The great American dream
One hundred years ago, immigrants came to this country looking for the Great American Dream – life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and unlimited prospects for prosperity. For some, that worked out just fine; but for others, it proved to be elusive at best, and a nightmare at worst.
For most, such as Romanian immigrants Roman and Maria (Nicula) Roman, it turned out to be a mixture of good and bad. They raised nine children, including Earl Roman, who was born in Wheatland in 1920. Through the 1920s, life wasn’t so bad, with Roman working at Malleable. Earl’s mother even took Earl and several of his siblings back to Romania, where they stayed from 1925 to 1929.
When they came back from Romania, Earl was nine years old, but had to start in first grade. While in elementary school, Earl displayed quite a talent for art.
“The teacher gave us clay to work with, so I made some figures. The teacher said, ‘Earl, let’s go around to the other classes and show them what you’ve been doing.’ Then I got into drawing, and finally into oil painting.
But then came the hardships of the Depression. Lack of money kept Earl from going beyond eighth grade.
“We didn’t have any money for clothes,” he said. “People used bicycle tires and cardboard for the soles of their shoes.”
Things grew even tougher for the family when Roman developed silicosis from his work in the factory.
“When I was in my mid-teens, we moved out into the country to find a place where he could breathe better,” Earl said. “But he died a terrible death in his middle forties.”
Since there were no regular jobs to be had, Earl earned money any way he could. But he got tired of that, and decided literally to escape from the drudgery to find adventure.
“One day when I was about seventeen or eighteen,” Earl said, “I was helping a farmer on Zigg Hill in Wheatland collecting eggs, cleaning his barn, and doing chores. I heard the whistle of a train. It was about a mile or so away. I ran the whole distance, and got there just as it was starting out. I hopped on.”
He had no idea where the train was going, and didn’t really care. And he had no money for food or anything else.
“I used to go to different places and ask for food in exchange for some work I could do for them. One woman was hanging her clothes. I told her about it. She said, ‘Never mind, I’ll prepare something for you to eat.’ This other place was a fancy restaurant. I walked through the front door, people were sitting down. The waiter said, ‘Go to the back area of the restaurant and I’ll get you some food.’”
Earl traveled around the country for about three years, catching freight trains from anywhere to anywhere. Finally he came home for a while before setting off on a different kind of adventure – one that really embodied the Great American Dream.
“When I was 21, I went to Hollywood,” he said. “I thought, I’ll try to get into the movies and make some money. I earned some money working in a place that was a restaurant, bowling alley, and booze joint. I did meet Clark Gable and some of the people who worked behind the scenes, but I didn’t get into the movies.
After coming back to West Middlesex, Earl worked in an ammunition box factory in Wheatland for a year or two. Then again, as he says, he started bumming around.
“ Dad’s cousin was in Niagara Falls area. Four of us went there. I was the youngest. Dad’s cousin got me a job at a paper mill. But after a while, I decided to come back home.
That’s when he met the love of his life.
“My youngest brother had a bicycle. I borrowed it, and was riding it toward the state line where I lived. I heard someone calling: ‘Hey Earl, Earl.’ It was Martha Malinoski, a good friend of my sister, Annie. Martha said, ‘Your sister Annie said that you’re in love with me.’ I said, ‘All right, Martha, I’ll always be in love with you.’ We were deeply in love, honest to gosh, but I waited until she was 18 before going to tell her father that I wanted to marry her.”
The problem was, of course, that jobs were few and far between.
“But finally I got a job in the steel mill. We got married when she was 18 and I was 24 or 25.”
Earl worked in the mill for a while, but Martha kept encouraging him to get out of that and into something else. Earl did everything he could to learn what he could to get a better job.
“I was self-taught on everything, by reading and talking with people who were educated,” he said.
Finally he was able to join the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and get a job at Westinghouse.
“I worked as a technical inspector on the atomic project at Westinghouse. It was all top secret. I was not allowed to divulge anything.”
That was quite an achievement for someone with only an eighth grade education.
Even while he worked at Westinghouse, Earl was interested in everything, from art to archeology, and was always ready to try something different. During the 1950s, he had the opportunity to dig at a construction site in West Pittsburg. He recovered coins and artifacts that he sold for thousands of dollars. He used some of the money to take his wife on a trip to Europe.
“Time went by, and my wife and I built a house, and had a son, Earl Jr. Martha’s father had died, and her brothers and sisters died from smoking. And I had warned them, honest to goodness. So many people I warned. They said, ah, get out of here, you’re not a doctor. I said I don’t have to be a doctor.”
Earl retired from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in the late 1970s, but life still had unexpected adventures in store for him – including a modest involvement in the film industry, which had eluded him as a young man.
“Around 1986, Amin Chaudhri came to Sharon to do motion pictures,” he said. “Patrick Swayze’s makeup wagon was in my yard, so I got up the nerve to talk with Amin. I walked across the street to him and said, ‘I want to tell you something. I’ve been going to movies all of my life’ – I saw Charlie Chaplin when I was five years old – I said, ‘Look, if you do a movie with violence and killing and so forth, you’re going to have a hell of a flop on your hands.’ He said to me, ‘Hey, I agree with you 100%.’ And honest to God, he and I became close friends. I did location scouting for a couple of his movies, and met actresses and actors.”
In the mid-1990s, after Earl and Martha had been happily married for fifty years, Martha died of cancer.
“It was heartbreaking, because we were honestly, deeply in love from the time she said, ‘Hey Earl.’ She had cancer in her lungs, her liver, all through her body from smoking.”
A few years ago, Earl went on his last great adventure, thanks to his friendship with Amin Chaudri.
“Once in a while I’d take him to the airport or bring him back. One time he called me and said, ‘Look in the back seat of your car and see if you can find my eyeglass case.’ I found it and I took it down to the studio. He said, ‘Tomorrow, go get a passport. We’re going to India.’ From Pittsburgh to London was 9 hours, from London to Bombay another 9 hours. We spent 20 days in India, part of the time with the motion picture business in Bombay. Then he said, ‘Earl, take your tour of India.’ I did that. I did a painting of the Taj Mahal and a couple other places.”
So, has Earl Roman lived the Great American Dream? You could say that he has actually lived several, some good and some bad. He did what many kids dream of, riding freight trains and traveling with the wind. He had a fifty year romance with the woman of his dreams. And it’s remarkable that someone who couldn’t afford clothes to go to high school got to travel half way around the world to India.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 4, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2010