways beyond me.
  • But I spent a lot of time hanging around in
    Claremont, though I was still enrolled at
    Northridge. You must understandI didnt know
    what graduate school was nor did I even
    understand the concept of graduating from
    college. I just liked reading and studying and
    talking with people who did the same. I was a
    free man without a plan.
  • Now in the midst of all of this, the 1960s are in
    full swing. My father and I had clear views on
    mattersparticularly as they related to Freedom
    vs. Tyranny, America vs. the Communists and the
    necessity of the Vietnam War. We both were in
    favor of the war. The demonstrations made us
    angry. The chanting, in particular, was
    offensive. No matter what they were saying, when
    left-wing groups would get together and chant, it
    always sounded like "Sieg Heil!" to us. I
    remember being especially angry when they started
    spelling America with a "k," as if it were a
    fascist country. I have clear memories of my
    parents really thinking that the country was
    falling apart. My Dad, especially, thought that
    the Americans were not fighting an intelligent or
    manly enough war in Vietnamthat they were
    nickel-and-diming it instead of going in like
    they meant to win. It was pretty clear after some
    time that I was not going to be drafted, but I
    joined the National Guard anyway. There were
    fights and demonstrations and even bombings going
    on at school. Still, it is hard for people of our
    background to lose our sense of humor. I remember
    one incident when Dad and I were watching the
    news on TV and some American pilot had been shot
    down after doing something that my father
    considered particularly stupid. He was convinced
    that if the Americans lost the war it would be
    because of the kind of stupidity that comes from
    approaching tyrants with too soft a hammer. We
    continued watching this and as my father was
    insulting the manhood and intelligence of all
    natural born Americans they proceeded to
    interview this pilot. They asked him how he got
    himself into this situation and as he took off
    his helmet and began to speak I had a great laugh
    at my fathers expense the pilot spoke in the
    thickest possible Hungarian accent! That was the
    last time my dad insulted the general manhood and
    intelligence of Americans!

The Ugly European
  • In 1968 (four years after entering college so,
    theoretically, when I should have graduated) I
    decided to go to Germany to learn German. Why? I
    just thought it would be an interesting thing to
    do. Remember, I am a free man without a plan.
  • I lived in Munich. This was my first trip to
    Europe since leaving it at age ten. Although my
    reason for going was to learn German, my reason
    for staying was to learn something about
    Europeans, their habits and their ways, and their
    rich history. In the end, I learned a great deal
    about how Europeans see America, and therefore
    learned much about why I love Americans. But
    above all, I learned much about Europeans and why
    I was no longer one of them.
  • What I learned then has remained true, and helps
    explain some of the recent disagreements over
    Iraq specifically, and American foreign policy
    generally. Certainly the French, for example,
    have geopolitical reasons of the highest sort for
    wanting to break the American monopoly of power
    in the world. But there is something even more
    important at work herecertain different
    dispositions, different intellectual and moral
    habits. Many Europeans, as I observed for the
    first time on my visit in 1968, note our power
    and wealth, but have contempt for (what they see
    as) our ignorance. These two things combine into
    resentment, and that resentment is fed by a deep
    well of continental philosophy, a view of the
    world that Americans dont share. This seemed and
    seems to me to be the crux of the matter.
  • Well, it was a tough and lonely year in Germany.
    At age twenty-two I enrolled at the University of
    Munich to better my German (and to sit in on some
    philosophy seminars). Since I had only about
    seventy-five bucks in my pocket when I arrived, I
    needed a job. I got one through the only friend I
    had there. His name was Tibor Tollas, and he was
    a Hungarian poet-in-exile. He had become a friend
    of the family because he always ate at our
    restaurant while he was in Los Angeles. Tibor
    only had two fingers on each hand. The Nazis had
    cut off the ones on his left hand. He lost the
    fingers on his right hand to the Communists,
    partly because of his views and partly, they
    said, for the sake of symmetry. But Mr. Tollas
    took care of me, and I was able to stay.
