4.1 Miles and Three Hundred Fifty Years by
(166 Stories)

Prompted By Immigrants

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My mother’s father’s family fled religious persecution in England and sought refuge in the Virginia colonies in 1630.

That was then; this is now.

Dutch sailors from my mother’s mother’s family joined the push to colonize America in the 1600s. Myth has it they landed on the Hudson river upstream from Manhattoe, the indigenous name for New Amsterdam.

Both families on my mother’s side began to migrate westward until they landed independently in Oregon in the 1850s. No one has survived to narrate the adventures, victories, and tragedies that befell them, or what outrages they perpetrated on the countryside and its flora and fauna. They did, however, cross three thousand miles of wilderness in two hundred years and established a creamery in Portland, Oregon. My mother’s family had a hand in developing Tillamook cheese and the patriarch drove the first electric car in Portland.

My father’s father’s family fled Bavaria in 1849, the year after Karl Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto, inspired by revolutionary uprisings in France, Belgium, Germany, and Italy. The Degelmans were farmers and mechanics who ended up on the wrong side of the subsequent crackdown and immigrated Pennsylvania and Illinois.

During the Civil War, Degelmans fought on the Union side, in the Illinois Militia. As always, there are few records of the Degelman women — births, children borne, deaths. Many of the male Degelmans fought on the rivers in Union Navy gunboats in the raging battles to control the riverways. One died of cholera on board a gunboat quarantined off Cincinnati.

After the Civil War, my father’s immediate ancestors packed themselves into a train of Conestoga wagons and immigrated to California. They settled in Placerville, where my great, great grandfather founded the Degelman Boot Shop on the raw young town’s boardwalk. You can learn more about the Degelmans here, in another Retrospect piece about my grandparents’ love and lives.

My father was a scientist who had joined the American Communist Party in the 1930s. By the late 1940s he had been blacklisted and, as McCarthyism gathered momentum, my father found it impossible to find work. He sought and found partial economic refuge through colleagues who sequestered a salary for him in omnibus grants for scientific research at various Boston area universities and hospitals.We may not have been immigrants but at times, we felt like refugees.

Our life under 1950s McCarthyism rendered my family vulnerable, but no one was killed. We were harassed only by visits from near-incompetent FBI agents who were ‘just doing [their] job,’ with echoes from Hitler’s camp guards. Our neighbors, Yankee individualists all, didn’t give a good goddamn what our past was, only our present. In short, immigrant status had ceased to affect my immediate family or my personal history.

But the woes of the world surround us and we’re all members of a much larger family. We’re all impacted by the waves of immigrants that have become a tragic symptom of our parched, war-torn planet. Therefore, I want to share a narrative I created after watching a documentary shot alone by Daphne Matziaraki, a young Greek-American woman who returned to her ancestors’ home on the island of Lesbos. With a jerky, hand-held phone camera, Matziaraki captured the plight of Iraqi, Syrian, and Iranian refugees who — in an attempt to escape annihilation — set out to cross 4.1 miles of treacherous crosscurrents in the channel that separates Turkey and Greece.

4.1 Miles

The camera jerks from Aegean swells to the brown hills on the Greek island of Lesbos. Blurred and shaky, the lens streaks across bright white clouds to settle on a cold, blue sea alive with orange life vests.

A small coast guard cutter tosses in the choppy seas, a Greek flag whipping over the stern. On the wet deck, coast guard sailors snatch boys, girls, men, women, and infants from a sinking, seagoing raft. The sailors drag each person into the shelter of the cutter’s afterdeck and turn back to repeat the task.

The coast guard captain, a soft-spoken bear of a man, juggles throttle and rudder to hold the cutter against the deflated rubber boat below. Ten years earlier, he tells us, he had intercepted and rescued 20 Iraqi immigrants from this same narrow strait. That was big news back then. Now he rescues hundreds in a single day.

The audio picks up frightened cries; the lens grasps at images. A second boatload of families struggle in the choppy channel. They scramble on board the cutter. Someone has drowned. Perhaps more than one. Did anyone pull the exhausted father out of the water and onto the deck? And the daughters? Stricken faces search the cruel sea, muted by shock. An ancient tragic mask hangs above the scene, spectral and alone, off-balance without mirth.

