I Found Something Better Than Gold
AS TOLD BY CHARLES MYLTON
One day Father said: “Let us send Charlie to America where money grows on trees. He could get some and send it back to us!”
PEOPLE, in effect, thought the streets in America were paved with gold. Life for them was extremely hard in eastern Europe in those days. My parents had a small farm and raised a few cows and some chickens. We had no electricity or indoor plumbing. But, then, neither did anybody else nearby.
I was born in Hoszowczyk on January 1, 1893, nearly 106 years ago. Our village was in Galicia, a province then a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Now Hoszowczyk is found in eastern Poland not far from Slovakia and Ukraine. The winters there were hard and the snows deep. When I was about seven, I would walk a quarter of a mile to the creek and with an ax chop a hole in the ice to get water. I would carry it home and Mother would use it for cooking and cleaning. She washed clothes at the creek, using the larger pieces of ice as a scrub board.
In Hoszowczyk there were no schools, but I did learn to speak Polish, Russian, Slovak, and Ukrainian. We were raised Greek Orthodox, and I served as an altar boy. But even at an early age, I became upset with the priests who said that we should not eat meat on Friday but who themselves did.
Some of our friends had returned from jobs in the United States with money to fix up their homes and to buy farm equipment. This is what prompted Father to talk about sending me to America with some neighbors who were planning another trip there. That was in 1907 when I was 14.
Lost in America
Soon I was on a ship, and in two weeks we had crossed the Atlantic. At the time, you needed 20 dollars, otherwise they would send you back to your homeland. I had a 20-dollar silver piece, and thus I became one of the millions who passed through Ellis Island, New York, doorway to America. Money, of course, did not grow on the trees, and the streets were not paved with gold. In fact, many of them were not paved at all!
We caught a train to Johnstown, Pennsylvania. The men with me had been there before and knew a boarding house where I could stay. The idea was for me to find my older sister who lived in Jerome, Pennsylvania, which I later learned was only about 15 miles [25 km] away. But I would say Yarome, rather than Jerome, because the “J” is pronounced like a “Y” in my native tongue. No one had heard of Yarome, so there I was in a strange country, speaking hardly any English and with not much money.
I spent each morning looking for a job. At the employment office, only two or three would get hired out of the scores lined up outside. So each day I returned to the boarding house to study English with the aid of some self-help books. Sometimes I found odd jobs, but months went by, and my money was almost gone.
United With Siblings
One day I passed by a hotel with a bar near the train station. The food sure smelled good! The sandwiches, wieners, and other items at the bar were free if one bought the beer, which was five cents for a large glass. Although I was underage, the bartender felt sorry for me and sold me the beer.
While I was eating, some men came in saying: “Hurry and drink up! The train is coming for Jerome.”
“You mean Yarome?” I asked.
“No, Jerome,” the men said. It was then that I learned where my sister lived. In fact, at the bar, I met a man who lived only three doors from her! So I bought a train ticket and finally found my sister.
My sister and her husband ran a boarding house for coal miners, and I lived with them. They got me a job watching a pump that kept the water out of the mine. Anytime it stopped working, I was to call a mechanic. The job paid 15 cents a day. Then I worked on the railroad, in a brickyard, and even as an insurance agent. Later I moved to Pittsburgh where my brother Steve was living. There, we worked in the steel mills. I never did make enough money to send any home.
A Family and a Funeral
While walking to work one day, I noticed a young housemaid standing in front of the home where she worked. I thought to myself, ‘My, she sure is pretty.’ Three weeks later, in 1917, Helen and I were married. During the next ten years, we had six children, one of whom died while still an infant.
In 1918 the Pittsburgh Railways hired me as a streetcar driver. Near the streetcar barn was a café where one could get a cup of coffee. Inside, the two Greek men who owned the place did not seem to care if you ordered anything, as long as they could preach to you from the Bible. I would say: “Do you mean to tell me that the whole world is wrong and you two are the only ones who are right?”
“Well, look it up in the Bible!” they would say. But at the time, they failed to convince me.
Sadly, in 1928, my dear Helen fell sick. In order for the children to receive better care, I took them to live with my sister and her husband in Jerome. By this time they had bought a farm. I visited the children often and provided money every month to pay for their food. I also sent them clothes. Sadly, Helen’s condition worsened, and she died on August 27, 1930.
I felt alone and devastated. When I went to the priest to make funeral arrangements, he said: “You do not belong to this church anymore. You have not paid dues for over a year.”
I explained that my wife had been sick for a long time and that I gave any extra money to my children so that they could contribute to the church in Jerome. Still, before the priest agreed to handle the funeral, I had to borrow 50 dollars to pay my back dues. The priest also wanted an extra 15 dollars to say Mass at my sister-in-law’s place where friends and family had planned to gather to pay last respects to Helen. I could not come up with the 15 dollars, but the priest agreed to hold the Mass if I gave him the money on payday.