  • The job he got for me was ridiculously difficult.
    I worked twelve-hour days, six days a week, and
    was paid seventy-five cents an hour. But this
    paid for my room in a pension (two bucks a day),
    and I got to eat for nothing since I worked at
    the main market in Munich unpacking bananas from
    freight cars. The bananas were free, and the
    owner only charged fifteen cents for soft drinks
    or a beer.

  • The job wasnt legal, of course. They called it
    "black" labor it was off the record, I was paid
    in cash. I was hired only because I didnt tell
    them I was an American student they never would
    have hired me had they known. I told them I was a
    Hungarian refugee. They were willing to help. My
    fellow laborers were bums, German bums (we would
    call them homeless now). Although they smelled
    awful, drank too much and slept on park benches,
    I liked them. I became especially fond of them
    when I finally figured out what they were humming
    as we worked. They were singing and humming
    American songs, old songs, like "The Yellow Rose
    of Texas."
  • After a few weeks of working with them I got to
    know them well enough to ask them how it was that
    they were singing American songs. Well, it turned
    out that they had been soldiers in World War II
    and were among the first Germans captured by the
    Americans. They were sent to a prisoner of war
    camp in Texas. They lived out the whole war in
    Texas, they learned English and liked our songs.
    And because this was an American prisoner of war
    camp, they were able to leave the camp, get jobs
    in town and get acquainted with real Americans.
    All four of them said it was the best experience
    of their lives. They loved Americans, they said.
  • I wanted to know what it was they liked about
    Americans. They thought that Americans were
    direct and honest. They looked you square between
    the eyes and told you what they thought. The
    Americans laughed a lot, often loudly. Their view
    of life was not tragic, they were not filled with
    the passionate anxiety of Europeans. Americans
    had no angst. They didnt spend their time
    regretting the past they thought anything was
    possible. Give a man an opportunity, hell take
    it, and fulfill what ambitions he had. My German
    friends called this "practical freedom." These
    Americans lived as free men should live. They
    were modest, never overbearing, gave no quarter
    to flim-flam, and they were very generous.
    Although these men were soldiers for a country
    that America was at war with, the Americans never
    said they disliked Germans. "They did keep asking
    us, however, how we could have gotten ourselves a
    leader like the one we had. It started us
    thinking," they said.
  • Everybody in America seemed young, they said.
    They had a liveliness about them, a kind of
    wide-eyed-adolescence, as if they had never
    experienced disappointment and defeat, and there
    was no reason to think they ever would. They were
    energetic and full of vigor. They thought that
    people should have the opportunity to excel in
    something. These Americans moved through the
    world as if there was no one trying to hinder
    their progress, their ambition, their way in the
    world. The Germans said that they were struck by
    the fact that the children seemed to look mature
    men in the eyes, as if they were their equals.

  • We talked about these matters in my halting
    German. And after a while, I felt morally
    compelled to tell them that I was really an
    American and that I spoke English. Well, you
    should have seen the hurrahs and the cheers! They
    were delighted and quickly revealed that their
    English was much better than my German. From then
    on, we spoke only English.
  • Over the years, and on other trips, much was
    added to these impressions. Although none denied
    what my homeless friends understood to be the
    American character, they added some not so subtle
    mixes to that opinion. What had been described as
    virtues now became vices. Many Frenchmen I met
    argued that Americans are money grubbing, all
    they are interested in is making money. The
    country is full of an endless commercial bustle.
    As a result Americans work too hard, and have no
    proper understanding of leisure. Their culture is
    minimal and only their manners are lower. They
    are unsophisticated and unlearned. They know
    little about their own history, and nothing about
    the history of others. They have never suffered,
    so they lack depth. That may explain why they
    have no great literature and are not in love with
    museums, as Europeans are.
