A Citizen Is Made

Cabbages & Kings

I rose early one day last week and went down to Boston to become an American citizen. It was a dank, rainy day and the friend who drove me in was going to answer a traffic summons, but otherwise I suppose one could say the occasion was auspicious. At least I had the little card without which no one could be admitted to the ceremony.

The crowd outside the door of the courthouse dispelled any doubts about the public nature of the proceedings to come. (Away went images of a kindly white-haired judge holding session in his warmpanelled chambers, a trembling immigrant fresh from steerage, a kindly word, a dollar to start the new life with, perhaps.) We were all to be processed at once.

As I arrived, the women in the group were filing through the doors into the courtroom, each one clutching her card. Why the sexes were separated was not made clear--perhaps it was not made clear crude sense of chivalry that sent the women in first; perhaps the IBM machines in Washington practice segregation. At any rate, we men hung around in the corridor until the last of the women went through the doors. Then a bustling little agent of the government appeared and urged us to line up too--"just as if you was at a ball game waiting for tickets." With this explanation for a guide we found it surprisingly easy to form a line; then, drawing out our cards, we shuffled into the courtroom.

Once we had presented our cards, we were ushered individually to benches in the back of the room. The front rows were already full of women, a great phalanx of middle-aged housewives who outnumbered the men by at least two to one. Being led past them to a seat in the rear of the room gave one a feeling of smallness, such as a drone must experience now and then.

After a considerable length of time, during which officialdom busied itself at the front of the room and we wanted herdlike in our seats at the back, the judge came in. He wasted no time in beginning us on the oath of allegiance; an official read it, phrase by phrase, and we repeated it after him, right down to the inflections. "Here-to-fore..." cried the reader, chopping out every syllably; "here-to-fore . . ." we responded. Throughout the swearing of the oath another beadle marched up and down the aisles, eyeing us to make sure that there weren't any sly people among us who were not raising their hands.

The oath, I thought, dwelled rather too fully on the subject of military service. But perhaps I was being overly sensitive: all around me old men and middleaged women were swearing to take up arms in defense of the nation without any apparent qualms.

Then, after a rather perfunctory harrangue on the benefits duties, etc, of citizenship, the judge retired leaving us once more in the hands of the officials. We were cold to come up to the front of the room, one by one and sign our papers. We were told several times, emphatically, that we must sign our own names--only the three people who had also petitioned to have their names changed could sign different names. One of them, inevitably, was Smith.

Up we came, one by one. A short square individual gave us our documents and told us where to signt "You sign here--one, and here--two, and here--three. You got that? One. Two. Three." He hurled this refrain at each of us in turn, as if we were just the sort of depraved people who would deliberately sign in the wrong place if given a chance.

After we had signed our papers, we were channeled through one more line to hand them in, and then we were done. But not quite. Solidly athwart the narrow passageway which ran past the jury box to freedom stood a great buxom solidset woman from the American Legion Auxiliary. She pinned me with an American flag made of heavy paper and corrugated so that it waved in my buttonhole. Then she shook my hand heartily and welcomed me to America with a smile.

As I walked out, bepinned with corrugated flag, I could hear the man barking "One. Two. Three." There was a long line of people waiting at his table. JOHN R. W. SMAIL '51