When payday came I had to use the money to buy the children shoes and clothes for school. Well, about two weeks later, the priest boarded my streetcar. “You still owe me that 15 dollars,” he said. Then, when he got off at his stop, he threatened, “I’m going to your boss and have the money taken out of your pay.”
At the end of the workday, I went to my supervisor and told him what had happened. Even though he was a Catholic, he said, “If that priest comes in here, I’ll give him a piece of my mind!” That started me thinking, ‘The priests only want our money, but they never teach us anything about the Bible.’
Learning the Truth
The next time I was in the café run by the two Greek men, we discussed my experience with the priest. As a result, I began studying with the Bible Students, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then called. I would stay up all night reading the Bible and Bible literature. I learned that Helen was not suffering in purgatory, as the priest had said, but she was sleeping in death. (Job 14:13, 14; John 11:11-14) Indeed, I had found something much better than gold—it was the truth!
A couple of weeks later, at my first meeting with the Bible Students at the Garden Theatre in Pittsburgh, I raised my hand and said, “I have learned more about the Bible tonight than I did in all my years in the church.” Later, when they asked who wanted to share in the preaching work the following day, my hand went up again.
Then, on October 4, 1931, I symbolized my dedication to Jehovah by water baptism. In the meantime I was able to rent a house and bring the children back to live with me, hiring a housekeeper to help care for them. Despite my family responsibilities, from January 1932 to June 1933, I shared in a form of special service called auxiliary, in which I spent 50 to 60 hours each month talking to others about the Bible.
About this time I began noticing a certain pretty young woman who always seemed to ride my streetcar on her way to and from work. We would catch each other’s eye in my rear-view mirror. That was how Mary and I met. We courted and were married in August 1936.
By 1949 my seniority on the job enabled me to pick a shift that allowed me to pioneer, as the full-time ministry is called. My youngest daughter, Jean, had started pioneering in 1945, and we pioneered together. Later, Jean met Sam Friend, who was serving at Bethel, the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Brooklyn, New York.* They were married in 1952. I continued pioneering in Pittsburgh and conducted many Bible studies, at one time with 14 different families each week. In 1958, I retired from my streetcar job. After that, pioneering was easy, since I no longer had to work secularly eight hours a day.
In 1983, Mary took ill. I tried to take care of her as she had taken care of me so well for nearly 50 years. Eventually, on September 14, 1986, she passed away.
Finding My Birthplace
In 1989, Jean and Sam took me with them to conventions in Poland. We also visited the area where I grew up. When the Russians took over that part of the world, they changed the names of the towns and deported people to other lands. One of my brothers was deported to Istanbul and a sister to Russia. And the name of my village was unfamiliar to those we asked.
Then some distant mountains looked familiar to me. As we got closer, other landmarks became recognizable—a hill, a fork in the road, a church, a bridge over a river. Suddenly, to our surprise, we saw a sign that said “Hoszowczyk”! A short time before, the Communists had lost influence, and the original names of villages had been restored.
Our house no longer existed, but there was the oven that had been used for outside cooking, partially buried in the ground. Then I pointed to a large tree and said: “See that tree. I planted it before leaving for America. Look how big it has grown!” Afterward, we visited graveyards, looking for names of family members, but we did not find any.
Putting the Truth First
When Jean’s husband died in 1993, she asked me if I wanted her to leave Bethel to take care of me. I told her that that would be about the worst thing she could do, and my feelings are still the same. I lived by myself until I was 102, but then it became necessary to move me into a nursing home. I am still an elder with the Bellevue Congregation in Pittsburgh, and the brothers come and take me to meetings at the Kingdom Hall on Sundays. Although my preaching activity now is quite limited, I remain on the infirm pioneer list.
Over the years, I have enjoyed the special schools for training overseers arranged by the Watch Tower Society. Last December, I attended some of the sessions of the Kingdom Ministry School for congregation elders. And this past April 11, Jean took me to the Memorial of Christ’s death, a celebration that I have treasured having a part in every year since 1931.
Some of those I have studied the Bible with now serve as elders, others are missionaries in South America, and some are grandparents, serving God with their children. Three of my own children—Mary Jane, John, and Jean—as well as many of their children and grandchildren are faithfully serving Jehovah God. My prayer is that someday my other daughter and the rest of my grandchildren and great-grandchildren may do likewise.
Now at 105 years of age, I still encourage everyone to study the Bible and to talk to others about what they have learned. Yes, I am convinced that if you stay close to Jehovah, you will never be disappointed. Then you too can enjoy something better than gold that perishes—the truth that allows us to have a precious relationship with our Life-Giver, Jehovah God.
A life story about Sam Friend appears in the August 1, 1986, issue of The Watchtower, pages 22-6.
[Picture on page 25]
When I drove a streetcar
[Picture on page 26]
At the nursing home where I now live
[Picture on page 27]
The road sign we found in 1989