  • I remember one man who couldnt possibly
    understand how all these people of different
    backgrounds and colors could live together as
    something like citizens he wondered how it was
    possible. He concludedbecause he never
    understood its cause, the idea, the electric
    cord, as Lincoln called it, that was the real
    basis of American patriotismthat it was not
    possible in the end, that it was only a question
    of time before the place fell apart. Not enough
    ties of blood, not enough common history, he
  • In the end I came to learn that what held
    together all the critical opinions about America
    was the spirit of resentment and envy. We were
    big and powerful and thought we were special. We
    claimed to establish a Novus Ordo Seclorum (see
    the Great Seal of the United States on the back
    of the dollar bill), as if we had reinvented the
    world. We scoffed at the old and tired ways of
    the mother continent. We were like children who
    werent able to appreciate the sober and cultured
    ways of the parents. These European parents were
    jealous of their energetic and ambitious
    children. The child became too powerful, too
    wealthy, too ambitious. The more the child was
    able and willing to help the parents out, the
    more resentful the parents became. And yet, the
    parents were forced to admit to themselves that
    there was something especially interesting and
    appealing in these exuberant youths, their
    liveliness and their straight-shooting ways. And
    yet again, these youngsters had to be kept in
    check by their betters.

  • Over the years I began to see the philosophical
    basis of this European way of thinking and why
    they disliked our ways. They attempted to prove
    that all philosophical questions and human life
    can be reduced to the deep Grundproblemen
    (fundamental problems) and then to nihilistic
    despair, because in becoming fully enlightened,
    the Europeans freed themselves from all illusions
    about good and evil, and right and wrong. But we
    Americans dont think this, and we cant feel the
    despair. How could we, we simple-minded and
    practical folk, understand the depth of the human
    condition? We Americans insist on holding to the
    connection between freedom and justice, courage
    and moderation. As a result, we cant take the
    Europeans as seriously as they take themselves.
    We think that they are participants in a
    pseudo-sophisticated and endless coffee-house
    chatter leading nowhere except to the will to
    power and gulags and concentration camps. We, on
    the other hand, think that equality and liberty
    have ethical and political implications we are
    willing to fight to make men free. We are still
    optimists who laugh too loudly, and we still
    think, along with Mark Twain, that against the
    assault of laughter, nothing can stand.
  • I had spent a lot of time with Germans and East
    Europeans and didnt talk to an American for the
    first four months or so. By early spring, I
    became terribly homesick. Think about the word
    "homesickness." It is an illness brought about by
    being away from home. I repeat, an illness. I had
    never been this ill before. The physical effects
    were something like seasickness my head was sick
    and my whole heart faint. I wasnt missing the
    pretty Southern California coastline, you
    understand, or big cars or hamburgers. I was
    missing Americans, a certain kind of people with
    certain qualities I liked and was at home with. I
    missed my people.
  • At the first sign of the illness, I began almost
    instinctively keeping my eyes open for Americans.
    I didnt see any. As the illness progressed, I
    started consciously searching for Americans. I
    went to places where (I thought) they were likely
    to be. Alas, they were not. I kept at it. I
    pressed hard. But nothing. Things got so bad that
    I was unable to sleep. I would wake in the middle
    of the night and prowl the city with my eyes wide
    open. Nothing. I got into the habit of going to
    the main railroad station in the middle of the
    night (it was one of the few places open all
    night). I would sit and drink coffee and talk to
    whoever was there mostly Germans of questionable
    character drinking much too much beer. Sometimes
    we would talk about America but no Americans.
  • One nightvery late, it must have been 3 A.M., I
    was heading home from the station, turned a
    corner and was thunderstruck. There was a man
    walking in front of me, going in the direction I
    was going. There was no one else on the street.