Wet children tremble, the captain’s open features project dismay, fatigue, a battle against despair, the eighth deadly sin. He steers the cutter one-handed into the windblown whitecaps while he fingers a string of amber worry beads.

The crowded afterdeck rolls with the ocean chop, awash with tragicomedy, faces giddy with survival, then serious, bewildered, unable comprehend what they face. They must go on; they have only themselves.

The camera finds the captain administering CRP on the ancient harbor quay. He swats a distraught woman from an unconscious infant, naked under a silver space blanket, water flowing from the side of her soft mouth. Villagers stand by while a child is rushed to an ambulance.

It’s quiet now on the pier, the wind subdued by the approaching night. Silenced by fatigue, survivors contemplate the journey ahead and wait for buses to take them… where?

At a large table in the café, the captain listens to his friends.

— Even if three, four thousand refugees arrive each month, we must help them.

— Impossible.

— But we must.

— Yes, yes, of course.

All drink.

The harbor gleams in the afternoon sun, far from the offshore bedlam so recently played out. On shore, the rescued huddle embraces the enormity of survival. They have no way to contemplate the future; for the moment, reflection becomes an unaffordable luxury.

The captain sits exhausted at the large café table, stunned, battling despair. If a similar flotilla of refugees comes tomorrow, he must rescue everyone with only one boat and ten sailors.

— I panic, the captain says. — I can’t reassure them. In their eyes are memories of war. They see the bombs drop, killing their families. We see these families in the Greek sea. In the sea of a peaceful country. Because they have only one way to cross.

It’s time to go out again at sunset, more overloaded rubber boats, no one in charge. They are falling out of the sinking rubber boat, orange flower petals blowing on the wet wind of the Aegean.

The overloaded cutter docks. The whole village turns out to administer first aid, resuscitation.

The captain cries as he works, wrapping wet, naked little bodies into silver space blankets. —The world needs to know what’s happening, he murmurs. — We can’t be the only ones going through this.” In the ship’s log, the captain writes with pencil — five rescued unconscious, three regained consciousness. He records the names of the two dead children.

Three trips out and back to the harbor, delivering the same, shell-shocked payload. — It’s a nightmare, this agony, the captain says. — Everywhere we go, there are people drowning in the water. The captain holds his head, taking shelter from the magnitude of this tragedy. Villagers wait to see, rush to help.

Between 2015 and 2016, 600,000 migrants crossed the 4.1 miles of water between Turkey and Lesbos. “4.1 Miles,” Ms. Matziaraki’s documentary was nominated for an Academy Award in 2016.

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Profile photo of Charles Degelman Charles Degelman
Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles. 

Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.

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Characterizations: moving, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Chas, your own family’s story is so interesting – your mother’s ancestors coming over so long ago and making their way across the harsh wilderness. I have to believe that your father’s family came in 1849 (not 1949…I puzzled over how could they fight in the Civil War after WWII had ended), but I love that your family saw so much of our American history. I have read about the terrible effect the McCarthy era had on you and your parents. Fear, loathing and anger rage in me when I see what’s going on in this country today, worried that we are backsliding into the age of demagoguery, where someone can be called out for their beliefs and lose everything.

    The narrative of the immigrants is heart-breaking and so vivid. It makes me want to scream that we in the West have no heart any longer. As I wrote in my current essay, fear of the “other” is taking over instead of compassion. Thank you for your vivid reminder of what happens when we look the other way at human suffering.

  2. John Zussman says:

    At first, I didn’t know what to make of your juxtaposition of these two stories. As you say, the adventures, victories, and tragedies of your forebears’ migrations are lost. But I think there’s a clue in your fathers’ plight, when his colleagues, like the Greek Coast Guard crew, found a way to help him survive the blacklist. We must not let the current xenophobic administration close our shores—or our hearts—to refugees.

    • Thanks for your observations. I appreciate your careful read. It might be possible to elaborate on that connection, but really, I think I blew the all-important transition from memoir to reportage. The key to my theme lies (somewhat unclearly) in the notion that I have, in these global times, replaced my now-absorbed and resolved family history with a larger sense of the global family as personified by the rescued refugees and the overwhelmed Greek coast guard and townspeople. That’s what I was going for, disparate though the two sections may be!

  3. rosie says:

    Charles, This was wonderful writing. I am glad you shared your friend’s experiences as well. Very moving and the style felt overwhelming as I read on.

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