When we arrived in Seabrook in 1950, we were given an apartment in prefabricated barracks in an area called “Hoover Village.” We were totally shocked at the sight of our new quarters, set closely together on sandy ground, without a single tree in the area. It was incredible that we would have the same type of accommodations as we did in the Displaced Persons camp in Germany. However, there was nothing we could do at the moment. A promise was made to move us to an apartment in one of their dormitory-type cinder-block buildings, as soon as one became available. In the meantime, we had to do with our two-room apartment, a combined kitchen-living room with an ice box, for which ice was delivered every couple of weeks, and a bedroom for my mother, brother and me.
Since we arrived in the spring season, my mother had to go to work at the factory almost immediately. She had never worked in a factory before, but she valiantly put on her blue uniform with a white collar and a white cap and rushed off with a cheerful smile. The work was grueling, each shift lasting 12 hours, with one day off every two weeks, but my mother, together with the other Estonian and Japanese women, did their jobs cheerfully. Their job was to sort vegetables on processing lines, peas, lima beans, strawberries, spinach, corn, etc. For some reason they had to stand up while doing this, hour after hour, while listening to music piped in and waiting for each hour to pass. Night shifts were worse for it was tough to stay awake. Workers had to clock in and out when they arrived and left, even when they went for lunch or the bathroom.
Since school year was in progress, I was placed in the Sophmore class at Bridgeton High School, and my brother in the Seabrook elementary school. It was a struggle at first since my knowledge of English was far from perfect. My first class was in Social Studies, where I faced a strict-looking teacher by the name of Miss Moody. Even though she was holding my application form stating that I was from Estonia, she announced: “Class, this is a new student whose name is Kyra. She comes from Indonesia.” I was too shy and scared to correct her. On the other hand, some other teachers were very nice. For instance, my English teacher, Miss Waugh, inspired my love for English literature for the rest of my life, and Miss Cossaboon made learning Latin less painful.
There were two other Estonian girls in my class, so we tended to keep together and did not socialize much with the others. The gal sitting next to me was Japanese, named Hisako, who was very friendly and helpful to me with homework. All of the Japanese students were brilliant and excelled in every subject. Some of my Estonian girlfriends developed a crush for Japanese boys since they looked so exotic and mysterious. The main object of interest was a boy called Tosh, who was class president, very handsome and smart. We used to look at him a lot, but none of us had the courage to talk to him. One day the Japanese students who lived in the same Seabrook housing development invited us to the cultural center to help them plan a party. This was a new experience. We did not have a clue what to do. They were discussing ideas about decorating the hall for the party and asked us for suggestions. Of course, we had none, since we had never done this before. They probably thought we were somewhat dumb, but America was still a culture shock and we had much to learn.
At the end of the school year, we had to find summer jobs. Since we were not yet 16, we could not get permits to work at the plant. However, the plant administration offered us jobs to work on the fields, picking beans. So, at 6 AM a truck drove us to the fields where we spent the whole day in the hot sun, squatting among bean bushes filling baskets as fast as we could. There was a weighing station in the middle of the field, manned by Japanese teenage boys who weighed our baskets and gave us receipts for the beans we picked. That was exciting, since the boys kidded around with us while we giggled. So the summer passed, a mixture of fun and exhaustion, for at the end of each day our backs and legs ached from squatting down and carrying heavy baskets. We also got badly sunburned, so we learned to wear hats and longsleeved shirts.
In the winter, work stopped at the plant and we had time to do other things. My mother and I joined a choral group that was organized by Mrs. Miido, one of our talented musicians, and I joined a folk dance group. Mr. Seabrook seemed to take interest in our activities and invited us to his New Year’s Eve party to entertain his guests with our performances. After our performances, we were allowed to mingle with his guests, eat his gourmet food and drink his champagne. One New Year’s Eve, one of Mr. Seabrook’s sons had brought to the party Eva Gabor, sister of Zaza, whom he was dating at the time. We tried to press close to her to admire her beauty, encased in an exquisite silver dress that barely covered her chest.
In 1953, after graduationg from high school, I moved to New York to attend another school, then get a job and get married. Fifty years later, there was an anniversary gala for all the former employees of Seabrook. One of the speakers was a lovely Japanese lady, who said at the end: “Once we lived here together, the Estonians with blond hair and blue eyes and the Japanese with black hair and brown eyes. Now we are together again and we all have white hair.” Seabrook will always stay in my memory as my first home in this country.
–Kyra Palango Aronson, BHS Class of 1953