    My eyes focused on his back for a second and,
    within another second, I was running toward the
    man because I realizedin a kind of insightthat
    this was an American man walking. I came to an
    abrupt stop on his left side, panting, and
    blurted out something like, "Please, I am an
    American, I need to talk with you. Please. Would
    you mind if I walked with you a bit?" Needless to
    say the man was surprised. But he recovered his
    composure quickly enough and was magnanimous
    enough to allow me to walk and talk with him. The
    conversation was not about the mysteries of
    things, or the latest political news, or gilded
    butterflies, or tales of American grandness. No,
    it was about his hometown of St. Louis, and the
    virtues of the Cardinals, and why the National
    League was superior to the American (being a
    Yankee fan, I disputed this). It was about small
    things. But that was enough, and with each step
    and each sentence of the conversation, I felt the
    contagion leave my soul and began to regain my
    health. Oh, how wonderful it was, to be healthy
    again! I wanted to hang my cap on the horns of
    the moon! An hour later we parted company he
    had, in his own way, understood that he had given
    me a gift. I was whole again. I was happy.

  • The next day (in daylight) I was walking down the
    street and noticed three men walking a few yards
    in front of me (they happened to be black), so I
    saddled up to them and was prepared to say hello,
    expecting a howdy in return, when I heard them
    speaking in Hungarian! I was shocked, but decided
    to talk to them (at first in German, they spoke
    no English) and discovered they were from Ghana,
    studying law (amazingly enough!) in Budapest, and
    were in Munich playing the tourist. Their
    Hungarian, by the way, was flawless. So we parted
    company, and as I let them walk on, I looked at
    them walking from behind. I realized they
    couldnt possibly have been Americans, and
    wondered why I hadnt seen that before. They
    walked as if they were not at home in the city or
    in the world, as if the sky would fall in on them
    at any time, as if there was a thundercloud above
    them instead of a shining sun, as if they were
    afraid to displease the gods.
  • From then on, whenever I felt a touch of the
    illness grab my soul, I would venture into a
    crowd, keep my eyes open and look for men who
    stood tall, walked with purpose, were unafraid,
    and even had a kind of jocularity in their walk.
    Even if I didnt talk with them, it was good
    enough just to know that they were around and,
    whenever necessary, I could talk with them and be
    at home.
  • Before actually going home, however, I felt
    compelled to at least try and visit my aging
    grandmother in Hungary. My poet friend, Tibor
    Tollas, had a one-way ticket to Budapest on the
    Orient Express, and he gave it to me. I, of
    course, paid no thought to the logistics of this
    plan beyond securing the ticket. As usual, I had
    almost no money. Never mind that this was a
    one-way ticket and I had no plan to get back.
    This was 1968! The Russians were moving into
    Czechoslovakia, and there was no love lost
    between Americans (particularly former Hungarian
    Americans) and eastern European communist
    aparatchiks. Of course, I had a passport, but I
    knew nothing about the need or procedure for
    securing visas to visit Communist countries. So I
    just boarded the train with my ticket, and off I
  • The train, of course, was magnificent, and it was
    almost worth what would happen to me just to be
    able to ride it. But inevitably, I was thrown off
    the train when it became clear that I did not
    have the proper papers to proceed. The Orient
    Express made an unscheduled stop, about ten miles
    before the Hungarian border, just to throw me off
    the train! They explained that I would be
    arrested as soon as the train entered Hungary
    because I didnt have a visa. I found myself in
    the middle of some cornfields and started
    walking. I found a cab to take me to the border,
    where I could get a visa. He charged me about
    fifty dollars. I had about twenty bucks left.
    Walking into the Hungarian border station was a
    shock to my now fully Americanized sensibilities.
    There were guard towers and all the Hungarian
    soldiers were carrying machine guns. They were
    unpleasant. They did not believe me when I said
    that I merely wanted to visit my grandmother.
    They stripped me and went through my things,
    asked many questions about what I studied and
    with whom. Of course, they also did not believe
    that I was in Munich merely to learn German. They
    assumed that a larger game was afoot. Hours later
    I was ready to re-start my journey. The trouble
    is I had no way to get to Gyor there were no
    buses, no taxis, no train. I thought about it for
    a while and as I realized I would have to walk
    the twenty or so miles, I spotted a couple
    getting into their car with Canadian license
    plates on it. They were about to drive to
    Budapest. I explained my predicament, and since
    Gyor was on the way, I hitched a ride. I arrived
    in Gyor in the late evening, having been dropped
    off at the center of town. I was able to get
    directions to my grandmothers place, and walked
    the few blocks. I remembered the building as I
    approached it, walked in, found her apartment,
    and knocked on the door. My grandmother, I should
    mention, had no idea that I was coming. She
    opened the door and almost fainted. After she
    recovered, she looked me up and down (I wasnt
    exactly in my Sunday best at this point!) and
    said "Oh, My Lord, you have become an American
    gentleman." Grandma may not have been right about
    the gentleman partat least not in those daysbut
    she was right about the essentials. I had become
    an American.

The Re-Education of an American
  • When I returned to California, I continued with
    my studies at Northridge. I also continued to
    hang out in Claremont when I could. I still did
    not know, in the sense that we expect students
    today to know, what it was that I was doing with
    myself. Perhaps that was best. I was just taking
    both lifes and the colleges lessons as they
    came. But I was to have a rude awakening.
  • It was probably about October of 1970 (so six
    years after I had entered college) when I went to
    the Registrars office to register for the Spring
    semester. I was told that I could not register.
    "But why not?" I asked. Was my bill not paid, did
    I have over-due library books? What was going on?
    No, I was told, I could not register because I
    had over 200 credits and 3 majors. I had to
    graduate. I was finished. I was speechless. I am
    not embarrassed to say that I actually cried. It
    took nearly half an hour for the poor woman
    working there to explain to me the full meaning
    of what she was saying. I could not get my mind
    around the concept that I had to finish school. I
    perked up when she said that what I would have to
    do is enter graduate school. This meant I could
    continue to study. But I had no real concept of
    what graduate school was.
  • I remember going to consult with Chris Flannery,
    who by then had already become a friend. We were
    students together at Northridge, and he was
    waiting for me in front of the library. Chris
    also frequented Claremont with me and knew Bill
    Allen and a few other of the guys. It was decided
    that the thing I should dosince neither one of
    us knew what to do about this preposterous
    situationwas to consult Bill Allen. I
    immediately called him and within weeks it was
    arranged through Bill and Professor Jaffa that I
    would enter the Claremont Graduate School.
  • So there I was in Claremont, studying these
    important things with all of these guys who
    seemed smarter than me. Then it hit me. Why had I
    put all of this effort into studying so much of
    European history and politics? There was nothing
    wrong with it, in itself. But these most
    important questionsWhat is freedom? What is
    justice? What is equality? these were not
    answered in the history books I had been
    devouring. These were questions tackled by men
    like Jefferson, Madison, Washington and Lincoln
    and contemplated before by men like Plato,
    Aristotle, Locke, and many others. This is where
    I could get a true education. So I started anew.

  • I took classes on Platos Phaedo, the American
    Founding, Lincoln, and Shakespeares politics. I
    was no longer studying things out of historical
    curiosity, but, rather, looking into the very
    cause of things. Life seemed to be in full swing
    trying to figure out Greek grammar in the
    morning, the idea of consent and equality in the
    afternoon, with maybe a little basketball in the
    evening. I started making friends with American
    minds, and American statesmen. No longer were
    they introduced to us students as
    personifications of the Marxist oberbau, or their
    teachings as the result of bad potty training. We
    met them on their own terms, let them persuade
    us, if they could, of their meaning and purposes,
    and we would talk with them. These conversations
    were on-going and fluid, never ending arguments
    with fine minds of men who acted well in the
    world. It was an intoxicating education, made
    ever more pleasant because it took place with
    friends. It was here that I met Tom Silver, Tom
    West, Jeff Wallin, Ken Masugi, Larry Arnn, and
    others, who were not only smart and hard working,
    but partisans of America and the things for which
    the country stood. We fed off one anothers
    hunger, cajoled one another, pushed one another,
    and always moved one another toward what was
    beautiful and good and true. It was here that I
    started understanding what my father had always
    understood. It was here that I began to see what
    it meant to try to establish a Novus Ordo
    Seclorum. I began to see that all governments
    previous to ours had been established on accident
    and force, and now these American Founders
    insisted on establishing one on universal
    principles applicable to all men at all times,
    one established on reflection and choice. In
    America, human beings could prove to the world
    that they had the capacity to govern themselves.
    The Founders, according to Lincoln, proclaimed
    equality and freedom to "the whole world of men."
    It was here that I came to understand what
    Lincoln meant by the Declaration of Independence
    being the "electric cord" that linked all of us
    together, as though we were "blood of the blood,
    and flesh of the flesh, of the men who wrote that
    Declaration." This is what it meant to be an
    American, and it wasnt all that far from being a

Teaching Americans
  • I am told that before I was born, my mother went
    to see a fortune-teller, and the old woman told
    my mother that she would have a son and that he
    would grow up to be a soldier in a foreign land.
    I have been content to be a student in a land
    that was once foreign to me but is now my home in
    a sense that is much deeper than Hungary ever
    could have been my home. These days I continue my
    life as a student of America. The difference is
    that now a university pays me to study rather
    than collecting payment from me. I am in the
    ironic position, here at this Midwestern liberal
    arts college in central Ohio, of teaching native
    Americans (I mean native-born Americans, not
    American Indians) how to think about their
    country. How odd it seems, and yet how perfectly
    American, that they should need me, a Hungarian
    immigrant, to teach them.
  • I suppose that I should no longer be surprised by
    the dismal education of students in high school.
    But I continually receive fresh reminders of just
    how bad it is. One of the things I do here in my
    capacity as Director of the Ashbrook Center and a
    professor of political science at Ashland
    University is to interview prospective applicants
    to our program. Now our program is intense, and
    we take only the best students, and they are, in
    comparison to their peers, quite accomplished and
    well read. But this really means nothing. Most of
    them have read nothing but mediocre textbooks.
    They come in with a lot of silly prejudices about
    Americathough perhaps (since this is the
    Midwest) some good habits and some sensible
    opinions mostly due to their upbringing. And
    these are the best of the students. I meet many
    more of the other kindstudents who, like me at
    that age, have no idea of what they are doing
    with themselves and certainly have no civic
  • The United States was the first nation in the
    world to construct an elaborate system of public
    schools. All the founders understood that
    republican government demanded that the citizens
    be educated. Citizens have to choose their
    representatives wisely, they have to learn to
    become independent, to be able to earn a living.
    And they have to be taught self-control. They
    have to have the habits of mind and heart that
    are necessary for self-government. These native
    Americans need teachers. And I have become one of
    those teachers. Call it a repayment of a debt
    call it honoring my father and mother for seeing
    things rightly and thereby giving me a chance to
    be in the right place and my children a chance to
    be born in the right place. Call it what you
    will. But what I do with these American natives
    is I teach them about American politics and
    American history. I start with a simple thing
    about their country and themselves. I tell them
    that they are the fortunate of the earth, among
    the blessed of all times and places. I tell them
    this as an obvious and an incontrovertible thing.
    And their blessing, their great good fortune,
    lies in the nation into which they were born. I
    tell them not only that their country, the United
    States of America, is the most powerful and the
    most prosperous country on earth, but also that
    it is the most free and the most just. Then I
    tell them how and why this is so. That is, I
    teach them about the principles from which these
    blessings of liberty flow. I invite them to
    consider whether they can have any greater honor
    than to pass undiminished to their children and
    their grandchildren this great inheritance of
    freedom. And then we talk for a few years about
    how they might best go about doing that. And this
    is the beginning and the end of what I have
    learned and of what I teach both as an American
    citizen and a human being.
  • Peter W. Schramm is Executive Director of the
    Ashbrook Center and Professor of Political
    Science at Ashland University.